The Fern Monster
HE FERN MONSTER:
By Margaret M. Bowater, MA, TSTA
Abstract: This is the story of a single session of dreamwork I did with Donald, a 13-year-old boy, using Transactional Analysis and some Jungian theory, with action methods. Donald presented a dream which had frightened him; worked with me for an hour to make sense of it; left with insight into an inner conflict; and changed his behaviour accordingly.
Eric Berne urged his followers to aim for a cure in one session of psychotherapy. I have found that this is sometimes possible by working with a disturbing dream, because the dream has already done the work of selecting a key issue and designing a metaphor to fit it. If the dreamer can understand the metaphor and “hear the message” from his or her own Inner Core of Self, attitudes and behaviour may begin to change immediately. I often see this happen in dream workshops. Here is a particularly clear example from my therapy practice.
Carol phoned me a few months after attending one of my dream workshops, to ask if I could provide a session to help her 13-year-old son, whom I shall call Donald, to deal with a bad dream which had upset him. I accepted, and suggested she come with him for support. She also brought her younger son of 11, who was keen to watch. He looked quiet and serious, and Donald seemed at ease with him, so I accepted, and he sat beside his mother. They both listened intently, saying nothing unless I turned to them. They were a professional family, obviously with close relationships. There were only the two brothers. I have often found in dream work that close peers of the dreamer are able to contribute useful contextual associations, and so it proved in this case.
Donald was a bright-eyed boy, looking more like 12 than 13, confident in bearing, open and responsive. He was carrying a sheet of paper headed “My Bad Dream,” from which I deduced that he didn’t often have nightmares. We contracted to seek understanding of the dream.
I asked him first to read me the story of his dream. I listened, noticing his anxiety as he read it, and checking my own feelings for congruence as I heard it. If I were the dreamer would I feel as he felt? Sometimes a dreamer’s feelings are out of “fit” with the story, eg too scared, or not scared enough about danger, which alerts me to possible self-defeating decisions. In this case, I wondered why he was so scared of this monster, which did not seem to be threatening him directly. It was quite a long story-dream, so I will quote just the first part, containing the essentials, and summarise the rest.
Dream report: Fern Monster
I’m showing my friend Patrick around my grandmother’s house. There’s a washing-machine in the laundry, and it’s shaking because there’s a monster inside it. It’s making a sort of nest with fern leaves. You can smell them. I feel scared, and I warn Patrick not to go near it. Then we’re all sitting in the dining-room next door, discussing how to deal with the monster. You can hear it howling, as it circles the house in the dark, chanting “Me got ferns! Me got ferns!” Dad can’t hear it at all. My Grandpa is there, although he died three years ago. I want to kill the monster.
In the dream story Donald and his friend set a trap like a bear-pit, which the monster falls into and is killed. But it resurrects in a child-like form, and resists further attempts by the boys to kill it, at which point Donald woke up scared.
When I work with a dream, I begin with a systematic process to bring out the main associations before offering my own thoughts. This process is fully explained in my book (Bowater, 1997). I perceive the dream in essence as a communication from the dreamer’s inner Self to his Ego, in Jungian terms; or, in Transactional Analysis terms, from the Inner Core (James and James, 1992) to the Adult ego-state. More of this later.
I asked Donald to draw the dream for us on the whiteboard. Drawing enables the dreamer to step back a little from the feelings, and take an overall perspective. It also corrects much of the picture I make in my own imagination, and reveals relationships of size, distance, sequence, shape, etc, sometimes quite unexpectedly. Donald drew confidently, dividing the board into the different scenes. The monster’s shape was not clear – its voice seemed more important to him than what it looked like. Furthermore, it refused to die. That suggested to me a shadow figure, the Jungian term for a disowned aspect of the self. I also noticed that it sounded like a child, and wondered how it might relate to Donald’s personal history.
Every dream emerges from a context, so I asked him what was going on when he had dreamed it. I listen for emotional pressures, since dreams are primarily concerned with the emotional issues in our lives. He had had the dream a week before this session, three weeks after his thirteenth birthday. He had started three months before that as a third-former in a top class at a prestigious academic high school, where he was facing his first formal exams, with some anxiety. He had been studying hard to pass them. He was aiming to be an architect.
