Monthly Archives: April 2015

Art Therapy and Temple Grandin: At the Crossroads


Crossroads by Carsten Tolkmit

When I first read the announcement that the American Art Therapy Association had invited Temple Grandin to be this year’s keynote speaker at our annual conference, I was shocked. After about a week of trying to process this information, my bubbling rage drove me to social media, calling AATA out for inviting a woman who has built a career on designing slaughterhouses, and partnering with animal agribusiness to destroy the environment, deplete natural resources, undermine public health, and exploit animals.

Initially, AATA seemed concerned with my opposition, not so much because they recognized they had made an error in judgement by inviting Grandin, but because I was making noise about it. Representatives from AATA promptly reached out to me. They listened to my concerns, but stated the keynote invitation would not be rescinded. I was strongly encouraged to attend the conference, and was offered an opportunity to have an individual meeting with Grandin. Having read some of her writings, I have a handle on her belief that animals are here for people to “humanely” exploit, which means any conversation would end with a cordial agree-to-disagree. Everyone and their mother-in-law rationalize animal exploitation, so I don’t need to hear her version of that first hand.

I was also told I could express my concerns at the social justice working group breakout session, and I was invited to join said working group. I asked for an opportunity to present an opposing position to the larger conference audience, not just the small social justice session, and I was denied. It seemed that the AATA representatives were also quite keen to learn what actions I might take moving forward. My general impression was that they recognized my criticisms as valid, but due to their refusal to rescind the invitation to Grandin, they wanted to keep me contained, which frankly, just made me angrier.

In the midst of this, it’s important for me to express that I love being an art therapist. While I have not always fully supported all the actions of my professional organization, they have been a source of community, and generally, I think they are trying to protect the interests of all who offer or receive art therapy, as well as steer the profession into the future, despite a difficult socioeconomic-political climate. I wouldn’t be a member if I didn’t want to support them, or if I thought it wasn’t to my advantage. My belief in AATA and the art therapy profession has been greatly challenged by their partnership with Grandin though.

In the weeks following the initial announcement, and the phone conversations with AATA representatives that occurred shortly thereafter, I have continued to use social media in hopes of generating interest among colleagues, finding allies willing to speak out against AATA’s invitation to Grandin, and eliciting an apology from AATA to its members. Sadly, except for a couple of colleagues who I would say are supportive from the sidelines, my colleagues have remained silent, which I understand might be because people are unsure how to respond, but the net effect is that I feel bewildered and alone. To point at what seems such a clear injustice to me, and perceive everyone as remaining in the neutral position, has been unnerving. Since I’m the lone voice of dissent, it appears that AATA is content to ignore me. As such, I was compelled to write this essay, partly as an expressive outlet about an issue that has been emotionally unsettling, and partly with the intention of reaching both art therapy colleagues and fellow animal rights activists who might find a call to action in my words.

My efforts to gain clarity and articulate all that is wrong about AATA partnering with Grandin led me to start digging into intersectionality. One of the most disturbing aspects of Grandin’s narrative about animals is the role of disability, a term I use with the disclaimer that I have read conflicting opinions about whether it demeans or empowers those whose abilities are not represented by the majority. It likely goes without saying that she wasn’t invited to be keynote because she kills animals for a living; she was invited because she has autism, participates in autism advocacy, and can be called “successful” by majority standards due to her academic and professional accomplishments within the context of having autism, a description I use loosely since her work is contingent on killing animals. Since I’m new to intersectionality, my assessment might be a little rough around the edges, but Grandin asserts that her disability enables her to identify with cows, who are differently abled compared to humans. Ironically though, she plays the I’m-less-differently-abled-than-you-are power card to justify committing violence against them, rather than recognize them as beings with inherent rights, perpetuating the notion that it’s natural and justifiable to oppress beings whose abilities aren’t recognized as “normal” and consistent with the majority. The absurdity doesn’t stop there though.

Another point that has been alarming about AATA’s partnership with Grandin is the incoherent standards applied to individuals who commit violence against animals. If an individual presents to an art therapist with designs for slaughtering animals, this would be regarded as a red flag for psychopathology. The individual would be considered high risk for violence, not just towards animals, but also humans, and ongoing evaluation and treatment would be recommended. Grandin is an individual who does exactly that – develops designs for the systemic slaughter of animals – which undoubtedly requires a lot of creative thinking about how to “best” kill someone, yet, because she does it under the guise of “animal science,” in partnership with animal agribusiness, not only is her behavior deemed socially acceptable, but she’s welcomed with open arms to present to a group of mental health professionals, who would recommend treatment under different circumstances.

