Living With Fire



This is a slightly edited version of Chapter 4 of Jo Vijoen’s PhD thesis (2003) – Power Discourses and Afrikaans Women, completed under the academic mentorship of Profs. Christina Landman and Kobus Kruger, Department of Religious Studies, University of South Africa. If you are interested in reading more of the thesis or entering into discussions with the author, you can contact Jo Viljoen at


Chapter 4 Living With Fire

1 Introduction

As discussed in the previous three chapters, Foucault put considerable effort into tracing the history of the development of modern power. Working from a conditionalist perspective of religious studies, which is characterised by a respect for the given concrete, the integration with widening contexts and universal solidarity, response-ability and compassion, the exploration of modern power and its subjugating effects on the life of the participant is relevant to this research. White (2002) emphasises that although the operations of modern power were derived through the uptake of self- and relationship-forming practices first developed at the local level of culture, Foucault also claimed that the professional disciplines of criminology, medicine/psychiatry, psychology and social work play a key role in the further development of the technology of modern power. In this chapter we look closely at the ways in which psychiatric knowledges created an identity of failed personhood in Grace’s life. White (2002) extrapolates this concept as follows:

Foucault considered the power relations associated with normalising judgement to be disciplinary in two senses. In the first sense, rather than being a mechanism of repression and oppression, these power relations engage people in the fashioning of their own lives and in the fabrication of their own identities according to norms that have been constructed through the history of the modern “disciplines”. In the second sense, rather than being prohibitive and restrictive, these modern power relations engage people in the fashioning of their own lives through the “disciplines” of the self .

In Chapter 3 the researcher illustrateChaptd the ways in which religious discourses and technologies of modern power contributed to the constitution of identity of failed personhood in Mara’s life, and how a narrative approach to therapy assisted her in manufacturing her preferred identities of hope and moral agency. In this chapter the researcher explores the ways in which the professional discourses of therapy and psychiatry, as technologies of modern power, recruited Grace into accepting an identity of failed personhood. The therapist-as-researcher narrates Grace’s experiences with the modernist, internalising discourses of psychiatry and psychology in the treatment of Anorexia Nervosa and self-injury as well as the ways in which the professional disciplines constituted her identity as a mental patient. Grace actively participated in the writing of this chapter by offering her reflections, experiences, comments, poetry and art for inclusion in the final draft . This chapter also illustrates the effects of radical anti-anorexic practices and externalising conversations on her preferred identity as a person during a process of narrative therapy, which spanned the period of three years.

Grace deliberately selected her pseudonym because of its meaning. According to Strong (2001: 2618) Grace means favour; charm; grace is the moral quality of kindness, displaying a favourable disposition; to be in a state of favour. Grace is a thirty four year old Afrikaans woman. She is married to Pieter , and they have two adolescent children. Grace, Pieter and their children live on a smallholding outside the city. Grace and Pieter both grew up in Afrikaans homes attended Afrikaans schools and churches, but decided very early on in their relationship to develop a family culture of their own. Their children attend English-medium private school, and speak both Afrikaans and English in their home.

Grace grew up as the eldest of two children. Her father is a military man with strong ideas about right and wrong. Her mother is a teacher with a post-graduate qualification in languages. Grace says her growing up appeared “perfectly normal” on the surface, but her father was very rigid and prescriptive, a real man’s man inclined to abusing alcohol and periodically, her mother. Her father made all the rules in their family and Grace, her brother and mother had to adhere to his rules or else suffer his rage and abuse. These rules included excelling at school, regular attendance to Sunday school and church and living a “decent and respectable” life. Grace became perturbed as an adolescent when she discovered that her father had two sets of rules: one set for adults and another for children. For example, he was allowed to drink alcohol because he was an adult and could physically and verbally abuse her mother, but she was not allowed to misbehave because she was a child. She was expected to do exceptionally well at school and obey her father’s rules at home. She grew up fearing her father’s drinking and verbal abuse. Grace is highly intelligent and could not make sense of the contradictions that ruled. As an adolescent she started rebelling against her parents. Her rebellion took the form of willful starvation, recognised as anorexia nervosa. Grace has been struggling to free herself from mental illness for seventeen years.

Pieter is a young, successful businessman. He is a free thinker, an adventurous person who loves nature, mountain climbing and traveling. He is a loving life partner for Grace and a caring father for their children, but because he is the primary breadwinner and his job demands so much of his time and energy, the responsibility for the running of their home and the upbringing of their children is largely Grace’s responsibility. Pieter turned his back of the Christianity of his youth and formulated a set of spiritual beliefs for himself, borrowing from paganism and the Eastern religions and philosophies. Grace initially chose to accept his brand of spirituality as her own.

2 The gaze of mental illness

2.1 Anorexia Nervosa

In Kaplan and Sadock’s Synopsis of Psychiatry Anorexia Nervosa is described as follows:

In the fourth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV 1994) anorexia nervosa is characterised as a disorder in which people refuse to maintain a minimally normal weight, intensely fear gaining weight, and significantly misinterpret their body and its shape.

(Kaplan & Sadock 1998:720)

People with anorexia nervosa have high rates of comorbid major depressive disorders: Major depressive disorder or dysthymic disorder has been reported in up to 50 percent of anorexia nervosa patients (Kaplan & Sadock 1998:723).

2.2 A psychiatric perspective on deliberate self harm

Favazza (1989:113) describes deliberate self-harm or self-mutilation, as the deliberate destruction or alteration of the body tissue without conscious suicidal intent, occurring in a variety of psychiatric disorders. According to this researcher, major self-mutilation includes eye enucleation and amputation of limbs and genitals. Minor self-mutilation includes self-cutting and self-biting. Favazza explored patients’ explanations for self-mutilation, and found that religious or sexual themes are often provided as reasons for self-injury. He also claims that even though no one approach adequately solves the riddle of such behaviors, that habitual self-mutilation may best be seen as a purposeful if morbid, act of self-help (Favazza 1989:113).

2.2.1 Lay and professional attitudes strengthen self-injury

Grace’s experiences with medical professionals echo Favazza’s claims that despite the prevalence of this problem of self-mutilation, attempts to understand it have been hampered by negative social attitudes:

Laymen usually perceive self-mutilation to be repulsive and purposeless, while mental health professionals often focus on their own feelings of helplessness and of being “torn apart” or “emotionally blackmailed” by patients who deliberately harm themselves. Patients in need of medical attention may “confess” to a suicide attempt because they have learned that physicians and nurses confronted with self-mutilation may act in an angry and inappropriate manner. For example, sutures may be applied without an anesthetic.

(Favazza 1989:137)

Grace says:

The medical profession repeatedly strengthened my feelings of failed personhood. After one self-destructive episode I was admitted to a hospital in Benoni where while he was suturing my wounds, the doctor kept telling me what a bad person I was to have done this to myself. It felt as if he attacked me violently and aggressively, pulling at my skin when he sutured me. He sentenced me for crimes against humanity and put me on massive doses of anti-convulsants. The side effects were dreadful. When I complained he refused to treat me again.

2.2.2 Religious reasons for self-injury

Religion has a comprehensive, integrating role, which helps people to make sense of their lives and the events of their lives and relationships. When religious reasons are given for self-injury, this phenomenon should be critiqued, as religion should offer a sense of meaning in the face of hopelessness and emotional and physical suffering, instead of becoming an accomplice to human acts of deliberate self-destruction.

Favazza (1989:138) mentions some of the religious themes that patients offered as reasons for major and minor self-mutilating behaviours. He says these explanations reflect aspects ranging from Biblical influence, to identification with Christ, to the influence of demons.

The advice offered in Mark 9:47-48 and Matthew 5:28-29 directs Christians to tear out an offending eye and to cut off and offending hand since losing part of one’s body is better than being cast whole into hell. Adherence to this advice is the most common explanation offered by persons who enucleate their eyes. The prototypical enucleator is a psychotically depressed male prisoner with a Bible in his cell.

Grace understood Favazza as follows:

He is right. I tried to cut off my breasts and the ugly parts of my thighs. I also starved my body to punish me for my sins and to control my sexuality.

Favazza (1989:138) cites a report about deliberate hand amputation. This is rare, but there was a report about a young man diagnosed with schizophrenia who discussed Matthew’s advice in a Bible group, following which he tried to saw off his hand. He finally shot off his hand and repeatedly requested surgical amputation.

Another portentous passage is Matthew 19:12, which states, “there be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake”. A middle-aged man with a history of recurrent major depression treated with electro convulsive treatment brooded for weeks on that Biblical passage before cutting off both testicles.

(Favazza 1989:138)

Favazza (1989) cited Identification with Christ and His suffering as a reason given for major deliberate self-injury. Grace agreed. She said she identified with Christ’s suffering when she struck two large nails through her feet. She explained that she used acts of self-harm as a way of voicing her feelings of despair and failure, because nobody seemed to hear her pain and suffering when she simply spoke about her feelings. Mental illness was proof to her of her inherent sinfulness and self-injury became a way of atoning for her sins.

Favazza (1989:138) cites the story of a 48-year old widow who accused herself of being a great sinner. Because Christ shed His blood, she believed that she also had to shed her blood in order to become saintly. She removed both her eyes and requested that her physician amputate both her legs.

Sinfulness is given as a reason for self-mutilation. Favazza (1989) found that patients felt they had to atone for their sins by performing acts of self-sacrifice, and engage in self-injury as means of atonement, purification and punishment for their sinfulness (Favazza 1989:138). Heavenly commands are also cited as reasons for self-injury, and patients self-mutilate in response to a spoken command or vision of God or a godly agent. Other reasons given for self-injury are the influence of demons. Favazza (1989:138) says some patients have explained their self-mutilation as the result of demonic possession or of demon’s trickery. He cites the example of an eighteen-year-old man who mutilated himself during an adverse reaction to LSD. The youth stated: “My mind was so weak because of the LSD that the devil possessed me. Now I’ve got the devil out of my mind since I plucked my right eye out”(Favazza 1989:1328).

Favazza (1989:138) also cited other religious reasons persons gave for self-mutilation, namely a patient who saw self-castration as a mission for God, another person who believed it was a free-will offering to God, and yet another who believed it was a repetition of behaviour from a previous incarnation as a member of a mystical Russian sect of eunuchs.

2.2.3 Sexual themes as reasons for self-injury

Other themes were sexual themes, for example the desire to be a female, as a control measure of hyper-sexuality, repudiation of one’s sexual organs and an obsession with amputation. Grace also cited self-injury as a way of controlling her normal sexuality.

Van Schalkwyk (2002:135-161) explores the history of Christian patriarchy, misogyny and devaluation of particularly the body and reclaims the female body as sacred. In the ancient goddess traditions the female body was regarded as powerful, sacred and fruitful, in sharp contrast with the ways in which contemporary women feel about their bodies. She says that sexism and misogyny goes back to the patriarchal need to control women’s bodies and sexuality. Patriarchal control of the female body is an invisible discourse still alive and well in our society.

2.2.4 Self-injury associated with psychopathology

Favazza (1989:138-139) says the explanations patients gave for minor to mild self-mutilation reflect a range of psychopathological beliefs which are associated with a broad variety of conditions such as personality disorders, eating disorders and factitious disorders. In his study patients described tension release, a return to reality, a way of establishing control and a way of ensuring security and uniqueness as reasons for moderate to mild self-injury. Other reasons given were the desire to influence others, possibly in an attempt at punishing a loved one or a family member for a transgression, negative perceptions about themselves, to relieve pressure of multiple personalities and a way of venting anger and relief from alienation. Some patients reported an irresistible urge to self-mutilate. These explanations fit with Grace’s reasons for cutting herself. Favazza (1989) also explores biological and psychodynamic theories to explain the behaviour of people who self-mutilate, and a claim that the weakest link in professional understanding of the problem is knowledge of the biological causes of self-mutilation. Favazza (1987:191) acknowledges that “self mutilation is not alien to the human condition; rather it is culturally and psychologically embedded in the profound, elemental experiences of healing, religion and social amity” and that it may share an identical purpose to culturally sanctioned and deviant behaviour, namely “to correct or prevent a pathological, destabilizing condition that threatens the community, the individual, or both” (Favazza 1987:191). He concludes that “self-mutilation can thus be seen as an ancient and widespread, albeit morbid, form of self-help behaviour inherent in the repertoire of human activity” (Favazza 1989:142) and that the “pathological acts of troubled adolescents may thus be primitive, morbid attempts to overcome seemingly unsolvable problems” (Favazza 1989:143).

Grace struggled with self-mutilation in many forms, particularly cutting and starvation. She describes her experience as follows:

I used the weight of the psychiatric labels to punish myself because I believed that I was a bad person who had no right to live. Anorexia was the furnace in which I could incinerate myself. . But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t kill myself. I fed the fire so that I could burn out completely, but every time I arose from the ashes like a phoenix. I became addicted to the magic of recovery and hope, trust and regaining trust. For ten long years it worked in three to four monthly cycles of self-destruction, burnout, resurrection, and recovery before I would burn out again and be hospitalised.

