We need each other and we harm each other. We serve each other and threaten to devour each other. We yearn to rely on each other, and we profoundly disappoint each other. We can’t live with each other and we can’t live without each other.
Psychoanalytic models struggle with these conflicting demands. Fairbairn speaks of mature interdependence, Jung speaks of individuation, Winnicott speaks of the capacity to be alone. None of these are individualistic solutions to the dilemma of simultaneously needing each other and needing to protect ourselves from others.
Individuation is not individualism. Individuation is the fulfillment, the living out of one’s central calling, remaining conscious of our choices and our path even while powerful instincts and archetypes or external mandates to conform to cultural and community values try to take us over and steer our course.
Individuation is the lifelong process of collecting together all of your splits, projections, dissociations and repressions so that you have some understanding of your strengths and weaknesses and a clear idea of what gifts you may legitimately offer up to others.
Individuation does not assert individualism as a core value.
Individuation means that each one of us has specific and unique skills, which we must offer up to our community and to the wider world, and perhaps to God if such theistic notions resonate.
Individuating is embarking on a psychologically lonely exploration of what about you is specific to you. Individuation means you can’t default to what the collective says you should be but must discover what you have to give specifically.
Individualism is asserting your right to do “whatever you want” while individuation is uncovering obligations to others that are specific to you. Individuation means working to align with your soul, not to merely satisfy ego-appetite or a drive to power or status. Individuation calls on us to uncover our most honest, authentic Self- and Other- respecting service to the collective.
Individuation is threatening to social control, conformity and is generally devalued by the dominant culture. The highest goal of individuation is not complete autonomy: It is a mature, responsible, compassionate relationship to the larger world. The individuated human being is threatening to those who want systems and institutions to define our core values.
We often punish, exile, imprison, crucify, assassinate, or devalue humans who have committed to walk an individuating path. Individualists amass resources with no concern for the impact on others. Souls engaged in individuation are those who can tell us when we have agreed on norms that are destructive or incomplete. Those engaged in individuating unsettle us, they don’t accept our assumptions or premises. Souls engaged in individuation are often those who don’t do things “the normal way” as they are exploring callings that ignore society’s incentives and chastisements. We sometimes call individuators foolish, failed, stubborn, willful, contrarian. We sometimes lock up souls in the processes of Individuation and call them “mad.” We often don’t recognize the route of those engaged in individuation: they have let their soul guide them down uncommon pathways. They don’t fit easily in to institutionalized systems. Or they have left such systems behind them, shed like a skin and moved beyond.
When individuation is pursued, when the bravest souls dare to step over the electric fence of societal approval and disapproval, they often end up serving the deepest, unrecognized disavowed needs of the community.
There is extraordinary pressure – when a soul is discovering how it is meant to both pursue its essence and serve its community – to give up the project of individuation entirely. We are often convinced that it is wisest to pursue culturally sanctioned markers of enfranchisement and success, especially if we have something to give that others can’t easily recognize. There are a handful who pursue these profoundly specific personal processes – for the good of themselves and others – whose bravery is celebrated, whose generosity is rewarded. They may become reluctant leaders, heroes, even martyrs. But there are many more who are thwarted in these processes, derailed, attacked, silenced, traumatized, defeated by their environments for daring to be loyal to their soul’s calling.
The process of individuation is sometimes marketed by those who spiritualize “prosperity” as a golden road to success. And sometimes traditional forms of success descend, for a time. But more often individuation is never externally rewarded at all. Individuation and its attendant behaviors can only be pursued (never achieved) for one reason: because it is necessary to be simultaneously right with oneself and offer up the best you have to offer to the world around you. This often demands sacrifice. No, it always demands sacrifice. If sacrifice is not involved, it is not individuation.
Individuation can only be pursued as an end in itself- never as a means to an end. Individualism on the other hand- is entirely about engaging in means to one’s individual satisfaction. It is likely that we are all engaged in individuating in small ways now and then, and other times when we consciously or unconsciously succumb to the economic and societal pressures to live out individualistic ambitions and appetites. Individuation means developing the capacity to observe yourself while powerful instinctive templates, ruts in the collective road, threaten to suck you in. To pursue individuation is to hold onto as much consciousness as you can in the face of cultural and archetypal, societal and instinctive pressures.
It is easy to become despairing when the collective actively devalues or obstructs the processes of individuation. But it almost always does. If the greatest moral heroes, masters and the gods themselves could not escape being devalued by the collective how can we? To discover what you have to give, what you must live out, and then to offer it up even if it is rejected or ignored – simply because it is your soul’s purpose. That is individuation.
We may be blocked, or thwarted. The individuation process offers no guarantees. We will at some point encounter insurmountable obstacles and then we must accept and dig more deeply to find a deeper clearer sense of our soul’s purpose. We may even have to accept that what we believed was our calling was not, or that a purpose has been served, a chapter has been closed and it is time to discover a new purpose. Individuation does not inherently lead even to internal success or victory. It often leads, in fact, to surrender. But ultimately, the individuating soul is sacrificing external comforts and approbation (even if they end up receiving them) and facing powerful internal fears and anxieties to give the world their most personal, valuable gifts.
Participating in the processes of individuation increases one’s awareness of and responsibilities to confront the shadows of the collective. It requires ego-strength and sufficient differentiation and distance from the unconscious to recognize its symbols and signs and symptoms, and then, to listen, contemplating their messages. Individuation means grounding powerful instinctive energies from within and without while holding on to your humanity.
Individuation is what allows us to resist ego-inflation. Individualism is a grandiose denial of inalienable interconnectedness. Individuation maintains awareness of limitation, vulnerability, fallibility, and humility.
An archetype that is always dangerously present in individuation processes is the Sage, the Guru, the Healer, The Wise One. All archetypes are bivalent – with positive and negative aspects. The Guru, the Healer can also be a Snake Oil Salesman, a Huckster a Cult Leader, a Manipulator. When we are possessed, overcome by an archetype, or when such images are projected onto us by others, we may unconsciously exploit instinctive energies for power, or personal satisfaction. When we confuse our finite fragile humanity with a powerful species-wide instinct, we can be capable of great destruction or megalomania. Archetypal energies tempt us to believe that we are greater, more powerful than we are. The only antidote is humility.
So this is part of the journey of individuation too. To hang on to our humanity when instinctive archetypal energies are activated. Such archetypes surge up from within – and our society and culture instinctively pull for them, assigning them to us whether they serve us, match us, mirror us individually or not. An incomplete, oppressive, collectively imposed archetype is a stereotype. This is also the work of individuation: To be aware of the gifts and dangers of archetypal energies – how they can serve and malform us, help and harm each other.
It is very hard to make something a personal value when it isn’t a cultural one. It takes a great deal of psychological and emotional labor. The process of individuation is learning withstand without internalizing both the positive and negative projections of others as we simultaneously labor to take back all that we project out and on to others. To work to see others as clearly and compassionately as we see ourselves. And the reverse.
Here is what individuation will never do: Make you normal. Make life easier. Make you less lonely.
Here is what it gets you: A chance to feel well-used and self-regarding at once. The clarity that comes from facing your best and worst self without turning away or collapsing. The ability to tell your own small piece of the truth, and to offer it up to the world for whatever it may be worth, and to stand side by side with others, all in our own skin, responsible for ourselves and to each other, alone together.
I recently had the opportunity to talk out loud on the phone with a friend I’ve been talking to in my head and that I’ve known through social media for over a decade. We talked about how, and why we try to hold empathy for those who see reality in diametrically opposed ways. (And talking to her in real life was just as lovely has it has been talking to her in my head.)
When I asked Martha to help me with my empathy, she started with the topic of grief. If you are like me, struggling with empathy as the world seems to split apart at its social seams, Martha’s perspective may help guide you back to a version of yourself that you can live with.
She suggests that the anti-science, narcissistic, antisocial Covid deniers are displaying a collective grief response. We are all grieving the loss of big things and small things. But some of us are rushing into a collective denial of death and loss. That grief wears differently on people, depending on what self they brought to the grieving process. And living in an individualistic society that values health as a moral good is not helping.
Dr. Cottom had her own astute reasons for trying to preserve her empathy, and I encourage you to read her thoughts.
When empathy atrophies, so does curiosity.
When empathy dies, so does humility.
Most of us do not know when we are using solid reasoning or when we are caught up in rationalizing. Our thinking function is conscripted by a visceral reactive certainty a lot – maybe most – of the time. This instinctive certainty can be a formed or malformed response that may either allow us to react quickly to threats in our immediate environment, or may cause us to profoundly misperceive reality. Our discernment is distorted by such things as traumatic history of betrayal, violation or harm by authority figures, by disinformation, by exploitation and oppression and manipulation.
Most of us test our reasoning out with others for confirmation, and almost all of us, in the throes of a trauma or fear response, will seek out reference points and relationships that validate our gut instincts.We are all capable of, and regularly get swept up in a flock that is flying in the wrong direction.
There are bad actors and those who embrace explicit cruelty in every community. Psychopathy is an archetypal, and therefore universal aspect of the self. Evil exists in anyone and everyone and in our own selves. Evil is not merely manifest in “the other.” And there are lots of folks who are just lost and panicked whether they admit it or not, and everyone is looking for some body of thought to hang onto as “good and true.” There are many kinds of wounds, many kinds of reflexive, instinctive unexamined responses, many different shapes to our collective fears, many kinds of projections and everyone yearning for simple, clear, concrete moral binaries to save them in the midst of a whirlwind.
We all have and will be tempted to grab at a falsehood, cling to it and demand that it be true until we are forced to come to terms with the uncertainty of it all. I’ve seen it in myself and others and in the entire flock more times than I can count, and through other frightening, deadly and novel diseases.
We are a messy confused, reactive, frightened, aggressive species. And we are most dangerous when we are certain.
This essay explores Jung’s Visions, Notes on the Seminar 1930-1934, Lecture 9, December 8th, 1930, pp 155-157 (To read the Visions essay series from the beginning please start with Seminar #84 )
The next vision is long and Jung’s discussion of it is cursory. This essay, (and the following to be post at the end of the month) will primarily focus on my own amplifications and questions regarding this content.
I beheld a man on horseback riding over a mountain stream. The rider looked down and saw a man baptizing himself in the water below. He took from his saddlebag a few grains of wheat and threw them upon the water, and it sprang into fully ripe stalks.
The banks beside the stream became steeper until at last the rider found himself in a narrow defile of rock. He then came out into a plain, in the full sun light, and I saw that the man on horseback was the (American) Indian (from her previous dreams). Before him was an ancient city, white, with many domes.
A great crowd was gathered in the square. The (American) Indian looked up and saw in the sky a golden sun. Then he saw the crowd was worshipping the sun. There was also a fire, and near the fire a fountain. The Indian held his face and body over the fire and then stood up unharmed.
Then the crowd shot arrows at him but without harming him Finally an arrow hit him in the left leg below the knee; he pulled it out and blood flowed.
The Indian then returned to his village, was welcomed and all the animals come out from the woods and the fish throw themselves on dry land
Characters: The indigenous man who has been a guide or psychopomp leading her through these visualizations, a crowd of sun worshipers who then attack the Native American man, the villagers that welcome him home. The dreamer/visioner is present only as “beholder”
Exposition: The psychopomp grows corn stalks magically after seeing a man baptized.
Turning Point: He moves through a dark, narrow passage and comes out into a wide open plain.
Lysis: He is attacked in this open plain, but the attacks are futile, causing only a glancing injury. He returns to his home and his community and the animals celebrate and welcome him.
One point we must touch upon is the role of the therapeutic relationship and its influence upon the content that the dreamer/visioner is producing. Jung has already clarified that it would be a clinical error to associate the guide or psychopomp in these visions with himself as the therapist. This would intensify the dreamer’s idealization and dependency upon the therapist, and the dreamer would be less likely to recognize this symbols as aspects of her own psyche. This is her inner guide, her internal leading, a piece of her own soul leading her through trials and toward her inner home.
