Stealing a Passage Home: Narrative Therapy to Re-claim Honesty

Stealing a Passage Home: Narrative Therapy to Re-claim Honesty

by Kay Ingamells, David Epston
Kay Ingamells uses playful Narrative Therapy techniques to help a young client regain his honesty.
Filed Under: Autism


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First Meeting: Dignity and Grace

What I most remember about my first meeting with 12-year-old Dilip were his deep brown eyes which spoke to me of a tenderness and sadness that I am not used to witnessing in boys of his age. He was accompanied by his mother, Sangita, who entered my room with the grace and dignity that came to characterize her in every one of our meetings. I didn’t know then how much suffering that dignity and grace had survived.

What I most remember about my first meeting with 12-year-old Dilip were his deep brown eyes which spoke to me of a tenderness and sadness that I am not used to witnessing in boys of his age
Sangita had explained to me on the phone that she was desperately worried about her son who had been stealing for some years from family members and shopkeepers. More recently the stealing and lying had spread to friends’ houses and to school, sites that had previously been exempt. Dilip’s intelligence was clear in everything he did. He had recently helped draw up plans for his mother’s projects on her architectural design course, including 3D movies and elevations. Sangita proudly told me how he had set up his own business repairing electrical items he had found on the roadside in “inorganic rubbish collections” and then successfully selling them online to help raise money for his family when times had been hard.

She told me how she and her husband, Kulwinder, would lie awake at night contemplating how Dilip’s entrepreneurial abilities might take him in the “wrong” direction in life and how his prodigious intelligence might be put to ill use. Sangita confided in me that they were worried that one day they might “see him behind bars.” I marvelled as I looked into this young man’s eyes. He seemed like a vulnerable innocent — not an enterprising entrepreneur with a dubious life ahead of him.

Sangita’s voice quietened, and her face became strained as she began to relate to me how Dilip’s brother, Harman, had been diagnosed with leukaemia five years previously and was now in remission. She spoke carefully and softly with the matter-of-fact-ness of someone for whom devastating events have become routine. She told me how they had only been told of the diagnosis shortly after they had left India and arrived to start a new life in New Zealand.

Kulwinder and Sangita had taken Harman with them, ahead of the other children who were to remain in India until their parents had found a home and work and had applied to become New Zealand residents. Dilip was to remain with Sangita’s in-laws and, because they had room for only one child, Dilip’s younger sister Ravi went to live with family friends nearby. Kulwinder and Sangita had adopted Ravi after the Indian earthquake of 2001 when she was four months old. She required special and tender care as she had not only been orphaned by the earthquake but also suffered from Autism and Dyspraxia.

Sangita leaned forward as if her shoulders were struggling to hold the weight of her story. She told me how she had returned to India to visit Dilip and Ravi. No sooner had her feet touched Indian soil when Kulwinder phoned her from New Zealand and broke the desperate news that Harman had a severe form of Leukaemia which had already spread to 98% of his body. He had immediately been admitted to hospital where he had begun radical treatment.

She told me how the doctors broke the news that he would be starting intensive chemotherapy and would “need his mother.” Faced with the knowledge that Harman was unable to receive the treatment that he desperately required in India, Sangita and Kulwinder made the difficult choice that they should remain in New Zealand with him. Torn between her children, Sangita was given a visa to return whilst their residency application, already delayed for a year, was being processed. She returned to New Zealand, little knowing that it would be more than two painful years before the family would be reunited.

As they had yet to become New Zealand residents, they were not covered by New Zealand medical care and had to meet the expenses themselves. To do this, they had to draw upon their savings and that of many of their family back home, running up bills of half a million dollars for their son’s radical treatment.

I was quick to externalise the apparent problem and to add lightness to the tone of my voice
Somewhat shaken by Sangita’s story, I silently held her eyes to acknowledge the pain which she had conveyed with such dignity. Together, we then turned to look at Dilip. Dilip’s eyes had remained downcast throughout his mother’s tale. Collecting myself, I realised that I must turn my attention to him and the impact of his mother’s account. In his eyes, if not in my own, the stealing problem would have centre stage. Only too aware of Dilip’s nervousness and the likely embarrassment that a stealing problem might have brought upon him, I was quick to externalise the apparent problem and to add lightness to the tone of my voice. I said, “Dilip, your mum tells me that she has been worried because she thinks that there is a stealing problem that has been trying to take over your life and that is why she has asked us to meet. Is that what you thought too?”

