THIRTEEN “Stories to Teach about My Mom” Julie’s Story

Four-year-old Julie taught me a tremendous amount about how children use symbolism. She also taught me that a therapist does not necessarily need to interpret symbols for a child. The work the child does through play is powerful enough. Julie knew better than I did what her stories were about and how important they were to her healing.

Julie’s history is best told in her own words, which she explained as she drew during our first session:

I’m drawing my mom. My mom died. She was so sick and she loved me and my sister so much that she wanted us to go with her. Mom said, “Roll over and we’ll play a game.” She shot me and she shot my sister and I peeked and saw my mom shoot herself. I felt really sad. Now I’m going to draw my sister. My mom and my sister turned into ashes and now they are in heaven. . . . My mom and sister got shot by a gun and died and I got shot but I didn’t die. I don’t understand why Jesus did that. And my sister was only 1. It’s very sad. I’m drawing my bed (Figure 13.1) and that’s me and that’s my mom. I’m not going to draw the gun because I don’t know what it looks like. That’s my sister and she got shot.

At the end of this first session, when I told Julie it was time to go, she came to where I was sitting, put her arm and head on my shoulder, and began to cry. I pulled her onto my lap as she began sobbing and clung to me.

Four-year-old Julie's picture of the day she and her sister got shot

Figure 13.1. Four-year-old Julie's picture of the day she and her sister got shot

I promised her she would return the following week, and showed her her name in my appointment book.

Julie was shot 7 months before I saw her for the first time in therapy. She showed me the scars, front and back, from where the bullet had gone through her small body, somehow missing all vital organs. Her traumatic memory of the murder/suicide, including her own attempted murder by her mother, suggested intrapsychic issues that can hardly be fathomed. I began working with Julie within a framework of goals related to her primary attachment figure and traumatic memory. Not only was Julie able to tell me what happened, she was also able to articulate her feelings as she struggled with existential questions of such magnitude that I often found myself dumbfounded as to how to respond. At the end of our fifth session, after she played most of the hour, I asked Julie if there was anything else she wanted to talk about.

Why did God do that? Why did my mom shoot me? Why did my mom shoot my sister in the heart so that she died? Why did my mom shoot herself in the heart so that she died? Why did she shoot me so I didn’t die? It doesn’t help me to talk about it. I don’t understand why God did that. I will see my mom some day when I die.

Julie struggled with these questions, and sometimes she also answered them. Several weeks later, as the session neared its end, I asked if there was anything else she wanted to talk to me about.

Why did my mom shoot me? This is why I think: My mom was sick in the head and she wanted to go see Jesus but she loved us so much that she wanted us to come with her. Do you think that’s it?

Julie was in foster care, and several relatives were fighting for her custody. She formed a therapeutic attachment with me quickly, which seemed to tie in with her need for nurturance. Julie always chose to use the sandtray, a technique of play therapy based upon Jungian theory. The sandtray consists of a multitude of small figurines that the client manipulates to create a story. Julie’s stories were complex for her age and sustained her complete interest for the entire 50-minute session. In the beginning, her stories seemed to relate to the lack of stability and uncertainty of her living situation. She presented stories of children being stolen by “bad guys” and locked in dungeons. Children were threatened and left to die, and even Batman could not save them. In one story the bad guy put the girl on “the cross that Jesus died on and poured poison on her head and told her she will die.” Initially, none of Julie’s stories had happy endings. They either ended negatively or remained unresolved, reflective of her own unresolved life and feelings of hopelessness.

Another repeated theme related to her feelings of guilt was that her sister, and not she, had died. In one story, she chose two baby dolls, the smaller one being “my sister, because she was only 1.” She put the smallest baby onto a bridge, and the baby began crying because a dragon was coming to get her. The older sister kicked the dragon and carried the baby away and put her in a bed, covering the bed with the bridge, which she said was to protect her.

In many of Julie’s stories, she chose three “pretty girls,” who she said were sisters, as the main characters. Monsters and witches tried to steal the sisters and kill them, but the sisters always won in the end. Usually one sister was the strongest and saved them all. The sisters found a baby orphan and took her home and took care of her. The sisters saved baby animals. As a team, the sisters appeared invincible. The sisters seemed to represent the split-off parts of herself. She was working through feelings about her own mother (represented by witches or monsters in the story) who tried to kill the sisters. One sister saved them, which was the strong part of herself. She expressed guilt about her real sister dying: The repetition of finding a baby orphan and saving her was a means of reworking her helplessness over her sister’s actual death. Still, Julie ended each session by asking questions about why her mom shot her. She had a precociousness and maturity about her that made her seem far wiser than her 4 years.

The play therapy themes were similar each week, suggesting her need for repetition of the traumatic memory. Her ability to rework the trauma and put herself in the powerful position suggested her need for control and her tremendous strengths.

