The New Hire

“Bill’s Story”

Chap. II                                                  The New Hire


                                                                       Al Murdach



     Bill left Springer High Schoolafter the last class and took the Harbor View streetcar across town to reach the Hadley Brothers Mill. The streetcar rattled and jerked as it moved slowly downPoplar Avenuetowards the harbor.  The street was crowded with pedestrians, delivery wagons, automobiles, and an occasional slowly moving horse cart, so the streetcar operator continually rang the bell to clear the way on the tracks.  Bill could see some shop owners already closing for the day, rolling up their awnings and sweeping the sidewalk in front of their stores.  As the streetcar neared the harbor and began to move along the waterfront, Bill glimpsed the Hadley Mill in the distance and noted the plumes of smoke and steam streaming from the mill’s tall smoke stacks. As he got closer he could see mill workers swarming around piles of lumber and banks of machinery in the large mill compound between the mill and the harbor.  He remembered that this mill, like all the other big mills in town, was a twenty-four hour, seven day a week operation.

     Bill got off at the last car stop and began the six block walk to the mill.  As he passed the bustling docks and railroad yards near the harbor, he could see the mill’s belching smoke stacks looming directly in front of him.  He stopped for a moment to take in the view.  In his imagination the mill with its walls, piles of logs and lumber and gigantic stacks looked like the ramparts a giant medieval castle, veiled in mist and mysterious clouds.  The late afternoon sun filtered through the smoke and steam, creating a  greenish-red glow.  He had been reading a history of the Crusades and was reminded of descriptions of the Crusader’s first views of the ramparts ofJerusalem, glistening in the dying sun.

     As he approached the muddy storage yard in front of main gate, the shrill blast of thefour o’clockwhistle jolted him back to reality.  Suddenly day workers poured out of the main gate and surged down the street, trudging silently past Bill and disappearing into the side streets near the downtown.  To Bill, they looked dirty, disheveled and exhausted and hardly looked like Crusaders.  He began to wonder if this would really be the adventure he was hoping for.

     Bill trudged up the stairs to the office and glanced up at the sign over the large oak door.  It read: “Hadley Brothers Mill.  Founded 1901.  Wood for the World.”  Below was a smaller sign: “Help Wanted.  Always openings.  Good wages paid. Learn on the job. No Experience Necessary. Apply inside.”  He pulled open the heavy door and went in.

     The office was lit by a single bare overhead light bulb and was deep in shadow.  After Bill called out to announce his presence, a young woman neatly dressed in black jacket  with a large white collar emerged from a back room and came towards him.

     Bill struggled to get his words out.  “I-I’m trying, I mean, I’m looking…yes, I mean I’m looking for work.  Do you have anything?”

     The woman quickly looked him over and pulled a large ledger out from a drawer in  the front desk   Picking up a pen, she glanced at Bill.

     “When do you want to start?” she asked.  When Bill stared at her and said nothing, she chuckled and asked, “How about tomorrow?”

     Bill’s jaw dropped.  He had not counted on all of this happening so soon. “S-sure, sure,” he stammered, “that’d be great!  It’s a deal.”  He managed to flash a convincing grin.

     The young woman noted his name and snapped the ledger closed.  She raised a blank, business-like face to give Bill instructions.

     “Wages are eighteen cents an hour for beginners,” she said.  “You get paid more the more years you work for us.  You can get Christmas and Easter off if you ask in advance but you don’t get paid for that.  If you have any complaints you take it to the manager.  Don’t go complaining to the other workers, the manager doesn’t like it and will fire you if he catches you doing that.”

     Bill gulped.  “OK,” he said, “where will I start?  I’ve never worked in a mill before.”

     The woman cleared her throat.  “The foreman decides that.  You go see him first thing tomorrow.  His name is Mr. Jorgenson.  And be sure to use the “Mister”.  He gets annoyed if you don’t.”  She turned and started back to the rear of the office.

     Bill grabbed the top of the front desk and called after her, “Oh say, I forgot to ask, what time do I start tomorrow, ma’am?”

     She called over her shoulder, “Be here byfour o’clock.  That’s the change of shift in the afternoon.  You get off at12:30in the morning.”  She entered her small back room and closed the door. Abruptly she opened it again and, smiling thinly, said to Bill, “Good luck, son.”  Bill raised his hand in a good-bye wave and turned to leave the office.

     He walked slowly back to the streetcar stop feeling elated, frightened and frustrated.  He had gotten his wish: a job at the mill.  Now he had to tell his father and mother, fix his bicycle so he could use it to get back home after the streetcar stopped running at 10 p. m., figure out a way to keep up with his homework and, along with all of this, try to get enough sleep so could stay alert in school during the day.  He also still had to meet with the foreman tomorrow to get his work assignment and then see if he could handle the job.  Weary with thinking about all these contingencies, he fell asleep on the streetcar and almost missed his stop.  Fortunately the conductor knew Bill and woke him up just in time.

     As soon as Bill reached home he went to the parlor and again found himself in front of his father trying to explain what he wanted to do and what had just happened at the mill.  His mother sat on the couch silently looking at the floor and wringing her hands.  After a few moments his father raised his hand to quiet him.

     “I must tell you, William,” his father said, “that I spoke to Mr. Hadley this morning and advised him not to allow you to be hired because I feel strongly that this new job of yours is a step backward for you.  He was most polite and understanding but said he leaves the final decision up to his foreman and so will consult with Mr. Jorgenson tomorrow morning.”

     His mother vigorously nodded her agreement with his father.  Bill felt a sudden surge of sullen anger at his father’s interference, but knew he had to be careful.  He had learned long ago not to contradict him.

    “What if Mr. Jorgenson decides to keep me on tomorrow?” Bill asked.

     His father stood up stiffly.  Bill had forgotten how tall his father seemed.  “Your mother and I will of course abide by that decision, provided you keep up your school assignments and you are physically able to do the work.”  His father’s tone of voice indicated to Bill that the interview was over.

     He went to the dining room to tell Gilson about his new plans.  Gilson put down his watercolor brushes, thought for a moment, then looked up at Bill.  “It’s not important,” he said, “whether or not you like the mill but it is important that you make a go of it there.  All father understands is success.  Remember that.”

     Bill suddenly realized that Gilson also wanted to be more independent and would now view him as a model to imitate.  He climbed the stairs to his room feeling alone and apprehensive.  The mill, which once seemed so exciting, began to look like it might be a trap.  As he lay in bed he tried to picture what his interview with Mr. Jorgenson would be like.  Bill decided that now he had to show everyone that he could not fail, especially since Gilson was counting on him more than ever.  It was several hours before he was finally able to sleep.


Fire in the Night

Chap. 1, “Bill’s Story”                                                                                       8/4/04

                                                              Fire in the Night


                                                                 Al Murdach


     The mills of Hobart, Washington were always burning.  At night, while riding the last downtown streetcar home from the movies at the Palace Theater, Bill Moran could see all the lumber mills glowing along the rim of Glenn Harbor.  Sparks shot into the black night sky from the giant incinerators behind each mill, and the glow of flames lit up the fumes pouring from their tall smokestacks.  In the flickering light Bill could also see acres of freshly cut logs bobbing in the harbor waiting to be sawed and trimmed, as well the dim shapes of hulking freighters loading pile after pile of cut lumber for shipment to Japan or south to San Francisco.  Someday, Bill thought, I’d like to work in one of those mills.

     As he descended from the streetcar at its last stop, Bill stood deep in thought momentarily under the streetlight, the shadow from his tall, angular body stretching out on the pavement in front of him.  I’m sixteen years old now, he reflected, and a sophomore in high school.  It’s 1918 and the world is in an upheaval.  Things are changing fast and I feel ready for some adventure.  I’m tired of carrying newspapers and mowing lawns.  I think a job in the mill would be a good start plus make some good money.  All I have to do now is to convince my parents I need to make the change.   And that, Bill realized with a twinge of anxiety, might be difficult—especially when it came to dealing with his father

     He stretched his arms and shoulders to relieve the stiffness he always felt after the long streetcar ride.  Walking up the hill, watching his tall, angular shadow follow him as he moved from streetlight to streetlight, he looked over at the mills and felt a sense of excitement.  Now he could hear them as well as see them.  They roared and hissed in the night, sounding alive like some huge struggling animal.  Bill felt the sound was beckoning him to come closer.

     When he turned the corner at Canal and Halstead Streets Bill could see his family home shining at the end of the street in the dim light cast by the mills.  It had been painted white about two weeks before and now, amidst a row of smaller dingy gray and brown houses, it seemed to glow like a beacon.  This year, his father said, was his best year in the furniture business and, not only that, his boss had given him a bonus for being the year’s top salesman.  Now besides improving the house his father was even considering buying a new automobile, possibly a Ford touring car.  Since his father was in such a good mood these days, Bill realized that now would actually be the best time to talk to him about a job in the mills.  He decided he would do it the next evening, when he knew his father would be home.

     As he entered the front door, Bill saw his younger brother Gilson seated at the dining room table leaning over his drawing board.  Gilson was a high school freshman this year, and always seemed to be struggling to improve in his studies.  He especially liked art and  spent hours alone sketching and painting, even when he should have been doing his homework.  Now around him on the table colored pencils and scrap paper lay in wild array as he worked busily on his project.  The house was completely quiet.  Bill knew his mother and his little sister, Alica, had long since gone to bed.  He stopped for a moment and spoke to Gilson before going upstairs to his room.

     “Hi, Gil.  What’cha workin’ on?”

     Gilson, completely absorbed in his work, startled and looked up.  In the glare of the overhead light, his unsmiling face looked sallow and worn.  He looks older than me, Bill suddenly thought, even though he’s a year younger.

     Gilson swallowed and brushed back his rumpled brown hair. “Flowers,” he said.  “I’m trying to draw these.”  He jerked his pencil toward a bowl of drooping roses near him on the wide oak table.

     “Great!” Bill said.  “Is that something for an art class?”

     Gilson bent back down over his drawing board.  “No, not for any class.  I just like drawing flowers.”

     “Good for you,” Bill chuckled.  “Well, I better get to bed.  Got a test tomorrow.  G’night!”

