Tales of Monsters in Drama Therapy

By Doug Ronning, MFT, RDT-BCT

Whether in fairy tale (Hansel and Gretel), fantastical literature (Lord of the Rings), science fiction (Frankenstein), monster movie (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), or Broadway musical (Little Shop of Horrors), if one encounters a monster in a story, it is likely a cautionary tale. In mythology and fiction monsters are stand-ins for the shadowy human appetites: greed, eros, bloodlust, hubris, and the desire to control others. Bruno Bettelheim indicted those who sought to remove violent and destructive monsters from children’s stories, for without the models of stories, children could not face “the monster a child knows best and is most concerned with: the monster he feels or fears himself to be, and which also sometimes persecutes him” (p. 120, 1975).

Whether natural or supernatural, monsters are catalysts that alter the journey of the hero. “Monsters demonstrate, monsters alert us: whether or not the etymologies relating the word to both “monstro” (I show) and “moneo” (I warn), are correct, monsters act as a moral compass,” opines University of Essex literature professor, Marina Warner (Warner, 2012, para. 4).

The iconic monsters of cinema are as recognizable as movie and pop stars, due to their great popularity and integration into the larger culture, but also because of the familiar paradigmatic use of existing plot structures in their stories (Schneider, 1993). As Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams point out in the introduction to their anthology of essays, Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature (1991), the theme of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has become so pervasively popular that we may summon it in our mind when someone says to us, “I have not been myself lately.”

In a previous article for Dramascope, I offered an overview on how monster archetypes have been interpreted through psychoanalytic, existential, and postmodern lenses and outlined some of the ways monsters have been employed in drama therapy. In this article, I will offer an expanded view of how the monster story can be used in drama therapy, drawn from the work of Noga Levine-Keini and Brurit Laub (1999). By way of literature review, I will explore their model and offer ways to build upon it by amplifying the client’s somatic experience.

The structures of classic and contemporary monster stories can help us to uncover and model the relationships with our own inner monsters: the voices of our inner critics, destructive appetites, cut off parts, unnamed desires, unwanted feelings, and other shadow matter buried deep in our cognitive and somatic systems. Drama therapist Robert Landy offers, “To be a truly moral person demands an ability to acknowledge and make peace with the immoral or amoral qualities that lurk on the other side,” (2000, p.53).

In Dealing with Monsters, Noga Levine-Keini and Brurit Laub outline a therapeutic approach that combines the work of Carl Gustav Jung, which emphasizes the internal expression of external dangers (monsters) on the development of the self (1960) and the narrative approaches of David Epston and Michael White, which emphasizes personifying and externalizing problems (1990). Because of Jung’s suggestion that the monster is a concrete manifestation of an extrinsic peril that threatens the ego, the authors point out that in this approach, “the creation of the monster is a developmental achievement in itself,” (1999, p. 122).

To experientially explore the conflict between the client and their monster, the clinicians invite imagination and play by drawing from various creative arts therapies: drawing, sculpting, and psychodramatic scenes.

There is a four step process Levine-Keini and Laub have devised for dealing with the monster: Exposure, Differentiation, Dialogue, and Defining Identity. While they do not cite Robert Landy as an influence, there are parallels between their process and his use of role, counterrole and guide (2000), as both draw heavily on mythic structures like those outlined by Joseph Campbell (1949). Rick Carson’s trademarked Gremlin-Training Method (2003) offers a self-help approach that follows a similar pattern for dealing with the monstrous voices in one’s head. Instead of a monster, he refers to it as a gremlin, that cunning narrator in your head that offers distorted interpretations that lead to self doubt and bad choices. In parallel, he suggests a person characterize their gremlin and recognize their relationship to it. In Taming Your Gremlin, he offers mindfulness and sense-awareness techniques as tools to refute the gremlin voice and overcome its habitual patterns.

During the first step of Levine-Keini and Laub’s process, Exposure, they introduce the idea of the internalized monster, then set out to raise it from the unconscious to the conscious, allowing the client to give voice to the feelings of pain, inferiority, and fear that have accompanied the inner voice. The second phase, Differentiation, is the process of separating the monster from the client, allowing the client to get a good look at their inner fiend and delineate one’s own voice from that of the monster. Dialogue, the third step in the approach, emphasizes the relationship that has existed between the individual and the monster, strengthening the voice of the individual in order to move toward overcoming the impasses and restrictions placed by the monster. And finally, Defining Identity further lessens the monster’s power by creating autonomy in the client by focusing on the client’s resilience. As the clinicians illustrate in two case studies, monsters make good diagnosticians as they know the client’s strengths and weaknesses. As the client gives external voice to the monster, they empower themselves through increasing differentiation.

As Jung (1960) declared that monsters play a vital part in our inner lives, Levine-Keini and Laub do not set out to rid the client of their monsters but to release the monsters’ hold over them. Like Ann Cattanach (1996) they advocate not killing the monster. In one case example that the authors present, when an adult female client wanted to eradicate the monster, the clinician warned her to watch out for shapeshifting – the monster can often take another guise to ensure its voice remains heard. Instead of eradicating it, the client chose to diminish the monster’s voice to render it nearly inaudible.

