Monday, January 14, 2008



The following entry is written by Lynn Hoffman. Here she talks about the influence of Gregory Bateson upon her own thinking and practice. Bateson's work has been of great importance to both Lynn and me.

The significance of Lynn's work here can easily be overlooked. However, as we pay attention to her movements in this piece, we see a shift toward something which isn't spoken, isn't delineated in sentences, but rather it is felt, it is sensed, it is non-verbal, beyond-verbal, not at all limited to the grammatical logic of verbal languages. She is awakening us to something which is often trivialized, typically removed from the worlds of academia and the professions. She is inviting us toward ways of relating with people which are not of language, as we typically view it. And, she is bringing this to us via Bateson. This is not a new-age dream. Both Lynn Hoffman and Gregory Bateson are calling us to the languages of nature, to the communications which occur as life is in motion, to the communications of evolution and embryology, to the ways which animals (and, according to Bateson, mammals in particular) of necessity engage with each other, as well as with us.

No fairytale fantasies here, but rather a certain rigour of understanding, as we turn ourselves away from those all-to-familiar realms of linguistics and meanings, and open up toward worlds which actually team around us, toward places beyond the limitations of words.

There were several philosophical pioneers in the last century who made it their life’s work to study how the forms of Western discourse imprison us. The two most important ones, in my view, were Ludwig Wittgenstein and Gregory Bateson. In Wittgenstein’s famous book of arguments with himself, “Philosophical Investigations” (1953), he explores ways to get out of the invisible linguistic trap he called the “fly bottle.” His work has generated an industry of explainers. Bateson’s (1972) writings have not yet called forth such an industry, but he took on a similar charge in regard to communication theory. Distrusting the tricks that could be played by words, he set himself to study what he called “syllogisms in metaphor.” Bateson felt that nonverbal analogies reflected the type of communication practiced in and by the living world.

My essay will discuss Bateson’s double bind concept, and his later clarification of it. I will trace his doubts about the instrumental use of therapy to change behavior, following his critique of the reigning frameworks of both classical logic and behaviorism. I want to add to the picture of the Bateson who invented the double bind, the Bateson who made a creative leap to a domain of communication that is built on analogy, similitude and metaphor. No one has founded a school of family therapy on this domain, but at the end of this piece, I will show by examples from my own work how the use of these different channels can be applied to practice.

The double bind was an interesting communicational structure that Bateson and his colleagues (Bateson, G., Jackson, D., Haley, J. and Weakland, J., 1956) came up with during their research project in Palo Alto between 1950 and 1960. It was thought to be a possible feature of the interaction in families where one member had been labeled schizophrenic. The group’s definition of a double bind was a situation where one person is the recipient of messages that contradict each other on two levels of logical type and who cannot leave the field. A formal definition of this event would be a logical paradox. Translated into relationship terms, the group felt that being subject to the constraints typical of such contradictions could have harmful effects. At the same time, Bateson pointed out that many of the pursuits we value most have the same double-level features. The structure that occurs in schizophrenic discourse can also be found in areas like humor, art, religion, animal communication and dreams.

To explain this subject, I have to invoke the Ariadne’s thread that led Bateson to the heart of the mystery: Russell and Whitehead’s (1910) “Theory of Logical Types.” According to this construct, communication was made up of hierarchies of messages. One level represented the content of the message, and the other was an over-arching message that indicated how the first message was to be understood. If the message on the first level were to be simultaneously contradicted or disqualified by the message on the second level, you would have a “confusion of logical types” - a possible context for a double bind. But remember, we are not talking about a simple bind. All is well as long as the messages are like phone calls rom two people, telling you to call back; you reply first to the one, and then to the other. They are on the same level, and there is no problem.

