Sunday, April 10, 2011

Connecting the personal with the cultural using autoethnography

- By Stacey Prince

In TJP we have begun to outline a potential model of psychotherapy that would effectively facilitate our clients’ exploration of issues of culture, race, oppression related trauma (both personal and historic), therapeutic relationship across differences, etc. Some elements of this potential model have been touched on in previous articles, including: facilitating clients’ examination of privilege and oppression, exploring multiple identities and intersections, exploring therapist-client differences and similarities in social group memberships, helping clients to challenge oppressive societal norms, developing skills for both dominant and marginalized group members, exploring links between the client’s current feelings and relevant sociopolitical events, incorporating social and cultural conditions into both problem definition and solution generation, when appropriate encouraging client engagement in activism and advocacy, attending to and minimizing the therapist-client power differential, and fostering a collaborative, strength based relationship,. These ideas and strategies are nothing new, but rather a bringing together of a range of strategies suggested by others with a strong basis in multicultural, feminist, and liberation psychology traditions.

Today I would like to suggest another addition to this growing model, and that is the use of autoethnography in psychotherapy. Autoethnography is defined in Wikipedia as “a form of autobiographical personal narrative that explores the writer's experience of life. The term was originally defined as ‘insider ethnography.’ It differs fundamentally from ethnography--a qualitative research method in which a researcher uses participant observation and interviews in order to gain a deeper understanding of a group's culture—in that autoethnography focuses on the writer's subjective experience rather than the beliefs and practices of others.” Due to its highly personal and subjective nature, autoethnography is thought to be beneficial for looking at issues often overlooked in culture, such as racism, sexuality, child abuse, life experiences within particular subcultures, etc. Autoethnographic accounts are not meant to be factually accurate; in fact, their very subjectivity is their strength. Says one proponent, “When talking about their lives, people lie sometimes, forget a lot, exaggerate, become confused, and get things wrong. Yet they are revealing truths. These truths don’t reveal the past ‘as it actually was,’ aspiring to a standard of objectivity. They give us instead the truths of our experiences” (Devault, Personal Writings in Social Research).

Recently I came across an article on entitled Transforming the wounds of racism: An autoethnographic exploration and implications for psychotherapy. In the article Saira Bains, a psychologist and psychotherapist in London, England, describes her use of autoethnography, which she defines as “the study of awareness of the self (auto) within culture (ethnic)… a way to connect the personal with the cultural.” She starts out using autoethnography for her dissertation, exploring oppression trauma in her own family in what ends up being a compelling personal and well as professional journey. She tells the story of her family’s ethnic roots in Pakistan and India, whose parents immigrated to England in the 1950’s. As a young child she was a keen observer of her parents and extended family, but notes that racism was “unheard and unspoken… bound in the wrappings of humiliation and silence.” While observing experiences that she felt were related to racism – for example, the insidious diminishment of her father who, though receiving a legal degree in India, never rose above his status as a dish washer, porter, or lift attendant in England—these events were never discussed, over time creating a distance and disconnection between the author and her father that they were not able to heal before his death. Bairns does not say directly that her interest in autoethnography stemmed from a personal desire to understand her family’s history of transgenerational oppression, but it is implied in her narrative.

"I wanted to understand: What is the essence of racist trauma and how does it impinge upon the relational and intersubjective experience of living? How does one negotiate and process this hatred, denigration and the power of such oppressions? I wanted to become a therapist who was not bound up in the rigidity of her boundaries, so that I could begin to stretch and push the boundaries of otherness and sameness. As a psychotherapist, I wondered how racism is explored or avoided in psychotherapeutic work. I saw that racism can often enter psychotherapy in a disguised form as it is difficult to express due to the fearful and defended nature of racism. This results in racist trauma being overlooked and minimised, which can be oppressive and silencing in itself."

Thus in graduate school, her personal interest in understanding her family’s history became professional (or vice versa), and she undertook an extensive autoethnographic study in an effort to “find the words for trauma that sits beyond language to describe what cannot be spoken.” Her research focused in particular on the life experiences of her uncle, who as a young man had moved yet again from England to Canada, and whose narrative she explored through traveling to see him, interviewing him, emails and phone calls. This process is compelling to read about not only because the researcher/author is so deeply impacted by the actual reunion with her uncle, who had been a source of warmth and connection for her as a child, but also because many of her assumptions about his experience were challenged in the process. For example, while he relates numerous stories to her regarding both insidious and covert, violent racism experienced while he was a young man in England, he denies her query that racism was the reason he left. Instead, he talks of “getting a fresh start” and “recreating himself” in Canada. His niece honors and respects this narrative and does not want to contribute further to the diminishment and loss of self he had experienced, yet feels disappointed that she is not able to connect with him more deeply around the intergenerational racial trauma she had witnessed and their family had experienced. In the end, though, she says,

“What was healing was making sense of theses previously unspoken trauma experiences that we were no longer compelled to exclude, a behaviour that was normalised within the family. These narratives brought validation and the possibility of new attachments.”

