Foreword by Lani A. Gerity Ph.D, DA, ATR
Barbara Kobe has created an extremely beautiful and inspiring book for any artist, art therapist, or art educator working with dolls, puppets, transformation, and/or “healing.” When I think back on my own work as an art therapist in the area of body image and recovery from early childhood trauma, everything would have been so much easier if this book had been in my art room. I can imagine the people I worked with pouring over it, studying the beautiful images of these mythic characters (Guardian, Scapegoat, Loving Kindness, Talisman, and Inner Healer). The varieties of dolls and personal stories in each chapter of this book are so helpful, so encouraging. Barbara and the individuals who have taken her workshops have created a treasure trove for us.
Perhaps I should describe my work first so you can imagine the wonderful fit this book would have been for the people I worked with, and possibly for the people you work with or for yourself. I was working in a large day treatment center in New York City as an art therapist with a group of adults who were traumatized as children. Because of their various traumatic experiences, they had developed defensive strategies and received a variety of diagnoses, all easily traceable to early traumas. As I worked with these individuals in an art room, I repeatedly observed the expressions of pain: artwork depicting separation, dissociation, and aggression toward the self. I had an idea: if we could work with the human form in a kind a consistent basis, maybe this aggression towards the self could be diminished and body image issues could be improved. Always willing to experiment, I suggested to a drama therapist that we colead a puppet-making group (so named to create an inclusive environment for those who might be squeamish about making and playing with dolls).
I had initially seen overwhelming pain and need for healing in the artwork of these individuals. Over time, as I watched them participate in the puppet-making group, I noticed the creative process was indeed being used to repair disturbed body images, to bring together dissociated parts of the self, and to provide the artists with a sense of history and meaning. I observed a decrease in feelings of alienation and estrangement, encouraging the growth of a stable community. Repeatedly I would watch amazing transformations: papier-mâché and cloth becoming magical, animated little creatures; a room in a dreary inner-city day treatment facility becoming a wonderful land filled with possibility; and the most alienated people transforming into warm, generous human beings.
Arthur Frank (1995), in a discussion on the wounded storyteller, described a process of “colonization,” in which a patient hands over his or her body and life narrative to someone else. In his observation, this was usually a “biomedical expert.” The individuals I was working with in New York had, as children, been forced into a similar form of colonization by their abusers. As they became adults, they had very little experience in decolonizing themselves, so the initial colonization of their childhood was repeated in various relationships, with peers and family, and in their relationships with the “psychiatric experts.” However, in the process of making puppets with their attached narratives and history, these individuals could reclaim the authority to tell their own stories and construct a new life narrative from the “wreckage” of their early childhood trauma. Being the “puppet lady” somehow exempted me from the role of “psychiatric expert,” so I was much less of an authority figure and more of a kindly person with lots of art supplies.
Without a map of the healing terrain, the puppets and stories developed organically, weaving together a tribe and history, which was fondly referred to as Puppetland over the twelve years I ran the group. Magically (it seemed to the drama therapist and myself) these puppets pulled empathy from the hardest hearts with the greatest of ease. Because of this empathy, Puppetland became an amazing healing group for its participants. At that time and even after research for a dissertation and a book on the topic, I continued to be baffled by the power of these small creatures. However, thanks to more recent neuromarketing research on how to create advertising that increases endorphin levels and other positive brain chemistry, there is a documented link between the physical attributes of small animated creatures—like babies, puppies, and kittens (and of course puppets and dolls)—and these happy brain chemicals that were flowing in Puppetland.
In creating the puppets and their narratives in a group, changes would be documented, witnessed, and remembered in the group’s oral history. Often the original story of trauma and pain could be retold in a more distanced way through the life and struggle of the puppet. This distancing allowed the artist renewed access to the part of their mind that created hopes, dreams, and new possibilities, a part that could conceive of life as a spiritual journey rather than a chaotic series of disasters. These meaningful hopes and dreams could then be anchored into the form of the puppet, often marked by some new clothing, new hair, or a new expression. I saw more and more clearly that this modality provided great potential for integration and a real way to anchor gains and growth into something tangible. Indeed, it seemed the things group members learned through puppet making could be integrated into their lives. Myths, a sense of history, and context were woven around the puppets. Their stories grew or evolved from week to week, and their creators would carry the stories beyond the confines of the art room, musing over the meaning while riding the subway or cooking a meal. Most of the group members used images well in the traditional art-as-therapy groups, expressing much of what had been inexpressible. But with the creation of their puppets, they could make something else, new stories that could be reflected upon and linked to real life, stories with new possibilities.
