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Other Voices: Netting and Expressing

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The Art of “Withness”: A Bright Idea

Living utterance becomes an active participant in social dialogue.

If we imagine such a word in the form of light, then the living and
unrepeatable play of colors and light on the facets of the image that
it constructs can be explained as the spectral dispersion of the ray
word, in an atmosphere filled with the alien words, value judgments,
and accents through which the ray passes on its way to the object; the
social atmosphere of the word, that atmosphere that surrounds the
PE/TS: Retain lower
object, makes the facets of the image sparkle. (tin, 1981, p. 277)
The image that propelled this title was given to me by Tom Andersen who
kept telling me that I must come to the north of Norway in the “Darktime.”
So he invited me for the first day of spring, just as the sun was going to
appear. The occasion was a meeting of Andersen’s “Northern Network,”
composed of teams handling acute breakdowns from hospitals in coun-
tries all across Europe’s northern rim. Andersen took me to his top floor
office at the University of Tromsø the morning of the conference, and out
the window, I saw the first rays. They appeared in the cleft of two snow-
covered mountains and then faded away, followed by colors of pink, mauve,
and gold which lit up the edges of landscape and sky.
From time to time as I have passed through the history of this field,
I have been given the chance to see such first rays. And I have in some way
known or guessed which newcomer approaches would establish themselves
and persist. One is taking shape now, like a ship hull-up on the horizon


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64 • Lynn Hoff man

and coming closer. It has already been referred to as the “conversational

therapies,” a term used by Roger Lowe (2005) in a recent article. Lowe dis-
tinguishes between the approaches that use “structured questions” like
narrative and solution-focused work, and what he calls, following John
Shotter (Shotter and Katz, 1998), a “striking moments” approach, which
does not use preplanned techniques. I am interested in establishing a train
of forebears for this last effort, which is now branching off into the future
in interesting ways but includes some distinguished ancestors.
The work of these forebears was foreshadowed by Gregory Bateson (1972)
who, at the end of his life, emphasized the preverbal communication styles of
what he called the “Creatura,” or the world of the living. Putting these ideas
to work, Harlene Anderson and Harry Goolishian (1986) took a sharp turn
away from purposed interventions in their “not knowing” stance. Then Tom
Andersen (1990) introduced the “reflecting team,” which inspired those of
us like Peggy Penn and myself who were trying to work in a less instrumen-
tal way.
More recently, we have been introduced to a cornucopia of philosophi-
cal treasures based on the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Mikhail
tin. We have a new “in-house philosopher” in social thinker John Shotter
(1993), who has described how these writers can help us understand what
tin (1990) calls “dialogicality.” We are beginning to have new terms for
what we do, like Tom Andersen’s idea of “withness practices.” Finally, we
have some unusual examples of these ideas embedded in the work of inno-
vators such as Jaakko Seikkula and his colleagues in Finland, who have
been developing an approach called “Open Dialogue,” and Mary Olson,
who is teaching dialogic network therapy at the Smith School of Social
Work. Finally, let me mention Chris Kinman in Vancouver, who has been
experimenting with a “language of gifts” that is producing entire system
change. But let me go back in time, and start with the early genius who
started it all: Gregory Bateson.

Bateson and Syllogisms in Grass

There were several philosophical pioneers in the last century who made
it their life’s work to study how the forms of Western discourse entangle
us. The two most important ones, in my view, were Ludwig Wittgenstein
and Gregory Bateson. In Wittgenstein’s (1953) famous book of arguments
with himself, Philosophical Investigations, he explores ways to get out of
the invisible linguistic trap he called the “fly bottle.” His work has gener-
ated an industry of explainers. Bateson’s writings have not yet called forth
such an industry, but he took on a similar charge in describing a style of
prelinguistic communication that animals use and that is common to reli-
gion, humor, some forms of madness, playfulness, and art.