Dilip uttered a barely audible “yes.”

I gently enquired when the stealing problem had first come along and how it had made its presence felt in his life. He informed me that it had begun when he was five, during the time he had been left behind with family in India, anticipating his reunion with his family in New Zealand.

Speaking through her tears, Sangita, told me, “He was not sure we would call him back. He was so angry that twice we had to cancel his return because of Harman’s illness and problems with the visa. He told us that he would only believe that he was coming to us when he was sitting on the plane. Many times, Kulwinder called him because our relatives said that he was bullying other kids. Even the bus driver was not willing to take him on his school bus. When Kulwinder called him, Dilip was not saying anything. He was just silent. His father was angry that every day we were counting each dollar because Harman’s treatment was so expensive, and Dilip didn’t speak when we called. Kulwinder said that it was not worth phoning him anymore. We had been telling Dilip that he would be coming soon, but in the last few months, he lost patience and said ‘every time I pack my bags nothing happens. I will only believe I am coming to New Zealand when I am on the plane.’ Our family in India had a servant who had known Dilip from birth. One day he called me and ordered me to ‘come here and take this child or pack up and come back to India.’ It was a very bad time for all of us.”

“Did he have some idea of what was going on in Dilip’s heart?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied.

“Would he have said that his heart was breaking?” Sangita nodded, tears on her cheeks. “Dilip, was your five-, six- or seven-year-old heart breaking?” I asked.

Was it heart-breaking for your mum and dad that your heart was breaking
“Yes,” he replied. “Was it heart-breaking for your mum and dad that your heart was breaking?” Sangita began to sob. “Have you talked about these matters like this before?” I enquired.

“Never,” she choked out through her tears.

“Had your family’s heart been breaking in that time? Not just your heart and Dilip’s heart but your husband’s heart and perhaps your daughter’s heart?”

“Yes,” Sangita replied.

I noticed that Dilip was sitting uncomfortably on the edge of his seat. I thought to ask him whether he would prefer it if we were to speak alone. Before I did so, Sangita swiftly looked at her son and said, “He wants me to sit outside.” Dilip nodded and she discreetly left the room.

To lighten the sadness that had fallen upon the room, I wondered aloud, “Is this stealing problem an international stealing problem that has followed you across continents?” The corners of Dilip’s mouth rose slightly.

“Did you know,” I enquired, “that, in all the time that I have talked with young people about the problems that have bothered them, I have discovered that sometimes problems start out trying to be helpful and only later become troublesome? Might that possibly be true of the stealing? Did the stealing try to help in any way with the sadness of being left behind in India and the sadness for your brother in his illness?”

Dilip replied, “Yes, maybe it took the sadness away a bit. It did help to start with!” Dilip’s body seemed to relax, and his eyes focussed intently upon me. Alarm crossed his face and tears filled his eyes as he said, “I wasn’t sure they would call me back.”

I said, “Call you back? Do you mean that you didn’t know whether or not you would ever be called back to live with your family again in New Zealand?” Dilip nodded. “Dilip, does anybody know just how sad you have been?” Dilip shook his head slowly and thoughtfully.

“No one knows. I don’t want my mum and my family to be sad.”

Realising that this sadness was at the heart of the problem but also knowing that I must tread carefully, I gently asked, “Dilip, would you mind if I try to understand a little more about this sadness?” He hesitated but then nodded his approval. “Could I start by asking you how big the sadness has been?” He looked a little confused. “If we could measure the sadness [a concept of David Epston’s creation], and let’s say the most sadness there could ever be is the width of this room which is, oh, about three metres, how much sadness was there in India when you feared they wouldn’t call you to live with them in New Zealand?”

“Two and a half metres,” Dilip replied with considerable certainty.

Dilip told me that the remaining sadness came from missing the family he had left behind in India
“And how much sadness is there now here in New Zealand?” It turned out that now there was between one and one and a half metres of sadness remaining. When I enquired, Dilip told me that the remaining sadness came from missing the family he had left behind in India.

“They keep coming to visit but they can’t stay because of their visas. I don’t want them to be sad either.”

I asked, “Are you worried that they will be sad if they know of your sadness in the same way that you are worried that your mother and your family might be saddened by your sadness?” Dilip held my gaze intently as he nodded in agreement. I gently asked if he thought that talking about their shared sadness would bring about more sadness for everyone.

