Parallels between Writing Biographies and Clinical Practice

writingBiosEsther Urdang, PhD, MSS, LICSW, is a mental health social worker with years of experience in family agencies, hospitals, and private practice. She is also an avid reader of biographies and autobiographies. In her reading it occurred to her that studying biography can have an impact on clinical social work in the mental health field.

Biographers struggle with the some of the same questions that also concern clinical social workers and mental health practitioners: how the subjectivity of the author affects all aspects of the biographical enterprise (as subjectivity affects all clinical social work); how biographers (and clinicians) feel about their subjects (and clients); and how these feelings can change over time. This can have an impact on the biographer’s representation of the subject to readers and on the clinician’s ongoing relationship with the client. In both fields, there are decisions to be made about which data to select and who are the significant people in the subject’s (or client’s) life. These ideas led her to write Parallels between Writing Biographies and Clinical Practice: Impact, Influence, Value.

Parallels between Writing Biographies and Clinical Practice offers clinicians an in-depth understanding of the commonalities between the psychological and intellectual processes involved in writing biographical works and those involved in clinical practice. Although these processes often take place beneath the surface, both biographers and clinicians are subjectively involved in all aspects of their work, such as the biases of their theoretical positions and selection and evaluation of evidence.

In this book, lengthy life course portraits of six individuals are presented, vividly illustrating many key clinical concepts, such as the impact of the past, the development of attachments, the trauma of loss, and resilience. Examples include Rudyard Kipling’s experience in a foster home, and the impact of blindness and separation on the writer Ved Mehta. This book addresses a need expressed by many practitioners and educators to reintegrate key clinical concepts into practice, such as understanding experiential worlds, applying psychodynamic knowledge, and developing self-aware empathic relationships with clients.

Each biographical narrative alternates with a relevant theoretical chapter, whose content addresses four major themes, integrated with the life course portraits:

1. Biographers’ and clinicians’ relationships with their subjects/clients

2. Examining how subjects/clients represent themselves and present their stories

3. Understanding the complexities of collecting, evaluating, and interpreting evidence

4. Studying the evolution of the life course, using the biopsychosocial perspective; illustrating the interweaving of the inner and outer lives of individuals.

The goals of this book are threefold: to emphasize the relevance of the life course perspective; to explore methodological issues embedded in constructing biographies, such as collecting evidence, evaluating “witness” accounts and handling gaps in information; and to explore the relationship between the biographer and subject. These goals parallel recent attempts to introduce narrative theory to clinicians and to “humanize” medical education as well. Urdang notes:

Biographical study serves to counter current trends in the mental health fields, which often exclusively favor the application of evidence-based, quantitative measures and cognitive-behavioral and technological approaches to clinical work, and which largely de-emphasize exploring the past, developing empathy, and understanding experiential worlds.

Parallels between Writing Biographies and Clinical Practice is a resource intended for students, teachers, and practitioners in social work, and those in the human services and medical professions. It is also intended for a general audience, to heighten critical understanding and enjoyment in the reading of biographies.

One comment

  1. Ms. Urdang presents a stunning interface between clinical practice and biography writing. I believe there are important implications here for application of her insights to bibliotherapy in general, as well as to narrative therapy.

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