But suppose that the situation involves bonds of trust and expectation that are subverted in such a way that the person is left feeling betrayed but is not in a position to protest. An example given in the original double bind paper consists of a young man recovering from an acute psychotic episode who hugs his mother when she comes to see him in the hospital. She stiffens, and he moves away, whereupon she asks him “Don’t you love me anymore?” Then, when he remains mute, she says, “Dear, you must not be so easily embarrassed by your feelings.” In this exchange, the son stands convicted no matter which way he turns, damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

Alas, the double bind as a psychological concept lent itself to being easily reified, i.e. turned into a “thing.” There was a further danger in that the double bind was seen as a type of communication that one person (usually a mother) visited upon another (usually a child). In a 1962 disclaimer (Sluzki & Ransom, 1976), the authors of the original article say:

The most useful way to phrase double bind description is not in terms of a binder and a victim but in terms of people caught up in an ongoing system which produces conflicting definitions of the relationship and consequent subjective distress.” (Sluzki & Ransom, 1976, p. 42.)
Another source of confusion, to my mind at least, was the influence of the hypnotherapist Milton Erickson. Bateson (Berger, 1978, p. 68) gave Jay Haley the credit for pointing out that Milton Erickson’s interventions often put the subject in what was called a “therapeutic double bind.” The idea was that if someone came to therapy with you, instead of trying to help them overcome their problem, you should tell them to intensify it. Hopefully, they would drop the behavior rather than obey your directive. Haley felt that this approach capitallized on the “battle for control” between client and therapist, since to “win,” the client would have to give up the symptom.

Haley’s emphasis on power in therapy was the source of a longstanding disagreement between him and Bateson. In “Comments on Haley’s History,” (Bateson, 1976, p.106), Bateson says that “Haley slides too lightly over very real epistemological differences between himself and me.” He enlarges on the idea that “power,” seen as a noun deprived of context, has socially pathogenic consequences. I don’t want to obscure the enormous contribution made by Haley and others in basing new approaches to therapy on Erickson’s genius for paradox, but the upshot was that double bind theory was translated into a control-oriented perspective that was incompatible with Bateson’s point of view. Strangely enough, it took me ten years before I understood this conflict and began to deal with it myself (Hoffman, 2002).

The Trouble With Logic

I had originally thought that just because Bateson had read Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica and found the theory of logical types useful, he had joined the happy band of logical positivists to which those authors belonged. Not so. After re-reading Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), Mind and Nature (1979), Angels Fear (1987), co-written with his daughter Catherine just before his death, and A Sacred Unity (1991), a collection of unanthologized writing edited by Rodney Donaldson, I formed quite a different view. If anything, Bateson felt that the project of classical logic left out most of the things he wanted to study. He says “The if...then of causality contains time, but the if...then of logic is timeless. It follows that logic is an incomplete model of causality” (Bateson, 1979 p. 58). Bateson also weighs in on the “categorical bankruptcy” of behaviorism, telling a story in which he asks a researcher who was performing learning experiments on goldfish why he was doing this? The reply was: “Because I want to control a goldfish.” (Bateson, 1991, p. 187).

But here is the point. Rather than simply bashing these two outlooks, Bateson invokes a third one which is far more interesting. Bateson occasionally used the word “analogical” to describe it, but he refines his idea by contrasting the world of material things, which Jung termed the “Pleroma,” with the natural world, which was the “Creatura.” Pleroma, Bateson tells us, is Newton’s world of force and mass. It has no mental process, no names, no classes. The Creatura, on the other hand, communicate through pattern, similitude, and metaphor. Bateson notes that “the logic of metaphor is something very different from the logic of the verities of Augustine and Pythagoras,“ and goes on to observe that the process of metaphor-making may be a defining characteristic of the living world.