But an idealizing transference to the psychotherapist exists nonetheless. The dreamer entangled in their own complexes, and the dreams and visions they produce, can be profoundly influenced by the desire to be pleasing or fascinating to the therapist. Such active imagination and contemplative exercises are closely related to self-hypnosis, and even the therapist’s activated curiosity or excitement about an image can operate as a post-hypnotic suggestion, encouraging the dreamer to produce more and more such content. In this way, Jung often seems “taken in” or swept up by the richness and intensity of the visions, and one wonders if his cursory treatment of this vision is in anyway influence by a sensation that the dreamer may have (unconsciously) produced this complex vision, almost over-loaded with archetypal content, to try to fascinate him. If/When a therapist sense that the dreamer is producing dreams to bring the therapist close, rather than to follow their own trail of symbolic content, it is important for the therapist to step back from taking an active role in amplification, to modulate their excitement, and to leave the images and symbols in the dreamer’s lap to find meaning in for themselves.
The next issue we need to highlight is the process and influence of cryptomnesia on the dreaming and associative process. Cryptomnesia – the resurfacing of a forgotten memory –may feel like one’s own idea or production when it returns. I wrote about a small experience of a forgotten memory here: where a rhythmic phrase, divorced from its origins, floated up into my awareness and I was grateful that something about it felt so deeply familiar that I googled it and discovered its source, rather than inadvertently plagiarizing it in my writings.
I recently tweeted about a dream I had on twitter, where I was served a sweet and starchy tropical fruit pudding that I identified as “poi” and that I ate with my fingers. I have never had poi to my knowledge, and have no conscious awareness of ever being told what the ingredients are or how one should eat it. I had no idea as I shared the dream if it was proper or offensive etiquette to have eaten it with my fingers. Yet, someone quickly confirmed that poi is a fruit pudding with starchy tarot root intended to be eaten by hand. This could seem like some synchronicitous event – information emerging from the “collective unconscious” or some deep, universal archetypal symbol – that I had no way of knowing about – but it is far more likely that when I was 5 years old in 1969, the tenth anniversary of Hawaii’s statehood that my kindergarten included some information about Hawaiian culture in the curriculum to commemorate the event. My psyche relied on an image, stored in my memory banks, to represent an experience of pleasurable, healing nurturance.
I suspect that there are some significant images that may rely on such cryptomnesias in this vision, as well as some parts of this vision that may have been unintentionally produced to enthrall Jung.
We will look more closely at these elements and that the archetypes presented in this vision in the next essay.
NOTE: This essay is one of my Seminar Essays which are generally only available by subscription behind a paywall. This one is posted publicly both as a sample and for use in teaching and for workshops I facilitate on these subjects. More information on this twice monthly essay series available by clicking here.
This is an educational/experiential workshop designed to support therapists and counselors, artists and creatives, meditators and those engaged in spiritual practices and anyone who wants to learn to work with their dreams in service of healing, creative or contemplative processes.
Workshop sessions will be convened via Zoom on Friday’s at 9:00AM Pacific, 10AM Mountain, 11AM Central and 12PM Eastern for one hour, over 10 consecutive Fridays.
Meeting dates: Fall/Winter session dates:
October 8, 13, 22, 29, November 5, 12, 19 (off on the 26th for holiday) December 3, 10, 17
For more information or to register: click here.
I’d been on an oral chemotherapy for nearly three years after a few rounds of inpatient chemo. The average life expectancy on this medication was ten years. I was told I would need to take it “for life.” So, seven years left? Just long enough to see both my children graduate from high school and not much beyond that.
If I was lucky. If the cancer didn’t mutate. If the chemo didn’t damage my heart or destroy my liver first. If I didn’t succumb to anaphalaxis as I tried to continuously suppress my body’s allergic response to the medication with steroids and antihisitimines.
The treatment fatigued me, caused my joints to swell painfully and intermittently – for several days I would lose the use of a hand, and then a week or so later, a foot, a hip, or a knee. My brain felt like a soundtrack played at sixty percent of the normal speed. My short term memory and my ability to organize any more than the smallest amounts information evaporated. Most people assume those who have cancer are actively dying, or that they don’t have cancer anymore and that all the unpleasantness has all been tucked neatly away in the past. Almost no one could comprehend or remember that had cancer, and would have cancer, long term. If I seemed “normal enough” one day, they would tell me that I looked fantastic – and then from that point on assume that my limitations were because I was lazy, ditzy, entitled, rejecting, withholding, depressed, or not “pushing myself” sufficiently. I flailed, forgot and failed again and again – as I attempted to meet the emotional and logistical demands of friends, clients, and kids, as well as the bills, the school, the neighbors, and the community.
I had no prognosis. No cancer co-hort. I was a cancer “unicorn” as my oncologist said. “Its never good to be a rare case, and worse to be a unique one” the resident said one cheery afternoon at my hospital bedside. It was astounding to me that with almost eight billion people on the planet that there was any unique, undiscovered human experience that remained.
The existential isolation – the alienation from the world of “healthy-normals” was almost unbearable. Chatting at parent gatherings or dinner parties – listening to vacation plans years ahead, or talk about their fantasies of life after their kids left for college, their expectations of retirement and eventual grandchildren made me want to scream or flip over the dining room table. The palpable discomfort when someone would try to include me in conversation by asking where I saw myself in five or ten years – and I dared to answer truthfully: I didn’t think ahead because the road ahead was heartbreaking and moved me closer to deterioration and death. The future had been amputated from my imagination the moment I received my peculiar diagnosis. I lived right now, or at most one or two days ahead when my children needed me to be planful. That was it. When I disrupted other’s naïve futurizing, they looked at me aghast, as if I had placed a turd on their dinner plate.
But I had buried too many people whose denial of death had not extended their lives, and if avoiding thinking or speaking of death could save any of us, I had a solid handful of chosen family members would all still be walking around on earth. I’d watched my mother fantasize about getting better even as she moved into residential hospice care. Ellie asked for a second opinion a day or two before her death.
I spent a lot of time talking to dead people. I would argue with them, ask forgiveness, tell them how hurt I was that they had all abandoned me. They were the only people I knew who had lived for some period of time with this much uncertainty. I was enraged they weren’t here to console and advise me: “Oh, I when I was on chemo, I sucked on frozen fruit to soothe my mouth sores… ” I wished they could mentor me in finding the right way to sort all this discomfort, fear, confusion and uncertainty in my head. I yearned to be understood, and who else could understand the psychological labor of such uncertainty?
But, they were dead after all. They had walked ahead of me on this path, one after another, to oblivion, some decades ahead, some just a few months before. It felt dangerous to yearn for them while I was sick, terrifying to identify with them as though it would tie our fates together. If I allowed myself to miss them a thick cord of attachment might yank me into the abyss after them.
I could touch acceptance and peace sometimes, meditate or write my way to it. I would take a few deep gulps of liberation– and then sink back into the existential netherworld – alienated from the community of the living and the family of the dead. I needed to find an in-between place to accept my reality and everything that might come to me in the future. Miraculous cure, remission, resurrection – or deterioration, suffering, loss, death.
My grandmother used to tell a story about caring for my mother, who contracted small pox in infancy. The doctor sent her home from the hospital, saying there was nothing further they could do for her. My grandmother had been completely frantic for many days trying to manage the baby’s fever, “doing” anything and everything she could think of to keep the baby comfortable and alive, feeding her medicines, covering her with poultices and cool compresses. Exhausted, she left the hospital carrying a baby she was told would die. But when she got home and put the baby in the crib – a sudden gratitude came over her, her love for the baby girl became far more important than her fear about losing her. She said she felt an almost mystical calmness, knowing that whatever happened next, whether her infant lived or died, the baby would be all right. She held and patted the baby calmly, holding her against her skin – not driven by fear for the first time in days – and in an hour or so, the baby’s fever broke. And obviously, my mother lived, until I had buried her a few months earlier.
Maybe my mother would have lived anyway. Maybe my grandmother being able to hold the baby with the equanimity of love rather than terror activated some healthy, secure, immuno-response in the infant. Maybe the action that was needed was fundamentally different than my grandmother could imagine when she was terrorized. Maybe what my mother needed only became clear to my grandmother only after she withstood her terror past the point of anything she imagined she could tolerate.
I was near to that very breaking point. I needed to blow the gunk out of my pipes.
I was familiar with the psilocybin studies and their remarkable effectiveness with end of life anxieties. I’d tracked them and kept them in the back of my mind as my mother and our dear friend Ellie were dying, in case it was something that they showed any interest in. I’d never used psychedelics with any healing intentions. In college I once “babysat” a house full of college friends who dropped acid “for fun” and spent a long boring evening watching them discover the meaning of life in the bathroom faucets and an anthill on the driveway. That same year I had eaten one magic mushroom with friends in the parking lot at Disneyland and spent the evening laughing hysterically in The Happiest Place on Earth.
Would such a thing help? Was I even experiencing “end of life anxiety”? What I felt most consistently was exhaustion from working hard on an intractable dilemma. I felt fucking frustrated. I felt alone. I felt overwhelmed by the relentless impossible expectations of others. I felt unsure of how to contend with the clinical “uniqueness” of my circumstance. I felt terrified of further harming my children by dying, or worse, by a long, protracted, resource-consuming deterioration on the way to death.
Traditional religious narratives about reincarnation and other forms of life after death were not comforting or compelling. I wasn’t looking for reassurance that I would live on. Admittedly, I would actively imagine the essence of all my dead ones, my personal communion of saints – lingering somewhere nearby where they could hear me cry and rail at them, but I did not cognitively place any faith in the idea of human personality continuing in recognizable form after death.
I could imagine “my” matter and energies being repurposed, recycled more easily than I could hope for resurrection. “I” would dissolve most likely, leaving an imprint behind in the memories of others. The causal chains that I had initiated or perpetuated or disrupted would continue to unfold throughout time. Perhaps some of the good I had done for my clients and children would be passed down through their off-spring and their communities.
My illness taught me so much that I’d wished I had known while I was caring for the dying. I’d spent all my energy managing my own terror, trying everything I could to alleviate their discomfort, and creating as many indelible memories together as possible. I’m not sure I could comprehend that as I struggled to say goodbye to them, they were saying goodbye to everything and everyone, contending with the imminent erasure of their beings, their memories, their loves, their hatreds, the loss of their very identities.
As my mother lay dying she cried out: “But how will you ever survive without me?” The violation of the parental mandate to protect her off-spring was so excruciating that even though I was fifty years old, she assumed her absence could jeopardize my survival. When I was diagnosed eighteen months later, I was grateful that my mother had not lived to experience her daughter face a confounding, eventually terminal illness.
We may be able to bear our own sufferings, but the suffering of children, of any age, is intolerable. The idea that I would be responsible, against my will, for the pain that my deterioration and death would inflict on my children tore my brain to pieces. Trauma was coming into their lives through me, through my body, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. As an adoptive mother this horror was compounded by the fact that both of my children had already lost a mother before they were placed in my arms. Now, my threatened departure would compound such monumental losses. The weight of this was the most excruciating suffering of my life, one that I wrestled with daily. I tried to rally and find the energy to perform all the mothering duties I could for a pair of bereaved and traumatized tweens. How could I ever come to some kind of peace if it meant abandoning and harming them? All the saints and avatars who faced their death with blissed out lucidity and martyred acceptance had it easy – none that I could think of were mothers of young children. Facing death, I enviously imagined, would be a comparative walk in the park, if my children were consolidated adults or I was child-free.
I hoped my family and I would be spared somehow, that a miracle would happen – that the few extremely lopsided statistics that might be generalizable to my unique case might tip in my favor. Fewer than fifteen percent of “normal” cases on this treatment ever tested clear enough to stop chemotherapy. Of that fifteen percent, only half stayed in remission in the first year off of medication. But even as I hoped for the miraculous, I knew I could not demand or expect it. Miracles must always be surprising.
This all churned through me for the few coherent, non-fatigued hours of my day. These were the fears that haunted my dreams and startled me awake in the dead of the night.