Timidly he said, “Talking will make them more sad. I don’t want them to know.”

Sensing that our conversation might be on the verge of being overwhelming for him, I asked him if he thought it was time to welcome his mother back into the room. He nodded, adding, “But I don’t want to talk about what happened.”

Aware that the sadness was key if Dilip and his family were to be rescued from the effects of his stealing reputation, but also mindful of the need to honour Dilip’s tenderness, I asked him if I could briefly mention that we had talked about his life in India and how the stealing had come about. He nodded.

“Could I also mention the sadness and how it had become less since he had been reunited with his family?”

Dilip nodded hesitantly but went himself to invite his mother to return.

Sangita came into the room hesitantly. I pondered how much hope she had pinned on the time I had spent alone with Dilip.

“Sangita, Dilip and I have been talking about his time away from you all in India and how the stealing began. He felt very sad whilst he was without you but, since returning to be with you, the sadness is very much less.”

I saw Sangita’s tears begin. Mother and son glanced at each other. The sadness was palpable.

“Sangita,” I ventured, “have you talked together as a family about all that has happened to Harman and to each of you?” Dilip’s eyes widened in what suggested to me renewed alarm. “No, not even Kulwinder and I have talked.”

I asked, “Has the strength that this ordeal required of you left little room or time for really feeling or really talking?”

“Yes,” she replied. “Every year something big is happening. When I was saying goodbye to my brother-in-law at the airport last week, he said, ‘In your life it is always headlines, not small news.’ There are always big things happening. When Harman got sick there was no one. We were here alone. There has been no time to talk.”

I realised that for the previous few years, the family had been just surviving all that had happened and had not had the opportunity to reflect
I realised that for the previous few years, the family had been just surviving all that had happened and had not had the opportunity to reflect. I was also aware of the need to honour the tenderness of this family who had lived through so much with grace and dignity. Contemplating the way forwards, I felt unable to venture further into the territory of their sadness. To do so would have been to trespass unnecessarily into their pain when surely there were other routes available. With this in mind, I asked, “If we were to find a way to try to put the sadness to rest without talking about it directly, would that seem helpful?” Sangita and Dilip, without reference to each other, nodded in unison.

“How are you hoping that our conversations together might help Dilip and your family?” I enquired.

Sangita gazed at me for a moment and then said, as if uttering a prayer, “we want to know him better again. I would like to try to help the sadness not to come into his life again. I would like him to be happy.”

Second Meeting: Honesty as a Way through Sadness

A week later, Kulwinder was the first to put his head around my door. I had hoped that he might join us. Dilip and Sangita followed. With Dilip’s and Sangita’s permission, I summarized for Kulwinder our conversation of the week before. Kulwinder quietly took in my words. I proposed that whilst talking might be one way, there are other ways to tend to wounds. Turning to Dilip, I asked, “Am I right in thinking that your family’s suffering make you suffer?” He nodded without hesitation. “May I speak a little about your suffering as I understand it?” The family nodded their consent.

“This family has endured much. Many people have told me that when there is too much suffering, they come to believe it is better not to talk about it. Instead, they decide to get on as best they can with their lives. And they say that has worked for them for a while. But then they tell me that the suffering and sadness catch up with them; it can reach them in the strangest ways. I am not sure about this, but could the stealing have been a way to draw others to the suffering that you have all gone through? It is a measure of this family’s wonderful dignity, endurance, and perseverance that you have not cracked under the pressure of so much suffering and sadness.

Dilip, you will always know when you grow up that it was you who led the way from sadness to happiness for a family who has had more sorrow than almost any other I have known
“Dilip, you are a very young man and I think you can help your family out of their sadness. I know it is odd to turn for help to one of the very youngest as usually we turn to the eldest. But you are different. You have talents which show that you are a very quick learner. What you can do — and we all will help you with it — is to prove once and for all, beyond a shadow of doubt, that you are an honest boy, son, and man to be. When you do, I will ask your family to show you their happiness and, when you think people are happy enough, then, and only then, we will talk about the sadness from the past. Then we will see how everyone can be together in sickness and in health as a wonderful family who suffers and has suffered. And, Dilip, you will always know when you grow up that it was you who led the way from sadness to happiness for a family who has had more sorrow than almost any other I have known. But yours is also one of the strongest families I have met, and I am proud to know you all.”

