The Family Crucible, by Napier and Whitaker (1978), reads like a novel while at the same time laying down some of the fundamental concepts of family systems therapy. It is a case study of one family’s experience in family therapy. While the therapy shifts from daughter to son and then to parent interaction to daughters and son, it is finally the couple’s marriage that must be treated if issues are to be resolved. Even the grandparents are brought into therapy to get at the family of origin issues.
The book opens with a quote from James Agee and Walker Evans: “The family must take care of itself; it has no mother or father; there is no shelter, nor resource, nor any love, interest, sustaining strength or comfort, so near, nor can anything happy or sorrowful that comes to anyone in this family possibly mean to those outside it what it means to those within it; but it is, as I have told, inconceivably lonely, drawn upon itself as tramps are drawn round a fire in the cruelest weather; and thus and in such loneliness it exists among other families, each of which is no less lonely, nor any less without help or comfort, and is likewise drawn in upon itself.”
Through the telling of the Brice family’s story, Napier and Whitaker illustrate underlying dynamics such as structural imbalances in the system and how child focus is a typical method used by unhappy couples to avoid dealing with their own marital and family of origin issues. Fusion, triangles, individual and family life cycle stages, family-of-origin themes, polarization, reciprocity, blaming, and the hierarchy and characteristics of living systems are among the concepts that are explained and illustrated through this family’s therapy experience. David and Carolyn, an unhappily married couple, are the parents of Claudia (the IP), Laura, and Don. The book is well written and hard to put down once you start reading it.
Whitaker has been criticized in the field, because many people believe that he does not really have a theory. It is believed that it is only his charismatic personality that drives his treatment. I disagree. I believe that one has only to read his chapter in The Handbook of Family Therapy (1981) and see these concepts illustrated in The Family Crucible to realize the depth and breadth of his theory.
In the service of reviewing the book, it is useful to consider Whitaker’s background and key theoretical concepts. He began as an OB/GYN and had no formal psychiatric training. He became involved in treating schizophrenics after World War II. Whitaker was interested in understanding disturbed relationships in a familial context and in determining whether serious symptoms such as those in psychotics might be reinforced by dysfunctional family patterns and beliefs.
From 1946 to 1955, Whitaker (1981) became involved in treating schizophrenia with a type of aggressive play therapy. In fact, Whitaker’s most formative training was in a child guidance clinic where he learned play therapy (Whitaker, 1981). Whitaker used some outrageous methods, including learning to talk “crazy,” arm wrestling, use of a baby bottle, and rocking, all of which were rooted in his training experience.
At the same time that he developed these techniques, he developed a kind of pyknolepsy, wherein he would fall asleep in the middle of a session. He would dream about his relationship with the patient being treated, and then make his associations to the dream a part of the therapy session (Whitaker, 1981). In justifying his unique techniques, Whitaker emphasized that “Each technique is a process whereby the therapist is developing himself and using the patient as an intermediary, that is the therapist is interacting in a primary process model” (p. 188).
In 1946, Whitaker (1981) moved to Emory, where he became chair of the Department of Psychiatry. It was here that he developed dual co-therapy with Dr. Thomas Malone. In 1964, Whitaker worked with David Keith to develop a postgraduate specialty in MFT at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine. The development of symbolic-experiential methodology required students to “. . . take everything said by the patient as symbolically important as well as realistically factual” (Whitaker, 1981, p. 189).
Whitaker (1981) defined health as “. . . a process of perpetual becoming” (p. 190). He emphasized that what is most important in a healthy family is “. . . the sense of an integrated whole. . . The healthy family is not a fragmented group nor a congealed group. . . The healthy family will utilize constructive input and handle negative feedback with power and comfort. The group is also therapist to the individuals” (p. 190). Whitaker also defines the healthy family as “. . . a three to four generational whole that is longitudinally integrated. . . maintaining a separation of the generations. Mother and father are not children and the children are not parents” (p. 190). Whitaker also looked at the degree of volitional access parents and children have to outside support and interests. The families of origin in healthy families are on friendly terms.
Importantly, Whitaker looked to spontaneity as a marker of healthy communication in families. The healthy family allows each member to admit to problems and to identify competencies. Thus, it is emphasized that healthy families allow great freedom for the individual to be himself. Whitaker (1981) states that “. . . normal families do no reify stress” (p. 190).
Whitaker (1981) emphasized that a basic characteristic of all healthy families is the availability of an “as if” structure, which permits different family members to take on different roles at different times. Roles result from interaction instead of being rigidly defined. They are defined by various conditions, including the past, present, future, culture, and demands of the family at a given time. On the other hand, Whitaker defined the dysfunctional family as “. . . characterized by a very limited sense of the whole” (p. 194). Lack of flexibility at times of change, covert communication, intolerance of conflict, lack of spontaneity, lack of empathy, blaming and scapegoating, a lack of playfulness, and little sense of humor are all markers of unhealthy families from Whitaker’s perspective.
Whitaker placed heavy emphasis on the technique of co-therapy. In The Family Crucible, for example, the reader constantly witnesses Whitaker and Napier turn up the power. Whitaker and Napier’s process techniques illustrated in the book are designed to disorganize rigid patterns of behavior directly in session. The exposure of covert behaviors is considered to be the family’s misguided effort to stay in tact by submerging real feelings. There is a decisive here-and-now quality to symbolic-experiential interventions used in The Family Crucible, with a focus upon creating and then addressing en vivo emotional dynamics in therapy session.
