August 27, 2018 Culpepper Blog: War, Loss, and a Self-Directed Life: An Archetypal Study

By Katherine Culpepper

In an earlier post on this site, “Projective Drawing and the PMAI: Helping Autistic Students Gain Greater Self-Knowledge”(January 23, 2018), I introduced a method of combining the House-Tree-Person drawing with the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicatoras a way to assess and develop the five social-emotional core competencies with students. Readers of this blog are encouraged to review that post for more detailed information about this method and its application to students with autism. Recently, Dr. Carol S. Pearson asked me if I would like to share additional experiences of my work with students over the past year, an opportunity that I eagerly welcome. The case study remains my preferred mode of presentation, though I would like readers to know that in what follows, I offer an abbreviated account of the conversation with the student, with attention given to the archetypal stories at work in the student’s life. Also, the case study offered here is from a student at a traditional high school, and not a student in the Autism Transitional Program.

The student is part of a social-emotional development pilot program that includes over 100 students from different countries and language groups. She came to the session with a relaxed and happy disposition. We began to discuss how her studies were going, and she informed me that she was not doing as well as she hoped, though she was encouraged that she had recently found a tutor to assist with some of her classes.

I explained that our time together would begin with her drawing a house, tree, and person in such a way that the picture tells a story. The completed work of art would then become the basis for an extended conversation about the drawing and what insights it offers into her life.

Upon completion, I asked her about the story told in the drawing, and she began by pointing to the person in the picture. “This is me when I lived in my country. My village is very big where I grew up. I was born while a war was going on. It became so bad that we moved away and built a new place in the same country, but away from the part where there was a war. We lived there for a while.

“I was younger then because at that time I lived in my country. I was very happy there until my mother died. I then lived with my grandmother in a house across a dirt road from my parents’ house. The tree that was in front of our home was my favorite tree. I climbed it all the time. I loved my grandmother and was very saddened that I would have to leave her in my country and come to America. It remains sad for me when I think about my mother and grandmother. I miss them both. I carry their memories in my heart.”

The student became sad and tears filled her eyes as she reminisced about her past life in her now far away country. We discussed the fact that she had suffered a lot of loss at such a young age and that this experience helped to make her a very kind and sensitive person.

She entitled her work of art “The War in My Country.”

I explained to the student that we could gain even deeper insight into herself if we discussed her work of art in light of her life as a journey, and that the PMAI would help her understand the three stages of her journey—preparation, transformation, and return. We discussed the archetypal stories that she scored highest on in these stages, along with the gifts and shadows that accompany these stories. The conversation continued only when the student demonstrated a genuine understanding of these archetypal stories with their gifts and shadows. This is one of the most important parts of the process, and I am consistently amazed at students’ ability to learn the new vocabulary and apply it to their own lives.

Under the Preparation stage, we reviewed the archetype of the Caregiver. In the course of this discussion, she pointed to the person in the picture that she drew and said, “I see myself as the Orphan. Perhaps I am a combination of the Orphan and the Caregiver. I miss my mother and grandmother and the home that I lived in with them. I miss my country.” She was attracted to the gift of “realism” [Orphan] and explained, “I know that I have to live here and try to be independent. I do this by only asking for help with my homework when I really need it.” She also identified with the empathy of the Caregiver. “I care about people, I look into other people’s eyes and see their pain. I talk to them and I listen to them.”

Under the Transformational stage we gave particular attention to the archetype of the Lover. Again, she directed attention to her drawing and said, “I can see that I am a Lover because I have a heart drawn on the shirt that I am wearing. I am living the story of a Lover because I try always to love my family. I love to take care of my two small nieces. They are always happy to see me. I go to their house after school and read to them every day. They enjoy me reading to them.”

Under the Return stage, we discussed the archetype of the Sage. She was unable to find any connection between this archetype and her work of art, and concluded generally that she did not identify with the story of the Sage.

In an effort to collect the fruits of our conversation, I asked if she would like to rename her work of art. Without hesitation, she answered, “The Little Orphan Girl.”

“I can now see that I am living the story of the Orphan, because of what happened when I moved to America. I think that I have gone through a lot, but I am living the gift of resilience because I continue to find joy in my life here. I am also living the story of a Lover. I do this by showing friends and family enthusiasm for doing simple things like helping take care of my nieces. I try to make my friends at school laugh by telling them funny stories. I see it in my picture because I have my heart drawn on my shirt. I show love to my family, my friends, and myself. I am also living the gift of the Caregiver because I have compassion in my heart for others when they are suffering.”

Our initial meeting took place in early Fall 2017, followed by efforts to meet with the student and her guardians as part of the development of a comprehensive support plan. Her guardians were unable to participate. She took the initiative, however, to join a small discussion group focused on the theme of adjustment to high school life and we met over the course of the next eight weeks. Though initially quiet, she gained confidence and became an active participant and leader in the group. This process enabled her to reflect further upon the archetypal themes discussed in the initial session and recognize more clearly that her path to maturity will require her to live and grow here in a new country.

Shortly after the beginning of the Spring semester, there was a marked change in her mood and personality, and her teachers reported that her academic performance was poor. In our meeting, she explained that the tutor upon whom she relied was no longer available on a regular basis. More importantly, however, she shared that her sister had moved out of the home. The latter triggered the feelings of the loss of her mother and grandmother.

One of the advantages of the projective drawing method is that the student can return to the concrete product of their own making as a basis for renewed insight into their journey. We recalled together the gifts and shadows of the Orphan, and I directed attention to her own desire to live a self-directed life despite the hardship of her losses, including the feeling of abandonment by her sister. These themes were complemented by reflection upon the gifts of the Caregiver and Lover, which she identifies as sources of joy in her life. The student had the ability to see that these archetypal themes are part of her own life story. This enabled her to recognize that she has the strength to respond to powerful feelings of loss in a creative way. This strength was manifest in her resolve to dedicate herself to attending summer school and rebounding from the lapses in her performance during the Spring semester.

In general, the projective drawing and the PMAI together proved to be a valuable tool both as a means to assess the core competencies of the student and to develop a support plan at school and at home. The work of the initial session offers a foundation upon which the student can build if given proper, ongoing guidance. The student learns to reflect upon his or her life in a systematic way, with a vocabulary that enables them to make sense of confusing feelings and moods, and a way to improve responsible decision-making through reflection upon the gifts and shadows of the archetypes. This method also gives the counselor a way to build a community of support for the student with parents, guardians, teachers, and other students as appropriate to the student’s particular needs.

Katherine Culpepper received her B.S. Ed. from the University of Memphis in 1987 and her M.S.W. in Marriage and Family Counseling from The Catholic University of America in 1990. She has worked as a school counselor with a wide range of students in the Providence School Department since 1995, including students in the Autism Transition Academy since 2014. Her interest in art therapy and archetypal analysis was developed further at the Assisi Institute. She and her husband, Gary, have two daughters, Marie and Anne. For more information, contact her at