I noticed what was happening to Donald’s ego as portrayed in the dream. The dream ego is the subjective sense of “I” in the dream, whether as observer or participant, and is a key indicator of the dreamer’s current experience in the world. Sometimes, as Berne showed in chapter 9 of What Do You Say After You Say Hello? (Berne, 1972, p. 173-4), the behaviour of the dream ego reveals clearly in metaphor the dreamer’s script. I find it useful to clarify this core pattern, stripped of imagery, as soon as we can, and to listen for matching words and images in the dreamer’s description of his or her life. The dream ego may be in a Child, Adult or Parent ego-state – sometimes shifting through all of them in a dream-story – and other figures in the dream may represent either figures in the environment in which the dreamer lives, or different roles in the dreamer’s personality, or aspects of the dreamer’s spiritual life, all relating in some way to the dream ego. Usually when these other figures,
whether human or otherwise, are allowed to have a “voice,” they have some kind of feedback to give to the ego, of which it was previously not aware. (Note, however, that this does not apply to early post-trauma dreams.) I understand this to be essentially a spiritual process, though it can also be understood as a symbolising of unconscious elements in the psyche.
Donald’s feelings showed that he was scared of the monster, worried about it, but bravely determined to get rid of it. His actions showed him initially keeping away from it, seeking advice from his family, and then using various strategies to kill it. What was there in Donald’s life to match this emotional pattern of “trying to get rid of “? At the objective level, was he being bullied by another youngster? Or subjectively, did it somehow symbolise his fear of exams? Or both?
I enquired more about his associations with the images in the dream. In dreamwork I ask questions from the psychodrama role of the Naïve Enquirer, showing no pre-conceived ideas, which reduces defensiveness. This is essentially Berne’s concept of “thinking Martian.”. The setting was Donald’s grandparents’ house, apparently before his grandfather died, at which point he would have been only nine years old and quite a little boy. Their laundry was notable for its shaking washing-machine; perhaps he used to be afraid of it, wondering what made it shake. The dining-room seemed to be symbolic of family consultation, although it was notable that Dad could not hear the monster howling. I wondered if he was not sympathetic to his son’s feelings. I was mystified about the ferns, which gave off a strong smell, and were obviously of great importance to the monster, so I asked Donald what he associated with ferns. He shrugged. But his mother and brother remembered that he used to build tree-huts in a neighbouring piece of bush with ferns in it, which had recently been sold off. This gave me the vital clue that ferns were associated with adventurous play, which he had given up for study. What did he associate with monsters? Donald told me he had enjoyed a fantasy story over the summer holidays about children fighting with monsters that lived in caves. He obviously identified with the children against the bad monsters. Hero stories tend to promote a winner script, but often lack a more subtle awareness of the shadow we carry in ourselves.
The dream monster had a folk-tale quality about it, in the way it haunted the house, and refused to die. Archetypes are primordial symbols which tend to appear at transitions – in Donald’s case, he had suddenly left his childhood behind. In Transactional Analysis terms, part of his Free Child had been rejected in the transition to High School. In the back of my mind I also made a connection with Robert Bly’s myth of Iron John, the Wild Man, who lives in the shadow of civilised men’s minds (Bly, 1990). Donald’s mother added further information here. As a mark of reaching 13, Donald had been given his own bedroom downstairs – adjacent to the laundry – and he was the only one of the family who went downstairs at night. At first he had found this a bit scary. I hunched that he was responding to a script injunction, “Don’t be a Child (now that you’re 13),” which may have come from his father, but was certainly reinforced at his school.
Time was running out. By now I judged that we were ready for interviewing roles, to hear a different point of view from that of the ego. Obviously the role which had most to tell us was the monster itself. I had assessed that Donald was in a stable and healthy state of mind, so I asked if he’d like to enact the role of the monster, and let it speak for itself. (If he had declined, I would have accepted that, and simply asked him to describe it more fully, and “listen to its thoughts.”) In fact, however, Donald’s face lit up, and he moved into a corner of the room to be the monster, chanting energetically, “Me got ferns! Me got ferns!” I interviewed the monster respectfully, asking what it wanted. The answer was immediate and clear: “I want to scare everyone away! I want the place for me!” Clearly, Donald was no longer afraid of it.