Medical research shows deliberate self-harm to be a serious clinical problem, which can result in suicide in 4% of persons who self-injure (Bennewith, Stocks, Gunnell, Peters, Evans & Sharp 2002:1254). They claim that evidence on how best to manage patients in primary care who have harmed themselves is seriously lacking. These researchers developed guidelines for general practitioners in primary care on the prevention and intervention in patients who deliberately harm themselves, but found that there was a lack of benefit from the intervention evaluated in this trial, leaving the question open of the most effective management of patients with self-harm in general practice.

3 A Radical feminist therapy approach to self-injury

Radical feminist Burstow (1992:187) sees self-mutilation in a totally different light. She believes that women have the right to do with their bodies as they wish: to cut, them, destroy them and mutilate them, as long as the decision to do so is their own. Burstow also believes that expertise does not reside in patriarchal psychiatry, but she warns therapists:

Because self-danger is used as an excuse to intrude on women in this intrusive society, it is absolutely critical that we do not invent danger where little or none exists.

(Burstow 1992: 188)

Burstow (1992:188) continues:

Whether they are in danger or not, and however upsetting the wounds are to us, it is not our place to interfere with their choices. The bottom line is that however much we may want something better for these clients, WOMEN HAVE AN ABSOLUTE RIGHT TO DO WHAT THEY WANT WITH THEIR BODIES. They have a right to nurture and starve that body; and although we may and should invite something else, we need to respect that right. The history of sexism is the history of other people &endash; generally males &endash; taking charge of women’s bodies. People have already interfered profoundly with these women’s bodies. They do not need interference or pressure from us”.

The radical feminist point of view is valid but at times too radical for me as therapist. From the distress the self-destructive behaviour caused Grace and other women, I believe them when they said that they want something else for their lives: a life without the threat of self-injury. However, I do agree with Burstow (1992:191) when she says that women are trained by society to hurt themselves:

Even passive acceptance helps. Simply by not being shocked, not bong alarmist, and not pathologizing, we are sending out the message that we are not going to freak out and that she is okay. Further help comes from making these messages more explicit. It is easier for the client to accept herself and trust us if we make it clear that we accept and respect her just as she is. Let her know that many women self-mutilate, that she is not doing anything awful. Point out hat we all hurt ourselves in one way or other, that as women we are trained to hurt ourselves. Make it clear that you understand that self-mutilation is a way of coping that has served her well and that you have no intention of robbing her of it.

Grace believes that suffering for beauty is accepted practice in our society as women are taught to suffer for beauty through beauty practices, like waxing, dieting, extreme exercise, and wearing uncomfortable clothing and unhealthy shoes. Grace also said that the way I dealt with her injuries were very helpful, especially when I explained the cultural discourses that promote self-injury to her family members. Some of Burstow’s suggestions were very constructive in therapy, but everything in my heart and mind told me that Grace did not choose to behave in a self-injurious way. Useful knowledge from this perspective was that even when Grace injured herself, I respected her choice to do so. Not acting alarmed or disgusted at the sight of her injuries, seemed to go a long way towards gaining her trust and showing her that I respected her as a person.

This was contrary to her previous therapeutic experiences where the sight of blood sent her family members and health care workers scurrying to save her life and to gain control of her life, whilst punishing and or scolding in the process. Despite the insights gained from a radical feminist approach to the therapy of self-injury, I preferred to use a narrative approach as pioneered by White and Epston (1990) rooted in a religious studies approach as described by Krüger (1995) in our conversations with one another.

4 Illness as narrative surrender

White (1995:118) declares that psychiatric diagnosis provides for an exemption that is permissible through illness, instead of assisting people to “find alternative sites in this culture in which they can succeed in breaking form dominant ways of being and thinking, alternative sites that bring with them other options for how they lead their lives, options that do not require exemption through illness”. Frank (1997:5) also claims that the modern experience of illness begins when popular experience is overtaken by technical expertise, including complex organisations of treatment. He says that the medical narrative, or story of illness, trumps all other stories in the modern period. According to Frank (1997:5), Parsons made the observation already in 1950 that one of the core social expectations of being sick is surrendering oneself to the care of a medical expert:

I understand this obligation of seeing medical care as a narrative surrender and mark it as the central moment in modernist illness experience. The ill person not only agrees to follow physical regimens that are prescribed; she also agrees, tacitly but with no less implication, to tell her story in medical terms. “How are you?” now requires that personal feeling be contextualised within a second hand medical report. The physician now becomes the spokesperson for the disease, and ill person’s stories come to depend heavily on the repetition of what the physician has said.

Frank (1997:6) believes that if the modern experience of illness begins when the medical experts assert their authority as scientists by imposing specialised language on their patients, the postmodern divide is crossed when ill people recognise that more is involved in their experiences than the medical story can tell. In my experiences I tried everything in my power to prevent narrative surrender but rather to privilege her voice. In this chapter her voice is amplified and honoured wherever possible.

5 Grace’s curriculum vitae of mental illness

Foucault (in White & Epston 1990:66) found that Western society has increasingly relied on the practices of objectification of persons and their bodies to improve and extend social control, and that the modern history of the objectification of persons and their bodies coincides with the proliferation of what Foucault (1965) refers to as “dividing practices” and the practices of “scientific classification”. These practices are specifying of the identity of persons. These specifications have serious implications for people’s lives, as illustrated by Grace’s narrative. The dominant expert discourses of psychiatry refused her the right to introspection and reflexive self-awareness. Apart from having her identity socially constructed by the religious and social discourses that are active in the constitution of the lives of most Afrikaans women, Grace carried the added weight of a seventeen-year-long history of mental illness, which co-prescribed her identity as a sick person. Shortly after completing school, despite anorexia and psychosis, Grace met Pieter and fell pregnant:

I was very ill before I met Pieter. I overdosed and cut myself repeatedly. He did not realise how ill I was, but I was as mad as a hatter. He just thought I was a really intense person! When I fell pregnant, the doctors told me that I was too mentally ill and could not bring up a child. They insisted that I have a legal abortion based on my history of mental illness. Pieter and I decided to take responsibility for the baby, refused the termination of pregnancy and got married.

I decided to “pull myself together” and become a wife for Pieter and a mother for Anne. Marriage and motherhood constituted my identity. There was no sign of anorexia. I bought into the social expectations of the identity of a wife and mother.

It was like putting a lid on a volcano.

Trying to fit into society and living a normal life, being a wife and mother legitimised my right to exist in society, from which mental illness deprived me. I subconsciously sculpted my identity to legitimise my participation in life as a normal person. I put myself under pressure to prove that I was not crazy. I was scared that I would somehow be exposed as a lunatic, as a crazy, evil, sick person.

I even baked my own bread.

I looked around me and saw what other happily married women were doing and I copied them. I did whatever I thought Pieter expected of me as a wife, mother, partner and lover. I managed to be the perfect person for seven years. I had to drive so many ideas and emotions that I became physically ill with chronic fatigue syndrome, hepatitis and glandular fever.

As can be seen from the above, societal discourses competed with psychiatric discourses for Grace’s identity. Grace was determined to make a success of motherhood, wife-hood and personhood. She succeeded in living a so-called normal life for seven years, but the colonising effects of psychiatric discourses and the stigma of mental illness never ceased to torment her. She was constantly aware of the pervasive “gaze” of mental illness, which pressed her to relentlessly evaluate her thoughts and actions.

5.1 Identity and practices of self and relationship

For seventeen years, Grace spent the better part of every year as an inpatient in a mental hospital. Countless psychiatrists and psychologists treated her, and each psychiatrist and psychologist added another diagnosis to her growing curriculum vitae of mental illness. A neurologist diagnosed Temporal Lobe Epilepsy as the cause of her problems, and prescribed large dosages of anti-convulsant medication, in combination with the other psychotropic drugs she was taking. The psychotropic medication had unpleasant side effects, resulting in her repeated refusal to comply with the doctors’ prescriptions. Feelings of hopelessness frequently overwhelmed her, resulting in episodes of acute self-injury and consequent re-admission to hospital.

Grace said that in her career as a mental patient, she deliberately constituted her identity according to the multi-axial classification scheme of the DSM-IV (1994) :

When they told me I was a manic-depressive, I assumed the identity of a crazy artist; I call it my Van Gogh project. That meant that my mental illness was all in the name of good art. At this time, I was able to write and paint with abandon; psychosis was my ticket to ride, to be an individual. It was dramatic, exciting, but the catch was that I had to deliver brilliant art all the time. You see if I could prove that I was highly talented and gifted, people did not judge me as crazy. That was a time when I was convinced of the tragic script of my life. I had to create efficient proof of my brilliance so that when I wipe out, everybody would be very sad.

Psychiatrists labeled me with probably every personality disorder in the book. When you have a personality disorder it means you are un-fixable. I have been diagnosed as being a person with dependent, histrionic, narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. I have also been treated for bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, various psychotic and mood disorders; you name it. My latest diagnosis is “psychotic mood disorder not otherwise specified”.

I believe that although they saved my life many times, the psychiatric system supported and aggravated my condition. I have had sleep therapy and electro-convulsive therapy. I remember it was winter. The shock therapy did not help me; in fact I totally lost it. When I woke up after the anesthetic I remember cutting the ECG stickers off my chest and breasts. I saw the medical interventions as proof of my suffering and as punishment for my evil nature. It confirmed how bad I was. Let’s face it: they had to shock me to try and make me a better person! They had to incinerate my brain because I was such a failure as a person!

A patient is pretty helpless. I always had a feeling of despair. They told me I was unfixable, irreparably damaged. They told me I would never be able to escape from this hell of incapability, dysfunctionality; that I was a lost case. I had no say; they “had it under control”. What was important was that I “behave” myself and drink my medication. I am blacklisted at the private psychiatric clinics; they refuse to treat me again. Their failure to cure me was proof to me that I was evil and irreparably damaged.

5.2 An identity of failed personhood

In the years of psychiatric treatment Grace described above, the nature of the psychiatric discourses privileged a particular process of naming, rendering irrelevant and disqualifying Grace’s knowledges in the process. Every psychiatrist tried to help her, but because their expert scientific knowledge left no room for her own knowledges and alternative ways of being, the effects of their diagnostic and treatment practices marginalised Grace and strengthened her identity as a failure. She resisted their treatment and marginalising practices with unbridled devotion, resulting in certification and expulsion from hospital care:

Their control over me fuelled my committed and devoted mission to expose the sick power games they play in psychiatry. I devoted my career as a psychiatric patient to proving to the doctors and nurses that they were really not as sane as they pretended to be, but that they were, like everybody else, on a continuum between illness and health. I searched for their Achilles heels and purposely pushed those buttons. That made them angry. When they were angry they’d certify me and send me to Weskoppies. They all gave up on me in the end.

Mental illness deprives you of the right to make your own decisions. They have a hierarchical power system in which they can certify you, lock you up in isolation or put you in a chemical strait jacket. Their power goes nowhere and their power is everywhere. It makes you start watching your step and watching yourself.

White and Epston (1990:24) assert that when conditions are established for a person to experience ongoing evaluation according to particular institutionalised “norms”, when these conditions cannot be escaped, and when persons can be isolated in their experience of such conditions, they will become their own guardians. In these circumstances, persons will perpetually evaluate their own behaviour and engage in operations to forge themselves as “docile bodies”. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia may well reflect the pinnacle of achievement of this form of power (White & Epston 1990:24). The following pen sketch by Grace illustrates her experience of an identity of failure:

Pen-sketch of an identity of failed personhood

6 A social constructionist view of Anorexia

Postmodernism, feminism and social constructionism have lead to a reconsideration of structuralist and functionalist traditions. In a postmodern telos, the client is the expert of her life. The client lives in relationships with other people, has her own local knowledges that provide her with the expertise over her own life, and can participate as equal partner in her healing.

Gremillion (1992) suggests that the traditional psychiatric approach and many family therapies replicate the conditions of anorexia for women. In effect, further self-domination is not only encouraged, it is insisted upon through acts of power used to control the person. These acts of power, Gremillion ( suggests, are justified by the person’s “underlying weakness”. Dependency and marginalisation can occur through practices of pathological classification, long-term hospitalisation, medication, funding shortages and messages of hopelessness, dysfunction and blame (Epston 1998:139). MacSween (1993 in Epston 1998:91) says dominant psychological and psychiatric conceptualisations of anorexia nervosa often define it as a personal and internal maladjustment, rendering the sufferers passive recipients of care. Kraner and Ingram (1998:91) feel that this view focuses on food and weight gain as primary goals for intervention. The researcher found the latter to be true. In a case study cited in Kaplan and Sadock (1998:723) they describe a woman’s treatment program as follows:

When Peggy was first evaluated for admission to an inpatient eating disorder program, she was a 20-year-old woman who had difficulty in supporting her 5-foot 3-inch frame with a weight of only 67 pounds. … She was admitted to a medial unit, treated for peptic ulcer disease, and discharged, only to be readmitted 3 months thereafter to a psychiatric unit of a general hospital. During that 8-week hospitalisation, she went form 84 pounds to 100 pounds.

