THE MISERY, the struggles, the passions, the ploys and counterploys of family life -- Salvador Minuchin, the dean of family therapists, has seen them all in 30 years of practice.

From his vantage point, individuals do not really exist apart from their families, and he cannot understand why our culture has failed to recognize this. "Surely most of us have had our most significant experiences within some form of the complex social unit we call a family," he writes in Family Kaleidoscope. "Why is this social organ invisible to our experts? Why isn't it represented in legislatures? Why doesn't it have legal counsel in the courts?"

Minuchin would have us shift our focus of attention from the individual to the family organization, whose patterns may be either healthy or unhealthy for individual members. "This book is an attempt to help you see differently," he announces. "Not necessarily better, but differently."

Minuchin is known for his work as a clinician rather than as a theoretician. He has specialized in treating poor black and Puerto Rican families with delinquent children, as well as families with anorectic girls. The techniques he developed for aggressive, short-term interference in these families' dynamics have been compared to those of a stage director or a union arbitrator, rather than a psychoanalyst. Until recently he was a research professor at the NYU Medical School and clinical professor of child psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. Two years ago, when he reached the age of 61, Minuchin and his wife Patricia, a psychologist, decided to take early retirement and went off to live in London for a while. This book is the product of their new leisure.

Freed of the need to do therapy, Minuchin dabbled at play- writing (some of his sketches are included in this volume) and his wife played the oboe. But at the same time, in a sort of busman's holiday, they continued to study families that were in the midst of divorce or other crises. The best pages in this strange potpourri of a book are his vivid reports of his visits to a London family court.

He shows how standard British justice -- very similar to ours -- deals with problems that involve battered children, teen-age mothers, alcoholic parents, and the clash between Third World and Western mores. And he is appalled at how this "justice" ends up producing even more evils that it has tried to prevent, with the result that family violence continues into the next generations in an ugly and tragic repetitive cycle.

Stung by a case in which a child who had been raised in a foster home was returned to her natural mother and subsequently murdered by the mother's boy-friend, British family corts now err on the side of "prevention" -- which generally means putting children who appear to be at risk "in care" of the authorities, either in foster homes or in institutions.

These are the magistrates' only options: taking the child into custody or leaving the child in the family where he or she is endangered, Minuchin observes. But he is puzzled. "The dramas I have witnessed just don't make sense," he writes. "The human suffering is immeasurable. The costs of the procedure and the future decisions will be enormous. The magistrates are decent people. The social workers are committed, engaged professionals. The lawyers truly believe that they act for 'the best interests of the child.' How does all this good will result in such a carnage of dismemberment?"

Dismembering the family in this way "punishes both the victimizer and the victim," he believes. He wishes that, instead of looking only at the family's destructive effects on the child, our system also considered the family's capacity to grow and heal. In his own childhood, he recalls, his Aunt Sofida took care of him and his siblings for some time when his mother became depressed after her own mother's death; this was simply a natural thing for a family to do. So he suggests a novel approach for society: organizing foster-homes to take care of entire families, rather than just caring for an individual child.

"The parents in the foster family would be trained to take total family organization into account and to work foremost to eliminate the need for placement or facilitate the return of the child to the family of origin," Minuchin suggests. In effect, this would provide a system of support much like that of the extend family of old.

Minuchin hopes that this will happen one day, when our orientation shifts "away from 'resucing children' and toward the concept of 'helping families.'" With such a perspective, he writes, "success" would no longer be measured in mere survival of the child, regardless of what harm was done to the child and his family. Instead "success" would be the rehabilitation of both the child and his family.