Turning to Dilip, I addressed him alone.

“Dilip, I am going to suggest a way of restoring your reputation as an honest person. You won’t need to talk about your feelings right now. Would you be interested in such a way, even if I were to tell you that for it to work I cannot reveal to you exactly what it involves, and you will only discover this over time?”

Surprised, Dilip looked towards me, a shy enthusiasm for the project I had outlined beginning to light up his face. He nodded and then looked to his parents who nodded their assent. I said, “This is an idea that has worked many, many times before. Do you trust me that I have a way to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are either a stealer or an honest boy?” Dilip’s eyes grew wider, this time with intrigue. He mouthed a silent “Yes.” I added, “I cannot give you all the details now, but next week I can meet with you all and we can begin. Today, could you help me understand more about the stealing and the reputation it has left you with?” Dilip, Sangita, and Kulwinder nodded in agreement.

I said, “Now, to begin, I need to know who in your life cares whether you are an honest boy or a stealer [Family members and friends are recruited as members of the young person’s community for the restoration of honesty].”

Dilip looked for assistance from his mother, who replied, “Well, his grandmother. She cares for him very much.” Then directing herself to Dilip added, “And your uncle, my sister, your brother, and your teacher. She is very much worried about you.”

I asked, “Is there anyone else in India who particularly cares about Dilip’s reputation as a stealer?”

“His grandparents and my father in particular” ventured Kulwinder. “Not everyone in our family knows but my parents are worried about his future and about what will happen if the stealing and lying grow with him.”

“And Arthur and Julie and Daniel,” added Sangita.

“Who are Arthur and Julie and Daniel?” I enquired.

“Arthur,” Sangita replied, “is an elderly man who is a friend of the family. He is very fond of Dilip and Dilip is very fond of him. Arthur lets Dilip spend time with him in his workshop, he shows him how to use tools and make all sorts of things. Daniel is Dilip’s school friend and Julie is his mother. Julie was the first person who talked to us about the stealing in New Zealand. She carries a loving heart. She didn’t want to punish him. She just talked kindly to Dilip. After that I told Dilip not to go to anyone’s house anymore.”

Dilip, how has the stealing affected these people who care about you]I ask, “Dilip, how has the stealing affected these people who care about you? [The effects of relationships of the stealing reputation are established
Let’s take your grandfather for example.” Dilip remained silent until Kulwinder rushed to his rescue.

“His Granddad — Sangita’s father — is worried about what will happen to his life. My parents love him very much and you know what it is like when a loved one is not on the right path. It is very hurtful. It breaks your heart.”

I ask, “And Dilip, what do you think the effects will be upon these people who care about you when they find out that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, you are now an honest boy and honest son? Can we start with your Granddad?"

Dilip looked surprised by my question but seemed to be sticking with it. I offered a question to scaffold his response.

“When he finds out, will he call on the phone or send you an email? What will he say?”

“He will be happy,” Dilip said shyly. I asked him a question closer to home.

“Do you have any idea what a reputation for honesty would mean to your parents?”

Dilip replied, “It would bring peace and happiness to their hearts.” Sangita, tears in her eyes, looked to her son and replied to my question.

“We love him very much. Knowing that Dilip is an honest boy would be the biggest gift to us. The stealing has weighed on our hearts. We have come to feel that we cannot believe in what he says. It will take time for us to know if he becomes honest again. We have to be sure his honesty is real.”

Third Meeting: The Idea is Revealed

“Dilip, as I said, this is a tried and tested way for you to prove that you have regained your honesty. Are you sure you want to go ahead?” Dilip nodded hard. “Okay, I am going to propose that you are honesty tested.” The family looked at me quizzically. “Dilip, as these are tests, I cannot tell you the details because if I did it would mean you were not being tested. The honesty tests will take place over a period of time. Your parents will decide how long the tests will take — it could be weeks or months — to satisfy them that you are honest. When the time comes, when you have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have redeemed your reputation as an honest young man, we will hold an honesty party to celebrate. Now, if you are sure you wish to go ahead with the honesty testing, let us shake hands to confirm our trust in one another.”

Dilip dutifully placed his hand in mine and the deal was sealed with a firm handshake [Consent is given for honesty testing to restore an honest reputation].