As part of my treatment of Julie, because I would be writing recommendations to the court, I interviewed all of the parties who were vying for her custody. Although he lived in another state and despite the fact that they did not have a relationship prior to the trauma, the biological father was the strongest candidate for Julie’s ultimate safety and security. After I saw Julie in 10 individual therapy sessions, the court awarded custody to her biological father. The court order required that Julie could not be moved for 30 days, allowing a minimal amount of time for bonding to occur between Julie and father, and termination of our therapy. Sessions were increased to twice a week to accomplish these new goals.

Immediately, I had to change the goals of therapy from intrapsychic to interpersonal to meet the more immediate needs of this child. Julie was entering into a new family system, and issues of attachment with her father would need to become paramount if this change was going to be successful. I began including the father in the sessions immediately, hoping to help Julie’s bonding process with him before they moved. In addition, our termination, and all of the implications surrounding separation, had to be addressed.

Julie’s first session with her father reaffirmed my belief that he had an ability to parent appropriately. He was affectionate with Julie, and although quite nervous about his new commitment, he appeared earnest and caring, although young and inexperienced. If possible in this first session, I needed to get Julie to transfer to her father some of the roles she assigned to me in the play therapy. This proved to be easier than anticipated. As usual, Julie went immediately to the sandtray.

Julie: Dad, I want you to play with me.

Julie: I want you to play with me.

Therapist: You know, you might have to teach your daddy how to play the way you and I play. ‘Cause he’s never done it before. So you can teach him?

Dad: Yeah, I’m kinda new at this.

Julie: We just play however we want.

Therapist: Right. Usually what happens is Julie will tell you exactly what you have to do, right? You’ll tell him who he has to be and what he’s supposed to say. And she’s very good at that.

Dad: I believe that.

Therapist: So, you want your daddy to play with you today?

Julie: Yeah.

Therapist: Okay. He’ll be me. Instead of me playing, he’ll play?

Julie: Yeah. But, but, but . . . (sounding distressed) but you guys can

both play.

Therapist: We could both play. Sure. We could both play.

Julie: I want both of you to play.

Therapist: Okay. You just tell us what to do.

Thus began the first session with her father. I explained to the father that he could not add anything of his own to the plot but should wait until Julie made all decisions about the story. She truly was good at this and would tell us both exactly what our characters were supposed to say and do so that the entire story was of her own design and all characters were her own projections.

This story involved the three sisters. A mom alligator who was mean had a baby alligator who was nice. The mom alligator chased the sisters and tried to bite them. However, a new plot twist came into play in this story. The sisters called for Prince Eric (a new fantasy male figure, played by her father) to save them. This introduction of an age-appropriate oedipal relationship and rescue scene was seen as a positive first step. Later in that story, a bad shark began to bite one of the sisters. Again, Prince Eric was the savior.

Julie: I’m pretending that the shark followed her, all right?

Dad: So what does he do when he gets there?

Julie: He bites her.

Dad: He bites her? . . . Where does he bite her?

Julie: Right here.

Dad: Right here? (biting sound)

Julie: AAAAh!

Dad: Bite bite bite bite. Chomp chomp chomp.

Julie: Owww! I’m going to tell Prince Eric. Prince Eric? . . . That shark was

biting me right on the hand.

Dad: He was biting you on the hand? . . . What do you want me to do?

Julie: You should leave him locked up in a cage.

Dad: You want me to leave him locked up in a cage? . . . Okay. . . . (He locks him up in the cage.)

At the end of the story, a bad guy set traps for all of the sisters and captured them in cages. Again Julie choreographed it so that Eric, played by her father, saved them.

Therapist: Okay, let’s end this story, then.

Julie: That was the end.

Therapist: That’s the end? He’s gonna go get a drink of water and the girls are still locked up?

Julie: No. Prince Eric frees them all. . . . And they go back to their

home. . . . And they live happily ever after.

Therapist: Well, gee that’s a good ending for the story today. . . .

Julie: Yeah, I picked it ‘cause I liked it. . . . Daddy, you’re supposed to

free them.

Dad: Okay, you’re free, you’re free, you’re free.

Julie: Thank you.

Dad: You’re welcome.

This plot twist was repeated several times in subsequent weeks. Julie’s relinquishment of some of her power to her father helped her to feel less responsible for protecting herself. If she could yield some of the control to her father and form an appropriate attachment to him, she would also be better prepared to do some of the intrapsychic work necessary for her healing.

Termination of our work was more difficult. Julie began having trouble cleaning up and ending our sessions.

Julie: I wish I had a little fox like this (holds up a sandtray figure).

Therapist: Really?

Julie: Yeah, but I don’t. . . . I wish I could have this one.

Therapist: Well, we want to keep that one here for the next time when you come, so you can play.

Julie: Do you have . . . could I have this to borrow?

Therapist: I don’t think so. I need to keep all the animals here.

