- 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 www.psychotherapynet.com 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.