Dilip, now I am going to meet privately with your parents to let them know what this challenge to restore your honesty involves
“Dilip, now I am going to meet privately with your parents to let them know what this challenge to restore your honesty involves. Then you and I have a letter to write.”

After Dilip had left the room, I outlined for his parents how we might set the honesty tests [Setting up the process of honesty testing].

“Over the next few weeks or months, you will set Dilip tests which will confirm him as either an honest boy or a stealer. These must be carefully planned so that he has no idea they are tests. Just to give you some idea of what other families have done in the past, I can tell you that some parents have left change where it is visible when they have left their child briefly alone in the car. Others have left money on the hall table, etc. The tests should vary in location and be as unpredictable as possible. It would be a good idea to involve Dilip’s supporters. For example, you may want to ask Arthur or Julie to set some of the tests in their homes. It is up to you to decide how long you continue to set more honesty tests. It is all a matter of how much time and how many successful tests you think you need to be convinced that your son is truly honest. After that you might like to consider a further period of probation without tests until you are both sure that he has restored his honesty.”

Kulwinder and Sangita decided on a period of three to four months during which Dilip would have to face the challenge of six tests followed by a probation period of three to four weeks. After they had asked a few questions, I explained that it is vital to the success of the tests that others who care for their son are enrolled as witnesses. To that end, I would assist Dilip to write a letter in which he would formally disavow his stealing habit and declare in writing how he wished to renew his honesty. Dilip would be expected to post or email this letter to the concerned parties or read it to them over the phone. Immediately after each test had been completed Dilip would be required to call or contact each person on his “honesty team” to declare the result revealed to him by his parents.

Dilip returned, and we slowly and carefully crafted the following letter to send to his honesty supporters. In collaboration, we composed the letter by way of an extended enquiry which was continually interrupted so I could write down his answers [Co-crafting of letters].

Dear Granddad, Grandma, Uncle Sanu, Uncle Achyuta, Auntie Amrita, Auntie Pavani, Arthur, Julie, Daniel,

I would like to ask you for your help in changing my reputation. As you may well know, I have developed a reputation as a stealer. This reputation has grown over the last five years or so even although it has come and gone several times.

This stealing reputation has caused me and the people who care about me a lot of worry
This stealing reputation has caused me and the people who care about me a lot of worry. It has been hard for me to change this reputation on my own because a reputation like this is very powerful. It is so powerful that it has followed me all the way from India to New Zealand.

I know that the people who care about me are worried about my future because they fear that this reputation could grow even bigger.

The stealing reputation has meant that lately I haven’t been able to stay at friends’ houses. This makes me sad.

I want to be able to prove to you all that I am now on the right path. I want to bring peace and happiness to your hearts and to reassure you that I will have an honest future.

I don’t expect you to believe me if I say there will be no more stealing. Kay, a counsellor, has told me that it is possible for me to prove that I can be. To prove to you that I am honest I am willing to go through some honesty tests that my parents will set for me with Kay’s help. I and my parents will call you after each honesty test to tell you the result. When I have passed all my tests and enough ‘honesty time’ has passed to prove to you that I now deserve a reputation as an honest boy, I will invite you to my ‘honesty party’. If you cannot come, then I will invite you to write me a letter or send me an email that can be read aloud at the party.



I read the letter to Dilip, waiting for him to signal his approval after each paragraph. He looked at me thoughtfully before commenting, “I think they will trust me to get the better of the stealing.” Together we agreed that all the letters would all be delivered the following week. A last-minute amnesty was offered to Dilip so that he could admit to any stealing that might have been worrying him because it was undiscovered or not proven [The opportunity for eleventh-hour admissions].

Fourth Meeting: Eleventh Hour Confessions

We met again in a week. Kulwinder was eager to tell me of a very recent development: between meetings, perhaps because of the amnesty, Dilip had confessed to having stolen and eaten a box of chocolates bought as a present for a family friend. Although upset that the chocolates had been stolen, they were relieved that he had confessed, especially as this was his inaugural confession. He had never admitted to a theft before despite at times very lengthy interrogations to establish his wrongdoing.

Both parents had taken heart at his confession, as did I. This event seemed like a timely departure from the path that Dilip had been travelling. I hoped that it would spur their confidence in Dilip’s commitment to honesty and decided to make the most of it.

“Does this confession speak of anything that you are proud of in your son?” I enquired. Sangita eagerly responded.

“It shows he wants to be truthful; it shows the purity of his heart.”

