About MJ

Family School is the soul-child of MaryJane (MJ) Wilt, PhD. Having been reared in a context of poverty, domestic violence, and physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse, MJ devoted her adult life to understanding how couples who start out with lofty ideals can quickly reach lows of interpersonal functioning, which then transfer to their children.

A High ACE Score Doesn’t Have to be the End of a Story

MJ’s personal journey allows her to identify with the struggles of those who score high on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE; ACE-IQ) surveys (Edwards et al., 2003; Adverse…, n.d.) which measure the impact of peer or community violence; psychological, physical, or sexual abuse; violence against mother; or living with household members who were substance abusers, mentally ill or suicidal, or ever imprisoned. A high ACE scorer herself, MJ knows what it takes to dig oneself out of an emotionally, economically and socially impoverished mindset.

She often wonders: “Had my family known about BFST when I was a child, or if I had come across it before embarking on my own adult life, would it have prevented years of tremendous pain, suffering and struggle?”

She often wonders: “Had my family known about BFST when I was a child, or if I had come across it before embarking on my own adult life, would it have prevented years of tremendous pain, suffering and struggle?” While she believes that all family leaders will benefit by the curriculum she has designed, MJ most wants to reach families like her own family of origin. In addition to her background, her experience as a private practice clinician, her doctoral training as a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) and her master’s level training as an educator also equip her to do this research and work.

MJ’s personal and professional accomplishments have been hard won, mostly after the events contributing to her high ACE score eventually caught up with her. Just six years into her marriage, divorce loomed on her horizon. Fortunately, her high school teaching position came with good mental health coverage, and she sought help to process through the trauma of her childhood. Ten years of personal psychotherapy and two masters degrees (education and counseling) later, MJ still felt her worldview was missing an elusive piece.

The Missing Piece

A voracious reader, MJ eventually stumbled upon The Dance of Anger (Lerner, 2005), and 34 pages in, she became riveted by Lerner’s description of Murray Bowen’s “change back” pattern, illustrating how family systems remain unchanged even—or especially—when their mental/emotional health is poor. MJ was so fascinated by what she read, she began to devour everything she could find by and about Murray Bowen and his theory. She felt she had finally found the missing piece she’d been seeking for so long. 

Immediately, MJ began to apply BFST principles in her personal relationships and found that everything Bowen said would happen did happen, exactly as he described. So MJ began presenting the principles to her clients in her private practice, as well. There, too, those who gave the theory an honest try found it intuitive and empowering, although challenging. As Bowen predicted, when clients tried to change themselves in their relationships, they encountered resistance from within and without, but as they were able to push through their internal tension to remain true to themselves in the face of opposition, their relationships eventually absorbed the new way of being, elevating their dynamics to a more emotionally mature level of functioning.

A Most Challenging Test

After practicing BFST for several years, MJ decided she needed to take her personal healing up a notch by moving back across the country to the area where she had grown up (and from where she’d escaped 30 years before). When MJ gets something in her mind that she believes in, she pursues it wholeheartedly. For three years, she lived in close proximity to her remaining family members, conducting her own personal research project. She found that practicing BFST from 3000 miles away is much less challenging than practicing it in situ, but MJ looks back on this time with gratitude for how she and her family relationships changed during this time.

MJ Conceives Family School

Also during this time, MJ attended three years of post-graduate training at the Bowen Center, receiving coaching from Bowen-trained therapists, many of whom knew and studied under Murray Bowen before he died in 1990. It was also during this time that MJ conceived of Family School, a grant-funded non-profit organization to bring BFST directly to family leaders at familiar community spaces, similar to Doctors without Borders which takes world-class medical services to underserved communities throughout the world.

This is precisely why MJ pursued a doctoral degree at NCU. When she conceived of Family School, MJ wanted expert guidance putting together a research project to begin collecting an evidence base. Where better to do this than in a doctoral program? she thought.

Although MJ had been practicing psychotherapy almost 20 years, her master’s degree program in counseling had specialized in trauma recovery training, not on family systems principles. While she and her clients were doing solid trauma recovery work, it wasn’t complete without the systemic component.

Parent Leadership Education

This is the component MJ wants to take outside the clinical setting to all families through the parents. As Bowen identified, focusing merely on a child’s symptoms is counter-productive to the mental health of a family system (Bowen, 1978). Parent leadership training, however—which focuses on the character of the parent—is effective and intuitive, and its challenges are no more difficult than treating the symptoms of the child…but essential to lasting change.

One cannot overstate the challenge of effectively leading a family, and there are few social services to support parents. MJ is passionate about taking powerful family systems material outside the clinical setting, because many parents are unable to afford family therapy or avoid formal clinical intervention due to cultural stigma or barriers to treatment access. However, MJ wants to help parents craft an optimal environment for their children by providing a framework that can help parents think differently about leading, focusing on their own character development as highest priority so that they can react less and respond more.