Annals of the New Dave: Status: abled, disabled, or weirdly abled1

Chronicled by David Epston,
Dean Lobovits, and Jennifer Freeman
With an introduction by Sharon Murphy
This paper is a good one to read for those of you interested a narrative therapy approach to what is referred to in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Service Manual (DSM IV) as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Although we do not prefer to use such labels in our work we refer to them here because so many visitors to this site have requested information about young person struggling with these issues.



The Boy Who Dared To Be Different by Sharon Murphy (Dave’s mother)2

Dave was different from the day he was born. It wasn’t anything anyone could put their finger on but I could SEE he was different. Sure he had two arms, two legs, blonde hair and blue eyes but somehow or other I knew he was different. At school, his class-mates soon noted that he wrote differently. His attempts at writing were always back to front and despite his painstaking efforts looked like chicken scratchings. Predictably his spelling was funny like ‘enuf’, ‘kat’ or ‘qik’. Dave NEVER passed his spelling. But he seemed happy and cheerful and was always ‘doing’. It was as if he was filled with insatiable curiosity. Others would snigger behind his back and occasionally to his face — “Curiosity killed the cat!’ Dave was oblivious because he was happy. Most days he would wander around the playground picking things up to investigate. Teachers complimented him, thinking he was ‘tidying up’. But they were not different so failed to realise he was investigating the unknown and learning about it.

One day, he found this beautiful bottle full of the colour blue. He lifted it towards the sun to watch the sparkles dance off the bottle when it tipped all over him. Everyone began to scream – ‘Miss, Dave’s turned blue!’ He was rushed off to the sick bay and I was contacted – ‘Hurry please … it’s a chemical of some sort. He may have to go to the hospital’. My work colleagues laughed when I told them. ‘The Blue Boy …isn’t that a famous painting?” one quipped. I was hurt as was my daughter seeing my hurt. Couldn’t they see that he just wanted to know and now he could be injured?

Many questions were asked by the doctors. The ‘blue’ was analysed chemically and scrutinised under a microscope. At the same time, Dave was poked and prodded. My fear drained all the colour from my face. Dave wondered what all the fuss was about and tried to tell the doctor about what beautiful sparkles in the sky the bottle made. He also started to enquire how the microscope worked. Could he have a look and “what’s that thing around your neck?” Everything turned out alright in the end but for awhile, Dave was clearly different on account of his beautiful blue hair.

Dave busied himself from morning to night taking things apart but not quite getting them back together again. He built wonderful, fantastical structures everywhere but forgot to put the tools away. He cooked fabulous concoctions but overlooked them when something else caught his attention. At school, he went from one thing to another. “He’s bright”, the teachers said, “but he never finishes anything. When I ask him why, he says “Oh, I know that but I just had to check this out ….its more interesting.” His teachers despaired of coping with him and his work, so full of promise but never completed.

He doesn’t have many friends because he is different and they are not, and don’t understand him. Dave now knows he is different and copes with it. This is not to say at times he isn’t saddened and would prefer to be the same as everyone else and find acceptance.

Dave is going to grow up. He still may not spell and his writing may always be laboured. Sometimes he still may not quite get his clothes right. But I can see Dave working for an advertising agency ‘thinking up’ ideas all day, wonderful ideas like dancing sparkles in the sky. How would he get such a job, you might ask? They may very well say – “You’re different, Dave. You think in wonderful ways that no one else dares to.” If Dave replied – “But my spelling!” they might say.”Anyone can spell but not many people are different. And you Dave, dare to be different. That takes courage!

Entry #1 First meeting with the “old Dave” and his family

Sharon Murphy sank into the nearest chair in David’s office and started drawing deep and audible breaths that indicated utter exhaustion and the cessation of a great effort. Vestiges of her determination to manage the behaviour of her 14 year old son, Dave, lived on in her constant but half-hearted remonstrating with him to desist from his constant flurry of activity.

Jenni, Dave’s 13 year old sister, observing that her mother”s admonishments had little or no effect made desperate and reckless attempts to take over from her by insisting that he ‘Stop It!’ These only seemed to provoke Dave to more excess. Jenni’s seething rage was palpable. Such was the frustration of her indignant forays to reign Dave in, that she would be reduced to tears on each and every occasion. However, for Dave, the room seemed a marvellous source of novelties that he had to explore, touch, and touch again.

When there was the first break in these proceedings, David began the conversation by inquiring about Sharon’s visible despair. She bravely related to him the intolerable strain she was under as a single parent, as ‘bread winner’ for her family, and as the manager of Dave’s mind and body. She spoke of her “weariness” from having lived “on the edge” since Dave’s birth. She declared that this meeting was her “last ditch stand” to avert her own “nervous breakdown” and to avoid placing both her children in foster care – a prospect which she was the opposite of everything she had devoted herself to over the past fourteen years.

When he heard this, Dave ceased his activities for the first time – but only momentarily. Sharon was becoming more and more despondent as she spoke of her plans and Jenni alternated between wrath and crying. To emphasise her point, Sharon gave the example of having to delay toileting herself until after her children’s bedtime. This was due to the constant and hazardous fighting between Dave and Jenni. She told how she had been ordered by a government department to surveil her children at all times to prevent Jenni being injured. She now considered that what was required of her was well beyond both her emotional and physical capacities.