Psychiatric discourse recognises the biological, social, psychological and psychodynamic factors in the etiology of anorexia nervosa and acknowledges the fact that patients with anorexia nervosa find support for their practices in society’s emphasis on thinness and exercise (Kaplan & Sadock 1998:721). On the other hand, therapists who work from a social constructionist point of view, are less concerned with issues of etiology and describe the experience of anorexia as more relevantly located in the social domain of interaction, where food and weight are imbued with meanings about control, personal agency and tension Kraner and Ingram (1998:91): “It is our view that anorexia sits at the intersection between the physical body and how that body is perceived and experienced”.

McLean and Bridget in Chorus of voices (2000: 275) cite Bordo (1993:67) who says that in the medical model, the danger is that the individual becomes a passive object who is subjected to having the “cause” of their disorder discovered and their symptoms interpreted by a professional who has gathered expertise in “unlocking the secrets of the disordered body”. The medical establishment minimise the social construction of eating disorders. McLean and Bridget (2000:276) follow Bordo (1993) by saying that the social constructionist view of eating disorders casts doubts on anorexia as psychopathology, and rather attends to the role culture, gender and social factors play. From a social construction point of view these are not individual factors but dominant cultural discourses.

Gremillion (2001:135) used an anthropological feminist approach in her studies of anorexia nervosa and found that this approach encourages questions about why eating disorders occur only in particular places, particularly in developed countries where there is an abundance of food. She says that the refusal of food needs to be seen against a historical and cultural context:

… it does seem likely that anorexia, whomever it affects, articulates certain culturally dominant ideals of “success”. My sense is that people struggling with anorexia have adopted and ethic of hard work and perseverance in their lives, and are really trying to build very powerful, good strong lives within certain parameters of contemporary Western culture. People struggling with anorexia have been caught up in ideas that are not of their own making, ideas that tend to be relatively individualistic, and that involve constantly comparing oneself to other people.

In her research Gremillion (2001:143) also found that anorexia depends upon very particular ideas about the self and the body, which are tied up with culturally and historically specific discourses of gender and individualism. That is why it does not surprise her to find that anorexia does not occur as often in communities where there is a more collective consciousness and where bodily experiences are not objectified and reduced to “things”.

Foucault (1977) suggested that through a technology of normalising judgement, power plays a significant role in the control of people’s lives and bodies. Gremillion (2001:149) says that if we regard anorexia and eating disorders from an individualistic standpoint, if we invite young women’s lives to be pathologised, then anorexia will continue to be seen as just another individual disorder. However, if we consider anorexia and eating issues to be “warning signals about the hazards of consumer culture, of the hazards of individualism, and of the hazards of a global economy in which certain groups enjoy abundance and other groups are marginalised, the hazards of the resourcing logic that we are applying to our bodies and our lives on the planet, then perhaps there will be the potential for dramatic social change…” (Gremillion 2001:149). The researcher agrees with her that questioning the consumer culture and its effects on women’s bodies would be beneficial to everybody.

6.1 Narrative reflections on Anorexia and Self-injury

6.1.1 Deconstructing discourses of pathology

Grace was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa when she was an adolescent.

She was admitted to a State mental hospital for treatment, which included behavior therapy, psychotherapy and nutritional therapy. Although these treatment regimens saved her life, she believed that they contributed to her perception of herself as a “faulty person” and gave birth to seventeen years in which she was both a victim and perpetrator of self-destructive behaviour. She said the ways the doctors and nurses treated her in the psychiatric system confirmed that she was an “evil person who deserved to suffer”. Grace explains how she experienced “being mentally ill”:

This admission was a nightmare experience. It formed my identity as a sick person. They put me in this place with these really crazy people. Being with those people told me that I belonged there, that I was as mad as a hatter, a lost case. It was the shock of my life. I identified with the patients and I started believing that I was just like them. I started believing that I will be as crazy as they were when I turn forty, that there was no hope for me. I started developing fears for my future. The dark story of my hopelessness and evil started here. I blamed myself for the anorexia; despite the fact that anorexia was an act of resistance against the chaos I was experiencing at home. My parents blamed me and accused me of upsetting a perfectly wonderful family life, and I took the blame.

Her experiences are in line with Favazza’s (1989) research and findings on medical attitudes towards self-injury, because mental illness and the use of psychiatric diagnoses prescribed the way in which Grace saw herself as a person. White (1995:112-113) says that due to the extraordinary investment in the development of discourses of pathology, therapists have at their disposal a vast array of ways of speaking with and interacting with people that reproduce the subject/object dualism that is so pervasive in structuring of relations in Western culture. He also says that the success of these discourses of pathology is beyond question, and that the hegemony of pathologising professional discourses represents one of the truly great marginalisations of contemporary culture:

These ways of speaking and interacting with people puts them on the other side of knowledge, on the outside. These ways of speaking and acting make it possible for mental health professionals to construct people as objects of psychiatric knowledge, to contribute to a sense of identity which has “otherness” as it central feature.

(White 1995:112-113)

In Grace’s story, the pathologising discourses of psychiatry and psychology not only convinced her of her otherness, but also of her failure as a person. The illness labels undermined her self-accusations and attributions of personal inadequacy to a certain extent, so she continued to consult with psychiatrists and psychologists in an ever-increasing desperation to find healing. The diagnoses and medication provided her with some relief from the stress of societal expectations she would have been subjected to if she were well. However, White (1995:118) believes that although he can appreciate arguments for the use of psychiatric labels, he has no doubt that the outcomes of the use of these diagnoses reflect what is accepted as being a “real” person in our culture:

… in order for people to break from these self-accusations and attributions of personal inadequacy, from the stress that is informed by the expectations about what it means to be a real person in our culture, and from the experiences of guilt that we have discussed, they must step into a site of “illness”. Illness is a site of culture, one that is structured, one that brings with it particular modes of life and thought.

(White 1995:118)

I researched all the diagnoses they gave me, because if something was wrong, I wanted to know how to fix it. I felt like a horrible, hysterical, over-the-top hopeless case. Nobody believed me that I wanted to be well. The doctors used to tell me to take my medication and live with it. That meant there was nothing they could do for me. I also always felt that they were not giving me all the information, as if they kept some coveted information for themselves. It felt as if they did not offer me any way to change; they were not prepared to partner with me to change; it felt unsolvable. It felt as if that was who I was and that I had to accept it as such. (Grace)

Grace identified fully with mental illness and mental illness constituted her identity as a person.

6.1.2 Separating the person from the problem

Grace and I agreed to use a narrative approach based on the framework of therapy designed in collaboration between David Epston and Michael White (Epston 1989, Epston et al 1992; Epston & White 1992, White 1989, White & Epston 1990). David Epston explains his commitment to this approach as follows:

Since 1986, I have become passionately committed to better understand and assist those persons oppressed by so-called anorexia/bulimia. What prompted me, amongst other concerns, was my dawning realization of the ways in which the objectifying practices of weighing, assessing, and measuring of women associated with the discourse of psychology and psychiatry could very well co-produce what is referred to as anorexia/bulimia in those very persons oppressed by anorexia/bulimia.

(Epston, Morris & Maisel 1998:149-150)

These authors described some steps therapists could take in the process of getting people free of Anorexia/Bulimia (1998:150-161). The steps they suggested were to engage in externalising conversations about anorexia/bulimia as something separate from and external to a person, so that “a linguistic space can be opened for persons to engage in their own assessment and evaluation of anorexia’s “rules of the concentration camp”, its “voice” and the practices of self and relationship it requires, for example, exile and isolation, self-surveillance, self-hatred, self-punishment/torture/execution etc.” (Epston et al 1998:151). Grace externalised her main problem as “SS”, or Self-Starvation and Self-sacrifice. Externalising the problem as “SS” undermined the guilt she felt and made it possible for her to put the blame on “SS”, challenging totalising descriptions of her as having the identity of a “self-mutilator” and an “anorexic”. It also provided us with a context in which Grace could recall current and historical resistance to “SS’s” dictatorship in her life. These resistances were recalled, explored in detail and celebrated as victories over the totalising effects of Self-starvation and its ally, Self-harm.

6.1.3 Exposing “SS”

Grace and I agreed never again refer to her in psychiatric terms, for example, as an anorexic, or as a depressive or as a self-mutilator. I suggested that we separate the problem from her as a person in order to join against the problem as a team. At the start of the therapy Grace externalised Self-Destruction as the main problem in her life. Self-Destruction referred to practices of cutting, overdosing, over-working as well as to practices of starvation and bingeing.

In the linguistic space created by externalising the problem, Grace and I were able to explore the invisible cultural discourses that strengthened and maintained Self-Destruction. It was in this space that we dared to say Anorexia’s name and to expose a list of its tricks and lies in Grace’s life. In this document Grace started calling Anorexia “SS”, which is short for Self-Starvation and for Self-Sacrifice:

Listing Anorexia’s Tricks and Lies

“SS” rubs my nose in the past. “SS” maintains a running cycle of despair, depression and anxiety set in motion by the trauma of Self Destructive behaviour.

“SS” tells me: “See, you cannot trust yourself to take part. Life is too much, too overwhelming. You are too fragile, too weak”. It also says: “You have to control the outcome and have guarantees. If you cut yourself you will bleed, and people will pay attention.”

Destructive behaviour promises a sure way to control the outcome of my actions and have guaranteed tragic results. “SS” tells me: “You have to control the outcomes” but I have chosen to live with uncertainty even if it tells me “You cannot live with the uncertainty of calculated risks”, “You cannot trust yourself and your decisions even if they look right, they could just be part of the reconstruction phase of building up —- to be followed by destruction. You are rigged to be destroyed”

“You have to fear your tendency to Self Destruct, it is part of who you are and you can’t let go of it”. You have lost so much already; too much. You are an invalid, a loser, incapable of participation”.

“Disempowerment, immobilisation by means of panic and anxiety and loss of self confidence is your lot.” “SS” convinces me to believe that “I cannot bear the anxiety I have to Self Destruct. I cannot bear the despair. I have to express it physically through physical harm by showing blood or emaciation”.

“Life is meaningless, its too late, I’ve had too much loss. There is so much suffering in the world and I cannot help anyone”. “You are a bad, evil person. You do not deserve to participate because of your horrible choices and behaviour”.

“Temporal Lobe Epilepsy disables you – you will never take part ok”. My biggest victory was that I was able to do two reflexology treatments while I had symptoms of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and proved to myself that I am able to participate; I can work and contribute to their budget and help other people despite the symptoms.

“SS” convinced me to believe that: “I’m feeling out of control, I feel as if I’m intruding into other people’s space if I’m not very thin.”

Grace’s List of Anorexia’s Tricks and Lies formed the subject of many therapeutic conversations. This document made it possible for us to explore some of the invisible normative messages she was brought up on and with which she disagreed. Many of these discourses corresponded with Neuger’s (2001) research on the contradictory messages of patriarchy (See Chapter 3.3).

Grace found that apart from being isolated by the patriarchal discourses that put a premium on independence and individuality, her history of mental illness incited her to police herself and to make sure that her behaviour was 100 percent “normal” all the time. Compounding the effects of her yearning for normality, were the discourses that women are weak and dependent on male protection. These beliefs prescribed her identities as wife and mother, and pressed her to perform at her optimum at all times. However, she also knew that as a woman she has the power to destroy the lives of her husband and children and Self-Destruction used her womanly power as a very potent weapon against her.

6.1.4 Deconstructing patriarchal religious power discourses

Within the Christian discourse, words carry enormous power and can entrap and control those who become entangled in them. Words are used within a cultural system to legitimise power and normalise relations of inequality (Bowie 1988:56-58). Patriarchal religious power discourses limited Grace’s preferred ways of expressing her spirituality. For example, Grace wanted to join a church of her choice when she was a young girl. Her father forbade it. He insisted that as long as she lives under his roof, she would attend the Dutch Reformed Church. His prescriptions confused her because she never saw her father as a particularly religious or God-fearing man. Furthermore, although the church holds up the principles of justice, it insists that women remain silent and submissive, whilst frequently disbelieving women who report abuse. She said the church did nothing to protect her mother from her father’s drunken rages and abuse, so she could not understand why she could not develop a spirituality of her own choice.

When Grace married Pieter, although he is very different to her father she felt sh had to subscribe to his belief system because she was afraid that he might reject her:

Pieter is a naturalist and a pagan scientist who loves mountains. I suppressed my own spirituality to make sure that he did not reject me. To be honest, I was so confused I did not know what my own belief system was.


The scientific psychiatric perspective on mental illness which regards many supernatural events as pathology, combined with her need to please Pieter by adhering to his spiritual beliefs, affected Grace’s spirituality adversely. Whenever Grace had visions or heard voices, whether they were hostile or friendly, her doctors and her husband immediately assumed that she was out of touch with reality and therefore psychotic. Grace did not find all the voices and visions troubling but the psychiatric and scientific discourses were dominant and immediately marginalised all her spiritual experiences as pathology.

