A counseling assessment of “A River Runs Through It”

Redford, Robert, 1992. A River Runs Through It. Produced by Columbia Pictures. 123 min. Columbia Pictures. Videocassette.




The Maclean family has sought counseling after the tragic and violent death of the youngest adult son whose badly beaten body was found in an alleyway.  The death comes as an unexpected shock to the parents.  Though the oldest child expected something “bad” to happen to his younger brother (due to his destructive lifestyle), he never expected him to be murdered.  The family is having a difficult time coping with the loss of Paul. 

Through the gathering of information for this assessment, it was discovered that there was a long history of competition between the boys for their father’s attention.  A pseudo bond existed between Rev. Maclean and his sons, whose mode of bonding was through fly-fishing (a sport that offers little interaction).  There is no communication or other verbal exchanges during fly-fishing, and participants are not in close proximity of each other.  This form of “bonding” appears superficial and void of any emotional closeness. 

Norman’s self-report indicated that he never told his father of Paul’s destructive lifestyle and addiction to gambling.  Norman never divulged what he knew about Paul, even after Rev. Maclean asked him, “Is there more?”  Open communication is lacking in this family, and negative behavior had been ignored.  The parenting style of both Rev. and Mrs. Maclean was determined to be “detached” due to their noninvolvement in their children’s lives (this was evident when Norman described fist fighting with other children often while growing up, yet his parents were unaware of it).  For this report, each family member was asked to provide insight that might aid in the grieving process and facilitate family closeness.  Since Norman knew Paul relatively well, he supplied the background information for him.

Norman Maclean

Norman is the older of two sons, raised in a religious home headed by his minister father.  While all his friends were attending public school, his father home schooled him.  He enjoys fly-fishing, a pastime he and his brother enjoyed with their father.  Norman is very observant, and had noticed that Paul was always trying to prove he was “tough.”  Norman recounted a time when he and his brother were teenagers.  Paul coerced him to ride the rapids in a “borrowed” boat.  The water was rough and led them to capsize at the end of the falls.  This angered Norman because he was put in a dangerous position.  What troubled him was that his brother had no regard for his own safety.  Then when their parents found out about the incident, Paul took all the blame and this made Norman angrier.  Norman was mad at Paul and they threw punches at each other over a sandwich.  Norman said Paul’s “flippant” attitude enraged him.

When Norman came back from an east coast college, he found out that Paul had a drinking and gambling problem.  This concerned Norman because the policeman informed him that they “frequently” picked up Paul for public disturbance and drunkenness.  Although Paul seemed “out of control,” Norman admired him because of his outspokenness and zeal for life. 

Norman exhibited classic birth order characteristics of the “oldest child.”  According to research conducted by Alfred Adler, an “oldest child” is often convinced that siblings will “outshine them,” they are self-critical and a perfectionist, their parents have high expectations of them, and they are “most likely to succeed.”[1]  Other characteristics include, an “unconscious” hostility, nurturing and protective towards others, elevated feelings of anxiousness, good organizational skills, “sees things” as right or wrong, and is uncooperative.[2]  Norman feels guilty because he was envious and sometimes resentful of his brother.  Things just seemed to come so easy for Paul, even Norman’s girlfriend was attracted to him.  His parents seemed to favor Paul, probably because he led an exciting life and always had a story to tell.  

Norman is dating Jessie Burns, a woman who comes from an obvious dysfunctional family.  Norman was there when her older brother came to visit from California.  He tried to impress them with stories, and then he smacked the family dog because it “bit” him.  It was apparent to Norman that the man was not being true to himself or his family.  The family arranged for Norman to take Jessie’s brother fishing with Paul.  Norman said that Jessie’s brother missed the scheduled fishing time (6:30 am), and brought a “harlot” with him to the fishing spot.  Instead of fishing, he went into the woods with the woman and was gone for several hours.  Both were found naked and sunburned on their backside because they passed out from drinking so much alcohol.  When Norman brought him back to his family, Jessie’s mother became upset and screamed, “What have you done to him?”  This flabbergasted Norman.  Jessie then looked at him and told him to leave.  Norman said he stood his ground and told her how much he loved her.  She asked, “Why is it the people who need the most help won’t take it?”  Norman thought about Paul and could not answer her question.

