Review of Birds, Beasts and Babies seminar

Sally McLaren is a psychotherapist in private practice in Horsham. She has a particular interest in the work and ideas of Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Gustav Jung. She writes: ‘In 2012 I completed a two year Infant Observation Course with the Jungian Section of the British Psychotherapy Foundation. I observed a baby in his home each week from birth to two years in order to build up a picture of his developing inner world and relationships, and deepen my understanding of the human psyche. My experiences with baby Max have left me with a conviction that images and imagination play a central part in connecting us to the deeper levels of the psyche, that this connection is there from the beginning, long before words are available, and that this has implications for the consulting room and indeed for our own personal journeys.

Sally presented her report on observations of baby Max, focusing on events in his second year. Max was too young to speak, but growled and communicated through sounds and gestures, his house and books were full of images of the animals that he loved. The seminar was advertised with the Carlo Crivelli painting from 1480 of the Madonna with the Goldfinch, in which the infant Christ is pictured clasping a goldfinch as he sits on his mother's lap. The painting also shows a stylised landscape with strange three-part trees, turbaned people, and large images of a fly, an apple and a cucumber. Sally explained the significance of these objects, that they were part of a visual language understood at the time, but obscure to 21st century observers. The apples and fly are symbols of sin and evil and are opposed to the cucumber and the goldfinch, symbols of redemption.

Birds and a fly featured in anecdotes about Max, describing how he wished to touch a fallen bird, but obeyed his mother's instructions to hold back. Birds also featured in Sally's real experience and in dreams, leading her to speculate on their significance in her own life and in her training.

After two years as a regular silent presence in Max's life, Sally had to end her observations. Her account of her last visit impressed me that Max's behaviour that day included him disappearing behind bushes then reappearing, which he did four times. It seemed to me that Max sensed that he was facing a loss.

The talk was illustrated with drawings and paintings, by Sally and by Carl Jung - especially the series of paintings that Jung produced daily over a period of three years in an effort to connect with his own unconconscious, that are bound into the famous Red Book.

We spent the second part of the morning, like Jung, using drawing to reconnect with our own preverbal unconscious selves. It isn't easy to switch off my logical conscious self and let the unconscious take over, but we were each able to make a drawing and reflect on it without trying to interpret it. Some made drawings of experiences from childhood, others about what was happening with them today. I think we all appreciated the opportunity to connect with those other parts of ourselves as we gazed at our drawings.

Parts of Sally's observations included looking at stories that deal with the "wild things" within us, the Gruffalo, and Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" evoked visual versions of strong feelings, so Sendak's book was an apt leaving present that she gave to Max and his family.

 Helen Armstrong

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