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The Art of “Withness” • 65

This type of communication, Bateson held, applied specifically to what

Jung called the “Creatura,” the world of the living, as opposed to the
“Pleroma,” meaning Newton’s world of force and mass. The Pleroma has
no mental process, no names, no classes. The Creatura, on the other hand,
is founded on pattern and communicates through “as if” language, using
similitude and metaphor in a variety of embedded and embodied ways.
Bateson’s daughter Catherine (Bateson and Bateson, 1987) tells us that,
at the end of his life, her father was fascinated with what he was calling
“syllogisms of metaphor.” This idea, she explained, was tied in with the
central concern of his research, which was “the beginning of a Creatural
grammar.” (Bateson and Bateson, 1987, p. 192)
So what might that mean? In contrasting the truths of logic with the
truths of metaphor, Bateson explains that classical logic describes causal
word structures called syllogisms that are built on classification and which
follow the form “If this is true, then that is true.” If Socrates is a man, and if
all men die, then Socrates will die. But there is another word structure that
Bateson describes that is built on likeness, the example for which is “Grass
dies, men die, [therefore] men are grass.” Logicians disapprove of this kind
of syllogism because it does not make sense (they call it “affirming the
consequent”), but Bateson believed that this formula indicated the way the
natural world communicated. He fires off this ringing salvo:

The whole of animal behavior, the whole of repetitive anatomy, and

the whole of biological evolution — each of these vast realms is within
itself linked together by syllogisms in grass — whether the logicians
like it or not … . And it became evident that metaphor was not just
pretty poetry, it was not either good or bad logic, but was in fact the
logic on which the biological world had been built, the main char-
acteristic and organizing glue of this world of mental process that I
have been trying to sketch for you … .” (Bateson and Bateson, 1987,
pp. 26–30)
This statement thrilled me. It felt accurate, and it justified the enormous
importance my community placed on sensory pathways and emotional
gesturing in the work we did. It also justified the efforts of philosophers like
Wittgenstein, mentioned above, in not only searching out an alternative
logic but finding that it could be strikingly different from the classical logic
that Western thinkers had come to see as the norm. The preverbal, analogi-
cal vision of Bateson seemed especially pertinent to the project of psycho-
therapy, because it indicated that advice and expertise were not enough; you
had to reach for connection at levels that lay beyond the scope of words.
I felt that Bateson was saying that there is a hidden language known
to Nature and animals and mad people and artists. Current researchers in

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66 • Lynn Hoff man

neurology (Damasio, 1994) have pointed to a specific area of the brain — the
amygdale, also called the “emotional brain”—saying that this is the brain’s
“smoke alarm,” because this is where the intense memories are stored that
warn us away from bad things and toward useful ones. It makes sense to
believe that messages directed toward this area have to use this ancient
grammar of nature or they will not be recognized. Of course, when Bateson
talked about syllogisms in metaphor, he didn’t mean that we should liter-
ally use figures of speech, but rather that sensory and feeling-level chan-
nels must be used to carry messages of life importance, as the channels of
reason and logic are untrustworthy.
I also want to say that such messages can break through private walls.
Why is this emphasis on the wider web so important for a therapist?
Because it turns us away from looking at individuals and their inner life,
which is what modernist psychology trains us to look at, and points instead
to the threads that link everybody to the social web. If you stay with mod-
ernist psychology, you will forever be trying to see your job as a matter of
building logging roads, putting up bridges, and various other engineering
projects. If you move to a postmodern psychology, you have to jump, like
Alice, into the pool of tears with the other creatures. This situation is a
great equalizer and carries some dangers, but it is the only source of infor-
mation with the power to transform.

My Three Pillars of Wisdom

But let me move to what I call my Three Pillars of Wisdom, the three
major anchors of the kind of work my community and I do. These are the
practices that have signaled the shift from a modernist view that sees emo-
tional problems as within-person phenomena like medical complaints,
and the postmodern view that they are relational and dialogic in nature.
The first pillar is the idea of “not knowing” brought into the field by Harry
Goolishian and Harlene Anderson. I once asked Harlene if they took it
from the writings of the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1964), who
speaks of “non-knowing” and defines it “not as a form of ignorance but
a difficult transcendence of knowledge.” However, I was wrong. Harlene
told me that they began to use the phrase because their students would
ask them their thoughts or hypotheses about clients: Why did the client do
this or that? Didn’t they think the client should do x, y, or z? They would
always say they “didn’t know” and would suggest that the best person to
talk with about their curiosities was the client. Finally, they made a princi-
ple out of “not knowing,” to the scorn and derision of many in the field. But
this simple concept made a difference in basic stance that was extremely