With due respect for Sharon’s exhaustion David invited her to take a break from trying to discipline Dave for the time being. The moment she relaxed her vigilance, Dave threw himself to the carpeted floor and began rolling over and over around his room. Despite this, David and Sharon were able to maintain a semblance of a conversation. Jenni, however, continued her expostulations to cease his activity without any success whatsoever.

After a while, David essayed a conversation with Dave, who dutifully responded to his enquiries but not in a manner he was given to expect. Dave’s replies were orated with dramatic and rhetorical flourishes and wild metaphorical excursions. Their sense seemed just outside the reach of David’s mind but tantalisingly so! It was very frustrating for David to be quite so close (in any particular roll, Dave would often pass within inches of his feet) but be so far away. No matter how hard David tried to catch up to Dave’s mind, he was unable to close the gap sufficiently to pull alongside. In spite of this, David determined to do so no matter how long it might take and no matter how far he might have to stretch his mind in doing so.

David thought of an idea that might acknowledge his understanding of Sharon’s dejection and total exhaustion. He initiated it by asking her consent for a secret meeting with her children in which the three of them would “cook up a secret.” David reassured her that although this secret would be kept from her for a specified period of time, it would be revealed to her in it’s entirety in due course. Sharon quickly consented, appearing somewhat relieved to absent herself from the room.

Mother Appreciation

When the three of them were alone, David asked Dave and Jenni what their thoughts were about the prospect of foster care placement. They deeply dreaded the prospect but what concerned them even more was the well-being of their mother. David consulted them as to what ideas they had “up their sleeves” to provide her with some relief. They took his question very seriously and told him they had already begun nightly foot massages for Sharon. To this news David replied, “What I have in mind is certainly in line with your initiative! What about a Mother Appreciation Party?”

Not surprisingly, they had never heard of such an event. David readily acknowledged that such occasions are relatively rare in anyone’s social calendar. They launched into an enquiry about their appreciation of Sharon and their mother’s “friends” appreciation of her.

For the first time since they arrived, Dave, Jenni, and David were able to collaborate over a shared concern – mother appreciation! The effect was dramatic. Dave was attentive and Jenni regained her good spirits as they agreed to ‘plot a surprise mother appreciation party’.

When they reviewed their shared knowledge about parties in general, they realised they had a lot ahead of them such as deciding on the guest list, catering, baking the ‘Mother Appreciation’ cake and of course, their respective ‘Mother Appreciation’ speeches. Hearing the last proposal, Jenni’s eyebrows spontaneously raised almost to her hair line. They fell back into place when David quickly reassured her that he would only be too glad to assist. “How?” they asked in unison and he replied, “Why, I will ask you ‘mother-appreciating’ questions so you can come up with ‘mother-appreciating’ answers! And then all you will have left to do is to roll them up into your speech!”.

Despite their uneasiness with this project, Dave and Jenni agreed to proceed with the planning, one step at a time with the speeches coming last. As a Mother-Appreciation Party was a complicated undertaking, they agreed to “scheme together in secret” over the next few meetings and decided against any deadlines. Everyone agreed that when they were ready it would be only too obvious. David now felt able to risk seeking their consent to ask them a very serious question that he had been burning to ask.

A Burning Question

“Before I ask you this question,” David began, “I want some reassurance from both of you that you will promise not to even consider answering it until you have heard it out to the very end.” If their facial expressions were anything to go by they considered this request somewhat odd, but nonetheless they agreed. “Well, here goes,” David resumed, “By any chance, do you think you are weirdly abled?” Before they could respond David leapt to the edge of his chair, holding his palms outwards and admonished,” Hold on ! Hold on! You promised!” Then he continued: “By that I mean, are you so abled that many adults and kids your ages believe you are WEIRD when in fact you are WEIRDLY abled?” They both looked quite miffed. Jenni piped up: “What do you mean by that?”

To answer this important question, David read them Emily Betterton’s (Freeman, Epston and Lobovits, 1997) published account of ‘weirdly abledness’ (p179-182). After doing this he took a Lynda Barry cartoon out from his desk entitled Marlys’ Guide to Weirdoes (1993). In this cartoon the following guidance is offered: “Third knowledge is the first time someone calls you a weirdo. You about start crying, or you sock them in the stomach, or you act even more weirdo, or you just sit there and don’t do nothing, or you get happy because at least someone is talking to you. But Fourth knowledge is people get fascinated by you that’s why they buy you. But it’s not your first pick of a kind of fascination of you. You will pray to God to take it back but God is busy. What is he busy doing? Making more weirdos. He’s a weird God.

Fifth knowledge is when sometimes you meet a man or a lady who is a grown up weirdo – the good kind – and they know you. Even if they never saw you before, they know you and say HiHiHi and your whole life can change – even if you know them for only around one week. My brother Freddie who drew the pictures on this has got a teacher like this, Mrs. LeSense. I go with him early to her room every morning and we open the window shades for her. Her face is always happy to see us, I love her. She cured my brother’s life. This is a true story.3

Both read their copy of the cartoon in silence. If anything it was like sealing a pact. They both were determined to show it to their mother and their social worker.

Entry #2 A brief summary of the second meeting and accompanying letter

Dave and Jenni were excited to relate the responses of their mother and the social worker to the cartoon. It wasn’t long before David turned to Sharon and asked her if she was of the opinion that Dave and Jenni came to their “weirdly abledness” through “nature or nurture” ? For the first time since David had met her, Sharon then broke into laughter and began to tell stories about various members of the Murphy Family. David lead a very detailed enquiry into the history and genealogy of the ‘weirdly abled’. It took up the entire meeting and then some.