     As Bill quickly climbed the stairs to his room, he thought Gil now seemed hard to talk to and Bill didn’t know what to say.  Gil seemed moody and often wanted to be by himself.  Bill wondered why he was staying up alone so late now and realized, with a sense of regret, that now they did little together though before high school started they had done many things with each other.  As he undressed to go to bed, Bill swore to himself he would make a greater effort from now on to try to do more with Gil again so he would not lose touch with him.    

     After dinner the next evening, Bill helped his mother clean up the kitchen while his father retired to the parlor to read the evening paper.  When the chores were done, Bill went up to his room to collect his thoughts and mentally rehearse his “speech” to his father about deciding to apply for a job at the mill.  He nervously descended the stairs, stopping three or four times on the way down to reconsider what he was going to say.  Bill knew in advance that his father wouldn’t approve of his decision and that his mother would be afraid for his safety.

     As he entered the parlor, Bill saw his father seated as usual in his over-stuffed chair reading the evening paper.  Clearing his throat to get his father’s attention, Bill motioned to his mother to come in from the kitchen.  His father dropped his paper into his lap, perched his glasses on the end of his nose, and stared inquisitively at Bill, who was now fidgeting awkwardly in the middle of the room.  His mother, alternately brushing back her graying brown hair and wiping her hands with a dishcloth, entered the room and sat in a large armchair across the room from his father.

     “Well?” his father asked quietly.

     “I-I’ve decided to apply for a job at the Hadley mill, father.  I’m going to speak to them after school tomorrow.”  Bill gulped as he saw the muscles in his father’s square face stiffen.

     His father leaned forward as his paper slid off his lap and dropped to the floor.  “Bill,” he began slowly, “ the Hadley Brothers mill is hardly the place to….”  He was cut off by his mother,  who was now wringing her damp hands.

     “It’s too dangerous, William!  People get killed over there.  Can’t you consider a safer place to work?  I know you’re tired of doing your paper route, but why not try Mr. Olson’s hardware store?  I know he’s looking for clerks.”

     “Or my furniture store,” muttered his father, sinking back in his chair and glaring at Bill over his glasses.  “We provide good training and experience,” he said.  “As you know, I am hoping someday you might even want to be a salesman there.”

      Bill gulped but rushed on, his words pouring out before he really knew what to say.  “You don’t understand, father.  I need a change now.  I can’t keep doing the same old thing. I’ve got to try something new and on my own.”  He knew he should stop speaking since his voice was beginning to quiver.  “It’s as simple as that,” he squeaked.

       He could see his mother’s back stiffening. “William!” she asked excitedly, “ Don’t you hear what your father is saying? I think you should reconsider your plans.”  She quickly rose from her chair and stood at Bill’s side, one thin hand resting gently on his shoulder, the other still holding the dishcloth she had carried in from the kitchen.  Bill knew she dreaded any kind of family scene since it disrupted the calm routine of her house.  He could physically sense her increasing agitation by the trembling of her hand on his shoulder.

     “Effie,” his father said softly to his mother, “calm yourself.  William is just a little confused now and doesn’t know what he is doing.”

    “I’m not confused, and I know what I’m doing!” Bill blurted out.  “I know what I want and I’m going to the mill tomorrow.”

     He turned abruptly and strode away from his mother, bounding up the stairs and slamming the door as he entered his room.  His brother, working on his art as usual at the dinner table, barely glanced up as Bill hurried by.

     His mother and father stared at each other without saying a word.  She still stood in the middle of the room clutching her dishcloth while he remained seated in his chair, choking back his irritation.  After a few moments, he cleared his throat and looked up.

     “ Effie, I don’t know what’s come over the boy,” he sighed.  “He was always so cautious before.  I agree that working in the mill is a terrible idea.  There’s no future in it.  The men who work there are coarse and vicious, and Bill isn’t physically very strong.  I think he’s just being pigheaded about this whole thing.” 

     “He wants to be more on his own, I’m afraid, even though he’s so young,” his mother mumbled.  “He’s so different from Gilson.  Gilson would never talk like this.”  She gestured with the dishcloth toward the dining room where Gilson remained silently bent over his drawing board, carefully painting flowers.

     His father stood up slowly. “I’ll go to see Mr.Hadley first thing in the morning,” he said.  “I know him pretty well.  I’ll tell him to hear William out but, for God’s sake, not to hire him.  That boy just doesn’t know what he is doing, Effie.”  He stood for a moment and patted her shoulder, his large frame looming over her much smaller body.  Finally he picked up his newspaper and silently walked into the hallway towards their bedroom at the rear of the house.

     His mother smiled weakly.  “I hope we can save my William,” she said to herself as she left the parlor.  She was sure he was too young to be more independent now.  He needed to grow up and be a helper to his father, and then maybe help their family someday. Leaning against the kitchen wall, she absent-mindedly continued to wipe her hands with the dishcloth as she gazed at the dishes in the sink.  The first hint of a rift in her carefully constructed home life began to loom before her and she suddenly felt sad and alone.

You Get Used to It

Chap II, “Louisa’s Story”, by Al Murdach




                                                  You Get Used to It

                                                     by Al Murdach




     The huge buildings around theKansas Cityrailway station were brown and dirty looking.  They seemed to be full of people rushing everywhere, up and down stairs, through the crowded hallways, and along the platforms near the tracks.  But what really bothered Louisa was the noise.  People yelled and complained, trains blew their whistles and screeched their brakes, and delivery  drivers noisily loaded and unloaded piles of cargo from their wagons, while their horses waited sadly, blowing air from their nostril and stamping their hooves.   Louisa held her hands over her ears as she looked up to watch some sparrows circling gracefully over the roof of the station house.  She noticed that the sky was overcast and the air was colder: a sure sign that fall was coming.  Louisa stood close to Mother and Father on the station platform as Father got ready to board the train forCanada.  She gazed up at the huge black and grimy engine, which was puffing and steaming as the crew crawled over it while cleaning and oiling parts.  The giant machine seemed menacing and alive as it hissed and spat out bursts of steam. 

     Louisa drew closer to Mother and Father and gazed up at their faces.  She was surprised by how quiet and restrained they both seemed.  Her father stared silently at the people scurrying past on the platform.  Mother was casting worried glances at Baby John.  Even he was quieter than usual.  Mother had tucked him into his huge wicker pram and buried him in blankets to defend against the cold air.  All that could be seen of him as his nose and eyes, which peered out from underneath his bulky knitted cap.  Mother slowly rolled the pram back and forth as Father waited to board the train.

     Louisa saw the conductor lean out from the front car and shout “Allll aboooard!”  She crowded close to Father so she could hear when he turned to Mother to speak, but his voice was immediately drowned out by the clanging of the engine bells.  Father swooped down to pick up and hug Baby John and Louisa, John’s baby blankets and Louisa’s long dark hair flying wildly in the wind as he pressed them to his chest.  For an instant her face was smashed against father’s cheek and she could feel the stubble of his beard.  “Be good to your brother and help your mother,” he shouted into her ear.  He kissed them both, kissed Mother on the cheek, swung easily up onto the passenger car steps clutching his large suitcase and finally, with a wave of his hand, disappeared inside the car.  Louisa was amazed that her parents hadn’t hugged each other before Father got on the train.

     The train jerked ahead with a shrieking of metal and gears, heaving and puffing until it slowly gathered speed and disappeared past the edge of the vast switching yard, which was suddenly silent and empty.  The maze of tracks glistened like steel snakes coiling endlessly out to the horizon.  Mother stood unmoving, gazing out over the yard and ignoring Louisa’s tugging at her hand and John’s whimpering.  Louisa began to wonder why Mother wouldn’t move.  Was she sleeping, or planning to stay there until Father came back? 

     “Mommy,’ she finally said, “ let’s go.  I’m getting cold.”  Her mother squeezed Louisa’s hand and started to push John’s pram slowly toward the exit.  As they walked, Louisa realized that she wasn’t really cold after all, just very tired.  They had all gotten up at four a. m. to come to the station and it was now almostnoon.  She was also beginning feel very hungry.       

     After a hurried lunch at a small restaurant across the street from the station, they climbed back into the large family wagon, put the pram in the back, and began the long, slow ride home to Grandpa’s farm outsideKansas City.  Louisa rested against her mother’s arm and sometimes slept, sometimes idly watched the corn and wheat fields drift by and disappear.  James, the family wagon driver and farm hand, clicked his tongue and spoke softly to the two horses as they plodded along.  They passed the Hanson’s farm, the Dahlweig’s place, and finally turned into the bumpy road that marked the beginning of Grandpa’s property.  It was almost evening now and blackbirds and sparrows swooped across the pink-tinged sky searching for insects in the cool air.  Louisa had fallen asleep again and her mother gently shook her by the shoulder when the wagon came to a stop.

     “Time to wake up, Louisa,” she said.  “We’re home.”

     Louisa yawned and looked up to see Mother standing by the side of the wagon with Grandma Bodner close by her side.  While James watered and brushed the horses, Mother placed Baby John in his pram and pushed him slowly up the lane to the large farmhouse while Grandma walked along with her.  Louisa followed close behind.  Her mother was quiet at first but then spoke in a choked voice with Grandma.  It sounded to Louisa like her mother was almost ready to cry.

     “I shall miss him, Mother Bodner.  He is so far away now.”

     Grandma, as usual, seemed quite unemotional and business-like about all this.  She was a small, stocky woman, who always seemed to be plainly dressed in a dark skirt and light colored high-necked blouse.  Her replies to Mother were short and economical.

     “Well Luella,” she said, “men have to experiment.  George is no different.  He is young and must try his wings.  You must learn to get along without him for awhile, that’s all.”

     Her mother stopped walking and raised her head to face Grandma.  She reached out and clutched the older woman’s hand.

     “But Mother Bodner,” she choked, “he knows nothing aboutCanada.  This is an enthusiasm with him.  Moving away will mean leaving all our family and friends, all the things we’re used to, all we….”

     Grandma straightened her shoulders and pursed her lips.  “Luella Clara,” she said, distinctly pronouncing  her mother’s first and middle name, “you’ve got to stop thinking about such things.  Just put them out of your head.  George’s mind is made up and that’s that (Grandma emphasized the word “that” by striking her clenched fist into her outstretched hand).  He’s like his father.  There’s no turning him around once he’s set on something.”