Paul Maclean

Paul was the younger of two sons in the Maclean family.  He was fearless and often took uncalculated risks.  He never drifted far from home; in fact he attended college nearby and became a writer for a local newspaper.  He had no interest in venturing away from Montana.  Towards the end of his life he was heavily addicted to gambling.  Norman believes that he might have been killed because he had a high gambling debt.  Paul frequented a place just outside of town, known by locals for its prostitution and gambling trade.  Norman saw first hand the magnitude that gambling and drinking had on Paul’s life when he witnessed an altercation between Paul and the other gamblers.  Paul refused to leave the premises even after Norman insisted.  Norman also stated that Paul often went for days without any sleep.

Based on Norman’s observations, Paul exhibited typical personality traits of a “second born” or “youngest” child.  Paul was unique because he was both a “second born” and the “youngest.”  Both categories were considered.  Alder’s birth order characteristics that best described Paul were the following: highly motivated and competitive, cooperative, easily discouraged, desire to excel in “everything,” is dependant on others, and is “unrealistically” ambitious.[3]  Another source depicted the “last born” as, “easy going,” the family “clown,” not taken seriously, enjoys the “limelight,” charming, and often has difficulty “deciding what to do” with their life.[4]

Being dependant on others may not seem like a trait Paul possessed, but his unwillingness to leave Montana or the proximity of his childhood home would negate this characteristic.  Based on the information gathered about Paul, it is believed that Paul may have suffered from Manic episodes as evidenced by meeting four of the DSM-IV criteria: “inflated self-esteem or grandiosity,” decreased need for sleep, increase in “goal-directed activity” (especially with Paul’s work with the newspaper), and excessive involvement in “pleasurable activities” that have a “high potential for painful consequences” (such as sexual “indiscretions,” excessive alcohol consumption, and a dangerous gambling habit).[5]

An example of Paul’s “excessive involvement in pleasurable activities” was when he brought his Native American date to an “all white” club.   He charmed and persuaded the bouncer to admit her into the establishment.  Many stared in disgust as he and his date danced in a sexually suggestive manner.   Later that evening, the police department called Norman to pick up his brother.  He found Paul and his date in one of the holding cells “passed out” from drinking too much alcohol.

Paul was not afraid of a challenge.  The last time Paul went fishing with his father and brother, he risked his life to catch a big fish.  He was in the water trying to reel the fish in, but it kept swimming farther down the river toward the falls.  Paul went under the rough water for a few moments, which worried Norman and Rev. Maclean.  Paul never gave up and caught the fish.  Norman was amazed at Paul’s persistence and his ability to turn the “mundane” (like casting reel) into something extraordinary (creating his own artistic method of reel-casting).

Reverend Maclean

Reverend Maclean is a married Presbyterian minister and the father of Norman and Paul.  He had difficulty verbally expressing love for his sons.  His way of showing love was through fly-fishing.  He made sure his sons knew how to use the proper fishing lures and cast reels.  Both boys loved fishing, but Rev. Maclean noticed that they were different from each other.  He recalled an incident when Paul was 8-years-old.  The family was eating oatmeal together, but Paul refused to eat it.  Rev. Maclean firmly told him, “grace will not be set” until he ate his oatmeal.  A battle of wills ensued.  Paul sat at the cleared supper table while Rev. Maclean patiently waited in his office room.  Even though Paul never touched his oatmeal, Rev. Maclean brought the family together to “set grace” (a family ritual of praying after the meal has been consumed).  This act of forgiveness is evidence that Rev. Maclean loved his son.

