Центр нарративной психологии и практики


Journal of Systemic Therapies, [New York, N.Y.] : Guilford Publications
сентябрь 2007
Отрывки из статьи Teaching Narrative Therapy in Russia

While postmodernism has found a strong foothold in North American family therapy circles in recent years, postmodern/poststructural ideas and practices are more recent arrivals in contemporary Russia. This article recounts a brief history of psychotherapy in Russian as a backdrop to the account of narrative therapy’s recent appearance in the country. It explores the paradoxes and contradictions in the relationship between Russia’s totalitarian past and a therapeutic approach devoted to questioning normative ideas and practices. Finally, the article outlines the unique challenges associated with introducing narrative therapy in the Russian cultural context, illustrating this discussion with examples of narrative teaching innovations being implemented in the former Soviet Union.

Russia and Postmodernism: Taking Root

During the last five years of teaching narrative practices I have faced a number of dilemmas and questions, some of them particular to the Russian context and culture. By the time postmodern therapeutic approaches had become popular in the West, those cultures had long been identified by intellectuals as postmodern ones (Lyotard, 1984). But the history of the relationship between postmodernism and my culture is ambiguous and ironic. On one hand, it is easy to portray the USSR as a culture founded on practices and beliefs in sharp contrast to what might generally be taken to be postmodern ideals: totalitarianism, strict binary oppositions, linear conceptions of time, and strictly enforced depictions of truth and normality to be learned by heart but never disputed. The Weltanschauung of modernism which rests on the notion that the world can be cognized, controlled and guided, persisted in the Soviet Union long after the turn of the twentieth century. Everyone without exception had to march towards a fixed and purportedly achievable target of pure communism.

On the other hand, the description of reality generated by communist ideology failed completely to reflect actual life practices. TV and radio news, books, newspapers, documentaries and feature films had nothing in common with the reality of everyday life. Borrowing from narrative terminology to capture this contradictory situation, events on an ideologically imposed “landscape of meaning” (White, 1992) disagreed sharply with the “landscape of action” (White, 1995) where people lived, and with the interpretations of events that citizens might have produced if given rein to make meaning on their own. 

It is interesting to note that due to the constant pressure of censorship, Soviet people have formed a habit “of reading between the lines”. They learned to collect nuggets of information “weeping” through ideological bans and to make appropriate conclusions on their own. A popular joke captures this practice: A man phones a friend late at night anxious to share his agitation with something he has read in the newspaper. He whispers into the receiver, “Hey, listen, have you read today’s Pravda2? You won’t believe what they’ve written there!”. Alarmed, the friend responds, “Tell me!”. And the man answers, “Well, you don’t expect me to do that on the phone, do you?”. 

Over many years of censorship and propaganda, Russians have not only had to pretend to believe in the given picture of the world, but to try their best to fall within it and to shape their experience to fit the dominant ideological interpretation of events. Only a minority ever succeeded in this latter task, and so most learned the practice of life as make-believe. 

For example, every autumn, the media reported news about the brilliant achievements of state agriculture and the surprisingly abundant harvest. At the same, time there was virtually no produce in the shops. During autumn months, students and most employees of scientific institutes would be recruited—a local euphemism is “voluntarily forced”--to gather in what was in actuality a meager and frost-bitten harvest. However, there was often a deficit of workers because many villagers had moved to the cities due to the agricultural crisis and many others were coping with alcoholism. Scientists were expected to work joyfully, accompanied by songs, while those who sabotaged the harvest were exposed to public criticism during special meetings. Attendance at such meetings was not technically compulsory, but there was a price to be paid for being absent. They typically took place amid rural devastation and were dedicated to praising intellectuals for their “voluntary” help to our flourishing agricultural sector, while the exhausted audience was expected to applaud.

So the Soviet Union was a place where people perfected the art of playing games with words and concepts unconnected with any actual objects or events. Words could mean anything, and lived their own life, free from attachment to any definite meaning, despite the fact that so-called reality was being carefully crafted and reconstructed for public consumption day by day. Drawing on the post-structuralist metaphor of life as a text, one might say the Soviet people were honing the postmodern skill of generating multi-layered interpretations of texts on a daily basis.In this regard, one can see the USSR as a gargantuan postmodern project.