     Her mother looked at the ground.  Louisa thought her mother always seemed somewhat scared of Grandma and usually tried to stay on what she called Grandma’s “good side”.  “I know  Mother Bodner,” her mother finally said.  “I’ll try.  I really will.  But sometimes I wonder if I will ever see George again.”

     Grandma reached out, grabbed   Mother’s shoulders, and looked at her steadily.  “You’ll see him again,” she said, “but you may not see him much.  In fact inCanadathere may be times when you will see him very seldom.  Farming in a harsh land can be difficult for families.  You’ve got to accept that.”

     Her mother’s dark eyes were staring imploringly at Grandma’s face and blinking back tears.   “But…how do you do that, Mother Bodner?’

     Grandma removed her hands from her mother’s shoulders and slowly dropped them to her side.  “You get used to it, that’s all,” she said emphatically, “you just get used to it”.

     Her mother cleared her throat.  “I expect I will, Mother Bodner.  I surely expect I will.”  She dropped her gaze and caught Louisa’s eyes.  Louisa could tell by the expression on her mother’s face that she didn’t really believe what she was saying. 







I Beg To Differ

                                                                   I Beg to Differ


                                                                Allison D. Murdach

     A hot wind blew across theKansasprairie as the Reverend Kinsolving guided his buggy slowly into the drive in front of Mrs. Winston’s modest home.  He climbed down, tied up his horse at the watering trough, and stood gazing at the fields around her house. The blue sky made a lazy undulating line in all directions, meeting the tawny prairie like an old friend. The sun blazed directly overhead. He took off his black hat and wiped his forehead with a dusty handkerchief he carried in his back pocket. The mid-day

heat was beginning to bother him. It seemed especially hot for July this year, he thought,

fanning himself with his hat. He turned when he heard the front screen door slam.

  “Mornin’ Reverend!” Mrs. Winston shouted. “What you up to today? Thought you’d be

in church on Sunday.”

  “Good morning, Mrs. Winston. The morning service got out just about an hour ago. I 

wanted to pay a brief call to see how you are doing now.”

  “Come on in and sit awhile. It’s too hot to talk out here.” She motioned him toward the

screen door and held it open for him. Her white kitchen apron was stained with

flour and grease. The pastor could see she looked very tired.

   When her husband, Abe, died of a heart attack two weeks earlier, the pastor was surprised at the sparse attendance at his church funeral.  He had hoped for a bigger

turnout  but  reasoned that travel wasn’t always easy in this part of the state.  He also remembered that the Winstons had not been close to any

I Beg to Differ (cont.)

of their neighbors and had been viewed for years as a quiet couple who kept to

themselves.  They had no children. The funeral was also the last time he had seen Mrs.

Winston in church and he was beginning to get concerned.

     Mrs. Winston scooted a peeling wooden chair up to the kitchen table.  “Here, have a seat. Like something to drink?” she asked.

  “Why thank you. I’m much obliged. Seems considerably warmer than yesterday. Looks

like you’ve been baking.”

    Sitting down heavily across from the pastor, Mrs Winston looked at her greasy

hands.  “I been trying to take my mind off things lately,” she said softly.  “There’s so

much to do around here now. My hired man, Jake, says he’s ready to quit ‘cause I can’t

pay him enough.”

   “That’s what I’ve come by to talk to you about,” the pastor said, leaning forward.  “We’ve all been worried about you back at church.”  He looked enquiringly at Mrs. Winston, feeling a faint rush of embarrassment.  The pastor didn’t want to seem

too forward or overly concerned.  People out here resented those who pried in other’s


    Mrs. Winston sat up straight. “Tell ‘em not to worry.  I’ll be doin’ all right.  Things are

just a little tough right now, that’s all.”

   “Did Abe leave you any money?”  As soon he asked the question, the pastor

was sorry he brought the subject up.  He could see Mrs. Winston was struggling to be

polite, but felt that this information was none of his business.

  “Abe was a good man,” she said between her teeth.  “He took care of things all right.

I Beg To Differ (cont.)

It’s just that I’m not able to get as much work done as I’d like.”

    Jake suddenly clumped onto the porch. The pastor could see the hired man, tall and

stooped, peering through the screen door.  “Sorry, missus,” he said, “didn’t know you

had comp’ny.  I’m going into town, Mum. Anything you need?”

   Mrs. Winston waved her hand in dismissive gesture. “No Jake.  Thank ye. We’s all right in here.  This is Reverend Kinsolving.”  The pastor waved his hand in Jake’s direction.

  “Pleased to meet ‘cha, sir,” Jake said as he bobbed his shoulders up and down in the

form of a bow.  “Well, I’ll be goin’ now, missus,” he mumbled, and quickly disappeared from the porch.  They could hear the hoofs of his horse fading in the distance as he galloped away over the packed, dry dirt.

   Mrs. Winston sighed wearily and gazed at the ceiling. “I suspect he’s goin’ into town to

tie one on. He’s got a nasty drinkin’ habit and I just paid him this mornin’. Lord knows

when he’ll be back.”

   The pastor looked intently at Mrs. Winston.  She was about 45 years old, he

guessed, with a large figure and a face surrounded by slightly graying brown hair.  Her

eyes seemed small and looked  pushed up against her forehead, as if she was trying to

hold her breath.  He noted that under her apron she appeared musclular, with small

breasts and  broad shoulders, almost as big as a man’s. Her bare lower arms were tanned 

and ended in long fingers which clutched and unclutched as she spoke.  In a way he

didn’t fully understand, he felt drawn to her, and thought suddenly of 

his diminutive wife, Carrie. She was probably having tea just now with the church

I Beg to Differ (cont.)

deacon’s wife.  He knew she didn’t like visiting church members, that she somehow

resented being “on display” as the Reverend’s wife. She seemed happier to stay at home

and show off her well decorated parlor to visitors.  The pastor cleared his throat and


   “Mrs. Winston, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but people at the church

have been wanting to help you out somehow.  What we’d like to offer is some help, like bring you some food and do some chores.   Maybe our church members could….”.  He stopped as he saw her slowly standing up.

   “Reverend, I beg to differ.  Now I know you and the church people are meanin’ well and I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but I think you should know a thing or two about me and what I want to do now.”

   Clasping and unclasping her lean hands, Mrs. Winston rose and paced the small kitchen.  He was surprised at her sudden energy. She stopped abruptly and leaned over the table with her face was about six inches from his. The pastor could see by the veins in her neck that her heart was pounding.

   “You see,” she said, “ I’ve been doin’ a lot of thinkin’ since Abe died.  I need land,

not people here to help.  And I need money to buy land. Abe was the cautious type,

Reverend. He always used to tell me we can’t spend beyond our means.  But that’s not the way to live.  I need to be doin’ the Lord’s work.  He’s callin’ me to bring in sinners, Reverend.  I need land so I can build up His house here, out here, where people is cryin’ for His love!”  Mrs. Winston fell back into her chair, exhausted by  emotion. As she bent

I Beg to Differ (cont.)

her head back to arrange her unkempt hair, the Reverend noted that her eyes, so cloudy when she first began to speak, now seemed to be glowing.  Her words had transfixed him, and he felt strangely moved.

    “I…I don’t know what to say, Mrs. Winston.  I didn’t realize…”

   “Call me Maggie,” she said, smiling. “Short for Margaret.”

   “I didn’t realize, Maggie, that you felt so strongly about…”

   Quickly, Mrs Winston was on her feet again. She pointed a long finger at the pastor.

   “You feel this way too. I know it. I’ve watched you when you do your

sermons. You’ve got a fire in you.” 

   The pastor felt himself shrinking back in his chair as if accused. He began to feel   moved by her passion and commitment, and suddenly remembered feeling the same sense of mission to do God’s work as a young pastor.  He realized with sadness that it was many years since he felt the fire of dedication that now seemed to be consuming Mrs. Winston. Yet she said that she still saw that fire in him. He stood up and took her arm, then quickly released it when she pulled away and resumed pacing. He needed to know what she wanted, not from the church, but from him personally.

   “Mrs. Winston.  Uh, I mean, Maggie,” he sputtered.  “You said just now that you felt I was someone who was really dedicated to the Lord’s work, someone who could work with you in realizing your dream. Please, I need to know what it is that makes you feel this way.”

   She stopped and quietly stared out the rear window at the windmill that was slowly

I Beg To Differ (cont.)

turning in the lazy breeze in back of the house. The pastor could see her figure

silhouetted starkly against the window.  All at once she turned and faced him.

   “It was the way you looked at me when you was reading from the Holy Book at Abe’s

funeral,” she said in a voice so barely audible the pastor strained

to hear each word. “You would read awhile, and then look up. When you looked up you

would look straight at me and I could see a consumin’ passion in your eyes. I could tell

then that Jesus had ahold of ye.” She turned back to the window and gripped the sill.

   The pastor sat down slowly and struggled to regain his composure. Could this be true? Had other parishioners noticed this as well? Had it really been the fire of Jesus’ love he was feeling when he gazed at Mrs. Winston? He tried desperately to remember what had been going through his mind at that time.

    Mrs. Winston was now standing beside him.  “Reverend, you all right?” He realized he was perspiring heavily and had put his hand over his face to collect his thoughts. Mrs.

Winston slapped her thigh. “Ya’  know, I just remembered somethin’,” she

said loudly..

  More secrets? he thought wearily. His heart began to race as Mrs. Winston scurried to

the icebox. “I forgot to get you that cool lemonade I promised when you came in.” She came back to the table with a frothy glass swimming with lemon pulp and placed it gently before him.

   After sipping the cool mixture, he set the glass down slowly on the table. “Mrs.

Winston,” he said, “about your wish to build a church, I….”

I Beg to Differ (Cont.)

    Mrs. Winston grabbed the Reverend’s shoulder with a vice grip. “Not just build!” she

shouted. “ ‘Course I need money for that. But that’s just a start! I want to preach in that

church too, Reverend. I want to bring Jesus to this place, this people. I know now that’s

what He wants me to do.”  Her voice dropped and she resumed her frantic pacing around

the small room.  “You gotta help me, Reverend. You and I are both slaves to the Lord’s

work. I just know it. Difference is you’ve got a congregation with money and

property. All I’ve got is a broken down farmhouse and a little land. But Reverend, we’ve

both got a passion.”  She stopped and looked at him intently.  “Together we can work

miracles,” she said, putting her warm hand on top of his.

