Maggie’s contribution to Michael’s memorial

It falls to me to speak of Michael and his work and more recent times and to attempt to evoke in this memorial some of the profound contribution he made to the field of therapy and community work. Michael developed his ways of working through decades of therapeutic consultation and training at the Dulwich Centre here in Adelaide. I speak today as one of the Associates of the new centre that Michael launched just three months ago, the Adelaide Narrative Therapy Centre, but I do this also in the spirit of sharing not just my own thoughts but the thoughts and sentiments of many, many people from all parts of the world who have been touched and inspired by Michael. There are many voices linked in my words today and the links and connections that have been developed around Michael’s work, amongst a very broad community of people, have been a particularly sustaining gift in this time as we come to reconcile and re-incorporate this much loved one that we have lost.

I want to share these thoughts about Michael and his work without beatifying him or making him into some sort of guru which we all know that he would hate and would turn away from. Michael was a humble man as well as a genius. And it is a hard call to not elevate him just this once but if I stick to principles and talk about what has resonated from his work and what difference this has made in people’s lives and how we might use that in our own work and lives, then I am probably on safe ground. But this is a time of acknowledgement and honouring of you Michael and it is in that spirit that I speak.

I start with that aspect of Michael’s work that is about ‘making a difference’ to the people who consulted Michael about their lives. What Michael has given us and shared with us in the most generous of ways is a practice that can make a difference in the lives of people who are up against the most marginalising of problems. Ensconced in the simple and elegant metaphor of how we make sense of our lives, through stories, we have a practice that can offer people a different experience of themselves than the experiences of the problems that they are facing.

We all have stories that shape and define, and construct how we see ourselves and our lives. But we don’t just have one story of who we are, there are many stories and some are useful and some are not useful at all and are quite problematic in that they constrain and diminish our sense of worth. Michael has given us a way of thinking about the problem stories that take hold of people. He showed us how problems can be separated from people and in doing this, in making some cracks in the wall of the problem, how a landscape of alternative possibilities can open up - that territory of oneself that is about what we give most value to in our life, that territory that is about what is precious in how we want to be in the world. These preferred stories of self are a place where we can inhabit our dreams and longings for a better future, where we can stand proud in what we stand for and where we can use our own concepts about life as lights by which to steer our own lives. An appreciation of this other landscape of identity, of intentionality, of what matters most dearly to us is a most resonant gift to therapeutic conversation.

A few images come to mind of Michael engaged in his practice.

I think of a child who is brought by her foster parents to see Michael because she has started to talk about the traumatic experience of her early life and of the ‘mean things’ that were done to her back then. The foster parents are concerned about how to respond and at a loss. Michael consults this six year old through the agency of Toby the stuffed toy and hears from her, exactly what she needs from her foster parents when she feels sad or gets scared at night. Her expertise on her own life is acknowledged.

Or imagine a boy who many people have given up on because of the influence of ADHD in his life. He introduces himself to Michael with “Hi. I’m ADHD”. To which Michael responds with “Hi, I’m Michael. What colour is your ADHD? ... and have you ever been able to wake yourself up at night to get a good look at your ADHD? Maybe you could catch it before it sees you looking at it?” And immediately there is another version of this young boy as he joins Michael in this investigation of the troublesome tactics of the ADHD that has taken up residence in his life.

I hold in my mind the multitude of children from many parts of the world for whom this practice of separating them from the problems that have taken over, has given a new light in their eyes and certain look on their faces when they experience themselves to be more than the problem story . (Is that a look of relief? A sense that I am ok? It is certainly a look that is engaged with life).

Seeing the difference that your approach has made to these children’s lives Michael, that you looked for and always found these other stories, and the way in which you consulted and engaged these young people in what they knew would work for them, these practices will continue to inspire and to be used and to make a difference in children’s lives. I think many of us know that tender corner in your heart that minded these children. We have a sense of how it could take you to such a sad place to know that children were being hurt or abused and their lives diminished and that this should never happen to any child. You were always so delighted to be in the presence of children and we delighted in these conversations, and learnt a lot.

Your work began with children but the ideas and practices that you developed are useful to us all and in any context.

Another image comes to mind of a woman so mistreated in her early life that the sense of unworthiness that invades her soul will not allow her to take in the love and care of others and will scarcely let her eat or perform any act of self care. How through careful and deliberately small steps she is invited into new and different territories of herself, a place where she could finally experience some sense of worth, where having a cappuccino in public becomes an achievement worthy of celebration. The significance that is given to the smallest of steps taken and the appreciation of the immensity of the different direction in which people are moving when they take these steps is an ever present reminder of the profound respect that you held for people, Michael and we take the inspiration from this into our own practice.

