Blue Butterfly Open: Moments from a Child Psychotherapy Practice, Alice Barber’s collection of poetic and poignant essays, is for anyone seriously interested in understanding how children experience the caretaking adults in their lives. Barber is a psychotherapist who treats emotionally troubled children. She draws us into her work, into the inner sanctum of her office, to untangle and metabolize the disturbing, sometimes terrifying relational narratives that children invite her to re-enact with them. Through this rewarding and challenging work, she finds herself, as a therapist and person, continually shaped and reshaped. Read the titular essay, “Blue Butterfly Open,” below.
This is a story about two photographs, both of butterflies. What you need to know about the first photograph is that it was never an actual photograph, although I wished it so. What you need to know about the second photograph is that it is not from my camera, and it was just as it should have been, to my surprise. It was given to me by a young boy.
This is also a story about the power of the inexplicable connections between people. When a connection happens, the space between two people holds the most vulnerable pieces of each, revealed or not, like the inside wings of a blue butterfly rarely at rest for very long. These vulnerable pieces fly and land and reveal themselves and then close back up as camouflage to the rest of the world. To experience these revealing moments with a child client (or with anyone) is pure magic.
What you need to know about the first photograph in this story is that it was never a photograph to my liking. One winter many years ago my father drove the several hundred miles from his home to mine. He does not visit often and this time, this visit, I took him to a butterfly sanctuary, a place popular with both locals and tourists. The balmy warmth of the butterfly jungle would be a relief from the sharp sting of cold air, I thought.
Butterflies exist in all forms at this sanctuary, from tightly wound cocoons, to babies with wet wings, to elders with frayed edges creeping their way along the branches of trees or bushes. My father and I, along with the other visitors, are cautioned to walk carefully among the butterflies, to step slowly and with awareness, for some butterflies like to walk on their small points of toes across the concrete path without looking both ways. Butterflies can be careless in this way, either oblivious to oncoming traffic or quietly defiant of it.
One of the primary reasons that many people come to the butterfly sanctuary is to take photographs. Some people smear a dab of molasses on the inside of their wrists, or pocket bits of brown sugar before coming in, all in the hopes of becoming butterfly magnets, of sending their sugary scents radiating out. Then, when someone photographs them ‐smiling, holding a butterfly on one finger or on an eyelash or on a nose, they can show the photo at the office, and brag, “I just have a way with beautiful insects. I guess you could call me a butterfly whisperer.”
Although my father and I did not dab our wrists with molasses, I admit that I did lick several of my fingers, and held my hand aloft in the hopes that my lunch remnants (a turkey sandwich on white with a cranberry spread) would look and smell appetizing to at least one winged friend. When this tactic did not work, we used logic. We stood as still as small trees, arms outstretched like branches, hoping butterflies would certainly mistake us for a nesting place. And yet, as still as we were able to stand, butterflies did not come to us. We tried again. Perhaps if we stood in a spot among a flock of butterflies (thousands of them), one would surely land. When this did not happen, we stood in an empty spot, hoping, hoping we would soon be surrounded. They teased us, those butterflies. They came close, tickled with tips of wings, though none did land.
Of the butterflies that did not land on us that day, one kind in particular caught my eye. A butterfly with two toned wings: muddy brown on the outside, so that when perched on a limb, with its wings closed together it blended with the trunk of a tree, or the dirt on the ground, and blue when spread in flight or even briefly at rest, the color of the clearest of oceans. A blue so bright, it was like a streak of aquamarine from a small metal tube of paint. A sanctuary employee whose name pin read, “Flight Attendant,” told us the outside brown was camouflage.
“It enables the survival of the species, foils their prey,” she said.
My father pulled his camera from the pocket of his jacket. He snapped pictures of white butterflies; orange striped, red with black edges. I asked my father for a photograph of the blue kind, with wings open. Either in flight or at rest, I said. I was not particular. I just wanted that blue. He held up his camera and waited, waited for one to soar by and slow down. One to sit on a leaf, wings spread. My father took pictures of those blue butterflies, picture after picture. He grunted, sweat and swore under his breath when each and every photograph seemed snapped a moment too late, and each and every butterfly had closed up its wings. I directed him this way and that. I tried to snap a few frames myself. But, we left the sanctuary that day with a photograph only of brown wing against brown tree trunk. A picture of a muddy field and us, tired from chasing. This was the first photograph in this story of two.
What you need to know about the second photograph is that I did not tell any of the children I worked with at the time about my trip to the butterfly sanctuary, nor about my yearning for a photograph of the blue butterfly.