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The Art of “Withness” • 67

A related warning against “knowing” comes to us from French philoso-

pher Jean Francois Lyotard. In a short book called Driftworks (1984) he asks:
Where do you criticize from? Don’t you see that criticizing is still
knowing, knowing better? That the critical relation still falls within
the sphere of knowledge, of “realization” and thus of the assumption
of power? Critique must be drifted out of. Better still: Drifting is in
itself the end of all critique. (p. 13)
My second pillar is the practice called initially the “reflecting team,”
contributed by Tom Andersen (1987) and his colleagues in Tromsø. This
format challenged the methods favored by early family therapists, under-
mining the one-way screen and other devices that walled the family off
from the professionals dealing with them. Asking a family to comment on
the reflections of the professionals was even more unheard of. Before he
died, Harry Goolishian suggested to Andersen that he broaden the term
to “reflecting process,” feeling that to link this format to a specific method
was limiting.
The third pillar is “witnessing,” a concept that partially came out of the
reflecting team and which I call, following Goolishian, “witnessing pro-
cess.” There is some internal history of the field to report here. Soon after
Tom Andersen went public with his reflecting format, narrative therapist
Michael White adopted it, too. In line with his preference for anthropolog-
ical rather than psychological language, White (1995) used anthropologist
Barbara Meyer’s term “definitional ceremony” to describe it. He saw that
having an audience for any therapeutic interview strongly reinforced the
experience of a more inspiring identity. His experiments with this form led
him to create what he called an “outsider witness registry,” where persons
who had already worked with him could be invited back to help others in
similar situations.
As soon as I began to use reflecting teams, I, too, was struck by the lay-
ering power of the many voices and groupings it put into play. It was a pris-
matic endeavor, where one moment’s witnesser became another moment’s
witnessee. But White’s version threatened to muddy the waters. As with
the reflecting team, we needed a term that did not belong to any one per-
son or school. “Witnessing process” was a suitably large tent under which
many of us could fit, regardless of our therapeutic allegiances.
And here I would like to thank philosopher/clinician Lois Shawver (2005)
for a new insight. She has spent years studying Wittgenstein’s ideas and apply-
ing them to her views of postmodern therapy. Recently, during a conversation
on her “Postmodern Therapies List,” she made a distinction between “theories”
and “language games” (which is Wittgenstein’s [1953] invention), saying that
the latter is more useful to those of us trying to describe therapy approaches

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because it chooses such a specific set of descriptors: words, phrases, or

practices. To invoke large abstract categories like postmodernism in defin-
ing a specific therapy approach puts the discourse on the wrong level and
confuses the matter. In regard to White’s use of reflecting and witnessing,
it feels better to me to say that his ideas come out of a different language
game than Andersen’s do, rather than saying that White is a deconstruc-
tionist and Andersen a social constructionist, for example.

The Contributions of John Shotter

A primary source of this new bright edge I am talking about comes from John
Shotter (1993), a postmodern social thinker whose writings on the nature of
dialogical communication have become increasingly relevant to the relational
therapies as I am describing them. He has been creating a little intellectual
whirlpool around the ideas of two philosophers in particular—Mikhail tin
and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and applying them to clinical practice.
For my part, I felt that Shotter was our in-house philosopher. He was
leading us away from the belief that we could change social reality by
purely linguistic means. In its place was a picture of communication as
a more bustling, jostling enterprise. Shotter (2005a) speaks of “embodied
knowing” vs. “language-based knowing” and describes it as “the sense that
addresses itself to feelings of ‘standing,’ of ‘insiderness or outsiderness’ in
any social group.” He says it’s not a skill or a theoretical knowing, but has
to do with the anticipations we bring to a conversation, and the influence
these impressions have on others and us.
This development seems to have led Shotter (2005b) to move away from
social constructionism, which was the theory we had given most space
to. He feels it is lacking in any description of the constraints inherent in
social exchange. In his view, communication is like a social weather. It
fills our sails, becalms, or sometimes wrecks us. Sensing what is called for
in a particular context, responding correctly to gestures like an extended
hand, feeling a black cloud settling over a discussion, are all examples of
a weather system that can impact us in concrete and material ways. The
truth is that the famous “linguistic turn” of postmodernism is more often
described as a language system, implying greater flexibility in what is or is
not possible than modernism allows. This is the reason many people have
accused it of being “relativistic,” if not morally delinquent.
Shotter points out that people with emotional problems do a lot of
gesture talk and often the problem itself is gesture talk. For this rea-
son, he is very keen on Wittgenstein’s appreciation of this more hidden
realm. He quotes Wittgenstein as saying “The origin and primitive form
of the language game is a reaction; only from this can more complicated

