Family Reconstruction

Angela Walsh of the Clanwilliam Institute talked informally
 to Mary Montant about an aspect of her work.

What is Family Reconstruction? It is a very powerful process whereby one 
person, normally in a group where everyone is interested in exploring their 
own families, chooses to do a reconstruction. We would not actually use it
 with a family. It is more useful to choose people to play the roles of the family 
members without the pressure of the actual relationships being present. That
 could be too traumatic.

For the person who does the reconstruction, there is a lot of preparation 
and I usually work with them over perhaps two sessions. This involves going
 back in your family to your grandparents on both sides, maybe even further. The reconstruction usually starts at the point where the grandparents meet. It 
often takes several weeks for people to prepare; they talk to different members
 of their families and gather information. If your parents are still alive, it’s
 useful to talk to them about the events which have impacted on them and to 
find out what the grandparents were like. Then you prepare a GENOGRAM,
which is like a family tree, back to the grandparents or even further if possible.
 You also prepare a Chronological Chart of the events of significance in the
 lives of grandparents and parents on both sides of the family and all the events 
of your own life. You put these on large sheets of paper which actually go on
 the wall during the reconstruction.

Using a Genogram

Although there are many ways of using a Genogram, the main interest for
 the purpose of a reconstruction is in the relationships, their closeness or
 distance; and in the patterns which are repeated through generations. You 
describe all the people with adjectives according to your perception of them.
 Even if you never knew them, somewhere in your mind you will have
 perceptions, maybe from things you heard as a child. And if you draw a blank,
 we suggest you make it up. It’s amazing how easily you can do this. It’s based
 on the notion that we live our lives in relation to these perceptions. It doesn’t 
matter whether they are true or not. Often they are true; it’s as if we know a 
lot of things we don’t know we know.

Typically people are more identified with one side of the family than the
 other and view one side more positively, one more negatively. Reconstruction
 helps them to identify this and to rebalance their perceptions. They begin to
 see the negatives of the positive and the positives of the negative side.

A Journey of Discovery

To prepare all this material is in itself therapeutic. By the time they come to do the reconstruction, they feel they’ve been on an intensive journey and made
 discoveries. Many will record that the people they’ve talked to – maybe elderly
 parents – have really opened up and given their stories. Their own perceptions
 start to change during this exploration. The person who is doing the
 reconstruction is called the Explorer. You see, it’s not so much what happened 
to us in our lives that affects us, but rather the meaning that we put on it. The
 reconstruction is a process whereby people look at their families through the 
generations and watch different meanings that have been put on events, 
behaviours, relationships, so that the person who is doing the reconstruction 
can begin to find new meanings and new ways of looking at their family. At the 
end, their perception of their family is totally different from when they started.
 That is a primary reason for doing a reconstruction, to clarify the negative 
meanings by which you’ve been living so that you can let go of them. You no
 longer have to say, ‘It’s because this happened to me in my childhood”, or “If
 only my family had been different, I would be different.” It is very much a 
process of individuation – a journey to yourself.

As part of that journey, you perceive how patterns of behaviour are handed
 down through generations, particularly in areas of relationships – closeness,
 intimacy, distance – and areas of feeling – who can express their feelings, who
 can’t. We can look at it from a systemic point of view: how did this family 
operate as a system? What part did each person have in creating the pattern 
that emerged? We also see where people are coming from in their own

Role Synchronisation

A lot of power in the reconstruction comes from people the Explorer
 chooses to play all the roles including him/herself. I think this is where you
 can see people’s intuition at work – the Explorer picks people who somehow 
have the same issues as that role in that particular family. At the end of a
 reconstruction, people will report, “I was the eldest in my family and I had to
 play the eldest”, and also more significant things like the death of a baby or a
 handicapped child. There is a sort of synchronisation that goes on with people
 in the group. The reconstruction can highlight not only the differences but 
also the similarities of our personal issues. Within minutes, people get into the
 roles. They just take the adjectives they’ve been given and then add whatever 
they want themselves and because of the similarity with the role in their own 
family, it just flows for them. At the same time, you will hear the Explorer
 saying, “That’s exactly what it was like.” Thus although you are doing one person’s reconstruction, at another level you are doing everybody’s. That is perhaps the most powerful and significant aspect of the reconstruction.

Births and Deaths

I give a lot of time to births and deaths. We usually start with the side of the 
family the Explorer is least connected with and take the events which the
 Explorer wants to explore. Other events reveal themselves during the
 reconstruction, so you have to he ready, you can never decide exactly what
 you’re going to do. As Irish families are often large, an important experience is 
birth. Suppose there were eight in the family and we’ve done four of the 
births, the other four can feel excluded, that you haven’t given them attention.
 You can be sure that this is exactly what happened in the family. There seem to 
be no accidents in all of this. There is also the aspect of Unfinished Business.
 The reconstruction does not set out to deal with this but it happens,
 particularly around untimely deaths. Babies who died at birth seem to be the
 ones who have never been grieved. In fact, people even forget to include them 
in their Genogram sometimes. The impact of this loss can be quite stunning
 even on children who are born afterwards. There is also Unfinished Business 
around death scenes – people who have lost parents early or even recently. 
When the group role plays a death scene, obviously it brings everybody into
 grieving for their own losses. These scenes can happen anywhere in a
 reconstruction, but it’s not all about death scenes, there’s often a lot of
 humour. Still I do think people are often left with a sense of the grieving they
 have to do, or the reconstruction may actually have facilitated them in doing

The courtship and scenes from early married life are often very revealing to 
the Explorer; they see how relationships change over time as the family system 
gets bigger as children are added, and how the patterns develop to
 accommodate the next piece of the life cycle. Usually you can see where both 
your parents came from in the patterns of their families. It really helps the 
Explorer to let go of dysfunctional patterns and create new ones – you realise
 where people in your family got stuck and that it does not mean that you have 
to get stuck there too.

So I suppose that family reconstruction really focuses, as Virginia Satir
 did, on Transformation. That is what makes it different from many other
 kinds of therapy – it does include the spiritual. She calls it the Life Force. It
 frees people up to do things like forgive if they need to do that, to say
 goodbye, to let go, to transcend the pain by feeling it. And it also
 acknowledges the idea that we do not own our children. The Life Force was 
there and we activated it and so therefore we do not possess them. It is very
 much focused on individuation and the process of giving the members of
your family their personhood, of stopping seeing people as their roles.