The Witch and the Forest Goddess Part I

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This posting is an example of a brief (about one hour) psychoanalytic intervention at a children’s home. It illustrates the universality of the human capacity to use symbols to express the individual’s inner thoughts and feelings. It also emphasizes the importance of culture in the style and content of this expression. In particular, this is the story of a child at a children’s home in India. It is a sad story but hopeful. At its core is the cultural practice of story telling as a way of communicating values, and in this case, a sense of one’s self. Because of the length of the posting, I will present it in two parts – Part I and Part II.

An 8-yo boy came to home when he was 5-yo because his impoverished single mother was unable to feed him. I will call him “Rahul”, not his real name. Not long ago, a caregiver at the home noticed that Rahul was eating dirt and sand. When asked why he did so, he said he did not know. The head of the home, the Professor, took him to a local psychiatrist who prescribed Prozac, and Rahul stopped eating dirt. Besides this symptomatic behavior, the caregivers did not consider R a problem. He is bright and does well in school. The Professor volunteered to translate for me.
I invited Rahul to draw. A small, dark boy with huge brown eyes, he sat seriously on the floor between me and the Professor. Carefully, he sketched out a jagged mountain range, a house at its foot, and a river beside the house. It looked like a school drawing, an observation that was confirmed later by noting similar drawings other children drew. Then he colored in all the shapes in stripes of rainbow colors.

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Shantu drawing

To approach an understanding of his inner world, I decided to use Winnicott’s technique of squiggle game (Winnicott, 1958). In this game, the clinician draws a squiggle on a piece of paper and asks the child to “turn it into” something. Then the clinician asks the child to draw a squiggle that the clinician turns into something. In my adaptation of the game, I ask the child to tell a story of the pictures that the squiggles are made into.

Interestingly, Rahul responded quickly and well, but when asked to tell a story about the figures we made of the squiggles, he chose folk stories heard in school to illustrate the pictures. Nonetheless, the folk stories are remarkable for their meaning. My first squiggle drawing was an elaboration of his minimal diagonal straight line. I made a tree with one branch pointing downward as if it might be bent or broken, and I put leaves on the tree. Rahul told a story of a deer that came along and saw an ant drowning in the water below the tree. The deer put a leaf from the tree into the water and saved the ant. He had chosen a story about a rescue.

Another squiggle of mine was a loose coil made by looping the pencil Rahul made this into a girl wearing a scarf. Again he told a folk tale. However, the most interesting part of the story was in the improvised continuation of the folk tale.

In Rahul’s spontaneous narrative, the girl went home, and her parents were not there. She was hungry, so she bought a biscuit. That night her parents still did not come back. Finally her parents returned and asked her where she got the money to buy the biscuit. She said that the money was in the showcase of the store. Her parents called her a thief, but she proclaimed she was not a thief. – “Only a mother can cook; a small child cannot cook food, and she was hungry so she bought a biscuit.” I imagined that the story expressed Rahul’s early experience of severe neglect and perhaps abuse in that the parents accused the child of a sin. On the other hand, it may be that the child also thought of himself as a sinner, a bad child, as a way of making sense of his neglectful parents’ behavior and as a way of explaining his efforts to satisfy his needs.

As important as the content of the stories, is the visual image of the relationship developing between the Professor and the child during the consultation. The remarkable attunement between the two figures in the photos illustrates the sensitive bond – like a carrier wave – that supported the meaning the child made of the experience.

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The next squiggle was Rahul’s drawing of a house with a three-piece roof, which he elaborated from my zigzag line. He made starry lights on each rooftop. His story was another folktale, this time a sad one about something bad that happens when the mother goes away. A mother left her baby in the cradle, with a mongoose to protect it. When she was away, a snake came and threatened the baby, but the mongoose killed the snake. When the mother entered the house, however, she saw blood on the mongoose’s mouth and believed that the mongoose had eaten her baby. In a rage, she killed the mongoose, and only later after witnessing the safe baby and the dead snake, did she realize her terrible mistake.

The final squiggle was perhaps the most interesting. Rahul made two parallel diagonal lines, and I turned them into a ladder with a person climbing it. I asked for Rahul to tell me where the person was coming from and where he was going. Rahul said the person was coming from the ground and going to the roof. He and his friends were playing cricket, and the ball landed on the roof, so he was retrieving it. He got the ball down, but the next shot went into the lake, and it was lost. He found that ball too but then the wind took the ball and it was gone. The boy returned home and asked his mother if she would get him another ball. She said that she would, but not today. He went to his father and asked him if he would help him get another ball, and his father said he would, but he didn’t follow through. Then he asked his mother again and she said yes but did not get the ball. Finally, he and his mother went to the shop and he got the ball so that in the end he had an entire set. I imagined again that Rahul’s story indicated inconsistent caregiving by Rahul’s parents and also the relentlessness of continuing disappointments. I thought the ending was unconvincing – less believable than the reiterated frustrations – and a denial of his life’s disappointments.

Photos by Ginger Gregory

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