Syllogisms in Grass

This suggestion is reinforcedby Catherine Bateson in Angels Fear (Bateson & Bateson, 1987). She tells us that during the last few weeks of his life, her father was engrossed with the idea of “syllogisms of metaphor,” and goes on to say:

The description of mind gave Gregory a framework for beginning to define the disciplines of communication in or like or about Creatura, disciplines that the flexibility of language has made it possible to violate. The key components of his thought began to be integrated in a single system: cybernetics and the logical types, the semantics of Korzybski and the efforts of the early psychoanalysts to describe the unconscious - all of these coalesce in the begnning of a Creatural grammar. (p. 192)

What a fascinating idea. However, one has to know something about syllogisms. In making a contrast between the truths of logic and the truths of metaphor, Bateson turns to a musty old artifact from the world of logic, the “syllogism in Barbara.” Classical logic has identified several syllogisms, or tautological word structures, and the Barbara one, which depends on our old friend the Levels of Logical Type, goes like this: Men die, Socrates is a man, [therefore] Socrates will die. Bateson explains that this sequence is built on classification. He says: “The predicate ‘will die’ is attached to Socrates by identifying him as a member of that class whose members share that predicate.” In other words, Socrates is in the box of things that die

But there is another syllogism that seems to flout the rules of classification, which Bateson called “Syllogisms in Grass.” It takes this form: Grass dies, Men die, [therefore] Men are grass. That argument doesn’t make sense at all, and logicians disapprove of it, calling it “affirming the consequent.” An English reviewer once pointed out that this was how Bateson himself did his thinking, and called attention to a 1944 book by an E. von Domarus which said that this was how schizophrenics thought too. Bateson agreed heartily with this opinion, and from then on made Syllogisms in Grass a centerpiece of his thinking about how Nature communicates. He fires off this ringing salvo in Angels Fear:

The whole of animal behavior, the whole of repetitive anatomy, and the whole of biological revolution - each of these vast realms is within itself linked together by syllogisms in grass - whether the logicians like it or not...” And later adds: “In other words, it looks as though until 100,000 years ago... there were no Barbara syllogisms in the world, there were only Bateson’s kind, and still the organisms got along all right. They managed to organize themselves in their embryology to have two eyes, one on each side of a nose. They managed to organize themselves in their evolution... And it became evident that metaphor was not just pretty poetry, it was not either good or bad logic, but was in fact the logic on which the biological world had been built, the main characteristic and organizing glue of this world of mental process that I have been trying to sketch for you...” (pp. 26-30)
This statement thrilled me. It felt accurate, and it justified the enormous importance I placed on image and story and gesture in communicating with the people that consulted with me. It also justified the efforts of philosophers like Wittgenstein, mentioned above, in not only searching out a different framework for the logics of communication but finding that they could be strikingly different from the classical logics that Western thinkers had come to see as the norm. The nonverbal, analogical vision of Bateson seemed especially pertinent to the project of psychotherapy, because it indicated that advice and expertise were not enough; you had to reach for connection at levels that lay beyond the scope of spoken words.

Why is this emphasis on the wider web so important for a therapist? Because it turns us away from looking at individuals and their inner life, which is what modernist psychology trains us to look at, and points instead to the connecting threads that link all of us to the loom. If you stay with a modernist psychology, you will forever be trying to see your job as a matter of building logging roads, putting up bridges, and various other engineering projects. If you move to a postmodern psychology, you have to jump, like Alice, into the pool of tears with the other creatures. This situation is a great equalizer and carries some dangers, but it is the only source of information with the power to transform.

The Problem of Epistemological Error

In the late 70s, when I was moving toward a postmodern framework, I began to understand better the emphasis Bateson put upon what he called epistemological errors. He saw correctly that the "thingification of nouns” was a source of many dreadful blunders, and says that language, having developed to fit the Pleroma in suggesting that names represent things, does not always fit with biological communication, which emphasizes pattern and relationship. Thus words like “crime” and “play” or “power,” are often understood to mean a self-standing entity. You “punish” a crime, “enjoy” play, and “take” power. Bateson says that these nouns can’t be used this way, because they describe abstractions at a higher level of logical type than the actions that make them up. In warning us about such reifications, he tells the story of mathematician Anatol Holt who called for a bumper sticker saying, “Stamp Out Nouns.” (Bateson, 1972, p. 334)

In the late 70s, I barely grasped Bateson’s point about the error of objectifying nouns, but was already trying to distance myself from the objectifying applications on which I had cut my therapist teeth. I had strongly allied myself with the brief strategic approach of the Mental Research Institute and then moved on to the Milan Team’s systemic approach, which was overtly influenced by Bateson’s theories. However, I began to feel stifled by the science-like atmosphere of their hypothesizing process and the lack of connection to our families in any human sense. Ironically enough, it was in Bateson’s writings that I found support for what was at the time a rebellion in the bud.