I wanted relief from the churning and the isolation and turmoil. I’d gone as far on my own as I could.
I re-read and reviewed all the studies. Followed the news from the psychedelic research organizations. I bought the pertinent books and dusted off my old Ram Dass paperbacks. I sought to understand more about the sacred function of plant medicines in the traditional communities that were intimate with them. I became increasingly convicted that this was what I needed to do to get to the “other side” of the psychospiritual mountain I was trying to climb.
The university studies were full or had moved on to test new populations, as psilocybin was already conclusively effective in circumstances like my own. I fanned out into my community. I sought out a facilitator. I interviewed with a few people and hemmed and hawed and learned to beat around the bush and read between the lines in emails and skype calls –cognizant that the support I was seeking was necessary and substances, even for established therapeutic purposes, were illegal. One suggested I travel with them to South America. I could barely commute into the city and back twice a week. South America wasn’t happening.
Finally I spoke to someone who asked all the same assessment questions I would have. A person whose natural clinical skills I would have been pleased to encounter in a supervisee. They worked primarily with people who psychedelics to address PTSD, but it was clear they would be quite capable of withstanding whatever existential anxieties that I might need to process on my “journey.”
I called the bravest, most supportive, most attuned friend I had to see if she felt comfortable giving me her apartment for an 8 hour stretch. She didn’t hesitate, and we scheduled for a month or so later.
I did not confer with my oncologist. Perhaps, if my doctor had better bedside manner and basic emotional-intelligence I might have considered it – but when you have a cancer so rare as to be unique you need a cutting-edge scientist, not a hand-holder. As it stood, I did my own medical research for contraindications and adverse interactions. The daily chemotherapy I took was primarily processed by the liver and in order to avoid additional stress to that organ – I chose to discontinue the chemo for 4 days before and 3 after “the experience.” I’d already been told that if I ever needed a tooth pulled or surgery I should discontinue for a week – so I assumed that if it was safe enough to miss a week for a tooth extraction, it was safe enough to miss a week to see if I could gain some peace of mind.
I spent the intervening weeks honing my intentions and journaling:
I want to be open to miraculous healing without losing access to a healthy relationship with death. I want to live freely with the reality of death, accept the gifts it has given me. I want to accept all that I cannot remedy.
I want to release any fear for my children’s future, trusting that their life is their own. I would like to parent from love and faith, not from fear.
I want to be able to feel how to make decisions and prioritize my energies based on whatever time I have allotted to me. Whether my time is shorter or longer I want to do whatever I am meant to do with that time. I want to cherish time and never waste it.
I want all my archetypal guides and guardians, all the bohdisattvas to surround me. I want to draw strength from the love of friends who have faced illness and death and not be afraid of their presence in my heart.. My grandparents, my in-laws, Tommy, Bob, Ellie, Jason. My parents only if they can serve some healing function. I ask them to help me set down old ways, and help me release all that is unnecessary.
I want to find a new center to live from, now that my former life has been stripped away. I want to locate that center, and operate out of it, and have a clear sense of what is, and is not my business. I want to work in the world from a new center.
I wake up early to ride the 6:30 train into the city. I am mildly nervous – not because I am scared of what might happen, but because I am worried about what might not happen. The facilitator arrives with nuts, fruit, chocolate, an eye mask, an expensive speaker that they synch to their phone, and a package of novelty socks. I choose a pair with Van Gogh’s sunflowers on them.
The ceremonial frame is thoughtful, brief and to the point. The instructions for the journey are simple: Say “yes” to every aspect of the journey. Move through every doorway. Accept whatever might come.
It takes a while to begin. I wait thirty or forty minutes – and sit up frustrated and as sober as a judge. I increase the dose, by only half of what the facilitator suggests – and settle back down into the cozy nest of pillows on my friend’s floor, put the eye mask back on, and begin to sink into meditation.
I am at once hit with wave after wave of grief. For friends and family gone for decades, and for those who left a few year, or a few brief months earlier. Their faces, their stories, their departures assault me, in vivid detail, and I am flooded with the emotional realization of how much, how many I have lost. The sorrow, the pain feels good somehow – like a tension that had existed just under my sternum had finally cracked open. I breathe into that opening, and weep quietly for a time.
I then find myself in a particular space that has come to me in dreams and in meditation since I began treatment:
I lay on the ground, on my back, on the ground of a contained and insulated biosphere, surrounded by plants with broad leaves and the smell of rich loamy earth. The arched glass dome above me is silvered with mercury. The quicksilver allows only a healing opaque light into the sphere while it also obscures and protects me. Its outer shell impermeable and reflective.
And for months I lay there in that spirit-bubble. Inert. Unable to move at first, and then over time, having no idea how or where to move.
I had fallen into a new world. A space between life and death.
But now, under this dome, toward my left, a pair of doors opens to an outer-world. Geoffrey Holder, in his guise as Baron Samedi, the Voudou Lord of the Dead, stands in the doorway with his top hat, as he had in so many of my childhood dreams. This time I am happy, relieved to see him, a familiar face, a guide I have come to respect and trust. I follow him out of the grey light of the protective dome into a lush landscape of tall, broad leafed bright tropical plants. Sometimes he dances – the banda dance – along the trail ahead of me, sometimes he circles me. We move along this way without speaking, up and down hills, deeper and deeper into a dense undergrowth, the plants and trees growing taller as we proceed. Eventually the canopy of leaves overhead blocks the sun, and we move through a green-gold glow of filtered sunlight.
And then the path ends.
I stand there and wait for guidance – Geoffrey Holder gestures toward the rainforest but doesn’t move in that direction himself. All my dead people arrive. My mother, my grandparents, my old friends Bob and Tommy. My grandmother-in-law and father-in-law. Ellie is there near the front. And Jason. They look at me expectantly. I don’t know what any of them want from me. The path has come to an end! I can’t go further – there is nowhere to go! Increasingly agitated, I pace back and forth on the soft dirt trail, for what seems like a very long time. I wait for some opening somewhere to emerge. The dead just stand there, with their hands in their pockets, looking at the impenetrable thicket of thorns and vines.
The facilitator notices my impatient breathing and asks if I am okay.
“There is supposed to be a path here! They led me down this path into a thick forest and it just stopped – and they keep looking at me like I’m supposed to do something but there is no path!”
“Maybe you are forging the path.” the facilitator responded.
“Fuck” I hear myself respond, my voice too loud. “FUCK. You are totally right and I hate that. I wanted a path. But ugh, of course you are right.”
A machete appears, or maybe Baron Samedi hands me one. I step into the bush and begin hacking. The dead come along with me, but Baron stays behind, watching me as I hack a narrow indentation through the thick foliage. The work is hot, buggy, sweaty. Thorns scratch red stinging welts into my arms. The dead have become smaller, floating above the ground. They hover hear my head, beside me, just beyond my peripheral vision. They don’t lead or guide or advise me. They don’t pull or assist or help. They aren’t followers. They accompany me. That’s it. That is their function. They keep me company through the hard, tedious slog. I am accompanied but the labor is mine alone.
It grows darker as I continue to whack away through the forest, when I come to the edge of a high bluff. The sun has recently set, there is a deep red glow along a mountain ridge on the horizon and the first stars are emerging high in the dark sky. The dead ones seem to have all have left, except for Jason. He takes me to the top of an unfathomably tall mountain. We sit at the edge of earth’s atmosphere and he shows me sunset after sunset after sunset. Thousands of sunsets, decades’ worth. Each one is excruciatingly beautiful, setting the entire sky ablaze. After what seems like hours he turns to me and he says the only spoken words I will encounter in this vision:
“Do you see? Endings are so beautiful and important.”
I leave Jason and the mountain. The stars and the night sky disappear. I am flung into what I can only describe as a wash cycle submerged in a spinning tub of dirty water. Here I encounter all kinds of imbalanced relationships, connections turned toxic, deteriorating friendships, people I feel trapped by, clients I can no longer serve, acquaintances better avoided.
These are the attachments I must release, and they are being spun away, the psychological cords that connect us dissolve. These are all the relationships that I gave more to than I received, more than was healthy for either of us. Those that could not give back to me sufficiently, even when they wanted to, even when they tried. I am responsible for staying attached as long as I did, for over-investing. Many of them are angry, hurt, disappointed as I re-collect my energies. I try to find a way to disconnect from them in this spinning whirlpool, without abandoning or distressing them – but I soon see that this is impossible. I allow the severance to happen and acknowledge that it is necessary even if it is experienced as brutal or hurtful on the other end. These were the relationships that persisted in believing that I should give more when I had nothing at all, those who felt entitled to “their share” of the finite energies that belonged first and foremost to myself and my children. We spun around in the swirling waters, as if circling an invisible drain. Some were sucked under, and my task was to resist trying to rescue them, and to avoid their grasping when I could barely stay afloat myself. I had been tasked with saying “yes” to the challenges presented to me, and this was the challenge of saying “No.”
In time, the “waters” began to rinse clear and settle down. The hungry ghosts were gone.
Everything transformed into simple, hollow line drawings, like a Therber cartoon come to life. I was a thin outline of myself, swimming though the air, among a few other pencil line caricatures spotted here and there at a distance. I recognize one nearer me to be a “drawing” of Carl Jung swimming by. He conveys, without speaking, that he is relieved that I see him as human and fallible, as a fellow traveler. I convey to him that I am just grateful for the company he has offered as I have spent so much time negotiating these strange waters entirely alone.
The scene changes:
I am in the desert on some high purchase, looking over a wide basin with dramatic mountains on the distant horizon – a Georgia O’Keefe vision. Perhaps this is the same place I sat with Jason to watch the sunsets –but now I am in the bright sun and can see my environs. I am in the center of a rounded stone courtyard or patio, with four whitewashed adobe columns squaring the edges of the circle. It could be an outdoor stage – like the orchestra of a Greek amphitheater, or an altar of some kind, or maybe the transcept of some outdoor church. It is unquestionably a sacred, central space.
I know that this space is my responsibility – I am the guardian, and it is gloriously empty. The emptiness is an exquisite relief. There is no fountain, no piece of art, no bench or pulpit, or pew, no bird feeder or garden. Just stone slabs and adobe and sun and sky and wind and the distant mountains. There are ravens and hawks, perhaps even some eagles, soaring in lazy spirals high in the sky overhead.
I lay on my back on the warm stone slab covered with pebbles and stare up at the sunny blue sky. I can feel my children nearby, although I cannot see them. Their souls circle in the air like the birds – in and out of the sky above me, in and out of this holy place. It is clear that as caretaker of this place that nothing and no one may enter without my permission. I am not to allow any junk, clutter, noise or distraction into this gloriously empty arena. I feel a deep sense of peace as I imagine my children “landing” here after a challenging adventure, lingering to rest and heal as long as they desire, before flying off out into the wider world again. It feels easy, effortless to preserve this space for all of us, and to release them to the danger and adventure of their fates -as naturally as I would allow a wild bird to land and refresh themselves and return to the wild without excessive worry or concern. The wild is where they belong, whatever the outcome. I do not have to protect them or provide them with anything else. They have eternal permission to retreat to this refuge. I do not need prepare them for anything – Nature herself has done that, and they have instinct and the still small voice to guide them. I only have to preserve this space for them to move in and out of when they are ready and as they choose.
I weep with relief as something heals inside of me. I do not need to be afraid of leaving them – because they are in the process themselves of leaving and returning, and will always have access to what is permanent between us. This feels as it should.
It occurs to me as I lie there, that I do not know if this “space” exists in life, or in death, or both or neither. I do not know if creating and keeping this space, literally or archetypally is my life assignment for whatever time I have left – or if this is an image of work already completed, and a taste of the peaceful emptiness of death. I realize, within the vision, that it doesn’t matter –It is the same responsibility, the same task, and the same relief – past or present, alive or dead.
