A.H. Brafman explores the secret language of drawings

The Language of Drawings


This book is the result of a long gestation period.  Life had taught me that I was a good communicator, meaning that somehow people I met soon seemed to believe that I was interested in learning of their thoughts and experiences.  When I began to work with children in my clinical practice I discovered Winnicott’s use of squiggles in his therapeutic consultations and I was simply fascinated by the apparently magical bridge that this simple game made between the child’s unconscious and the analyst’s professional scrutiny.

It happens that I never thought I had any artistic gifts and this raised doubts about my ability to engage in the squiggles game.  The obvious decision followed in that, when I found that the child or adolescent patient was at a loss to express his thoughts and feelings in words, I asked them whether perhaps they might be willing to make a drawing.  It was only when they could not engage in making a picture by themselves that I suggested we might play a game together – squiggles. It gave me enormous pleasure to discover that, in spite of my lack of confidence, my patient seemed to accept my squiggles as valid and meaningful.  But, as time went on, I found more and more young patients who seemed happy to make drawings.  Most of them would move from one sheet to the next one, but some would turn the page over and draw on the other side. And, to my surprise, one day when I picked up the sheet of paper on which a youngster had drawn on both sides, I found an unexpected meaningful image resulting from seeing that piece of paper against the light.

One day, years later, I was seeing a young girl who found it very difficult to express herself in words and when I suggested she made some drawings, she went on to make some pictures on two sheets of paper.  These were very puzzling images. It must be a combination of curiosity and intuition that led me to put the sheets of paper on top of each other – and a remarkable image now emerged from seeing the drawings as the result of a single picture split into two separate drawings.  Of course this might be no more than a coincidence, but, nevertheless, it was the beginning of my search for possible further examples of this meaningful splitting of images.

lilac_squiggle_126-D20-AThis book describes further examples I found of this use of graphic images to convey unconscious feelings that the person was, presumably, unable to put into words.  Because they occurred in the context of a clinical consultation, I had knowledge of that individual’s relevant present and past circumstances and this enabled me – and the patient! – to recognize the content of the underlying message.

Even though I lack the expertise of a researcher, I attempted a couple of visits to Art Colleges to check whether this splitting of an underlying “message” would occur outside a consulting room setting.  I told the students who I was and what work I did and then asked them to make a drawing of whatever subject they wanted; the only stipulation I made was that they should display their story in at least two pages.  When they handed me over their drawings, they told me what they had done, but I made no comments on their accounts.  Statistically, the occurrence of split images was not significant, but I did find some cases where this seemed to have happened.  These cases are described in the book.

I believe this book will interest all professionals who work with children and adolescents.  We find many people who do not manage to put into words the sentiments they would like us to take into account and it is useful to know that drawing their experiences might give them a tool to express their thoughts and feelings.  As it happens, I also believe that those in the arts world will be interested in this book.  Even leaving out the psychodynamic significance of my findings, these are fascinating stories in themselves.

On a pragmatic level, it is worth noticing that some of the cases described in the book could be described as “Therapeutic Consultations”, i.e., diagnostic interviews that were therapeutically effective, dispensing with the need to embark on further therapy.  Considering the general belief that psychotherapy is, most times, a long-term treatment enterprise, discovering how many times a patient finds improvement, if not solution, to his problems in a diagnostic interview should make us consider the aim of psychodynamic interventions.  We might express this point as the option between helping the patient to understand his self or to understand his unconscious experience of a life situation and, thereby overcome his difficulties.  This is a much wider issue, but the present theoretical positions in the psychodynamic world do display this conflict between valuing “the process” of therapy and the opposite aim of enabling the patient to find a solution to his immediate problems.  Indeed, ideally, both extremes should be considered when assessing a patient’s needs and abilities, so as to ensure that the patient obtains the most effective help he needs.  In practice, however, professionals tend to adhere to the training parameters of their training and this does not allow for much flexibility in their clinical work.

A.H. Brafman is the author of The Language of Drawings: A New Finding in Psychodynamic Work (Karnac Books, 2012); Fostering Independence: Helping and Caring in Psychodynamic Therapies (2010); The 5 to 10 Year-Old Child (2010), Can You Help Me?: A Guide for Parents (2004); and Untying the Knot: Working with Children and Parents (2001).


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