I asked, “Have there been any other ways that Dilip has shown you the purity of his heart lately?” Kulwinder spoke of how Dilip had been listening to his mother more and contributing to the care of his sister.

“I believe he has more strengths than he can see!”

“And how did you get on with the letters, Sangita?” I asked.

“There was only one problem. He didn’t want to give the letter to Arthur. He actually cried the night before Arthur was due to come with a pet rabbit for him. I said, ‘You have to tell him, or you won’t be going to his house.’ The next morning, he said that he would give him the letter. He gave it as Arthur was leaving; it was hard for him, but he did it.”

I asked, “And how did the other people whose support Dilip called upon respond?”

her father and mother had said they would be very happy if the stealing went away
Sangita was quick to reply that, when Dilip had bravely read his letter to them on the phone, her father and mother had said they would be very happy if the stealing went away, and they would show their happiness in the form of a large gift for him when he passed all the honesty tests. She said that they had already begun the honesty tests and so far, Dilip had passed two tests with flying colours. Their confidence in him was palpable.

I flung out my hand to meet Dilip’s in a “high five.”

“Great. Great, fantastic!” Seizing the moment, I asked, “Are you feeling the effects of having a more honest reputation?” The restoration of an honest reputation is proposed in place of the refutation of stealing.

“Yes,” he replied confidently.

“And tell me, how would you say having a more honest reputation has affected you?” Dilip’s reply surprised me.

“Well, I am allowed in the garage now. I haven’t been allowed in there for a while which was really hard because that’s where I make things. My parents said I couldn’t go in there because of the stealing. Now I am making a steamboat out of oil cans. Arthur has lent me a soldering iron.”

I said, “Okay, would it be fair to say that your honest reputation is winning back your parents’ trust in you?” Dilip’s expression said it all as he shot a shy smile at his parents whose faces were already alight with pleasure.

I asked, “What’s it like for you to know that your parents’ trust in you is growing as your reputation for honesty is growing?”

Dilip replied that it was good. Eager to capitalise on the growing trust by naming the pride on all their faces, I asked “Are you feeling a little bit more proud of yourself?”


Comparing the present pride with the sadness of our first meeting, I asked him to measure the pride.

“How proud? I mean if you were to show me how much pride you have now, how much would it be? If you were to stretch your arms out and show me, how much would it be?” Dilip’s arms shot away from his side as his hands stretched across the room. “And how much did you have before?” In response, his hand shrank back to about 1/3 of their previous expanse. “What is it like to have that much more pride?”

“Good. It feels good.”

Keen to make the most of each development, I turned to his smile. “I notice you are smiling. Have you been smiling more, other than just here?”

“Yeah!” Sangita burst forth. “In school he has been smiling most of the time. The teacher says he has been giggling. She says he has been giggling too much.” She shot a sideways glance at Dilip. “He has been much happier at home too.”

“We are so pleased and relieved,” said Kulwinder. “We feel he is getting back on to the right path. We are very proud of him. It feels as if one worry is ending. It brings us happiness.”

Dilip,” I asked, “What is it like to hear that you are bringing your parents happiness and that they have one less worry
“Dilip,” I asked, “What is it like to hear that you are bringing your parents happiness and that they have one less worry?”


I asked, “And did you know that they are extremely proud of you. Did you know that?”

“No.” he said, with a hint of surprise.

Our Fourth Meeting: Sadness Gives Way

Our next meeting was scheduled for a month later, with the proviso that they could call me at any time if they needed any help. Not having heard from them in the intervening weeks, I was not surprised when the family entered my room smiling. Sure enough, Dilip’s honesty had been subjected to four more tests: money was left in the shopping bags he was asked to unpack, coins were left in the pockets of the laundry he was asked to put in the machine, a box of chocolates was left in the kitchen cupboard, and when Sangita’s brother-in-law came to stay, he left some coins and notes for Dilip to find when he took Dilip away for a few days in the school holidays.

Sangita described how the developments had “filled her with joy.” Dilip had dutifully called or contacted each of his supporters after he had passed each honesty test. His uncle in India had said that it was great news, and he should “keep it up.” His Grandparents had revealed how they no longer feared that he “might not be honest when he grew up.”

