At a neighbor’s holiday party, the conversation was dying. Guests in our little circle darted their eyes around the room in search of an exit—until I mentioned my puppet performances in schools and a hospital. With relief, the usual comments followed:
“Children love puppets. They’re not threatening.”
“Oh, puppets are so easy to talk to. Remember Fran talking to Kukla and Ollie?”
“Puppets—they don’t judge you.”
“You can say stuff to a puppet that you wouldn’t say to anyone else.” This last statement is often true. As a puppet therapy artist at a Chicago’s children’s hospital decades ago, I—well, actually my puppet Orange Julius—heard many confidences never shared with adults.
I, too, benefitted from several puppet “therapists.” In 2003, my mother’s death consumed me in crippling grief. I knew her heart disease was incurable, but I hoped Mom would find a way to stay around longer. She would not and she did not. As a result of my responsibilities as her executor, I had panic attacks. Recurrent, incapacitating panic attacks. To address them, my doctor recommended I see a cognitive or “talk” therapist. After a few unproductive sessions with M___, I was ready to give up on that strategy, but when M___ learned I had been an active puppeteer, she urged me to create a puppet that would help me, as we used to say, ‘get in touch’ with my feelings.
I made at least seven hand puppets, most with salt clay heads, painted canvas bodies, and varying numbers of arms. Some puppets were monsters, others were aspirational star seekers; one had a visible core holding an exploding star. I did not censor my creations; I just let my emotions choose the way I was sculpting them. Each time I completed a puppet, I inched a bit more toward a calm zone somewhere in me. By the time I sensed that the seventh was the last one I needed to make, I had found a way out of my grief.
M__, my therapist enjoyed seeing each new piece, but she never asked me to perform with any of them, nor interpret them for her. Once we resumed cognitive therapy, my follow-up sessions with M__ became tedious. I was not much interested in any more talk. I had things to do and places go, thanks to my puppet “therapists” who helped me master my loss and return some breath into the void my mother left.