On the other hand, in African traditional healing visions and voices are forms of connectedness with the divine are sought after and embraced: Traditional healers believe in their ancestral spirits who function in this world much like guardian angels (Campbell 1998:38). Campbell (1998:78) describes “sangoma sickness” as it was told to her by a sangoma :

Early in 1978, out of the blue, I became very, very ill. I was experiencing the “sangoma sickness”. My ancestors were trying to get me to accept this calling to traditional medicine. I refused. I consulted a variety of medical specialists but found no relief. Finally a visit to an old man in the town of Hershel in the former Transkei homeland brought me relief. I had seen this exact man in a vision and was told he would be my teacher. I trained under this man, this healer. I became his thwasa (in Zulu) or mokoma (in Setswana). To qualify as a traditional healer under this master healer, the old man required me to experience and understand visions. Visions were already coming fast and steadily to me, especially in the first five months. While in training, the visions accelerated my learning and within two years, I was an inyanga, a sangoma.

The African traditional approach to voices and visions made sense to Grace. She chose to be guided by traditional African knowledges and to combine it with the teachings of Reiki and reflexology to embody her spirituality. The literature regarding on the “Companions on a Journey ” project in Dulwich Newsletter (1997) also contributed to her ability to learn to differentiate between negative, harmful and hostile voices, and the gentle caring and loving voices she believed were from angels. She found it affirming to “keep” the gentle voices as guides and spiritual companions without being considered “totally psychotic”. Although this is an uncommon alternative spiritual site for a White Afrikaans woman, it is a site in which she found spiritual strength to fight against the problem of Anorexia and “SS” for her health. Because I was studying the phenomenon of failed personhood from a conditionalist approach, it is impossible to separate religious discourses from the wider socio-cultural contexts of Grace’s life. The dominant religious discourses of her home of origin and the alternative religious discourses that strengthened her husband’s spirituality were not helpful for her. Grace had to develop her own spiritual site in which she could be safe and secure. She developed her spiritual breathing space in the spaces between religion and culture:

6.1.5 Grace’s Core Credo

Grace focused on clarifying her different individual spiritual truths and even though she found it a scary exercise, she compiled a logical, analytical “Current Credo under Construction:”

Determine which ideas, emotions and feelings are no longer of value, so they can be filtered out to make way for the new. ; Chris Stormer in “Reflexology: A Definitive Guide.”

I have filtered 1000s of pages I have read and written, 1000s of observations and conversations and experiences… to pour clear water into the following vessel of words:

I believe

There is only one God: the God of Love, God of All that Is and Is Not.

All Beings remain equally Loved parts of God.

On earth we experience Oneness in Love through also experiencing the opposite: fear, darkness, and division.

We can Trust the Voice of Love… in the teachings of Jesus and other Love teachers; in Ourselves; in Others; and in the Flow of the All.

When I stand my ground to go beyond fear, I swallow the above words. They become part of my whole body. So when I open my mouth, I voice more clearly.


Grace found hope and moral agency in her ability to co-construct her preferred spirituality and belief system. The following drawing by Grace depicts her strength as a woman who has an identity of moral agency and hope:

6.1.5 Fighting Perfectionism

Some socio-religious discourses convince women that they embody moral and spiritual purity in their endurance, steadfastness, and lack of self-interest as woman and mother (Neuger 2001). This belief led Grace to strive for perfection in the running of her home, the upbringing of her children, her partnership with Pieter; in fact, it ruled her whole life. She understood that she needed to be an available, patient and supportive nurturer of her family at all times. She could not allow herself to slip or ever lose her temper, for example. If she did anything of perfect she felt worthless and saw imperfection as proof of her essentially evil nature, resulting in serious self-harm. In the following letter I purposely did not correct any spelling mistakes or typing errors, because the errors represent her resistance to Perfectionism. This letter was written during her training as a Reki practitioner and reflexologist. Her course required of her to write a thesis as part of the qualification as traditional healer.


Subject: we have won this round

Date: Tue, 15 May 2001 13:03:50 +0200

From: Grace

To: Jo Viljoen



Dear David, Jo, Pieter & everybody else who wants to read about this victory,

Perfection had been using my thesis to TRY AND LURE me back into anorexia/bulimia/threatening self-harm. It turned my thesis into a monster, a nightmare of demands to do it perfectly and brilliantly despite being unwell and burnt out. I was temporarily driven back into the “SS” concentration camp. I have chosen to turn around the thesis into an act of protest against Perfectionism. An act of living the waterway and being in the present moment. I allow myself to lie down when I am having a bad seizure. To quote from the introduction to my thesis under construction: “I am indeed using the regular practice of Rei-flexology to turn the writing of this thesis into a very courageous act of INPURFECTION (VERY VERY DIFFICULT FOR ME AS TECHNICAL AS TECHICAL AND CREATIVE WRITER AND AS MEMBER OF THIS SOCIETY). Rei-flexology is an act and manifestation of imperfection. I am choosing not to fine-tune/distil/perfect/trim the contents and just to let it flow. Please celebrate every imperfection of this piece of work with me”.

My list of victories

Last night I had a whole plate full of food

In the last week I attended two socials with highbrow socialites and not once felt inferior. Last night I did not force myself to exercise and am choosing to restart exercising as soon as blackouts stop. I allowed myself some energy therapy for the first time in three months; had music therapy with Chris Tokalon yesterday. Amazing results. I silenced “SS” to contact my doctor and adjust my medication appropriately. I am so excited because I have secured a work contract at Dr L where I will be treating her staff on site with Rei-flexology during June. Lekker ne! (Roughly translated as “Cool bananas!” Good, eh?). I can choose to eat and not to starve my body of nutrition. I have the right to eat. I have the right to forget about self-harm and focus impurfectly on self-care. So there “SS”!!!!!!!!! Another one bites the dust!!!!! And just to keep me focused, with my impurfect thesis: “The less effort and the more powerful you will be (Bruce Lee)”

(Co-constructed during therapy session with Jo)

Grace speaks as follows of her experiences with Perfectionism:

I was driven by perfectionism. I had to be the perfect wife and mother and constantly worked at being perfect. On the surface I looked perfect, but under the surface I was struggling and angry. Eventually the demands became too much for me and the volcano erupted. That was exactly ten years ago.

One day somebody made a comment about my weight at work. I was furious. I stopped eating. I worked 24 hours a day. I stopped sleeping. All I did was work. You see, I believed that the only telltale outward sign that I was not perfect was that I was over weight. I believed that if I lost weight everything would be fine.

To complicate matters, during that period of my life I had a brief affair with a woman. This transgression convinced me that I was a bad person and that I needed to annihilate my femininity. This committed me totally to self-destruction and devoted my time to protecting my husband and children from my inherent evil. I wanted to die. It was a systematically planned process to destroy myself; to kill the fire in my body and my mind and my spirit.

I became a phoenix; a person who tragically but heroically struggles but miraculously recovers from mental illness. Over the years I learnt how to make miraculous recoveries after burning out, by putting together the “perfect personality “. For example, I’d come home from mental hospital and be the perfect mother, wife and employee.

If I was not perfect, it was a sign to me that I was really evil, and needed to be removed from society. My art therapist was a psychoanalyst. She was convinced that I was a danger to my children and had to be removed from them. She said Pieter and I were “co-dependent”, that I played the victim and that he played the role of the rescuer. Those beliefs made me feel like an even bigger failure.

“SS” SPECIALISES IN HALF TRUTHS TO CONFUSE ME. I then ask myself what is the real, full truth based on self-love? Then I choose to replace the false notion/trick/lie and I choose to let go of it and embrace the loving truth.”

I had a huge victory over “SS”. People do not act before they see blood or emaciation. The blood usually has to flow first before anyone listens. They think I have cried wolf for too many years. This happened to my uncle Jan as well, and he eventually wiped out. I had symptoms for two days. I was overwhelmed and felt l disintegrated. It was severe, acute, but I did not give in to “SS”. I did nothing Self Destructive. I did this with self-care. I phoned you, Jo, and you came around. I verbalised despair instead of forcing them to take care of me. My loved ones showed their concern and took my cries for help seriously.

Our efforts gradually revealed that our society’s allegiance to an anorexic lifestyle lay behind every act of self-destruction Grace had ever committed. The first step in getting free from anorexia or bulimia begins when a person becomes more fully aware of the physical, emotional, spiritual and relationship cost of an allegiance to an anorexic/bulimic lifestyle (Epston 1998:150).

6.1.6 Understanding the Anti-Anorexia/Bulimia league

The Anti-Anorexia/Bulimia League, archived by David Epston, is an extremely important resource on Grace’s journey. David Epston (2001) explains how the League came about:

Bob Dylan sang something to the effect – “If you are going to live outside the law, you had better know what the law is!” The philosopher, Michel Foucault, advised the documentation, authentication and circulation of “alternative knowledges” if they were to do what he proposed was their work – that of critique. I have always kept this in mind. Anti-anorexic documentation has taken many forms and the “itineraries” of their circulation have become international, now being carried by fax and e-mail. Perhaps the five boxes currently stored in my garage will soon move to some hypertext or electronic home. To be sure, I’ll still keep my boxes of archives as back-up.

(Epston 2001

David Epston chose the term “archives” as an archive, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, “is a place where public records are held”. In the early days, the archive operated in a very crude way – he would Xerox copies of archival material and post them on request. These archives have been both a resource to and exemplary tales of a “counter-practice” commonly known as anti-anorexia/ anti-bulimia.

Many of the first generation of League membership bitterly complained that the various professional literatures concerning anorexia/bulimia either dismayed them or made them actively ill. The more auto-biographical genre of the “I am an anorexic” type seemed to offer readers little chance for escape. More than anything else, it remains a literature of despair.

From 1992 on, many League members had been urging me to compile the archives and make them available by way of a book. As such, this would have required the format of an encyclopaedia and I doubt if any publisher would have considered that a viable proposal. I could not imagine my way out of this until I hit upon the idea of a conventional book (well, not really that conventional) that could be read for itself at the same time as serving as an orientation for a more complete archives, lodged on a web-site. Hypertext space is far more generous and less costly that textual (book) space. Otherwise, I should have been required to reduce say 5,000 pages down to 200 pages and no matter how hard I tried, it was an utter impossibility. The integrity of the archives had to be maintained at all costs rather than an “anti-anorexic” book of greatest hits.

I envision such an archives of resistance to be both a resource and a platform for anti-anorexic developments that are as yet currently unimaginable to me. I hope too that it will be the means to a movement that will operate both underground and above ground conscientiously object to, resist and finally repudiate anorexia and bulimia.

(Epston 2001

All the contributors to the Archives of the Anti-Anorexia/Anti-bulimia league are bound together by this website in a “community of concern” of archival knowledge that provided a place to speak from and retreat to.

Such records of resistance tell too of the horrors and inhumanity of anorexia/bulimia, and lifts those up who have suffered and are suffering so that we can witness their testimonies, keep their legacies alive and most importantly pay them our respects.

(Epston 2001

Once provided with the means to speak against anorexia/bulimia, almost to a person, aged 12 years of age and over, everyone has railed against many of the “psychological” and “psychiatric” constructions of them as “anorexics” or “bulimics”. The “stories” from the insiders are incomparable to the stories written about them by outsiders. Why is it that insiders regularly refer to anorexia as either a grotesque manifestation of evil or the devil when such terms have otherwise been consigned to the dictionaries of the histories of words?

These documents can take many forms as you will see but what is common to them all is their manner of speaking – anti-anorexia – an anti-language, a radical form of an externalizing conversation.

(Epston 2001

I turned to the League in desperation at the end of 2000 when I started to fear for Grace’s life. The purpose of the league is to traverse the questionable ideological and fiscal gaps that lie within the traditional treatment terrain of mental health. The league promotes the idea of interdependence and a collective consciousness. Its playing field is two-fold: firstly preventive education through a call for professional and community responsibility and secondly an alternative and unconventional support system for those women caught between hospitals and community psychiatry (Epston 1998:138).

Anti-anorexia differs from most modernist treatments of anorexia. Zimmerman and Dickerson (1995) suggest that most modern treatments of anorexia seem to play into anorexia’s hands. Any treatment based on the notion of individual or family pathology supports the construct that the person in the problem. Zimmerman et al (1995) further claim that many therapists inadvertently recreate the conditions that support anorexia, by using the tactics that anorexia itself employs. These tactics include hospitalisation, resulting in the isolation of person, ongoing evaluations (of the person and of weight), the removal of the person’s entitlement to her own experiencing (e.g. by suggesting she no longer knows what is going on).

According to Epston (2001) Anti-anorexia is strengthened by “community”, which, of itself, contradicts anorexia’s solitary confinements. Furthermore, anti-Anorexia is a site of resistance to the oppression of the force, which is anorexia. Anti-anorexia’s counter-force comes from a moral vantage point, resisting the so-called “truths”, “norms” and “reason” of anorexia:

Anti-anorexia can be contacted merely by attempting to break free of the “concentration camp” of Anorexia. Immediately you know that it is no summer camp. When you hit the barbed wire, you then know that anorexia is not your “nature” but your imprisonment, with your execution as your only departure. Anorexia tries to camouflage this with the same slogan that derided the inmates of Auschwitz (ARBEIT MACHT FREI= Work/Perfection Will Set You Free!)

