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blog - Andrea Jivan

Restructuring Family Myths: Remembering Dr. Salvador Minuchin

My mother was a braid of black smoke.
She bore me swaddled over the burning cities.
The sky was a vast and windy place for a child
to play.
We met many others who were just like us.
They were trying to put on their overcoats with
arms made of smoke.
The high heavens were full of little shrunken
deaf ears instead of stars.”

– Charles Simic, The World Doesn’t End

“In all cultures the family imprints its members with selfhood. Human experience of identity has two elements; a sense of belonging and a sense of being separate. The laboratory in which these ingredients are mixed and dispensed is the family, the matrix of identity.”

- Dr. Salvador Minuchin

Artwork found here.

Recent news has been a kaleidoscope of violence, shame, and deception so potent one anxiously welcomes the tides of social accountability it seems to be pushing upward. At the same time one wonders, what actions must be taken to construct new foundations in such a deeply flawed culture? One piece of the puzzle surely points to affecting change within the scope of immediate reach, beginning with our families. Considering the current news cycles, most people may have missed the obituary for one of psychology’s greatest change makers, father of Structural Family Therapy, Salvador Minuchin who passed at the age of 96 on October 30. While Minuchin pioneered a work very different from psychology focused on the individual and their unconscious content, one encounters connections rooted to themes first addressed by psychodynamic therapists such as C.G. Jung and Sigmund Freud. Jung wrote, “Children are so deeply involved in the psychological attitude of their parents that it is no wonder that most of the nervous disturbances in childhood can be traced back to a disturbed psychic atmosphere in the home” (CW 18, P.80). In fact, Minuchin’s focus on family was directed at the structure of the family system itself, taking into account environment and relationship. As part of Minuchin’s attention to children, he established the ground-breaking Philadelphia Child Guidance Center in 1975, where he moved the focus from a single problematic adolescent or child to the structure of family dynamics perpetuating complex familial struggle. Dr. Minuchin underscores the importance of changing narrative, of the influence of historical structures as they thread their way through family relationships. One could humorously imagine the levity that could be brought to the Oedipal conflict by including all members when addressing the dysfunction. This brings to mind a poem by the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Charles Simic, who often depicted with granular, mysterious feeling the unspoken emotional themes within family from a child’s perspective.

Consider his piece entitled A Book Full of Pictures:

Father studied theology through the mail
And this was exam time.
Mother knitted. I sat quietly with a book
Full of pictures. Night fell.
My hands grew cold touching the faces
Of dead kings and queens.

There was a black raincoat
      in the upstairs bedroom
Swaying from the ceiling,
But what was it doing there?
Mother's long needles made quick crosses.
They were black
Like the inside of my head just then.

The pages I turned sounded like wings.
"The soul is a bird," he once said.
In my book full of pictures
A battle raged: lances and swords
Made a kind of wintry forest
With my heart spiked and bleeding in its branches.

Artwork found here.

In both of these works Simic brilliantly illustrates the shadow mythologies held between family members, and their interrelationship to larger culture. While Minuchin states clearly that the aim of Structural Family Therapy is not to change culture, but to change the destructive patterns expressed between members and across generations, his clinical direction was in service of the poor, aimed at disrupting challenges specific to gritty, often denied obstacles informing lives absent of the entitlements of the upper-classes typically the recipients of therapy due to the bourgeois nature of the profession of psychology; in doing this he changed therapy permanently. By focusing on patterns, subsystems, and the circular nature of family conflicts, Structural Family Therapy seeks to upend dysfunctional patterns of behavior and narrative, helping families find new common ground for repair. It moves emphasis from an individual adolescent as the identified patient, instead viewing their behavior symptomatic of challenges experienced as a member of the small society called family.

Artwork found here.

“From a systems point of view, behavior is explained as shared responsibility, arising from patterns that trigger and maintain the actions of each individual. It is customary to think “my child defies me,” or that “she nags” but these are one way linear descriptions. In fact the child’s defiance or the partner’s nagging are only half of the equation. The process is circular and the behavior is complementary, meaning that the behavior is sustained by all of the participants.” (2007, Working With Families of the Poor, p.22)

No family is perfect, but if we seek to understand our difficulties as shared, possibilities emerge that allow us to remain connected and creative in the problem solving process. Imagining a wider culture with such learned skills creates new myths of family inclusive of the capacity for individuation in each member, healthy respect for boundaries, and enough endurance to hold and explore uncomfortable topics in search of common ground. Remaining curious and committed to a common solution, Structural Family Therapy concepts could return us to relationships that serve as a foundation for larger cultural health.  Indeed, it also reminds us that assistance to the ever growing underserved populations is not only a moral obligation, but lifts culture to an experience of shared value rather than exclusivity. As Dr. Minuchin emphasized, “Certainty is the enemy of change.”


Andrea Jivan, L.M.T., M.A.
Depth Psychotherapist Intern
Blog Team Member
Jung Society of Utah


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