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Esther Feagan

Plotting Transition: Refugees and Survivors of Torture Search for Meaning through Visual and Written Narratives

         “If we possess our why of life we can put up with any how.”  (Nietzsche, 1889)

            Whether arriving in a new country as a refugee, an asylum-seeker, or a stateless person, there are a host of challenges involved in assimilation to a new culture.  Due to the often urgent nature inherent in emigration, people arrive with little but the memories of the horrors from which they fled.  Uprooted from family and country and replanted in a completely alien environment, refugees also must struggle with the psychological and physiological manifestations of their trauma.  The obligatory migration disrupts the narrative thread running through their lives, throwing the planned trajectory of life into unpredicted chaos.  Immigrants and refugees must often negotiate a loss of social status, a potentially discriminatory host society, the increasingly competitive job market, and the challenge of striking a delicate balance between traditional values and the new mores of the host society.  The stories of the challenges of both immigration and resettlement often remain untold.   One effect of trauma is the disruption of the ability to remember a series of events in sequential order. The painful process of recounting a personal narrative that includes traumatic events is frequently aggravated by the author’s inaccessibility to a logical, chronological format. 

Do personal narratives related through visuals, text, and sound enable refugees and survivors of torture who struggle with feelings of futility to recover a sense of meaning in life after migration?  I focused my thesis project around this query.  Throughout the research process I worked with adults who had emigrated as a result of trauma. Since memories of traumatic experience are frequently stored as visual imagery, the narrative format was expanded to include visuals as well as text.  Sound was incorporated to accommodate both traditional, aural aspects of narrative as well as to circumvent barriers that arose due to issues of literacy and fluency.  Using a combination of narrative and art therapies, I collaborated with the client to develop visual, textual and audio stories, either fictional or autobiographical.  An assessment was conducted prior to and at the conclusion of this project to determine the effect storytelling had on feelings of uselessness, despair, and incompetence commonly experienced by immigrants and refugees.

Narrative therapy enables the client to find meaning through the process of telling a story.  As the client struggles to answer the questions of “why” and “for what purpose”, recounting a personal narrative allows the client to map his or her connections between life events and their meaning.  The expression of this story through visuals, text, or sound is an outward manifestation of this inward mapping.  It brings into existence the elusive pieces of a life once lived, an identity abandoned, and discarded hopes newly restored.


           Esther Feagan received a BFA in painting from Tyler School of Art, Temple University. While at SAIC, Esther interned at International Family, Adult, and Child Enhancement Services and the Marjorie Kovler Center for Survivors of Torture.


Thesis Advisor: Catherine Moon, Assistant Professor, Art Therapy

Thesis Reader: Lucille Herman, Art Psychotherapist, Institute for Creativity/ Center for Grief Recovery

Second Reader: Suellen Semekoski, Adjunct Associate Professor, Art Therapy



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