Diving Into the Crucible

I first met John in the mid 1980s, at one of the many workshops he presented, in his never ending mission to make human service professionals aware of family systems theory. I was mesmerized….like many who experienced his deceptively casual style of diving into the crucible of family dynamics….as if he were a matador, taming a snorting, snarling beast.

“I lead, because I follow”….this was his simple explanation for an approach that made professionals….many professionals like me, want to learn how to master something that was clearly instinctive to John. “Positive Reframing”, “Alter Ego”, “Guard Rail”, “Circle Drawing”…..these are just a few of the nuggets of wisdom that fell from John like acorns, taking root in the work of generations of helping professionals.

If you stop and think about it…..multiply the number of years that John travelled tirelessly to workshops and training events, the thousands of professionals that he taught, the books and videos that were read and viewed until they were dog-eared and worn out….and you extrapolate that to the countless lives of clients who have been touched, and will be touched, by his tools and techniques….one is struck by the immense power of one life lived-well.

John made me believe in my own ability to help people…..empowering my desire to do so. Though he made it look easy, his passion for his work was no mere intellectual exercise. As I became a student of John’s, attending more workshops and joining his supervision group, I became aware that my need to understand the dynamics of family systems was rooted in my journey to make sense of my family history of alcoholism and trauma. When I shared this awareness with John, he did not analyze me, or negate my professionalism; he validated my experience by telling me about his own family experience, with two alcoholic parents who had been both loving and tragic.

John not only taught about family….he created family, among the fortunate ones who took his track at the Summer School for Alcohol Studies in Wilmington, NC, in the role play exercises that always hit home, with a wry grin and a twinkle in his eye. And in the sultry evening, after a long day of training, he would sit at a picnic table, under a live oak tree, in front of a dorm on the UNCW campus and play guitar, as he sang a melancholy ballad to his family….gathered around him.

The world is a better place, for John T. Edwards, the “Southern Gentleman of Family Therapy”.

Tab Ballis LCSW, LCAS, CCS

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