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Book Review - Of Mice and Metaphors
Of Mice and Metaphors
by Jerrold R. Brandell
Basic Books, 2000
Review by Frances Gillespie
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)

'Mattie's story…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 in therapy.

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…' (p.2)

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.