FAMILY SCULPTURE IN PSYCHODRAMA: A REPORT*
* This report was written by the protagonist of the psychodrama
described below, who preferred to remain anonymous. Edited slightly and
posted by Adam Blatner September 4, 2009.
I was 21 when I came to the Menninger Hospital in Houston, Texas around
2003, to be treated for a case of severe anorexia nervosa. I have
reconstructed these events from journal notes and a drawing I made on
the day they occurred. I have changed all names for confidentiality,
including my own name, here calling myself “Ruby.” I came into the
hospital from a court-ordered hold at our county mental hospital,
considered a danger to myself from my extreme involvement with anorexia
and bulimia. I came with no desire to live and no hope to recover from
my fight with eating disorders. I came with little hope of ever having
a good relationship with my parents, and I was resigned to a life as
the "black sheep" of the family. I left with considerably more
understanding of myself, my involvement with eating disorders, and my
family—much of this due to ideas that began in The Menninger Clinic's
Since it was held on another unit, psychodrama group was a privilege,
requiring an attained "level of responsibility." I began to be allowed
to go about a month into my nearly four-month stay, though I was
required to be accompanied by staff at all times. Psychodrama group was
larger than most groups, and maybe because of this the room had an air
of recreation. Almost all the patients were glad to be out of a
strictly “talking” group. The group was led by Chris, an intern. We
started with a “body posture” that represented how we were feeling that
day, and then went around the circle describing what our body postures
meant. The carefree room quickly began to fill with wisps of fear,
anger, and sadness along with the bits of joy.
Dan's Family Sculpture
In my first group, we were told that we would do a "sculpture." I had
no idea what that meant, but some of the veteran group-comers obviously
did. A man from the unit named Dan volunteered to be “it.” He was told
to pick people from the group to represent different parts of his
family, and to place them in the room where they fit, using distance to
represent emotional closeness or lack thereof, and body postures to
represent their role in his life. He began.
He picked Ashley, my roommate on eating disorders unit, and me and put
both of us side by side in the center, both of us reaching down to Dan,
who was in front of us. Ashley was to be accepting, reaching with open
arms; I was to be rejecting, holding my palms out and scowling.
Dan continued to select people to represent different individuals in
his life, and when he was finished, he was instructed to give each
character a line to say. He made his way around the room doing so.
Next, Dan had to place himself in his sculpture, and he placed himself
on one knee, pleading, in front of Ashley and me. Now everyone in the
sculpture was told to say his or her line. Chris rallied us on louder
and louder, a cacophony of feelings building on the emotions of
everyone in the room.
After a minute or so, Chris stopped us all and asked Dan to go to each
person in the sculpture individually and listen to that person say his
or her line to him, at which time he was to respond as he wished he
could to the “real person.” The two of them then held short
conversations guided by Chris.
After that, we went around the entire room and shared how we viewed the
experience and what we learned or got out of it. I felt so much emotion
after being an actual part of the sculpture, though I could not
immediately say what. I felt the swelling of feelings in my chest that
happens when I am in true awe of something greater than myself. For me,
I noticed how it felt “good” to be in a position of power and control
over a man, and physically seeing his emotional response to my bid for
that control. I also realized how being in competition with other girls
(in this case Ashley) combined with that sense of wanting control makes
the use of my body (i.e., through the use of the eating disorder) a
very powerful thing. I was amazed after I left at how one hour and one
room could so profoundly affect a man; and me. Weren't we just playing
a little? I mean, sure it was therapeutic, but I didn't know it was
going to really WORK.
Ruby's (My) Sculpture
Psychodrama group progressed each week through different exercises,
some more or less profound. I thought from time to time about Dan and
his sculpture. One group after we had expressed our
body-posture/feeling for the morning, we were told once again that we
were going to do a sculpture. Chris asked for a volunteer. I knew I had
wanted to do a sculpture since I got to participate in the last one. My
hand was up immediately, even before my mind could calculate the
consequences; I was chosen. At that moment, things started to turn and
flop inside. I was going to put my life here in this room. The
instructions were given. I could pick anyone in the room to be each
member of my family, and as I picked them I should give them a body
posture and facial expression. Physical distance in the room would
represent emotional distance in my family. After each person was in
place, I would give him or her one line to say to me that would
represent our relationship.