Dear Dave, Sharon, and Jenni,
With all your help, I have started to more fully understand the history and genealogy of the ‘weirdly abled’ in your family and it certainly seems to go a long way back. Dave, you told me that sometimes you’re happy with your mind and that sometimes you’re not. You said that “unpredictability” was a strong feature of how your mind works. You said, “No one knows what I’m going to do next – it can be good or bad.”
What was clear was that you took your place in the family lineage when you stated that “I’ve got a mind of my own.” I certainly agree with you there. You left me with no doubts whatsoever. Sharon and Jenni, you fully concurred.
Dave, you went on to say that over the last two years you “have been teased a lot” and that you have been using confusion tactics on the teasers. However, there are those who understand you and appreciate you as a “weirdly abled” young man – like last year’s math teacher, Mr Johnson. You said, “He is the only one who understands me.” But Jenni and Sharon disagreed because they thought they had a pretty good understanding of you too. Dave, had you just taken them for granted?
Sharon, you thought Mr Johnson was able to understand because he “has a daughter with ADD” and he has had teaching experience with some twins with ADD. In addition, Sharon, you were of the opinion that “his approach is different – he is interested in the person and doesn’ t care about spelling. “Dave, you added, “He knows I’ve got a great sense of humour.” Do you suspect that in his own way he is “weirdly abled” too, but because he is a teacher he has to tone it down? What do you think?
When I realised that you, Sharon, had also always been ‘weirdly abled’, you spoke of the effects this had had on your life. You told me that you were “an advanced and lateral thinker as a child but that you were ignored a lot as a girl.” Instead of acknowledging and cherishing you for you, you told us that some members of your family “didn’t know what to do”with you. Sharon, you told me the tragic story of how your mother has “never been” your mother, that you “offended her as a baby” and that you “don’t know what it was” that did this. Sharon, do you think, on reflecting, that your mind was too fast for hers? That you, in a manner of speaking, were always ahead of her or out in front of her?
Then I asked you, Sharon, that if you knew what you know now, and could have been there as an adult in your little girl life, what would you have done differently? You said: “I would have put more pressure on my parents to allow me to be with both sets of grandparents. Both sets had expressed a desire to adopt me.” Sharon, is that because your grandparents knew that you were “weirdly abled” and not weird? Were they not afraid of you? Were they more encouraging rather than discouraging? You told me how Grandma Peg insisted when you were 8 that you buy Jane Eyre even though people doubted you were capable of it. Do you think she knew you better than anyone else? Sharon, was it because she recognised herself in you that she knew that you knew?
Sharon, you summed up your experience of both sets of parents when you said: “They encouraged me”. They appreciated your mathematical gifts when they learned that at age 8 you could add faster than a cash register. They understood that you were “mathematically abled”. Sharon, did you realise quite quickly that you had a fast mind? Do you suspect that people with slower minds than yours resented the quickness of your mind?
Jenni, you agreed with Sharon’s opinion of Grandma Peg by saying “she’s cool”. And Dave you had this to say and from you, I would consider it a great compliment: “She has the best sense of humour I’ve ever heard”. Coming from a pretty witty guy, that seems high praise! Sharon, you also commented that Dave has inherited his Grandma’s “dramatic nature and humour” and Dave, you put on a pretty good show to demonstrate this and you told us some of her quips. Then Dave, you informed us that your humour was the key to understanding you. And Sharon, from a wider perspective, informed me about the importance of the Murphy sense of humour.
Sharon, you then acknowledged that your “weird abilities” have been something of a mixed blessing for you. You were happy to acknowledge that your weird abilities helped your scholastic abilities which were very good – maths in particular. You described yourself as “mathematically gifted”. Dave you said that you were “trying to turn my abilities to my school work” but that it wasn’t easy for you. Jenni, you seemed to find it relatively easy to do so. You were lucky in this regard I suspect.
We then went on to review what seemed at least in your eyes, Sharon, to be a ‘miracle’. After our last meeting, Jenni and Dave went “two days without fighting”. And this was not a mere allegation but testified to by all concerned parties: Dave, Jenni and yourself.
Jenni, you were amazed by this but you said “I was trying to see how long we could go for”. Jenni, would you have believed that you could go for one hour without fighting? Dave, when I pressed you for some explanation for this change of fortune you said: “We were working together.” Dave, does that mean under normal circumstances you are working against each other? Dave, what did you prefer: working together or against each other? Jenni and Dave, haven’t you got enough people against you already? Or do you think I am getting too preachy here? Let me know when we meet again. Jenni, you summed up the two ‘miracle’ days by saying they were “good.” Jenni, why do you say that?
Jenni and Dave, you thought you might go a week this time but Dave, you said in a Taurean way that if I told you to be co-operative, that would be like a red rag to you. So I was quite neutral here and kept my opinions to myself. You both insisted that “if we get up to a week, you’ve got to reward us.” I said I would, but in a ‘weirdly abled’ way. So don’t expect anything conventional because if you did, you would be a lot less ‘weirdly abled’ than I believe you all to be.
I agreed with you, Dave and Jenni, that we should set aside half the next meeting to go over the ‘secret’. Once again, Sharon, let me explain that although we do have a ‘secret’, it will be divulged to you in full in due course. Please be patient with us. There is no malice whatsoever in our ‘secrecy’.
Yours Respectfully,

Entry #3 Third meeting

By their third meeting, Sharon was of the opinion that “it’s touch and go with me to keep going” and “I still need to warn them about foster homes.” However she was glad to report that “they are getting on better and are not at each other with knives and daggers. They are appreciating each other more.”