    Standing up, the pastor began to inch slowly backward toward the door. “Mrs.

Winston, I appreciate your interest in my work, I mean, in our work. You must realize,

however, that our methods are somewhat different, or rather, separate.  I mean our ways 

move in other spheres to achieve like goals and purposes to…”  The pastor saw by the

puzzled expression on Mrs. Winston’s face that he wasn’t making any sense.  He stopped

his backward movement, gulped hard, and tried to rephrase his thoughts.  “What I

mean to say is, what you are hinting at, or intimating, is not possible, Mrs.

Winston. It is really completely beyond the pale, I’m afraid.”

    Mrs. Winston’s figure seemed to the pastor to be slowly growing in size until it

filled the room. Her face became red and contorted. He became so alarmed that

he lost his hat as he banged his head on the door frame while backing up.

  “Reverend,” hissed Mrs. Winston in a choked voice. “You listen to me!” She advanced

I Beg to Differ (Cont.)

toward him with a jerking motion, her hands flailing. The pastor was rooted to the spot by fear.

     “Reverend, you have a call. It’s God’s call. I know it is. You can’t get away from it. If

you do this, if you run away like this, I’ll never let you forget it. The Lord Jesus would

never forgive me if I did. I’ll tell everyone I can around here about the passion in your

eyes when you looked my way in church, and how I could tell by the expression on your

face that you and me was meant to work together, meant to win souls for the Lord.”  By

now her voice had risen to a crescendo.  Her clenched fists were extended upward, over

her head..

   The pastor slumped limply against the wall.  He felt cornered, like a rat

he once trapped in a corner of his church.  As he raised a club to crush it, the rat looked

quickly back and forth, desperately seeking a way of escape.  He felt his head moving the

same way now.

   “Mrs. Winston,” he blurted, “please, hear me out. You have persuaded me. I am in your

debt. I will help fund your church. You are correct, the Lord’s work must be done here. I

will discuss funding with my parish board next Sunday. You needn’t fear, they will be

sympathetic I can assure you.” He fumbled for the door handle and began quickly to

back out onto the porch.

   Mrs. Winston beamed and reached out to grab the Reverend’s hand, suddenly

becoming jovial and pleasant.  “Thank ye, Reverend, thank ye,” she said, pumping his

arm.  “I ‘m sorry to be so forward but I mean every word. I’m mighty pleased you see

I Beg to Differ (Cont.)

the truth.  With your help we’ll do a great work, a great work indeed.”  She attempted to

clap him on the shoulder but missed as the pastor hurried down the porch steps,

waving a vague goodbye with his hat. As he climbed into his buggy, he could see her

smiling and waving cheerily on the porch.

   As he guided his horse and buggy slowly down the rough country lane to town, the sun

began to drop towards the horizon and the slanted shadows of fence posts and telegraph poles stretched out ahead of him across the road.  The surrounding fields shifted in color from dull brown to purple and red in the gathering dusk. As he bounced along, he reviewed his conversation with Mrs. Winston over and over. Had he really looked at her with such passion and conviction?  He was a married man! Now he had promised to

give her funds.  How could he justify this expense to his board and to his parishioners? 

Could Mrs. Winston actually succeed?  Could she really build and run a church, even with his help?  As his thoughts gained momentum, he slowed his horse to a slow trot and then, finally,stopped completely and put his head in his hands.  Sadly, he thought of his wife. Poor Carrie, so dull, so resentful of her duties as a pastor’s wife. His thoughts then

flashed to his parishioners and his church board.  Could he sway them by  appeals for funds to do the work of God?  His thoughts then returned to Mrs. Winston, with her broad shoulders, tanned arms, and glowing eyes.  He suddenly felt a stirring within him and a sense of release. Jerking himself upright, he grabbed the reins and urged his horse onward down the bumpy road.  Yes, he would help, he would get her the money. The pastor could see clearly now that God was directing his steps. God was showing him the

I Beg to Differ (Cont.)

way.  He whipped his horse into a gallop. The image of a smiling Maggie Winston, arms outstretched to greet him, swam before his eyes as he flew down the road.  He would go to see her immediately after the board meeting tomorrow evening, the pastor thought feverishly. And he needn’t tell Carrie about Mrs. Winston just yet.  As the pastor’s  thoughts rushed on, he knew now that there was no time to waste. He and Maggie had to work to do!

Media Images of Social Work Helping

                                                                (Revised 6/17/12)

                                                    Media Images of Social Work Helping


                                                            Allison D. Murdach LCSW


          Key Words: Helping Relationship, Social Work Treatment, Client-Practitioner Interaction, Clinical Intervention, Therapy.


     The helping relationship has often been portrayed in various media, such as television and film. Because of their pervasive influence, such media offer an especially instructive area in which to examine the presentation of the social work helping relationship in popular culture.  Studying such presentations can provide valuable insights into the processes by which both negative and positive public images of social work helping are created.  This article presents an analysis of the ways in which these images have been developed in American popular film during the past few decades.  Selected examples of film and television are discussed and suggestions are offered about how these popular images can be better understood and their importance to the social work profession.

                                                                    End of Abstract

     Social workers have begun to recognize the importance of popular culture in influencing public attitudes about the social work profession and its practitioners.  For example, recent articles have appeared in the literature discussing the importance of television and films in promoting various images of social workers and social work practice (Burr and Jarvis, 2007; Freeman and Valentine, 2004).  As yet, however, few authors have commented upon film or television portrayals of the nature of social work helping relationships, one of the foundations of social work practice. Indeed, examining such media depictions of relationships between social work helpers and their clients can provide valuable information about how helpers are perceived and evaluated by the general public. This article offers some comments about recent efforts to present the helping efforts of social workers on television and in films.  Some of these portrayals have been welcomed by social workers, while others have been criticized as uncomplimentary and unfair.  The article invites responses from social workers about the accuracy of the media episodes described here and their possible current impact on the profession.  It also emphasizes the importance of being continuously aware of the on-going impact of such media presentations on the field and the general public in the future.

                                                 Portrayals of the Helping Relationship

      I will define the helping relationship as on-going contact between a helper and a client or clients in which both helper and client attempt to alleviate client-identified problems, and in which both helper and client develop strategies to maintain and sustain gains achieved by the client as the relationship progresses.  Examinations of such relationships in popular culture emerged in this country beginning in the 1940’s with the wide-spread popularity of such films as Spellbound (1945) and The Snake Pit (1948).  Although helping relationships occur in many fields, a growing popular interest in psychiatry, counseling, and the power of skilled psychological expertise to solve personal problems generated a number of films, television programs and literary works presenting the intricacies of psychologically-oriented helping relationships with increasing detail and sophistication (Gabbard and Gabbard, 1999).  Such media images have been highly influential in the shaping the public perception of these helping activities.  Films and television, in particular, provide an interesting example of how these public perceptions are developed, fostered, and modified because of their historic hold upon public opinion and their intimate reflection of the public mood (Freeman and Valentine, 2004).   

     In what follows we will examine some of the ways in which helpers, clients, and the social work helping relationship have been portrayed in film and television during the last twenty five years.  Though this material should be of general interest to all helping professionals, it is of particular interest to social workers because it illustrates the social processes involved when popular images of professional action shift and change in positive and negative directions as well as some of the socially interactive ways in which these images are modified over time.

                                     Helping Images in Film and Television

     While various kinds of helping have been portrayed in numerous ways throughout the history of film and television, portrayals of the helping relationship itself have only emerged relatively recently.  Early in the last century, a growing popular interest in psychiatry, counseling, the social determinants of personal problems, and the power of skilled expertise to solve individual difficulties, led to a public fascination with the various aspects of professional helping and “treatment”.  Although initially the public was both attracted and repelled by such phenomena (witness the prevalence of  both “evil” and “good” doctors in many of the early films about the treatment of mental illness), over time a more realistic image of the helping relationship eventually emerged.  Along with this development has come an increasing number of films and television programs presenting the helping relationship in increasing detail and complexity (Gabbard and Gabbard, 1999).

                                                   Images of Social Work Helping

     Historically, images of social work helping have never been numerous in the popular media, which has focused  more often on the helping efforts of medical doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychoanalysts.  Nevertheless media presentations of social work helping have occurred since the early days of the profession, beginning in films in the 1930’s.  However, since our interest here is discovering current trends, older media presentations are not considered.  It should be noted, nevertheless, that these older examples of media attention to social work and social workers have been previously fully explored in the literature (Freeman and Valentine, 2004, Murdach, 2006).   

     During the period covered in this article, approximately 1980 to the present, images of social work helping did emerged in popular culture as a variety of writers and producers sought to explore both the dramatic and comedic aspects of such helping relationships. The framework we will use here to examine these media images is adapted from the works of William F. May and Glen and Krin Gabbard, who have analyzed popular media images of professional helping relationships, especially in the fields of medicine and psychiatry (May, 1983; Gabbard and Gabbard,1999).  The term “image” will be defined as a recurring metaphor that helps to categorize and define client- provider interaction in the helping relationship (Morgan, 1997).  We will focus on the manifestations of four major images of the helping relationship that have often appeared in American popular media : helping as heroism, helping as romance, helping as comic relief, and helping as a working relationship.  We will then explore how these images apply in current media presentations of social work helping. 

     Reviewed below are ten media examples portraying social work helping relationships, selected because they appear to be the most representative of the images we will discuss.  Included are four theatrical films, a TV film, a documentary, two television biographies, and two television series, all produced since the 1980’s.  In most of our examples, the provider is identified as a social worker.  However, as pointed out in two examples discussed below, the provider is not explicitly so identified.  Nevertheless, in these productions, the provider(s) perform activities often associated with social work, such as community organization, resource provision, individual assistance, and the development of group and peer support. Hence the provider depicted in these productions could, according to Freeman and Valentine (2004), be perceived by the general public as being a social worker.

     Helping as Heroism—The media has often presented the image of helping by social workers and   other professionals in heroic terms.  The next four items fall into this category.

