Book Review: Narrative in Social Work Practice

Rachel Hadas

Narrative in Social Work Practice:
The Power and Possibility of Story 

Edited by Ann Burack-Weiss, Lynn Sara Lawrence, and Lynne Bamat Mijangos
Columbia University Press, 2017, 270 pages

On a shopping trip to Macy’s with my mother when I was no more than ten years old, I was amazed by the crowds in Herald Square. Even more overwhelming than the throngs of people crossing the street was the thought that each of these people had a father and a mother. Who were they? How had they met? What were their stories? Unseen and unknowable, myriad backstories were palpably teeming.

This long-ago impression resurfaced when I read Narrative in Social Work Practice; the sense of limitless profusion just out of reach seemed familiar. Not that the stories recounted in this volume’s sixteen chapters are infinite, but that the collection’s generosity and scope constantly seem to be suggesting, if not actually opening up, broader vistas. Every patient or client with whom a social worker interacts has a family, a history, a particular story or series of stories—and so too does the social worker herself. This double focus helps to account for the rich texture of story that is both the theme and the method of this book, for in one chapter after another, the writers recount the stories not only of their casework but of themselves.

Rita Charon’s groundbreaking 2005 book, Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness, is a crucial text for readers of this book, and certainly for its writers, many of whom studied under or worked with Charon in Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program. And Charon’s notion of the parallel chart, whereby she asked medical students to write about their own experiences and responses to their work with patients in addition to tracking those patients’ progress, is everywhere in evidence in Narrative in Social Work Practice.  

“Years ago,” Charon writes, “I found myself unhappy that my students did not have a routine method with which to consider their patients’ experiences of illness or to examine what they themselves undergo in caring for patients. We were very effectively teaching students about disease…but we were not being conscientious in helping them to develop their interior lives as doctors. Nor were we modeling methods of recognizing what patients and families go through at the hands of illness and, indeed, at our own hands in the hospital.”

In addition to writing daily in the patient’s hospital chart, accordingly, Charon asked her students to write about their own responses in what she calls the Parallel Chart:  

If your patient dying of prostate cancer reminds you of your grandfather, who died of that disease last summer, and every time you go into the patient’s room, you weep for your grandfather, you cannot write that in the hospital chart.  We will not let you.  And yet it has to be written somewhere.  You write it in the Parallel Chart.

The nature and role of the parallel chart as it’s practiced or applied in social work isn’t exactly the same as its function for a medical student. In her Foreword to Narrative in Social Work Practice, Charon notes the themes all the book’s chapters share: “the fierce joy of helping a person to recognize the meaning of the tale he or she tells, the narrative humility of opening to the mystery of the other, the reflected trauma of witnessing the suffering of others, and the soft echoes of self and other within the immersive listener.” Narrative—as the book’s subtitle puts it, “the power and possibility of story”—is key here; so is the notion of the immersive listener; so is the sense of an echo of the other in one’s own story. Every one of the sixteen chapters in this book indeed features all these qualities, in different ways and to different degrees. If I had to single out one crucial requirement in the kind of practice featured here, it would be, not empathy, but immersiveness—or in other words, the quality and quantity of patience required for the kind of listening and reflection the contributors to this book are reporting. The book is divided into four sections: “Writing as Discovery and Healing”; “Narrative Social Work with Individuals and Families”; “Narrative Social Work with Groups”; and “Narrative Social Work in Education, Supervision, and Research.” But the patience and courage needed to listen, reflect, write, and read cut across these boundaries; indeed, the categories themselves blur. Every chapter held my attention; and with the exception of a very few vague or generic formulations, the writing lives up remarkably well to the standard Charon proudly refers to in her Foreword as “the beauty of the prose.”  

We do not ordinarily go to writing in the field of social work for the beauty of its prose, but this is no ordinary book. In her Preface, editor Ann Burack-Weiss refers to the “increasingly problematic professional environment” social workers face:

We lamented the mechanization of social work; the digital revolution that reduced representation of client stories to check-off boxes; the related devaluation of the client-worker relationship; the unquestioned belief that a professional “use of self” requires leaving one’s specific talents and skills—the very talents and skills that fed the desire to spend one’s work life in the service of others—at the door. We also shared a belief that narrative practice had the potential to reverse the trend.

I fervently hope that this belief is not as quixotic as it sounds. The quality of rapt attentiveness manifested in chapter after chapter gives the book the air of having come into being in some more spacious, gentle, thoughtful, and compassionate place than the harried world many of us, including social workers and their clients, ordinarily inhabit. Among the contributors, Lynn Sara Lawrence and Jessica Greenbaum are poets, but there is a kind of poetry—the poetry of attentiveness and precision, of tact and wisdom, of patience and skill—woven into every chapter of this remarkable, idealistic, inspiring, but also detailed and scholarly book. Even as it inspired and moved me, though, Narrative in Social Work Practice left me with a mundane, nagging, and so far unanswered question: is there space for this kind of poetic social work practice? Is there time?