The miracle had now endured for an entire week. The rest of the meeting was taken up conspiring about the imminent ‘Mother Appreciation’ party.

Entry #4 Fourth meeting

At their fourth meeting a month later, after reviewing recent developments, it was agreed by Dave, Sharon, Jenni and David that a report would be written to the statutory agency that was funding the therapy. This report was required in order for the therapy to continue to receive funding. They all agreed at the outset that the report was something that they would “all do together.”

This report, or ‘counter document’ (White & Epston, 1990), not only served as a request for funding, it more importantly verified that Dave and his family were problem solvers. This was the first entry into the file on Dave in particular and the Murphy family in general in which they participated as authorities on their own lives. It proudly took its place in their file which was already the size of a phone book and filled with the documentation of problems.


Child and Young Persons Service of New Zealand

From: David Epston
Re: Progress report with the Murphy family
As agreed, I am providing you with an account of the meetings so far with Dave, his sister, Jennifer (Jenni), and his mother Sharon. It seems to be a particularly timely point for a review of our meetings. We have welcomed the opportunity to provide you with this record of them.
Jenni contends that “Dave has been a lot better and we don’t fight as much.” Before our first meeting, according to Jenni, fighting consumed 50% of the time she and Dave were in each other’s presence. Sharon estimated it at 75% of the time and Dave at 100% of the time. Jenni now estimates that the current level of fighting is about 1% of the time. Dave’s estimate is 10% and Sharon deemed it to be “within normal boundaries”.
I have attempted to establish how Jenni and Dave reduced fighting so substantially. Jenni’s explanation is: “I don’t choose to pick fights with him. I wanted to see how long we could go without fighting.” Neither Jenni nor Dave were willing to disclose the specifics of what they referred to as “our strategy” for reducing fighting. However Dave has stated that “if we sold our strategy to the United States, we could be millionaires.”
Dave was willing to comment that when he “saw Jenni trying…I tried.” He also said: “I figured out one simple thing – I could be bullied into fighting. I looked at fighting as if it were homework.” Like homework, Dave was very reluctant to do it. Sharon was of the opinion that it had a lot to do with them finding “that we had to work together because we wanted the ‘Mother Appreciation’ party.” And they found that cooperation wasn’t so bad after all and in fact was quite enjoyable. I suppose any reader might be curious to know what a ‘Mother Appreciation’ might be and what it might entail.
Well, Dave and Jenni acknowledged that they were very worried for their mother and her psychological well-being. They feared that on the onehand she was nearing a “breakdown” and on the other that they would be placed in foster homes. Consequently, they decided to take it upon themselves to plan a surprise party for their mother in order to fully appreciate her and so that her friends could also have an opportunity to do the same. This required considerable guile on their part to keep their planning and preparations a surprise, but they were able to pull it off. Although they spent some time with me preparing their respective ‘Mother Appreciation’ speeches, embarrassment and shyness got the better of them and they decided against giving their speeches. Nonetheless their mother basked in the appreciation of her.
To summarise, Sharon has assessed that the situation at home is “a heck of a lot better” and that “it couldn’t have gone on. They would have ended up in foster homes. It was touch and go. I was worried about them 100% of the time. I couldn’t leave them for a split second. In fact, I couldn’t even get through going to the toilet because I feared for their safety.” Dave agreed that he too was a bit scared that he would harm his sister: “I didn’t know if I could stop it.” Sharon believed that Jenni feared for her safety as she had overheard her daughter saying so.
Dave recommends that the sessions be extended. He said that he “still has some fits of anger and although I’ve come a long way, I’ve still got a long way to go.” He wanted me to add: “I thank you (the funding agency) for getting us this far and helping me to stop myself from fighting with Jenni.”
This report has been read and signed by Dave, Jenni and Sharon who in signing their names agree both generally and specifically to its content.
After this fourth meeting, no mention of Sharon “breaking down” and fostering Dave and Jennifer was ever made again.

Entry #5 Fifth meeting

Following their ‘Mother-Appreciation’ Party and the letter to renew the funding, David got very busy knowing Jenni’s and Dave’s minds at the same time as Dave and Jenni got equally busy knowing their own minds. Admittedly there were surprises for all of them, but all of the surprises turned out quite pleasantly. In spite of other people’s opinions about her that would have caused her to doubt herself in the past, Sharon became more and more comfortable trusting in her ‘weirdly abled’ parenting.

There was one notable occurrence. Dave’s knee-tapping was winding up to a crescendo when David leaned over towards him and placed his hand above his knee. He inquired: “Can you feel your knee touching my hand?”

Dave replied that he could. David then asked, “Were you aware that your knee was going up and down before I placed my hand above it?” Dave and David realised for the first time that he didn’t.

This seemed significant so David asked some more questions. “Does your body have a mind of its own? Does it pay you any mind? Does it ignore you? Is this a sign of disrespect?”

Everyone agreed that such a project of enquiry would be a matter of concern for the future of the therapy.

