David Gussak Ph.D., ATR-BC

Art on Trial

Who Am I? A Fragmented Professional Identity

The constantly shifting identity of the art therapist in forensics

Posted Sep 03, 2015

"We are fragmented into so many different aspects. We don't know who we really are, or what aspects of ourselves we should identify with or believe in." — Sogyal Rinpoche

"When they say "Be yourself," which self do they mean?" — Rob Brezsny

"It's no use now to pretend to be two people.  Why, there's hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person!" — Lewis Carroll

Since Art on Trial was published, an examination of my various professional roles, particularly along the forensic continua — from prison to courts, as professor for an art therapy program, and as chair of the art education department at Florida State University, have led me to reflect on my identity as an art therapist over the past 24 years. This came sharply into focus this past July at the American Art Therapy Association national conference when I presented “Bridging Art Therapy and Forensic Communities: Peering Through a Fragmented Lens.”  In this venue I ruminated upon the various roles I took on, often discovering that I was smack dab in the middle of tangential, sometimes anti-therapeutic circumstances, engaging in negotiation, education and compromise that ran counter to my role as a therapist. I often found myself in situations not expected nor even desired.

Many attended this presentation because they related to the frustration and doubt they often felt when forced to compromise their identities within the hierarchical structures in which they found themselves.

Source: Gussak

Working in prisons, my identity and role expectations were constantly defined and redefined by factors like: the institution, the law, the environment, the officers, and even the inmates.

To provide therapy, I constantly negotiated, sometimes compromising what I could or could not be. This is not unusual. “Negotiation enters into how work is defined, as well as how to do it, how much of it to do, who is to do it, how to evaluate it, how and when to reassess it, and so on . . .” (Strauss, Fagerhaugh, Suczek, & Wiener, 1985, p.267.)

Agreements are made daily (Strauss, 1975), even if only to address a single task. What complicates providing therapy in prison is that it occurs within a social order that depends on hierarchical structures and manipulation (Argue, Bennett & Gussak, 2009; Hughes, 1959/1994). We do so through communicating in a manner that the institution can accept, understanding at times that when we compromise, we have to be careful that both sides believes we are siding with them.

Such identity confusion occurs all along the forensic continua.

When I provided expert witness testimony for the death row murder trial (see the first post in Art on Trial in this blog here) the defendant was not my client, and I was not testifying on art he had done in therapy. I believed I compromised my identity as an art therapist.

However, when I gave voice to this in a panel last year, my friend and colleague, Randy Vick, ATR-BC, HLM, a professor at the Chicago Art Institute of Chicago and art therapist extraordinaire — and one of the 12 people who read the book — told me that, “perhaps you may not have been doing art therapy, but you relied on your knowledge and practice as an art therapist in order to provide an informed conclusion.”

In this case, while my role may have changed, the outcome was still successful.

Of course, sometimes, negotiations fail, and power wins. Identity becomes so fragmented, as territoriality and ignorance reigns supreme. In the post  “Therapy in prison: Where legal, ethics and morals collide,” a situation was presented where my own morality and professional ethics were challenged due to a fictionally perceived security violation by the correctional staff. I, ultimately, destroyed a piece of art constructed by an inmate in the name of security and safety. My identity was compromised as I gave in to the power structure.

However, there was one other situation I can relay in which my entire perceived identity as an art therapist seemed to change in the blink of an eye.

Over the years, as I present in various venues, I am often asked if I had ever been involved in violent altercations — a question I would expect when one is presenting about offering services in a volatile environment. While there are certain times in which I had been directly attacked, one horrible situation stays with me.

I was running an open activities group in a long, enclosed hallway with gates on either end. One small, unkempt inmate, who had not been evaluated, and who I actually did not want to come out, paced the hall incessantly, muttering to himself. All correctional personnel were down at the far end; I was keeping a small group of inmates occupied, with only one additional staff person.

The pacing inmate snuck up behind the staff person, grabbed her face, and violently began shaking her head. I looked up to see his fingers digging into her eyes, with no one responding. I was lucky — a colleague from another unit was walking by at that moment. I jumped in to intervene, as did my colleague and one other inmate. We managed to wrest him away from her, and I secured him against the floor. Sadly, while we kept him from breaking her neck, we did not prevent him from blinding her. In retrospect, the whole incident probably did not last more than 15 seconds. Of course, it felt much longer.

Why do I bring this up here? The situation was horrific, with a very real victim. It was frightening, and forced all of us to reconsider what we were doing and how we were doing it. 

In addition, for the sake of this post, it is important for me to admit that along with my fear, I believed it also challenged my own role and how I was perceived by others, and by myself.

I was no longer seen as the caring, nurturing, neutral therapist, but rather someone who had to physically subdue a violent inmate. This changed the dynamics considerably; power shifted, different teams were chosen, and the inmates, in particular, no longer saw me in my professional role but rather a role of power and hierarchy, characteristics that do not aid in the work of the therapist. I could feel the change the very next time I tried running an art therapy group.

However, this was eventually overcome. Through art therapy directives, challenges were given and the notion of identity — perceived and otherwise — was closely examined. What could have been a huge setback became the instrument of examination through the art by the inmates themselves.

I bring up these examples to demonstrate how along the forensic continua, where anything can happen, the identity as an art therapist remains fluid, at times altered and even broken, as a result of many interactions, negotiations and struggles. What I thought I was supposed to be was not often what I was.

And, given the responses at the conference presentation, I am not alone.

In a time when legislative parameters are being set, job descriptions are being contrived and structural boundaries are erected in order for our profession to be clearly defined, even pigeon-holed, we remain insecure about who we are and what we do. This is perpetuated within our own field, from each other and through external perceptions.

But what if we as art therapists turned this around and recognize that it is our very creativity that allows us to be the chameleon that we sometimes need to be? 

Although we take on many roles, and how we are perceived often shifts, perhaps what ties all of our identities together is how we can creatively address each of these responsibilities and allow the art to do the work for us. While our identities may shift, our tools do not.

Our very creativity may in fact aid us in our fairly diverse negotiations, relying on the art to be the boundary objects between us and others that aid communication within the various interactions, while maintaining the integrity of what it is we offer. 


Argue, J., Bennett, J., & Gussak, D. (2009). Transformation through negotiation: Initiating the Inmate Mural Arts Program, Arts in Psychotherapy, 36, 313-319.

Hughes, E.C. (1959/1994). On work, race, and the sociological imagination. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Strauss, A. (1975). Professions, work and careers. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.

Strauss, A.L., Fagerhaugh, S., Suczek, B., & Wiener, C. (1985) Social organization of medical work. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.