The Dangers of Conscious Purpose

The idea that interested me most at that time was that too much knowing, too much “conscious purpose,” could be dangerous. Bateson (1972) says, “Purposive consciousness pulls out, from the total mind, sequences which do not have the loop structure which is characteristic of the whole systemic structure. If you follow the “common-sense” dictates of consciousness you become, effectively, greedy and unwise - again I use “wisdom” as a word for recognition and guidance by a knowlege of the total systemic creature.” (p. 440)

Bateson often cited Coleridge’s poem, “The Ancient Mariner,” as a particularly compelling example of how a person’s situation can become transformed after becoming aware of connection with the larger ecology. The unfortunate Mariner, becalmed and drifting with the albatross about his neck, sees some beautiful sea snakes and blesses them “unawares.” As purpose drops from his mind, the albatross drops from his neck, and at this point come the first drops of life-giving rain. Though not admitting a causal relationship between these events, Bateson nevertheless believed the poem to be a good example of the enlightenment that accompanies an understanding of the sacred unity of the biological world.

This story worked on me. Purposiveness was one of the characteristics of the approaches that I had first studied and admired - now I wondered about them. I also finally realized how Bateson felt about the family therapy industry he had inadvertently hosted. In Angels Fear, his daughter creates a “metalogue” between herself and her father’s ghost, just as he did with her in Steps to an Ecology of Mind. In the chapter “Persistent Shade,” she chides him:

Daughter: You know, you never gave me the good lines when you were writing the metalogues.

Father: There’s still another problem for Angels Fear, the problem of the misuse of ideas. The engineers get hold of them. Look at the whole god-awful business of family therapy, therapists making “paradoxical interventions” in order to change people or families, or counting double binds. You can’t count double binds.”

Daughter: No, I know, because double binds have to do with the total contextual structure, so that a given instance of double binding that you might notice in a therapy session is one tip of an iceberg whose basic structure is the whole life of the family. (p. 204)

This exchange has often made me wonder what Bateson would think if he came back like Rip van Winkle and surveyed the state of family therapy today. I think he would be distressed. He would probably be scandalized at the epistemological errors that haveproliferated on every side: the adoption of diagnostic categories based on thingified nouns or the pressure to find to “evidence-based” results that Bateson would say pull out partial circuits from the total web. In Angels Fear he makes himself clear: I believe that an action or the label put on experience must always be seen, as we say, in context. And the context of every action is the whole network of epistemology and the state of all the systems involved, with the history that leads up to that state. (p. 177)

Interestingly, Bateson was less concerned with the family as the unit of focus, and more with the individual-plus-environment. He felt that it would be harder for the fields of psychology and psychotherapy to maintain their narrow focus on the person once this larger view was accepted. For him, the important difference was not between individual and family therapy but between practitioners who think systemically and those who think in terms of linear cause and effect. This view is borne out by the fact that family therapy is evolving into a variety of ecological or multicultural approaches that see both therapists and clients as embedded in a larger social net. For the client to become different, the net has to become different too.

The Map Is Not the Territory

By the mid-eighties, I was persuaded that family therapy had become stuck in a modern, essentialist stance. Looking back, I think that I was merely following the shift in perceptual framework predicted by Thomas Kuhn (1972) in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” This shift is now often referred to as “postmodernism,” but it has been associated with a variety of other isms like deconstructionism, poststructuralism, and social constructionism, to mention just a few. At first confused, I gradually realized that they all pointed in the same direction: toward an awareness of the flybottle of linguistic premises that Wittgenstein saw as such a trap, and Bateson dubbed “epistemological errors.”