Letter sent to Dave after the fifth meeting

Dear Dave:
I really enjoyed talking to you the other night. It all began when Jenni started the ball rolling by saying: “Dave has made a tremendous effort to keep out of my room. He learned really quickly. He did it because he was being polite. I think Dave is a whole lot nicer.” Your mum also agreed that “Dave has made a concerted effort”. She told us how relieved she is that she can now stand back from ‘the edge’ that she has been on for so long.
We then all became aware, even you Dave, that it was possible that the self-control you had been exercising could be “the first of the summer wine”. When I asked you about this, you had a very good explanation indeed: “Something in my brain knocked something over which changed the gear into behaviour mode.” When I asked how long it would last, you thought it might endure for another week or two. However, Sharon recalled one summer in which you went throughout it self-controlling yourself. Can you remember that summer, Dave? Was it a summer to remember? Certainly, it seems so for your mum.
Sharon, you referred to 1989 as “the summer of self-control”. Your mum remembers that she did a lot of work with you like gardening. And this seemed to have helped you be in control of your body and mind. We also talked about how when you look after Auntie Sue, you bring yourself under your own self-control. That also connected with ‘duty day’ and the way you looked after the teachers.
Here are some questions that I have for you, Dave:
1. How does physical activity, e.g. gardening, bike riding, lead to you to being self-controlling?
2. How does looking after people lead you to be self-controlling?
Dave, I felt very sorry for you when you told us how at times your mind and body seem to have mindsof their own and don’t pay you any mind. And at times as you said, “I’m not aware they are doing it”. Dave, it is time for this ‘therapy’ of ours to put all our heads and WEIRD ABILITIES together in order to assist you in some weirdly abled way to have more of your mind and body under your self-control???
I hope we will be able to talk together about this next time. I look forward to such a discussion.
Yours sincerely,

This letter marked a transition. The Murphy family was now engaged on its own ‘weirdly abled’ terms to address a persistent problem in their lives. It was time for a less ‘weirdly abled’ therapist to sit back and see what they came up with.

Entry #6 Letter sent to Dave after the sixth meeting

Dear Dave:
You said that the last letter “had a good feeling”. I am glad you thought so as I did too. And what was even better was that we continued to have a good conversation yesterday. I hope you felt that I was able to keep up with you at long last, although I may never get an “Irish sense of humour’. In that regard, I may be a lost cause.
When I asked if you were able to make your self-control endure, you said that “it had switched on and off during the week”. When I inquired as to how you understand what switched self-control off and on, you said that “tiredness and grumpy people switch off self-control” and “happiness and food switch on self-control”.
Sharon you added that “a great deal of physical activity” plays a important part in self-controlling ways. Sharon, you observed that when Dave is exercising his self-control, this has the effect of you experiencing him as “a good son and a good friend”.
Dave , you seemed pleased to hear your mum say this. You then went on to tell me some things that were pretty new to me: “To a weirdly abled person with ADD, the tables are turned. Physical activity will wind up most normal people but in me physical activity will relax me and make me more self-controlling.” Can you understand that wasn’t immediately comprehensible to me? When I asked how long you had been aware of this, you said that “the theory has been there for the past 2, 3 years but I didn’t know it was there.”
Dave, do you think we have hit upon something important if you are to have more of a self-controlling life and less of a life controlled by ADD?
Dave, does such a prospect appeal to you? Do you think it would appeal to your mum and Jenni?
Dave, do you think you might develop an anti-ADD practice from the theory that you have had for the past 2,3 years?
Dave, would you do so by some inimitable ‘weirdly abled’ ways and means?
Dave, do you think I think you will come up with some predictable or unpredictable ways of making a self-controlling practice out of your ‘theory’?
Dave, what bearing might it have on your life if it became a more self-controlled life rather than an ADD-controlled life?
Dave, how would you try out such a practice in your life? Or would you prefer to surrender this life-time to ADD and live your life out according to ADD?
Dave, we then got talking about your self-pride, something ADD has never been able to take away from you. Dave, can you imagine where you would be today if it had? I would hate to think about it. You put your self-pride down to you and your family’s “Irish sense of humour.” Can you understand now why I have come to respect your ‘Irish sense of humour’ so much more than when I first met you?
Still, you said that you had to “quote build up” your pride in the face of a lot of teasing. You considered that it was very advantageous that you had “a proud mother”. When I asked you, Dave, what you were most proud of, you said, “At school, I have overcome the hurdle of teasing.”
Sharon, you have undertaken quite a unique form of parenting, one that I expect plays quite a part in Dave’s and Jenni’s self-pride. You told me, “I have always challenged their minds. I was on my own for so long, I have always treated them as equals.” And I understand that many people really don’t respect you for having done this. Does that have to do with Dave and Jenni not being deferential to adults? Does that get them into trouble with some adults?
Merry Xmas and can we look forward to a more self-controlling 1996? I trust so.


Entry #7 Seventh meeting

At this point, David had thickened an alternative story by enriching it’s counter-plot (“a self-controlling life”) at the expense of the Problem’s plot, (an ADD-controlled life). Everyone agreed it was time for the next step – to let everyone know about the new direction in which Dave was taking his life. This included those who cared about him (friends, family) and those who had been concerned about him including the numerous professionals he had met over the course of his life. David interviewed everyone about Dave’s claim pertaining to his ‘new Dave’ with the express purpose of preparing an affidavit for Dave to swear and Sharon and Jenni to testify to as being an accurate and valid alternative version of his life.

