Couch and Stage

Integrating words and action in psychotherapy.

I Am Not Your Mother

Drama Therapy in Korea

My friend, the generalized other, is female. In fact, most of my friends, old and new, are. I bumped into her one brisk January day on Bleecker Street, just after returning from a gig in Korea.

'Hey,' she called, 'How was your trip?'

'Fantastic,' I replied.

'North or South?'

'You know I can’t go North, as hard as I tried. They tested another missile last week.'

'Did you at least visit the DMZ? Dance Gangnam style? Eat bibimbap with silver chopsticks?'

'All of that. Mostly it was the usual—drama therapy groups, teaching, lecturing.'

'Lots of women guiding you through their culture?'

'Yeah.'

'What is it with you and all those women?'

I cut her off as she was about to get too personal. But she went there anyway.

'You never told me much about your mother.'

'She’s long gone. But, you know, I never traveled with her, never once beyond the ordinary. She always blamed it on my Dad, telling me he refused to venture far from home because of the war.'

'And your Mom?'

'Completely attached to her family, most all women. They had the power. As a boy, I followed her lead, enclosed by the women who fed me and kept me warm in the winters, but remained apart. I remember being in a car with a bunch of them when I was little and seeing a sign for The Salvation Army. I asked them what it meant and my mother said: ‘It’s a place we’ll send you if you are not a good boy.’ They were not prone to jokes or to irony, but they all laughed. I was stunned. In all my years with them, I never again heard them laugh so hard.'

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Her iPhone buzzed. 'Gotta go,' she said, and left me to reflect on my trip in a new way. Here goes.

In South Korea, I was delighted by the vibrancy of drama therapy and of the drama therapists, most all of whom are women. At Dongduk University, I was hosted by Dean and Professor, Jujin Hong. At the Korean National Assembly, I was hosted by Assembly-woman Dr. Jeong-Lim Moon and businesswoman, Hyeonjung Seo, founder of the World Arts Therapy Association. The one exception was my host at at Seogang University, Dong-il Lee, a male theatre professor who initiated a program to examine the dynamics of bullying within Korean society. As part of the workshop, several young men, all of whom encountered trouble in the school and legal system, appeared with their parents to engage in a hero’s journey experience, searching for an optimal destination of awareness and change. I wondered where the women bullies were.

On most of my gigs as peripatetic drama therapist, I work with people through the hero’s journey. Within that frame, I bring the group into their bodies and imaginations, creating images of four figures—Hero, Destination, Obstacle and Guide. Group members discover the figures through their movement, drawings, and stories. I work with several to dramatize their stories, wherein they are challenged to discover personal integrations and serve as mirrors to others in the group as they relate the meaning of the drama to their own lives.

Although I have no hard evidence, I am becoming aware of some cultural differences in working through this model. The one role that often challenges Americans and Europeans is that of the Guide. This transitional figure is a helper and integrator, one who is summoned by heroes when they get struck in the morass of the obstacle. Echoing the individualistic ethos of America, I have often heard people speak about their ambivalence toward guide figures, wishing instead to overcome obstacles on their own. Or, fearing the assertion of authoritarian power, I have also heard people who have lived through oppressive systems express doubts of beneficence from potential guides.

On my final workshop in Korea, with a group consisting primarily of professional women in their 40s, I noticed an issue concerning the Destination. As in many new groups, the initial stories imagined, visualized and dramatized are fairy tale-like, often with happy endings. In working with a woman whom I will call Su-mi, such a story had a happy ending that came with very little struggle. Su-mi named her destination Water and cast a woman in the group in that role.

I asked her: ‘Did you take away anything new from the dramatization?’

She replied: ‘No.’

I asked her to look carefully at the water woman and consider if there was something she would like to change. The water woman was standing in front of a white board, a marker in her hand. Without much thought, Su-mi approached her and took the marker from her hand, writing on the white board: ‘I am not your mother.’

I was baffled by this and asked: ‘Are those words the new destination?’

‘Yes,’ she said.

‘Do you know what they mean?’

‘No,’ she replied.

The room became silent, pregnant. As I looked around, I saw that the water woman was crying, as was Su-mi. Looking further, I noticed that all 24 people in the circle were crying.

True to my structure, I helped individuals de-role and then reflect upon the experience. Some spoke of their difficulties as daughters or mothers or wives, even as procreators. It became clearer that the new destination was the not-good-enough mother, the one who inhabited the shell of the role but not necessarily its substance. It was a destination that was hard to acknowledge because it was a place of unfinished business, of pain, of ‘not.’

As we were ending, I asked the group: 'What is on the other side of the destination, I am not your mother?'

One woman replied: ‘I love you.’ Everyone else nodded in approval, that is, except for one young man, the only man in the group.

The young man later shared with me his reflections upon our closing experience, reminding me that we all stood together in a circle and collectively created two sounds, ah and oh. In his words:

Prof. Landy commented on my feed that I should speak from my heart. He asked me if I was able to connect myself to the play personally. Answer was no. For me it came as a mother and daughter relationship and the theme seemed to be irrelevant to me. However when we held each other's hand in the circle and created sound sphere something happened to me. When we made sound with 'ah' with context of ‘I'm not your mother,’ strange voice came into my head with an image. It was an image my father pushing me when I was young with sound of his voice. While holding other's hands, this unclear voice of my father struck me very deeply. When we changed the sound to 'oh,' I couldn't come up with any sound that corresponded to that message of ‘I love you’ with voice of my father. I felt very sad and couldn't stop crying…On my way back home I was extremely tired but felt very good. Next day on my way to a meeting with my friends, I started crying on subway. Tears kept running down on my face. It felt very good to focus my self into my own voice, which I made at the workshop in front of the hero.

In the closing circle, we made two sounds corresponding to the two images of mother who can say: ‘I am not your mother,’ and ‘I love you.’ We all agreed that the latter was the optimal text for the not not mother, the one who is good enough to hold and to be held, even to transform into father and to the ubiquitous tears of loss and love.

It took a young man to guide me back to my childhood among women who could not guide me into the world nor assuage my fear of an army that saved souls. And it took a young man to remind me that fathers and sons exist on a common plane with mothers and daughters, that role relationship is, at some level, ungendered and unhinged, all sides searching for guidance toward a common destination that is home and not home.

 

Robert J. Landy, Ph.D., is a Professor of Educational Theatre and Applied Psychology and Director of the Drama Therapy Program at New York University.

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