My teenagers lives will be what they will be. They will meet their fates and falter or fulfil their destinies. There is nothing I can or should do to interfere with that. My own fate will impact their for good and for ill no matter if I live or die. I have given them a protected, maternal space, they have eternal permission to rest in the center of my soul, for all eternity. It has always existed, and will continue to exist, inside of them, inside of me – as surely and as permanently as I hold the accepting, restful love of the dead ones inside my own heart. Perhaps life would offer me the opportunity to create such a space in the external world, but if so – it would only serve to reinforce this archetypal reality – a receptive maternal container open to the world, to the sky, in every direction. I do not know whether my parenting work is “done” or only begun, but the vision assures me my work thus far, has been sufficient.
I weep and weep with relief, the eye-mask absorbs my tears.
I then I find myself standing in the center of this outdoor altar, this squared circle alone. What am I to do with this space, what should I build or manifest here? How should I use it?
My first thought is that I could simply enjoy the emptiness for a good long time. The unobstructed crystalline view. The wind and the sun and the clouds and the mountains. This empty uncluttered space exists for me, a power-spot, a place to feel my relationship to the earth, to the universe. I imagined I could enjoy this emptiness forever, and never be moved to “do anything” with it at all.
Yet, as I sat there – I began to suspect that lessons, spirits, visitors, leadings might materialize here. Anything might emerge from the ground, or the world around or the sky above or the valley below. I sit still and receive whatever might grow, blow or wander in. Animals, dreams, wildflowers, storms, strokes of lightening, or acts of God could arrive or descend. I could sit still and receive them all.
I realize can also create anything I like here, give away anything that I generate here, sing out to this world from this stronghold if I choose to, if something rose up in me that I wanted to create or share or communicate. I could release a message and it would ring out to the far mountains. It wasn’t mandatory, nothing would be extracted from me, but if I am filled with something to share I can do so from this platform. It is a space where anything at all, and nothing at all could happen.
This altar offered a restfulness so deep, so rich, so free from all striving or obligations – that it was almost unfathomable to me. I could respond to what presented itself, or I could do nothing at all. And it occurred to me again, that I had no idea if this is what the rest of my life on this planet might feel like, or if this is an image of “resting in eternal peace.” And also, not knowing didn’t matter at all, because it felt eternally true.
The facilitator let me know that seven hours of real time passed, although if felt like twenty years in the land of Narnia. I thank the souls and entities I met along the way: Geoffrey Holder/Baron Samedi, all my dead family by blood and by choice, Jason, Carl Jung, and the birds I had watched circling in the sky.
I thank the facilitator for their care and labor, especially for their help at a crucial and frustrating moment. I eat some blueberries and dark chocolate, and sip some herbal tea. I pay in cash before the facilitator leaves and my friend returns home. We flop on the couch and spend the rest of the evening watching gardening celebrity Monty Don help people transform their little dead courtyards into exquisite gardens. When it is time for bed, I sleep peacefully through the night – with some light waking here and there that I use to revisit the scenes I had passed through. After brunch the next morning, I feel enough myself to travel back home.
A few days later, the facilitator offered me a recording of our session that I chose to delete without listening to. I trust that if my psyche forgot or confabulated through some of the experience – just as we unconsciously reshape and find coherence in our nighttime dreams upon waking – that it did so for good reason. What I retain, and how I do or do not retain it feels to me to be as elemental to the process as the medicine journey itself.
The facilitator scheduled a follow up session to process anything that might have been unsettling. I appreciated that this is a responsible practice, that I would offer myself if I did such work, but I felt no need for it. The experience was grounding, not unsettling. I felt quite lucid and oriented through the entire experience – maybe because I had kept the dose low and set my intentions clearly. Or maybe because I had been working with my dreams, and active imagination practices for decades and interacting with the parts of my being and brain that the mushrooms brought forward were second nature. Or maybe the plant medicine had simply granted me the capacity to work my way through the mental/emotional/spiritual challenges I had been wrestling with for years with an intensity of focus and endurance that was beyond my day to day capacity.
The next day I took a long walk with my husband, and shared the events I had experienced with him. I made some notes in my journal. I drew a silly picture of the overlook that offered me such a wide view of the world. And then, I knew all I had to do was simply step back, return to life and let it all sink in.
In the months that followed, the lessons I had been offered solidified on their own, and. continue to solidify. I saw my boundaries shift and consolidate around protecting the stillness that had stayed with me. I watched my interactions with extraneous, disruptive relationships rearrange – many coming to a close entirely, some gently, some abruptly.
As I headed into my next round of medical tests, I noticed I was not afraid. The results could be negative, positive or neutral. The scans would either change everything, or change nothing. I would accept and respond to whatever came. I no longer thought of my mother or Ellie or any of the rest as “ahead” of me on a road that would lead to inevitability. There was no path to follow. They had all walked their own routes and met their own fates. My fate was my own, and one that I would continue to have carve out for myself, like it or not. If “bad” news came, and it meant it was time to begin the beautiful and important works of ending. If “good” or neutral news came – it meant that I could continue to hold and solidify a protected nesting space for my children as they became young adults. I could continue to “swim” in waters near to Jung but not centered on him. And I would continue to move toward that peace-filled powerful plateau, where I could create or respond as I felt led. Whatever happened, there was nothing to fret or worry about.
A few weeks later the result came in and were surprisingly positive, miraculous even. A cancer that in its usual manifestations is almost always chronic – incurable but manageable – was no longer detectable, in my spinal fluid, in my bone marrow, in my blood, or on the MRI’s of my spine. After almost three years of side effects, I could stop the chemotherapy. I watched, over the next several months –cognitive processing speed and executive functioning returned to near normal – although it left more and larger swiss cheese holes in my memory than before. I gained weight back, my appetite returned, and although the cancer had left some permanent nerve damage, the other side effects lifted with each passing week.
I noticed how much of my guilt and feelings of failure stemmed from the confusion and fatigue of the medication. I became remorseless about setting limits with those who had constantly called me to overextend myself. I decided that the boundaries the cancer and chemotherapy had set for me were boundaries I would respect for life, as there was no knowing when it would return. I would guard that inner/outer temple, vigilantly and for the rest of my days.
Over the summer we would vacation in New Mexico, and I would recognize the landscape of my vision, and begin to organize a fantasy of moving when our nest was empty in a handful of years. By mid-September it was clear that our kids were suffering in a deteriorating school, and that there was no compelling reason to remain on the East Coast. By October I had found a house, on an outcropping of a foothill, on the precipice of an enormous basin surrounded by mountains. On Christmas Eve we arrived in our new home, and I sat near the window each winter evening and watched the first of hundreds, hopefully thousands – of sunsets.
I know that the vision I was given made permanent changes in my behavior and my being, created new neuro-pathways, and led me all the way to my core. I do not prescribe or recommend such experiences for others, although I do help people integrate their experiences afterward. But for those who feel led to this on their own – I have no idea what kind of experience may await you. These are just the gifts I was given.
It is only upon writing this, and reviewing the journal entries that preceded this vision that I see how precisely the plant medicine gave me exactly what I asked for. I know now, that I have spent many months since studying psychedelic healings that the medicines most often give supplicants what they need, and not necessarily what they think they want. I am grateful that my requests were aligned with what the medicine wanted to offer me.
Would I do it again? Well over a year later, I can’t imagine the resonance of this experience fading, or needing the plant’s assistance for any problem that life could place in my path. If death were to approach again from such a significant distance as opposed to a sudden stroke of fate ? If I found myself needing to engage in long bittersweet goodbyes with too much time to contemplate my final exit? I might ask the medicine again for help in soothing my sorrows and to shore up my ability to trust and surrender to the course of nature.
But until then, I rest upon this archetypal experience, as real as any lived event, as solid as any formative memory. I continue to wait and watch what emerges as I sit in stillness, occasionally singing out a message into to valley below, accepting whatever tomorrow may bring.
My mother, myself and my step-father on their wedding day, May 1979
… so for many people therapy became a religious ritual, even replacing religious ritual. ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
I first picked up James Hillman’s book: Re-Visioning Psychology in the year 2000. I was frightened to read it, and let it sit on my shelf, un-opened for another three or four years.
I was frightened to read Hillman because the only thing I knew about him when I purchased the book was that he had been a Jungian psychotherapist who stopped practicing because he no longer believed in individual psychotherapy.
Having practised as an analyst for 40 years, he eventually became highly critical of therapy. He argued that the sickness of humanity lay in the world rather than within each person. Therapy should, he believed, change politics, cities, buildings, schools and our relationship with the natural environment rather than focus solely on people’s inner lives. (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2011/dec/21/james-hillman)
I’d spent more than fifteen years invested in my own psychoanalytic psychotherapy, graduated from NYU with my MSW in 1994, spent two more years in post-master’s study to get an Advanced Certificate in Clinical Social Work from the same institution. To earn my licensure, I’d worked for three years in a social service agency as a therapist in a Continuing Day Treatment Program for adults with severe mental illness, developing programing for men and women who had been incarcerated after being charged with violent offenses committed while struggling with untreated psychosis. I’d moonlighted for extra cash at a fee-for-service out-patient rehabilitation clinic – known among my peers as a “Medicaid mill” – a place that churned out services with huge caseloads for therapists who were tired of working retail or waiting tables for ten dollars an hour and preferred to see clients for twelve dollars an hour. I led ninety minute long “Skill building For Early Recovery” groups to a room of sleeping/sleepy people fresh out of detox. I had done all this in order to get my own business cards printed up, find an office to rent by the hour, and hang out my own shingle. My own psychotherapy had saved my life, I’d reckoned, and I needed to pay it back.
So, I was in deep, and not at ready to consider the futility and injustice of the profession.
But a few short years later – now fully immersed, with Manhattan office rent to pay, overwhelmed by student loans, and my name on a plaque at the basement door of a brownstone – I decided to crack it open. I’d begun to have fantasies of escape. Not from the client’s I served, but the model I felt trapped in. The one where people (with their insurance companies in tow) arrived at my office and needed (expected, demanded) that I fix them, and I was expected to be effective.
How can we take back therapy from the killing asymmetry of professionalism and the political abuses of wrong pathologizing, from a system which must find illness in order to promote health and which, in order to increase the range of its helping is obliged to extend the area of sickness. ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
I steeped myself in the psychoanalytic fairy-tales from Once Upon a Time before managed care, and behavioral health and “evidence based treatment’ – a world of psychoanalysis as poetry, a language of intuition and metaphor, of dreams and madness.
But balancing the weight of those treacherous and sometimes frightening journeys into the netherworld against the diagnostic manuals, and insurance deductibles and session capitations and appeals for additional sessions felt like might kill me eventually. The constant tension between the medical expectations of the world that I was licensed to practice in and the silent voice in my psyche that regularly just begged for the gods to soothe my client’s suffering was beginning to tear me apart.
Now to be in soul therapy for growth and realization of personality, symptoms are left out; to be in medical or behavioral therapy for relief of symptomatic afflictions, soul is left out. Soul and symptom have broken in two. ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
Sometimes people would save themselves in my presence and believe that I had saved them. Other times, not nearly as often, but a painful scarring handful of times, the emotional space I attempted to hold for a client did nothing good for them at all, and nothing good for me either, and we parted ways with our hopes dimmed and our hearts broken at the failure of our relationship.
I was far less interested in psychotherapy as a clinical practice than I was in psychotherapy as a path to self-knowledge and liberation from illusion. It wasn’t my merely my profession. It was my salvation. Whatever I had to offer clients were simply the by-products of my attempts to save myself.
How more personal, more confessional can an author be than to expose the depth his religious passion? ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
I read the words of a man who had reached the pinnacle of our profession and a was voicing a nascent disillusionment, one which would grow over the course of forty years until he abandoned practice entirely. This felt dangerous, although I couldn’t say why. I clearly believed in psychotherapy. My entire internal and external world was centered upon it.
A few pages in I would scribble in the margins: “Why does this book, above all else, fill me with envy?” On a blank page between chapters, in the green ink of my favorite four color pen: “I am yearning to expand my vocation beyond the confines of my profession.” A chapter or two later I would write: “What do I do with the yearning to have the time and resources to write about psychotherapeutic thought as a way being, rather than as a method of treating the symptoms of others?”