(Epston 2001,

6.2The virtual response team

Towards the end of 2000 Self-Destruction took possession of Grace. Her family and I were all afraid that she might kill herself. In a desperate attempt at learning more about anti-Anorexia and new ways in which I could support Grace’s determination to live a life of her own choosing, Grace gave me permission to contact the Anti-Anorexia league by e-mail. David Epston replied to my letter, and we engaged in a three-way therapeutic exchange that continued for a year. He referred Grace and I to an article by Lane, Epston and Winter (2001). This paper tells the story of a therapist, Lane, who was “stuck, overwhelmed and isolated by a problem that seemed to defy therapeutic techniques and skills and personal commitment and determination”. Instead of giving up, she reached out to her support network and because no alternative seemed available at the time, this reaching out took place by fax. However, what started out as a choice of last resort revealed a range of therapeutic possibilities that Grace, David and I were able to extend via electronic mail.

It was a tremendous privilege and a great relief for both Grace and myself to be in contact with David Epston, who along with Michael White founded the narrative approach to therapy. Although the bulk of the responsibility for the therapy lay with me, David Epston proved to be a wonderful mentor as he reflected on our therapeutic process via electronic mail. His “electronic” voice became an integral part of our therapy-talk and often times he guided us out of desperate waters. The following letter from David Epston spells out the risks and ways of working that we embarked upon as Grace’s virtual response team. Grace and I corresponded with one another between therapy sessions using our e-mail facilities, and we usually wrote in either Afrikaans or English, as we are both comfortable in either one of these languages. During our electronic conversations with David Epston, we only wrote in English to accommodate his understanding of our communications:

Date: Dec 15th 2000

Dear Jo:

Jo, I want you to know that we are all in this together and I am including Grace, Pieter, etc. I know you wouldn’t have contacted me if it wasn’t possibly Grace’s “final fight for her life”; I am really happy to join you and admittedly there are “risks” but those “risks” are nothing by comparison to not doing everything possible at this time. I would ask that you discuss a “there is no such thing as a mistake” policy with Grace and Pieter- let’s replace that with “a golden opportunity to know each other so much better” policy. I would ask that you send Grace and Pieter copies of letters on the understanding that they are complex and will take some time in conversation to “see” them through to answers, which quite likely will engender more questions.

Can you discuss this with Grace so that she is aware that these “letters” are merely the means to further conversation(s), ones that I can share in? I would not be surprised, as has been the case so, you, Grace and Pieter may have conversations of your own that you might wish me to join in. If so, I can’t wait! If there is anyone who made a mistake, it is me! I got into a “rush”, thinking I would be away for 5 weeks, thinking that I had to initiate sufficient “conversations” to keep you “busy” in the meantime. As I mentioned, that is no longer the case as I will be back at my computer a week over my holidays and can keep in touch with you and Grace.

Jo, I have no doubt you will no more than justice to these “questions”. As for “methodology”, I would like to think you and Grace will work out something that suits you both. But here are some suggestions- you could send the letter to Grace for her to “just go over it out of interest” and when you meet you could agree to either work through them systematically or alternatively just attend to whatever catches Grace’s fancy (or indeed yours) e.g. “Grace, I found this question extremely thought-provoking…. read it…that it ring a bell for you? What is critical is that you provide me with “verbatim” responses, indicating as much as possible, what question Grace is replying to? e.g. “Both Grace and I found this question- …- very provocative. My reason for that was….; Grace was surprised when I told her told as she……. But what she had to say- …… I wouldn’t have been able to predict. We went on in our conversation from there and this is our joint summary of that…………

Jo, as we go along, feel free to ask any questions, knowing that there aren’t any real answers but only inventions.

I invite you to share in these inventions. Remember, we are in “terra incognita”, the land beyond the known. I suspect you and Grace will find your own ways through “terra incognita” and I would ask that you keep me informed of any of your ways, as your ways will most likely be the most opportune, the most salient and the most apposite.

Jo, the best way to approach this approach is with daring.

Best wishes,


David .


In order to share with the reader the spirit of collaboration and the practice of radical externalising conversations between David Epston, Grace and myself, I am including an excerpt from one of the e-mail conversations between us. Grace wrote the letter and sent it to me, I forwarded it to David Epston, and he replied to me. Grace and I then re-read his reflections and discussed his thoughts and comments in the safety of our therapeutic relationship. The speed and accessibility of electronic mail matched the urgency of some of our communications, connecting the three of us instantly. (Grace wrote in normal print, and David Epston’s reply to her is in capital letters for easier reading):


Subject: Re: [Fwd: Response please: struggling]

Date: Fri, 20 Apr 2001 19:01:03 -0700

From: David Epston

To: Jo Viljoen


Grace: Dear Jo, David, Pieter, and myself (= my formidable response team)

Let me now once again stand on the truths and my right to self-construct with you as witnesses.



Grace: As I have said before: no amount of “resistance-writing” (!!) that I did in my diaries in the past ever had as much power as the writings we have been sharing.


Grace: “SS” cannot convince me that these Resistance Documents are “just my self-centered little scribblings”.


Grace: I go back to our communications and stand on them when under attack from “SS”. I thank all 3 of you for your ongoing response and guidance and confirmation of the truth.


Grace: David and Jo, thanks especially for your ongoing prompt, thorough responses and [never ending :)] health-provoking questions and “homework”. Pieter, thanks especially for your unwavering belief in me and the sweet little vase of flowers and gourmet meal yesterday evening when you saw that I was struggling. To my children: Thanks for giving me hugs when you can see that I’m struggling. Thanks for insisting that I spend fun, relaxed time with you.


Grace: Thanks ahead for bearing with this long letter and sharing with me the long slow miracle of recovery from Anorexia and Self-Destruction.


Grace: I am struggling. My eating behaviour is slightly buggered: I now have this repeating pattern of bingeing at night about once a week, only after taking Stilnox (sleeping tablet) and no vomiting. This seems to be the only time I do not have full command of my choices and “SS” seizes the opportunity.


Grace: Initially I did not get too upset about this and decided that it was no good to be perfectionistic about eating perfectly right. But now it is clear that “SS” is using this to erode my strength. It upsets and seems to scare Pieter, which alienates me even more from him. Panic and lies: “you are already self-destructing…bad person…can just as well give up totally to self destruction and eating disorder…bad person… deserve to suffer, etc.”


Grace: So, I am choosing …


Grace: … now to take a lot of time out from work and other responsibilities for a few days, to rest and relax and recover.


Grace: And to identify “the problems” and find solutions; to identify the “SS” lies (that tell me “you are the problem”) &endash; and replace them with the truth. To take stock of how things are going, which changes I can make to facilitate healing and keep my strength up. But a foul combination of “SS” and my low resources is making it near impossible for me to do the above.

I also want to make sure I implement a more balanced approach in general. I am still working too hard. Giving too much importance to work, my responsibilities, and heavy issues. I’m always either busy or thinking/worrying about what i should be busy with even in my dreams at night.


Grace: I am not having enough fun/relaxation/family time. Becoming alienated/introverted. Becoming more and more exhausted, anxious, depressed, starting to despair. This is an old “workaholic” pattern of attaching too much value to active participation. “SS” has always thrived on this pattern.



6.3 Mapping and tracking the successes of her life story

Language is a very central part of those activities that define and construct persons. White and Epston (1990:188) recognised that modern documents have an elevated status as is reflected in the increasing need to rely upon documents for a variety of decisions about the worth of a person. Documentation plays an important role in the professional disciplines. White and Epston (1990:188) note that she subject of most professional documents is a person who submits to, or has been submitted for, evaluation, while the “author of the document is a person skilled in the rhetoric pertaining to a specific domain of expert knowledge”. The author as expert has a myriad of terms and definitions at his or her disposal, which are regarded as the property of his/her domain of expertise.

Professional documents have a life independent of their authors and subjects

(Epston 1990:118). Documents are shaped by rhetoric and this rhetoric serves to establish, in the reader, a certain impression of the character and the moral qualities of the writer in a given situation:

Thus, documents are a vehicle for the presentation and display of the author’s worth according to moral criteria that have been established in a particular discipline. And so doing, such documents shape the author’s life as they do the subject’s.

(White & Epston 1990:189)

In Grace’s long and illustrious career as a mental patient, she has been described and re-described by the professional disciplines of psychiatry and psychology, and these descriptions of her constituted her identity as a person with a deficit, a person who has sites of pathology that could not be fixed.

6.4 Alternative practices of documentation

White and Epston (1990:190) contrast alternative practices of documentation with the documentation or foiling system used in the professional disciplines. They suggest that narrative therapists use alternative forms of documentation that encourage a wide readership and are associated with “rituals of inclusion” as opposed to documents that permit only a narrow readership of professional experts. Alternative documents like awards, certificates and letters extend the therapeutic conversations and become useful counter-practices in therapy. One such document was Grace’s Bill of Rights:

6.4.1 BILL OF RIGHTS 21/02/2001

  • It is my right to cope in real life
  • It is my right to use my gifts, resources and support system to cope
  • It is my right to take part in the projects I choose
  • It is my right to have a certain measure of success
  • It is my right to feel uncertain/confused/stressed when a lot of things are changing and I am facing a lot of challenges
  • It is also my right to relax and
  • It is my right to trust that I will cope with life’s challenges – maybe not perfectly, but well enough
  • It is my right to fail at certain tasks or projects and still be ok with myself and know that I can never fail as a person in this life.
  • It is my right to become ill sometimes
  • It is my right to take responsibility for balance when I am ill but not to take the blame
  • It is my right to resist Self-starvation
  • It is my right to feel and have and struggle with anxiety/TLE/depression and not pretend it is all-OK
  • It is my right to make a choice at this age (33) to go in a totally different direction with my life and not to reverse back to self-starvation but to choose to stay on the road of life
  • It is my right to make mistakes in this fight against Self-starvation
  • It is my right to have small relapses/slips back to self-starvation but to choose not to punish myself by slipping further. (This work carried me through the night).
  • It is my right to choose to forgive myself and engage with life and self care.
  • It is my right to forgive myself
  • I have the right to let go of and expose perfectionism and self-starvation’s lies in all my chosen participation
  • I have the right to believe that all the challenges are part of my life lessons and that I have the strength to bear all those lessons however difficult and painful and learn from them. I have the right to engage this strength.
  • I have the right to fight for my life in the real world
  • I have the right to expose the lies of self-starvation
  • I have repeatedly recovered and engaged my strength and ability to fight for my life
  • It is my right to ask God to bless my participation and to believe that it will be so
  • It is my right to be in the moment and to let go of the past and future
  • It is my right to be a good mother and a good partner, but imperfekt
  • It is my right to mourn the sadness and misery of the human existence
  • It is my right to express this sadness and mourning in healthy ways, i.e. writing, drawing, talking, singing, crying. This is a form of Righting the injustices of anorexia.
  • It is my right to celebrate and enjoy the wonder of human existence, the love, the Joy, the beauty.
  • It is my right to use my sense of humor to cope with life.
  • It is my right to suffer sometimes and to thrive sometimes
  • It is my right to get regular exercise when I can and want to
  • It is my right to be a coach potato when I’m dilapidated/tired.
  • It is my right to feel sick and angry about the discrepancies in society

I encouraged Grace to use her art, poetry and writing as alternatives to self-injury and as counter-voicing strategies of her experiences with Anorexia. I include her written dismissal of Anorexia here as an example of her resistance documentation.




To the no-longer-dear negative sabotaging voices,

I’m ready now to no longer give you airtime. I choose to give the airtime in my mind and spirit and body to the truth about my life, my potential, strength, and wholeness.

I reclaim my freedom to take part in all I choose for my life, without the burden of listening to you and bargaining with you for every positive move I want to make. I choose to dismiss you on the grounds that:

Ever since I was 10 you insidiously attempted to destroy my life by convincing me that your lies were the truth. These are the biggest illusions and lies you sold to me as the truth were the following:

That Life was overwhelming; too much for me, and that the only solutions were illness, self-destructive behaviour, disintegration, and mental illness. You convinced me that if my creative products were not perfect, I had to abort them, that I was unworthy of love from God, others, and myself that I was an outsider. You promised me that Self-destructive behaviour and remaining constantly wounded would keep me immune from getting hurt in life, and that it was dangerous to be healthy, strong and empowered. You lied when you said that to assert my own individuality was disrespectful and hurtful to others.

I carried guilt for making mistakes out of ignorance and unawareness. You made me earn my right to exist and participate in life by performing brilliantly and perfectly in all respects.

You convinced me that illness was my fault and punishable, that self-destructive solutions were good for me and my loved ones, that self-forgiveness was impossible because my sins were too great, too dark, too deep, too horrible and that I was intrinsically a bad person.