    1) Marie (1986).  Based on a true story, this film describes how abused housewife Marie Ragghianti (Sissy Spacek), incensed by the amount of corruption in state government, though not identified in the film as a social worker, she reinvents herself in the film as a community organizer and social reformer and successfully takes on the Tennessee state criminal justice system by becoming the first female head of the state parole board.  Despite adversities, such as death threats and the defection of friends, she perseveres and finally emerges victorious in her quest for reform of the state correctional system.

     2) Iron Jawed Angels (2004).  First aired by HBO in 2004, this TV movie describes the early career of social worker Alice Paul (Hilary Swank). A fierce advocate for women’s suffrage, Paul used her helping and organizational skills to develop her own national advocacy group, the National Women’s Party, in the early twentieth century to gain votes for women in the United States.  Arrested, jailed, and tortured, Paul and her fellow advocates finally realized their goal with the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution finally giving women the right to vote in all elections.

     3) As We Forgive (2006).  Winner of the 2008 Student Academy Award for best documentary, this film highlights the efforts of two Rwanda genocide survivors, one a former instigator and the other a victim of ethnic violence, as they and other community workers in Rwanda work with local religious leaders, court officials, and native counselors (many trained by social workers), to achieve reconciliation following the horrific tribal genocide there in 1994 (Kreitzer and Jou, 2010).

4)The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler (2009). This TV film is based on a 2005 biography of Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker, and documents her heroic work in smuggling 2,500 children out of the Nazi occupied Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.  Working with local resistance groups, Sendler (played by Anna Paquin) was able to place the children using false identities in various church institutions and with Polish families.  Her intention to reunite the children with their families after the war proved illusive since many family members perished in the Holocaust.  After the war Sendler received many awards for her work and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.  She died in Poland in 2008 at the age of 98 and has been dubbed “the female Schindler”, in reference to the rescue of Jews by Oskar Schindler which also occurred during World War II and was commemorated in the film Schindler’s List (1993).

     Helping as Romance—This image is represented by media presentations in which social work helping is depicted primarily as a romantic encounter, a motif found in many films dealing with helping relationships (Gabbard and Gabbard, 1999).  Freeman and Valentine (2004) have extensively explored the influence of this image upon both older and more recent social work related films.  No examples of this image in a social work context could be found on television since the 1980’s, perhaps because as a story line it does not lend itself as readily to the dramatic requirements of television programming.

     Here our one example of this image is the film Hard Choices (1984), which was not mentioned in Freeman and Valentine’s extensive review of social work related films (2004).  In this drama a prison social worker, Laura Stephens (Margaret Klenck), becomes convinced that her client, a young inmate, is innocent and attempts to help him win his freedom.  When this is officially denied, her initial helping efforts quickly devolve into a torrid love affair with the inmate and she then becomes personally involved in facilitating her lover’s escape from prison and subsequent flight to avoid further punishment by the authorities.  The film illustrates numerous ethical boundary violations by the social worker, as well as her arrest for being an accomplice in the prisoner’s escape.  True to movie conventions governing these types of films, she is presented as a troubled and confused individual (Gabbard and Gabbard, 1999).  

     Helping as Comic Relief—As a counterpoint to the heroic image of helping mentioned above, film and television have also presented helping professionals such as lawyers , doctors, and social workers as figures of comedy and/or incompetence (Gabbard and Gabbard, 1999; DeLauro, 2005).  Our next two examples illustrate this image:

      1) The Norm Show was a television comedy series that ran from 1999 to 2001 on the ABC network.  It featured comic actor Norm McDonald playing a hapless former hockey player, Norm Henderson, who is banned from all games due to his legal problems and is court ordered to perform community service as a social worker in a community social service agency.  He is presented as being untrained and unmotivated, abusing his clients’ privacy, disobeying and defying his employers, sleeping with his employer’s daughter, etc. NASW and many of its members found this portrayal of social work helping extremely offensive and were relieved when the show eventually failed to keep its audience and was cancelled halfway into its third season (DeLauro, 2005).

     2) Lilo and Stitch (2002), a popular Disney animated comedy film, featured a county social worker (voiced by Ving Rhames) who supervised the care of Lilo, a young female orphan cared for by her sister in Hawaii.  Named Cobra Bubbles, the worker was portrayed in a gently humorous manner as firm but caring in his desire for a better life for Lilo.  In the end his rough demeanor is revealed to hide a soft heart as he assists his client and her blue-furred extraterrestrial friend, Stitch, to achieve a happy ending to their difficulties.   

      Helping as a Working Relationship—Three remaining selections present the image of social work helping as an effective professional working relationship. In the past, such media portrayals in film and television often presented the provider as a detached, morally respectable, and compassionate expert who guided the client to a satisfactory solution to her problem (the client was then usually female).  Helpers are now more likely to be depicted in such stories as having personal flaws (i.e., problems with interpersonal relationships, dark past secrets, substance abuse, or marital problems). This change may be due to a tendency in the media to humanize helping professionals today and no longer depict them as having God-like powers (May, 1983).

     1) Judging Amy , a television series which ran from 1999 to 2005 on CBS.  In contrast to The Norm Show, mentioned above, this series was made in consultation with NASW and genuinely tried to show the quality of everyday social work by portraying Amy’s social worker mother (Tyne Daly) as a wise and caring advisor to her clients and her family.  Maxine Gray, who now lives with Amy, has retired but has now returned to her former job as a social worker for the Department of Children and Families in Hartford, Connecticut.  At work she is devoted to providing the best service possible to the children in her care.  Her relationship with Amy (Amy Brenneman), a judge on the Hartford family court, is depicted as sometimes difficult but basically loving and supportive.

     2) Down Came a Blackbird (1995).  This TV film tells the story of a journalist, Helen McNulty (Laura Dern), who has experienced kidnap and torture.  In pursuit of a story about therapy for such trauma she moves into a residential treatment program designed to treat torture survivor PTSD through groups and peer support.  The program is run by clinic director Anna Lenke (Vanessa Redgrave), who is also a torture survivor.  Though not identified in the film as a social worker, she is presented as taking a social work approach by individualizing each of her client’s treatment experiences while promoting the use of group and peer support as a method of treatment.  She eventually engages McNulty herself in treatment with her in which the journalist is encouraged to confront and come to terms with her own anguish about her experiences.

     3) Precious (2009), a film much praised on its release, tells the story of obese black teenager Clarice Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) who lives in Harlem with her dysfunctional mother and suffers from long-term mental physical, mental, and sexual abuse by her family.  As a result of incest by her father she has had a child, born with Down Syndrome, and is expecting another.  She is helped to gain new living arrangements and direction for her life by her alternative school teacher and by her social worker, Miss Weiss (Mariah Carey), who is portrayed as tough but genuinely concerned about Precious and her aspirations for a better life for herself and her baby away from her abusive family.


     Popular Culture often manifests vivid but not always accurate images of various professional domains, such as the helping process.  As primary vehicles of popular culture, films and television continue to be a pervasive influence throughout the world.  Because of their importance, therefore, it is essential that practitioners be aware of the content of the messages that are broadcast through such media and the ways in which its messages shape public perceptions of the social work profession and its practitioners.

    This article discusses the images of social work helping relationships depicted in films and television programming since the 1980’s and presents selected examples of such presentations.  Despite the general impression that social workers are often presented negatively in popular culture (DeLauro, 2005) most of the media examples described here appear quite favorable to social work, despite some occasional lapses mentioned above in which social work providers were presented in derogatory and less than favorable ways.

     The information presented here invites further examination of this topic and may be useful to social work practitioners as they confront images of the social work helping process shown in the media and are called upon to provide relevant information about, or correction of, such images to clients, funding sources, colleagues, and the general public.  It also serves to underscore the importance of this topic for a thorough understanding of the power of popular media in guiding the general public as they try to make decisions about whether to advance or impede the goals of the social work profession.


Burr, Vivien and Jarvis, Christine (2007) Imaging the Family: Representations of Alternative Lifestyles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Qualitative Social Work 6, 263-280.

DeLauro, Robert (2005) ‘The Good, Bad, and the Ugly: Social Work’s Image on Screen’Social Work Today 5, 18-21.

Freeman, Miriam L. and Valentine, Deborah P. (2004).  Through the Eyes of Hollywood: Images of Social Workers in Film, Social Work 49,  151-161.       

Gabbard, Glenn O. and Gabbard, Kirin (1999).  Psychiatry and the Cinema (2nd ed.).  Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.

Kreitzer, Linda M. and Jou, Mary Kay (2010). Social work with Victims of Genocide:The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) in Rwanda,  International Social Work 53,73-86.

May, William F. (1983) The Physician’s Covenant, Images of the Healer in Medical Ethics. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Morgan, Gareth (1997) Images of Organization (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Murdach, A. D. (2006).  Social Work in the Movies: Another Look, Social Work 51, 269-272.

What’s the Word?

                                                           What’s the Word?

                                                              by Al Murdach

                                                                      No. 5   


     This is the fifth of a monthly series exploring today’s meanings and significance of some important religious words from the Christian tradition.  Today’s word is:




     All religious traditions, including the Christian, insist people are responsible and accountable in some way for their thoughts and actions.  In general, modern religionists have abandoned their forebear’s ideas of a coming “Day of Judgment” in which all to be held to account by a deity or supernatural beings and sent either to heaven or hell.  Instead, while religious liberals agree that judgment day is “ a-comin’” for each of us, they see it in social and not mythological terms. 

     In fact regarding judgment, many Christians today appear to agree with the liberal version. With the decline in belief in a literal and physical hell and heaven, most liberally-inclined religious people in the west tend to see judgment at or after death as the opinion of survivors about the deceased person and not as any kind of final supernatural verdict.  In Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, for example, Scrooge experiences true remorse for his hard-hearted ways when he overhears (thanks to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come) the opinions others express about him just after his death.  That is the judgment he most fears, not some kind of divine condemnation.  Another factor that now diminishes the idea of judgment in liberal religious circles is the growing view (courtesy of the Universalists) that God is too loving to ever condemn anyone to eternal punishment but instead wants all to come to heaven.  As a famous church leader once remarked: “Hell exists but there is no one in it.”     