This was terrifying. It was the faint scent of a liberation that I wouldn’t be able to approach for decades. How would I ever live and work as a psychotherapist who believed that psychotherapy was a way to live in the world when everyone around me, colleagues, clients, office mates, supervisors, teachers and analysts saw it as a mental health profession?
The yearning was suppressed, existing only my the scribbles in the margins of Hillman’s book. I could not afford to indulge it. There were bills, loans and rent to pay, babies to raise, elders to care for, and too many clients to support. The constant and voracious needs of others were a compelling distraction from this unorthodox desire – to be deeply immersed in psychoanalyitically informed contemplation without having to live in the treatment room.
Archetypal psychology is as close to the service and study of the Gods as it is to the service and study of man. ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
Better to ignore such ephemeral desires than explore them. It was only when I re-read Hillman’s book once a year or so, that the hunger for something more, something else was activated. The fantasy would quickly be submerged again in the personal and professional demands and crises that rose up around me like giant waves in a stormy sea.
It was irrational, impossible, it made no sense. I wasn’t the head of a school in Zurich, or teaching at an Ivy League university. I’d refused to pledge allegiance to any psychoanalytic school of thought or institute. I hadn’t published in prestigious journals or established any public reputation or status outside of the clients who recommended me to friends of friends.
I never seemed to be able to travel on wide and crowded paths, and even when I really tried, it never lasted long. I’d applied to psychoanalytic institute, been through the interviews and orientations, been accepted for admission – and then balked, a last minute panic that felt like marrying the wrong man or being buried alive. It was asking me to give up too much. To give up uncovering my own beliefs, to submit to being indoctrinated, initiated into a system of beliefs and loyalties that I would never trust. It felt like an amputation, not an opening.
There seems to be nothing more astounding in the field of psychology than its scarcity of interesting ideas. Whole schools are built upon one book, and one book upon one idea, and that often a simplification or a borrowing. ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
I found ways of moving through these spaces peripherally, taking classes non-matriculated, studying depth psychology as the only therapist in a class full of clergy. Building my own bibliographies, Studying and underlining, journaling, day-dreaming and digesting on my own. Yes, it was lonely, but it didn’t require that I pretend to belong somewhere that I did not.
I’d had a lifetime of attempted belonging, banishment, fleeing, failing and trying again. I had no single story about who I was or what I believed. Yes, I was an exhausting iconoclast, but through no fault of my own. None of the cultural institutions I’d ever encountered – familial, educational, financial, religious, medical, professional – had space for me. All had required, like Cinderella’s sister, that I slice down my foot to fit the shoe.
Nothing is repressed; in fact, nothing can be repressed. The idea of repression belongs to the nineteenth-century’s era of colonialism, predatory industrialism, and white male supremacy when repression was the law of life. ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
I developed an elevator pitch, a social-story that placated all the people who asked me the simplest questions that were impossible to answer:
What do you parents do? Where are you from? How many siblings do you have? Where did you go to school?
I finessed and twisted out of such chit chat – sharing the fuller story only with my therapist and my husband. Not necessarily because I was ashamed, or even because I wanted privacy, but because the telling of it strained believability, carried too many caveats, up-ended the listeners expectations, too often provoked a kind of curiosity that made me feel freakishly objectified. The truth was an obvious and exhausting narrative burden to myself and to others.
Over the decade I spent waiting tables – from age twenty to thirty – I would sometimes drink too much tequila after my shift, and drunkenly beg a yellow cab driver to schlepp me across the bridge out to Astoria. I would use the opportunity and the late-night boredom of the cabbie to practice my short-form life-story. Sometimes it would start to veer too quickly into the horrible and tragic, and I would deflect by sliding seamlessly into tales of domestic make believe.
(Hermes) is God of equivocation as he is guide of the soul. And we each sense him when we would speak most deeply of our souls, for just then we feel the error, the half-truth, the deception in what we are telling. This is not bad faith, unless we forget that Hermes works as well through the messages of lies as through truths. No one can tell the real truth, the whole truth about the soul but Hermes whose style is that of duplicity. ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
Other times, my edited response would seem too sparse, too bare – provoking the driver to press harder as if my vagueness appeared mysterious or tantalizing. It took me years to find a way to offer up an abbreviated narrative that explained something sufficient and normal sounding about who I am and how I came to be – that would neither appear too lurid or too withholding.
I was happiest with those who had run for their lives from their families and their hometowns as I had. We knew only to ask enough to assess if we were exiles or refugees, to let vague answers lie, to read between the lines and respect the fresh wounds and numb scars that we all carried. We would bind ourselves to each other – a chosen family of outcasts of one kind or another.
As we moved through young adulthood, the injuries and losses our loose pack had tried to outrun would catch up with us one by one. Many would die, of AIDS, some by overdose, others by by suicide, by recklessness, by ancient wounds unprocessed and unacknowledged. Some disappeared for years in a swamp of addiction, barely surviving. A very few of us found a way to thrive.
Our cult worships or propitiates actual people— the family, the beloved, the circle of encounters— while ignoring the persons of the psyche who compose the soul and upon whom the soul depends. ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
Many years later I had a dream that my dear friend and office-mate, James and I were at a cocktail party where someone asked me an unanswerable question, and James stepped forward to explain:
“Oh, we are both from the land of broken toys, but we don’t live there anymore”
I didn’t understand how to love or identify with anyone who didn’t come from that land – but had also had to leave so many behind who would or could not leave that land themselves. The world of those who survived such things, and could learn to stop re-enacting trauma seemed very small.
Psychotherapy as a profession I found, strangely, allowed me to escape such dilemmas by requiring that I hide my reality away behind the prohibition against self-disclosure. I was at least able to draw on my history, my reality implicitly and transform it into to something useful. Although the desire to claim space for my whole messy reality emerged over and over again, in my dreams and writings – recurring dreams of shoes that did not fit, of homes that required expansions, additions and excavations – and in my written critiques of myself, my work and my profession – I couldn’t imagine a way to live and work in the world as myself, as I was, with clear access to my values and my whole story, the traumas I had survived, the lessons I learned and all the shit I had seen.
Psychology itself is part of the steady withdrawal of soul into the narrow confines of the human skin. The last stage of this process is shrinking soul to its single and narrowest space, the ego, and thereby swelling this “I” into the inflation called “ego psychology” ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
These are the barest facts, with many vital details still omitted. Every adult in this story is dead now, and there is nothing and no one left to protect or protest.
My parents married young, in college. My father was the son of wealthy robber barons, oil and gas men, and had survived a horrifically abusive mother. One of the few stories I’d heard from his childhood involved his mother trying to cure him of his severe dyslexia by pulling a leather-bound book off of their library shelves, and slapping my father whenever he stumbled on a word. Needless to say it didn’t work, and my profoundly damaged father struggled with basic literacy his whole life. But as the third son of a famous oil family it didn’t impact his prospects or his standard of living much.
My mother was the accidental and unwanted youngest child of a Minnesota farm family. My grandmother had assumed she was menopausal and had surprise baby, begrudgingly, instead. My mother idealized her parents, as did I, but my felt sense of my mother’s childhood seemed crushingly lonely and tedious. She became a wild child, testing all limits, dating her high school basketball coach, staying out regularly past curfew and sneaking cigarettes.
When my parents met in college they fashioned themselves after the archetypes that would later emerge in the 1970’s film, Love Story – a wealthy hockey playing “preppy bastard” and a foul-mouthed fast talking farmer’s daughter. They would marry before graduating from college, and have three children by the time they were twenty-seven.
A child’s memories are always inextricably mixed with and further fabricated by fantasy images. Thus the scenes and persons we “remember” from childhood are personified complexes, personified wishes and dreads which we place back then, calling them Mother, and Sister, Father and Brother. ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
My mother stayed home. My father worked for the Cambrige Corporation, manufacturers of a huge 1970’s toy trend: inflatable Puffer Kites. My dad made jokes about my mother’s body and her small breasts. He would tell his friends that she should wear a sign that said “In Case of Rape, This Side Up.” He would come home from work and put on a white glove like the Pledge TV commercials, running his finger across the mantel and the side tables to see if my mother had dusted sufficiently.
One night, driving home in the Minnesota winter, my father’s car slid on the ice through a railroad crossing and he was struck by a train at full speed. He would be left with severe damage to his spine and in excruciating chronic pain for the rest of his life. He would pursue any relief that was offered to him in the form of surgery or narcotics. He had over twenty back operations, and would spend the rest of his life dependent upon hypos of Valium, or later, in my adulthood, OxyContin. When he wasn’t “narced out” he was in agony, talking baby-talk, or raging. He never held a job for the rest of his life, living off his inheritance. I was instructed to write “medically retired” on any school form that requested my father’s occupation.
When I was six or seven years old, 1972 or thereabouts, we would start attending the local Episcopalian church, lured in by a “dynamic” new reverend. My parents would quickly become swept up in the Cursillo movement, a charismatic para-church organization, built around immersive weekend retreats structured to bring followers to Christ and to create a community of elect Christian leaders and “saints.” The priest at our new church would be appointed by the bishop of our diocese to be my parent’s personal spiritual director.
And although Father Clark had a wife and son, he was soon at our house almost every day after school in his priestly blacks and collar. And on the weekends. Occasionally he would bring his son. His wife, never. He would spend hours on end in my parent’s bedroom, door locked, alone with my father. This was the “laying on of hands” we were told, an attempt to heal my father’s pain.
The next Christmas my father got my mother an upstairs vacuum cleaner, and Father Clark got my mother a pair of black onyx earrings with a card that read: “Because black as you say, is so sexy.” She displayed the card and the earrings, shamelessly, proudly, on the piano in the living room. I would stare at them and the card when I was supposed to be practicing The Surprise Symphony, and wonder what it was all supposed to mean. The laying on of hands, the hours that the two men spent locked in my parent’s bedroom, continued.
I would not find out until forty years later, after pouring through the archives of the Episcopal Diocese at the Minnesota Historical Society – what it all meant. I only knew some kind of scandal erupted at church. Father Clark was forced to resign, suspended from the pulpit, and fled town with his wife and son for California, where they would soon divorce.
My mother would initiate a separation from my dad that summer. We would move to another house in a nearby town for a year while the financial and custody settlement finalized – and then my mother would tell me that she and Father Clark were in love, and that we were all moving to California to be a family. Father Clark would become my step-father, and I would drop the “Clark” and just refer to him as Father.
I was not as easily manipulated as my mother, and became Father’s primary nemesis. He could not stand the way I looked at and through him.
He hit my mother more than once. I knew that he beat his own son, who lived with us for a time – mercilessly. He announced loudly, on several occasions, that he was going to give one of my younger brothers a bath and I – with a visceral and disturbing memory of my parents locked bedroom door at our old house – would fling myself at him using any object I could weaponize including my teeth and nails in order to prevent it. And although some might say that he beat me- I would still say that we fought. In states of pre-teen adrenalization I was a wild and dangerous foe.
A personal memoir by which an author supposedly confirms his creative identity— this memoir you are now reading — serves no further purpose than inflating the personal, thereby abetting the culture’s Titanism, its monomania of monotheism of Self…~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
There were occasions when he would physically attack me in a fit of rage – and I would swing, bite, tear, scream and claw at him with everything I had – and he was generally left far more bruised and bloody than I was. I always fought back. I would also quickly initiate an attack if I felt my mother or brothers were in danger. Once, as he raced down the hallway toward my room red-faced and screaming, I reached for a fist of freshly sharpened pencils to stab him in jugular. He turned and stormed away when he saw my utter resolve. Another time some Saturday afternoon argument about a dance at the local Armory had escalated him into a wild frenzy, as he kicked and swung and me and grabbed at my shirt collar as I cursed at him and ran out of the house. I stood in the street screaming “Fire!” at the top of my lungs. When the neighbors came pouring out of their homes they found Father kneeling on my chest, screaming like a madman, slamming my head into the asphalt. I felt nothing but a giddy exhilaration that I had exposed him and his madness to the world.
