L6 - 'A Flicker and then a Breeze'. Images and narratives, attachment and mortality

Abstract for TAoAT 2002 by Malcolm Learmonth

Art therapy theory has always worked with the dynamics and qualities of the interplay between visual and spoken language. One quality of visual language is that it catalyses spoken and written narratives. Images get us telling stories. (I hope to do a little demonstration of this with the audience). There is such powerful evidence from attachment theory that early attachment issues have a profound affect on later narrative and image-making that verbal autobiographies and drawings are used as a predictive measure. One aim of therapy has been described as establishing 'autobiographical competence'. Being in possession of own's own story is a process that can be catalysed by image making.

Jung, and many others, have similarly claimed that meaninglessness is a root cause of psychological distress and disturbance. There is strong evidence from palaeontology that some of the earliest examples of symbolic thinking are related to death and grieving. Stories are about where we are going as well as where we are from, and existential psychotherapists like Yalom see the anxiety generated by death as equally important to therapy as making sense of where we are from. This includes the fear that death destroys some narrative meanings. Yalom also claims that the intensity of death anxiety is linked to untold or unlived life.

It seems to be innate in us to create images and tell stories in the face of mortality. 'If we are to live meaningless lives, let us live so as to make it an unjust fate'. It may be a sort of fuse to stop our self awareness becoming paralysing. If images feed the evolution of narrative, (verbal and
non verbal), and narrative is connected both with secure attachment and with surviving grief and separation, then it may be that the therapy of images and stories that we now work with as psychological potentials in therapy are part of an 'archetypal tool kit' for bearing the human condition.

I would like to briefly look at two pieces of client work around death, both with Learning Disabled people, to bring home the connection to Art Therapy practice.

Biography of Malcolm Learmonth

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