Writing Therapy in the Academy: Risks and challenges

Document Type

Conference Proceeding


The Australasian Association of Writing Programs


Faculty of Education and Arts


School of Communication and Arts / Centre for Research in Entertainment, Arts,Technology, Education and Communications




Murphy, F. (2011). Writing therapy in the academy: Risks and challenges. Paper presented at Ethical Imaginations: Writing Worlds, 16th Annual Conference of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs, Byron Bay, Australia. Available here


Since 2008, I have coordinated a unit entitled Writing Therapy as part of ECU’s undergraduate writing course. Students explore the theory and practice of writing therapy and its connections with discourses of psychology, psychoanalysis, literature and creativity, as well as the related fields of bibliotherapy, trauma studies and testimonial life-writing. They experiment with various kinds of writing, and consider the possible dangers of therapeutic writing, since in some cases the practice may engender anxiety and distress, or facilitate self-delusion and evasion rather than insight and transformation. Even so, suggesting that students experiment with forms of writing that published novelists, poets, social scientists and therapists consider remedial may create expectations of therapeutic benefit. The very title of the unit and its higher education setting posit the existence of a legitimate entity, so that verbal and written disclaimers and warnings that students should reserve their judgements may not be entirely convincing. Furthermore, the usefulness and appropriateness of personal writing in tertiary education is widely debated. This paper acknowledges such arguments, as well as concerns that a ‘therapeutic ethos’ has spread beyond the clinic, damaging social life and institutions and effectively depoliticising, pathologising and diminishing individuals. This type of prognosis, expounded by Phillip Rieff as early as 1966 in The triumph of the therapeutic, has been expressed recently by cultural analysts on both sides of the Atlantic, including Frank Furedi in Therapy culture: Cultivating vulnerability in an uncertain age (2004) and Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel in One nation under therapy: How the helping culture is eroding self-reliance (2005). A particular concern is the alleged intrusion of therapy into education, a case elaborated by Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes in The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education (2009). This paper concludes that a Writing Therapy unit can productively negotiate these debates and make a useful contribution to a tertiary writing program, despite—and even because of—its contested status, inherent risks and ethical complexities.

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