Systemic Family Constellations and their use with prisoners serving long -term sentences for murder or rape

by Cohen, Dan Booth, Ph.D., SAYBROOK UNIVERSITY, 2009, 210 pages; 3344884


This dissertation introduces Systemic Family Constellations into English-language scholarship. A Constellation is an intense group process developed by the German psychologist-philosopher Bert Hellinger. The approach explicitly diverges from much of mainstream cognitive, behavioral, and psychodynamic psychology. The review of the literature includes a process description; sections on how Constellations diverge from empirically supported psychotherapy; its place within the historiography of psychology; the historic roots that are synthesized in its design, including existential-phenomenology, family systems theory, Zulu traditions, shamanism, and Jewish mysticism; and analyses of how reported experiences with Constellations coincide with or diverge from multiple constructs of the human soul and recent findings in brain/mind research.

The research combines theoretical and case description methods to present a broad introduction to systemic Family Constellations. Case research employs retrospective exploratory narrative case descriptions of the process used with a group of prisoners serving long-term sentences.

The theoretical research showed that although the Constellation approach is outside the boundaries of mainstream professional psychology in the United States, its lineage in psychology, theology, philosophy, and indigenous healing practices has deep roots. Because Constellations and mainstream psychotherapy have different aims, it is understandable that their structure, format, and content are radically different. The case research encompassed 13 Constellations across 9 cases. The self-reported outcomes indicate that the Constellations were beneficial in helping the inmates deal with difficult emotions and estrangements from loved ones and to facing images of victims of their crimes and the death of loved ones.

The thematic analysis considers emergent philosophic constructs. These include systemic conscience, guilt and innocence, good and evil, the victim-perpetrator bond, and vengeance and forgiveness. The phenomenological evidence suggests that neither vengeance nor sacrifice changes the fate of the living or the dead for the better and that forgiveness is compassion based on acceptance of the past, acknowledgment of the existential equality of all people, and reverence for the vast beauty of life.

AdviserJeanne Achterberg
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsClinical psychology; Criminology
Publication Number3344884

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