I had to prove that I deserved help and support and love by being acutely ill. You forced me to live out the above lies; to actualise them in reality, by incessantly brainwashing me, demanding these results from me, despite the hurtful and painful effects on my life and my world.

This unfair contribution has become totally unacceptable. Seeing as we both know that these ideas are false, it makes you guilty of deceit, abuse, betrayal, and violence and deserving of immediate dismissal from my life. You tried to steal my birthright to be happy and whole.

You have become redundant, seeing as you have no other function or use besides keeping me from taking part in life as a healthy person. You only served to isolate me from my life’s tasks, my loved ones and myself.

You trapped me in a network of false accusations and linked unrealistic demands. There is no job left for you to do in my mind, spirit or body.

You enlisted a series of dark allies to carry out your devious, sabotaging plan. These included:

Fear, depression, paralysis of my will, overdrive mode with resulting burn out, various eating disorders, compulsive obsessive behaviour, self-mutilation, offensive and disruptive behaviour, mental illness, disintegration of my self, hallucinations, rages and anger, self-doubt and doubt in God’s guidance, distrust of others’ love and good intentions, isolation, guilt, anxiety, habitual negative emotions that became addictive, seizures, driven-ness, hypersensitivity, and performance anxiety.

As you know, I have chosen to stop believing you and chosen to use this energy to believe in the truth. Now I am not even interested in hearing you at all, not even in the background. I am not interested in negotiating and bargaining with you any more. I now choose to channel my life energy into listening to and telling the truth of love, light and healing.

I will not allow you to waste the time, and energy I now choose to spend on nurturing and holding my loved ones and myself.

These are the truths about my life and me:

I am a strong, brave, empowered woman

I empower others by being me

I trust myself

I have strong trust connection with God

I am committed to myself and my loved ones

I can accommodate others without self sacrifice

I am realistic

I forgive others and myself continuously.

I take responsibility for my mistakes but I feel OK about my past, present and future mistakes

I have fun being human

I now tackle problems one hour at a time

I can focus on the truth

I can let go of what I don’t need

I can recover quickly from illness; I’m resilient and can negotiate the rapids of life without jumping off the raft.

I can create and set safe boundaries.

I am committed to change and growth, continuously.

I can contain myself during highs and lows and seizures.

I am consistent and persistent

My commitments are now a motivation for me to stay well

I can pace myself, self-care never mind what the conditions

I know when to ask for help and support and I do this trustingly

I can assert my ideas and needs respectfully&emdash;whether ill or healthy

I trust in God’s guidance, which liberates me to rest and play

This path of healing and positive break through’s has been possible because I refused to listen to you any longer. And I refuse to listen to you now, or in future.

Goodbye. Good riddance.




Witness: Jo Viljoen Witness: Pieter Muller

6.4.3 Resistance poetry

Grace has a remarkable poetic talent. Although Afrikaans is her mother tongue, Grace is fully bilingual and can express herself eloquently in both Afrikaans and English. She wrote the following resistance poems in English :


From the carcass of the Beast: SEVEN POEMS (by Grace April 2001)

Let our souls soak

in the honey

of the stories

we bring forth

from the carcass

of the beast

as riddles:


1. Prayer

2. To eat or be eaten

3. Resurrection

4. BreakFast

5. Being

6. To hold or let go

7. Declaration



dead flowers

just fall



will you teach me

to just let go

knowing of

the compost

I must be

for next time’s me

To eat or be eaten

some days ago

this well-known shadow

started licking at my skin


soon eating tiny bites

to challenge and

excite me for the fight:

now greedy gashes

and delighted horror

at the painful mess


my fleshy strength

goes lost as

it eats more

and I eat

less and






for that moment when

my healthy hungriness exceeds

the dark one’s needs

so I can say ‘now go away

again you’ve lost the fight!’

and I’ll be generous again

and take brave bites of light


and now

after many days

she sees

she’s strong alone

and none of them

are looking now

but One who nods

for her to go


she tears

herself loose

bleeding freely

from the nails

they all had hammered

in together







calling over her shoulder

as she strides away

for her family to rise


let me

trust my self


as I trust

each mouthful

of this

warm oatmeal

to be

simply sweet and good


just the delight

in my pen that is scratching

as dark ink is drying

in writing


To hold or let go

When I picked this daisy

from the compost heap

she was dying

crisp and dry

as this page on which

my fingers start a story

holding her

hoping for life


I see she has been left

a blunt stump

in the place of roots


further up the thin stem

I feel the pale green

she is holding onto

in her leaves

her head is turned away

her petals saturated grey

dust where I touch a

smell of earthy decay

my fingers stiffen at a cobweb



I let her go


she falls

face turned up

to show the live yellow

of many little pointed

seeds &emdash;

stories just dry

enough to fly



I am the warrior

who fought for death

to bring in life


I’m well and fired up to tell

fierce stories peacefully


I’m strong enough

to stand in night


awake enough to bear

the child that came

from loving darkness:




These poems, authored by Grace shows how she plays a central role in the specification of her own self. In so doing, she becomes conscious of her participation in the constitution of her own life. This leads to a profound sense of personal responsibility, as well as, a sense of possessing the capacity to intervene in the shaping of her life and relationships.

Her work of art, Seeding, and her comments accompany these poems:


Stories are like seeds. I need to trust to let some parts of my story go, to sow them freely like seeds, so they can settle in the fertile ground of other people’s life stories. There the seeds can germinate and grow into healthy plants, feeding on the compost of anorexia.

This is self-nourishment, livening up, preparing for life and the next season. New life sprouts forth in the form of new living segments of the universe and myself; we are all one, all part of one another, part of the universe. My seed-stories can fly and plant seeds in the life stories of others.


6.4.4 Art and therapy

There were times when Grace’s artwork expressed her emotions and direction in life better than words alone. We included her art in the therapy, enabling me to “see” and share her experiences more fully. During our conversations she formulated words to describe what she was depicting in her art. I am including some examples of this art and therapy process as we used it to help Grace strengthen her voice against anorexia. Weeding Anorexia out



Anti-anorexia is like weeding the soil of the mind; it is an ongoing process, it is a lifelong process. The more fertile the soil of the soul, spirit and mind the more weeds there seem to be. The weed metaphor describes Perfectionism. The weed of perfectionism should be plucked out by its roots: it does not help to treat the symptoms only.

Society will have to face the ways in which it fertilizes the roots of Perfectionism, e.g. by prescribing that our value as human beings has to be earned through performance. Anorexia/bulimia leads to institutionalised treatment, and sometimes the symptoms disappear, but the roots remain firmly embedded in the fibre of society.

The third eye in the painting is the symbol for insight/vision. This is an important trick: nobody can pluck the root out for you because nobody else has access. You have the vision to see the truth, to cut through the crap. It is incredibly difficult because Anorexia/Bulimia is a manifestation of the way in which Perfectionism emotionally, spiritually and physically starves us. Society refuses to see this and individuals end up being labelled and institutionalised.

If you drink the water of Perfection to earn your self-value you will remain thirsty and dry. If you drink the water of truth, the fact that you have consistent value, that God is within and can choose to believe it, you can stop struggling desperately to meet up to society’s demands and your own internalised societal norms. Children are able to pluck out the weeds, but somewhere along the line they also choose to betray their truths to fit in with the rest.

(Grace) Mask



Mask is an African tribal expression of the paradox of joy and sorrow. I was inspired by Kahlil Gibran’s writings on Joy and Sorrow:” The depth of my joy/happiness is the measure of my sadness.”

The mask depicts the existence of a simultaneous duality. The one side is affirming and speaks of Life, Love and Light, while the other side belongs to Self-starvation and anorexia. Self-starvation and Anorexia want me to close my eyes to life and dis-affirms my right to live as I choose. The third eye symbolizes INSIGHT: It means I am able to see beyond the duality and to accept MY truth as MY RIGHT to live. The truth is that Self-starvation feeds on half-truths and poorly disguised lies. I can accept the truth “The truth will set me free (like prune juice!)”

The truth is I am scared of going home from the clinic, so Self-starvation convinces me that if I eat the way it wants me to, the voices and images will remain alive… Bulimia wants me to eat and eat and eat, as overeating is a gateway to the symptoms of illness, e.g. self-harm and voices. Anorexia/Bulimia isolates me from my loved ones and chains me in fear of perfection…the nurses will not understand this and inject me with more sedatives, resulting in a longer hospital stay. Anorexia wants me to miss my work opportunities and become an invalid.


Perfectionism expects me to participate 100% once I am home, BUT I won’t:

I choose to accept my current reality: I will not be able to drive my car for a while and I will accept challenges at my own pace because I will still be slightly affected by the long acting medications I have received in the clinic. I will take my time. Bulb

 Holding A Bulb

Holding a bulb


The bulb is Grace’s metaphor for hope. She says, hope of a new life is represented in the bulb:

I root myself to the earth, just as the bulb will. I use this as a logo for my work: I believe in holding a safe space for both partners and in sharing energy as the way to grow. The bulb is the antithesis to Self Starvation: it represents life at its core. Holding a bulb symbolizes the possibility of believing that when you invest in something you can expect a wonderful return.

Planting a bulb promises the growth of a beautiful plant; it speaks of patience and resilience, faith and vision, and hope.

I have the guts to hold a bulb because it is fragile and symbolizes growth, health and life. I have the guts to hold on to the possibility of growth, life and healing. The holder becomes part of the bulb; becomes rooted. THE LEAF GROWING OUT OF THE BULB IS A STRONG INDICATOR THAT THIS BULB IS GOING TO MAKE IT! It also represents the flame of light and hope, like holding a candle.


The incorporation of a wider readership and the recruitment of an audience contribute not just to the survival and consolidation of new meanings, but also to a revision of the pre existing meanings (White & Epston 1990:191). Grace’s images, poetry and messages Grace were so actively Anti-Anorexic, I asked her permission to show David Epston what she had produced. In collaboration with the Webmaster of the website, Dean Lobovits, Grace’s artwork was published as resistance art to Anorexia as part of archives of the Anti-Anorexia/Anti-Bulimia League.

6.5 Self-value as resistance strategy

Listening deconstructively results in the development of “openings” in conversations that allow people to think more directly about their life experiences. I became interested in Grace’s effects on the life of the problem, “SS”, and asked her questions like: “Can you remember a time when “SS” tried to get an upper hand and you succeeded in resisting its influence?” I was as surprised as she was when she started telling me about the successes in her life, despite “SS”‘s presence. Anorexia had deceived Grace into believing the problem-saturated part of her story for so many years, that she delighted in recalling the successes of her life. She remembered years in which she had no problem with “SS”, as well as ways in which she was determined to overcome its effect on her life. In response to my question: If you were to track the successes and victories of your life story, what would you be able to document? She produced the following documents and letters revealing her sheer guts and determination to live a life of her own choosing:


I choose to value myself. And I choose to value the important contributions I have made in this life: My successful participation, repeatedly standing up after a fall and reclaiming my life, and repeatedly fighting against self-destruction, physical and mental illness for my right to participate in my life. Repeatedly dealing with the challenges of life including “SS” and mental illness.

I coped well with a horrid home situation until I was 16. Despite severe depression at 10 I continued to take part, and have a good childhood. I was strong and supportive of my parents.

I worked hard and consistently and enthusiastically at school. I participated in school & friendships passionately. I survived and recovered from C’s abuse as far as I could. I managed to deal with my father’s abuse and mood swings and drinking and carry on with my life. Same goes for my mother’s severe swings and nervous breakdowns. I managed to start individuating and finding my own identity.

I had the guts to challenge my parents and stand up for my own belief system. I had the guts to explore and find my own belief system.

I carried on taking part and coping during years of depression from ages 14-16. I chose to fight against anorexia (ages 16-17) and bulimia to go into therapy to ask for help, guidance, against my parents’ will.

I told my story creatively in writing and won a national award when I was 17.

I overcame a serious heart problem by choosing to start eating again (aged 16). I recovered well enough to continue taking part in school until standard 9 (17) I had the guts to go to technical college to complete matric. I went to evening classes consistently despite severe eating disorder and side effects of heavy medication. I completed matric with two distinctions. I chose to trust and believe that I would achieve this impossible goal.

In December 1986 I realised Pieter was my soul mate and WENT FOR IT. In 1987 I fought to recover from severe breakdown but lost my first year at university. I became pregnant with Anne. I chose to take responsibility and see it through with Pieter. I coped very well with marriage, pregnancy, and I coped very well with my baby. I was very well. I was stable, healthy, breastfeeding and nurturing. I became a counsellor at the breastfeeding association. I went into art as big business. I made gorgeous bags. When I started work I coped very well despite extreme sexual harassment, work pressure and unfair labour practices. I coped, I was assertive and I worked well, consistently for 2-3 years. I chose to resign with high integrity; chose to resign with flair in reaction to my bosses’ abusive attitude.

I coped well with my next pregnancy (coped well with occasional moods, TLE & Chronic fatigue syndrome). I had the guts to go to America with two babies and be passionate about my travels.