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The Art of “Withness” • 69

forms develop.” He explains that by primitive, he means that “this sort of

behavior is “prelinguistic”: that a language game is based on it, that it is
the prototype of a way of thinking and not the result of thought.” In this
respect, Wittgenstein’s and Bateson’s interests were very similar.
Shotter feels that the move toward embodied knowing also takes us
away from Descartes and the Western tradition. The Enlightenment valued
the objective eye of the observer. In contrast, dialogical reality is based on
the shared subjectivity of the participants. Instead of a “representational”
understanding, Shotter offers a “relational” one. Instead of seeking to be
a master and possessor of nature, as Descartes favored, Shotter wants us
to respect its “shaped and vectored” qualities. He further observes that in
matters that concern the world of the living, many important things occur
in “meetings.” All the more reason that we should scrutinize the kind of
talking that goes on in them. Not all meetings make the kind of difference
psychotherapists are looking for, and it behooves us to examine what is the
special nature of those that do.
One of Shotter’s biggest contributions from this point of view has been to
translate the loft y abstractions that tin and his colleagues have given us into
terms that are more ordinary. I like particularly his turning the concepts
of “dialogical” thinking vs. “monological” thinking into “withness-think-
ing” vs. “aboutness-thinking.” According to Shotter (2005b), “Withness
thinking’ is a dynamic form of reflective interaction that involves coming
into contact with another’s living being, with their utterances, with their
bodily expressions, with their words, their works.” In describing “about-
ness thinking,” he says that it turns the other person into an object, not
into a consciousness of its own.
The beauty of the notion of “dialogicality” or “withness” is that it
addresses the criss-cross of merging and overlapping voices, and their
silences too, in normal, ordinary exchange. Instead of the “expert” indi-
vidual being assigned the most influence in this activity, as usually hap-
pens in psychotherapy, a “withness” conversation allows voices to emerge
that have often been stifled or withheld. Attempts to manage meaning may
be the norm in our societies, and many psychotherapy models have been
built on such attempts, but in these circumstances “withness” does not
automatically occur. In fact, there are some who say it is more apt “not” to
occur. In thinking back on an interview, the best outcome is that people
would feel the conversation itself was the author of what was said.

The “Withness” Practices of Tom Andersen

These ideas fed into my own belief that our theory had to take the mysterious
world of the senses more into account. I was using the idea of “underground

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rivers” to depict the sensory channels that flow between people when they
seem to be connecting. I also looked back at my own journey, from an empha-
sis on sight in “The Art of Lenses,” to an emphasis on hearing in “Exchanging
Voices,” to the current move toward touch and feeling. Andersen, of course,
had always been persuaded of this emphasis. Influenced by the late Aade
Hansen and Gudrun Ovreberg, two well-known physiotherapists in Norway,
Andersen (1986) has always placed the body at the center of his work. As a
result, he is attentive to breathing; to posture; to tone of voice, as well as to his
own inner and outer voices, and what is going on in his own body. He says:
The listener (the therapist) who follows the talker (the client) not only
hearing the words but also seeing how the words are uttered, will
notice that every word is part of the moving of the body. Spoken
words and bodily activity come together in a unity and cannot be
separated … the listener who sees as much as he or she hears will
notice that the various spoken words “touch” the speaker differently
…. Some words touch the speaker in such a way that the listener can
see him or her moved. (1996, p. 121)
Andersen (Chapter 5 this volume) describes his work as a communal
enterprise rather than an individual-oriented one, and makes this very
interesting point about language:
Language is here defined as all expressions, which are regarded to be
of great significance in the above-mentioned communal perspective.
They are of many kinds, for instance, to talk, write, paint, dance,
sing, point, cry, laugh, scream, hit, etc., are all bodily activities. When
these expressions, which are bodily, take place in the presence of oth-
ers, language becomes a social activity. Our expressions are social Check the refer-
ence page no here
offerings for participating in the bonds of others. (pp.) (missing)