Aside from that matter of splitting hairs over pathological versus “acceptable” violence towards animals, the inconsistencies between what the art therapy profession should aspire to be, and how it presents itself in partnering with Grandin pile up. Animal product consumption is associated with several forms of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes, and the research linking it to health problems continues to amass. Art therapy is a well-regarded treatment for addressing the complex psychological issues of cancer patients. Inviting Grandin, partner with animal agribusiness, the products of which are associated with cancer, to speak to a group, some of whom treat cancer patients is a blatant conflict of interest. Additionally, research shows that slaughterhouse workers are at higher risk for substance abuse, and violent behavior, systemic mental health issues that the art therapy profession has a clear responsibility to alleviate, not perpetuate.

Another conflict of interest is evident when examining AATA’s document for standards of ethical practice. AATA delineates beneficence as one of art therapy’s ethical principles, yet they invited a keynote speaker whose entire career is devoted to violence towards animals, which inherently results in violence towards Earth, and violence towards humans. They reap what the sow, after all, but according to art therapy’s ethical guidelines, art therapists have a responsibility to not be complicit in causing harm.

This year’s conference theme, Bridging Cultural Terrain, is somewhat laughable when critically examined. Although terrain is used metaphorically, it behooves me to point out that our actual terrain is being utterly decimated by Grandin and her animal agribusiness partners. The lovely graphic representing the theme that illustrates conference-related materials even includes water under the bridge; it is widely known that California is in the midst of an unprecedented drought while 47% of their water supply goes towards animal agriculture. Furthermore, AATA’s complicity with carnism, the ideology that justifies the systemic oppression of animals, the lack of awareness of intersectionality, and their ease at dismissing my concerns as “not aligned with the majority of members” (paraphrased response from an AATA representative), completely contradicts AATA’s supposed efforts to advance a paradigm of inclusion, or as they like to say, Bridging Cultural Terrain.

I have ruminated over these ideas for weeks. I have lain awake at night trying to identify how to respond and affect change. I have cried, wondering how my professional organization and colleagues have seemingly shrugged off my concerns, leaving me feeling disregarded and marginalized for my belief system. Much like the cows who are victims of Grandin’s slaughterhouses, I am beside myself that my colleagues are calmly proceeding to their moral slaughter, blindly exacerbating multiple systems of oppression, unquestioningly led by AATA through the chutes of carnism, without being provided an updated, progressive, more inclusive view.

The AATA representatives were anxious to know my next move. I have a lot of ideas, but no specific plans. As the conference draws closer, I have amped up my social media protest, although AATA remains unresponsive. I’m wondering how to engage the animal rights community on this, not to challenge Grandin because she’s too invested in exploiting animals, but to challenge the art therapy community. Pardon my generalization, but art therapists aren’t exactly the Fox News watching crowd, so I think many could be open to broadening their circles of compassion. The profession requires creative, empathetic, sensitive, insightful, open-minded, critically thoughtful individuals, many of whom I hope will recognize the problems I have described. As far as I can tell, they haven’t been presented a coherent analysis, such as the one I’ve attempted to compose here, of why AATA should have a generous slice of vegan humble pie, and offer an apology to members. I hope that after considering the position I am presenting, people will begin to come forward to work with me to peacefully protest Grandin in the short term, but much more importantly, apply what can be learned from this debacle moving beyond the conference.

I’m guessing that the AATA representatives might be regretting that they encouraged me to attend the conference. I can’t say that’s not a fair response. Registration and related travel expenses are considerable, so that’s something I have to figure out, but aside from that practical matter, as much as I loathe the idea of giving them money so they can pay Grandin’s hefty fee, I feel like it could be my best opportunity to properly protest. The emails from AATA touting “record breaking registration” churn my stomach as I imagine my colleagues falling over themselves to be graced by the presence of the animal agribusiness’s golden girl with her ludicrous narrative that autism has given her magic powers to know how cows really want to die. On behalf of the environment, and human and nonhuman animals, I feel like I should be there.

Regardless of what I do next though, I’m reminded that art therapists, despite the unique qualities that led them to dedicate themselves to a career of service, are just like everyone else, myself included until I made the transition to veganism. Like everyone who isn’t raised vegan, they adhere to an unrecognized, unexamined carnist ideology, hungrily subscribing to devastatingly incoherent narratives, such as those offered by Grandin, as a means of silencing any emergent misgivings about slaughtering animals for pleasure. It’s an alluring fairy tale, but a fairy tale nonetheless, and we must subject it to critical examination.

If the art therapy community is truly dedicated to Bridging Cultural Terrain, we have a responsibility to do better, to live lives characterized by justice for all, to recognize that our choices affect others, and to act accordingly. I urge the art therapy community to be less star struck by Grandin, and more dumbstruck that she was invited without full consideration for how the harms she perpetrates contradict all we should aspire to be.

Note: This essay weaves together ideas that are clear to me, as well as ideas I’m still working through. Although my conscious intention was to use the crossroads as a metaphor for where the art therapy profession can go in response to the keynote speaker issue as described in the essay, I’m also deep in thought about my own place at the crossroads, trying to make sense of where I am going as an art therapist.