One of the children I met with at that time was a young boy. When I ask him about his age he holds up three fingers, spread wide, and carefully keeps his thumb tucked into his palm. He asks me if I am three also, and I tell him that I am not, though I remember being three and climbing on jungle gyms. And I do remember nursery school, Play Doh, saddle shoes and dipping graham crackers in milk cartons for mid-morning snack, slurping on fingers to get every last drop.
I sit on the floor when I talk with this boy, and even then he is only taller than me by an inch or so, standing on his Superman sneakers that blink red lights at the heels when he takes each step. Sometimes he wears a white baseball cap, and at other times, a yellow Sponge Bob watch, though he cannot tell time. We play together when he visits and I watch for small twitches, called tics, around his eyes. Sometimes it looks like he is winking. The secretary in my office giggles when she sees this, thinking he is winking just at her, flirting. She winks back and calls him “a charmer, a real charmer, that one.” But these are why he is here. His eye tics. They do not have a physical cause, his doctor has said, but probably result from stress of some kind. His mother has brought him to me to find the cause of his stress. “He is three,” she says. “He shouldn’t be stressed about anything.”
We play together when he visits, often in the sandbox, sometimes with little toy cars. He dumps out a container of Legos, a cascade of red, yellow and green, and laughs at the loud noise they make falling to the ground. He dumps out Tinker Toys in the same way and covers his mouth, giggles.
“I hear you making your noise,” I say.
He laughs again. He buries these toys in the sand. Covers them up, uncovers them by brushing sand with his hands, covers them again.
“It is hard to know,” I say, “whether to keep things covered up or to let them be seen.”
His eyes open and close, uncover and cover, in quick succession. We play like this for three more weeks, covering and uncovering Legos, toy cars, block. We brush and blow sand dangerously close to our eyes. His tics get worse. And then once, when we had not seen each other in several days, from his seat in a shopping cart he asks his mother in a serious way if he could come to therapy again soon, his eyes wide, not blinking.
“I want to go see Alice,” he says.
She calls me and I agree to see him the next day.
He enters the office in light brown pants and a Spiderman shirt. He is wearing his watch. It is time. He is ready. He begins to tell me a story of a game he was taught to play. A game played in secret with a father who should have known better, and should have never, never played. It is a game about power, the kind of power taken from one person’s most private body, by another. It is sexual abuse. It is something the boy does not understand, though he knew to keep it covered up, under sand, under flitting eyelids.
“Will he say ‘sorry’ to me for playing this game?” the boy asks.
“I don’t know,” I say, “But he did something very wrong and you need him to feel very sorry about it.” I am nodding while I say this.
The boy nods back and picks up the doll from a dollhouse family. He throws this doll against the wall with a crash.
“Bad daddy!!” he yells.
“Daddy did something bad,” I affirm. He throws the daddy doll three more times (one for each year?) and I say, “I hear your Daddy crashing.”
The boy looks quickly over one shoulder as if he has been caught off guard.
His eyes blink fast.
He says, “It smells dirty in here.”
“Dirty,” I say back to him. I am aware that we are there, in that moment, in the past. We are in his past, with his father. Without his father being in the room. It is what is called a flashback. I want to get the boy back to me, back to the present. With me.
Then this boy in the Spiderman shirt and blinking shoes says my name, and “I’m peeing! I’m peeing right here.”
He says this as a warning, urgently. It is a warning for me to do something to stop it, quickly. I stay still and sit and watch as dark brown rivers make their way from the zipper to the cuffs of his light brown pants. I think of levees giving way, dams bursting in cinematic slow motion. I cannot stop these rivers and I imagine them, blue with white foam, rushing and roaring over rock. They curve and bend over thighs, knees, Superman sneakers and onto the floor in a clear puddle around his small feet.
I imagine the rivers feel warm at first against his skin, but then cold like ice, and I say to him, “It is okay that you peed. It was just an accident and you were scared.”
I touch his arms gently. My eyes meet his and I will him back into the room.
We call his mother into the office and she carries him to the bathroom. Our time on this day is finished. I make the calls I have to make. Then, I cry blue river tears for him on my way home in the night, wanting to build the strongest of dams with the reddest of brick for both of us.
This excerpt from Blue Butterfly Open: Moments from a Child Psychotherapy Practice is published with permission from, and gratitude to, Gallery of Readers. It is available for purchase on the Gallery of Readers website here, and on Amazon here.
Alice Barber is a psychotherapist with a specialization in early childhood mental health and trauma. She holds degrees from Wellesley College and Springfield College. She lives with her wife and child in Western Massachusetts.