I began. I chose “Mom” first and placed her looking half into and
half out of the center of the room. “Dad” came next, Dave, because he
looked a bit like my dad and he was always joking and teasing the way
my dad would be. He and Mom were looking at each other, but were
offset, so they didn’t look at each other directly. Dad was to look at
me with his forehead wrinkled, disapproving.
Next, I picked Heather
for my Aunt Addie. She stood far from my dad (her brother), and was
close to where I would later place myself. My dad’s disapproving eyes
were turned on her as well, though she looked away from him. Then I
picked my Grandma (Dad and Aunt Addie’s mother)—a cute older woman of
the same short stature. She stood between my dad and Aunt Addie with
one hand reaching to each of them. Her eyes, though, were on me. I
picked my cousin Scott, Aunt Addie’s son, and he stood next to my Aunt
Addie, but away from the rest of the family, looking away, feeling
I picked Darcy to be Aunt Kathy
(my mom’s sister-in-law). She is on the outside of the circle, closest
to my mom. She looks alternately at my mom and me, but turns to reach
out to me.
And I also picked Michelle, even
though she is not “true” family. She has been a surrogate mother of
sorts for years, and I never imagined leaving her out. She stands next
to me, on the opposite side of Aunt Addie, the both of them offering
their combined support, arms around me.
Finally it was time to pick someone to be me. I picked Aden, also from
the eating disorders unit. Though she probably was the closest in looks
to me, I picked her out of a more intuitive response. She hung her head
and shoulders, withdrawn and scared in part at my direction and in part
at her own timidity.
After everyone in the sculpture had been chosen, it was time to give everyone his or her “line.”
My dad said, “You’re not running
your life right.” I have often felt his disapproval of seemingly
anything I do, and this feeling was reflected in the physical distance
between us in the sculpture as well as his disapproving facial
Mom said, “I would love you
if you were good enough.” My mom is also distant from me in the
sculpture, and her body posture (looking half out of the circle)
represents an emotional distance. She is interested in knowing me and
supporting me but has not often known how to go about making that
relationship work. Growing up she was focused some on me, but seemed to
be focused more on her non-profit activities.
Aunt Addie said, “I
love who you are and the woman you are becoming.” Aunt Addie was
standing at a distance from dad, as they almost always see things
differently, but stood close to me as a source of support and
understanding, representing her ongoing emotional support (especially
when I felt extremely misunderstood.) She loves me, cares about me
deeply, and understands me probably better than anyone in the family.
Scott said, “I’m not a part of this family.”
Scott has felt much of my family’s disapproval and has grown
increasingly emotionally and physically distant. He rarely associates
with family other than my Aunt Addie and I.
Grandma said, “I LOVE YOU!!”
She has one hand reaching to dad and one hand reaching to Aunt Addie,
trying to bridge the emotional gap. She tries to make some peace
between them but loves them both. Her eyes rest on me, and her love for
me is intense.
Aunt Kathy said, “I
want to know who you really are.” She stands closest to mom because
they are the most closely related, but also on the outside of the
circle as if she does not want to interfere. She looks between mom and
me, but reaches out to me, trying to make a connection. She tries to
understand but is not sure what to do or say. She does not want to get
in between my conflicts with my mom, but she wants desperately to be
closer to me.
“You are a person in process!” Michelle is a licensed Marriage and
Family Therapist, and this outlook often seeps into our frequent
discussions. She is always encouraging me, and her arm around me in the
sculpture represents a very deep bond. She is the other person, besides
my Aunt Addie, who understands me and holds me up.
And finally, I said, “I want
to be myself. I need to know who I am.” “My” facial expression and body
posture are withdrawn and scared. I felt like this hospitalization was
a time when I must start to forge an identity outside of the eating
disorder. I felt a strong need to discover myself outside of (and along
side of) my parents’ value systems.
Chris had everyone say
his or her “lines” all at the same time when I said “Action.” I stood
in the middle of the group of my family, facing “myself.” Chris kept
encouraging everyone, “Louder…louder…” I turned to see different parts
of the sculpture, but spent most of my time looking at “me,” head hung
and arms folded in. I heard “Dad’s” voice the loudest, telling me over
and over that I’m not running my life right. Every now and then I heard
my Grandma, quieter and sweet, “I Love You!!!.” I heard the chaos of
everyone talking at once and trying to get through to me; to be heard.