And then there are the faces of countless young women who, seduced by the powerful and ever present ideas of perfectionism in regard to body shape and weight, have had the opportunity to make visible the operations of ‘comparison’ and ‘measuring up’ and of ‘policing one’s body’. Young women and men, who have had a chance to escape the influence of the normalising gaze that is so compelling in these times. So many people who were able to find places of protest and resistance to the norms of how one should be, the dictates of how one should act and think – sites of resistance and protest at every site of power. Your attention to the social and political contexts of life, of gender, culture, sexuality, class, ability.

I remember conversations with men where they have been able to reach a place of remorse for the violence that they have used against their partners and children. A remorse reached because there has been co-authored a place for them to stand where there is an account of different intentions for life and of practices that are different to what fits with the violence - practices and intentions that can speak to hopes for closeness, or protection , or of not imposing fear and control.

Communities who have been subjected to devastating trauma who have been brought together and have the chance to tell their stories and to have these stories audienced and acknowledged and to have brought forward the group’s own know-how and skills in responding to whatever experience they face. You have heard from Tim what this has meant for Aboriginal communities and the work last year with the Six Nations/Caledonian communities was a continuation and development of the use of narrative practice in working with communities having experienced trauma.

The way in which the groups involved in Caledonia responded to hearing each other’s stories of what mattered to them and what was most dear and precious in their hearts, the longings that they each shared for peace and for their children to have a different life was an exhilarating example of the power of linking people’s lives around shared themes, and of what can transpire if we get to hear those stories of what people most give value to in their lives. Always back to that. It is a therapy of value that you have given us and it is never a telling people what they should do or what is right for them, it is always a listening and enquiring for people’s own know-how and skills of life that are in these preferred territories and stories of what matters.

These are just some of the images I hold of your work, Michael. I will take with me the inspiration of an unswerving belief that no matter what is being presented to us from people’s lives, there is always another story. And I will always have with me an appreciation of the experience that people can have when they step into these other stories of themselves and inhabit them. The stories where there is a sense of value, of their having ideas and concepts about what is of importance in their own life, stories of how they want to live and how this then can give a sense of agency, of being in the driver’s seat of one’s life.

In many ways Michael’s work is the work of a philosopher, responding to the big questions of life, who are we and what are we about? He took so many reflections on meaning from different philosophers and has so elegantly woven them into a therapeutic practice that can be used and be useful to people. I say elegant because it all fits so beautifully and the simple metaphor of story seems always able to sustain these sometimes weighty ideas.

In the last year or so everything seemed to come back to the idea that Michael referred to as the ‘absent but implicit’, that in every expression that is given, there are multiple layers of meaning and that we can get to the preferred stories of what people give value to through how people give expression to the problem. A woman describing herself in a deficit focussed way as having ‘trust issues’ is invited through Michael’s curiosity to talk about the importance and history of trust in her life and is shortly claiming the significance of her not giving this precious trust away to people who will abuse it. In every expression there are implied stories of people holding to what they give value to.

Complaint, frustration, distress can all be seen as acts of resistance or protest at how the problem is subordinating something precious. Now there are entry points to these other stories everywhere and the field of opportunity to dwell in these alternative landscapes is enormous. The book about this way of hearing how people give meaning to their experience did not get to be written but the practice will go on being explored.

Michael was in a new and very creative phase of his life when he died. Around the extended narrative community we have snippets and clues and hints at the directions that he was excited and energised by. There has been a bit if a run on “Deleuze for Beginners” books and Bordieu tapes and there is enough o keep us busy for some time to come. ‘Fields and folds’ and ‘becoming’ and ‘difference’ are just some of the clues for those who are keen and I just know that the exploration of it all will contribute to good practice.

Michael had hopes and plans for the new centre and how this might offer wider possibilities for connections and partnerships with others in their local contexts who are making the teaching and extension of narrative practice their own. He has left us with a heap of ideas and practices to go on with –a really solid platform of what is becoming more known and familiar from which we can step solidly into yet unchartered territory and there is a great sense of companionship on this journey of further exploration.

So I hold the image of you flying high into the clear blue sky that you loved so much Michael, speeding down those mountains on your bike, swimming like a fish in every ocean on earth. We will hold and feel the clarity of your thoughts around us as we step off in the directions of our own making - directions that are shaped by what you have drawn our attention to.

Thank you for the life enhancing practices that will go on way past your death.

Thank you to Michael’s family and his dearest loved ones for sharing him with us all.

And thank you Michael’s mum for raising up your beautiful boy, your lovely Michael.