Questioning the Expressive Therapies

Early_Autumn_ColorThis past weekend we were in Montreal for an Expressive Therapies training. Oddly, it quickly became evident the presentation would largely ignore the experiences of persons of color, First Nations people, and those with disabilities. At about the time Jennie and I were becoming concerned about the direction the training was taking, a woman further back in the audience asked about places of intersection between Narrative ideas and Cognitive Behavioral approaches to the Expressive therapies, and about liberatory practices. Her questions were never really answered, leaving me to wonder whether the approaches might be incomparable.

As we left the conference room for lunch, we connected with the Narrative therapist, who suggested we walk a few blocks to an outstanding Indian restaurant. The ensuing discussion was rich, and the meal delicious. Indeed, we eventually found ourselves considering whether to linger over our conversation rather than returning to the training.

It turned out our companion works with kids who are served by a unique program that integrates animal therapy, farm experiences, the expressive therapies, and Narrative approaches. Many of the children are First Nations, and the Native community is actively engaged in their care. The program is innovative and successful, artful and liberatory.

Inevitable our luncheon conversation turned to the work of Michael White and the role of Indigenous ideas and practices in the formulation of his work. There was a good deal of head scratching regarding recent attempts to erase those Indigenous influences from the history of Narrative practice. After all, Michael was quite open about them. It seemed fitting to be having this conversation in Montreal, home to many Indigenous people.

Walking in Montreal makes explicit the challenges First Nations and Inuit people face from marginalization, violence, poverty and alcoholism. They are often found drinking, or passed out, in parks and on city benches. Indigenous people who are living under the influence of such forces are simultaneously invisible and emblematic; their suffering is routine, everyday, and their failings are generalized to all Native people.

The frustrations confronting people with disabilities are also evident. Most of the Metro stops are inaccessible, and have been the focus of recent protests by disability activists. I was not using my scooter, so I could take the escalators down the first two or three stories into the underground. There, however, I was confronted with a flight of stairs, the Polio survivor’s great nemesis. Had I taken the scooter I would not have been able to access the subway at all. Even the restaurant could have been problematic as a number of booths were functionally inaccessible.

Eventually, now rather tardy, we headed back to the training site. As the afternoon wore on a few people attempted to engage the presenter, a renown practitioner and theorist, in conversations about ethnicity and disability, largely without success. A couple of times the presenter skirted questions by pleading a lack of knowledge. This was particularly upsetting as the expressive therapies are powerful tools for addressing these very issues.

By day’s end we were left with questions of our own: What values do psychotherapeutic theories and practices embrace when they fail to acknowledge or address questions of power, ethnicity, and disability? How are questions of difference erased by disciplines such as Psychology (the presenter was a psychologist) and the expressive therapies, and what is gained by said erasure? What might the presentation say about the beliefs  and agendas of the training’s sponsors?

Oddly, this was the second weekend in a row we had left a professional gathering asking similar questions. The previous weekend we had attended an Expressive Therapies  conference sponsored by Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, an event that generally seemed to ignore questions of race, power, and disability. We realized later that in our own poster session we inadvertently downplayed our work with disability, genocide, violence against women, and other social issues.

Walking through Montreal after the conference (much as we had in Cambridge) we were struck by the contradictions of the day and the city. On reflection we realized the issues raised or ignored during the training, and the struggles of everyday people on the streets, are not unique to Montreal or Cambridge but are endemic to our culture.  Ignoring them will not make them go away, nor will it help us become more competent and compassionate healers.

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8 thoughts on “Questioning the Expressive Therapies

  1. Wow I so can relate to this experience over in Australia. We are definitely in a global community these days and these ‘issues’ are definitely global ‘issues’. Thanks again for another wonderful post.

    • Hi Leroy!I get the sense things are even crazier there than here. (Things threaten to be crazier here in the near future.) I imagine these issues are not new. We work in India periodically. Folks there continue to struggle with their colonial history and the innumerable issues that evolved from that. For us Indigenous types, even those of us who are light skinned and professional (read almost invisible), the more things change the more they stay the same…… Would love to chat some day!

  2. So frustrating when a speaker keeps dodging such important issues. I don’t know if it’s the same in the US, but here in the UK psychologists don’t do any self examination as part of their training in the way psychotherapists do. This often leads to psychologists having rather large blind spots, and a view that there is one way to fix these complicated creatures called human beings 🙂

    • Here in the US psychologists are supposed to have experiences of self evaluation. The presenter in Montreal is, by all accounts, insightful and kind. (We all have our blind spots.) I imagine the problem is more cultural. Psychotherapy is increasingly governed by CBT which places all difficulties within the real of cognitive distortions – internal errors. This effectively blames the victim. It is a convenient solution to the Neoconservative dilemma of what to do with the ongoing effects of the markets, let alone colonialism. Maddening! I am going for a walk in the Autumn woods.

  3. A very interesting post. I am in total agreement with your paragraph beginning “Walking in Montreal makes explicit the challenges First Nations and Inuit people face from marginalization, violence, poverty and alcoholism.” I knew very little of the history and challenges of First Nations people before moving to Canada, so my experiences and observations here have been eye-opening. I can apply that same paragraph to Ottawa. A friend of mine from South America once told me that First Nations people in the capital all seem to be alcoholics, and as you said, these impression “are generalized to all Native people.” However, being a “visible minority” has taught me you can’t generalize about racialized groups and need to learn and understand the history of peoples to be able to contextualize their situation.

    • Shery, I am able to pass as European, although I still visibly disabled. Disability creates discrimination in and of itself. All that said, I am also all too well aware that the Protestant Ethic is used by European North Americans to justify their beliefs and actions against Native people and those of us with visibilities. Then there is just plain racism. Sigh.

      • Hi Shery, traveling as much as we do, we have come to realize that most of us humans (worldwide) are of deeply mixed backgrounds. Then there is the Indigenous experience of complex heritage. I firmly believe it is good to acknowledge our Indigenous roots and our rich heritages.We have such fascinating stories!

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