may have killed the cat; more likely
the cat was just unlucky, or else curious
to see what death was like, having no cause
to go on licking paws, or fathering
litter on litter of kittens, predictably.
Nevertheless, to be curious
is dangerous enough. To distrust
what is always said, what seems
to ask odd questions, interfere in dreams,
leave home, smell rats, have hunches
do not endear cats to those doggy circles
where well-smelt baskets, suitable wives, good lunches
are the order of things, and where prevails
much wagging of incurious heads and tails.
Face it. Curiosity
will not cause us to die–
only lack of it will.
Never to want to see
the other side of the hill
or that improbable country
where living is an idyll
(although a probable hell)
would kill us all.
Only the curious have, if they live, a tale
worth telling at all.
Alastair Reid, in his satirical poem, Curiosity, uses the metaphor of age-old enemies cats and dogs to emphasise that to live life to its fullest requires taking risks. Without that, old established patterns of existence cannot die or be superseded by new ways of life which may be worthwhile, even if potentially dangerous or disappointing. Contemporary systemic family therapy, taking a lead from Cecchin and Boscolo’s work in the 1980’s, has encompassed ‘curiosity’ as a fundamental therapeutic stance. Curiosity has become core to our discipline.
Working in Milan, Cecchin and Boscolo were interested in the multiple ways to think about a family’s situation. They cautioned therapists against becoming too established and comfortable with dominant frames of reference, like the dog in Reid’s poem. They believed that for ‘curiosity’ to live, routine and repetition must necessarily die. However, it did not follow that the components of previously held notions should be forgotten: without these there would be no platform to begin a new therapeutic adventure. Rather than dismissal or scepticism, Cecchin and Boscolo advocated an irreverent stance as being the best friend of ‘curiosity’. The exploration below of a case illustrates ‘curiosity’ and far how it can be stretched.
Mandy and Dave had separated a year before they presented at their GP, seeking a service for David, their only son, because he had been out of school for two months. The GP referred them to CAMHS, requesting preventative intervention before school avoidance became an intractable problem. David was becoming increasingly anxious, staying at home more and fearing separation from his mother when going to school. He was twelve years old, and had been sleeping in his mother’s bedroom for nine months, although this was not presented as a problem to their GP.
Dominant narratives held within systemic family therapy would encourage us to take note of
- life events, including the recent parental separation
- life cycle factors e.g. living in Scotland, David was approaching the change from primary to secondary education
- early history and predisposing factors to problems, such as each family member’s attachment history and other family-of-origin factors
- current contextual indicators and contributing constitutional vulnerabilities
- belief systems and behavioural patterns within the family.
Combined, these would give a broad and detailed picture of the family functioning and illuminate the maintaining patterns for the problem being presented.
How much uncertainty might be reduced and therapeutic safety increased by thoroughness and attention to detail is for debate. How far we might stretch our range of curiosity with a family if our dominant narrative is too all-encompassing or fits rigidly within a prescribed structure is also questionable.
Alastair Reid’s Curiosity continues:
Dogs say cats love too much, are irresponsible,
are changeable, marry too many wives,
desert their children, chill all dinner tables
with tales of their nine lives.
Well, they are lucky. Let them be
nine-lived and contradictory,
curious enough to change, prepared to pay
the cat price, which is to die
and die again and again,
each time with no less pain.
A cat minority of one
is all that can be counted on
to tell the truth. And what cats have to tell
on each return from hell
is this: that dying is what the living do,
that dying is what the loving do,
and that dead dogs are those who do not know
that dying is what, to live, each has to do.
It is a challenge to hold on to our theoretical dominant narratives in memory and at the same time retain curiosity to allow a further perspective, another possible view or a different horizon. Straying from a therapeutic script to capture the dynamic filling the room enhances curiosity but perhaps needs limits to avoid losing our theoretical base. The unexpressed, unprocessed and non-verbal emotional content that shapes our experience as we sit alongside families is vital and communicates so much. We might ask, though, how we explore something new if the ‘something new’ has no form yet.
David was a tall boy, stocky and had given attention to his appearance, wearing the latest trends in clothes and hairstyle. It meant something to him to fit in with the crowd. His mother, a hairdresser and someone who also gave attention to the latest fashion, took pride in her son’s appearance and David enjoyed her approval.