I like that idea, as it underscores the “networks talking to networks”

idea that we will be seeing in the work of Jaakko Seikkula and his col-
leagues’ open dialogue approach (see Chapter 15 this volume). Seikkula
puts great importance on the meshing between the treatment team from
the parent hospital and persons from the social network of the afflicted
person: “networks talking with networks.”

The Meaning of Chronification

The most startling impression I got from the articles members of the
Keropudas team (Seikkula, et. al., 1995) have written about their work was that
the aim of the treatment group seemed to be not so much to alleviate symp-
toms as to prevent chronicity. I proposed to myself, “What if we all decided

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The Art of “Withness” • 71

that the purpose of therapy of any kind was to prevent chronification?” It

then occurred to me that the term “calcification” might be a more general
metaphor. How often have we used the word stuckness to describe a fam-
ily’s difficulties? How often have the problems people come in with devel-
oped a thick, isolating carapace that hardens with time, entrapping not
only other family members within it but also the treating professionals?
This effect seemed to be one of the most striking discoveries of the family
therapy movement, even though family therapy per se seemed unable to
combat it.
Perhaps we are getting close to understanding why. The dialogic process
I have been describing seems to dissolve this carapace. Andersen’s deeply
gestural work is one example of countering calcification, as is Harlene
Anderson’s collaborative practice, Peggy Penn’s use of writing, and the
dialogic networks of Jaakko Seikkula and Mary Olson. Harry Goolishian
used to call the carapace phenomenon a “problem-defined system” and
talked about not solving the problem but “dis-solving” it (Anderson and
Goolishian, 1988). The main idea here is that one type of discourse can
dissolve another. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the way open dia-
logue works to create a common language that knits people together and
guards against the isolation that sets in when hospitalization and medica-
tion drives them apart.

The Rhizome Connection

Let me move now to the story of my connection with Rock the Boat, an
unusual helping business run by Chris Kinman, a family and community
therapist and former minister, together with his partner, criminologist
Peter Finck. For 12 years, I have been crossing the continent to Vancouver
almost on a yearly basis to see what Kinman and Finck are up to. Like the
work I have been talking about above, this process also involved “networks
talking with networks.” I’ll share a few of my experiences with them that
illustrate this talking.
Chris brought me into contact with the powerful traditions of the First
Nations people, particularly the art and culture of the Haida Gwai from
the Queen Charlotte Islands. Chris was working with First Nations youth
and families and had been fascinated by the ancient ritual of the potlatch,
where the idea is “to give” rather than to get. It was not surprising to me
when he told me that he wanted to work from the idea of “bounty” rather
than the idea of lacks and disabilities.
Chris also showed me examples of a “Local Wisdom” series he had put
together based on sayings from the persons he was working with. Some of
the titles were “Local Wisdom of the Mothers” and “Local Wisdom of the

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Kids.” He would transcribe what people said to him and put it into a kind
of chapbook. Sometimes he would intersperse their comments with pas-
sages he wrote or quotes from writers he admired. I felt it gave the people
he worked with a special dignity to be set down in print like that.
Another innovation Kinman (2001) had come up with was what he
called a “Collaborative Action Plan.” This document was an alternative to
the usual problem-oriented intake record, widely used by services in that
area. What was special was that it was organized around the “language of
gifts.” The first page asked, “What are the gifts and potentials this person
can give to the community?” The second asked, “What are the gifts and
potentials the community can give to the person?” The third page read,
“What are the roadblocks to these gifts and potentials?” This was the gist
of it, although it varied over time. Kinman told me that just the use of this
document altered his relationships with the people he worked with in a
very positive way.