It sounded as if the monster felt dispossessed, and wanted to attract Donald’s interest. By now I felt sure it was one of Donald’s own Child ego-states. I thanked the monster, and directed Donald back to his chair. Given more time, I would have asked Donald to dialogue with the monster, to see if they could co-exist constructively. If I had found Donald too scared of the monster to deal with it any further, I would have invited him to summon a powerful wise friend or ally to support him – such as Star Wars’ Obi Ben Kenobi - according to his inner world of heroes. He did not need this however.
When a dream is unfinished, I encourage the dreamer to think about a new ending, in which he or she acts more resourcefully. This is redecision work in symbolic form, as described by George Thomson in his Journal article (Thomson, 1987). In Donald’s extended dream-story, he and his friend had gone on trying to kill the monster, but it wouldn’t die. A shadow-role cannot be simply got rid of, because it is part of your humanity. An alternative, however, could be to make friends with it.
In the last few minutes, I offered this interpretation to Donald and his mother. The monster seemed to be a “wild” part of Donald himself, a part of his healthy natural energy which had been pushed into the shadow, calling to him to make space in his life again for adventure and imagination. But Donald was afraid to let it back, for fear of jeopardising his academic success. He had been thrown into an intensely competitive school environment, where he felt as if there was no room left for “childish” activities. He used to love building tree-huts, being a “nature-boy” with the other boys, but he wasn’t doing it any more. Carol confirmed this picture, and Donald and his brother were nodding. They left, feeling pleased with the new insights, and agreeing to think about a better balance in Donald’s life.
A fortnight later, I received a grateful letter from Carol, saying that Donald had been a lot happier since the session. He had resumed making Lego constructions, which he had given up before as “a bit childish,” and was now engaged in a major construction project in the garden. I felt delighted that he had reclaimed his natural creativity again.
The inner spirit
If we pause to think a bit more about Donald’s dream, we are struck by its perfect fit to his circumstances. His ego is portrayed bravely trying to kill the threatening monster, just like the children in the book he had been reading. But this monster is really a projection from his own Free Child, and it refuses to die.
Donald woke from the dream afraid, because he did not know what else to do. His mother was wise enough to take the “bad dream” seriously, and get help. But what if she had been less responsive to him? Perhaps he would eventually have found another way to play. If not, might he have become another workaholic, driven by a Work Hard counter-injunction? (to which I would guess Be Perfect and Please Others should be added). This is reminiscent of the script matrix drawn by Eric Berne for “a hard-working winner” in chapter 7 of What Do You Say After You Say Hello? (Berne, 1972, p.128), diagramming his client’s struggle for autonomy. Here Berne showed for the first time the Arrow of Aspiration, the inborn energy of the unique individual breaking out of the childhood matrix to live life “my own way.” Petruska Clarkson (1992, p.11-12) linked this energy with that of Physis, described by Berne in his first book (Berne, 1947/71, ch.2, p.98) as the growing and healing force of Nature. The call of Donald’s Fern Monster seems to be the voice of Physis in his young life, vividly portrayed in his dream.
- Berne, E. (1969/ 71). A Layman’s Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis. London, Penguin.
- Berne, E. (1972). What Do You Say After You Say Hello? London, Corgi Books.
- Bly, R. (1990). Iron John: A Book About Men. Reading, Mass., Addison-Wesley.
- Bowater, M.(1997).Dreams and Visions: Language of the Spirit. Auckland, NZ, Tandem Pr.
- Clarkson, P. (1992). Transactional Analysis Psychotherapy: An Integrated Approach. London, Routledge.
- James, M.& James, J.(1992). Passion For Life: Psychology and the Human Spirit. New York, Penguin.
- Thomson, G. (1987). Dreamwork in Redecision Therapy, in Transactional Analysis Journal, Vol 17, 169-177.