The Younger Family in “Raisin in the Sun” and their struggle for fulfillment and happiness in an oppressive white society.

Synopsis of the Story

The Youngers are by any measure an impressive family. A part of the great Black migration from the South, Walter Younger Sr. and his devoted wife Lena settled in a tiny, cramped apartment on the south side of Chicago successfully made a secure life for themselves and their two children, Walter Lee and Beneatha. They worked and dreamed of a better life in a beautiful family home with a backyard in the suburbs for themselves and their two children, until Walter Sr. died suddenly of a heart attack after years of hard, thankless labor to support his family.

The film portrays the Younger family in the late 1950s struggling day to day in their tiny south side apartment, now more cramped than ever with the addition of Walter Lee’s wife Ruth and their 11 year-old son Travis. Lena, Walter Lee and Beneatha live in anticipation of receiving a $10,000 insurance check from their father’s death. For Lena the check means the fulfillment of hers and her lost husband’s dream of a home in the suburbs; for Walter Lee it’s a golden opportunity to invest in a bar that will provide the wealth, security and social status he so passionately desires for himself and his family; and for Beneatha it’s her chance to go to medical school and attain greater status for herself and the family.

As the story unfolds, Walter Lee clashes periodically with Lena over the use of the insurance money and squabbles with Beneatha over their competing dreams for the money. As his frustration grows, he distances himself emotionally from Ruth who is pregnant with their second child and seriously contemplating an abortion. When Lena announces that she’s purchased a house in Clybourne Park, a suburban white neighborhood, Walter sinks into a sullen despair, misses work and risks losing himself in a drunken stupor. Lena finds him in a neighborhood bar and in a moving act of faith in her son gives him the $6500 left after the purchase of the new house and accepts his promise to set aside $3000 for Beneatha’s medical education. This leaves Walter free to use the remaining $3500 to invest in a bar with his two acquaintances, BoBo, a blundering idiot, and Willy Harris, an accomplished scammer. Walter betrays his mother by foolishly entrusting the $6500 to Harris who runs off with the money. The family is devastated. Then Karl Lindner arrives from the Clybourne Park Neighborhood Improvement Association and offers the family money for their house at a substantial profit. In a critical moment – in good drama, the climactic obligatory scene in which a protagonist risks winning or losing everything (McKee, 1997)  –  Walter rejects Lindner’s offer, safeguards his mother’s and father’s dream and manages to save his soul.

At the end of the story, I asked myself what a family therapist could possible offer this rich, resilient family, a family more solid and loving than my own family of origin had ever been. I then got the idea that Raisin in the Sun required an epilogue, one in which the Youngers are faced with new threats and challenges upon their arrival in Clybourne Park.

 An Epilogue to the Story

A few days after moving into their new home, an unknown racist in the neighborhood hurls a cinder block through the Youngers’ living room window in the middle of the night. A few weeks later, Travis is beaten by a school bully and an enraged Walter Lee threatens the school principal (Imagine Sidney Poitier grabbing the bureaucratic son of a bitch by the scruff of his neck and almost punching him!). Ruth gives birth to their second child and lapses into post-partum depression. And Beneatha rejects her passionate Nigerian boyfriend, Joseph Asagai who she really loves and begins a sexual relationship with George Murchison, her rich and tediously boring former boyfriend who she may agree to marry in return for the money she needs for medical school. Lena Younger, her heart again heavy with sadness, reaches out to me and asks if I can do anything to help her family.

Before describing how I’d respond to her as a family therapist, I should point out that of all the characters in Raisin in the Sun, courageous, resilient Lena touches me most, as we both move inexorably to Erickson’s stage seven of the life cycle, the measurement of our respective accomplishments and failures and our need to assist the younger generation (Erickson, 1968). And no object in the superb symbolic image system of this story expresses this better than the undernourished plant Lena kept in their tiny apartment and her desire to find a better place for it to grow and thrive.


In this paper, I’ll describe the Younger family’s emotional system using the Bowenian concepts of differentiation of self, the nuclear family emotional system, triangulation and emotional cutoffs.

I’ll also imagine myself trying to help the Youngers break free of their old family narrative, first using reflexive questioning from the Milan systemic model, and then narrative therapy to help them embrace and build upon their existing, formidable capacities to create metaphors and unique outcomes in their struggle to author richer, more satisfying stories of their lives.

Differentiation of Self and the nuclear family emotional system in the Younger Family (See genogram, p. 14).

From his view from the balcony, I believe Bowen would be struck by the following aspects of the Younger family: the formidable tenacity of Lena in fulfilling her dream of acquiring a home for her family; the implication that her beloved husband Walter, Sr. was not as strong as her; and both Walter Lee’s and Beneatha’s lack of their own unique dreams in life independent of the insurance money from their father. Bowen would be inclined to psychoanalytically reconstruct Lena’s emotional relationship with Walter Sr. when he was alive as being in a mid-range of differentiation in which he idolized Lena and they were mutually devoted to each other but with Lena possessing more evolved attitudes and beliefs than Walter, Sr. (Roberto, 1992).