I covered my face and started to cry but couldn’t. After a bit I
uncovered my face. Looking at “me” I noticed that even though Aunt
Addie and Michelle were both close and hugging me they couldn’t really
“hug me” because my arms were wrapped around me and I was so drawn into
myself. It looked more like they were talking in each ear, trying to
draw out all of the negative things I was hearing with the positive
messages I wasn’t able to tell myself.
After what seemed like quite a long
while, Chris said, “Stop.” The room fell quickly silent. I looked up.
Chris asked, “What are you feeling right now?”
“I noticed at one point you covered your face. What were you feeling then?”
“Overwhelmed….It all felt so real. The voices I heard loudest were the
voices I hear loudest in my life—especially my dad. And I never heard
Speaking to the Figures
“Okay, now I want you to go around to each person and they will say the
line you gave them. Then I want you to respond to that person the way
you wish you could, and the two of you may continue to talk. If you are
in the sculpture, put yourself in the role of the person you are
supposed to represent.”
I was shaking so hard as I began. I went to Grandmother first, because
she would be the easiest. She told me how much she had always loved me
and always would. I told her how much I loved her and how special she
was to me. We talked for a little bit and Chris had us hug. She hugged
me just like Grandma would have—so tight, reaching up to say she loved
me one more time.
I went to Aunt Addie next, and I
talked first—I told her how much I was continually strengthened and
encouraged by her and how much I loved her. She repeated her line, “I
love who you are and the woman you are becoming,” and added, “I am so
glad to be close to you so I get to see who you are becoming. I love
you so so much.” We talked and hugged.
I caught myself going to all the
most positive or easy to talk with people first, so I stopped for a
second to make sure I had time left in the group to really deal with
the harder things.
I went to Mom. She repeated, “I love you, but you’re not good enough.”
Chris asked me, “How do you feel when she says that?”
I talked to Mom, pleadingly. “I know that when I hear that, you are
saying that you do love me and that you want the best for me. I know
you don’t mean those words the way I hear them…”
Chris asked, “How do you feel when you hear that you aren’t good enough?”
“I feel hurt and frustrated…I feel angry.”
Chris said, “Say you’re angry like you mean it.”
“It makes me angry to hear that.”
Chris: “Like you really mean it.”
“It makes me so angry to always hear how I am sick and that I am loved but that I am so sick!”
Chris prompted quietly, “And I wish…”
“And I wish that we could talk to each other without me having to hear
all the ways that my mind and my thoughts and the core of who I am is
said, “Well, I’m just trying to make sure that things turn out good for
you. I just want the best for you.”
I don’t know what shifted or how, but it was just like Mom—except in a
second we went from bickering to understanding each other. She said
that she knew she didn’t always do things great either and that she
would try to work on things too—that we would both work together and we
would get better at things. In those words, she took a part of the
“sickness” as her own, and because my “real-life” mother has been
so adamant that I was the problem, that acceptance made a world of
difference. We were suddenly hugging, and in that hug I felt how much
my mom really does love me.
I went to dad. He said again, “You’re not running your life right.”
Chris asked me, as he had done with mom, “How do you feel when he says that?”
I was more outgoing with dad. “ I hate to hear that from you! Anything, everything I do is wrong to you!”
Dave used my name to talk to me, “Ruby, I just know I have made so many
mistakes and they were hard to learn from. I don’t want you to have to
go through all the same things I had to.”
“But Dad, how come nothing is ever okay, nothing I do is right?!?”
“It’s not that it isn’t right, I just see things you could do better sometimes and I want the very best for you.”
“No, nothing is ever right to you!”
“It is, honey, I’m not very good at saying it though. But I am so proud
of you. I love you so much. I wish I said things better. I want to
protect you and it comes across wrong. I don’t want to control you, I
want to protect you.” Tears slid down Dave’s cheeks. We hugged for the
longest time and both cried.
Group was almost over, so that was all I had time to do individually.
I’m sure Chris went around the room, but I don’t remember it. I stayed
to myself while we waited for staff to come take us back to the eating
disorders unit. I was still crying, but not hard. I was shocked in a
I made my way back to the unit, picked up my journal and went to the
gazebo in front of the unit. I cried over Dave, my "sculpture-dad's,"
sheer concern and love, carefully masked in the sculpture as
admonishments. I cried for the holes I wanted to see sewn up, and the
people emotionally crashing into one another.