      This view, however, with its implication that people like Attila the Hun, Jack the Ripper, Hitler, and Stalin will not burn in hell for all eternity but will instead be standing among all the rest of us behind the pearly gates, makes many other people uncomfortable.  Consequently, more conservative religious traditions in Judaism, Christianity and Islam still emphasize a literal reward and punishment scenario at the time of death because it seems more in tune with the idea of “just desserts” for both good and dastardly deeds.  (Even religious liberals, who do not fear a harsh judgment experience at or after death, are not above wishing it upon other people they are not crazy about!)  Therefore, the idea of final, divine judgment will not go away soon because, even though it seems excessive at times, it ultimately seems fair to many people and indicates that even in these chaotic times the “divine policeman in the sky” is still in charge.








What’s the Word?

                                                       What’s the Word?

                                                           by Al Murdach

                                                                      No. 4

     This is the fourth of a monthly series exploring today’s meaning and significance of some important religious words from the Christian tradition.  Today’s word is:


     This word was especially troublesome to our religious forebears because it carries connotations about God’s “Divine Plan”, God’s “foreknowledge”, “predestination”, and our “eternal destiny”.  To William Ellery Channing, a founder of Unitarian Universalism, the doctrine of providence represented one of the “thorny points” of Calvinism that he wished to overthrow. 

     Today, however, few people seem to be concerned about the doctrine, let alone think about overthrowing it.  The idea that God has somehow planned everything that will ever happen, knows what’s going to happen, and has control over what will happen and will reward or punish us according to how we fulfill his plan—all this now seems largely beside the point.  As moderns, we tend to assume that it isn’t God who’s in charge, it’s us, or it’s fate, the stars, accident, nature, love, “life”, the “force”, or some other personal or impersonal process.  But definitely not God!

     Still, it appears the old religious debates on this subject have not died but just assumed new forms.  For instance, today conservatives (and some liberals) place a lot of value on “personal responsibility”.  This is an echo of old religious debates in which people like Channing urged the view that individuals have the capacity to choose, plan, and thus take responsibility for their actions, and are not simply robots mindlessly responding to some god’s plans and control.  Also today, liberals (and some conservatives) express the view that, not the individual, but society should be held responsible for individual decisions and actions.  After all, they urge, it is society that has conditioned individuals to respond in certain ways, ways that may often be violent and unjust, but ways to which the individual sees no alternative because of their upbringing or lack of opportunities. This reflects the older view that it is an outside power, such as God, an international conspiracy, racism, greed, evil, the devil, etc. that is really in charge and conditions everything that we do.

     So the old questions about providence still pose many dilemmas, even though we continue to deny the doctrine.  Are we in control or aren’t we?  Do we really have choices?  Is our destiny actually all worked out no matter what we do?  Channing, incidentally, never resolved the matter.  The best he could come up with was the idea that the doctrine of providence is offensive to the idea of a loving and just God, therefore it cannot be true.  But this requires that one believe in a loving and just God, which many moderns, given today’s random murders, killer hurricanes, tsunamis, wars, genocide, terrorism, and sudden or agonizing deaths by accident or physical illness, find difficult to stomach.  So we return once again to questions about providence, whether interpreted in secular or religious terms.  These questions don’t seem to go away, and none of them has yet been answered!

Harry’s Choice

 Setz Stories, Chap. II

                                                               Harry’s Choice


                                                                 Al Murdach

     I guess while I’m thinking back on my growing up, I should tell you a story about my friend Harry.  I’ll never understand Harry.  It’s true he’s two years older than me, but still the things he thinks of don’t make much sense. Like the time he thought up taking a comb and hitting his bare arm real hard, then spinning it around in a circle until blood spurted out. Weird things like that. Then there was the time he tried to start a club for us younger guys.  That was real strange but, wait a minute. Let me explain what really went wrong with that plan.

     It all happened one spring five or six years ago, back when I was about eleven years old. I guess Harry was getting bored, what with school about to end and summer coming on. I ran into him one day at Midgely’s Store after I got out of my sixth grade class for the day. He had the look of someone who had just come up with a bright idea.

     “Hey Setz,” Harry yelled, “come over here!”  As I said, Harry was a little wild sometimes.  He looked real excited that day.

     “Setz, come on over to my house for a minute. I got somethin’ to discuss with you. Won’t take long.”  Harry lived about two blocks away from the school but for some reason always rode his bike everywhere. Guess it made him feel like a big shot. He jumped on his bike of course and rode ahead of me to his house real fast. I walked behind him as quick as I could. I hate to say it but I always felt kind of like a yokel around Harry. You see, he went to a large public junior high school across town and seemed to know all about life. The school I went to was real small.  The teachers always seemed like they were watching us and trying to protect us. Made me feel like a babe in the woods around guys like Harry.

     Anyway, like I was saying, we finally ended up inside Harry’s house. His parents were out doing some shopping, I guess, so Harry had the whole place to himself. He grabbed a bottle of milk out of the icebox and drank about half of it. He offered me some but I didn’t want any.  Then he invited me down into his basement, where he had built kind of a little room out of old boxes in back of his dad’s work bench.  He always went down to that basement if he wanted to really think about something. We sat in his little room on some old sofa cushions he picked up out of his grandfather’s garage.  Harry was quiet for a long time, thumbing through some old comic books.  Then he looked up and stared straight at me.  “Setz,” he said, “you won’t believe my idea.”  He had a funny look in his eye and I knew, when he looked that way, that he was going to come up with something real stupid.  He was always doing things like that.  “Setz, what would you think of a nudist club for kids?” See what I mean? He never failed me.

     “A nudist club for kids?” I said. I couldn’t believe it. This time he’d really gone off his rocker. “Harry, that’s nuts. You mean a club where people run around without any clothes? You’ve got to be kidding! Who’d want to join a club like that?”  I got up to leave but Harry started getting excited.

     “Listen,” he said, “my Uncle Mort is a nudist. He has a great time! He tried to talk my mom and dad into it but they told him to forget it. They said it would be too embarrassing. He told them that after five minutes no one cares. They have games, play cards, swim, watch movies. Uncle Mort goes there every weekend!”

     I tried to reason with him. “Look Harry,” I said, “ just think what the guys down at Midgely’s would say if they heard about this. Or the guys at your school. Or my school! They’d think we’d lost our marbles.”

     Harry started to answer me but then stopped and got quiet again. I could see he didn’t like my objections and was trying to think of something to say. He had this funny way of expecting everyone to be crazy about his hare-brained ideas. He began to get this weird expression on his face, like he was squinting his eyes in the sun. I knew that usually meant he was coming up with some argument that he thought was really going to convince me

     Harry plopped himself down on one of the ratty old sofa cushions. “I know what we can do,” he said in a dreamy voice, like he just realized I was standing there.  “Let’s invite girls! Yeah, that’s it. And we can make the club secret. We’ll call it the Naked Club. The guys I know will like that.  We can go on trips. We’ll go to a nudist convention! Uncle Mort says there’s one next year inMalibu.”

     I just stood there with my mouth open. This idea of Harry’s really took the cake!  “A convention?” I said. “For naked kids? And inviting girls!  I don’t believe this. You’re out of your mind, Harry.”

     Now I could see he was really getting excited and that this was going to get out of hand fast. Harry was waving his arms and talking more and more about this secret club of his and what great things were going to happen.  I decided it was time to put the kibosh on this plan of his real quick. I thought about my friend Samantha. She was real smart. I knew she could give Harry a run for his money. Samantha and I played dominos a lot and she beat me almost every time, I swear it. She was also pretty strong. I don’t mean strong like an athlete. I mean strong like capable and even pushy. She was really something. I decided to take Harry up on his offer of inviting girls to his club.

     I sat back down and looked Harry straight in the eye. “ Harry,” I asked, “are you really serious about  this?” He stared at me and said of course he was. What did I think he was doing all this talking and planning for?

     “OK,” I said, “if you’re really serious, I know a girl I can ask. She’s a friend of mine  and she’s ten.  She’ll join, I know she will. I’ll ask her tomorrow.”

     Harry suddenly got real quiet.  “What’s her name,” he asked.

     “Samantha Bernalis,” I said. “You know, that skinny girl who’s always hanging around at my house, the one with the pink glasses.”

     “Oh yeah, Sa-man-tha.” He looked at the floor and said the name real slow to himself as if he was remembering something, then looked up at me.  “Setz, can’t we get somebody else?”  He sounded kind of desperate. I knew I had decided to ask the right person to join Harry’s club. I started to laugh inside but tried not to show anything. I acted real serious instead. “What’s the matter, Harry? Samantha would be great.”

     “She’s pretty bossy,” Harry said. I remembered that in the past Harry had some run-ins with Samantha at different kid’s birthday parties about things like who was going to run the games and who really broke the piñata, stupid things like that. Usually Samantha had made mincemeat out of Harry in arguments and he never felt right about it. But now I could see he was beginning to think a little differently. He was staring at the floor again as if there was something very interesting on his shoes. All at once he brightened up and grabbed my arm.

     “Listen Setz, you ask her anyway.” He straightened up and began to climb back up the stairs. “Yeah, you ask her,” he hollered back over his shoulder, “just go ahead. It’ll be good for her, I know it will.” I could see he had convinced himself that if could get her into his club, he’d finally be able to make her accept his ideas and follow his rules. Harry was always trying to figure out ways to lord it over people.

     After I left Harry’s and went back to my house, I called Samantha. Just as I expected, she went into hysterics when I told her about Harry’s idea. She was laughing like mad and thought it was about the most sorry excuse for something to do she had ever heard. She didn’t have many nice things to say about Harry, either. At first I thought she might back out on me but, like I told you, she liked me so we agreed on a plan. We’d meet with Harry tomorrow and give him the scare of his life! I knew if anyone could make Harry see reason it would have to be Samantha.

     The next day I met her in the recess yard of the school on the way over to Harry’s. She had this gleam in her eye that I had seen before when she was out to fix someone’s wagon. The last time I saw it was when she figured out a way to get back at Rodney Slate in her fourth grade class when he stuck a “kick me” note on the back of her sweater when she was standing in the lunch line. She put a bag of dog manure in his coat pocket so he stunk up the whole classroom! So that look she had did make me a little nervous. After all I kind of liked Harry and though I wanted to wise him up I didn’t really want to

make him miserable. Samantha said she had also invited her friend Linda Blondell to come along. She was going to meet us at Harry’s. Samantha said she was impressed with Linda’s ability to put “dumb boys” in their places.

