Helping Things Fall Apart, The Paradox of Play – An Interview with Dennis McCarthy (Part 1)

Dennis McCarthy is a licensed mental health counselor in New York state, USA, and is the director of Metamorfos Institute. He is a psychotherapist working with both children and adults and specializing in sandplay and dream work. Initially trained as a dancer, he weaves the body’s innate urge to move into all of his work.

In Part 1 of this three-part interview, Dennis talks about how he developed the approach he calls Dynamic Play Therapy – the subject of his third JKP book, A Manual of Dynamic Play Therapy: Helping Things Fall Apart, the Paradox of Play.


Can you tell us about your work and the path that led you to the field of play therapy?

My involvement with play therapy and the development of the approach I use began when I was 22, although its roots are surely in my own childhood with its surfeit of both pain and play. In 1972 I was newly married, working as a gardener in a magical flower garden on top of a mountain and dancing in a small modern dance group. It was in many ways a blissful time. I felt blessed. But I also sensed some deep dis-ease despite what seemed like a perfect life. It felt like the calm before the storm.

Then I saw a film by dance therapist Janet Adler called “Looking for Me” about her seminal work with autistic children. Janet mirrored the movements of the children she worked with, speaking their non-verbal language, and they quickly became relational to her as a result. In the film, one saw the child emerge via the mirrored connection. It was so simple and so profound. I identified with the autistic children in the film, locked up within themselves, in need of finding a way out and someone to help them do so. I was waiting for that someone to come along and find me. I also identified with Janet as the guide. But I was more conscious of the child part of me back then. I became interested in looking for my self, seeking a thread of self-connection that had been broken long ago in my own childhood. Being in love, dancing, and working in a flower garden were all fertile ground to begin this journey of self- discovery. But it was also to be a descent into hell.

I re-entered college as a Dance Therapy major and after several years emerged with a dual Master’s degree in Professional Psychology and Dance/Movement Therapy. While in Graduate School I did field work in several clinical settings with children. I had no idea really what I was working towards, other than the ongoing struggle to find myself. I used Janet’s mirroring technique with profoundly intellectually disabled children, severely autistic children and with children with a wide variety of emotional problems, and with great success. Moving in sync with a child is basically playing without words and without objects. The medium of play was the body and the repetitive movement patterns the children I worked with were stuck in were the language of this playing. This was play at its most fundamental level. It is the type of play a mother and baby engage in, and therein lay its power. These children were my teachers. In graduate school what I learned most from my professors was that the people I worked with were my teachers. This remains true after thirty-six years of practicing psychotherapy.

The best training I received over the years other than this came from being in my own treatment, first with a Dance Therapist using Authentic Movement, then with two Bioenergetic Analysts, one of whom was Dr. Alexander Lowen the creator of this form of therapy, and lastly with a Jungian analyst. This spanned decades and was often extremely disturbing as it necessitated unearthing early traumas and a huge well of grief and suppressed fury. My work blossomed as I fell apart.

I have always worked largely in private practice, developing my own approach to play therapy with an absolute freedom from constraints. Early on I added many materials besides movement to my work. In the offices I used I brought drawing and paint supplies, clay, blocks, puppets and a sandbox. Beginning to work as a play therapist in 1976 there was little in the way of real training in the field other than a few books. I had very little guidance other than my own treatment and the luxury of working with children without having to pathologize them or justify my work with them, with no one to account to but them, their parents and my own sense of integrity. I had no template to use other than a profound belief in the power of movement and play as both the language and medium of change.

Even my use of sandplay was done without the knowledge of such a discipline, as it was in fact just being formalized as such by Dora Kalff. So I used a larger and deeper sandbox, without knowing that I shouldn’t, and this “mistake” has become the centerpiece of my work with children. The deeper box, with its capacity for burying and sinking and erupting, fit the overall view I have developed which I call Dynamic Play Therapy. My approach is interactive and encourages and even provokes what I see as contained wildness in the service of healthy ego development and a natural sense of self-regulation. The work and my thinking about it still continue to evolve. Even as I write these words new ideas are surfacing based on sessions this week with several children. I understand things better and this is reflected in the connections formed with various children and adults with whom I work. I trust the power of the imagination in the context of the engaged relationship.

My interest has been to understand how children experience their lives and best speak about them, knowing that their language is fundamentally different than ours as adults. They speak in images just as we dream in images. So I spend my days offering them materials and a safe space in which to speak thus.

Early on I began using monsters as a technique and a portal to invite the child into the shared space. This arose from my awareness that the feelings and impulses that were suppressed in me had felt like monsters that might rip me to shreds if I didn’t keep them buried. The energy to do so was exhausting, and these monsters simply emerged as symptoms. I came to see that these monsters were in fact my own thwarted vitality intertwined with painful memories and feelings. Embedded in these was the very life force needed to resolve my psychic pain.

The ease with which children encountered the monsters and accessed what they represented – instinct, emotions, deity – affirmed the value of working with this. My first book, If You Turned into a Monster… explores the use of monsters in depth as they evolved in my approach. My own longings to change and become more whole as well as my resistance to this have been the motivating force behind my work these many years. The choreographer Bill T. Jones says: “use yourself in your work”, and this applies as much to the art of psychotherapy as it does to any other creative endeavor. I think when we do something out of personal necessity, as I have always done in my work, some really great things can happen, both to us and to those we attempt to help.

Part 2: Dynamic Play Therapy, Harnessing the power of collapse and renewal »

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

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