Skip to content

The Healing Art of Fiction

A drawing of a silver unicorn

Dorothee Ostmeier was never simply a traditional German professor. Her research interests have regularly expanded to include poetry and gender, fairy tales, fantasy literature and psychology. Since coming to the UO in 2001, she’s further expanded her research into alternative philosophies of healing.


In fact, Ostmeier is in good company at the UO: She’s discovered other faculty who are likewise intrigued by the conflicts between current medicinal models. Beginning with a 2003 lecture on ethnicity and culture in medicine, she and her like-minded colleagues formed the Healing Arts Research Interest Group at the UO’s Center for the Study of Women in Society.

Now, the group regularly hosts talks, collaborates on research projects, and melds the study of alternative medicines with their own disciplines. Jewish mysticism, the effects of prayer and stress reduction techniques have all been subjects of recent study.

But Ostmeier had not fully considered literature’s impact on healing until 2006, when her adolescent daughter began suffering debilitating migraines.

“She was crawling, I had to carry her. It came to that point where they suggested putting her into a coma because the pain was not manageable,” said Ostmeier. An acupuncturist finally helped the girl regain her mobility and suggested that some kind of imaginary healing guide might appear, Ostmeier recalls. “During an acupuncture session my daughter ‘encountered’ a unicorn.”

The unicorn, or healing guide, began appearing regularly in her dreams and sharing bits of wisdom that the girl could recount upon waking. Ostmeier preserved her favorites: “If you cannot jump high enough, it is not cheating to use a trampoline.”

Ostmeier observed her daughter’s recovery with an academic’s curiosity. How did imagery help her daughter move past the trauma of the pain, and where do our healing images come from?

Ostmeier now sees an opportunity to combine her intensive knowledge of German literary texts, like Grimm’s fairy tales, with an analysis of the iconic images common in these texts. After completing her current book on gender roles in famous romantic relationships, she hopes to wrap her research on the medicinal properties of fantasy images into a new book called Healing Fictions — demonstrating how even literary images can contribute to the healing process.

Read fairy tales, classic and postmodern, written by Ostmeier's students.

– Chrisanne Beckner


Online Extras

Gödel, Escher, Bach

A comment iconRead about a UO alum's provocative book, plus his further explorations into cognition.

The Perpendicular

A comment iconFind out why Mark Thoma's economics blog is a must-read.

Humanists Stake Their Claim

An audio icon Read the Q&A from our lively humanities roundtable and/or listen to the entire discussion.

Post Your Klonoski Tribute

A comment iconAdd your own remembrance and learn about the reinstated dollar check-off (a Klonoski point of pride).

A Pakistan Primer

A comment iconThe last two years have been turbulent, even by Pakistan's standards. 

McNeely's Talk at Google

A video icon Watch Ian McNeely's talk at Google, Inc. and read a chapter from his book, Reinventing Knowledge.

Math Does Windows

A camera iconCheck out the dazzling "math windows" in Deady Hall.

Fairy Tales for Modern Times

A comment icon A while back, in a city that shall remain nameless, lived a media mogul, his trophy wife, and their daughter...

Visitors from Malawi, Kenya and Nepal

A video iconWatch video interviews with engineers who came to the UO for a computer networking workshop.