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  • Reading the Family Dance. Family Systems Therapy and Literary Study
  • Jeffrey Adams
Knapp, John V. and Kenneth Womack , eds. 2003. Reading the Family Dance. Family Systems Therapy and Literary Study. Newark: University of Delaware Press. $55.00. 333 pp.

This collection of thirteen essays, a follow-up to a group of articles on this topic first published in a special issue of Style (1998), is a response to the need for continuing research that, as the editors write, "demonstrates the breadth of Family Systems Therapy's theoretical possibilities" (14). Indeed, this well-conceived and well-edited volume offers its reader a broad spectrum of writings that apply various aspects of Family Systems Therapy (FST) to the analysis of literary texts. Furthermore, the anthology serves well as an introduction to this emerging psychological approach to literature.

For those less familiar with FST, the introduction by John Knapp provides a brief but informative overview of its fundamental ideas and historical development. Although pervasive and highly influential among clinical psychotherapists since the 1960s, FST has only recently begun to make inroads among literary critics, answering the call from the scholarly community for a psychology of literature that addresses the inter-psychic rather than [End Page 196] the intra-psychic dimensions of literary characters in the context of their fictional worlds. As such, FST offers the possibility of a social psychology of literature as an alternative to the individual-oriented psychoanalytic approaches that have previously prevailed. As Knapp remarks in his introduction, FST is not suggested as a "totalistic pan-theory," but it does offer another view of the human condition, "one that many critics continue to find productive and revelatory" (14). In his contribution to the collection, Gary Storhoff contends that applying FST to literary texts "increases our understanding of an author, expands our understanding of the possibilities of character constructs, and adds another dimension to the view that literature expresses fundamental ideas about how we live" (71). Such statements suggest that FST critics believe they are offering an authentic alternative to the more abstract and reality-distant interpretations based in classical Freudian and neo-Freudian theory.

Among the foundational concepts of FST is the idea that the family system constitutes a "matrix of identity," meaning that to comprehend an individual, whether empirical or fictional, one must place that individual in the context of interrelatedness that determines personal identity. As prominent FST theorist Virginia Satir argues, Freudian psychoanalysis presents sex as the most basic human drive, but in the view of FST theory "the sex drive is continually subordinated to and used for the purpose of enhancing self-esteem and defending against threats of self-esteem" (16). Similarly, in his essay Jerome Bump explains the concept of "family dance" as a redefinition of Freud's "family romance," which Bump traces to the Freudian notion that oedipal jealousy arises from dynamics of parent-child idealization in early childhood. The "dance," according to Bump, more aptly describes the dynamics of family systems than the "romance," which derives from dreams or fantasies about an ideal family that never existed in reality. In other publications, Knapp (who has also recently completed a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology) has challenged the idea that basic Freudian concepts like drive reduction and primary process, which are no longer thought valid in contemporary cognitive psychology, can remain useful in literary criticism.

One of the most important tasks of the family system is to lend support for the individual's integration into a solid family unit. At the same time, the family unit should support the process of differentiation that leads to the individual's healthy autonomy. In functional families, the individual can develop a "solid self," and be able to reconcile and integrate inner self and external behavior. In dysfunctional families, fear and anxiety force the creation of a "pseudo-self" in which inner and outer are not congruent. Further foundational ideas of FST include the family hierarchy—the subdivisions of power and relational dynamics within the family setting; family niches—a concept that accounts for extreme personality differences among siblings [End Page 197] along Darwinian lines; homeostasis in the family life cycle—a model derived from cybernetic theory...


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pp. 196-199
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