Greed, grief, a gift : war-traumatized women and contextualizing expressive arts therapy

  • Sjoukje Marloes VAN HOUTEN

Student thesis: PhD Thesis (Lingnan)


This dissertation explores the universality of trauma-storing in the body and the need for contextualization when it comes to treatment. Of the two central themes addressed, the first is war-related trauma and the intersection of expressive arts therapy and South (East) Asia (Nepal and Hong Kong in particular) with its specific imagery, art, and culture, and to see how both feed into each another and can transform as a result. The question is how to locally sensitize expressive arts therapy, which has its roots in Europe and the United States, to the Hong Kong setting; more specifically, to working with Nepali women who try to make Hong Kong their new home. The dissertation suggests a holistic, locally, and culturally sensitive approach to expressive arts therapy. This means adjusting the expressive arts framework and practices to the local and cultural setting, as well as looking at the resources (myths, dance forms, breathing practices, rituals, etc.) present in the local culture and including them in the anthropological approach to trauma transformation.

The second theme addressed is the importance of critically reflecting on power within therapeutic relationships, especially in trauma treatment, and recognizing the ontological underpinnings underlying therapy as well as our ‘human self-concept’, which leads to the acknowledgement of only a certain type of human experience, that of conscious, self-aware subjects in control of their acts. The latter leaves little room for understanding traumatic experiences, in which trauma victims seem to be unable to remember or shape the traumatic event. In Walter Benjamin’s dissertation, any kind of representation of our personal and collective identities is seen as a curation. When approaching history as a ‘collection’ of memories, it creates room for traumatic experiences to exist. Benjamin’s dissertation is applied to understanding trauma in such a way where it is precisely the discontinuity, the disparities, the ruptures of history and memory that make trauma visible; these are the gifts handed to the next generation. It is the piecing together of fragments and uncertainties that transforms trauma into a space of insight, creating meaning from what is known and unknown, bridging the stories and images of history present in our implicit and explicit memory.

In the critical reflection on traumatology, a Foucauldian approach is taken regarding the therapist-client relationship. Foucault speaks of a top-down apparatus with policies that act under the guise of ‘protect and serve’, and language that frames the clients as a helpless victim in need of ‘betterment’ by the therapist. The only way for therapists to tackle the problem of trauma and psychotherapy, and to admit its social/cultural construction and the role of power, is to read themselves into the problem, to go beyond one-way mirroring, to analyze their pathology, and attempt to change patterns of communication that reproduce the psy-complex apparatus. In this thesis the latter is done by including the creative and analytic reflections of expressive arts therapists and of the author herself.
Date of Award2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Department of Cultural Studies
SupervisorKin Chi LAU (Supervisor) & Yun Chung CHEN (Supervisor)

Cite this