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Reading the Family Dance. Family Systems Therapy and Literary Study.

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 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 along Darwinian lines; homeostasis in the family life cycle--a model derived from cybernetic theory for charting the developmental tasks and challenges of a family over a lifetime; transactional rules that govern family interactions; and family themes and myths--the shared narratives that inform a family's sense of its history and its group identity. Each essay in the volume employs one or more of these ideas to frame an interpretation of literature that departs from the model of traditional psychoanalysis.

The thirteen essays are divided into three sections: 1) The Self: FST and the Quest for Identity; 2) The Family: FST and the Discourse of Community; 3) The World: Reading Family Systems in extremis. In Part I Kenneth Womack provides a reading of E.M. Forster's A Room with a View, demonstrating that the opposition of autonomy and affiliation promoted in the Western cultural tradition is a false dichotomy which Lucy Honeychurch rejects in her attempt at personal growth. Ultimately thwarted by the desires of the male characters around her, whose views mediate and limit her experience, Lucy remains unable to achieve self-identity because she is forced to subordinate her personal development to family and community. Rosemary Babcock's well-researched and theoretically substantiated essay on Bronte's Jane Eyre revises the feminists' reading of the novel (Jane and Rochester as locked in a master-slave dialectic) to produce an analysis that suggests a reconciliation of autonomy and affiliation in the traditional marriage structure. Moreover, Babcock concludes, with Jane Eyre "Bronte has created an intricately complex character who undergoes a process of evolution that mirrors the evolvement of a real and plausible person" (65). The emphasis on character plausibility speaks to an issue that appears central to the reorientation of literary criticism promoted by FST: in the past, critics have tended to focus on the thematic analysis of character, which assumes that literary figures are not real but rather representations of abstract ideas like jealousy, ambition, or honor. In contrast, FST critics focus instead on a "mimetic" understanding of character that permits a view of the human condition less mediated by intellectual abstractions. Storhoff's essay on Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior and Wayne Wang's film Dim Sum treat the double bind that results when individuals straddle two different cultures, and rounding out Part I, Lee Ann De Reus explores the matrix of identity in Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Dreams. Storhoff's essay is an exemplary FST--informed close reading, while De Reus's essay is heavy on theory, but rather light on textual explication. Parts II and III offer essays addressing literary families in the matrix of local community and in larger, more global cultural systems that interact with family units. Among the highlights are Bump's reading of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, John Knapp's investigation of family games in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Todd Davis's interesting thoughts on Kurt Vonnegut's ethics of familial community, and James Decker's essay on Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust.

The anthology is commendable for bringing the emerging model of FST to the attention of a larger scholarly readership, as well as for uniting scholars from different fields in a common critical discourse. It is, however, questionable whether, as Knapp implies by citing Steve Allen at the beginning of his introduction, that "this could be the start of something big!" It remains to be seen to what extent this approach to literary criticism will catch on and have a major impact on the psychology of literature. A nagging question concerning its claims to innovation also lingers: Given the intersubjective/interpersonal emphasis of progressive contemporary psychoanalytic theorists like Stephen Mitchell, or even the broad impact of object relations theory on psychoanalytic theory and criticism since the 1960s, is it accurate to portray other psychoanalytic approaches to literature as "intra-psychic"? Intersubjective and interpersonal theories, as well as current forms of self psychology and object relations, all focus on the interpenetration of self and other within a relational matrix. FST provides a fresh avenue to the social-psychological study of such interpenetration, but the claim that its emphasis on the relational matrix constitutes a theoretical innovation is overstated and needs to be qualified.

Jeffrey Adams

University of North Carolina, Greensboro
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Author:Adams, Jeffrey
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2005
Words:1337
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