The process of creating the affidavit began with David asking questions and then typing in replies, re-reading the text and having the speaker confirm them. Although this may sound laborious, David ‘dug up’ the history of a “self-controlling life” and the ‘new Dave’ constituted through it. Good progress was made by the end of this visit but it looked like several more meetings would be required before the document was ready to be “sworn.” Dave, Jenni and Sharon took home the first draft (the complete version is included later in this chronicle).

Entry #8 Eighth meeting summary and “consulting your consultants4

Interview segment

This meeting showed the alternative story in the making. Dave continued to unravel his own account of the ‘new Dave’ and in this way continued to develop a draft of his preferred (auto) biography.

At the same time, in this interview with the Murphy family, David’s mind began to show signs of stretching out to meet the concerns and experiences of all of the family members. The conversation nimbly weaved its way between each of their three individual thematic strands. The conversation reflected the family’s unique style of communication and as such, it moved quite fast. It is interesting to contrast this interviewing style to the one in the letter following meeting 2 where one theme is externalized and discussed with everyone.

To begin with David took the chance to consult with Dave about what he believed had helped him become a new person. “Dave, my question is this. Did the fact that you started feeling you were becoming your new person have anything to do with you recognising along with your mum and your sister that you come from a long line of weirdly abled people and that you have a great deal to be very proud of?”

Sharon’s clarified the question for Dave: “What he means is did recognising what Grandma Peg is like, and what Nana Holland was like, and what Granddaddy was like, and what Uncle Kevin was like, did that effect your decisions? Did you realise you weren’t so strange after all? Did that help you realise that you were you and that you came from a long line of people that were like this?!”

“Yah. . .” Dave replied.

“How did knowing that you come from a long line of talented people lead to you decide to become a ‘new Dave’ ?” David followed.

Dave began by joking: “Well, I don’t exactly want to get myself into the financial poo that most of my relatives have got themselves into.” But then his family pride set in: “But if they could do what they have done and still come out on top, I COULD DO IT.”

A hopeless case

David then said, “Can I ask then – before that, did you feel you were a hopeless case?”

Dave shook his head vigorously in agreement.

“You did!?” David exclaimed. “If I am putting too much question-pressure on you, tell me – it’s just that I am interested. This could be pretty important to other people. Who do you think thought you were a ‘hopeless case’?”

“Ten or twenty people.”

“What hospitals did you go to or treatments did you receive?”

Dave hesitated for a moment and his mother jumped in to pick up the narrative:

“Psychiatric hospital for 5 months; a residential treatment centre for a year; another residential treatment centre for 9 months. He then lived with his father and had a case worker and then went to live in a foster home for a year. He came back to me at 11.”

“What age was he when you lost him?” David asked her trying to do the math in his head.

“When he was 9, almost 10.” Sharon replied, “Then he had a psychiatrist and then we had nobody.”

David turned to Dave: “Did you get the impression that a lot of people thought you were a hopeless case?”

“Yah.” he shouted.

Sharon interjected: “But most people give me the impression that I am a neurotic old bag that makes a nuisance of herself over nothing.”

“Did anyone take an interest in the fact that you were weirdly abled? Or that Dave was weirdly abled? Or Jenni?” David asked Sharon.

“No. . . no.” Sharon replied.

“They preferred their version of you as a neurotic rather than as a weirdly abled person?”

“They just treated the symptoms.”

The rest of the interview included explorations of the steps Dave had taken in terms of physical exercise – including swimming and starting a lawn mowing business – and discussions about changes to Dave’s diet and the effects of these changes on self-control. Importantly time was also spent talking with Jenni about the effects the changes in the family were having on her life. It was acknowledged that Jenni also needed appreciation for the changes that were taking place. Now that Jenni could stop spending so much of her time worrying about her mother, everyone spoke about whether she would now be able to have a bit more fun.