The police were called on more than one occasion. We were mandated for family therapy. He tried to convince the therapist that I was incorrigible and oppositional and needed to be sent away. My dad’s house was not an option. He was not compos mentis most of the time. He had married my mother’s (former) best friend a few weeks after the divorce was finalized, and she openly hated me and my brothers. Father wanted me placed in a group home or foster care. The therapist was not able to be persuaded but had no chance of being effective either. The family therapy sessions stopped with no observable positive or negative outcome.
At some point Father’s alcoholic fraternal twin brother came to live with us. Father’s name was Herbert Ronald and his brother’s name was – no joke– Hubert Donald. They made me a waterbed from a kit for my thirteen birthday shortly before Hubert died slowly of cirrhosis of the liver in the room fashioned for him in the basement.
Hubert Donald and Herbert Ronald
Verging more deeply into the absurd, my mother and Father also operated a safe house, harboring undocumented workers from Mexico, mostly teenage boys and young men – in the unfinished back half of our basement. The garage and basement were full of cots that operated as a dorm and infirmary – as most people living without papers were unable to go to the emergency room without being deported. Father claimed he had been a medic in some war, and would head down the stairs on weekends, with a metal box of medical supplies to treat the flues, fevers, and heal the injuries these men had sustained laboring in the fields or in whatever manual labor they could find in the off season. Obviously, we were required to keep this secret never mentioning this to friends at school for fear that our mother and Father could end up in prison. Father told us that we were practicing liberation theology, and it wasn’t until I was well into middle age, when I could put the whole story together that I understood what horrors might have happened in that basement.
I was supposed to spend whole summers at my dad’s – but I quickly whittled down our visitation to the barest minimum – two weeks, or less if I could get away with it. He had a big house on a lake, motor boats, sail boats – but as poisonous as my mother’s home was, Dad’s was worse. My dad had a horribly abusive mother, a horrible betrayal from his first wife (my mother) – who I looked just like – and now, a horrible and manipulative second wife. The misogyny in the house was smothering. Three older step-brothers in a boundary-less house where I had no voice, no leverage and was profoundly out-numbered left me powerless to protect myself. I spent most of my days locked in my bedroom listening to Jesus Christ Superstar and Barbra Streisand albums on a hand-me-down stereo. At night, I wedged a desk chair under my bedroom doorknob to keep my step-brothers from sneaking into my room while I slept. At least at my mother’s house I felt effective and alive. I had people to protect, an enemy that I felt squarely matched with.
And there were books. Whatever kind of monster Father was or wasn’t, he was a highly educated man, with two PhD’s: one in philosophy, one in theology. He gave me books that became my life-line, that connected me to my soul, and my purpose: Kierkegaard, Buber. Sacred books like the Qur’an and the Upanishads. A theologian popular in the late 70’s named Martin Bell, who was both an Episcopalian priest and a Pinkerton detective, who wrote strange, haunting non-dualistic poems, literary essays and short stories about why on earth we should love a God who will not protect us from anything at all.
My educational experience was no more “normal” than my family life. When my parents were still married, they had founded the Montessori school in our town, and flown in a teacher from what was then called Ceylon. Mrs. Tampo came to live with us in our house. She taught me at school during the day, and my parents would pick us both up and when we got home, she would make us fresh papadum as an after-school snack.
When I reached elementary school, it was clear that I was not going to be able to function in a normal classroom. By first grade I was already reading the leather-bound volumes of grown-up poetry and tales of knights and Robin Hood at my grandmother’s house that my father had been slapped for being unable to decipher. My mother advocated for some accelerated reading and English classes. But my ability to learn even the most rudimentary math never progressed passed the second grade. By the time I was in fourth grade, I was taking a special bus to the high school for English classes, and then coming back to the elementary school, and sitting in the little chairs, still in second grade math. I never did learn my times tables and I do not know them to this day. I was eventually diagnosed with dyscalculia in college.
By the time we arrived in California for junior high, I had spent a very small amount of time with age-mates and peers in a school setting. And my family life, as you can see, was not exactly stable. I was clearly smart, defiant, mouthy and poorly socialized. I logged a fair amount of time in the principal’s office – for refusing the pledge, for challenging and correcting teachers. My English, History and Music teachers adored me, and I drank up any scrap of kindness or encouragement they had to offer. I think teachers must have agreed to pass me up offering me C’s in algebra as an act of compassion, because there was no way I was able to legitimately pass those classes.
Father would get as excited as I was over my creative writing assignments and five paragraph essays. We would sit down at the dining room table with Tupperware cups filled with orange juice and a big bag of potato chips – and I would read him my writing out loud. He would teach me new words, plot devices, new ways to structure my story through time. This felt like the best, most nourishing parenting that I had access to.
He had written many novels of some sort, under a pen name that none of us knew – he said his books were too “secular” but checks would come for him sometimes from a publishing house we had never heard of. When I eventually discovered all that had taken place, I decided that he probably churned out gay pulp fiction. He had written one book under his own name, a Kazantsakis-like amplification of the story of Dismas, who had been crucified next to Jesus. It was titled – quite ironically as things would turn out – The Good Thief.
But these peaceful moments were rare, and the conflicts and the danger in the household escalated after his brother Hubert’s death, followed by an official defrocking (decommissioning) of his priesthood for living in sin with my mother. He and my mother spent a terrifying 24 hours locked in their bedroom, screaming, sounds of hands hitting flesh – the day after the decision letter from the diocese arrived. The next morning Father emerged from their bedroom and announced that he and my mother were getting married. He’d made all the arrangements, it was booked at a speedy-wedding-chapel the next day. My mother and I bought new dresses at K-mart. In the photos from that day, my mother appears skeletal, dissociated and drugged.
I should explain that my wealthy biological father, perhaps to drive Father Clark away, perhaps to punish my mother, perhaps because he didn’t actually care how his children lived and ate and dressed themselves on a daily basis, cut off all alimony and child support to our house. My mother’s only asset was the house she had been able to purchase before her funds had been blocked. She worked in a gas station near the high school, while Father sat in his study and wrote something. K-mart was where we went for fancy clothes. The rest of our wardrobe was purchased at the swap-meets that regularly gathered at the parking lot of the drive-in movie theater. Mom and Father would get a booth there every weekend to sell something: Used paperback books, laminated sneakers transformed into planters, fiberglass pyramids that you could put your pillow in at night in order to channel “pyramid power” while you slept. For a while they dressed as clowns to sell cotton candy from an ancient cotton candy machine that a guy a few booths over had given them for “next to nothing.”
After the wedding things got even worse. Father had given up on getting me sent away or placed in a group home, but began a new campaign trying to convince my mother that I was possessed by a demon. A painting or a shelf would fall from the wall and he would insist it was proof that my “disturbance” had invited a poltergeist into the house. Eventually, another battle between he and I escalated to the point that the police arrived again. The next day when I came home from school, he would greet me at the front door with a giant suitcase.
“You’ve won” he said. “I’m leaving because of you.”
“Good” I replied pushing past him. “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” I did not look back.
I’d won my mother as the spoils of battle, and she would be mine to care for in one way or another, broke, sick, isolated or disabled, for the rest of her life.
And love is not enough; or rather, love is just one more form of imaginative labor. Love then can be seen as neither the goal nor the way… ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
Father hadn’t left because of me, by the way. He had cleared out all of my mother’s bank accounts and would sue for half of the house we lived in under the new common property laws, obliterating my mother’s only remaining assets. We would hear through the grapevine a year or so later, that he had moved to Bakersfield, gotten a job at the DMV and moved in with a “male lover” more than thirty years his junior. In four more years, by my sophomore year in college he would be dead of AIDS.
I barely made it to college. I had no funds, and no parent who offered any information or guidance about how I might be able to get admitted or how I might pay for it. I planned to work and attend the local junior college. One day out of the blue my paternal grandfather called – we had never spoken on the phone in my life – and I’d met him only a handful of times. He was enraged that my dad had not told me that my grandfather had set up an education fund for me. He told me there were two schools that he was willing to pay for: Dartmouth or Occidental College. Occidental was the only one still accepting applications. I threw something together in twenty-four hours to meet the deadline and was accepted.
I majored in Philosophy and Theater Arts, but I would drop out of Oxy in the middle of my senior year. I had no emotional or financial safety net. School, books, teachers were the only parenting and reliable guidance I had ever had. I could not face graduating into a void, and if I left things unfinished, I would at least have something to fall back to. I got a job waiting tables at a fancy Japanese/French restaurant in Pasadena, and would audition for commercials, regional theater and industrial films here and there.
I would get a job in a theater in Houston, and then a gig in Boston, and then land in New York where my experience waiting tables combined with finding a stalwart and brave young therapist would save my ass and keep me afloat for the next ten years or so. I met a young man, the son of Holocaust survivors who was frankly unimpressed by my “trauma history.” The therapist would help me sift the feral survival skills I had learned at home out of my romance, so that I didn’t destroy it, or him, or myself.
And it went on this way for ten years or so. Learning to have a partner. Waiting tables. Psychotherapy twice a week or more if I was in crisis or coughing up a massive hairball of rage, grief or trauma.
And we wrestle with a concealed counterpersonality whom Jung named Shadow because we keep him in the dark; he must shadow our life with is surreptitious intentions. ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
Until I felt I needed and deserved more. Until I needed to find a place for my strengths and intuitions and capacities in the world. Until I needed to find a way to work that offered me some self-resepect. Until I called Occidental and found out that my creidts were about to expire. I contacted the trust officer, and used up the last bit of my grandfather’s gift to get my ass back in school and finished my degree in absentia. I applied to social work school simultaneously, taking out every loan I could get my hands on.
I then entered the profession that had already been my salvation, never dreaming I would one day walk away from it. Moving my position from client’s couch to therapist’s seat would give me permission to sink even deeper into the theories, metaphors, paradoxes and practices that would open the doors of discovery into the souls of others, into the darkest and most sacred chambers of my own heart, and that offered me a way to accept and withstand all the ways that we shape and are shaped by Fate itself.
“Psyche” and “therapy” mean to serve soul, not to treat it… Serving soul implies letting it rule; it leads, we follow. ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
Psychotherapy and its depth theories had opened a way to worship the impossible god Father Clark had introduced me to. A god who nurtured and stayed near through all our tortures, but who never protected anyone from suffering, none of his saints or favorites, not even sparing his own Son. Christianity wasn’t, and isn’t my belief system. It was my first mythological language. Psychotherapy was the daily reflective discipline, the relational and contemplative practice that allowed me to approach the Sacred and feel its presence.
My dad’s mental and physical health would continue to deteriorate, as would my relationship with him – until my brothers and I were all essentially estranged from him. He would end up divorced from my stepmother, living on his own in Arizona, getting as many prescriptions for narcotics as he could from various pain doctors and multiple pharmacies. He would be noticed and marked by a group of homeless women who were addicted to crystal meth. They would offer to “take care of him” and fill his prescriptions and manage the house. They would rob him blind, keep him drugged out of his mind, empty his bank account, deal drugs and invite their skin-head boyfriends to the house to take anything they wanted. They would convince him to fund their purchase of illegal guns for “safety’s sake.” They would eventually convince him to write out a will in pencil on the back of a BBQ restaurant paper placemat, leaving “all his worldly goods” (almost nothing by this point) to them. They would then give him a near fatal overdose and leave him for dead. One of the women panicked and bailed on the plan, dumping his unconscious body on the curb in front of the ER. The police called me, while I was shopping for a crib for our first child, the baby boy my husband and I were waiting to adopt from Korea, to tell me that my father was in intensive care under a pseudo-name for his protection. I next received a call from a one-eyed massage therapist, who introduced herself as One-Eye. It was One-Eye who warned me about the skin heads and guns. My father had written her a check to pay off her entire mortgage, she told me when I thanked her for the information. “so it’s the least I can do.” The hospital social worker said to my brothers and to me – and I quote – “You should do nothing for this man. He is a piece of shit. I have seen this a thousand times. He will squander any effort you make on his behalf.” When we went to the police station to get a restraining order and to evict the women/drug-dealers/attempted murderers from my father’s home, the cop at the front desk- pointed to a long line and said: “There is the line for that.”
