How Stories Knock on the Inside of My Head
An interview with Alice Barber
Blue Butterfly Open: Moments from a Child Psychotherapy Practice, Alice Barber’s collection of poetic and poignant essays, is for anyone seriously interested in understanding how children experience the caretaking adults in their lives. Barber is a psychotherapist who treats emotionally troubled children. She draws us into her work, into the inner sanctum of her office, to untangle and metabolize the disturbing, sometimes terrifying relational narratives that children invite her to re-enact with them. Through this rewarding and challenging work, she finds herself, as a therapist and person, continually shaped and reshaped. Joshua Maserow Spoke to Alice Barber for Public Seminar – read the discussion below.
Public Seminar [PS]: Thank you for this wonderful, literary meditation on your therapeutic work. I was immediately struck by the gentleness and vulnerability of the voice and language you found to write about such delicate subject matter – childhood abuse, trauma, neglect, loss and environmental alienation. Can you remark on how you came cultivate both your clinical and writerly sensibility?
Alice Barber [AB]: For me, in both realms, it is all about the stories. I’m insatiably curious about why people do what they do and feel what they feel, particularly children. I write because words and stories knock on the inside of my head and want to come out. I do therapy, mostly with children, because of the magic moments (some of which are described in the book) and a desire to help them realize and understand their way through hard things. The two, writing and therapy, dance well together. My wife, Bonnie, is a brilliant writer and therapist. When I think of how I have cultivated anything, I think about her. She is able to be still, thoughtful and grounded in both processes and is one of my heroes. I aim to be more and more like myself, and also like the people I admire.
PS: I found myself wondering what compelled you to deviate from the canonical practice, at least within the psychoanalytic scholarly tradition, of girding and integrating clinical material with theoretical reflection? Each vignette reads like a short story or clinical memoir that privileges connection and wisdom over technique and knowledge. Does this textual quality reflect your particular mode of working with your clients?
AB: I’m not sure I was even conscious of any deviation from some norm. I was responding to regularly sitting with newer (and more seasoned) clinicians and interns who were not actually listening to their clients. They were hearing them, but not listening. They come to work filled with theory and words and chapters, but not the knowledge that the path to healing is inside the person sitting across from them, and that they, as therapists, need to set aside what they think they know and make space for a story to unfold. They, the therapists themselves, have also needed to hear they can have all sorts of feelings about this process, including joy, anxiety, uncertainty, sadness, and fear. Sometimes this work is terrifying. Sometimes I am joyful about it. Sometimes I want to open a cupcake store.
When I was nearly ready to give birth, a friend gave me the best parenting advice I’ve ever heard. She said to me, “Your child’s (life) book is about to begin. Their book is not your book.” This advice has been so helpful, both as a parent and as a therapist. Sometimes, our client’s book means that we sit in the literal or figurative darkness, or that we cover them with a blanket, or stand on one foot, or paint a picture, or whatever. I wanted these stories to be accessible, interesting, and moving to a wide range of people, including clinicians and those without any knowledge of child therapy at all. Really, I want this book to help people be braver when sitting in a room with a child and that child’s story.
As for my own work, yes, this is what it looks like. I have theory floating about in my mind. It has been there for years and will continue to be. It advises my decisions, but not more than the human in front of me. There are children with whom I work very behaviorally, others through a much more psychodynamic lens. My core belief is that, no matter how much theory may be accessible to me, I am no expert on the human sitting in front of me. I tell my students, “When you begin to feel like you are an expert in this field, it is time to retire.”
PS: Were there cases you found yourself originally wanting to write into the collection but eventually chose not to? If so, what stopped you? Can you tell us a bit about how chose the patients who you eventually wrote about and those that you did not?
AB: The story, “Blue Butterfly Open,” was the first one I ever wrote about this work. I think I wrote it because I see children bravely make change all the time. They buck systems, change patterns, and speak out more clearly and effectively than I see most adults try to do. Simultaneously, there is little by way of adequate (and mandatory) education in graduate schools for future clinicians around working with very young children. Most of the newer clinicians with whom I come into contact express fear around coming face-to-face with a four-year-old in their offices. They say, “I wouldn’t know what to do with them.” The stories in this book were the ones I told over and over and over again to my interns and new clinicians to teach them about sitting in a room with a child. And, these are the “big” stories of connection, change, awareness. They are compelling and dramatic. If I were to ever expand the book, I would add stories about the much, much subtler occurrences that happen within therapeutic relationships. For example, this week a child I was working with faced me while he played. That’s it. He just faced me. That is not typically the stuff of best sellers, but that change alone was as large as some of the interactions in the book as it stands now. These seemingly smaller movements are the things I’d like clinicians to notice. The big things are much more obvious. The seemingly smaller ones are the places from which we help direct treatment and maintain our own energy for the work.
PS: Has writing Blue Butterfly Open altered or expanded your therapeutic style at all?
AB: I’m not sure that it has altered or expanded my practice, or if it has just been time and experience. I do know that for the past six years or so I’ve been much more focused on the administrative aspects of this work. I re-read some of the stories not so long ago and it helped me realize that I miss those direct clinical moments with children. Sometimes I can move through a week and forget what drew me to this work in the first place which was really wanting to make space for understanding the entirety of a child’s experience (as best as I am able within my limited role). I see the assumptions adults make about the experiences of children from the vantage point of adulthood. I believe my gift to this work is my ability, for whatever reason, to be able to put myself (back) in the shoes of a young child and listen and advocate from the knowledge that brings me.
PS: Can you describe your writing practice for us?
AB: This question made me giggle a little. I am currently the director of a community mental health clinic for children, have a small private practice, and am the mother of a nine-year-old. It is hard to have a practice of much of anything. The Gallery of Readers Press offers writing groups. My wife and I share a slot in one of the groups. She has been with them for over twenty years. I think I’ve been there for about fifteen. We alternate going to the group. Without this structure I don’t believe either one of us would be writing in much capacity. Additionally, the format of the group is based on the Amherst Writers and Artists Method which is so incredibly encouraging of writers. The group members are able to write without fear and with a great amount of freedom. There is room to play, write brilliantly, write not-so-brilliantly, try things out (for example, I’ve written exactly one poem), or sit and just ponder the whole writing process or a shopping list.
PS: Do you have other book and/or writing projects in the works? What is next?
AB: There is something new in the works. My wife and I and a group of others are collaborating on writing a book that has to do with parenting. More to come at some time in the future…
Alice Barber is a psychotherapist with a specialization in early childhood mental health and trauma. She holds degrees from Wellesley College and Springfield College. She lives with her wife and child in Western Massachusetts.
Joshua Maserow is a PhD student in clinical psychology at the New School for Social Research and an editor at Public Seminar.