Art Therapy and Temple Grandin: What Happened, What Next? Part 1

Untitled image by Patrishe
Untitled image by Patrishe

They said, “You are a savage and dangerous woman.”
I am speaking the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous.
― Nawal El-Saadawi

Losing Sleep

I had one of those extra vivid, early morning dreams on Sunday:
I was on a group hike, sort of a team building activity, and part of the trail went into a tunnel. Once inside the tunnel, everyone stopped, and there was commotion to set up another activity, but I didn’t know what was happening. Cows started to emerge from the pitch black depths of the tunnel, their black fur shimmering, and dark eyes glistening as they stepped towards the light. The other people in the group started to kill them, slitting their throats, and pushing them down an incline towards the tunnel entrance. The group was laughing, and having a grand time; the atmosphere was charged and festive. I was horrified, and began to protest, so they started bullying me, corralling me closer to the cows as they were being killed, until I was alongside the cows as their throats were slit. I managed to escape, leaving them behind to slaughter the cows, and was trying to figure out how to return to town from the secluded, wooded area. Once I was back in town, I ran into the group again in a city plaza area with benches and a fountain. They were standing in a group, making fun of me, pointing and laughing. I became enraged, and ended up in a physical fight with a woman from the group. We were on the pavement, and I was hovering over her when I felt searing pain on my lower back. I turned to discover her friend was sitting on a bench next to us, putting out cigarettes on my back. I reached to touch them, and felt the burned flesh wounds, and sting of pain. I was overwhelmed and distressed, and I felt defeated that they were intent on doing harm. Then I woke up.

Later that morning, I was sipping my breakfast smoothie, and the dream came back to me. As I reflected on the details, and puzzled over its significance, it occurred to me that my dream represented my experience protesting the American Art Therapy Association‘s decision to invite Temple Grandin to be this year’s conference keynote speaker. The group I was with represented AATA and my colleagues. The cows represented the victims of Grandin, and those who support her work. Their laughter and disregard for the cows represented their refusal to recognize the cows as victims, and their complicity with Grandin. The altercation represented the multiple conversations I’ve had with AATA representatives and colleagues in which very few validated my concerns and feelings, and I was subjected to microaggressions. The cigarettes? It seemed odd, but then I recalled that a few days ago, I had seen an article in my Facebook newsfeed about how cigarettes and animal flesh consumption are comparably harmful to one’s health, inasmuch as the two can be compared. Perhaps the cigarettes were a metaphor for eating animals, and the burns on my back represented my general feeling of being burned by an organization and culture that I had trusted, to which I used to feel like I belonged. As I told my friends with whom I shared this dream, my experience protesting Grandin and the ensuing response has bruised me all the way to my unconscious.

This nightmare haunted me all of yesterday. Last night I lay in bed, feeling anxious about going to sleep, afraid that I might have another unsettling dream about animals being butchered. I wondered how to overcome the deep wounding I have experienced. I’ve made some art, which has offered some expressive relief. I’ve started more essays than I can count at this point, trying to weave together an account of events with thoughtful analysis, and reflections on my emotional experience. I’ve scrapped all but this one, another attempt to piece together something coherent, most of which I wrote prior to having the dream.

I eventually drifted to sleep, and thankfully, don’t recall any nightmares, but then I awoke much too early this morning, and couldn’t go back to sleep. I started ruminating over whether to complete this essay and post it. I’ve already spent two weeks writing and editing this, and it’s currently over 20 pages long. I presume I’ve damaged my professional reputation based on the feedback I’ve already received from colleagues, so do I want to go out on a limb again, and share this? Will I be able to sleep and not have anymore nightmares if I just keep it to myself? Why do I feel like I have to share this? What are the risks? What are the potential benefits?

I thought about the efforts to silence, diffuse, and redirect my protests, and I could feel my anger percolating. I also felt weary. My short experience as a vegan advocate has taught me that my efforts are most fruitful when directed toward people who are receptive. I’m going to have better luck inspiring the person who is doing Meatless Mondays, and concerned about the harms of animal consumption, than I will the person who thinks a bacon joke is a hilarious response to information about how sensitive and intelligent pigs are, or the person who has convinced themselves that killing animals more nicely, Grandin-style, is somehow helping them. Since it seems that many people in the AATA culture fall into the latter group, it follows that it might be better for my mental wellbeing to write them off, and throw my energy into affecting change elsewhere.

I even put my therapist hat on, and considered the dynamics from that perspective. People don’t change unless they want to change. It is the skilled therapist who works with a client to help them see themselves as capable of change, and thus, inspire them to make changes. Resistance to rethinking how we relate to animals is culturally ingrained – and every time one eats them, one is having a relationship with them – so guiding people towards that change is as complex and varied as guiding people towards other kinds of change in psychotherapy, more so in some respects. Then I considered the anger, sadness, and anxiety I’ve been having as a result of all of this, and it feels so countertransferential. It’s the anger, sadness, and anxiety that most people who eat animals and their products defend themselves against experiencing. I’m holding it because no one else will. If I don’t hold it, then the knot of injustices associated with AATA’s partnership with Grandin goes ignored, and if I ignore it, I am complicit. When I had that realization, I broke down in tears.

I’m sharing this essay because I need to process everything that’s happened, and blogging has been reliably beneficial for me in that respect. I’m sharing because the invitation to Grandin without thorough critical analysis of the implications, and the ensuing responses to my protests represent negligence to social justice, and a culture of relational aggression and exclusivity. I’m sharing because colleagues tried to silence and redirect me, invalidating the content of my ideas and my emotional response, and I’m pissed. I’m sharing despite the fact that some colleagues who liked me, or perhaps had a neutral opinion, will think less of me, and those who never knew me might categorically dismiss me now. I’m sharing in hopes that future keynote speakers will better represent justice for all, human animals, nonhuman animals, and the environment. I mean, can we talk about how AATA could go far in righting this wrong by inviting Carol J. Adams to present on sexism, racism, and speciesism in cultural imagery? I’m sharing in hopes that the art therapy culture can adopt a more inclusive circle of compassion, that not only recognizes vegan art therapists, but honors animals, the environment, and marginalized groups of people. I’m sharing because I need to sleep better at night.

Due to its length, this essay will be posted as a multipart series.

Art Therapy and Temple Grandin: What Happened, What Next? Part 2

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