Book Review: Rewriting Family Scripts

RfG Newsletter, Volume 6, Number 1, Fall 1996

Rewriting Family Scripts:  Improvisation and Systems Change
John Byng-Hall, M.D. New York: Guilford Press, 1995

From Sigmund Freud’s description of “repetition compulsion” down to contemporary times, practicing psychotherapists have noticed, theorized about, and devised interventions to alter the recursive stuckness of dysfunctional human behavior, meaning, and affect. John Byng-Hall, a psychiatrist and pioneering English family therapist, has written an appealing and practical book addressing this issue. While the elements of his approach (script theory, John Bowlby’s attachment theory and its subsequent research, intergenerational and Structural family therapy) are not themselves original, Byng-Hall skillfully incorporates them into a novel and effective clinical praxis.

The main theme of this book is that when families increase their sense of security they are more likely to take the risks of altering old patterns and of improvising fresh, healthier ways of relating. At its core, Byng-Hall’s developmental approach emphasizes the therapist’s use of Self in shifting the affective context of therapy to replace predictable repetition with adventuresome exploration. In presenting biographical material concerning his own family of origin Byng-Hall shows how the stories and scripts co-created in family therapy are linked to those of the therapist as well as the family in treatment. Byng-Hall even uses therapist role-play of his clients during post-session supervisory simulations in order to learn how therapy may be affecting them.

Script theory, in essence, employs the concept of a theatrical text as a metaphor for how behavior and meaning is patterned. It has been used widely by therapists and social scientists to explain how individuals deal with specific situations but less frequently or convincingly to explain relationship interaction. For example, attempts to employ script constructs in Object Relations Marital therapy or Transactional Analysis result in linear description which omits the systemic nature of mutual interaction. Byng-Hall’s is a truly systemic application of script theory in that he links ongoing family dynamics to intergenerational patterns in a convincing and clinically helpful way; at the risk of lengthening an already long book review I cite some of the author’s useful distinctions below.

Family scripts arise when a family predicament is resolved in a way that is remembered. A family story is told about this event, helping to establish it as a model for future solutions to that predicament. This solution becomes fully scripted after it has been re-enacted several times and is then perceived as part of the family’s repertoire. Family scripts, then, define what one does about beliefs, not the beliefs themselves; they prescribe present and future action to be taken. Family stories, by contrast, are the stories families tell about themselves and give an account of the action that was taken in the past. Narrative therapies, which emphasize personal and family stories, attend only to meaning and belief, not action; hence they fail to address fully the impelling power of scripts. Byng-Hall also defines family rituals (shared expectations about how families will ineract on specific occasions); family myths (a set of beliefs families hold about themselves); and family legends a family story told frequently because it has implications for how the family should conduct itself now).

One pragmatic feature of Byng-Hall’s approach is to focus on the family’s problem-solving script; if this can be improved the family can be authors of their own solutions. He enumerates techniques to achieve this and offers the advice that “re-editing or rewriting family scripts is a wiser way of approaching updating rather than trying to write a brand new script.” (p. 72) At the end of one of his case descriptions Byng-Hall writes: “This illustrates the step-by-step nature of changing a role within a family script by vacating the original role, taking up the new role, incorporating the change in the script, and reviewing the appropriateness of the old model.” (p. 82).

While Byng-Hall’s numerous case vignettes and a full-chapter case study could stand alone to illuminate his approach I found his inclusion of other’s theory and research to add considerably to my understanding. He shows how attachment theory research leads to a clinically useful typology of relationships and offers perspectives on how scripts are learned, enforced, and transmitted in families, particularly in one chapter where he describes the work of an interdisciplinary research team (of which he was a member) that studied the interactional patterns of a non-clinical family with a newborn baby for one year to show how babies are inducted into family scripts. He also devotes chapters to Grieving and Disrupted Scripts as situations that require special handling within his approach.

There are numerous points of correspondence between Byng-Hall’s approach to improvising family scripts and RfG. Byng-Hall uses the metaphor of theater to speculate how children in the audience position view other family members (including their reactions to one another) on-stage, preparing themselves (rehearsing) to take onstage roles later:

Family life can provide a stage on which various ways of relating can be tried out. The context marker of “play” means that there is a pretend element to what is going on. This gives everyone permission to experiment within certain limits without being stuck with a reputation acquired through their new behavior. This can be called a “transitional script”… (p. 45)

The author’s position on the conditions supporting family improvisation are quite similar to my own:

There are two main forms of improvisation: first there is improvisation that comes out of necessity: Something has to be done when old solutions are not working… Second, there is improvising out of curiosity or fun when it feels safe to try something new, even if it is uncertain where it will lead… A secure relationship supports the possibility of improvisation in either of these situations. A therapist who is trusted by the family can make the risks involved in improvisation seem less frightening, even when family relationships are insecure.” (p. 15)

In describing progress in one of his case vignettes Byng-Hall reports the onset of a child’s imaginative play and comments that this is “one of the surest signs that the parents’ conflicts were being contained and were not involving the children.” (p. 131) One of his therapeutic goals is to get family play happening between members who previously did not co-participate.

Byng-Hall has also experimented with role-play and actor simulations of family process. He points out the need for adequate de-roling, preferably by players stating with whom they became identified in the role-play. He further observes that players may opt for replicative scripts (enacting what happened in childhood) or corrective scripts (which they want[ed] to enact but didn’t have the opportunity to). Byng-Hall sagely points out that there are important differences between non-family members role-playing a family and an actual family improvising:

The pretend role-play usually starts with a concerted attempt to create a meaningful plot; each individual responds to contextual cues that suggest a particular situation by adding something that confirms the presence of that scenario. Very quickly a plot is developed, reinforced, and elaborated on. The anxiety of not knowing who or where you are leads to a search for something that is more familiar and has meaning. In contrast a family starts with too much familiar meaning, and improvisation is a search for something outside and beyond the known. (p. 54)

It is precisely for this reason that I make use of displacement scenarios, often with absurd or fantastic elements, in offering improvisation to families.

One difference between Byng-Hall’s approach and RfG is that he stops short of offering clients dramatic roles, only encouraging them to act more intense emotionally, or to role-play another, less familiar, side of themselves (including, rarely, an ancestor). I have found that a more frequent and active in-session use of play and fantasy permits more improvisation and rehearsal of other relational possibilities. Nonetheless, I found this book original and highly useful. As Frank Pittman notes in the book’s Forward, Byng-Hall is an empowering optimist, singularly effective at rewriting the tragedies of failed family opportunity that lead to disaster into comedies of unexpected improvisation that lead to triumph. I recommend Rewriting Family Scripts strongly to all family therapists, particularly those who are seeking a way to integrate experiential and intergenerational approaches.