     When we got to Harry’s he had us meet with him in the living room instead of downstairs.  His parent’s had taken his younger brother to his Little League game. Harry was pretty uncomfortable trying to describe his big ideas to Samantha and Linda, but he proceeded to try. The girls listened to him real serious like and didn’t laugh or make fun of his plans.  But when he was done they started asking him some hard questions, like “What if our parents find out?” “Where are we going to get money for the trips?”, and “Who’s going to be in charge of this club?”.  Things like that.

     I could see by their questions that Samantha and Linda were really just stringing Harry along and setting him up for the kill. By the time they had him maneuvered into a corner, I knew what he was going to say.  But according to our plan, I just kept quiet.

     Harry squirmed on the living room couch and tried to act like he was thinking about something real hard. “Samantha,” he said, “ you and Linda have been asking a lot of questions but I think you should know something. I’ve decided that you both are too young for this club. I think it’s only going to work for people who are real mature. Now next year when you’re older….”

     Before he could finish I knew that Samantha and Linda had him where they wanted him. Samantha sat forward on her chair and said, “Harry, I can see your point. I feel bad about this but I can see that this is the type of club that needs an older person. Linda and I are both just ten. I can see what you mean.” I could see Linda nodding like she ageed with Samantha’s every word.

     Harry just stared at them for a few moments with his mouth open. He couldn’t believe his good fortune! I could see relief written all over his face. He got up to show Samantha and Linda the door. Then Samantha came out with the zinger she’d been saving until last.

     “Harry,”she said on her way out, “since your club is for older mature people (she really emphasized that word “mature”), I know someone else who wants to join who fits that description.”

     This stopped Harry in his tracks. For a moment he just stood there, half way in and out of his front door. He slowly turned back to Samantha.

     “And just who are we talking about?” Harry asked nervously. When he talked he looked at his finger nails so the girls wouldn’t see how upset he was. I think he already knew what Samantha was going to say.

     “I’m talking about my sister Clara. She’s twelve and has been to nudist beaches before. A couple of weeks ago she went with the Sutherlands to one of those beaches south of Portland. She loved it. She likes to run things too. I know she’d be just great for your club.” By this time Samantha was grinning from ear to ear. I could see she was enjoying herself.

     Harry sat back down on the couch and proceeded to squirm like his underwear was too tight.  I know he hated Clara.  Basically, I think she scared the pants off him.  I remember once my parents threw a party and invited lots of my friends including Harry and Samantha. Samantha brought Clara along. Clara kept looking at Harry the whole time and once even sat on his lap and played with his hair. Harry just sat there staring straight ahead like he didn’t know what to do. Finally he made some lame excuse, like having to go to the bathroom, and left. I think from then on Harry had this idea that Clara was out to get him for some reason.

     Harry took a deep breath and tried to stay calm. “You think Clara’s really interested in our club?” Harry asked Samantha. He looked totally deflated now.

     “Sure, she’d love it,” crowed Samantha. “I’ll bring her over tomorrow.”

     “Wait,” Harry said. He looked like he was struggling with some really big decision.    He motioned Samantha to come a little closer. “I’ve made a change,” he said. “Clara’s too old now and I can’t take her.” Then he paused and put his hand on Samantha’s shoulder. He stared at her and said, “But I think I can take you and Linda instead”.

     Samantha stood there for a minute with a big grin on her face. “Gee thanks, Harry,” she purred, “I knew you’d see it my way.” At that point Harry looked absolutely miserable.

     Well, all this happened last summer. That was a couple of months ago. Now things seem pretty quiet. You see, after Harry let Samantha and Linda into his club, things began to change real fast. First they convinced a lot of their friends to join. Then before you knew it, they’d reorganized and voted me and Harry (I was Vice President by that time) out of office. Didn’t bother me. I was just along for the ride anyway. But Harry, he was really upset. Then Samantha (she was now President) changed the idea of the club since they felt this whole naked thing was really dumb. Instead she set up a Dinosaur Club because she and all her friends were into Dinosaurs, you know, little figures, movies, books, whatever. Harry tried to hang on for awhile as a member but it was no use. Samantha and her buddies were just too strong for him. I think he finally resigned or maybe just dropped out. I quit a long time before that so I’m not sure exactly what happened.

     I ran into Harry the other day. He said he was thinking about forming a new club. Something about stamp collecting. No meetings, no official memberships, no restrictions, and no girls. Everything done over the phone.  Sounded strange to me but knowing Harry he might be able to make it work. I had to hand it to Harry. He definitely had learned how to avoid a fight.

                                                              The End

What’s the Word?

                                               What’s the Word?

                                                       By Al Murdach             

                                                              No. 3   

     This is the third in a monthly series exploring today’s meaning and significance of some important religious words from the Christian tradition.  Today’s word is:


     It may seem strange, when dealing with spiritual ideals, to dwell on sin instead of hope.  However, in the Christian tradition it has long been recognized that Jesus’ birth occurred as a prelude to the final battle against sin, a battle that ended with his tragic death and, according to Christians, his resurrection.  So it is not totally out of place to consider the topic of sin at this point.

     Probably no word from the Christian tradition gives people more heartburn than this one.  Actually, despite its negative associations, the word has always been used to denote two well-known human tendencies: the power to do evil and the capacity to really screw things up.  Since these tendencies have been observed throughout human history, the classical term for this problem is “original” sin—that is, tendencies that go all the way back to human origins.  G. K. Chesterton once observed that sin is the only religious concept that has been empirically proved.  History, in other words, gives us plenty of proof that we are capable of doing a lot of sinning!

    The notion that humans can sin, however, seems to fly in face of our cherished belief in human goodness.  If humans can sin, can they still be good?  The Christian tradition has always answered that, yes, humans can have it both ways:  they can sin and they can also be good.  Sometimes even at the same time.

    Our consideration of sin, however, does not stop at this point.  Other issues immediately arise, such as human choice, responsibility, knowledge, judgment, and blame.  Probably the scariest issue of all is sin’s consequences (better known as the “wages” of sin).  As you can see, this is a word that can really push people’s buttons.

     What is history of this word?  Why does it cause such fear and trembling now?  Does it still really mean anything?  The term “sin” derives from the Old English term “syn” (as in the ancient rhyme: “In Adam’s fall we synned all”). As does the original Hebrew word  chata, sin means to “stray off the path, get lost, miss the mark” etc. Viewed in this way we can see that the word is still very meaningful and focuses on a key human tendency—something all of us have a problem with!  Although approaching such a word with anxiety is not very helpful, it is still a word that points out something we need to be aware of, respect, and avoid as much as possible.

     Karl Menninger, in his book Whatever Became of Sin?, remarks that, while many today have dismissed the concept of sin from our minds, the awareness of sin is ever with us. Indeed for many “it is a burning sore, a deep grief, and a heartache.”  Therefore, it is certainly something we need to understand even if we can’t always avoid it!

Helen Harris Perlman and the Problem Solving Model

                                         Helen Harris Perlman and the Problem Solving Model


                                                          Allison D. Murdach LCSW

                                                                2942 Hardeman St.

                                                               Hayward, Ca. 94541



Abstract: This article examines the work of Helen Harris Perlman in developing the problem-solving model of  social work direct practice.  The origins, development and subsequent spread of this approach throughout social work practice is discussed and the various ways in which this model has been applied in the profession is briefly reviewed. The current status of the model, including concerns about its contemporary viability and usefulness, is examined at the conclusion of the article.

Key Words: Problem-Solving Model, Social Work Method, Social Work History, Direct Practice, Social

                    Work Profession

   “I do claim to be an authority on the Problem-solving model in social work, both in

               its methodological aspects and its theoretical roots.  I am the originator and developer

               of that model.”  (Perlman, p. 1, 1980)

     This article examines the work of Helen Harris Perlman (1906-2004) in the development of the problem-solving model of direct practice in social work.  As we approach the third anniversary of her death (September 18, 2004), it is important to recognize once again the importance and magnitude of her contribution to the field. Perlman, a prolific social work author as well as a distinguished clinician and educator in social work, always laid special claim to her model, which she developed in the 1950’s.  Sadly, although she asserted ownership, her model soon slipped from her hands because of its wide acceptance and became, in the latter stages of her life, often misrepresented and at times unrecognizable.

                                                            Perlman and Problem-Solving

     Perlman did not start out to be a social worker.  Her original intention was to become a college humanities professor. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with honors in 1926 with a B. A. in English literature, she was told that she was unemployable at the college level  because she was a woman and especially because she was Jewish.  She then found work as a summer caseworker for the Chicago Jewish Social Service Bureau. Later she reported that  this first exposure to social work was a revelation.  “A whole world opened up to me,” she said, a world in which she also “got a great deal of satisfaction from being able to help people.” ( News & Notes, 2004, p. 1).  She continued working in various social work capacities and assignments at increasingly responsible levels until 1933, when she got a scholarship enabling her to enroll in the New York School of Social Work, now affiliated with ColumbiaUniversity.  While completing her training in social work in New York, she was in demand as a speaker and often addressed various conferences and professional groups about new developments in social work theory and method.  In 1943 she earned her master’s degree in social work from ColumbiaUniversity.  She joined the social work faculty of the Schoolof Social Service Administrationat the Universityof Chicagoin 1945.  While at the school she became first a national and then an international social work figure because of her writing about social work issues, as well as her teaching, consulting, public speaking, and her innovative development of the problem-solving model of social work practice. She published her classic text, Social Casework, A Problem-Solving Process, in 1957.  She officially retired late in her career, but continued to work, teach, write, and do research at the school until just before her death at age 98, even though afflicted near the end of her life with blindness.