“There is a line for that?” I asked.
“Oh, that happens all the time here. Welcome to Arizona.” she replied.
We would eventually arrange to move him out of state, into a transitional living facility. The women would find him, or he would contact them – and they tried to take up residence in his room, which obviously resulted in his getting kicked out. He would live out the rest of his brief days in a trailer park run by people who had been fired from the transitional living facility. They took the “impossible ones.” He would often be found unconscious in his motorized scooter on the shoulder of highway 78 heading god knows where. The police had a code word for him. They called him “Hot Rod Rodney.”
After innumerable overdoses, ER visits, and last minute recantings of the standing DNR in his medical file, he eventually died in his sleep, from a brain bleed. He had apparently fallen, hit his head and gotten himself back into bed. My brother called when I was with my husband and our two children at Disney World, traveling with friends. I let my cell phone ring fifteen times at 3:00am before I answered it in the bathroom.
I did not tell my kids, or the family we were with what had happened, and we did not leave. I hid behind Space Mountain to whisper my credit card number to an old boyfriend who was now evidently the town mortician, to pay for my father’s cremation.
My mother’s disability, poverty and isolation intensified until we moved her to the city to live nearby and bask in the adoration of her two glorious grandchildren, until her death.
I had buried many friends, our common history of adverse childhood experiences would take its toll on their bodies, just as the traumas and sorrows my parents had inherited and perpetuated throughout their lives had taken a toll on their own. I fancied that my now more than twenty five years of psychotherapeutic self-excavation had purged all such trauma-toxins from my body.
One has one’s death, each his own, alone, singular toward which the soul leads each piece of life by pathologizing it. ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
I was, of course, wrong. And in keeping with the rest of my karma, nothing about my cancer diagnosis would follow a common course. I would not develop a cancer that offered me a community or a ribbon of any color or a walk-a-thon. As strange and alienating as every part of my life had been my cancer would be just as peculiar. As friends who knew me well and held the complexity of my story would say: “Of course if you had to get cancer it would be one of a kind.”
I would spend months and the years of my own cancer treatment working to comprehend and integrate memories that resurfaced after my mother’s death. Nothing had been forgotten or repressed, as much as de-prioritized, compartmentalized, simply set aside in order to face the task of taking care of her after all the messes she had made. The locked door to my parent’s bedroom. The onyx earrings. The whispers and sideways glances of the people at church before everything erupted. My dad’s rage. The strange sayings and phrases from their Cursillo courses: “De Colores! Keep on keeping on!” The extraordinary amount of time Father Clark spent at our house. The memories that I had spoken of in therapy that seemed to only make the room spin and spin, and that never quite made linear sense, that never found a through-line, that floated about, surfacing and sinking, permanently decontextualized.
I recognize that in my disturbances there are really forces I cannot control and yet which want something from me and intend something with me. ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
If I had offered those fragmented realities from the past any directed attention, I might have abandoned my mother in her infirmity. But in the eighteen months between her death and my diagnosis I began a concerted research project, imaging that I was compiling a book, a memoir, a fantasy I later abandoned as too cumbersome. I began emailing the Episcopalian diocese. What had they known and when had they known it? I researched the Cursillo movement and learned that the bishop had to have selected my parents as good influential candidates and conspired with Father Clark to bring them on board. I investigated the process and protocols of cannon law and what it takes to suspend or depose a priest. I wrote letters to the present day bishop, and received a sparse two line email saying they had no information for me and that they would pray for my healing. I would write again telling them that I knew that deposing a priest was a rare event and that there were certainly records, accounts, something that would explain to me what on earth had happened to my family. I would receive a letter from the diocese chancellor (lawyer) saying they wished they could help me but there were no records that were available from so long ago.
I searched online ancestry records. I learned that Father Clark had been ordained as a priest only two years before we first encountered him. This baffled and enraged me considering the extraordinary authority my parents had granted him. I found a nephew of his, and wrote a mildly manipulative but not dishonest letter, saying that I knew nothing of Father Clark’s life before he had become my stepfather, little to nothing about what happened to him after he left us and that I was seeking additional information for “closure.” The nephew seemed to have never heard of our family, but told me that Father had bravely embraced “a gay lifestyle” before his death, and about the many conversations they had during his dying, about how much Father’s young partner adored and admired him, and about the large wooden box of gold plated flatware Father had bequeathed to this favorite nephew, flatware that I remembered eating Thanksgiving meals with. My emotional response to this information was a profound sense of betrayal that Father had died in the arms of someone who adored him. For decades, I had imagined him dying alone, and that sadistic fantasy had offered me some small relief from the unrequited yearning for justice.
When the Me Too movement emerged I was able to weaponize the cultural shift and write another letter to the diocese with far sharper teeth. I had also found online that the Minnesota Historical Society had all the previous bishops’ letters and records available in their archives. This time the chancellor wrote back promptly and promised enthusiastically to help me. That summer, I traveled to Minneapolis – and pulled all the records from the archives. I found years of frankly flirtatious and ingratiating letters between Father Clark and an obviously infatuated bishop. I saw favors granted, seniorities offered to him that he had not earned. I found complaints to the bishop from other church members about Father’s inappropriately sexual language, jokes, and behavior. I found the handwritten pencil notes on a sheet from a yellow legal pad from the church board meeting the night that my dad had stood before them and informed them he had been repeatedly “molested” by Father Clark during healing prayer sessions. I told the bishop and the chancellor what I had found, and they sent a kind and sympathetic church historian and archivist over to help me contextualize what I had discovered.
It indeed had been a huge and notorious scandal. There had been one other priest in a nearby town, who had been deposed after molesting young boys and these cases had taken place nearly simultaneously. That pedophile had also moved to California. (Horrified, I suddenly remembered him. Father had a deposed priest-buddy who had come over for lunch on several occasions after we’d moved to California)
The historian told me that our congregation had never been the same after that. That they had split into factions- some supporting my dad, other’s believing Father who denied it all. They had attempted to break into two congregations. The fault line that had opened up and swallowed my family whole still divided this community in ways that were barely remembered but that kept the community hobbled and fractured. This, for some reason, offered me some comfort.
It was also clear that my mother had been insulated from none of the information I had found in the archives. She was a witness and a participant. She was interviewed and deposed. She was a player in these events. She made her choices with full consciousness of the accusations her husband had made against her married priest-lover.
Had she been duped? Conned? Controlled? Manipulated? How much had she minimized or ignored? Or was this her own ruthlessness?
Soul is vulnerable and it suffers; it is passive and remembers. It is water to the spirit’s fire, like a mermaid who beckons the heroic spirit into the depths of passions to extinguish its certainty. ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
In her hospice bed, she announced loudly one afternoon, disinhibited by morphine: “Having that affair was the best thing I ever did! Every woman in that town was jealous of me! They all wanted what I had!” My confused ten year old whispered to me: “What is grandma talking about Mommy?”
Had my dad been a willing participant in those locked room laying on of hands sessions, and then reported Father when he began a simultaneous affair with my mother? Was Father rebuffed by my dad and then decided to seduce my mother to cover his tracks? Had my dad simply lied? Did my mother and Father Clark forge some plan to gaslight my dad and get their hands on some cash? When had my family become Father Clark’s mark and how long was his con? I have no idea what latent content pulled them into this morass. I don’t know who told the truth, or who lied, or who plotted what or when. I suspect that they all told only the partial truths that maintained themselves as the victim/heroes of their own narratives.
Did Father exploit and harm the men and boys in the basement? Threaten to report them to Border Patrol if they didn’t perform sexual acts for him? Had my brothers been in danger? Had I been in more danger than I even knew? Was he villain, a pedophile, a sociopath? Was the truth more horrific than I could even begin to imagine? Or were these merely my vengeful paranoid imaginings, built from baseless accusations aimed at a repressed, enraged and suffering man who finally came out late in life?
I don’t know. I won’t ever know. Here is what I am certain of regarding all my parents and stepparents: All of them were victims of something, somewhere at some point. All of them were culpable. All of them were perpetrators. All of them were broken. All of them were ruthless. All of them lived lives of sickness and suffering and inflicted those sufferings on those around them. How brutally and how violently beyond what I witnessed with my own eyes I will never know.
And I had, in reactive horror and out of a profound counter-identification committed my life to cleaning up not only their abuses and mess but my own and everyone else’s. I had at some point made some promise to myself to never ever need anything ruthlessly, to never placed my own need squarely over anyone else’s. And then, I also realized that to live an entire lifetime this way was completely untenable.
Through this worship of the personal, personal relationships have become the place where the divine is to be found, so the new theology asserts… We spoilt our actual friendships, marriages, loves and families by looking to people for redemption. We seek salvation in personal encounters, personal relations, personal solutions. ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
I realized that I had to find a way re-frame my work. I needed to find a way to sit in a different role, in a different way. But I could no longer help other people clean out their dark, dangerous basements. I no longer had the strength, the mental capacity, or the compulsion to travel with people into their own chamber of horrors. I offered referrals to those I no longer had the strength to carry, and I took new cases very rarely, and began to try to find ways to reframe my work and my beliefs into a more self-preserving, self-regarding way of working in the world.
But give up on psychotherapy? Could I?
But the rules and structures of this impossible profession meant that I could only claim my own story in the smallest of ways and the most private spaces. I had to withstand everyone’s projections and fantasies that I was healthier, wiser, stronger, more insightful, less wounded than they were.
A psyche without sufficient ideas becomes in need of persons, unable to distinguish between persons and the ideas they embody. In its victimization it looks for masters. Hence the dependency upon every sort of psychological teacher from psychiatrist to guru and all the blind alleys of false loves for the sake of ideas, where falling in love is a search for ideas… ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
I can share this ridiculous and messy story because I know now, that has all been a gift, a grace. None of this is inherently painful any longer. The only remaining discomfort comes from all the ways our communities and institutions objectify and dehumanize anyone who does not have a narrative that easily corresponds to the preferred story of the dominant culture. These are simply the facts of my life, my story, the narrative that made me who I am. I am as entitled to refer to the facts and details about my being as anyone.
I have also learned, from years of the labors of tending to the stories of others, that it is no great boon to live an entirely protected and civilized life. The pain and disorientation of those who encounter their first great fateful disruption well into adulthood has also shown me the ways that challenging childhoods are an introduction into the full range of possibilities in living.
I claim my whole story, and I will never again sever my being into acceptable and unacceptable aspects for the sake of social convention. I will not wear the camouflage so many institutions have demanded of me.
And here is something else, I know, as all psychotherapists do, that there are millions of people with “othered” and suppressed stories. Every one of them is entitled to claim their stories too. The privacy of the therapist’s office is too often the only consolation we offer to those we have banished and objectified. I will tell you that psychotherapy allows the wider community to avoid human complexity. Every one is a mess, and is entitled to their share of the messiness of life as a human animal. Its relegation to the therapist’s office lets our wider communities and institutions off the hook.
The way that such basic facts about the complexities of living are pressed out of “normal” discourse, are gawked at and anomalized and marginalized – is the larger problem that we must treat. The individualizing methods of psychotherapy simultaneously compounds our collective suffering even as it attempts to heal us.
The archetypal perspective provides a common connection between what goes on in any individual soul and what goes on in all people in all places in all times. It allows psychological understanding at a collective level. ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
There is nothing that I have ever been able to offer this world, that did not grow out of these experiences. It tore me to pieces, exiled me permanently from the land of “normal” people and it also, eventually became the source of all my generativity and led me toward liberation. Every drop of compassion or intuition that might summon on another’s behalf emerged from these wounds. I have been wealthy and impoverished, victim and aggressor, gifted and limited, generous and selfish, wise and foolish, sick and well, living and dying. At this crossroads, as mad as this might sound, I am grateful for it all, and I would erase nothing.
