You get the feeling you’re in the room with two therapists and the Brice family trying to make their home more peaceful in the book The Family Crucible: The Intense Experience of Family Therapy by therapists Augustus Napier and Carl Whitaker. It’s the detailed story of a family of five, their journey through family therapy, and the sometimes unexpected issues that show up in the sessions.
Here are some sketches of sessions and interactions among the therapists and the mother, Carolyn Brice; father, David Brice; teenage daughter, Claudia; 11-year-old son, Don; and six-year-old daughter, Laura.
The first session went like this: Mrs. Brice said she felt that Claudia had some strange ideas of late and was worried because Claudia had been staying out all night at times and when she was home, locked herself in her room with the radio on. Claudia glared at her mother, angry, with her voice harsh, and said,” Well, I think you have some pretty damn strange ideas yourself, Mom dear, like I’m supposed to go to bed at sunset and be a good little six-year-old.”
“Her anger was so intense that it startled us,” said Napier.
Meanwhile, son Don had promised to show up and hadn’t arrived. The therapists said it was important for all of the family members to be there. So they made an appointment for the following day.
With the five family members there for the next session, the father began to describe the issues with their teenage daughter. But Whitaker, the therapist, removed the assumed “label” of “patient” from the teenage girl and asked the father to describe the atmosphere of the home – quiet or noisy? angry or loving? organized or confused?
The father described the home as pretty quiet and fairly traditional and usually running smoothly, until the conflicts arose with the teenage daughter.
Then the therapist asked the teenage son, Don, to describe the family and he called it “only moderately lousy” and complained about the fights. He described the fights between his mother and Claudia, how Dad came home and tried to work things out, and then how no one talks to each other. The therapists were getting a sense of the family dynamics.
Whitaker asked the six-year-old what she was afraid of and she said, “Mommy and Daddy will get so mad at each other they’ll get a divorce. And Claudia will leave and not come back.” The parents said they were worried about their teenage daughter Claudia killing herself. The little sister said she heard her parents taking about that, and then she started to cry. The therapists had discovered that six-year-old Laura was absorbing the pain and worry going on in the family.
Then it was mentioned that David, the dad, had been working a lot of long hours. It became clear that the parents were covering up, probably unconsciously, problems in the marriage. The fighting about the daughter was just one issue that brought the tensions to the surface.
Farther along in the therapy, David is offered a job in another town and his wife resists. But he goes for the interview and they consider divorce. While David is in the other city, he visits his mother and father nearby. Then, a year after the beginning of family therapy, they’re all together again with the therapists, and David describes the time with his parents.
“My parents always make me nervous. The each take me aside under the guise of having a friendly chat, but they wind up telling me how terrible the other one is. My mother complains that all my father does is play golf and go to meetings of the various boards of directors he serves on. And it’s true. He’s always gone.” Then David describes how his father talks about his wife, David’s mother. “He tells me what a sick woman she is, a hypochondriac, she drinks too much coffee and he is furious with her because she won’t go to bed with him.”
Then the therapists offer an unexpected suggestion. That David’s parents come to town for a big family conference, actually two or three therapy sessions. The invitation, said the therapist, was to “Ask them to come to help us help you. We don’t want to make them patients, but we need their help.” David’s parents, and even his sister, agreed to come.
In conversations with the extended family, David saw his own style of relationship passed down from his parents, the father putting most of his life in this work, his mother becoming distant, and in the case of the older woman, depressed and keeping it to herself, finally admitting that she had been thinking about how she would die, probably that she’d have stroke.
The older man said to his wife,” I guess I hadn’t known you were so depressed.”
“I didn’t tell you,” said his wife. The elder parents were referred to therapists in their home town and they decided to continue with therapy.
With the elderly parents looking to psychological growth in their own lives, David continued in therapy and began to feel and see changes in himself. He relaxed more and enjoyed spending more time with his wife and family. He didn’t move for the new job, which he discovered had secretly been arranged by his father, causing more anger between them.
The family of five decided to stay together.
“David and Carolyn’s marriage began to come alive,” said Napier. “Like spring, the changes came slowly, a leaf at a time.” They learned how to work through conflicts.
The younger children were relieved that the family was staying together and they went to occasional family therapy sessions. Claudia continued to come to therapy for some time. Claudia, then in college, decided to spend a semester in Paris with a family her father knew through work. She was excited and a bit worried about leaving her family and that she would hurt her mother’s feelings, so she talked it over with Whitaker. She decided to go to Paris, this time not “running away” but making a positive choice, knowing her parents had their own much-improved relationship.
Don, by then a teenager, would come to a session if he had a fight with his mother, so he could work it out.
Overall, the family therapy, with all or some of the family members at various times, lasted two-and-a-half years. It helped each of them individually, and as a family, to accept the tides of closeness and distance, the disagreements and the understandings, and stay connected.
“The children all learned something vital to their later lives,” said Napier. They learned “how conflict in marriage can be resolved.”
The interesting part is that the family therapy didn’t even begin because of issues in the relationship between husband and wife. But as issues arose and were dealt with, the family was guided by the experience and compassion of the therapists. They moved forward along the unique course that led them to new techniques to deal with the stresses of life and relationships, and most important, they learned to create more joy and peace in their lives.
Napier, Augustus and Whitaker, Carl, The Family Crucible: The Intense Experience of Family Therapy, Harper & Row, New York, 1978.
Cunningham, Barbara, “A Review of The Family Crucible,” Urban Onramps Blogspot, 2010