Entry #9 Letter written to the Murphy family after the eighth meeting

Dear Dave, Jenni and Sharon:
It was really great to catch up with you all in 1996. It made me wonder if 1996 mightn’t be a very interesting year for each and everyone of you. And especially for you, Jenni.
Dave, your ‘new Dave’ really has taken off this year although it’s clear that he had made an appearance around December last year. Do you think your ‘new David’ is in a partnership with your new self-controlling ways? Why I ask this is:
1) if your Problem was still controlling your body and mind, how could you possibly have initiated a lawn mowing round?
2) if your Problem was still controlling your body and mind, how could you possibly have committed yourself to organised sports and gaining a Duke of Edinburgh medal?
3) if your Problem was still controlling your body and mind, how could you have determined the prospect of a B+ or A in Phys. Ed?
Is the ‘new David’ also in partnership with the family tradition of ‘can do, no matter what’? Did you take hope from the accomplishments of those who came before you in your family? Did the ‘old Dave’ believe he was a hopeless case? Were the Problem and hopelessness partners? Dave, do you wonder what would have become of you if your mum had given up hope in you too? Do you wonder what would have happened if she had believed she was a “neurotic old bag” rather than believing she was a ‘weirdly abled’ parent?
Sharon, do you think your ‘weirdly abled’ parenting is starting to pay off for you, Dave and Jenni? Are you glad you kept faith in your beliefs despite many others critiquing you? Do you marvel at yourself that you kept your faith in yourself for so long?
Sharon, is it possible that your life is the inspiration for Dave’s ‘new Dave’?
Dave, can you keep an eye out for how your “alertness” has you “learning a lot more”? Do you find such learning to your liking? Have your ‘weirdly abled’ ways kept that mind of yours from going rusty? Are food and learning connected some how or other? As I am personally interested, can you keep me in touch with these developments?
Dave, does the ‘new Dave’ like himself more because others are liking him more? Or are other people liking him more because the ‘new Dave’ likes himself more? Or is it a bit of both? That is something else I am personally interested in. For example, how would you explain that your supply of self-confidence has increased by 6 feet. That would be something around a 33% increase from the last time we measured, wouldn’t it?
Dave, I wish we had more time to discuss how your newfound self-confidence is having you believe in yourself more and doubt yourself less. I wish I could hear more stories like the one you told us about believing in yourself more on the trains on your way to school.
Dave, I thought it was very nice of nyou to have the ‘old Dave’ back every so often, especially if things get too dull. However, you may be too busy for that with everything you are getting up to. Do you think we should make a place for the ‘old Dave’ in our meetings? Is it fair to just dump him? After all, he has been with you for a very long time and perhaps that very fact should be acknowledged. What do you think?
Jenni, do you think it is time to pay more attention to you now that Dave is starting to pay attention to himself? Has all the worry that Dave’s Problem got you to do meant that you have got out of the practice of having fun? I would guess that fun and worry really don’t mix very well. What do you think? Sharon, what do you think? Will 1996 be a year for you all to find your way back to fun?
Yours sincerely,

Entry #10 Tenth meeting: the formal signing of the affidavit of “New Dave”


I started to become a ‘new Dave’ shortly after I first visited David Epston at The Family Therapy Centre in August. My mother arranged counselling through the New Zealand Child and Young Person’s Service (New Lynn). She had been convinced for some time that this was something both I and my family needed. At the time, my family was in crisis and on the point of breaking up.

At the first meeting I saw mum’s side of the story and that she was getting too distraught to cope with my Problem. I started thinking about the Problem in a different way. I had already gone through a foster home and the only thing that kept me from going insane was my mother’s letters. They arrived as regular as clock-work once a week on Fridays. I looked forward to those letters as they were just from mum. I realised I had taken my mother for granted until I went and lived with my dad. My heart grew fonder for my mum and I sort of missed my sister, Jenni.

So the beginning of my decision to be a ‘new Dave’ goes back to 1992. But what actually brought me closer to making up my mind was that somehow or other, I and my sister, Jenni, worked together secretly to organise a ‘Mother Appreciation party’ for our beloved mother. This seemed to pave the way for me to be a ‘new Dave’.

The first sign of my ‘new Dave’ was that the persistent fighting between me and Jenni stopped really overnight. I wouldn’t have believed such peace between me and Jenni could have been possible. Jenni was just as surprised as I was. This allowed me to believe much more was possible than this. My next step was stopping some annoying habits like going into Jenni’s room uninvited. This, I knew, really upset Jenni. My mother believes these changes had a lot to do with the family characteristic of just making up your mind and sticking with it. My mother has told us that without such a personal philosophy she would not have been able to get through her life. When I gave it some thought, I realised I couldn’t have put it any better myself. My mother is a very good example of the philosophy. Still, I was taken aback when I broke the ‘going-into-Jenni’s-room-without-being-invited’ habit and I did have doubts that I could do that. But I patted myself on the back mentally when I did. I think too I felt I was becoming a ‘new Dave’ in the second meeting.

The second meeting was one in which according to my mother, I “recognised what Grandma Peg is like and what Nana Holland was like and what Granddaddy was like and what Uncle Kevin was like”. She wondered: “Did you realise that you weren’t so strange after all? That you were you? And you came from a long line of people that were like this?” I replied: “If they could do what they have done and still come out on top, I could do it”. All the people I had been in contact with about my problem gave me the distinct impression that I was a hopeless case. And my mother gained the impression that as she put it, “I am a neurotic old bag that makes a nuisance of herself”. No one realised that we were ‘weirdly abled’ and that we deserve to be respected for that although not everyone can or will understand us My mother has become convinced however that although we have “very different” ways, they have “worked for us”.

My next step in my ‘new Dave’ was experimenting with ways to increase the control over my body and mind. First of all, I started up a lawn mowing business and I received some feedback from my customers that my service was tidier than professionals. I joined a swimming team in order to meet some of the requirements for a Bronze Duke of Edinburgh Award. And I even decided to try in Physical Education. I also stuck at watering the garden which took me half an hour every night. My mother commented regarding my lawn mowing that I pay a lot of “attention to detail” . If I was the ‘old Dave’, such a business would have just gone down the proverbial drain.

My sister believes there is some substance to my ‘new Dave’ in that she noted that I now even cut our lawn within 2 hours. Before, my mother or my sister would have always ended up doing it. My sister, Jenni, has been somewhat overshadowed by my ‘new Dave’ and for that reason my mother and her decided to keep in mind how much she had invested in keeping our family going. My mother decided to pay more attention to her as she, to my way of thinking, was becoming “jealous”.

