Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
June 2023 - Volume 23, No. 6
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Some Secrets of the Genogram

I’ll tell a client “This doesn’t mean your heritage or destiny is determined by your family of origin - but, if/when the ‘demons start dancing’, at least I know who they are and what are their names[1]

It’s been 40 years or so I’ve been drawing out genograms or ‘family trees’ on some clients. Initially it looks like a ‘family tree’, and it does give me a ‘picture’ of family relationships and patterns.

Back in the beginning of my career, the concept of “Family Systems” was fairly new. Especially in social work, just working with the individual was only a minor part of the therapeutic exploration. Even when I worked on a psychiatric ward, the patient came from a complex system, and after discharge, returned to a complex system. So the ‘genogram’ became a mapping of the patient/client within that greater complexity.

Usually, it takes an entire hour session to begin this process. And there are often other therapy issues that take precedence. But as I developed my work with the genogram, I began to ‘read’ it with greater depth - as if reading a Rorschach test.

Some examples

Some years ago, I had a female client, who was 4th born of 6 siblings. Her youngest sister was late-born, and the parents were ineffectual, so my client became the primary ‘mother’ to her little sister. The initial work of our therapy was a very toxic relationship between my client and her own mother. At one session, as there was some progress in the client/mother relationship I happened to look at my genogram page, and saw something I’d not been paying attention to. I asked the client, “if you and your mother begin getting along better, who might be next in line for your mother’s poison?” I saw my client’s face immediately turn white, as she began to realize it would be her youngest sister. for whom she was already protector. At that moment, our therapeutic work took a radical turn.

Not only can the genogram map existing family relationships, but also shows their secret fluidities.[2] Human systems, like many examples in nature, are adept at system survival.

I recall a female client telling me straight out, “My sister is the beautiful one, I’m the smart one.” This we can call scripting by attribution - often as a family ‘order of being’ that exists even before a child is born.

Some times when a parent or relative (often a grandparent) dies, I’ll suggest my client go to that person (a gravesite, or at a specific imagination level connection) to ask for a particular desired trait or gift to be passed on to oneself.[3]

An interesting real-life therapy metaphor comes to mind. My primary trainer in the arts of counseling and psychotherapy, with whom I studied for over four years (that was back in the 1970s), lived in a newer and fancier part of Ann Arbor. At one time she discovered termites in her house. She also was told that basically you can’t get rid of a termite infestation. but one can have them moved to another location. She had a particular neighbor who had given her some years of grief - so she had the exterminator direct the termite hoard in that particular direction. The outcome was that her house became termite free, and her neighbor (you can guess the rest of this sentence).

Often when I draw out a genogram, there will be ‘empty spaces’ on my sheet of paper. Those are also important. I don’t know how they appear, but if I ‘feed’ the genogram by asking questions, the genogram somehow will ‘feed’ back to me additional information. It has somehow trained me over the years in it’s own mystical language.

I use the genogram frequently when doing pre-marital counseling. I’ll do one for each party - and then set them side by side, asking myself the question “what will happen when these two maps marry?”  Because that’s what happens - “when your genogram marries my genogram, all sorts of even unconscious patterns are inevitably joined. And sometimes ”all hell breaks loose.”  Twice, I’ve seen enough potential trouble, that the couple courageously decided to not marry. (And I secretly pray that my vision is sufficiently accurate.)

Now to summarize this somewhat meandering document.

Primarily it’s a call to consider that we and all things great and small are connected, as so much old wisdom has tried to teach us - and that our current culture strives to convince us all to forget. The Bible reminds us that “even the sparrow” is as much a part of the Divine’s care (though I don’t find a similar inclusion of the mosquito).

And I offer my own use of the genogram as a therapy tool to help map the larger picture, in which we each play an important part.  Honor everything, despise nothing, and remember change is both a promise and a double-edge sword. So, friends,

Pay Attention


[1] Knowing the names of things and people is a powerful human trait. It’s important for me as a therapist to know (and explore) the power (and perhaps weakness) of personal and family names.

[2] In my training, we were visited by an elderly gentleman from Ann Arbor (I don’t recall his name) who was a primary innovator of marriage counseling and family system therapy. And he specifically recommended that we have in our library the military classic Principles of   War by the Prussian Baron Carl von Clausewitz (1873, 1942). I remember him telling us this had been Hitler’s primary tactical ‘bible’.

[3] I learned this from the Old Testament “grant me a double portion of your spirit.”  Unless that desired trait has already been granted to another. (cf Jacob & Esau). You can ask me “does this work?” The answer is ‘yes.’  All the time? ‘no’. But keep in mind that when you change one part of a system, other parts will probably change as well.
Also I’ll suggest the petitioner offer a gift to ratify the exchange. I don’t encounter the word ‘exchange’ used much in psychotherapy literature, but it is popular in some theological circles.


And just behind the curtain is Sir Isaac Newton, with his Third Law of motion writ large - ”every action has an equal and opposite reaction”

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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