However, David struggled with his mother’s disappointment with him – hinted at but there all the same – that in so many of his attributes David was “just like his dad”.
Unresolved conflict was clear in the parental subsystem with David triangulated. David is expressing the anxiety so he is presented as ‘the problem’. Other dominant systemic narratives, such as lifecycle transitions remain important, relevant and ignite curiosity. The theoretical babies have not been thrown out with the bath water.
Another dimension, the emotional content of the consultation, gave a further opening. Verbal discussion had brought the content of the therapeutic encounter to a formulaic understanding, but had left gaps. This ‘other’ dimension was unspoken at first and its sub-cortical location meant it was beyond an individual’s conscious understanding. Held in the limbic system, and perhaps in that of more than one family member, ready to react to the next trigger. It is the primal fear of abandonment and of overwhelming, catastrophic angst that one is not safe in the world, where growing up and letting go, however incrementally, is not yet an option.
No words had been possible to articulate this primitive anxiety. A similar situation might prevail where an anorexic teenager who has a past history of sexual abuse is only able to speak of the anorexic fears at the forefront of their conscious mind, but their body remembers what their mind has ‘forgotten’.
Approaching David’s presenting problems using pre-ordained formulae or structures was impeding an understanding of what lay at the heart of his problems. Only when curiosity about the emotional tone of the conversation in the consulting room developed did another level of exploration begin.
Responding to what was felt in the room, but holding hard onto a systemically established ‘theoretical baby’, a genogram was used as a therapeutic resource to explore this further.
Disappointment in the traits and talents David shared with his father revealed Mandy’s fear that David would leave her someday, a thought that was unbearable to her and brought her much distress. Using the genogram to explore stories around her early history, Mandy revealed that her birth father left her mother when she was six months old. She had never met him and so dismissed his role in her life as not relevant. Her step-father had been supportive and kind, and was still important to her. However, as an eight-year-old child she had overheard a conversation between her birth mother and a friend about her birth father. She had been unable to approach her mother directly, recognising that her mother’s pain was still very raw and believing that her mother would not be able to cope with any further distress.
Mandy’s emotional memory, residing in her limbic system, constituted a significant stressor. This left her feeling unlovable, abandoned and afraid of the pain this brought, even though her otherwise secure childhood allowed her to develop talents, make friends, and go on to have a career and a family. Triggered by her failing marriage, her early fears became activated, and the already close relationship with her son became one of intense preoccupation. Her husband, believing that Mandy was being overprotective and overdramatic, had been dismissive of Mandy’s struggle and kept a greater distance, which further reinforced her fears.
David had experienced the loss of his father from the family home as intensely painful. Despite regular contact, he struggled with the feelings of loss. Unconsciously replicating inter-generational family patterns, David believed he could not approach his mother about this because he thought she would not cope. So David withdrew, his unresolved feelings (also located in his limbic system) triggered by any memories of his father in the family home.
These deeply-held and unresolved feelings and memories about loss, fear, and abandonment were, like many ‘internal working models’ unprocessed. In this case they condensed together into a problem of separation anxiety that was beyond words. Accordingly these would not be revealed by any attentive exploration of conscious narrative statements about themselves as a family, however persistent.
A systematic method to explore internal working models has been developed in the Adult Attachment Interview, but the issue here is not so much how to undertake an enquiry as to be alive to the need for one in the first place. We explore this further elsewhere.
Meeting with Dave, Mandy and their son, it was necessary for the therapist to risk being curious about the intense unspoken emotion that had entered the room, which although masked was still apparent and needed to be explored together safely. That intervention opened up a plane of new possibility for connecting language with experiences of distress. This proved an important first step to de-sensitise their unprocessed experiences, and to help all present to make sense of the problem that brought them to the clinic.
Going off-piste: there were an abundance of theoretical perspectives, types of questions and models of intervention which could have offered scope for curiosity. Yet like the cat in Alastair Reid’s poem, an inkling of something dangerous and unsummoned had sneaked into the room, not through routine and comfort but revealed through the powerfully indicative emotional content of unprocessed experience. Irreverent perhaps and potentially off-piste for contemporary systemic family therapy but enriched by our other dominant narrative of valuing multiple perspectives.