A Spirit That Impels: Play, Creativity, and Psychoanalysis



Across from the Medical Office Building, where patients undergo intensive psychotherapeutic treatment, is a small red schoolhouse on the property of the Austen Riggs Center. Here you will find a dozen or so three to five-year-olds playing and learning at the Austen Riggs Nursery School, led by trained teachers and assisted by patients involved in the Activities Program.  A short walk from Riggs, on Main Street in Stockbridge, patients can be found in the role of student at the Lavender Door, creating paintings, pottery, fiber arts, woodworking and acting in the theater program, all of which is also a part of the Activities Program. 

In a world of locked psychiatric units and systems of restrictions and privileges, it is unique to see patients free to come and go in a completely open and voluntary setting, while also being involved as students in an Activities Program. Joan Erikson, wife of former Riggs staff member Erik Erikson, had the vision and inventiveness to create the nursery school along with an Activities Program in which artists and teachers, specialists in their field, invite patients into the role of student - in an environment deliberately separate from the intensive psychodynamic treatment milieu.   

Book cover A Spirit that ImpelsThe Activities Program – offering deep engagement with one’s inner potential – is the inspiration for the annual Creativity Seminar at Riggs as well as Dr. M. Gerard Fromm’s new book, A Spirit That Impels: Play, Creativity, and Psychoanalysis. The book includes a group of papers collected over ten years from the Creativity Seminars at Riggs.   Authors include:  M. Gerard Fromm, Ph.D.; Marilyn Charles, Ph.D.; John Muller, Ph.D.; Ellen Handler Spitz, Ph.D.; Carol Gilligan, Ph.D.; Christopher Bollas, Ph.D.; Christopher Fowler, Ph.D. and others.

The Creativity Seminar’s primary task is to learn about the creative process. Artists open up about their creative process, scholars take us into artists’ lives and works, and clinicians examine this process through the lens of their work with patients in a series of informal presentations and dialogues. Generated from the learning of the seminar, Dr. Fromm’s book explores several basic questions: 

• How do we understand the creative process?

• What might psychoanalysis contribute to that understanding?

• What opens up within psychoanalysis by engaging with the subject of creativity?

• What perhaps special relation does play have to both?

We welcome your thoughts on these questions as well and hope to see you at this year’s Creativity Seminar in August.