The collapse of the USSR in1991 was the culminating moment of the modern era in this cultural territory. But what has taken the place of modernism? As Victor Pelevin, one of Russia’s most popular modern writers, noted in 1997 (cited in Zhurnal.ru, 2006), "Russia was always notorious for the gap between culture and civilization. Now there is no culture and no civilization. The only thing that remains is a gap…” 

Russia has had a long history of absorbing other cultural influences—a tradition that has continued in the field of psychotherapy in the past twenty years. . It rapidly assimilates new knowledge and adapts it to its own specifics. It may in fact be due to these peculiarities of history and culture that Russian students grasp postmodern, poststructural and social constructionist ideas with ease.

When I began to practice and teach narrative therapy in Moscow, one of my colleagues said: "all this is definitely interesting but I doubt that it will take roots in our soil" and another colleague responded: "just start and the soil will adopt it". That is exactly what has happened.

Holding a mirror to postmodern teaching pratices

As far as I know, at the time I started to teach narrative therapy, no other Russian practitioners were teaching the approach in Moscow3. That made it impossible for my students to compare the content and style of my work with other narrative training programs and trainers. In other words, my interpretation of the narrative approach was becoming “the one and only” for them and I was becoming the "only expert" in the field. Paradoxically, this situation helped remind me that I was presenting just one of many possible interpretations of narrative ideas, and so I reminded my students that other practitioners (including themselves) were developing their own versions of narrative practice. Moreover, my own interpretation of narrative ideas and practices varies constantly in response to the particularities of the contexts in which I teach—another thing I point out to students on a regular basis. 

Another way to get at this is to say that I fashion my teaching after the theory and philosophy underlying the therapeutic practice. I invite students to reflect on our roles and positions, paying special attention to the correspondence or lack of correspondence with the approach we are collaboratively investigating. Reflection/awareness of one's own text is obviously of the distinctive features of postmodern thinking, art, еtс. (Eco, 1994). The reflexive stance to the teaching practice therefore exemplifies the professional position (Freedman & Combs, 1996) of a person practicing a postmodern therapeutic approach.

Russian students’ experience of narrative training Most of my Russian students have been well educated in several theoretical approaches during the last few years. They possess a hoard of information, but have relatively limited practical experience and are eager to apply their learnings. For example, it takes students six years to graduate from the Institute of Practical Psychology and Psychoanalysis. The first three years of basic training lead to a diploma and designation of practical psychologist; these are followed by another three years of specific training during which students can chose to focus on clinical psychoanalysis, family systems therapy , Jungian analysis or dance therapy, etc. As the name of the Institute implies, it is mainly oriented to psychoanalysis.

Many students start to undergo their personal psychoanalytical therapy right from the first year. They also listen to introductory lectures and undergo trainings in other approaches in order to get a general picture of different models and to choose a specialty area. At the end of the third year, they are introduced to narrative therapy at the time when they are about to choose their specialization. One year, two hours into one such narrative lecture, a student literally shouted at me: "I’ve been trying to comprehend psychoanalytical concepts for three years and I've just begun to feel confident in this. Stop ripping the mat from under me!" Of course, students who express a wish for an in-depth study of narrative practices are more open-minded, but it is easy to understand their hesitation to let go of the extensive baggage of interpretative models they have worked so hard to acquire over their years of study. It is worth mentioning that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the teaching of the models or the models themselves--each has its own beauty, is quite logical and consistent within its own borders, and is sufficiently effective in practice. The key consideration is to what extent one or another approach matches the therapist's values and preferences, as well as the cultural context in which it is being practiced. I have found that the emphasis on the ethics of practice in the postmodern approaches seems to be the most appealing for the Russians. The students enjoy the collaborative therapeutic relationships and the focus on resources which is less evident in the deficiency-oriented "pathologizing" models. It may be that the affinity for postmodern practice is more easily understood when contrasted with the violent character of psychiatry during the Soviet period

Do collaborative relationships fit post-Soviet Russians?