In regard to his own enterprise, Bateson went as far as a kind of mid-stage movement called constructivism, which held that the veil provided by our perceptual apparatus keeps us from direct contact with reality. He himself referred often to semanticist Korzybsky’s phrase, “The map is not the territory,” saying that there were no pigs and cocoanuts in the brain, only ideas of pigs and cocoanuts (1979, p. 30). Constructivism was rooted in the biology of cognition, and two of its most famous proponents were the biologist Humberto Maturana (1977) and mathematician Francisco Varela (1976), both of whom Bateson was acquainted with and admired.

As it turned out, constructivism was taken up by systemic family therapists and turned out to be an important step away from therapists thinking of themselves as change-agents and families as systems that needed to be changed. According to Maturana, people were trapped in their private nervous systems. For this reason, he said, there could be no instructive interaction. This concept was a dead end if one were trying to do therapy but by the time I realized this, social constructionism (Gergen, 1992), a movement rooted in American pragmatism, had begun to attract my attention. I was glad to find it, as it put the spotlight back on the the creation of meaning within the communicational web.

Since Bateson seemed always to be ahead of the wave, I have often thought of him as a harbinger of postmodernism. The paradigm shift I am talking about has evolved from the efforts of many unusual minds over many years, and Bateson’s was certainly one of them. However, the term “postmodernism” has begun to be used too loosely. It is a mistake to say that there is such a thing as a postmodern therapy as opposed to a historically contextualized postmodern stance. Therapy models that persist from an earlier day may contain postmodern elements even if they were not originally thought of that way. On the other hand, some present-day therapists who claim they are postmodern may still be using the essentialist mind-set of the past.

During my 40 years in the field, many relational practitioners have moved away from what Donald Schoen (1984) calls a “technical-rational” approach to one that treats therapeutic practice as an art. Olson (2004) speaks of basing therapy on “a collaborative process of inquiry rather than a theory of structural reality.” For me, this is also a move toward an appreciation of alternative logics. These logics oppose the reductive spirit of the mental health establishment as it exists in our country today and point to what Pakman (2000) has called the “poetics” of our field. As examples, here are five portrayals of moments, not entire therapies, that show how I (Hoffman, 2002) use the language of similitude, presences, and embodiment in my work.


Having been a literature major in college, I was well versed in T.S. Eliot’s (1920) literary criticism and particularly his term “the objective correlative.” To him, a poem or a novel that was successful often contained a symbolic reference that stood for the meaning of the work. The Great White Whale in Moby Dick seemed to represent the obsessive quality of Ahab’s search; in like fashion, the compass in John Donne’s “The Lovers” pointed both to the outer arm that traces a distant trajectory and the center one that stands for the lover’s return. In my own work, I am always looking for a similarly concrete image that can sum up the gist of the situation being addressed.

For instance, a year ago, I was doing a consultation with a beginning training group at the family therapy program at a local college, and asked if someone would offer to be my partner in a reflecting consultation. A young woman stepped forward and when I asked what issue she wanted to talk about, she said, “I’ve just been fired.” She meant that very day. Apparently, she had been working at a job at a high tech company for fifteen years, and doing very well, when she had the idea to go back to school and get a Master’s degree in family therapy. She was still working, so she was surprised when without warning the company terminated her. She said it was like “falling off a cliff.”

I asked her if she could think of any story that might illuminate her situation, like a folk tale or fairy story. She said that no story came to mind, but instead told me that her father had died two years before, and that when she went to his funeral, she was deeply moved by the testimonies made by friends and family to his character and influence. “I was conscious of an enormous wish that when I died, people would say such things about me,” she said. So this led to her search for a new career path and her enrollment in the program where I was teaching.