As an art therapist, I saw the restorative value of the puppet and doll making as having multiple layers. The first layer lies in the actual making, being on a deep pre-verbal level, a way for people to repair their body image through art as therapy; through the creation of whole body image representations where they once only created representations of dismemberment and dissociation. Another art as therapy aspect of this process was the ability and freedom the puppet makers had to mark the learning and wisdom gained, metaphorically, through the changing appearance and embellishments of their puppets.
For the group leaders and the participants, the stories they shared seemed to effect change in a mysterious way. Sometimes the group members would put their puppets down and talk about the subversive qualities of the process, that they could feel things shift and change within themselves but were having a hard time identifying the changes. Also, the group narrative itself would evolve as it was handed down to newcomers sitting around the metaphorical campfire.
As individuals shared histories, stories, and their various quests—when they listened deeply and with empathy—it created a sense of community. This kind of listening fostered much healing and growth. It had a way of bringing out warm, generous feelings in the participants, and celebrations provided opportunities for people to create gifts for each other. Puppetland was known for its celebrations. All transitions, recesses, changing seasons, and special events were marked with music, food, gifts, and laughter.
On one of these occasions, a particularly beloved intern was leaving, so the puppeteers brought many gifts of food and artwork. The intern prepared a story about a wise old woman in the forest who could be visited at any time for wisdom and comfort. The wise old woman had given the intern little beads to give to the puppets to guide them on their journeys. It seemed the intern had given us a wonderful group myth. Although we were losing her and her puppet, there was this reparative gift, this archetypal Wise Old Woman (so much like Barb Kobe’s Guardian) who had come to life in story.
Some time went by, and it became clear that the group would benefit from adding this nurturing and caring elder to their community in tangible puppet form. Once the Wise Old Woman puppet was finished, the group as a whole brought her to life. Each member had a chance to hold her or work her, listening for details about who she was and what gift she had for the individual. We all listened carefully as the puppet was passed around, and in this way she developed a kind of group character.
We learned that she had gifts for each of us, that she was 104, and that she lived in an underground hogan or kiva. It was also discovered that she had knowledge of the Earth, its herbs, seasons, and life in general. All the aspects of this puppet were warm and generous. All her gifts were good and simple. From the Wise Old Woman’s emergence, I learned about the importance of generosity. She was a wonderful character reminiscent of a kindly grandparent.
Of all the kinds of groups I ran at this bleak inner-city day treatment facility, I never found such acts of generosity—such humanity—as I found in this group. I suspected that at the end of my time working there, all would be well for this group of individuals, that we would all have the tools or guides we needed to carry on within us.
As I look back over these narratives, remembering various puppets and puppeteers, I can see that we had indeed created every one of Barb’s characters, and although we didn’t have the map then that you have now, we were doing the same work. The characters parallel to Barb’s Guardian, Loving Kindness, Talisman, and Inner Healer guided the artists and supported them internally, even when they were not in the group. The characters parallel to Barb’s Scapegoat gave the artists a way to look at what they considered negative aspects of themselves and even laugh and joke about them a little.
The puppeteers began to create decolonized life experiences for themselves through the puppets. The new experiences broadened their view of the world and allowed for freedom of expression. They animated this freedom in the unfolding narratives and in the art-making aspect of creating and embellishing their puppets. They developed empathy for their own puppets and narratives, for their own personal stories and selves (which the puppets represented), and—most importantly—for each other.
As I read this lovely book, I was compelled to pull out some cardstock and brads to create some fast versions of these characters, and yes indeed, it is still as compelling, healing, and magical as it ever was in Puppetland. If I could give you advice from my experience with this book and my memories of Puppetland, it would be that you have an adventurous heart; that you take the opportunity this book provides to create the Guardian, Scapegoat, Loving Kindness, Talisman, and Inner Healer dolls; and think about creating quest narratives for them. See where the adventure leads you and the people you work with.
End note: I first wrote about Puppetland and its inhabitants in the book, Creativity and the Dissociative Patient: Puppets, Narrative, and Art in the Treatment of Survivors of Childhood Trauma.