It is sometimes suggested that an ingrained features of the Russian mentality is an irrational fear of people empowered with authority, whether it is a doctor, police officer—just about anyone in uniform. It is said that people easily hand over responsibility to them, obey them, or make an alliance with them. For this reason, I frequently hear from my students and colleagues concerns that people would not be willing to engage in collaborative relationships with therapists, because they would expect a therapist to take the expert position and the sole responsibility for solving problems, whereas their task would be to simply obey.

I have found that practice proves this wrong in my therapeutic work in Russia. Part of the explanation may be that so-called "traditional Russian cultural traits" become flexible and less firmly rooted when the therapist invites open discussion about the oppressive social practices that promote those supposed traits. Students quickly see this with their own eyes when they take part in work with families as members of reflecting or witnessing teams. But I have found an even more effective way to help my students gain trust in the possibility of a non-expert stance (Morgan, 2000; White & Epston, 1990) is to model it as part of the student-teacher interaction.

A teacher's knowledge is not better or worse then the students'--it is just different, and of course new for the students. After all, this is a part of the agreement--if students already possessed this knowledge, they would not waste their time and money to hear it from another person. A teacher’s task is to show students how the knowledge she is presenting differs from other knowledges, and to demonstrate its coherence—philosophically, ethically and practically—within its own frame of reference. It is not a matter of demonstrating that it is more“right” than other approaches. Just like a therapist who during deconstructive conversation (Freedman & Combs, 1996) draws clients' attention to logical gaps in their stories, a teacher during sessions asks students deconstructive questions that help to notice logical contradictions and lacunae in their interpretations of some system of knowledge.

Of course, the teacher presenting information based on postmodern ideas does not pursue the task of convincing students that certain knowledge is an indisputable truth—a tradition that has a long and dark history in the Soviet context. A teacher's task is to make a certain system of knowledge sufficiently transparent and simple that students can modify and develop it, clearly understanding its borders and inner logic. Postmodern theory precludes the possibility of attempting to establish the relative truth of one interpretative model (or therapeutic approach) versus another because postmodern theory by definition assumes it is impossible to prove or refute the presence of “truth” as such (Maturana & Varela, 1987).

It seems to me that whichever approach a therapist practices, it is always helpful to clearly understand the system of knowledge that informs the approach. And while viewing this system of knowledge as dynamic and situated among other knowledges, it is important to have some sense of the boundaries and limits of the approach. Therefore, when any of my students goes beyond the border of the approach during practical sessions, we do not consider it or talk about it as a “mistake”, but try to clarify what knowledge his/her move was based on and how this knowledge relates to the narrative theory. It also make an atmosphere in the class more creative and friendly which an opposite to the fearful and tense mood that often prevailed in school auditoriums in the Soviet Union. There was a common practice in Soviet schools to insult, humiliate and bring to shame pupils for making mistakes in front of their whole class, because a social shame considered to be a legitimate tool of upbringing a good Soviet person. Being afraid of confronting with system and to be humiliating themselves Soviet parents typically allied with teachers and did not protected their children.  Today when students see that, a teacher does not evaluate their knowledge but offers to investigate knowledge together they get rid of an influence of "Fear of Mistake" and start to reveal their curiosity and abilities openly. 

Narrative Training Exercise: Expert Filters

Perhaps not surprisingly, given their diverse previous training, my students react readily to therapeutic situations, producing a great number of interpretations and explanations based on different systems of knowledge about human nature. My intent is not to discourage knowledges that come from other traditions, however. There is no need to abandon one's store of learnings; however therapists should be aware what and how various knowledges influence them (Freedman & Combs, 1996), and they should be able to reveal this influence to the people who come to consult them. This makes it possible to evaluate whether the knowledges would be useful to them. I explain to the students that according to my experience if they are choosing narrative approach they will find out with time that unique knowledge formed by clients themselves in a process of narrative co-authoring conversations are the most valuable ones. If that happens the necessity to inform clients about theories that influence them (consultants) will come to naught as a result of critical decreasing of that influence. But at the beginning as it can be seen even during our classes such a necessity is significant consequently we need to learn to tell people of our knowleges not loosing but keeping and even reinforcing with the help of these messages our collaborative and non-expert position.  For this purpose, we perform different exercises, one of which is presented below.