I then asked what issues the termination brought up for her. She said she was extremely shocked by the suddenness of her firing, even though she had enough savings to cover her current expenses. So I asked the group to share their reflections about her situation. It was not a sophisticated group at all, and mostly they just tried to say reassuring things. I expected someone to hook back to the story of the father’s death, but no. Then a young woman in the group surprised me by coming out with a most special and unusual idea. She said, “I had the picture of a woman standing on the edge of a cliff and in her hands was this beautiful bright bird. As I watched her, she loosened her hands and the bird opened its wings and flew away.”

Going back to my partner, I asked for her reaction to the group’s comments. She
said, “The picure of me standing on a cliff with that beautiful, bright bird is so exact.” She and I talked about what this bird might represent for her, and how it might be linked to her father. She said she thought he would have approved of her going back to school and taking a degree in family therapy. We agreed that her response to losing her father contained the germ of a decision to start a more meaningful life. In addition, this was a way she kept him at her side as a companion.

What stood out for me was how that image seemed to emerge, in glorious color, from the beehive brain of a beginning group. Even though it was the invention of only one person, its effect on the rest of them was interesting. They went round once more, and this time their comments included memories of their own experiences in turning loss into gain. As a result, I now often back away from trying to think up a story or analogy myself, and simply trust that someone in the group will come up with what is required. I believe that images like that make a beeline for the amygdala - that part of the brain where emotional memories are stored (Damasio, A., 1994) - and since they work by signalling likeness, they can have an immediate impact.


Another use of a creatural grammar consists of imagined presences. When I was in Italy two years ago, I was sitting in on a session with H., a young Muslim man from Morocco. He had been referred by a healer from Sub-Saharan Africa to Dr. Pietro Barbetta, who teaches at the University of Bergamo. The healer had told Barbetta that this man suffered from a kind of melancholy that did not occur among his own people because it did not have any physical manifestation, nor was it associated with an evil spirit, so he had sent him to Barbetta. Another faculty member was translating for me.

Mostly I just watched and listened, while the young man explained to Barbetta that he had become very fearful of going to his job. He was working in a factory, one week during the day and the next week during the night, and he had become impressed with a girl who worked in a nearby drugstore. So he bought a rose for her on his way to work. However, his mates guessed the purpose of this rose and began to mock him, causing him to throw the rose away. He told us he had a family back in Morocco whom he missed very much. His young cousin had come to live with him, and he was hoping to enroll him in college. Clearly, he had a lot at stake in doing well in this country.

Toward the end of the interview, my colleague asked me if I had any thoughts, so I talked about the courage it took for this young man to come to a strange land in order to help his family. The young man then broke in with great intensity: “I am going to hell in one hour, because that is when I have to be at my job.” I turned to Barbetta and said, “He says he’s going to hell in one hour and we have to support him.” I suggested that Barbetta ask who he would want to be in the “club of his life,” thinking that these presences might accompany him to his job. Of course, even with Barbetta translating, he did not understand what I meant. So I said, “They can be relatives or friends, not necessarily living, but present in spirit.” He still looked puzzled. I said, “We call them angels but you call them “djinns.” Suddenly he got it, saying, “Yes, the “grins!” I suggested that they could come to help him, not realizing he had used a different word from mine.

This was the source of a lucky miscommunication. Barbetta told me later that in the Muslim culture of Mahgreb there are spirits who live in the realm between the human being and Allah; the evil ones are djinns, but there are good ones called “grins” who protect people. Barbetta asked him to choose some of these good spirits to take with him to the job. So he placed his father, who had died many years before, on his head, and his mother and sister on his two shoulders, then other family members were added. Myself and Barbetta, he placed on his arms. This seemed to calm him down, and he moved on to asking for advice on enrolling his cousin in college, which Dr. Barbetta was easily able to provide.

After the young man left, Barbetta said he really liked the idea of the imagined people. I told him that the reason I had jumped in like that was because the young man had seemed so upset by the ordeal that faced him. Whenever I find an emotional “hot spot” like that, I try to respond right away. The intervention I owe to Michael White (1995), whose ability to bring in imaginary troops to support people is legendary. But the principle is grounded in Bateson’s insistence that the unit “individual-plus-environment” is the central one, not the family or group. As not all groups are supportive, it is important to find or create a sustaining network that is. My colleague, me, and several of our client’s relatives made up at least the start of one, as well as a temporary political base for coping with the humiliations of an alien world.

