#132 – The Psychology of Doll Work



Geri Olson, Ph.D. is associate professor in the Psychology Department at Sonoma State University, where she will soon assume the role of Department Chair. Geri teaches and leads workshops in the area of creativity and expressive arts. Geri points out that Dolls have been a part of human existence for 25,000 years.

From fertility rituals to child’s play, dolls have a central role in portraying the story and values of a culture. The power of the doll is expanded as we move back in time and explore dolls with a cross-cultural perspective. In that search, the importance of dolls in healing, rites of passage, and empowerment become evident. This understanding of the historical and psychological role of dolls has created a revisioning of the influence of the doll. Dolls are used often in sand tray work, hospital programs, and in educational programs for abusive parents, but very little is written about the deeply evocative experience of making a doll. What power does the doll that we create have in revealing the images and narrative of a person’s inner life? How could the doll capture and reflect a glimpse of the psyche? In Geri’s work with students and therapists, dolls are created as mirrors of the self, as figures in a personal myth, and as allies, elders, healers and guides on the path to authenticity and health. The doll narrates a deeply personal story from an adventure to the interior. Geri has integrated the doll process into her work for 25 years and is the coordinator of a Doll Project that has included over 600 K-12 students.

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A psychology podcast by David Van Nuys, Ph.D.



  1. honeyrococo
    Posted January 13, 2008 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Yay! A New Podcast!

  2. honeyrococo
    Posted January 13, 2008 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    One of the people I work on is Rosa Bonheur, a French woman painter of animals in the 19th century. In theory there was a “Rosa Bonheur” doll in the late 19th c. (although despite much searching I have found no *material* proof of this). Almost every book or article that discusses her relationship with her final (1898/99) partner/companion Anna Klumpke (although I am not as quick to think they were in a romantic relationship as 80s scholars seem to have been – that was a bit of a fad during the birth of queer theory); all the 80s literature mentions the fact that as a little girl in San Francisco, Anna Klumpke owned a “Rosa Bonheur doll” (she was much younger than Rosa!)

    Now I really wanted there to *be* this doll of Rosa Bonheur that everyone mentions. Because then I could have explored what I think is the strange and perverse idea of ending up with a person you had a doll of as a child.

    In the first place I imagine how strange and disturbing it must be to have dolls made in your likeness and circulated around the world. Think of it — little [your name here] dolls. Then think of someday having a love affair with some person who had a doll of you as a child. Could there be anything creepier than that? Especially if the child had it when he or she was very, very young and it was some kind of sucked on, teethed on, transitional object. Or something they looked at undressed and thought about anatomical correctness while calling it your name.

    And just the idea of having an army of little likenesses of you out there, lined up on shelves, starring out at the world with dead eyes fixed open and little flesh-colored hands with fleshy palms permanently agape. Or weighted Victorian eyes that open when you sit the doll upright. Little gnawed-on fingers and holes where hair used to be before it was pulled out or chewed off by a child. Or with a mouth like a hole and a mechanism in its belly that said “Hi, I’m —-. What’s your name?” when a string was pulled. “Hi I’m Rosa. I’ll be your best friend.”

    It all reminded me of Alex Pott’s article about Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin and the uncanny moment when that object you have invested in and cathected onto becomes a “Thing” (and also an episode of Dr. Who – “Terror of the Autons” – that scarred me for life when I saw it as a kid)

    But there was no doll. So there went that idea…

    Okay! Done downloading and ready to listen! I hope I didn’t write anything that will seem offensive after listening…ooh! Back later!

  3. Axel Reisdorf
    Posted January 16, 2008 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Hello there,
    I am teacher and Gestalttherapist in Germany and as I read the title of the new interview I thought about dolls with china faces and with dresses nobody wants to wear. But while listening to the show my picture changed. Actually I was driving in my car while listening and I had an appointment with a client that very evening. So I got me some clay and tied to use the idea of doll making in the therapy. It worked very well for me and my client. So I really want to thank you for inspyring me.
    I am looking forward to the next show.

  4. honeyrococo
    Posted January 16, 2008 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    A quick follow-up. I hope my above comments were not too offensive! I did enjoy this interview and especially liked the images of the dolls the students made. I think the process of making things is in itself very therapeutic. I also never knew that Voudou dolls were a French colonial artefact and not indigenous to the religion. I guess most of those island religions are somewhat creole/synthetic like Cuban Santeria. It all reminding me of something I read on Sympathetic Magic vs. Contagious Magic and their relationships to metaphor and metonymy. Maybe that was Jakobson? That the doll stands for the other in sympathetic magic in a metaphorical relationship; while something like a lock of hair has a metonymic relation to the person (in the case of casting spells) — anyway, that explanation helped me when I was an undergrad to understand the difference. That psychic “reading into” of the doll is probably very powerful in therapy. I would like to see more of the student dolls! I think it is a very interesting approach to therapy!

    I am also looking forward to the upcoming Sand Play / Sand Tray ? Show. One time I visited a woman’s office on Solano Avenue in Berkeley and I guess she was a Sand Play Therapist. It was the greatest room I’d ever seen – just walls and walls of figures! Everything you would ever need to tell a story – Weebles and Barbies and old cloth dolls and dolls of all skin-colors and body shapes and army men and just random dolls based on different jobs – Doctors and stewardesses and clowns and trees – varieties of trees from palm trees to apple trees to Lorax trees – 3 kinds of volcanoes! and swimming pools and VW beetles and Rolls Royces and fences and stop signs and dogs or every size and breed and cowboys and Indians (as they were called in the day) and mermaids and horses, Pegasus and Noah’s Ark and every kind of animal, snakes and platypuses (platypi ?) and dolphins and dinosaurs, boats, planes, trains, caves, rivers, Zira and Cornelius from “Planet of the Apes”! dump trucks, flying saucers, aircraft carriers, nuclear reactor towers, saxophones, trombones, tubas, Brillo Boxes, the “Mona Lisa”, mailboxes, stethoscopes, different foods, pizza, sushi, sliced bread…

    Every inch of the wall was covered with shelves holding all these models and many more of things in the world! It was truly a wondrous sight! I cannot imagine that there was a story that needed experiencing/re-experiencing/telling in such a place that could not be accommodated by that array! But I don’t imagine that *I* could concentrate on my own problems/traumas in such a fantastic place!

  5. Posted January 16, 2008 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    I love your wonderfully rich description of the sandplay therapist’s room! Who could resist such an environment? And, the beauty of it is, you don’t have to get in touch with your trauma or issues ahead of time… whatever needs to come out will very naturally reveal itself! 🙂


  6. Rafal
    Posted January 19, 2008 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Thanks dr.Dave & Dr.Olsen, I liked the subject very much. As many times before I was left with a lot of open questions and wish for more 🙂 this should let you know how good it was for me.
    To give a small personal perspective, I use painting to build more meaningful relationships with my 3yrs old daughter, funny enough I can get quite a satisfaction from this. We also go and play with her dolls (both animal and human like) where we usally act her kindergarden. I find this a powerful tool to build communication bridges to butiful and young brain of my kid.
    Thanks again

  7. alana
    Posted January 20, 2008 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Hello from Oz!
    Dr Geri Olsen is an inspiration.
    If you are interested, I have attached a link to the school virtual online gallery (GOSHA: Gallery of St Hilda’s Art) the work is largely made by senior students, some middle school and in a range of media ~ http://web.mac.com/art.sthildas/iWeb/Site/welcome.html As you can see, I’m embarking on the podcast idea with the students
    With greatest gratitude for the work you do~ both of you~ to create community of heart.