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by Jerrold R. Brandell
Basic Books, 2000
Review by Frances Gillespie on Nov 4th 2001
Written in contradictory literary styles and claiming to be analyzed
in part using scientific methods, this book is both annoying and
intriguing. The title appears to promise much, but the author,
a child psychoanalyst, sticks narrowly to the application of his
technique to his own field. As a mum and a psychology graduate
I was struck by the relevance of using a child's fictional narrative
to enhance a parent's understanding when communication is inadequate.
There are always times when a very young child is distressed for
no obvious reason, or a teenager is unreachable. This method of
eliciting the child's imagined narrative, analyzing it in order
to retell it addressing some of the underlying fears, beliefs
and feelings, offers much to anyone who seeks to understand and
support children. Unfortunately, this possibility is not canvassed
in the book. Perhaps the author believes that such an analysis
cannot be done without professional training.
It is this antagonism between the imaginative and the schooled,
the scientific and the literary, the distant professional and
the empathetic healer that permeates all the writing. I waited
for the vignettes of the children's stories, and the thoughtful,
imaginative responses to them. Here, obviously, was someone with
the gift of gaining the trust of, and engaging damaged, hurt and
often isolated children. But then, abruptly, the style changes
as the commentary/analysis starts. Flat statements lacking explanation
are made in sometimes incomprehensible psychoanalytic jargon
'The story dramatically illustrates not only the magnitude of
this child's hostile-aggressive wishes but also the paucity of
conflict-free solutions available to the ego.' (p.51)
captures his futile efforts to seek out meaningful
selfobject experiences, his inevitable disappointment when thwarted
in satisfying partnering and idealizing needs, and his effort
to diminish pain.' (p.154)
The writer always makes the assumption that the reader will easily
follow his analysis of the story. This is completely unjustified
and very annoying for it leaves you wondering how most of his
important conclusions are reached.
The same is true of the morals that are usually drawn from the
narrative. If the child does this himself, the connection is quite
clear. Should the therapist amplify it or draw the moral himself
the result can be mystifying. However, given these limitations,
this is a fascinating series of excursion into the worlds of children
Jerrold R. Brandell emphasizes that therapeutic storytelling is
but one string to the bow of the effective child analysis. Others,
'doll play, puppetry, therapeutic games, modeling, mud and clay,
painting and drawing, and other "play" techniques are
used either alone or in conjunction with elicited narratives
At the heart of the theory of children's narrative storytelling
is the belief that the child's story abounds in metaphor in much
the same way as adult dreams do.(p.3) Thus they are an unobtrusive
entrance into the child's unconscious. The writer as therapist
warns of the consequences of unconsciously eliciting a story that
is contaminated by the therapist's assumptions. He also tells
of some ingenious ways of handling the shy, uncooperative or anxious
child: play a T.V. talk show and allow the child to be both interviewer
and interviewee; start the dialogue with a squiggle that is a
largish abstract line and the child becomes absorbed in giving
it meaning; agree just once to begin the story on the understanding
that the next one will be made up alone.
It is the dynamic relationship between psychoanalyst and child
that is crucial to their progress. In the beginning this association
is a fragile thing, and the therapist must tread softly. A respect
for the child's privacy, and an unwavering non-judgmental acceptance
of will quickly establish a rapport.
Chapter 5 - The Unfolding of the Narrative in the Psychotherapy
of a Traumatized Ten-Year-Old Boy - is the most absorbing in the
book. It details the journey to recovery of this child through
the metaphors of his stories, the interpretation of them by the
therapist (still at times tantalizingly unclear) and the dynamic
relationship between both. Transference is noted, together with
its later resolution. It is clear that the therapist sticks meticulously
to his own rules of non-judgmental empathy, and revealing to the
child only as much of his truth as he (the child) can handle at
any one time.
This is a virtuoso display of an art. It is such a pity that the
writing in the body of the book does not match this skill in
performance. It is not that the author lacks the talent to match
the practice with the description, but rather that he seeks to
convince the reader of the ascendancy of science.
And there is science, of course there is, in his painstaking research
and his study 'Is Storytelling Effective? Using Children's Metaphorical
Communications to Assess Therapeutic Progress (Chapter 7, pps.
167-186). Here it is not misplaced.
'Impressionistic data and clinical wisdom confirm that as children
become able to expand their repertoire of adaptive solutions to
conflict, their projective stories will provide the clinician
with confirmation of such therapeutic progress. That hypothesis
cannot be substantiated without empirical support, however.' (p.169)
Brandell's experimental design used a single intensive case study.
The major client process variable was outwardly directed hostility
(overt anger.) The therapist's influence was also measured. The
boy's parents were asked to rate his behavior at the beginning
and after the end of treatment as a pretest and posttest measure.
The child's psychopathology was clinically measured pre and post
therapy. All these ratings were done using accepted instruments
for measurement. The final assessment of psychopathology was made
by an independent therapist.
The chapter goes on to detail two of John's stories - one early
in treatment, the other late - together with Brandell's responses
and his interpretation of the metaphors as before. Twenty stories
were told in all on a biweekly basis over a period of several
months. A wide assortment of other play techniques was used in
conjunction with this reciprocal story-telling.
The results show that the storytelling is most definitely effective.
Six tables on pages 174-176 encapsulate these elegantly. 'In essence,
impressionistic data supplied by John's stories could be confirmed
by quantitative means.'(p.186)
Despite the mismatch of language and the lack of any explanation
for some of the meanings assigned to certain of the metaphors,
this is an engrossing book. It successfully espouses therapeutic
storytelling for children and incidentally reveals a fascinating
depiction of the art of a child psychoanalyst.
© 2001 Frances Gillespie
Fran Gillespie writes about herself:
I am a mental health consumer of forty years standing. My family is steeped in this experience as we have traced it through four generations I therefore have also a personal understanding of caring in this difficult area. In the last five years I have moved from hiding under the blankets to giving evidence to an enquiry into the human rights of the mentally ill in Australia to spearheading an understanding of the mental health consumer as a resource in our community in Hobart, Tasmania. With the support of likeminded people a system of paid consumer consultants arose from this activism. I am at present on leave from studying for a research Masters in Medicine that centres on an analysis of the development of mental health consumerism in Tasmania. I believe that it is necessary to set aside anger generated from personal experience in this area in order to achieve lasting solutions. Thus I also work as a consumer advocate.