by JUDY LADDON & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & t least eight years before the fateful launch of the space shuttle Challenger, engineers at NASA contract firm Morton Thiokol knew that the O-ring joint design was faulty.

More than 10 years ago, the head of the federal Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Brooksley E. Born, warned Congress that unregulated trading in derivatives threatened the economy.

What do these two factoids have in common?

Both preceded disasters that were preventable.

The first was a tragedy that claimed seven lives before the unbelieving eyes of the world. The second has yet to play out, but so far trillions of dollars of stock value have evaporated and the world economy has tumbled into chaos. In each case, individuals tried to communicate their knowledge of dangers in attempts to avert disaster. They failed. Is there a deeper lesson in experiences like these?

I've been pondering this for a couple of decades, ever since I learned about the family behavior model invented by Spokane therapist Sally Pierone. She calls her model "The Raft."

After spending the middle years of her life in therapy for herself, Pierone, now 87, discovered that her upbringing had imprisoned her in a role that would make it impossible for her to ever be really happy.

Her breakthrough came in 1969 when she studied with famed therapist Virginia Satir, who posited that unhappy family systems were comprised of dysfunctional roles. Satir examined four stereotypes: the Blamer, the Know-It-All (which she called "Super Reasonable"), the Placater and the Irrelevant.

After endless psychodramas and role-playing, Pierone came to understand how these character traits create family heartache, often stamping people in a mold that can seem impossible to break. Satir taught her students that a healthy person wasn't stuck in any of the four roles but instead was a "flowing" personality. Pierone puzzled over this "flowing" idea for years: How did a person learn to be "flowing?" One day the answer came to her in an image of a raft.

A trained artist, Pierone felt that her Raft concept was key to understanding the interrelationships of Satir's stereotypes. Without a visual aid, these unconscious, automatic behaviors tended to remain maddeningly invisible, the ghosts of family conflicts past. Yet when Pierone started using the Raft in her own practice as a family counselor, she was thrilled to see that her clients got it immediately.

"It was the graphic depiction that made all the difference," says Pierone, who has now used the Raft successfully for more than 25 years with hundreds of people.

Pierone visualizes the four stereotypes -- each with both negative and positive aspects -- occupying the four corners of a life raft:

1. Blamer: angry, selfish, domineering (Assertive, clear communicator)

2. Know-It-All: self-righteous, strict about rules, controlling (Good problem-solver, reasonable)

3. Placater: self-sacrificial, accommodating, no boundaries (Friendly, loving, sensitive to others)

4. Irrelevant: alcoholic or addict, sick, or otherwise dependent (Creative, playful, spiritual)

Diagonal corners balance each other (one-three and two-four), so a Blamer type, let's say an overly assertive man, will typically be drawn to a soft-spoken, Placater woman. A Know-It-All -- for example, a woman who is a teacher -- will be attracted to a pot-smoking bad boy. From such matches are tumultuous marriages -- and relationships -- made.

Not only does her model illustrate the behavioral dynamics of a family, it brings as much clarity to all group dynamics. It illuminates the challenges of companies, industries and whole nations.

Our National Raft

The evidence suggests to me that the organizational dysfunctions that doomed the Challenger and now menace the world's economy are classic examples of family dysfunction writ large.

When former Commodity Futures Trading Commission head Brooksley Born testified before Congress in 1997 that derivatives could "threaten our regulated markets or, indeed, our economy, without any federal agency knowing about it," she was instantly double-teamed by a classic Know-It-All and Blamer. In an Oct. 8, 2008, story, the New York Times reported, "Ms. Born's views incited fierce opposition from [Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan] Greenspan and Robert E. Rubin, Treasury secretary then." Greenspan and Rubin belittled Born, told her she didn't know what she was doing, and that her proposed new rules could damage Wall Street. Greenspan, whose nickname was "the Oracle," convinced Congress to neutralize Born by freezing her commission's ability to regulate derivatives. Greenspan "was able to say things in a way that made people not want to question him on anything, like he knew it all," the Times quoted Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) saying.

Never mind that, as the Times reported, the General Accounting Office had warned of derivatives' danger in a 1994 report. Or that within months after Born's congressional testimony, Long Term Capital Management, a hedge fund with significant derivatives exposure, gave a preview of things to come by collapsing and threatening pandemonium in the international financial market. And never mind that former Treasury Secretary Rubin admitted to the Times that he secretly agreed with Born's concerns at the time.

None of that mattered. Born was no match for the Know-It-All/Blamer tag team of Greenspan and Rubin. Unfortunately for the global economy, the traits Pierone assigns to these corners of her raft -- "overly assertive" and "overly authoritative" -- seem to perfectly describe Greenspan's and Rubin's conduct.

How To Pick a President

So here's my theory about the presidential race: I'll bet that we the people will vote for the candidates we feel most comfortable with, the ones who basically have pre-assigned seating on our own Rafts.

I can't help but feel that John McCain tips his hand as a Blamer. The Nation this month quoted retired Army Col. Larry Wilkerson, former aide to Colin Powell, about McCain's rigidity when clinging to a particular idea: "No dissent, no opinion to the contrary, however reasonable, will be entertained."

Pierone's diagnosis: "A balanced person does not have a short fuse."

Balanced people are easy to work with, she says, and they welcome diverse viewpoints. Such a person is in the middle of his or her own Raft, alone. This, in effect, can require capsizing the Raft you've been on, explains Pierone.

The balanced person takes a dollop of benefit from each corner, being assertive and clear as needed; well-informed and reasonable; sensitive to others and seeking divergent viewpoints; creative, playful and spiritual.

Based on those descriptions, Barack Obama appears to be comfortably seated in the middle of his own Raft. Obama's "top foreign policy advisers took pains to say that they found him calm, grounded, respectful, and ready to listen," wrote Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, in the Oct. 13 New Yorker.

Lemann quoted Richard Danzig, former Clinton Secretary of the Navy: "Having worked for two Presidents and with many presidential candidates during the last 30 years, I have not seen one as psychologically well-balanced, and as good about not injecting his ego into a problem."

Should Obama win on Nov. 4, the world may get a badly needed lesson in balanced Raft navigation. And wouldn't that be a pleasant change?

Judy Laddon is author of Sally: The Older Woman's Illustrated Guide to Self-Improvement. Visit An exhibit of paintings by Sally Pierone opens on Friday, Nov. 7, with the artist from 5-7 pm at the Artist's Tree Gallery, 828 W. Sprague. Call 456-2300.

Dressing the Abbey: The Iconic Wardrobe of Downton Abbey @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays. Continues through May 2
  • or

About The Author