I had the guts to defy society by being a “big woman”. I recovered from a severe breakdown due to Anorexia in 1993. I recovered and returned to work and was able to take part in life again. I coped well with a very sick system and stress.

I repeatedly fought back after severe breakdowns to restart work. I completed various training courses successfully. And I have the awards to prove it.

I learnt to be on my own and to be OK by myself. I chose to re-engage with my relationships and responsibilities.

I had the guts to explore alternative ways of being. I have a writing talent and I am a very productive and creative writer.

I consistently, actively give spiritually. I am always determined, hopeful. Pieter and the kids are my first priority. I am passionate to always choose for light, for healing, for love. (Despite the onslaught of Self Starvation.) I have not given up and I have grown stronger, wiser, and gentler more loving, less judgemental.

I am growing my [spiritual] spine slowly, with commitment, integrity, and closure.

I am choosing to quit “climbing out” (into psychosis) but to remain in the “ordinary life” and to actively resist “SS”. I have been doing it since December 2000.

I plan to question the lies of “SS” and society and to challenge them. I am choosing now to work again in a healthy, appropriate, balanced way. I am embracing reflexology and living my dream of being a healing facilitator.

I have the guts to take part without any guarantees (in work especially). I am accepting a life condition without accepting the INVALID label.

I am driving my children around all the time, running the home; supervising workers. I am Self-motivated: I get up every day and do my work by myself.

I have kept my sense of humour through it all. Listened to Good Counsel and stayed connected to God. I am progressively breaking free from the clutches of “SS”. My determination is working.

For every single breakdown/illness/”SS” disaster, there has been an amazing, miraculous determined RECOVERY and reconstruction process. I got up and fought for my life again every time. Here I am now, the result of these successes.

I am ready to embrace light and shadow and resist the darkness. I am stronger than I have ever been.



6.6 Re-visiting old documents

Grace and I both kept our correspondence on file and were able to refer to older documents at any time. This proved very useful to Grace, as can be gleaned form the following letter she wrote:


Subject: about: “success story of my life.”

Date: Wed, 25 Apr 2001 18:52:28 +0200

From: Grace

To: Jo Viljoen


Jo and David and Pieter,

I wrote this e-mail concerning the “success story of my life” ages ago.

During my childhood I started carrying with me a DARK LIFE STORY of loss, suffering, illness, tragedy and self-destruction. This weighed me down, sapped me of life energy, and made it very difficult to love myself and therefore to love others. Self-destruction (SD) became an overpowering force that repeatedly hampered my brave moves towards “Self-construction” (SC). Working in narrative therapy with you has opened the possibility of going back and retelling my life story with focus on victories, successes, life, love and light. I chose to do this.

Self-destruction used my past DARK LIFE STORY to keep me in bondage with despair, guilt and inferiority. Now I am retelling my story using TRUTH this time. My story turns out to be a balance of dark and light (yes, the tragedies/disasters/Self-destruction were as real as the victories/recoveries/SC). But the fact is that after everything I am now alive and well and once again able to take part in a life of self-construction as a mother, wife, partner and contributor in society. Living with the dark story has brought me gifts such as spiritual growth, knowledge, insight, humility, and a non-judgemental attitude. The truth is that all in all my story is a life story of love/light /life.

Never mind what my future holds, the balance between light/dark will always be tipped in favour of light. Why? It stared with the miracle of my birth in Light Love and Life.

The story up to here at age 33 is an irrevocable story of Light Love Life that will stand in eternity. I have consistently returned to CHOOSING light. Not hanging around, waiting for it to happen, but choosing it actively. All my life (in light and dark) I have been ready to die a death of peace and oneness with God/ the Universe. Now, without the weapon of my dark life story, i.e. Self Destruction, Self Starvation and Anorexia have been severely weakened and dis-empowered. And at last I have a solid foundation for my journey of SELF-CONSTRUCTION.

Yours forever self-constructively,



David Epston’s replies were so rich with reflections that we often returned to the same letter in consecutive therapeutic conversations. We were able to speed up time by e-mail but were in full control of slowing down time when we needed to spend time reflecting on his thoughts and relating them to Grace’s life experiences. His letters always opened up new avenues of talking against Anorexia and “SS” and for self-construction and her preferred ways of being:


Dear Jo and Grace:

Grace, it looks like our e-mails crossed as I left for overseas on the 20th March. I trust you got mine informing you that I would be away until the 9th. However, I just called in to check my e-mail today (Sunday) and read yours with great interest. I can certainly understand what you mean by “I am struggling against one of the biggest “SS” tricks”. I found your account inspiring both in its moral purpose and in its steadfastness. I was so relieved to read (and re-read) your NOTE- “I DO NOT HAVE TO BE IN PERFECT CONTROL ALL THE TIME”. Grace, if you still subscribed to such a “curse”, I really would be concerned for your future.

Thanks for your instructions on how Jo and I can give the “best anti-anorexic and “anti-“SS” support” to you. Grace, please take all the time you need to do whatever is best for you! I am wondering if I have got way behind you (and Jo) in responding rapidly. I want you to know that in doing so, I am not implying that you should reply accordingly. I have always wished merely to communicate to you both that I am “with” you and be what you refer to as a witness.

By the way, I was really taken by your quote- “where two or more are gathered in the name of Truth, Truth will stand”. Also, I endorse with all my being your “standing up for my own and other humans” rights to SELFCONSTRUCT” and certainly concur with you that it “is the absolute antithesis to “SS”.

Grace, if I had any wish right now, it would be that you revel in what you are referring to as “NEW STUFF”. Grace, once again thanks so much for advising me to “slow down”. I will gladly take your advice here and I do so with great joy and anticipation. If you in any way feel under any obligation(s) that has never been my intention. I would relish you doing whatever suits your purposes, whatever they might be. That is all I would hope for- that you suit yourself in whatever way(s) you might go about that. There are always these matters that must be made explicit in such “meetings” that we are conducting by e-mail and I am so relieved by your advice and commentary.

Grace, I suspect that when you are “having fun” as you put it, that will be the best antidote for “SS”.

I very much appreciated your comments: “fighting and yielding are both useful”. I found it wonderful news when you told me of Pieter’s comments of moving “into a whole new way of living” and your assertion: “I can now deal with stresses and challenges that I was totally incapable of handling for many years…”

Thank you so much for this document, which greeted me and despite my jetlag has cheered me up beyond belief. Given that it has been on my computer for so long, I wanted to respond immediately to it at the same time as indicating to you that it is so wonderful for all of us to know that now is the time “to make haste slowly”(Julius Caesar).

Yours for self-construction,




6.7 Reiki and reflexology

Her resistance to Anorexia did not only present in her art and language, but also in her decisions about her career. Grace decided that she wanted to qualify as a Reiki practitioner and reflexologist. Taking this course challenged her to learn the practical skills associated with reflexology as well as to face her fear of writing. In order to qualify as a reflexologist, Grace had to write a thesis. She was terrified of the writing process, because she had been consumed by Perfectionism and Anorexia during previous writing projects. I include some excerpts from her thesis to indicate what this journey was like for her.

6.8 A roller coaster ride to self-construction

Grace’s journey was by no means an easy ride; it was more like being on a roller coaster ride or like white river rafting over rapids at times:



Date: Fri, 20 Apr 2001 23:10:00 +0200

From: Grace

To: Jo Viljoen



Let me start by thanking Jo for e-mail and phone support, Pieter for in the flesh support and David for the volumes of excellent replies. David I’ll give you the good old “considered response” during the weekend.

In the meantime, celebrate today’s victory with me:

I got up ready to “climb out” of life and give over: Last night I had another episode of “Having to take Stilnox and bingeing” (despite all the resistance writing and support). And then, for the first time since January, “SS” nearly convinced me to cut myself and/or overdose. But I did not. I went to sleep.

Also, this morning I did not try to “protect” Pieter or myself by denying the mess.. I spoke to him, did not allow “SS” to alienate me. But I was in bad shape. “SS” tried to convince me that I was “completely broken” and it was “all over”. I decided to ignore “SS” and continue to take part in the day as well as possible. I allowed myself to ask for Jo’s phone support, despite “SS” lies about “having to be perfectly independent”. Jo gave excellent phone support. We even “deconstructed” the bread I’d binged on to mere crumbs…and all was well. I hung on and took part (shakily).

Until late afternoon: I had (another) work disappointment. A BIG one this time. One of my most important clients (with a lot of corporate contacts) backed out, because she was “too busy for the next two months”, which in reflexology terms kind of means: end of connection. Well, I thought I was losing it. “SS” was convincing me that this was a total catastrophe. I felt as though I was totally disintegrating. But I refused to despair. I just kept floating through the panic/disintegration, hoping, trusting. And an hour or two later I was OK again. I had the whole thing in perspective just by waiting and relaxing without frantic, “obsessive” figuring or writing…well, only 2 pages, OK. So there. One more for self-construction!



6.9 Non-violent resistance

David Epston’s e-mail support was invaluable when Anorexia threatened to consume her and wither my therapeutic attempts at resistance. While Grace was s writing her reflexology thesis, she started working day and night. Anorexia held the deadline for hand-in of the thesis like a carrot to lure her into its clutches. She stopped eating. She became desperate and one night she drove large nails through her feet. She was admitted to general hospital and psychiatric hospital. The following letters passed between us at this time:

June 7th 2001

Dear David and Jo:

This time I don’t take the blame/mourning/anger/loss for cutting feet and starving on me. I know myself, love myself, and grant myself a happy light life which means as well participating in my healing practice. But “SS” (self-starvation) is still dying even though it still presently manifests in my body. It still wants to turn my life into a tragic mess – steal it away like it manages to do across so many cultures.

This time I only take responsibility for my actions, but I refuse to turn the blame or anger on myself. I know I am OK; I know I have been fighting all my life for my life despite “SS” and that this resistance movement is my right. I embrace my OK-ness and self-love. I’ll just humour “SS” (self-starvation) for as long as it insists on sticking around. But I know the more I actively live without harm and starvation, the sooner “SS” (self-starvation) will die. And TLE (temporal lobe epilepsy)? It’s OK! It’s no excuse anymore for self-destructive behaviour or insanity. I am strong enough to live with it as well as possible.

“Defeat ” is victory now – “SS” (self-starvation) is showing its last death gurgles (directly translated) in the face of my joyful, empowered participation and wellness – my abathandazi (traditional healer) ways of being. No miracle recovery is required. I can just be who I am and go with what I’ve got. That’s all, and be a “wounded healer”.

I want to choose now to believe in the drip and nourishment; this is part of who I am and where I’m at.



Dear Grace (aged 33):

It was good to hear your voice this morning and to be able to share your determined choice to break the status epilepticus by adhering to your medical treatment.

What would you say if I called your decision to look to your health a “non-violent resistance to anorexia”? Could we consider your decision to ignore anorexia’s demands to be a form of political non-cooperation, almost like a boycott? Do you remember how the white shopkeepers used to panic when the black consumers staged a boycott and chose to buy their goods from alternative outlets? Could we call your decision to “book myself off sick” and postpone your appointments until you are feeling stronger an anti-anorexic boycott against anorexia? Could you share with me how you came to make this decision? Did your decision come to you suddenly, or was it slowly birthed and bathed in the realisation that you are entitled to moral justice? That when you are ill you are entitled to choose to rest and recover? Or would you use other words to describe the process of your choosing and decision making?

In an article on resistance movements and theories, the author claimed that non-violent resisters bring more serious sanctions to bear when they resort to social, economic and political non-cooperation. Could we describe your refusal to co-operate with anorexia and self-starvation as a form of non-compliance with anorexia’s unjust prescriptions for your life? Would you agree that even though you are primarily involved in a struggle for your own independence from anorexia, that your efforts also form part of the collective struggle against anorexia’s tyranny, that seizes control over hundreds of thousands of women in contemporary society? Could we therefore consider your choice for rest and recovery as both a personal and political action in the face of anorexia’s violence against you in particular and women in general? Could we further consider it as a professional action of resistance that will serve to preserve your integrity and reputation as a healer? I wonder if you would agree that your decision for rest and recovery constitutes one of the steps on your journey from anorexia and self starvation’s slavery to your freedom from slavery?

I salute some of the different ways I can quickly recall in which you have recently actively resisted anorexia in non-violent ways:

choosing to receive IV treatment in hospital

choosing to rest and resist anorexia in hospital by accepting medical care

choosing to receive intravenous nutrients

choosing to eat for nutrition

choosing to draw instead of cutting

choosing to phone Dr S,

choosing to adhere to his new prescription

choosing to ignore the dust in the house and to rather focus on your own

recovery first

choosing to move your work assignments on another week

……….would you like to extend the list yourself????????

Victory is yours!

