Making Sense of Human Life : Murray Bowen’s Determined Effort Toward Family Systems Theory book cover
1st Edition

Making Sense of Human Life
Murray Bowen’s Determined Effort Toward Family Systems Theory

ISBN 9780367461546
Published July 29, 2022 by Routledge
292 Pages 8 B/W Illustrations

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Book Description

Drawing from rich archival material, this book provides unprecedented access to the professional documents and historical context surrounding the life’s work of Dr. Murray Bowen (1913-1990), medical doctor, psychiatrist, and pioneering researcher of Family Systems Theory.

To understand the origins and evolution of this theory, Catherine Rakow explores Bowen’s early years as a psychiatrist at the Menninger Foundation - at which time he became curious about the possibility of determining a factual basis for psychoanalytic theory - and explains how this research would foreground Bowen’s lifelong study of the family unit at the National Institute of Mental Health. From those seminal years of study and observation, Rakow explains how Bowen developed Family Systems Theory: A theory of human functioning that conceives of family as a naturally occurring, regenerating system. Rakow’s close engagement with Bowen’s practice and influences at this time allows for a fulsome account of the research process that Bowen undertook to develop this innovatory approach.

In this book, Rakow demonstrates the value of Bowen’s work as a model and research methodology for those exploring the role of theory in improving family relationships, making it essential reading for marriage and family therapists, mental health professionals, students, those interested in the history of medicine, and curious individuals alike.

Table of Contents

Introduction  1. Bowen's childhood, medical school, internships  2. The years of active duty 1941-1945  3. Bowen's residency School of Psychiatry at Menninger Foundation, 1946-1947  4. The last year of his residency, a search for answers c. 1947-1948  5. Modifying accepted psychiatric theories and practices 1948-1951  6. Specific case discussions-inpatient studies, 1949-1951  7. Symbiotic relationships  8. A shift toward family 1949-1953  9. Timing and choices 1953 to July 1954  10. Settling in at NIMH, July to October 1954  11. The backstory on the research project: November to December 1954  12. The first families: November 1954 to February 1955  13. The family as a unit, March to July 1955  14. Toward the new hypothesis and treatment, August to December 1955  15. An important non-research family  16. Origin of Bowen's theory 

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Catherine M. Rakow is an independent researcher, has spent nearly 30 years reviewing Murray Bowen archival materials at the National Library of Medicine, History of Medicine Division in Bethesda, MD and the Bowen family collection in Williamsburg, VA.


Catherine Rakow’s present work fills a void on the progress and thinking of Dr. Bowen before his NIMH Family Study Project. Her work is a seminal contribution towards the understanding of Bowen’s development of his theory and applications of family psychotherapy.

John F. Butler, Rose Street Mental Health Care, Wichita Falls, TX

Rakow has cast a broad net, using extensive archival materials to document Bowen’s process at arriving at a theory, which is much broader than his 8 concepts. A theory based on factual clinical observations that led to "keeping the transference in the family", "non-mothering attitude", functions of symptoms. The book will challenge the reader's assumptions and principles of one's life and work.

Clarence Boyd, editor, Commitment to Principles, the letters of Murray Bowen, M.D.

An important contribution to the foundation of facts of how Bowen theory developed over time and clues for where development can continue. Consistent with Bowen theory, this work does little to tell the reader how or what to think but invites curiosity and provokes theoretical inquiry.  

Amie Post, Faculty, The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, Washington DC

Ms. Rakow has not only captured an important period in Bowen’s work, but she offers us an approach that we each might take up in furthering our understanding of our various human systems. In that spirit, her book is essential reading for marriage and family therapists, mental health professionals, organizational consultants, community activists, members of communities of faith, students of human behavior, family medicine practitioners, and those interested in the history of medicine. Catherine Rakow has been a dedicated scholar of the Murray Bowen Archives for many years. She has steadfastly examined the detailed evidence of those earlier years of Dr. Bowen’s life and work as a medical doctor, psychiatrist, and researcher when he was developing his theory of human functioning. In time this effort became his natural family systems theory, known today as Bowen Family Systems Theory or Bowen theory. His approach to thinking and to researching oneself in one’s human system is now taught and applied worldwide. It has been my privilege to teach this material in my current role as a faculty member at the Western Pennsylvania Family Center, (as is Ms. Rakow), and, to observe the remarkable changes in functioning of so many of the learners once they contact and research their own family, organizational, and community systems—once they make sense of their own human lives.

N. Michel Landaiche III is WPFC Faculty Member and Human Relations Consultant; he has authored Groups in Transactional Analysis, Object Relations, and Family Systems: Studying Ourselves in Collective Life