Julie: Why?

Therapist: So that when kids come, they have the animals to play with.

Kids like you. You wouldn’t want to come here and not have an animal here that you wanted, would you?

Julie: Well, I would bring it back the other day.

Therapist: Well, let’s leave it here and you can play with it next time.

Julie: Why?

Therapist: Because we have to leave the animals here.

Dad: We can look around and maybe find some . . . maybe we can

make a sandtray of your own.

Therapist: That would be neat.

Dad: And we could collect all kinds of animals and stuff for it.

Julie: (tearfully) I don’t care about that.

Therapist: Julie, let’s clean up now.

Julie: I’m mad!

Therapist: You’re mad? What are you mad about?

Julie: Because I don’t have an animal like that fox. (stomps out of the


Therapist: Well, why don’t you come in here and we’ll clean up and while we clean up we’ll talk about it.

Dad: Julie, come on in, hon.

Julie: (tearfully) No! I don’t want to do this! And I don’t . . . and I want

a fox like that but I don’t have one. That’s what I’m angry about.

Therapist: I think you’re angry about a lot of things. Probably. Maybe we should talk about some of the things that you are angry about.

Julie: No!

Therapist: Well, let’s start cleaning up.

Julie: I’m too angry.

Therapist: You are too angry to clean up? . . . Well I guess your dad and I will just have to stay in here and keep playing and talking then.

Julie: (still in the other room) What did you say?

Therapist: Well, you’ll have to come in here if you want to hear what I’m saying. ‘Cause right now your dad and I are going to talk. And you can come in with us.

Julie’s father asked her again to come back in, and she stomped in. I told her I thought I understood why she wanted the little fox.

Julie: Oh really? Then why?

Therapist: I think maybe you wanted it because you want to take something that represents you and me. I think you’ve had a good time coming here and you want something to take with you.

Julie: Yeah. . . .

Therapist: And you know what? (Julie begins crying) What? You don’t want to talk about that?

Julie: No.

Therapist: I’m going to really miss you too.

Julie leaves the room again and then is persuaded to come back.

Julie: I don’t want to talk or anything. I’m just upset.

Therapist: I know you’re upset. You know, Julie, I’m a little upset too.

Julie: Why?

Therapist: Because I am going to miss you a lot.

Therapist: Because I’ve really had fun playing with you and I think you do really good stories that are important.

Julie: My stories are important.

Therapist: Do you want me to tell you what I think of your story today? . . . Come here. I want to tell you about it.

Julie: No. I can hear it from here. (standing in doorway)

Therapist: Oh, I wish you could be here with me.

Julie: How about I sit right here? (sits across the room)

Therapist: Let me show you what I think. . . . You know, you know who I think is you in this story today?

Julie: Who? (moves closer to sandtray)

Therapist: I think this is you. (holds up the strongest of the sisters)

Julie: Yep. (moves closer, standing next to the therapist and sandtray)

Therapist: Am I right? (Julie nods) . . . And you know what I think of that? . . . I think that this is a very strong girl. She was so strong in the story that she took care of everything, didn’t she?

Julie: (sounding better) Yes, she did.

Therapist: Everything that happened that was gonna be bad; she took care of it. Even Batman couldn’t take care of it.

Julie: (laughing) No way. Batman couldn’t take care of it at all.

Therapist: She . . . and she reminds me so much of you.

Julie: And I wish I had a fox.

Therapist: Yeah, I know you do.

Julie leaves the room again. When her father persuades her again to return, she cries that now her arms are too tired, and that is what she is upset about, and that is why she cannot clean up.

Therapist: Your arms are hurting. I know. We’ve done a lot of work today, haven’t we?

Julie: Yeah. And that’s why I don’t want to clean up.

Therapist: Yeah. You’ve done a lot of work. And you know what, Julie? I get

to see you in 2 days.

Therapist: You don’t care?

Julie: (tearfully) I just . . . I . . . I . . . All I wanna do . . . is not clean up

and my arms are still tired.

Finally, in our last session, Julie was able to verbalize what she was feeling about terminating. She had begun crying because she wanted to do one more thing, but we were out of time and we needed to clean up.

Julie: I just want to try out something.

Therapist: Well, it’s not going to work and right now it’s time to clean up.

Julie: I don’t care.

Therapist: I know. The endings are hard for you lately, aren’t they? . . .

Julie: That’s ‘cause I don’t want to make an ending.

Therapist: I know. I know the endings are hard and you don’t want it to end right now, right?

Julie: I don’t want it to end at all.

Julie’s incredible insight contributed to her healing. The following exchange was during our second-to-last session, another in which Julie created a story about sisters who saved baby animals from a wicked witch.

Therapist: Julie, your stories are so good and so important.

Julie: I know. They’re supposed to teach about my mom. . . . And they


At this point one has to ask, who is teaching whom?

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