Yours forever anti-anorexia,

Jo Viljoen


(from the Archive of Resistance :Anti-Anorexia/Anti-Bulimia

Through it all, David Epston never wavered in his support and his belief that she is going to make it, even though there were times when I was very concerned for her life. I received the following desperate letter from Grace one evening after the previous incident (spelling left as it was written:

But no casualty mesares amf no hospiaiatization. Not sure how muchc and whast/interactions but I beliedve it ismjustneno8ghnto fuvk my thesis progress up for another dayso. I refuse the go through thr punishmnet/judgement/shame of the anti-OD procedures. I will be OK we all kno the “gate keepers” will not allow me to gohome. But maybe it is mY pathnMOW. Imhave had so much TOOMUCH LOS It os no use. It is just poisoinng, punsihment for,doing doweland>standing upform my roghts. And also punishment for thecutting I still see blood oosig frm my ceilings anD blabk figures ANFBFIELD OFMDAISIES. nEED TO PAIT. no NREE TO COMPLTR /ERITR THESIE AND ss KNOE THIS EIL KILL HI/HRT IF i> DO HET MY QUQLIFICATION JO.Time to give up

On receipt of this e-mail I drove to her house where I found her in a state of desperation. We talked about her pain and I stayed with her until she felt better. I followed the visit up with the following e-mail:


Date: Sun, 20 May 2001 20:44:19 +0200

From: Jo Viljoen

To: Grace

Subject: We will never give up


Dear Grace,

I am truly sorry that you are suffering but I am very grateful that you were ready to survive when I left your house. I am still there for you. I will be there for you even if you chase me away. Even if I am not there with you now, I want you to know that I am spiritually close. I am enraged at anorexia for making your present moment so painful, and I am strengthening my resolve and determination to stand by your side. I hope you sleep well tonight. Love to the kids.

Yours forever anti-anorexically,



David Epston, Grace and I were in almost daily contact during times of crisis. This concerted collaborative effort paid off for Grace:

From: Grace

To: Jo Viljoen

Jo and David, I feel that we are communicating well and that our “experimental virtual response team approach” WORKS exceptionally well. What do you think??


6.10 Laughter, the best medicine

Grace’s sharp mind and innovative use of language was a delight as mental illness could not quench her sense of humour:

From: Jo Viljoen

To: David Epston

Date: Tue, May 22, 2001, 4:53 AM


Dear David

Grace has decided to focus on the 5 “R”‘s:

* rest

* reading

* righting

* responsibility

* resistance



David Epston replied:

Dear Jo and Grace:

I just found your 5 R’s a hoot, especially after I found myself blinking in a moment’s confusion about your proposal for “righting”. After I got over my hooting, I just wondered if you intended this as a neologism (I looked this word up in the dictionary and I am sure it is the first time in my life I have used it myself) or was it a product of sheer invention on your part.

I am wondering if we can use “righting”- a cross between writing and righting wrongs and injustices as an important term on the website. What do you think about-anti-anorexic “rightings” rather than anti-anorexic writings? David.

No matter what hardship Grace suffered, her sharp sense of humour remained intact. Her sense of the absurd often saved the day, and deserves to be mentioned in this study as sparkling moments in the face of overwhelming distress. Grace balanced the morbidity of mental illness and self-injury with her laughter and her determination to take her life back from mental illness in all its forms. True to her self, Grace found an excerpt from a book, to describe, in a tongue&endash;in-cheek way, how she feels about fundamentalism in any form.


Date: Thu, 24 May 2001 08:51:48 +0200

From: Grace>

To: Jo Viljoen

How to Become Fooly Aware By Swami Beyondananda

The Five Fundamentals of FUNdamentalism

1. Life Is a Joke

But God Is Laughing With Us, Not At Us. God is tuned to the Comedy Channel, and we are His Funniest Home Videos. … And we have free choice. We get to choose whether or not we laugh. While we FUNdamentalists are ardently pro-laugh, we are pro-choice as well. We honor every human being’s right to not be amused. But I figure, why resist a Farce that is greater than any of us? If life is a sitcom, might as well sit calm and enjoy it.

2. Fun Is Fundamental.

FUNdamentalists believe that life is fundamentally fun — that underneath all the stress, distress and negativity, there is a deep well of joy. Each time laughter bubbles up from that well, we experience deep wellness. A fooly-aware person need only look in the mirror to begin laughing. So play to God daily. Surrender to the Farce, and smile … you’re on Candid Karma.

3. A Laugh Track Has Been Provided.

The FUNdamentalist scriptures tell us that on the Eighth Day, God saw the world was funny and created Laughter. And since we were humoring Him, He decided to humor us. So He provided a laugh track so we could laugh along. But when things get serious, we lose track of the laugh track. Fortunately, the best way to overcome gravity is with levity. We can use the levitational pull to help us rise above whatever is bringing us down — and help us get back on track.

4. We Are Put In the Material World To Get More Material.

Spirit is immaterial, so it must materialize to experience anything. Without material existence, there would be nothing to laugh about and no one to do the laughing. We have been given the human jestive system to turn the material of life into laughter. When we laugh, God laughs. And when we laugh with God, we are using the spiritual to heal the material. To be happy in life, you must be able to take a joke. And if you can leave a few as well, all the better.

5. Non-judgment Day Is At Hand!

When a majority of human beings would rather laugh than condemn, we will have an uncritical mass, and this will usher in Nonjudgment Day. On Nonjudgment Day, we will all win beauty contests. Lawyers will disappear, and all our trials will be over. On this glorious day when enlightening strikes, our clown chakras will open, we will become fooly-realized, and we will finally get the joke. The world will stop — and everyone will get off.

Copyright © 1999 by Steve Bhaerman. All rights reserved.)

(Excerpted from Swami’s new book DUCK SOUP FOR THE SOUL.)


7 Psychiatry as resource

Grace started seeing a new psychiatrist, and his input served to be a very helpful resource to her. Clued up on neurology and psychiatry, he was prepared to treat her. She said he treated her “like a person who has a brain in her head”, because he did not pretend to be anything more than a person. He offered to be a partner to her on her journey to a whole life, and because he did not use his power and authority in negative ways, she felt that she could trust him. Together they worked out a medication program that would suit her without unnecessary sedation. Grace valued his input because he was not only very skilled, but also very respectful of her as a person. That he considered her capable enough to manage her own medication at home gave her a feeling of self-worth and self-respect. This psychiatrist encouraged her to take responsibility for her medication. This process worked very well, and is still a very effective way of treatment for her, as she says:

My current psychiatrist refuses to play power games. He said he does not want that kind of power. He does not want to be the expert of my life; he wants to bring his psychiatric expertise into partnership with my expertise as a person.

Dr. S was not convinced that the diagnosis of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy was relevant or correct, but suspected that some form of underlying neurological or organic cause could be found for her problems. He referred Grace to a neurologist for assessment. The neurologist found no traces of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and suggested that the years of self-starvation and massive repeated overdoses of medication might have caused some neurological damage. His findings encouraged Grace to eat balanced meals and engage in a process of self-care and healing. Grace was relieved to hear that she did not have Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. She said she knew all along that the anti-convulsant medications she was forced to take in the past did not make her better. The only difference was that her doctors never believed her and refused to continue treating her if she complained about the medications’ efficacy and side effects.

8 Spirituality as resource

During her anti-anorexia campaign and her training as a reflexologist, Grace also started re-affirming her own spirituality:

Subject: RE: floating

Date: Wed, 12 Sep 2001 10:34:13 +0200

From: Grace

To: “Jo Viljoen”


No Jo, Anorexia will never again drown me in my own creativity. I might swallow some water, but I am winning. See latest excerpts from my thesis as confirmation of the above.

A light journey of faith, feet and flow…

In which I share the first flowing of my adventures as apprentice energy worker &endash; using the “tool” of Rei-flexology. Because Rei-flexology is a spiritual, traditional healing process, this document is based on my current personal belief system and understanding of “God” and spirituality.

I believe that our sole (soul) purpose in this human life is not to “learn” (as we term it), but to re-member what we already know: We Are One with the Divine All, the Source, the Creator. Therefore life is not a process of discovery, but a process of creation. Faith is choosing to trust the (life) process, even if we lack information and cannot understand it. I simply choose to believe:

The All (God) Is Love. Therefore, ultimately, Love is All there Is Godly Love is Energy of commitment to facilitate wellness and growth. The All (God) Is also the absence of love: fear and darkness (experiences such as hate, evil and tragedy.

I simply choose to trust: We have been created in Love and are still creating in Love. The creation of fear and darkness empowers us to truly experience Divine Love and Light. The ultimate “outcome” of creation is set: we remain One in Love. The All “conspires” to facilitate growth towards Our ultimate One-ness in Love. We can trust the Flow of the All.

If we choose to, a Rei-flexology session can be an activity “of no consequence” for both partners: expecting no “results”. This circumvents the clever mind. We are re-minded to flow with our inner nature and with the natural laws operating around us and in us.

Trust and a commitment to Love give us the courage to go beyond the pressures and expectations of society. I see the “light touch” approach of Rei-flexology as a manifestation of working with the natural flow of things. It is about “trying softer” instead of harder. The more “medicinal” touch could sometimes be a manifestation of society’s driven attitude.

We can choose “running back to the past to work out how to run even better in the future”. Or we can rest in the peace of the present moment: where God resides.


Reflexology became not only a career opportunity, but also a physical practice of her spirituality. Grace discovered that even when she felt awful, she was still able to do her work as a reflexologist; psychosis and anorexia could not stop her. Completing the reflexology thesis as part requirement for her course enabled her to register as a traditional healer and obtain a practice number from the traditional healer’s board. This is a huge achievement as it is the first qualification she managed to obtain since she left school.

9 Looking back on this road less traveled

Grace is 34 years old now; she has been married to Pieter for fifteen years and is the mother of two adolescent children. She is an intelligent woman with a razor sharp wit, a talented artist, poet and author. She practices as a Rei-flexologist ; she is registered as a traditional healer who specialises in hand-delivered relaxation in the corporate world. She successfully manages and markets her business.

At the time of writing, Grace has been out of psychiatric hospital for eight months. She calls it her all time record. We still meet at least once a month to talk about the problems she is facing in her life. But somehow, these problems are associated with the stresses and strains of so-called “normal” suburban living, for example her concerns about her adolescent children, concerns about her ageing parents and financial stress. “SS” still tries to interfere in her life from time to time, particularly when she is under pressure, but she has at the time of writing not been victim to its malice for eight months. We felt it appropriate to tend this chapter with her words:

16 OCTOBER 2002

During the last 18 years of my life I have experienced repeated bouts of acute mental illness and dedicated self-destruction. I refuse to accept that “the condition is beyond healing” and that I can “simply be supported symptomatically for the rest of my struggle.” No. I have also experienced a tremendous amount of dedicated growth and healing and healthy, loving, creative participation in life. My many loved ones confirm this. I believe that I am called to receive Fire as a Gift, and no longer as a Curse. I am living with my fire.

During a reflecting conversation between Grace and myself on 7th June 2003, Grace shared one of her latest victories with me. She said she managed to stand up to the headmaster of her daughter’s school to defend her role as a parent who is able to give her daughter a stable home environment. She said she was able to reflect his fiery criticism of her parenting back to him without doing him or herself any harm. This is a very big break through for Grace who refuses to be stigmatised or marginalised because of her history with mental illness. He questioned her ability to decide on her daughter’s school of choice, and Grace said she felt that her daughter is a partner is the decision making of her own life, even though her daughter is fifteen years old. Grace feels that for the first time in her life she was able to say that she is a good parent for her children and she is prepared to take on an authority figure like the headmaster without fear or self-injury.

In this chapter we told Grace’s story of subjugation by psychiatric discourses and the ways in which these discourses contributed to the constitution of her identity of failed personhood. In this chapter the researcher illustrates narrative practices used against problems like mental illness, self-injury and anorexia. These practices include radical externalising conversations, dialogical writings, letters, documents of resistance as well as resistance art and poetry as practices that complemented and enriched the therapeutic journey. We also describe the co-construction of the Virtual response team, Grace’s electronic community of concern as well as the role the Virtual Response Team played in her journey towards a healthy life and participation in her own life.


10 Post script

This chapter would not be complete without David Epston’s reflections:



Date: Tue, 11 Jun 2002 10:05:11 -0700

From: David Epston To: joviljoen






From: Jo Viljoen

To: David Epston


Date: Mon, Jun 10, 2002, 2:26 AM


Dear David

How are you? I hope this letter finds you well and happy; we have not

spoken for so long. Grace send her regards, she is really doing remarkably well. She says she feels all the work the three of us did together via e-mail is helpful to her still every day…


…and showing long-term success results.


David, in writing my thesis, I wondered whether you would agree to my including a chapter on the work we did together with Grace?

David: ABSOLUTELY!!!!!!


(Re-reading the notes again brings back the intensity and the “feel” of panic I had many times when she was having a rough time; and the relief when I’d open my e-mail and find a reply from you.) I am not sure how you would feel about it, but I do think we did something pretty new and remarkable which has been life sustaining for Grace. She has given me permission to use her story as part of my research telling.




(Letter abbreviated)

The researcher now invites the reader to reflect on the journeys described in the previous chapters, and to join the researcher and the participants in the discovery of the unique outcomes of this research project in Chapter 5.