Dilip assured me that his re-found honesty had helped his relationship with Arthur become stronger. They had been to the science fair together and were busy working on various projects in the garage after they had gone to a junk yard to gather materials. When I enquired about the relative size of his reputation for stealing compared to his growing reputation for honesty, Dilip announced that the stealing reputation which had previously had 100% power now had only 20%.

“He is not angry like he was either,” said Sangita. “I had the feeling that he was angry with us for leaving him in India and he has been showing us his anger since he came here. But now the anger seems to have gone. And his pride is helping him to eat more! Before he wasn’t eating and now his pride is helping his appetite.” This seemed an opportune moment to turn to our plans for their “honesty party.”[9]

Our Fifth Meeting: The Honesty Party

Sangita insisted that the party should take place at their home. We set the date to be some six weeks away, to allow time for Dilip’s honest reputation to prove its permanence. The invitation reads:

On behalf of our son, Dilip, we have the honour of inviting you to a party to celebrate his regaining the reputation of an honest person.

Over the past few months Dilip has shown, beyond a shadow of doubt, that he has restored his reputation as an honest boy, son, and man to be. You are invited to celebrate Dilip’s honesty with us:

Tuesday 6th September


RSVP by 3rd September

With my help, Dilip and his father composed a speech to be read aloud at the honesty party.

The evening of the party came, and David Epston and I arrived at their home. Dilip greeted us at the door, smiling and expectant. We were ushered into the large living room, greeted by Sangita, Kulwinder, Harman, and Ravi. Soon after came Arthur and his wife, June, followed by Daniel, Dilip’s friend, accompanied by his mother, Julie. Sangita and her two sons were busy in the kitchen preparing what was to be a banquet.

As we waited in the living room, gradually joined by the rest of the family, I realised that I had better begin as no one else would know what happens at an “honesty party.” Mustering the dignity called for at important occasions, I welcomed one and all.

“Welcome to Dilip’s honesty party. As you all know, you are here because you have all believed in Dilip and been willing to stand by his side whilst he proved that he is now an honest boy, honest son, and honest man to be. I would like to give each of you the opportunity to say something about how Dilip has restored his honesty. Who would like to begin?”

A slight nervousness pervaded the room. Dilip peered in the direction of his father and mother who were sitting on an ornate swing seat. Kulwinder rose to his feet.

“We were so worried before and we did not know what to do. We felt so bad that Dilip had to be away from us for so long and then, just when we thought we had become a family again, the stealing and lying separated us even more. Sangita and I would talk in the night about our worries for Dilip’s future.”

Sangita stood beside her husband, and linking her arm in his, said, “We are very proud of Dilip now. He has passed all his tests and so we have trust in him. We now know that he is honest, and our hearts are light again.” For a moment both parents held Dilip’s gaze.

Kulwinder carefully pulled from behind the richly embroidered cushions several emails from family in India. Addressing Dilip, he read his father’s email which spoke of the family’s faith in Dilip and Sangita’s parents made mention of the surprise “honesty” gift winging its way to Dilip. As Kulwinder sat down, Arthur coughed. Dilip’s eyes turned to him.

“Dilip, you can be very proud of your honesty. I know that you have had some hard times, but I have always known that you were a good boy. I knew you could do it.”

“Now Dilip, it is time for your speech,” I announced. Eagerly he went to stand at the fireplace. He read the prepared speech with dignity.

“I can’t remember when the stealing began but it was probably around for about seven years. It began in India when I was living with my grandparents after my brother became ill and my mother and father had to leave me in India. The stealing problem was encouraged by the sadness of being apart from my family.
“The stealing problem made my mum and dad sad. It also made me sad because it made my mum and dad sad. I wanted the stealing to stop and so did my mum and dad. My mum and dad decided to do something to help me with the stealing problem and we went to meet with Kay. They told me that it was to support me, so I knew they were going to be on my side. I decided I was going to regain my reputation as an honest boy. My parents, Kay, friends, and family helped me to regain my reputation by setting tests of my honesty. I passed all these tests with flying colours. My mum and dad helped me by setting the tests and by having faith in me. Kay helped me by helping my parents to set the tests. Julie and Arthur helped me by agreeing to have tests at their homes. Arthur helped me by telling me when he read my letter saying how I wished to regain my reputation as an honest person, that ‘the stealing is nothing to do with our relationship.’ This told me that we were friends no matter what and that the stealing would not get between us. Julie helped me by being the first person to tell my parents about the stealing. She was concerned about me and wanted to help me. She also helped me by saying ‘good” when she read my letter, so I knew she supported me. My grandparents helped me by talking with me on the phone. My dad’s parents said, ‘No matter what has happened, there is time for you to improve yourself and we believe you will come out of this.’ They also encouraged my parents to support me. My mum’s parents also encouraged me and my parents. When I phoned them to tell them that I had passed all the tests they said that they would get me whatever present I liked.