Rev. Maclean misses Paul, and remembered all the stories Paul used to share about meeting people like the President.  He was like the family’s connection to fun and excitement—a welcomed break from their monotonous lives.   Since Paul’s death, Rev. Maclean is plagued with wanting to know the details behind Paul’s death.  He’s been asking Norman for more information about Paul’s personal habits, but Norman does not divulge anything.

Rev. Maclean appeared to have had a distant relationship with his sons—he was physically present, but emotionally absent as a father.  He exhibits a combination of two parenting styles, “Dismissing” and “Laissez-faire” as evidenced by Paul’s disregard of his own emotions as well as the family’s avoidance of negative emotions in dealing with Paul’s destructive lifestyle.[6]  Rev. Maclean felt an addition sense of loss because none of his sons went into the ministry.  

Mrs. Maclean

Mrs. Maclean is never referred to by her first name.   She is the epitome of a minister’s wife—submissive and supportive to her husband.   She is a good mother, and loves her family very much.  She recalled the day when she stopped the fistfight between her two sons.  It happened after a night of wondering and worrying about the boys’ whereabouts, then discovering they had stolen a boat to ride the rapids and could have been killed.  The shameful thing about the whole situation was that “everyone” knew what her sons had done—stolen a boat from one of the neighbors.  This upset her the most. 

She and Rev. Maclean blamed Norman for the incident because he was the eldest and “should have known better.”  It surprised and confused them that Paul accepted the blame.  It disturbed her that they were fighting, but she never asked the reason for their dispute.   This act of avoidance validates her passive parenting style. 

Family Systems Analysis

The family structure consisted of married parents with two biological sons.  At the time of Paul’s death, Rev. and Mrs. Maclean had launched their children from their home and were enjoying “midlife.”[7]  The church and religious practices (such as “setting grace”) have been “triangled” by Rev. and Mrs. Maclean to avoid facing serious issues (such as Paul’s addiction).  Paul “triangled” alcohol, gambling, and indiscriminate sexual practices to avoid his feelings of being unloved by his father.  He and his brother had an emotionally absent dad, which resulted in “acting out” behavior and open defiance (as in the oatmeal incident).  It could be that the stress of being in a ministry family and feeling like the town is constantly scrutinizing them contributed to the negative behavior Norman and Paul exhibited (concern of parents to appear “perfect” was incongruent with the “reality” of their family life).

Lack of communication between family members was noticeable.  There was a period in early adulthood when the brothers were distant, both in proximity and relationally.  Discussion centered around superficial topics, usually Paul’s adventures.  The family became evidently bleak after Paul’s death because their instigator of conversation was gone.  The sons never witnessed intimacy between their parents.  The father/son bond was felt only during fly-fishing (which turned out to be a pseudo intimate form of bonding).  Fishing became the pattern of perceived bonding for males in the Maclean family.

Rev. Maclean has difficulty showing affection.  He avoided intimate activities with his sons by substituting a non-communicative sport like fly-fishing for a “heart-to-heart” discussion.  He offered the traditional inquiry about each son’s future goals when they became young adults, but since open communication had never been established, the boys were reluctant to share information with him. 

Rev. and Mrs. Maclean lead secluded lives and never had friends at their home.  Their lives revolved around the church.  They lived in a modest house and were able to provide their sons with a college education.  There was a continual conflict and rivalry between Norman and Paul since childhood as they vied for the “title” of the “toughest.”   This led Paul to practice unhealthy “risk-taking.”  Norman summed up what his brother meant to him with this statement: “Those we live with elude us, but we can love them without complete understanding.” 

Treatment Plan

 Each family member will provide the counselor with their expectations of the counseling journey and their suggestions of how their expectations could be accomplished (also known as goal setting).  The family needs to mourn the loss of Paul, however there is a pattern of avoiding emotions, especially negative ones.   Each family member will write a letter to Paul, emphasizing the emotions they are feeling about his death.  The letters will be shared with other family members following an individual counseling session.  They will also join a local grief support group.