In the last section of the article Bains explores implications of this work for psychotherapy. She asks, “Can clinical practice and research be enhanced by deepening and amplifying silent narratives using autoethnography? Can we challenge traditional representations of the ‘raced subject’ and the stuckness we face in working with areas of heightened sensitivity such as racism?” She suggests two ways this could happen: using autoethnography to guide clients in exploring their own cultural background including oppression trauma, and as therapists exploring our own background so that we may engage in conversations about racist trauma with less avoidance and ambivalence. While not offering a lot of nuts and bolts suggestions for how to actually implement or integrate autoethnography into psychotherapy, the article instead hints in a compelling way at the potential for this approach to delve into deeply personal material and to increase the level of understanding between therapist and client, as well as within ourselves, about the impact of culture and oppression.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Middle East’s Paradigm Shift: Rape is No More Accepted Here

By Yvette Nahmia-Messinas, co-founder of ECOWEEK and author of They All Sound Like Love Songs: Women Healing Israeli-Palestinian Relations

I had the pleasure of meeting Yvette Nahmia-Messinas at the Association for Women in Psychology convention in 2010, where she presented poems from her published collection “They all sound like love songs: Women healing Israeli-Palestinian relations”. I wrote about our meeting in an earlier blog post (“Midwives of Peace," 2/21/10), and after that we became “Facebook friends,” keeping up on each other’s work. With all of the recent events unfolding in the Middle East, I asked Yvette to share her thoughts with us about the potential for peace there - as a woman, a feminist, and a Jewish Israeli resident. Here is what she wrote.

Former President of Israel, Moshe Katsav was sentenced to 7 years by the Tel Aviv District Court yesterday for two counts of rape and other sexual offenses against women employees. Once at the top of Israeli society, enjoying public acclaim and attention Katsav is to enter prison in May. A similar downfall is awaiting many Middle East rulers who reign by might and the force of arms “raping” their societies of the freedom to choose their governing body. What Katsav did on an individual level, forcing his body on his victims, is perpetrated by fellow male monarchs, despots, kings and rulers of the region who force themselves and their rule over their people by might and arms.

Middle East is boiling. Egypt, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia are facing inner turmoil, and upheaval. The old resists its collapse while the new balance of power is slowly emerging. The old paradigm of the “strongest wins” is dying out, while the new paradigm of “let us cooperate to bring forth a massive change” is on its way in. In Egypt, young men and women came together, united in their will for a dignified society where their voice and choice would matter. Their determination, perseverance, and unity in combination with their peaceful way of overturning their ruler resonated with other young, liberal Middle Easterners. The spirit of brotherhood, and social cohesion based on shared values witnessed at Tahrir square is emerging once again sweeping the region with a refreshing, liberating sensation: “change is possible,” “let us bring it about.”

Through the rape verdict allotted to its former President, Israel is saying “enough is enough” to the old system of abusing power. The same abhorrence, abomination and repugnance caused by the abuse of power are felt by women and men throughout the Middle East. The common aspiration of young Middle Easterners, from Jerusalem, Cairo, Amman, Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, Kuwait, Tehran and Abu Dhabi is to create societies governed not by might but by merit; Societies where women will count and have a voice, where women will be heard and respected. Societies where women will be free to marry the person they choose, get an education, pursue a career, own property, and get divorced upon their will. Women are united in their will to belong only to themselves, to have the freedom to move, dress, work, divorce, study, marry and choose the life they want for themselves.

Women collectively say we are no-one’s property. And men and women assert we are no ruler’s, king’s, dictator’s property. We have basic human rights to freedom, to choice, to democracy. Young men and women in the Middle East are coming together united by shared values. One’s religion and ethnic affiliation are now secondary. Our shared values, honoring human rights and human dignity unite us.

Women and men of the Middle East condemn the rape of our bodies, the rape of our dignity and freedoms. We join hands in taking the violent perpetrators down and work towards co-creating the paradigm shift in the Middle East we love.