The more profoundly archetypal my experiences of soul, the more I recognize how they are beyond me, presented to me, a present, a gift, even while they feel my most personal possession. ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
I have spent almost thirty years drawing on these wounds and complexes, exploiting them implicitly, naming them in veiled and simplified ways in my public writing, occasionally articulating some small well-processed part of the narrative to let a client know that they were not alone in some aspect of their suffering, all for the sake of the psychotherapeutic contract. And even the smallest and most benign of disclosures were seen as shocking, inconoclastic, and controversial by traditional practitioners. I’m sure many will believe I should have left this profession long ago.
I suspect I will always be a psychotherapist, but I will not do psychotherapy to others any longer. Although I still believe in psychotherapeutic theory as a spiritual practice, as a body of meaningful metaphors and as a my chosen path toward self-understanding and self-compassion, I will no longer be assuming clinical therapeutic responsibility for clients who arrive to work with me. I hope to still be of good service in this world, as a consultant, a teacher, a workshop facilitator, a peer support, a coach, a collaborator, a writer, a mentor, an advisor. I hope to continue to share the by-products of my own soteriological processes, to offer up lessons learned to anyone who may find them of use.
I’ll be attending a two year theology program in contemplative studies, giving myself the time and space to sink more deeply into a wider world of sacred texts, expanding beyond the psychoanalytic bibles I have been bound to. Maybe at the end of that course of study I will discover new and better words to describe my calling in this chapter of my life. I know I am not alone in reaching the point where all the psychological labor points to something larger than ourselves.
Recollection of the God’s reopens the basic texts of both Freud’s and Jung’s later lives, Moses and Monotheism and Answer to Job. These books, by two old men in their seventies who had spent years unraveling the meshes of hundreds of knotted lives, were recognitions that psychological work, because it is the work of soul-making, inevitably leads to religious reflection. ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
Twenty years after first reading Hillman’s work, I find myself in a space, not dissimilar from where he found himself – with none of his status, accomplishments, brilliance or best-sellers– a psychotherapist who has had to re-view how this field has helped and harmed others, the wider community, and myself.
Therapy, or analysis, is not only something that analysts do to patients; it is a process that goes on intermittently in our individual soul-searching, our attempts at understanding our complexities, the critical attacks, prescriptions, and encouragements that we give ourselves. We are all in therapy all the time insofar as we are involved with soul-making. The idea here is that if each and every one is a psychological patient, we are also each and every one a psychotherapist ~ James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology
Announcing a new educational/experiential workshop launching in March – currently six spots open.
Circling the Drain: Living Intentionally with Mortality
This workshop is designed for anyone who wants to expand their ability to withstand and accept existential realities, and develop healthier, more related responses to encounters with mortality among their family, friends, and in the wider community and culture.
This workshop is sixteen weekly sessions, each session is 90 minutes long.
The workshop will be held on Mondays at: 4:00 Pacific, 5:00 Mountain, 6:00 Central, 7:00 Eastern via Zoom
Starting Date: Monday March 1st 2021.
Meeting dates will be:
- 3/1, 8, 15, 29 – off on March 22nd
- 4/5, 12, 19, 26
- 5/3, 10, 17, 24, – off for Memorial Day
- 6/7, 14, 21 & 28
Workshop participants will be limited to 12 people.
The Spirit and Purpose of the Group:
Many people, including helping professionals, feel fearful, overwhelmed, and unsure of how to best respond when they are in proximity to death, dying and bereavement processes. As death in the United States, has become an increasingly invisible and medicalized process our collective willingness, and ability to talk and listen about death and dying has atrophied, and is often left to specialists. The pandemic, the disruption of bedside vigils and funeral rites and enforced isolation has only intensified this dissociation.
For more information click here.
This essay was published in New York magazine this week:
The room didn’t spin like they say it does. My life didn’t flash before my eyes. I had no difficulty understanding the verdict: It was incurable.
They could offer no prognosis. They had some general ideas about how they might treat me; it was considered “manageable” in its normal form, but in my case, there was no telling what would or wouldn’t work. They told me that if they could find an effective treatment, I should expect to be on it “for life….”
To read more click here:
This subscription Seminar essay series will now begin to work its way through Jung’s “Visions” Seminar.
Because it is a very expensive book, and not easily available I will do my best to summarize and amplify what I see as the most useful and essential points of Jung’s teachings here – when and as I can. As you will soon see, the problematic aspects of this text and these historical events will require some direct and ongoing confrontation:
There is some truly extraordinary teaching in these lectures and discussions, but it is important that anyone reading these essays understand that the text we are exploring also reveals many of Jung’s personal, clinical, ethical and theoretical failures.
These weekly lectures were presented in English, a third language for Jung, to members of the Psychological Club at the Analytical Psychology Club House in Zurich. The Psychological Club was founded with funds from Jung’s wealthy American patient, student, trainee and admirer, Edith Rockefeller – John D. Rockefeller’s daughter – who he had treated for depression, and who went on to become a prominent Jungian analyst herself. The meetings of the Psychological Club were attended by Jung’s admirers, patrons, students, as well as former and current patients (many training to become analysts themselves) who often required additional structure and activities beyond their analytic sessions during their treatment stay in Zurich. In many ways, the Psychological Club functioned as a kind of chaotic combination of psychosocial club, group therapy, training institute, and fan club.
A majority (but certainly not all) of the club members were women, wealthy enough to travel to Zurich from all over Europe and America, and Jung was considered both a charismatic and handsome figure who attracted large admiring audiences as well as a significant amount of financial patronage. Jung supported many of these women in their own professional development, and throughout his life many of his closest collaborators and disciples were the women who he had first treated and then trained as analysts.
As we can imagine, the boundaries in this space were messy. Many of the attendees were actively in treatment with Jung – caught up in the throes of their own complexes and conflicts, acting out competitive feelings towards other club members, seeking attention and contending with thick idealizing transferences to the dynamic Dr. Jung.
Jung often used these seminars to form defacto group interventions targeted to the psychological development of his patients/audience and to emphasize themes that he felt were common to many of the members, as a kind of annex to their individual treatment.
These weekly lectures were to be a presentation and a discussion of his work with an American patient, scientist Christiana Morgan, one of the several patients who he first began to teach active imagination techniques. Active imagination was a method he had developed through the process of journaling his own contemplative visualizations in Liber Nous/The Red Book – in which he would sit in meditation, and allow a fantasy to emerge, and then would engage in imaginal dialogue with the characters in his fantasy. (for more information about active imagination see Seminar essay #25)
As Morgan engaged in this practice, she produced a long series of imaginal visions, and an accompanying set of paintings that Jung felt represented a deep archetypal template of a mythical initiation/integration process that was pertinent to Euro-American women generally, beyond Morgan’s own idiosyncratic healing and development. Jung’s intention was to present this to the Psychological Club as an archetypal journey through women’s developmental psychology. To that end, he chose to try to present the visions and the paintings completely detached from any personal or identifying information specific to Christiana Morgan.
Jung had presented these lectures in German to an earlier audience, and had done so with great excitement and respect for the un-named Morgan’s process and productions, and great enthusiasm for the archetypal template that he felt offered great insight into the psychology of women. But this lecture and discussion series proved to be very, perhaps, too stimulating for many members of the Club, seemingly activating significant envy in many of the attendees, who often attempted authoritatively dissect the visions and pathologize the anonymous visionary.
Jung’s responses and interpretations throughout the seminar grow increasingly irritable, likely in large part with the club members, but this also seems to spill over into his perceptions and presentation of Morgan and her visions themselves. Perhaps he began devaluing the content to make it less threatening to the seminar members – but whatever the trigger and there are many – this seminar becomes an outlet for Jung’s more toxic misogyny – as he begins to express sexist contempt and strong negative feelings both about the case he is presenting and the audience.
Jung also uses the N-word at several points, in discussing the psychic effect of interracial realities in the United States. It is unclear if he is mirroring language that he has absorbed from American patients, if he has, with a limited English, confounded the N-word, with “Negro,” if he used the word to seem skilled and proficient at American slang, or if he is enjoying and exhibiting an explicit belief in racial superiority.
(See: Visions: Notes on the Seminar Given in 1930-1934. Introduction by Claire Douglas, pp ix-xxxiii)
This is Jung’s unprocessed grandiosity and his white male supremacist shadow on full display – as he succumbs to the inflation of his devoted fan club, and asserts himself as an authority on women’s pathology, and seems to simultaneously enjoy and exert his authority and dominance while also trying to irritably extricate himself from the thick hero worship and its messy consequences in the room.
The Turning Point
It is also possible that Jung’s negativity is a response to his lost his faith in Morgan. For multiple reasons which we will discuss below, Jung becomes less enchanted by their treatment alliance, as is faced more and more with the aftermath of their work together- this presentation is four years after their termination. He seems increasingly upset with the visions and with Morgan, as he becomes hopleessly and destructively entangled in the longer term outcomes of the case and the boundary-less community that has he has built around him and that he resides in the center of.
Jung received direct updates from Morgan from the United States, where she became a Jungian analyst at Harvard – but he also learned far more about Morgan from other patients that that knew her intimately through the small and incestuous Jungian community in the U.S.
In fact, during the course of this seminar, Jung was contacted for consultation by a former American patient of his, Henry Murray, who was both Morgan’s co-worker at Harvard, and her current lover, and who contacted Jung for help in leaving Morgan for another woman.
Additionally, another Harvard man, Ralph Eton, a colleague both of Morgan and Murray, at the Harvard Psychological Clinic, described by his U.S analyst as “brilliant but unstable” – had been involved with Morgan previously but been rejected by her and was unable to get over their breakup, also presented to Jung for treatment, and began attending the Psychological Club. Eton actually recognized Morgan’s visions, because Morgan had showed her paintings to him early in their relationship.
Eton, now attending a weekly seminar that waded through his lost- lover’s fantasy life – decompensated into florid psychosis – fled Zurich and returned to Cambridge where required hospitalization. He escaped the locked ward and committed suicide in the woods near Henry Murray’s home.
All of this chaos, tragedy, and boundary crossing both exposes the messiness of Morgan, and the men in her world as well as the mess that Jung himself had made by establishing himself as the guru-leader of a school of thought, the entangled and enmeshed boundaries of his tight-knit community of disciples, his own poor clinical decisions, and his destructively inflated role in his patient/trainees’ lives.
“Finally, someone overtly breaks confidentiality about Morgan’s identity and the seminar ends abruptly” (Visions: Notes on the Seminar Given in 1930-1934. Introduction by Claire Douglas, p. xxiv)
Christiana Morgan found a place in the world and lived a flawed yet productive life, centered around her great romantic love for Henry Murray, and her work as a psychotherapist at the Harvard Psychological Clinic. Throughout her long life, Morgan returned again and again to the visions. She respected them as the core myth of her life but never succeeded in fully plumbing their meaning. (Visions: Notes on the Seminar Given in 1930-1934. Introduction by Claire Douglas, p. xxii)
So: as you can see, there is a lot to learn about Jung as a limited human being, as a wounded healer, as a white man contending with his own conflicts around supremacy and the feminine, who experiences the first hand and disasterous consequences of inflation and inflicts those consequences on others, about the historical development of a psychological discipline at time before secure boundaries were erected around transferences and before the community was large enough to avoid such enmeshments. There is also some thoughtful, humble, generous and beautiful teaching mixed in among the damage and chaos.
I will do my best to sort through the useful, the meaningful, the toxic and the intolerable. I will offer my own interpretations and responses to Morgan’s visioning. I will try to confront and cut away the contamination and the rot, and see what, if any, fruit remains when we are done.
If you are interested in subscribing to this essay series there is more information below:
Announcing a new ebook:
Circling the Drain: Essays from the Edge of the Abyss
Psychotherapist Martha Crawford shares her encounters with death and dying in her clinical practice, as well has her personal experiences of care-taking, bereavement, and negotiating her own rare cancer diagnosis. The aim of this book is to help others contend with their own fears of death and loss, and to begin to consider living and dying as a natural, interconnected continuum rather than as binary opposites.
Many essays from this blog, and including several new essays.
Available for purchase here.