Some of you may be aware that in the Vancouver School of Narrative Therapy December newsletter, Stephen Madigan wrote about Tom Carlson and David Epston’s recent work on Insider Witnessing Practices in a manner that many have found distressing. As narrative therapy continues to grow and evolve, we at Re-authoring Teaching hope to contribute to a richer conversation about how, as a community, we make space for dissent, worry, doubt, and concern about the various directions that the work will go. Many of the Re-authoring Teaching Board have had a chance to learn about IWP from its creators. We encourage you to explore the work as described by its creators, and then join the conversation about the value, ethics and possibilities for this set of practices in training, supervision and higher education.
What Are Insider Witness Practices?
As the counterpoint to Michael White’s Outsider Witness Practices, Insider Witness Practices (IWP) represent a dramatic re-imagination of narrative therapy practice through the use of performance. Through a one-session performance, clients become witnesses to a hope-biased portrayal of their lives as performed by their therapist. This portrayal is intended to situate the significant events of clients’ lives within rich story lines that serve as a revelation of their moral character as persons. As a result, clients become both an insider and outsider to their own lived experiences and are afforded the unusual opportunity to experience their own selves as if they were an ‘other.’ From this insider/outsider vantage point, they are able to experience heightened levels of meaning making, self-compassion and self-appreciation. The results in this experimental IWP approach have so far have exceeded participants’ wildest expectations.
David introduces a series of three papers outlining the invention, development, and early outcomes of Insider Witnessing Practices:
…I have been developing Insider Witnessing Practices for over 25 years as a counterpart to Michael’s “Outsider Witnessing Practices.” However, it wasn’t until I stumbled upon some readings from anthropology and performance studies and my eventual partnership with my friend and colleague Tom Stone Carlson, just over two years ago, that the full potential of Insider Witnessing Practices was put to the test. The three papers in this inaugural issue of the Journal of Narrative Family Therapy detail the efforts that we have undertaken over the past two years to scrutinize every aspect of Insider Witnessing Practices through an intensive co-research process with student therapists and their clients at North Dakota State University, where this practice was developed.
Given the fact that we are still in the midst of innovating this practice, in this first paper, we have decided to offer the reader an account of the emerging history of the development of this practice. Our hope in this preliminary paper is to tell the story of this history in such a way that provides the reader with an insider account of our collective experiences as we engaged in the exciting and often unexplainable outcomes that resulted from our initial experiences with Insider Witnessing Practices.
Tom Stone Carlson and David Epston with Emily Corturillo, Ana Huerta Lopez, Maria Guadalupe Huerta, Sara Raap, and Ashley Walsdorf
This paper intends to introduce the history, theory, and practice surrounding a performative narrative practice which we are calling Insider Witnessing Practices (IWP). IWPs have been 25 years in the making. A precursor to what we are describing was a version of supervision and training known as ‘prismatic dialogues’ (Bird, 2006), which Johnella Bird and I invented in the late 1980s and early 1990s1 . This name was chosen for the same reason that a prism divides light into seven independent colors, but here the client’s thoughts, actions, aspirations and feelings are divided into at least two distinct versions, the problem’s story and it’s counter-story as told by the therapist. Johnella and I practiced and demonstrated this throughout New Zealand, Australia, and overseas. Over the years, a majority of my training at post-graduate programs was conducted in a similar manner to what we are now referring to as an Act 1.
Tom Stone Carlson and David Epston. Insider Witnessing Practices: Part Two. Journal of Narrative Family Therapy, 2017, Release 1, pp. 19-38. www.journalnft.com
Part Three: Miranda: A Fighting Spirit’s Journey to Self-Compassion
The third of three working papers on Insider Witnessing Practices (IWP) in The Journal of Narrative Family Therapy tells the story of a 19-year-old university student when she began meeting with Emily Corturillo- a student therapist at the North Dakota State University (NDSU) Family Therapy Center.
My reason for seeking therapy was to get a better hold on the effects of anxiety in my life. Emily was by no means the first therapist that I had met. It was no surprise to me that at our meetings the anxiety I was experiencing was easily traced back to being sexually assaulted when I was just 13 years old. The man who abused me was my best girlfriend’s father. When this became known, she and all of my friends turned against me and held me responsible for causing so much trouble in my small community. To protect myself from future harm from others, I decided for my own wellbeing to live a life of isolation as I believed that they were people that I just couldn’t trust. Because I was always on the alert for the next possible threat to my safety, I wisely committed myself to kickboxing and self-defense trainings. No matter how disciplined I was I felt at fault for all of the trouble from my disclosure and when I really thought about it, the abuse itself. I came to believe that I was tainted so badly that it could somehow be sensed by others as if it were an odor which required me to once again be on the alert in the company of others in case they might detect it. I also became convinced that I was stupid and could not possibly imagine graduating from high school. In my lowest moments, I couldn’t see myself doing anything more than being a stripper. Happily, my grades and the generous encouragement of my teachers convinced me otherwise.
Miranda Brown, Emily Corturillo, Tom Stone Carlson, David Epston, and Chelsea Pace
Insider Witnessing Practices: Part Three.Journal of Narrative Family Therapy, 2017, Release 1, pp. 39-53. www.journalnft.com
Tom and David presented a workshop on IWP in Vermont on June 15th this year. Through performance of client videos and transcripts, they aspired to convey what clients, therapists, and others have described as the dramatic and even magical potential of this practice. The presentation also included a a video performance that attempts to capture one client’s transformative experience of Insider Witness Practices. Many of us experienced the work to be a logical and poetic extension of many threads in more established narrative practice: creative questioning, imaginative retellings, and perspectival shifts allow people to step outside of one telling of their lives, and imagine others.
“I have never been more excited about the promise of Narrative therapy than right here, right now. I believe that the new ideas and practices, invented in the last few years, have the capacity to transform lives and relationships in ways not even I could have envisioned. And how curious it is to me that some of this new work is happening right here in Calgary. I couldn’t be happier to let people in on the exciting developments that we are discovering in our work together” (David Epston, Oct. 2017).