The Exercise

This exercise is created in order to help people investigate the specifics of the therapist's position in narrative approach. A trainer and two volunteers roleplay a family based on the novel "Lillebror and Karlsson?" by D. Gorshkov4. The Swantensons live in Stockholm, Sweden. Lillebror is twenty two years old and is still convinced of Karlsson’s existence. Psychiatrists have failed to help, though the Swantensons have spent all their savings on them.. The only thing they have managed to find out from all the professional help was the idea that the little boy simply lacked their attention and that they are guilty because they did not even buy him a dog as he had asked. Now both parents are on antidepressants, sharing pills with Lillebror. The mother has not worked since Lillebror finished school five years ago and the father has been fired for absence. He had been mising a lot of work because of calls from his wife who alerted him each time Lillebror escaped from home. When escaping, Lillebror always runs to the roof of the building. The parents consider these suicide attempts because of an incident many years ago, when Lillebror has "fallen" from the roof. According to Lillebror, he was occasionally dropped by Karlsson while they were flying together. He was lucky to have landed in a garbage container which is now situated just in front of the Swantenson's window on the ground floor where they had to move due to financial problems. The parents had known their child had an imaginary friend long before the accident, but until then had not worried about it. Lillebror's relationship with Karlsson worsened after the accident. Constant shouting and slander can be heard from Lillebror's room. His toys fly against walls, he breaks furniture and screams that Karlsson betrayed him. From the parents' point of view, their elder children are all right. Their daughter is married to an NHL hockey player and lives in the U.S.A., and the older son became a successful broker. Neither is in much contact with home. 

The trainer discusses the story with volunteers outside of the room, so that this version of an otherwise familiar story is a surprise for students. In the first part of the exercise, students sit in a circle and each of them takes a turn being therapist for the family for five minutes. Students are welcomed to try out techniques they have learned recently but their main task is different. They are asked to focus their attention on the thoughts about this family evoked by their personal and professional knowledge, and to notice and write these down. The more they write the better. This is to be done by all students--both while sitting in the circle and while acting as therapist. They come up with a wide variety of reflections: they are psychotics; they are kidding me; they are crazy; a psychiatrist should be treating them; the child is triangulated with his parents; Lillebror is schizophrenic; the problem is a dysfunctional marriage; the parents have a low differentiation level; it is all a manifestation of incestuous anxiety; I do not understand anything; I am afraid of this family; they are trying to fool us; it is not a problem but a lifestyle, etc. 

In the second part of the exercise, students read their notes aloud and explore with a trainer the most effective way to deal with these automatic expert judgments, "aha-reactions", opinions and personal experience. They discuss how to trace and notice the influence of some ideas and knowledge on their perception of the family’s story, how to convey to the family how the ideas are influencing them, how to invite the family to actively choose whether they will draw on the therapist’s ideas as a resource.

Because the original children' s book about Karlsson is so popular in Russia, the students . have immediate assumptions about the characters once they hear their names, although the story presented to them is in fact a different one. During the exercise, participants can retrace, evaluate and discuss how the effect of this recognition influences them. For instance, almost everyone forgets that the family comes from different culture or that Lillebror, at least technically, is not a child anymore. This form of exercise can be duplicated using any popular story, film, or fairy tale. 

The main task of the exercise is to help students to investigate and improve their reflexive abilities. The are encouraged to 1) notice during the therapeutic conversation which professional and personal knowledges may compel them to inadvertently direct the conversation to results 2) being transparent with clients about certain knowledges that may be influencing the direction of therapeutic conversations.

For example, a student is influenced by systemic theories and keeps asking parents about their marital relationships, assuming that Lilibror's problems are a symptom of family dysfunction. If the student notices the persistence of this idea and its influence on her/his ability to attend to the family, s/he might say "I notice I am asking a lot of questions about your marital relationships due to the influence of a particular family therapy theory. There are many such theories that explain people and their relationships very differently and I don't think that any of them is an indisputable truth and fits everyone. Would it be all right if I gave you a brief summary of this theory so that you could evaluate if it relates to your story and is useful? If it’s not useful, we could choose a more fruitful direction for our conversation. I may ask you to stop me if you notice I'm falling into a theory that you have decided is not useful.".