Bowen would further hypothesize an undifferentiated family ego mass to explain why Walter Lee and Beneatha were so emotionally glued to the promise of their dead father’s insurance money without any completely independent strategies for success (Bowen, 1978).

Finally, Bowen would be struck by Walter Lee’s relationship with his wife Ruth, one based upon mutual love and devotion like that of his mother and father, but also with the same level of differentiation, a relationship in which Ruth’s attitudes and beliefs are more evolved than Walter Lee’s, periodically expressed in her desire for more living space for the family and ultimately demonstrated by her decision to keep their child (Bowen, 1978).

The Younger Family Triangles (genogram, p. 14).

There appear to be at least four emotional triangles in the Younger family (Bowen, 1976).

The First includes Walter Lee, his mother and the ghost of his father. Walter Lee’s heated disagreements with Lena over the use of the insurance money were surely unconsciously fueled by his need to be stronger than his father by upping the stakes to much more than a house in the suburbs, even while desperately clinging to the insurance money from his father.

The second includes Walter Lee, Beneatha and their mother in which Beneatha relies on Lena to support her emotionally in the face of Walter’s patriarchal incapacity to validate and empathize with her desire for a medical education and her evolving, prescient (for the late 50s) feminist   perspective.

The third includes Walter Lee, his wife Ruth and his mother in which Ruth relies on Lena’s emotional support, again in the face of Walter’s patriarchal incapacity to wonder about Ruth’s understated wishes for happiness and well being which one senses are a lot closer to Lena’s, especially since she’s pregnant with Walter’s child.

The fourth includes Walter Lee, his wife Ruth and the ghost of his father. Again, one can imagine Bowen psychoanalytical reconstructing Walter Lee’s relationship with his father based on a scene in the story in which Ruth makes Walter Lee scrambled eggs instead of eggs to order, triggering his perceived resentment at being robbed of his individuality and his latent anger toward his father for letting his own individuality be beaten out of him.

Younger Family Emotional Cutoff (genogram, p. 14).

In view of the fourth emotional triangle, it comes as no surprise that throughout the entire story Walter Lee says virtually nothing about nor in any way alludes to his father. Again, Bowen would be inclined to psychoanalytically reconstruct an emotional cutoff between Walter Lee and his father (Bowen 1976). In view of Walter Lee’s desperate dependence on his father’s insurance money, this must surely be the greatest irony in the Younger family’s story: a tortured young man who truly loves his departed father and has yet to come to peace with him.

Contextual Therapy for the Younger Family

There’s a substantial ledger of unsettled emotional debts in the Younger family that would no doubt bubble to the surface in the face of the new threats and challenges of surviving in Clybourne Park. It would be emotionally productive for the Youngers to openly discuss these debts in a safe setting with the goal of deepening their understanding of one another and potentially strengthening their solidarity against the racists in Clybourne Park.

In a family therapy session consisting of Lena, Walter Lee, Ruth and Beneatha, I would ask them the following reflexive questions from the Milan Systemic Model (Tomm, 1987), leaving room for the others to express their feelings or take the discussion wherever they wish:

  1. If you all got along better in the future, what would happen that isn’t happening now?
  2. How does each of you feel when you’re trying to say something and you’re cut off by the person you’re speaking to?
  3. What did it feel like those times that you weren’t upset with each other?
  4. What would happen if you told each other you felt hurt and angry instead of either bursting out in anger or withdrawing?
  5. Which would be more important to you – pointing out where the other is wrong or helping the other to see how badly you’re hurt?
  6. (If any of them close down): You just seemed to turn off. I wonder if you think I’m taking sides.

These six reflexive questions have great potential to set the tone for a richer social constructionist narrative that could deepen the Younger family’s understanding of their problems, stirred up again by the threats and dangers of their new life in Clybourne Park which could push them back into an emotionally stifled family system (Campbell et al, 1991).

In terms of my overall therapeutic strategy in working with the Younger family, I would use the Milan Systemic Model as an opener or segway into richer, more exciting narrative therapy.

Narrative Therapy for the Younger Family

In guiding narrative therapy sessions with the Youngers (first with the adults and later with the adults and 12 year-old Travis), I would be guided by the following key concepts from Michael White:

Initiating externalizing conversations that encourage people to experience identities that are separate from the problems with which they’re struggling (White, 2007a, p. 9). For example:

  • To Walter Lee: That time your mother found you drinking in the tavern, was it really you she found or someone who looks like you?
  • To Beneatha: If you were watching yourself on a date with George Murchison, would you be seeing yourself or a twin with the straight hair you know he prefers to frizzy Black hair?
  • To Ruth: If you were watching you and Walter Lee in bed in the wee hours of the morning, the baby crying in his crib and you completely paralyzed, would that really be you lying next to Walter Lee or someone who just looks like you?