While I found this model by Levine-Keini and Laub compelling, I didn’t immediately put it into practice. At the time, I was working with clients with substance use disorders and eating disorders. Their compulsive desire to self harm was intensely physical, born of appetite. I found it difficult to integrate the deeply felt somatic aspects of the symptoms with the process of externalizing the problem. Landy voiced this in another way, stating: “For many crack addicts, alcoholics, and those with severe eating disorders, play is not even in the realm of possibility. Their addiction is to extinction and denial; they become Beckett characters without the poetry and comedy. The possibilities of being more than one thing, of creating a diversity of roles and an imaginative life need to be extinguished.” (1991, p. 36)

As I was actively stewing this over, I encountered one of Jung’s meaningful coincidences (1997). One night in 2007, while watching a favorite television program, Def Poetry Jam, a poem provided a way in to this dilemma. “Monsters in My Stomach” (2007) is a spoken word piece written and performed by Poetri, in which he gives voice to the narrative of monsters in his stomach that make him “eat when I don’t want to eat” (Poetri, 2007). Through his humorous and poignant testimony he speaks of the impact these monsters have had on his life. He ends the poem with the declaration “there are monsters inside of all of us” and an open inquiry “(my monsters) are in my stomach, where are yours?” (Poetri, 2007). His performance of the poem has the power of a brief self-revelatory performance (Emunah, 2015).

The poem offered an elegant solution; externalize the problem via the metaphor (monsters) then place it back in the body. Soon after, I purchased an audio copy of the poem from Poetri’s website and began using it with clients. The poem became the mechanism for Levine-Keini and Laub’s first step, exposure. After playing the poem for clients I invite them to answer his question with a poem of their own. I offer two clear directions: first, to create a metaphor, a monster or mythic figure to represent the problem, then secondly, to place it somewhere in their body. This helps prevent clients from making a part of their body the problem.

The poem further provides a somatic home for the monster, which invited the creation of a ritual in the subsequent steps. This involves drawing the monster out and placing it back in the body in an altered form: smaller, quieter, softer after the creative or psychodramatic work of a session. As part of the ritual, the client begins with a body scan and voices any discomfort or physical experiences related to their internalized monster or the stressors of the week. We then find a way to invite the monster out of the body and into the room. Some clients simply call them out, sometimes a physical action is required, such as pulling a scarf from a closed fist placed over the somatic home of the monster.

Poetri’s poem has touched hundreds of clients in groups and individual sessions. If I had not heard this poem, I don’t think I would be utilizing narrative therapy today. It has had that profound of an impact on the way I work with clients. I have heard numerous beautiful and moving poems in response: an addict who had sirens in his heart beckoning him to his doom; a teen with OCD that envisioned a Cthulhu-like monster in his hands that made him perform his compulsions; a young woman who compulsively exercised who had witches in her legs that kept casting spells that forced her to run; and a habitual shopper who had a monstrous combination of Terminator/Holly Golightly sitting behind her eyes, constantly scanning store and computer windows for the next great deal. I have voiced my appreciation to Poetri and asked for his permission to continue to use his poem in service of helping others, which he has blessedly given.

In enacting the Differentiation stage of Levine-Keini and Laub’s model, I often have clients create masks of their monsters, as masks offer a great way to express the grotesque, bestial, and base aspects of the human experience (Smith, 1984). Once created, the masks provide a meaningful projective device for interacting with the monster. In a group with adolescents with substance use disorders, I photographed the the creation of the masks as well as sculpts of clients wearing their masks and interacting with them at various distances. Then, using a program called Comic Life, the clients used these images to create comic books to tell the story of their changing relationship to their monster, literally illustrating the progressive steps in the model: Exposure, Differentiation, Dialogue, and Defining Identity.

For clients who require greater distance in their approach to the monster, in place of masks and psychodrama, I use sequential drawing and sandtray, and the dialogue is done through traditional narrative therapy letter writing (White, Epston,1990).

There have been clients who voice love and admiration for their monsters – some even express fear of being abandoned by the monster. After all, these monster voices have often developed as coping mechanisms to help clients deal with the dangers of the outside world. Jung (1964) acknowledged that the shadow has two aspects: the benevolent and the malefic, and some clients find it useful to honor both while in dialogue with their monster, voicing gratitude as well as disgust. Occasionally there is an expression of sympathy, with an explanation that the monster emerged out of tragic circumstances. The seductive nature of the monster’s voice is a universal element that clients identify. Mapping the ways that the monster has tricked the client in the past and identifying strategies to overcome those tricks in the future are key components in the dialogue stage. Clients have rebuffed, argued, wrestled, danced, dined, even shopped with their monsters in sessions. Throughout, it is important to reaffirm the client’s influence and power over the monster and not the other way around (Levine-Keini, Laub 1999).

In the late stage, Defining Identity, I often find there is a drop in energy in working directly with the monster. Instead, the client may choose to focus on their own strengths, personality traits, and goals, separate from those of the monster. Here, I find it important to keep the ritual of checking on the placement, size, volume, and intensity of the internalized monster, while following the client’s focus on their burgeoning identity.

Monsters, figures fused in the collective human imagination, can provide a meaningful medium through which to express the painful, maladaptive, often unspeakable ways that we humans turn on ourselves. Through drama therapy and the expressive arts, we can give voice to these monsters and strengthen the voices of their creators. When we listen closely, it has the sound of poetry.

Doug Ronning, MFT, RDT/BCT, is a Drama Therapist with a private practice in San Francisco, CA and an Adjunct Professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies. He is a lifelong fan of creature features, a produced screenwriter (HBO’s Tales From the Crypt), and creator of the Monster Movie Salon.


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