My ‘new Dave’ also experimented with my diet and self-control and has come up with some interesting results. For example, I have started eating a breakfast which has meant I am more alert at school and am learning more. The ‘old Dave’ would have usually just had a cup of tea and whizzed away. All this ‘new Dave’ stuff has had quite an effect on my view of myself. Before, I felt kind of like a person with a pimple on their face whom nobody likes. Then it was like this person had gone to the doctors and they put a whole lot of liquid nitrogen on the pimple, it slowly went away and people start liking the person again. David asked me if people are approaching me for my friendship and I said in reply “Yes. Before I would get one hullo when I walked into the class and that would be from the teacher and would be a general one to everybody. But now I am getting about two or four hullos just to me.”

You are probably wondering what effect my ‘new Dave’ is having on my mother. She is really enjoying her life. Another good thing is that my sister, Jenni, instead of worrying 75% of her worry about our mother, is in my opinion now only worrying 10% of her worry about mum and 90% about herself. We were all concerned that Jenni doesn’t know how to have fun and our therapy wants to see her allow more fun into her life. My mother has also concluded that she has not had any fun in her life.

One of the big things about my ‘new Dave’ is that I have heaps more self-confidence than when I was the ‘old Dave’. For example, I can confidently go out. I always used to be scared poopless about catching the wrong train. Now I am not always doubting myself and I am believing in my own ideas.

I know you won’t believe this, as the ‘old Dave’ never got any better marks than Ds and Es, but so far this year the ‘new Dave’ is getting lots of As and even an A+ in Maths. All up the “new Dave” is getting about a B+ average.

My mother now believes that we are a really great family, a lot better than most because we have had to be so close. However, she has made it clear to Jenni and me that she now wants more of a life of her own. Jenni and I are finding this difficult but we do know how much this means to mum. She broke down and cried when she told us about it.

David thought we should provide you with a transcript of an important conversation we had together:

David: “Did you make any New Year’s resolutions for the ‘new Dave’? Did you say good-bye to the ‘old Dave’? Which Dave are you more at home with now?”

Dave: “Well, you can’t really get rid of the ‘old Dave’. The ‘old Dave’ is still lurking about. The ‘old Dave’ is really crafty. He is basically a thief.”

David: “What does the ‘new Dave’ do when the ‘old Dave’ sneaks back?”

Dave: “Sometimes it gets too dull for too long, so I think: “It is too dull . . . . . I want some excitement!” Then I let the ‘old Dave’ come back. BUT ONLY FOR AWHILE AND CONTROLLED!”

Sharon: “What about for 5 minutes per year?”

My mum wanted to add some stuff to my affidavit:

“The most noticeable thing is the total abstinence of violence. Before it was daily and bad. We have only had two incidents in the last 6 months and they were not major. Squabbling is in the normal boundaries. Dave now controls himself. We are a close-knit family and my children realise that we have more than an ordinary family has. I no longer have to watch over them all the time. What proves to me that the ‘new Dave’ is new is that he does things without being asked”.

David Epston contributed to this letter by asking us questions and typing up our answers.

In our opinion the above is a faithful record of events since NZC&YPS started supporting our counselling at The Family Therapy Centre.

Signed by Dave Murphy: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Signed by Sharon Murphy (Mother): . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

and Jenni Murphy (sister): . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


It has been fascinating to witness how each of the members of this family came to use their own authority and pride with the people and institutions they encounter and to identify the significance that their legacy of ‘weirdly abledness’ has played and co

ntinues to play in their lives How many families have you met that have a clear sense of possessing a unique spirit, their own brand of humour and ‘weirdly abled’ ways? Perilously few, we suspect.

Do the ‘weirdly abled’ merit ‘weirdly abled’ therapists? Should ‘able’ therapists consider whether their practices require ‘weirdly abled’ people to ‘fit in’ to established norms? Might it be more ethically responsible to respect the “weirdly or uniquely abled” for their persistence and courage to “stand out” ?

David and the Murphy’s still meet together every so often. The conversations that they share are somewhat different now; there is more appreciation for each other, themselves, and their ways.

At a recent meeting Sharon lamented that due to her being ‘different’ all her life she has never been understood by anybody. David disagreed and pointed to Dave and Jenny. Since then Sharon has been telling her children about her history. This led Jenni to an enriched “mother appreciation” and to say, “She looks worn on the outside but inside of her it’s like an antique shop with so many interesting and rich things scattered here and there.”

Jenni has now been admitted into the “largest group at school” which she proudly calls “the weirds.”

She serves as philosopher to the group, providing perspective rather than advice. Advocating for ‘the weirds’ is sometimes a risky undertaking but it is one that Jenni sees as important.

Dave meanwhile has set himself the Herculean task of orienting his interest to the thoughts of others rather than orating his own. He was unabashed about accepting that this could very well be a life-long challenge.



1 For further reference to the idea of weird and special abilities see Freeman et. al (1997) pps. 179-192.

2 After reviewing the pre-publication draft of this article, Sharon provided this introduction.

3 This quote has been slightly adapted for ease of understanding in this different context.

4 For further information on the “Consulting Your Consultants Interview” see Epston & White 1995.}



Barry, Lynda(1993) Marlys Guide to Weirdos. Funny Times, April.

Epston, D., & White, M. (1995). “Ben” , Consulting Your Consultants: A Means to the Co-Construction of Alternative Knowledges, in Friedman, S (Ed), The Reflecting Team in Action: Collaborative Practice in Family Therapy, Guilford: New York.

Freeman, J. C., Epston, D., & Lobovits, D. H. (1997). Playful approaches to serious problems: Narrative therapy with children and their families. New York: Norton.

White, M. & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York: Norton.