Nori Muster shares aspects of her life with a Ph.D. candidate at Temple University, investigating art therapy and cults. June 19, 2008

What sparked your interest in choosing this profession (counseling / art therapy)?

When I attended College of the Redwoods (1975-76), they had a a police academy on campus. I became interested in some of the course listings and started to take classes there. I spent several hundred hours volunteering as a counselor in the Eureka Juvenile Hall. That made me want to work with teenagers. I was only twenty at the time.

Later, when I went back to school for my master's degree at Western Oregon University (1989-1991), they had a police academy on campus where they also trained prison guards. My practical experience there was working in Hillcrest Juvenile Reform School in Salem, Oregon. I taught art therapy classes in the juvenile sex offender ward.

Simultaneously, I was taking art therapy workshops at Marylhurst College in West Linn (near Portland). My master's thesis was to interview counselors about whether they would use art therapy with child abuse victims, juveniles, adults. I found that many in the helping profession would not use art therapy with juveniles, but would proceed directly to the harsh methods like aversion therapy and what they call 'fessing up, or having to repeatedly confess to offenses in front of a group.

After that, I got a job working with drug and alcohol kids, as well as DUI and 12-step groups. This was interesting, but then I stumbled into a population of sex abuse victims in the religious organization I once belonged to, so I helped them bring their story out in the open and initiate a lawsuit. This is documented at my website, (

I have written a book about child abuse in cults, which includes stories written by seven women who grew up in cults, or cult-like families (see Child of the Cult click here).

How do you try to keep individuals on track?

Using art with teenagers is the best way to keep them on track. They looked forward to our classes. Nearly everyone in the ward wanted to be in our class and the staff made attendence in the class a reward for good behavior. They were on a behavior modification program with points, etc.

Hillcrest included a high school, but we held our classes in the ward. But even in ordinary high schools, statistics would probably show that kids who have problems find their art teacher the only one they can talk to, or relate to in any way. Teenagers need an adult they can relate to and using art gives them a way to talk about their problems. The symbols in their work often speak for themselves.

They may also create a piece of art they are proud of and that gives them an inkling of what it feels like to have self-esteem. I remember one young inmate would go around and show his drawings to the staff.

Is there any special techniques or methods you use?

In the offender ward, it was taboo for the children to depict guns, skulls, knives, or anything "Satanic" in their artwork. I of course let them draw whatever they wanted. It is the nature of teenage boys to be interested in dark subject matter. I refused to comply with the staffs' rules and let them know it. The kids were completely free to draw whatever came to mind, then we would discuss it.

Would you explain the art therapy technique and how it can be beneficial?

In my opinion, this is the only way to work with teenagers. If they don't respond to drawing, try getting them to write, to write a song or poem, to write some music. Each kid may have different talents they want to use. In writing my book with the children of cults, my seven contributors were all writers at heart. At least one of them intends to write a full length book.

How do you deal with not bringing your work into your personal life? (In everything your hear, how do you not let it get the best of you? I am scared I am going to get to attached to my clients and blow up at someone for hurting them, especially children).

This is why I eventually got out of counseling and became a writer-researcher. However, I never had a supervised internship (only a practicum). If you have the opportunity to do an internship, your supervisor will teach you how to deal with counter-transference. The client is supposed to transfer their projections onto you as their counselor, but you are not supposed to play into it. Counter-transferrence means you become a part of your client's drama, instead of leading them out of it.

Do you have any other recommendations?

Study art therapy. The best teacher I had was Janie Rhyne. She has a book about art therapy (click here to see it at that explains her technique. She pioneered "Gestalt Art Therapy," which means that it is totally client-directed. The therapist never puts any interpretation on the client's artwork, but lets the meaning emerge while the client looks at it and talks about it. When we worked with clay, she had the subject run his hands over the form with his eyes closed and tell her why he made it in this shape, and what it makes him think.

In reading your website I am very excited to speak with you as I interested in the art therapy technique as well as reading some of your work.

Thank you for contacting me. Here is an index of all my work:

Click here for an index of all child abuse information available through this site.