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 families.
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 it.
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.