Metaphors of action that encourage people to engage in a contest or battle with their problems, in order to defeat and vanquish them (White, 2007a, p. 31). For example:

  • To Walter Lee: How do feel about that moment when you refused Lindner’s offer to sell out to the Clybourne Neighborhood Improvement Association?
  • To Travis: How do you feel about that time your dad almost bopped the school principal?
  • To Ruth: How do you feel about your decision to keep the beautiful baby you and Walter Lee made together?
  • To Lena: How do you feel about your plant now that it’s been growing and thriving in the new back yard, especially after all your tenacious efforts to protect it back in Chicago?
  • To Beneatha (the budding feminist): What hair style would you really like to wear on a date with George Murchison versus a date with Joseph Asagai?
  • To Beneatha: How did you feel when Joseph Asagai nicknamed you Alaiyo, “One for who bread and food are not enough”?

Conversations that emphasize unique outcomes, i.e., instances in which people have dealt successfully with problems, usually downplayed or forgotten when they get caught up in their larger tales of loss and defeat (White, 2007a, pp. 119-120). For example:

  • To both Walter Lee and Beneatha: How do you feel about that crazy African tribal, American jazzed-up dance you both did after Asagai bought Beneatha her Nigerian tribal dress?
  • To Beneatha: How do you feel about that time Walter Lee confronted George Murchison on his acute lack of imagination?
  • To Walter Lee: Do you see any difference in the ways Beneatha acts when she greets Joseph Asagai and George Murchison?
  • To Beneatha: How did you feel when Walter Lee refused Lindner’s offer?
  • To Ruth: How do you feel sometimes – not all the time – when you look at your new baby resting peacefully in his crib?
  • To Ruth: How do you feel about the way Walter Lee is responding to your new child?
  • To Lena: Are there any changes in the way Walter Lee and Beneatha are treating each other since you moved into the new house?
  • To Travis: How do you feel about your new brother/sister?

Definitional ceremonies for the Younger family that, in Michael White’s words, encourage them to “think outside of what they routinely think to extend on the limits of their understandings; stand in territories of their lives that are associated with their preferred claims about their identity; experience a multi-layered and multi-voiced sense of identity; engage with knowledge and skills of living that were previously barely traces perceived in their histories; and take up options for action in their lives and relationships that would not have otherwise been available or even visible to them.” (White, 2007b, p. 76). I can’t think of a more appropriate or therapeutically powerful definitional ceremony for the Youngers than a delicious family barbecue in their new backyard, in full view of Lena’s thriving plant; followed perhaps by weekend ceremonies in which Travis, Walter Lee and Beneatha are enlisted by Nina to help her tend to the plant as well as the other flowers and vegetables in their new garden of life.

The crucial importance of scaffolding conversations in Family Narrative Therapy.

I was absolutely delighted, but not surprised, to learn of the importance of scaffolding conversations to Michael White based on Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978). White describes scaffolding conversations as providing “the opportunity for people to proceed across this zone in manageable steps. In the context of therapeutic practice, the therapist contributes significantly to the proximal zone of development and also recruits others to participate in this.” (White, 2007a, p. 262). Thus Michael White has expanded the zone of proximal development to the larger social context of family therapy.

It’s hard to think of a more challenging opportunity and test of my abilities as a life coach than to apply White’s creative expansion of Vygotsky’s concept of scaffolding to supportive work with such good people like the Youngers.


Bowen, M. (1976). Theory in the practice of psychotherapy. In P. G. Guerin, Jr. (Ed), Family therapy: Theory and practice, New York: Gardner Press.

Bowen, M. (1966). The Use of family theory in clinical practice. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 7, 345-374. (White, 2007)

Bowen, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York: Aronson.

Campbell, D., Draper, R., & Crutchley, E. (1991). The Milan systemic approach to family therapy. In A.S. Gurman & D.P. Kniskern (Eds), Handbook of family therapy (Vol II). New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Ducommun-Nagy. (1999). Contextual therapy. In D. M. Lawson & F. F. Perevatt (Eds), Casebook in family therapy. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Erickson, E.H., (1968). Identity, youth and crisis. New York: Norton.

Kerr, M.E., & Bowen, M. (1988). Family evaluation: An approach based on Bowen theory. New York: Norton.

McKee, Robert (1997). Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York: Harper Collins.

Roberto, L.G. (1992). Transgenerational family therapies. New York: Guilford Press.

Tomm, K. (1987). Interventive interviewing: Part II: Reflexive questioning as a means to enable self-healing. Family Process, 26, 167-183.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher mental processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Original works published 1930, 1933 and 1935).

White, M. (2007a). Maps of Narrative Practice. New York: W. W. Norton.

White, M. (2007b). Reflections on Narrative Practice. Adelaide, South Australia: Dulwich Center Publications.


The Younger Family Genogram

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