The Squiggle Game

Here is a short piece I recently wrote for the Boston Art Review, on Winnicott and squiggles:

The Squiggle Game

The psychoanalysis of children is an exercise in uncertainty, as there is no mind is as uncertain as a child’s. It is also, when practiced with some measure of self-awareness, an exercise in light comedy. To read the annals of child psychoanalysis is to experience the joy of witnessing some very serious people being slightly silly. Here is Erik Erikson – refugee from 1930’s Vienna, professor of psychology at Harvard, who gave himself the name “Erikson” to indicate he was the son of no one but himself – making a zoo out of building blocks for imagined lions. And here is D.M. Winnicott, perhaps the most profound analyst of the last century, playing the Squiggle Game.

In the Squiggle Game, the analyst blindly draws a “squiggle” on the page, and then the child completes the drawing into something that the child recognizes. Winnicott draws a “squiggle of the closed variety,” and Iiro, a Finnish boy in an orthopedic hospital, decides that it is a duck’s foot, and draws the leg and the webbing. (“It was clear immediately that he wished to communicate on the subject of his disability”). Then the child draws a squiggle, and the analyst completes it. And back and forth like that. A car, a bow-tie, a teapot, a goose, a mountain, the sea. Children rarely want to take the drawings home. While drawing, they talk. Winnicott asks Iiro if he is happy, and Iiro answers: “One knows if one is sad.”