To facilitate open communication among family members, family counseling will be conducted on a weekly basis whereby communication skills will be learned and practiced.  Each person will be required to write in a journal at least three times a week about their particular feelings and the circumstances behind the feelings.  The journal will be brought to the weekly individual counseling sessions where contents will be discussed.

To facilitate intimacy, Rev. Maclean must verbally tell Mrs. Maclean that he loves her on a daily basis.  Rev. Maclean and Mrs. Maclean are encouraged to talk about their feelings and practice active listening skills at least 30 minutes per week.  They must attend a marriage seminar before the 6-month counseling reevaluation.  Rev. Maclean and Norman will discuss portions of their journal (as each feels comfortable) or talk about other feelings at least 30 minutes per week.  Rev. Maclean and his son are to spend “quality time” together (an activity other than fly-fishing) at least once a month.  Expressing “negative” feelings such as anger, disappointment, and sadness will be initially expressed during individual counseling then discussed in a family session.

Family members will provide three personal prayer requests to share with each other.  They will pray for these requests on a daily basis.  Each individual as needed may update prayer requests.  The family will continue to attend worship services together at least once a week, and commit to daily personal devotions. The effectiveness of counseling intervention will be reevaluated after six months.  At that time it will be determined if counseling modifications are warranted and if further sessions are necessary.  


Communication and closeness can be built between the remaining members of the Maclean family.  All of them are willing to work on their relationship and have verbally agreed to utilize various interventions to improve their family dynamics.  Although Paul’s death was tragic, it made everyone realize that a problem of expressing emotions existed.  Although family members were upset about his death, no one cried or showed other signs of grief.   Through journal writing and guided open discussions, healthy grief and mourning responses will be achieved. 

Coaching Norman to express his feelings will enable him to be a good future husband to Jessie (he has indicated that he and Jessie will be married soon).  Premarital counseling is strongly advised.  In focusing on expressing negative and positive emotions, the likelihood of establishing open communication among family members is a likely outcome. 






American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed., 1994.


Gottman, John. Talaris Research Institute, 2002. The Dismissing Parent [on-line].  Retrieved 30 November 2003. Available from http://www.talaris. org/spotlight_style1.htm; Internet.


Red Rocks Community College, Psychology department, 1999. Characteristics of Various Birth Orders [on-line]. Retrieved 24 November 2003. Available from http://rrcc-online.com/~ psych/Birth1.htm; Internet.


Redford, Robert, 1992. A River Runs Through It. Produced by Columbia Pictures. 123 min. Columbia Pictures. Videocassette.


Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Facts About Alfred Adler, 2003 [on-line].  Accessed 24 November 2003. Available from http://www.rpi.edu/~ verwyc/ADLEROH.html; Internet.


Wigginton, Scott E.  “Genograms & the Family Life Cycle” handout. Psychology & Theology of Family Relationships, 2003. Louisville: Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.



[1] Red Rocks Community College, Psychology department, 1999, Characteristics of Various Birth Orders, Available from http://rrcc-online.com/~ psych/Birth1.htm [on-line], retrieved 24 November 2003, internet.

[2] Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Facts About Alfred Adler, 2003, available from http://www.rpi.edu/~ verwyc/ADLEROH.html [on-line], retrieved 24 November 2003, internet.

[3] Ibid.


[4] Red Rocks Community College, Psychology department, 1999, Characteristics of Various Birth Orders, Available from http://rrcc-online.com/~ psych/Birth1.htm [on-line], retrieved 24 November 2003, internet.

[5] American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th ed., 1994, p. 332.

[6] John Gottman,  Talaris Research Institute, The Dismissing Parent, 2002, available from http://www.talaris. org/spotlight_style1.htm [on-line],  retrieved 30 November 2003, internet.

[7] Scott E. Wigginton, “Genograms & the Family Life Cycle” handout, Psychology & Theology of Family Relationships, SBTS, 2003 Fall Semester.

Copyright © 2012 M. Teresa Trascritti

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