     Despite her many scholarly achievements, Perlman always remained a clinician at heart.  As a professional with broad learning and classical training, Perlman was driven to use the insights derived from her clinical work as inspiration for conjecture about social work method and training.  She said her contacts with clients gave her valuable learning opportunities because these relationships involved her in “many cases…(in which) families faced the same kinds of problems and conflicts that one encountered in the great works of literature.” (News & Notes, 2004, p. 5.)   She also stated that it was through these experiences that she came to realize that she “had learned much more of the sickness in people than of their healthiness.”  She soon recognized that she needed to look beyond client pathology to see instead the great “human potential for recuperation and aspiration” that resided in the many ordinary individuals and families who sought her care and assistance on a daily basis (Perlman, 1971, p. xviii).  It was considerations such as these that eventually led to her interest in, and championing of, the importance of processes of everyday human problem-solving in resolving the difficulties in client’s lives (Perlman, 1957).

                                                 Development of the Problem-Solving Approach

     Before discussing Perlman’s model in detail, it will be instructive to review the intellectual background of her approach to gain a better understanding of the context in which it developed.   Prior to the appearance of Perlman’s text in the 1950’s the topic of problem-solving had been, and today continues to be, an area of study in this country in many fields, particularly psychology.  In 1907 the psychologist and philosopher William James established problem solving (which he called  “ common sense”) as a field of intellectual enquiry by giving it a central place in his doctrine of Pragmatism, a philosophical approach to truth which also sought to develop methods that were “helpful in life’s practical struggles” (James, 1963, p.36).  The goal of such methods, James believed, was to help individuals to find their own truth through observation and experience (James, 1963).  In 1910 James’ fellow pragmatist John Dewey conceptualized human problem-solving (or, in his terms, “reflective thinking”)as being composed of four central elements: recognizing and formulating a problem, gathering facts that will lead to a solution, testing each proposed solution, and deciding  upon a course of action (Dewey).  Perlman was the first social work author to use the term “problem-solving” in a social work context and credits Dewey’s writings as her inspiration for the concept (Perlman, 1971).

     Social work was at first slow to adopt the pragmatic idea of problem-solving as a style of intervention.   Mary Richmond, the founder of social work direct practice method, was influenced more strongly by medical methods of intervention (i.e., “study”, “diagnosis”, and “treatment”) (Richmond, 1917) than the philosophical and psychological approach taken by James and Dewey.  Although also a form of problem-solving, the medical approach was, and continues to be, practitioner-driven and assumes the pathology and passivity of the client.  The pragmatic approach, on the other hand, has always emphasized client normality and capacity for personal self-determination, which it seeks to enlist in a search for growth and positive change (Perlman, 1957). 

     The medically-oriented view of the helping relationship prevailed in social work throughout the early twentieth century, largely due toRichmond’s extensive impact on the profession’s development (Garton & Otto, 1964).  Due to the growing popularity of the pragmatic point of view in this country (Menand, 2001), the problem-solving mode of thinking began to influence direct social work practice and social work theorists in the 1920’s and social work authors increasingly began to refer to the practitioner’s efforts to involve clients in the helping interaction by engaging the client’s own problem-solving capacities.  The following list of recommended worker interventions from classic social work writers over several decades, much condensed, helps to indicate the progress of this development: 

a)   Help client acknowledge difficulty.

b)  Assist client in understanding the meaning of the situation.

c)  Aid client in making decision to change.  (Sheffield, 1922)

a)      Show sympathetic approach with client.

b)      Establish rapport.

c)      Present and discuss facts of the case.

d)      Stimulate the client to action.  (Young, 1935)

 a) Demonstrate to the client your ability to observe and listen.

b) Begin where the client is.

c) Ask only necessary questions.

d) Take leadership only when needed, otherwise use client’s own resourcefulness.

e) Offer interpretations of client’s situation, as well as resources and direction only as needed.

                                                                                                   (Garrett, 1942)

a)      Demonstrate acceptance of client.

b)      Discuss client request.

c)      Gather facts about request.

d)      Note and discuss client stresses and patterns of behavior.

e)      Offer only interpretations of the situation that can also utilize the client’s own insight and can aid the client to take action.  (Hamilton, 1951)

     In developing her problem-solving model, Perlman utilized the best features of these intervention schemes but infused them with even greater attention to client problem-solving efforts and capacities (Perlman, 1970).  First in a journal article in 1953 (Perlman, 1971b) and finally fully in her book, Social Casework, a problem-solving process (Perlman, 1957), she laid out the intervention stages required by her model.   These can be outlined briefly as follows:

a) Ascertaining and clarifying the facts of the problem.

b) Thinking through the facts.

      c) The making of some choice or decision.  (Perlman, 1957)

     Perlman’s problem-solving approach, which appears  extremely simple and derivative in bare outline, was actually sophisticated and innovative (Bunston, 1985).   Far from being just a rehash of John Dewey, her model was a synthesis derived from a number of sources: her background in the humanities, her philosophical reflections combined with her knowledge of psychodynamics and the social sciences, her extensive clinical experience, and her study of the “functional” version of social work originated by Jessie Taft, with its strong emphasis on the importance of the helping relationship in direct practice (Perlman, 1957, 1970).  Building from this foundation, she brilliantly formulated a unique cognitively-oriented and client-centered problem-solving process for social work intervention.  In doing so, she highlighted her concepts of “focus” and  “partialization”, which described ways of aiding the client to overcome difficulties by tackling small problems first and thus building confidence to move on to more challenging goals.

     Though this brief sketch of her work hardly does justice to the power and complexity of Perlman’s accomplishment, it does at least highlight the principal stages of her model: problem definition, problem analysis (including the generation and review of alternatives), and the need for specific decision about a course of action (including methods of monitoring and evaluating the results of such action) ( Perlman, 1957). This intervention method was initially controversial in the profession.  Some thought it a mere social work copy of long existent business and management intervention techniques.  Others found it too “rationalistic” and structured, and overly focused on method instead of process, while some in the “diagnostic” social work tradition complained that it was superficial and did not sufficiently address in depth issues of diagnosis, psychopathology, or treatment.  It also was buffeted by competing versions of problem-solving and by “adaptations” of her model  that both amused Perlman and caused her dismay (Perlman, 1980). However in the end, her brilliant synthesis of cognitive analysis, practicality, and psychodynamic compassion and understanding led her model to triumph over her social work critics and imitators.  So successful has the problem-solving approach become that it has now recently been enshrined in the international definition of social work practice (International Definition of the Social Work Profession, Supplement of International Social Work, p. 5, 2007).

                                                             Concerns about Problem-Solving

     It is ironic that the wide-spread influence, success, and acceptance of Perlman’s model makes her achievement appear today to be almost commonplace and banal.  This has even led some to question the method’s apparent efficiency and effectiveness and to seek more in-depth explanations of what actually constitutes problem-solving activity (DeRoos, 1990).  The easy accessibility of the problem-solving approach        has also caused others to question the accuracy of its empirical foundations (Bunston, 1985).  Perlman herself, reflecting on her model’s lack of adornment, was to complain in her later years that many social workers seemed to talk as if the problem-solving method in social work had always existed and “just happened”, that it seemed to have no author or source, and was not even inspired by her work (Perlman, p. 1, 1980).  The popularity and appeal of her approach, it seems, did indeed have its price.

     In addition to the above, other theorists have raised objections that question the whole notion of using a  problem-solving model in helping interventions.  In essence, these objections can be boiled down to the following four general statements:

1)      In reality problem “solving” doesn’t often happen– Some have claimed that in real life social workers and their clients deal with tremendous uncertainty and rarely with well-identified problems, therefore problem “solving” does not often happens and the most that can be hoped for is problem reduction and management—goals that are more realistic and far easier for clients and workers to achieve (Schon, 1983).

2)      Problem-solving is only one form of thought—Authors in the narrative tradition of social work and therapuetic intervention have worried that fixation on the problem-solving mode of interaction can constrict the client’s ability to freely tell his or her “story” and thus fail to tap into alternate styles of thought and reflection ( Anderson, 1997).

3)      The problem-solving model is culture-bound—Since the social work problem-solving approach was developed initially in social work in the context of white, middle-class culture in the United States (though Perlman did have extensive clinical experience working with minority populations, Perlman, 1971a), some have raised concerns that the approach may be unsuitable for clients from other cultures or social groups.  It is held this model may be especially inappropriate for individuals from cultures that rely on less organized and  less focused methods to address difficulties in social life (such as Native Americans and Mexican-Americans) (Sue, 1981; Galan, 2001).

4)      The model is based on non-experimental (i. e., “soft”) evidence—Since Perlman developed her model when social work research was in its infancy, most of her supporting documentation was drawn from clinical and anecdotal sources, plus her own extensive clinical experience.  In other words, when developing her approach Perlman made extensive use of the now discredited “argument from authority” in her research (Gambrill, 1999).  Although this may put her model on shaky ground in our current social work world of evidence-based practice, it is also true that her problem-solving approach today stands out as a final tribute to the power of “practice wisdom” (DeRoos, 1990) especially as used by a practitioner like Perlman, who possessed a solid liberal arts background as well as infinite discretion and finesse.


     Although today no social work author who today used Perlman’s model-building procedures exclusively would be readily considered for academic advancement, the fact that her conceptualizations were generally successful in actual practice appears to bear out psychologist Kurt Lewin’s famous adage that “there is nothing so practical as a good theory.”  However, it still needs to be asked how the model measures up today in our current research-heavy climate in social work practice?  In general one can answer: pretty well.  A number of evaluation research studies done over the past several decades have documented that problem-solving approaches and their variants, such as task-centered treatment and problem-solving therapy, have an impressive record of effectiveness in work with diverse different populations, cultural groups, treatment methodologies, and diagnostic categories (Reid, 1988; Reid & Fortune 2002; Dobson, Backs-Dermott, &

Dozois, 2000).  Indeed these research efforts have, for the most part, laid to rest the objections to Perlman’s problem-solving approach mentioned in the previous section.  One issue remain still remains, however.  As mentioned above, though the many current variants of  Perlman’s approach have been demonstrated to have proven efficacy and effectiveness, Perlman’s model itself is based on theory which has never been empirically tested.  Although some have tried to develop ways to accomplish this goal (Bunston, 1985), many of her sources now go back as far as seventy or eighty years, and it may never be possible to fully validate Perlman’s claims empirically. However as Perlman, who loved proverbs, would probably note: “the proof of the pudding is in the tasting.” Thus it appears that it is now in the proof offered by actual practice success that we can best find the final validation of her method.


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