Barbetta did a follow-up three months later, and the young man said that the idea of the “grins” had helped him very much in going to his disliked job. Then he went back to Morocco for a while, and when he came back he got another job, and things began to go much better for him. His cousin was doing well at his college. The healer too said that Hanafe’s “melancholy” had disappeared. The idea I came up with is what I call a meaning in a fist. Time was short, and I wanted some notion that could be readily visualized, like all those persons perched on the young man’s head and shoulders. However, the miscommunication we went through to get there was a salutary reminder to me that the shortest way between two points is sometimes a zig-zag line.


I wanted to include an interview that exemplified the use of gesture and physical embodiment. This was a family I consulted to in Porto, Portugal. A psychologist brought in the mother and father of identical eight year old twin boys. The twins fought and quarreled to such an extent that the mother would often be called to their school to take them home. The father had a high tech job, and the mother had a clerical position. This I learned before the family came in, but when they did I was truly amazed. The two boys, slim and a bit shy, wore identical black-framed Harry Potter glasses. I immediately asked whether they were Harry Potter fans. One said he had already read one of the novels, and the other showed me a wristband with the insignia of a lightning bolt on it. I didn’t have to think of a metaphor with this family - it came with them.

So I started by asking about twindom and what it was like, and got some valuable testimony. If you are a twin, you might quarrel, but you were never alone. I was particularly impressed with the twins’ good behavior. They responded in a lively way, especially when I asked about the local soccer match, which had created an awful traffic jam in the town the night before. I told them I knew about it, because coming home from a restaurant, our car got stuck in it for an hour. The boys were rooting for the home team and the father for the other one, but at least they had the game in common.

I also got some history. The family had moved a year before from Lisbon, because the father was offered a good job with a high tech company. Unfortunately, this meant that the mother had been severed from her family and from her own ecology, which was very important to her. When the twins had been difficult in the past, she had her mother and sister to turn to. Checking out the father, he seemed very taken up with his job, and apparently left early and came home late. He wasn’t very sympathetic to his wife’s situation; on the other hand, she seemed unwilling to act the part of a complainer and said very little about the problem that was bothering her.

I had asked a reflecting group to listen and then comment, so at this point I turned to them and asked for their thoughts. They basically complimented the family for taking on a new environment, and there was an invocation of the powers of witchcraft and some questions about who in the family was a more powerful wizard or witch. But when I reconvened the family and asked for their impressions, the mother burst out angrily, saying that the group had not understood the terrible position she was in, the difficulties the twins’ fighting presented her with, how she had to leave work at a moment’s notice to go to the school and cope with their behavior. The twins looked a bit scared at this outburst, but I was glad that the mother’s feelings were finally out on the table.

So I listened to her story, and saw that she really was in a bad place. She told us that she missed her family and friends, and that the little boys missed their cousins. I asked her if she went back to Lisbon from time to time, and if her family came to visit her in Porto, and of course they did, but that was not her problem: it was these terrible quarreling children. The father looked off into the distance as she spoke. He did not seem to me to be much of a resource. All I could do was to talk to the psychologist and agree with him that in this family, it was the mother who was hurting and who felt most alone. The mother said she liked her therapist, and looked forward to the family meetings. So, short of moving them back to Lisbon, I felt the best I could do was to commend the therapist for his good work, and for his good connection to the family, the mother especially.

But there was one loose end, and it was bothering me: the picture that had been given of these two terrible twins. There they sat looking rather sad, two pale, small boys at the center of the whirlwind. So I beckoned the one with the wristband over and as he stood before me I made a zigzag line with my finger on his forehead like the one Harry Potter had on his, and said, “I just wanted you to know that you are very powerful, but you will never cause anyone any harm.” Then I pressed my hand on the place as if to seal it, and gave him a hug, and I did the same to the other boy. They looked properly impressed by this ritual, and then started to laugh; in fact the whole family laughed, and we closed the session with a lot of good will.

