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Novels as Teachers

Training to be a family therapist can be both exciting and tedious. The thrill is often in clinical practice, observing skilled practitioners engage, enquire, and elicit change where seemingly intractable matters resolve. The challenge of complexity and problems that resist all entreaties is equally compelling. Less enchanting is the learning of theory and the often turgid and confusing material students are condemned to read and understand. Most of us succeed and are grateful for a solid theoretical understanding to underpin the apparent magic of practice.

While appreciating the value of a solid foundation, a complementary and perhaps more enjoyable activity may enhance and enrich the learning . Literature has all the stories and concepts our field has described and the reading of novels as texts may teach as much as formal papers.

The novel Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivener is a perfect example of a book that can achieve this goal. It is a classic murder mystery set in an Australian country town which has seen better days with an insularity and deprivation that enhances all the events that unfold. The story teaches us about systems and relationships; the power of friendship and community and how the shape of key relationships draws everyone into its form. We see how secrets distort and become walls that allow violence and abuse to flourish and the power of the past and trauma to dictate the future. It also tells us much about time and how small events and chance encounters can escalate to life changing consequences. At another level the author can teach us the perspective of a child, how the world of adults shapes what is understood and the unique perspective of the challenges childhood presents. This is underscored by the skill to speak to a child and forces that shape the dialogue.

It is a novel to entertain and distract which also teaches us in a different way.


Scrivenor, H. Dirt Town (2022) Pan McMillan Australia

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