“Now I have regained my reputation as an honest person. This has been good for me because my parents are less worried, and they are happier. I am also happier and less worried. My parents are proud of the way I have changed, and they are giving me more freedom because they trust me more. I want to thank everybody for their help. I am very proud to have regained my honest reputation.”

When Dilip finished speaking, calm descended on the room. He seemed to have stepped into a new self-assurance
When Dilip finished speaking, calm descended on the room. He seemed to have stepped into a new self-assurance. Sangita ushered everyone into the dining room where a surprise feast awaited us. Harman and Dilip served dish after dish of beautiful Indian food in honour of us all, but especially in honour of Dilip’s re-found reputation as an honest boy.

A year later, I revisited them to read them the article and leave a copy with them. I sought any editing that that they might want and their sanction to publish this on their behalf. As I read it to Sangita (the rest of the family read it later), tears rolled down her cheeks.

“You know,” she said through her tears, “frankly we were not ready to believe that the stealing would stop so quickly, but it did, and it has not returned. Dilip always used to oppose us, and he was always the last to convince of anything. Now he does his household chores without argument and yesterday he even volunteered to do the dishes. His mind is now busy with new things like art, music and nature. Entirely by himself he has learnt to play the piano. He is so focused and maybe this is why the stealing problem went so deep, maybe his focus was misdirected. In his heart he was really angry. I don’t remember the last time we saw his anger. We have our son again.”


One Thursday evening in 2022, I went to my weekly dance class, thrilled to be able to return after the Covid restrictions in Auckland were lifted. As the first song ended, I swung around to see who my new partner was. A young man, gleaming with delight, his black fringe swaying in front of his deep brown eyes, reached out his hand towards me. It was Dilip who made the connection first.

“Kay,” he cried.

“Dilip,” I sang out in return. “I am so amazed that you remember me,” I exclaimed.

“I could never forget,” he said.

At the break, Dilip introduced me to his girlfriend, Amelie. Alight with adventure, they told me about their year overseas despite COVID. They had been volunteering in an Ashram in India, and Dilip was now returning to work on a new startup with his brother, who was still clear of the Leukaemia. As I watched the two of them dance, I wondered: What if we had been able to see this dancing, traveling, ashram-volunteering, start-up, Dilip-in-love, all those years ago? Who could have imagined this?

* This article first appeared as Ingamells, K., and Epston, D. (2013). A family and community approach to stealing. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 32 (1), pp.43-55.

© 2023
Kay Ingamells is a mother of one delightful son. She is a citizen of three countries: Aotearoa/New Zealand, Britain and Canada, and a Westie since 2001. Kay is daughter, sister, friend, tramper, cyclist, bookworm, and lover of nature and the great outdoors. Since 2003, she has been trained one-on-one and supervised by David Epston, one of the world’s leading therapists, and the co-developer of Narrative Therapy. She has also co-taught with David all over the world and currently runs a training programme in advanced narrative therapy with David and Dr Tom Carlson.

She has published widely about her work and presents regularly at conferences at home and internationally. She has taught therapy and counselling at undergraduate and postgraduate levels for ten years. She is a full member of the New Zealand Association of Counsellors (NZAC) and the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (ANZASW). Kay also trained family therapist, child therapist and Journey Practitioner. Kay is also a trained family therapist, child therapist and Journey Practitioner, who welcomes new referrals.  

David Epston, along with his close friend Michael White, was one of the originators of what came to be known as 'narrative therapy' — White and Epston(1990), Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends and Epston and White(1992), Experience, Contradiction, Narrative and Imagination. He has (co) authored 16 books, most recently Heath, Carlson and Epston(2022), Reimagining Narrative Therapy through Practice Stories and Autoethnography and Tejs Jorring with Alexander and Epston(2022), Narrative Psychiatry and Family Collaborations along with well over 150 published papers. He has taught widely throughout the world over the last 40 years and is co-leader of Apprenticeships in Narrative Artistry along with Tom Carlson and Kay Ingamells.