After the family left, I thanked the reflecting team for their interesting responses. I also told the psychologist that I thought he was a crucial safety factor and an important ally for the mother. As for the zig-zag sign, I felt I had to get a message across to the children that they were not as terrible as advertised. In fact, I demoted them somewhat, in telling them that even though they knew and I knew that the stakes were high, they were just two little boys playing at magic. I feel that this kind of “hands on” ritual is a way to communicate with everyone at once, using the analogies the family gives me.


My final question is “How can we use a creatural language to address multi-level binds?” When thinking about a family’s emotional knot, I tend to mentally put my arms out as if to encompass it. For instance, as a systemic practitioner, whenever there is an opposition or duality, it is important to be able to call up a universe in which this duality makes up a larger whole. An example is a woman I once saw whose brother had molested her in childhood. Her feminist partner was scandalized because she continued to keep seeing him. This was a classic situation where the therapist is apt to go in at the level of the conflict, thus running the risk of becoming a mediator or an advocate. These are not good positions because they isolate only a little part of the entire circuit. But if you go in at the level of the net, you might call the relationship between brother and sister “a love that passes all understanding.” Only after such an “embracement,” as I call it, will it be safe to return to the couple and address the division between them. This approach, though at first surprising the couple, turned out to help them through their impasse.

In another example (Hoffman, 2002), I was consulting to a reflecting team of students and their supervisor, my friend Judy Davis. We saw the tape of their last interview with a bright and upward-striving young man who was enrolled at a nearby college but not going to class. His mother, being very depressed, was unable to keep a job, and her son had dropped out of school to take care of her. The father was angry at the mother because he was being forced to pay his ex-wife child support. In a further ironic twist, if the son did quit school, he would no longer qualify for support and his father’s wages would no longer have to be garnisheed. I should add that the son’s grandmother lived with his mother and she depended on the support money too.

The twists continued at the level of the helping system too. The student who had been seeing the son in individual therapy, at the behest of her supervisor, tried to make him see how manipulative his mother was being. The reflecting team had further commented on the way his mother was jeopardizing his career. This had caused him to defend his mother even more. And here was I - we were making a tape to show the young man - seeing double binds every way I turned. If I now came out against the negative picture people were painting of the mother, that would put everyone in the wrong, including my friend Judy.

So what I did was to reach for an embracing metaphor that would not only cover the whole dilemma but hopefully remove blame. I said that what I saw was two beating hearts that shared a single blood supply. Any effort to detach one element of this complex survival system would threaten the viability of all the rest. And so I did not know what to say or suggest, except to commend the people who were trying to help this brave young man in his dilemma with his family and wish him well. The reflecting team then commented on his love for his mother, and Judy said that she hoped there was a way the mother and son could hold on to this beating heart they shared and yet have individual lives.

When the tape was shown to the son and his therapist the following week, he said that the image was exactly right, and that what he wanted to do was to find a place in his relationship with his mother that wasn’t so extreme. He also began to talk about his father, who had sent him an email threatening to harm his mother, whereupon for the first time he broke down and wept. The therapist told Judy later that she felt this moment had been a significant breakthrough. My position was too tangential for me to try to continue to follow the situation, but through Judy I learned that the young man had eventually decided to go back to school.


In this essay, I have tried to highlight the relevance of Bateson’s ideas to the field of relationship therapy, especially in its postmodern form. I believe that a “creatural grammar” is a particularly useful counterpoint to the technical-rational psychotherapies and the essentialist thinking they bring with them. It helps one to remain suspicious of the power of the professional. It questions the idea that emotional problems have simple linear causes. And it tells us that the language of the creatura can work to melt the walls that surround people who cannot speak, or are barricaded within their own secret codes. The therapist too is barricaded within a code, whether a professional or a moral one, and this language often works to rescue the therapist as well.


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