The Looking-Glass Sisters
John Irons, Translator
One of the great masters of family therapy is Salvador Minuchin. Everyone in the head-fix trade knew of Minuchin. As part of our study, we went to conferences he put on. I remember especially one in Phoenix, put on by the Milton Erickson Institute.
Minuchin would show videos of himself in therapy with a family. These were usually poorer families that had gotten, in the lingo of the times, "stuck." And their stuckness would become manifest by what were then referred to as "antisocial behaviour patterns" --- attempted suicides, a brother or a sister getting deeply into booze or drugs, a mother or a father who had reached the end of the line and, perhaps, reacted by going crazy. In the family way.
One of the best of these videos showed a Philadelphia family, father, mother, and two daughters, one of whom was in a wheelchair (spina bifita). The other daughter had been in emergency care several times and was now in therapy because she had tried to kill herself.
Minuchin pointed out that when you have a series of attempted suicides, one has to do whatever possible as quickly as possible to prevent a repeat performance. Instead of having the girl, Sarah, committed, which is what most therapists would have done, Minuchin elected to go through a few hours of "therapy" with the whole family, all together at one time, in what he would refer to as an elaborate "dance" --- to tease out whatever it was that made Gloria, a fetching young lady, keep trying to bail out.
Minuchin said his main task was to ingratiate himself with the two people that were the key to the family system, namely the father (noisy, loud, domineering) and the daughter who he called "enmeshed," a conjoining of personalities with her father. It was that that was trying to destroy her.
In the video he establishes rapport as quickly as possible with the father and mother --- the family was Jewish --- by telling them stories of his Jewish bubba back in Argentina. She used to go to the afternoon theatre so she could cry along with the folks on stage in "The Komediant," or "The Golem," or "Shmendrik."
But his task was, at the moment, to get father and mother off in the wings. "Why don't you two," he said, innocently, nodding stage left, "go over there and discuss for the next few minutes how we can come to grips with what is going on with this amazing family?" That set them off noisily arguing off in the corner, which preoccupied them for some time (we could hear their voices raised in the background.)
Minuchin then got Sarah off with him center stage, in front of the camera (he asked her if she had a cigarette) and they ended up talking a little, laughing some --- enmeshed in a totally different conversation.
As the video went on, he recapitulated to us, his loving fans, about the fact that the family was deeply enmeshed, and he was working on getting them unstuck, mostly by separating Sarah from her father. She was the apple of his eye. (At one point he said that he suspected incest, but no. "That would be redundant.")
During the fifty minute run of this engaging live drama, we learned that Minuchin's "interventions" were quick, efficient, and obviously, effective. In fact, he added one other factor to this almost (we thought) impossible spaghetti-pie. He said that Doris was probably one of the most important keys to this malfunctioning system. Why? "Because with any change at all in the family system, she had the most to lose." Other problems in the family were being lost in the shadow of the very obvious need of a heavily handicapped person.
On video, towards the end, he turned to Doris, in her wheelchair, and asked why she had given up on her biweekly physical therapy programs. Her physician had reported that they were, apparently, helping her to be more mobile.
I remember his exact lines, a real shocker coming from such an obviously caring person. He looked at her sitting there, and said, "I understand, Doris, that you were doing therapy, and it was helping, but that you gave it up.
"I know you have something wrong with your body, but is there something wrong with your mind?"
§ § §
This is exactly the thought that kept flitting through my own mind as I was working my desperate way through The Looking-Glass Sisters. One of them, Ragna, is hale and hearty in that hale and hearty Scandinavian way. Younger sister is not so.
Let's call sister #2 "Finn," for the two of them live in a snug little cottage in Finnmark, Norway. Which is the part of that country lying closest to the Arctic Circle, the very coldest part.
When Finn was four, there came a terrible fever, that paralysed much of her body. Gabrielsen is careful to never let us know exactly what it was or how she looks. All we know is that it is impossible for her to get around easily. She can push herself awkwardly down the hall past the kitchen and back, but Ragna must help her get in and out of bed, must straighten her in the bed, bring her food, clean her. If Finn falls, she can't get back up. And obviously --- slippery ice, snow --- she can't leave the house except for a few times in summer, with help.
Mom and Dad died perhaps a decade or two ago, and the two have lived alone since then, usually in a snit, but surviving. Finn even remembers Ragna smiling at her a couple of times, when they were young.
And then come Johan. Moves in next door. Visits. Starts helping. Ragna falls for him. Soon Finn can hear them in bed together. It makes her sick.
And Johan never looks at her, even as she crutches by in the hallway when Ragna and Johan are sharing tea, coffee, giggles. He won't talk to her either. If he notices her at all, it is to say to Ragna, "What the hell's she making a song and dance about?" and "Can't you shut her up?"
§ § §
And so the war begins. And I will leave it to you to study it if you care, although it is a brutal one. Made more so by an author who doesn't seem to want to let even a little ray of light into this dark cottage, in those dark northern woods. No jokes between the three of them, not even kind words --- nothing but silences, and sulking, the occasional banging of crutches on the floor. And, o yes, at the wedding. All the great foods on the table, suddenly swept away . . . by one of the crutches in the hands of Finn.
Sometimes books turn so torturous that we wish we could simply intervene in the plot. Such was the escalating vituperation between the sisters that we knew it would come to no good. I was wishing we could call up Minuchin. Ask if he would like to take a brief trip to northern Norway --- nice place, a little chilly --- just for a day or two. To work with this family, this family trapped with each other. Getting themselves worked up, in such a state. We worry that someone's going to get hurt. Before it's too late . . . please, let's see what we can do.