The Fairy Godfathers

On one occasion, I had sat in on a weekly conference attended by a group
of men who were in charge of homes for troubled youth. They were all
bikers and had vivid tattoos winding up their forearms. Not having been
introduced, I felt like a foreign object, but I sat and listened with inter-
est. A large dog under the circular table kept going from one set of feet to
another, finally settling on mine. At this point, the leader of the group, still
without introducing me, asked me for my opinions. I said that what had
most impressed me was their tenderness.
Then I ventured something outrageous: I said “To me, you are just a
bunch of fairy Godfathers.” A moment of appalled silence, and then the
group burst into a huge roar, looking especially at the leader, the one who
had the most impressive tattoos and who, luckily, was laughing, too. This
man and a colleague came to our community meeting the next day and
commented powerfully on their past experience of class prejudice from
persons in social service agencies. But what most caught my eye was a
small tag pasted on the shirt of the leader, saying “Fairy Godfather.”
The conference finished with all of us listening to the Mood Clinic. This
was an informal club that played an advocacy role between patients and
medical doctors on issues to do with medication and treatment. Their sto-
ries enlisted both our sympathies and a feeling of hopefulness. The event,
as a whole, had given me a depth knowledge of the helpers and workers
who toiled, you might say, in the shadows of desperately troubled clients,
but kept their optimism intact.

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The Conversational Therapies

The secret of talk that sponsors underground channels is that it operates on
a felt-sense level rather than following codified rules for change. In Lowe’s
article that I mentioned above, he compares what he calls the “structured
question” approaches used by Michael White and Steve de Shazer with the
more extemporaneous style that Tom Andersen, Harlene Anderson, Peggy
Penn, myself, and many others prefer. Lowe comes up with two terms for
this style of working: dialogical or conversational. I like the term conversa-
tional. It suggests a quality of open-endedness together with an emphasis
on spontaneity, more like the way a creative artist operates than a trained
professional. As Andersen said, “My wish is at this moment that we stop
talking about therapy and rather talk of it as human art; the art to partici-
pate in the bonds with others.”
Whatever we call this new big tent, it seems obvious to me that we
have gone beyond social constructionism’s “linguistic system” idea with
its emphasis on the malleability of meaning. Instead, we are looking for
“withness practices.” These entail a special kind of exchange. Being with-
out “rank,” they bypass the hierarchy implicit in most social interaction.
They do not lead to some predetermined goal or depend on a prearranged
technology. If a sense of having “got there” occurs, it must come spontane-
ously, much as Wittgenstein suggests when he says that the aim of philoso-
phy is to help us “know how to go on.” Above all, they operate on a feeling
level, which is the field where goods are struggled for and contests go on,
and where a sense of justice is a constant living thing. If we can’t find a
way to block the usual maneuvers, at least we can create a temporary space
where lions and lambs can sit down to talk.

The Gee Bend Quilts

Let me end with the story of the Gee Bend Quilts, made from scraps of old
clothes by the African American countrywomen of Gee Bend, Alabama,
and now hailed as triumphant examples of unexpected folk art. The fam-
ily therapy field is also made of scraps and patches. Just as the Gee Bend
quilters used worn-out pieces of material, with their accumulations of his-
tory, to create bed quilts, so our movement is made up of pieces of practice
from many stages: structural, strategic, interactional, solution-focused,
possibility-oriented, systemic, narrative, reflecting, collaborative, to name
just a few. Now comes a new term, dialogical, or as I prefer, conversational.
This title suggests an elusive quality called “withness” and is represented
by those special kinds of conversation or “language games” that give us
our bearings in the matter of social bonds. There is no end point toward

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which this movement of ours is trending. It is only a folk quilt, and its only
purpose is to keep us warm at night. However, much of this warmth is due
to the fact that it is made of various patches of family therapy’s history,
memories and lore.

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