Napier and Whitaker insisted that the entire Brice family be present in therapy. Indeed, Whitaker’s symbolic-experiential treatment model considered it crucial to begin the treatment process with the entire family (Napier and Whitaker, 1978). Whitaker (1981) has emphasized that “Our demand to have the whole family in is the beginning of our ‘battle for structure.’ It begins with the first phone call” (p. 204). He asserts that it is “. . . difficult to do process-focused family therapy without the children” and the “. . . experiential quality of family therapy requires the children’s presence” (p. 205). In the book, Napier and Whitaker (1978) frequently attempt change through playing and teasing, especially with Laura, Don, and Claudia. Members from David and Carolyn’s families of origin are invited to session. Whitaker (1981) states that in arranging for four generations to come to interviews as consultants that he is “. . . helping to evolve a large system anxiety” (p. 204). Experience is privileged over cognitive engagement throughout the treatment with the Brice family, as it is conceptualized that experience trumps cognitive growth in this theory.
Napier and Whitaker (1978) describe their co-therapy as symbolic of a professional marriage. Early treatment of the Brice family involved the co-therapists making decisions. Symbolically, they viewed the family as a baby taking its first steps. As such, the family required structure, so it follows that the therapists made unilateral decisions. Once Napier and Whitaker had won the battle for control, the therapists, like parents raising children, soften considerably. In the middle phase of the Brice family’s treatment, decisions about treatment were made more collaboratively. Again, the model for this process is increasing differentiation of the family. As therapy proceeded, the therapists took increasingly smaller roles, watching like proud parents as the Brice family became more integrated into changing themselves independent of the therapists. Whitaker (1981) clarifies that the therapy process “. . . begins with infancy and goes to late adolescence, where the initiative is with the kids, who then bear responsibility for their own living” (p. 107).
Throughout the book, it is implicitly and explicitly emphasized that the self-development of the therapists is the most important variable in the success of therapy. Napier and Whitaker (1978) acted as coaches or surrogate grandparents to the Brice family as therapy progressed. They were active and considered themselves to be the forces for change. Rather than a blank screen, they acted as allies of the family system. Especially in the beginning, Napier and Whitaker were directive. They used silence, confrontation and other anxiety-building techniques to unbalance the system. They acted as catalysts, who picked up on the unspoken and discovered the undercurrents represented by the family’s symbolic communication patterns. The co-therapists privileged their subjective impressions.
More than anything else, Napier and Whitaker (1978) had the courage to be themselves. They knew how to meet the absurdities of life and how to bring out people’s primary impulses. They believed strongly in the healing power of the human being, and, even more, of the family. They insisted that the family be in contact with its own craziness, play, and honor the spontaneous through their own modeling and directing.
The reader could observe how this symbolic-experiential therapy team moved through several stages. In the early part of treatment, the co-therapists battle for structure and they are all-powerful. In the mid-phase, the parental team functioned as stress activators, growth expanders, and creativity stimulators. Late in treatment, the co-therapists sat back and watched, respecting the independent functioning of the family. Whitaker (1981) holds that the “The sequence of joining and distancing is important. It is a lot like being with children. A father can get furious with his kids one minute, then be loving the next. We take the same stance with families” (p. 205). Thus, the role of the co-therapists was dynamic over the course of treatment with the Brice family.
Whether as a training therapist or a lay reader, it is inspirational to study the therapy offered by Napier and Whitaker (1978) in The Family Crucible. Self-disclosure, creative play, teaching stories, spontaneous interpersonal messages, the use of metaphor, and the sharing of parts of the therapists’ lives that reflect a working through in their own living are used generously. Process techniques intended to activate confusion around Claudia, the identified patient, unbalance the system, and open up authentic dialogue between marital partners and between the generations of extended families are used. It is emphasized, however, that it is not technique, but personal involvement that enabled Whitaker and Napier (1978) to do their best. It is continually illustrated how symbolic (emotional) experiences are fundamentally formative in the treatment of families, illustrated poignantly with the Brice family. Therefore, such experience should be created in session. To expose the covert world beneath the surface world is the most curative factor for the Brice family, is it is for all families. By getting inside the Brice family’s unique language and symbolic system, the therapists were able to move the family’s awareness from the content level to the symbolic level.
In THE FAMILY CRUCIBLE, Napier (1978) describes the curative process of Whitaker’s family therapy from the perspective of the co-therapist. The courage to embrace life’s absurdities involves the courage to be oneself, to the point of even sharing your free associations and thoughts with families. Daring to participate in the lives of the families, or even inviting them to share in your own life in order to get them in contact with submerged associations, helps families to get to the primary process level. In fact, the book underlines that the force of the therapist is central to treatment, so that the family’s encounter with the therapists is the primary curative agent. The goal of psychotherapy with the Brice family, as with all families, is to provide therapeutic experiences, and questions should be fired off in ways to unbalance the family. When Whitaker asks Carolyn, “When did you divorce your husband and marry the children?” he acts as an agent of change. He does not care whether the client likes him. And it is here that one realizes that the success of the psychotherapy depends on the emotional maturity of the therapist. The person of the therapist is at the heart of what good psychotherapy is all about. Since Whitaker states that therapy for the therapist is crucial, experiential training is essential for the therapist who would provide his/her clients with experiential treatment. In conclusion, this highly readable, inspirational, and useful book deserves a central place on every therapist’s bookshelf.
Whitaker, C. A. (1981). Symbolic-experiential family therapy. In A. S. Gurman & D. P.
Knistern (Eds.), Handbook of family therapy (pp. 187-225). New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Napier, A. Y., & Whitaker, C. (1978). The family crucible: The intense experience of
therapy. New York: HarperCollins.