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This is essay is a part of my subscription seminar series, two essays each month – discussing depth psychology texts and their practical applications. I have set this essay to “public” so that those who may be interested in this series may have access to a “free sample.”
This essay continues our exploration of “Children’s Dreams: Notes from the Seminar Given in 1936-1940” – by C. G. Jung. This book (available to read online ) is an assemblage of notes a group of analysts studying dream work under Jung. Children’s dreams were selected as a subject as they are often rich with common archetypal themes – and offered Jung a chance to teach his trainees how to explore, and apply, and how not to apply, some of his theories about dreaming and dream exploration.
In the Winter 1936/37 session (Chapter 2) analyst Margaret Sachs presented the following dream of a nine year old girl from a lower middle class family – who was distractible, only superficially engaged in her school work, who was repeating the second grade, and still having a very challenging time. Her intellectual functioning seemed to be fine. Her mother noted that the girl was unable to marshal her industriousness to engage in household chores.
I went into a forest and then a lion came. I wasn’t afraid of the lion. I wanted to stroke him and ride on him. But I fell off. Then he ate me up and I was dead. Now my mommy came and took me on her arm. She went home with me and laid me on the bed. Then I discovered a magic mirror in the pocket of my apron, which I turned toward myself, and then I woke up again. I had enchanted myself.
I had also put a spell on the whole house, and there was a store downstairs, and everything was completely different now. The people walked all slanting, me too, and I kept thinking I’d fall over but I didn’t.
I went and got a loaf of bread in the store, and the woman said: “You have to hold onto the bread” But I let the bread fall, and then many worms came out of it. Now she had to give me another loaf of bread, and then I walked up the narrow staircase and fell over myself. There was a hole in the stairs; I stuck the bread into the hole (I didn’t know why), threw the money away and brought mommy a couple of stones. She was angry with me and beat me with a switch. Then I woke up.
When Sachs explored the dream with the little girl, she offered more content about what she saw in the magic mirror: A dead body, decaying and skeleton-like, suspended from a tree. The image made the dream-ego, (the dreamer within the dream) nauseated. She tries to take the body down but she, and the body both disintegrate further.
I’ll start this discussion by talking about how I might respond to this dream in the spirit of the present era, if a child told it to me in session, or a parent who I saw for parental guidance and support reported to me that their child had such a dream:
First: there are the diagnostic and prognostic implications that I would take note of for myself, privately, while listening to such a dream – some of which I may, or may not share with the child or the parent.
Here are some things I would notice and wonder about as I listened:
- What instinctive energies, maybe aggressive ones – are emerging from the “unconscious” – just as the lion, a powerful instinctive force, comes from out of the dark forest in the a clearing of ego-consciousness.
- I would notice that the child is not anxious, and bravely wants to tame and and harness her instincts – by riding the lion – like one might ride a horse. Freud himself made a similar analogy when explaining the function of the ego: The ego is ‘like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse.’ Freud, S. (1923). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66. Here, the dreamer is trying to “get on top of” a much more aggressive and overpowering force – the “king of the jungle.” The dreamer is unable to manage her primal impulses – her ego/conscious is overthrown, and then eaten and swallowed up by these energies. She didn’t retreat anxiously from the development challenge, she was overpowered. The image that emerges in my mind when I picture the child in this dream is the Strength card from the tarot deck – in which a woman depicted as successfully able to tame her powerful animal passions. This child, seems to be dreaming about a kind of weakness that leaves her overwhelmed.
- Following her defeat, she is picked up like a baby, and nursed by her mother. She has some sense of safety net after her painful failure. She begins to “reflect” upon herself and what has happened to her, and encounters an aspect of the self, or hoped for trajectory, or a potential that is now dead, and leaves her feeling disintegrated and fragmented. I might wonder if this is the self that could have been – the girl that could have moved on to third grade with her peers and if she could have found the strength to harness and focus her energies. Some ideal, expectable future has died, both for the mother and the child – and the child, as well as the parent, likely need some time to rest nurse their wounds and grieve this loss. A nine year old child is acutely aware of their own functioning in relationship to their peer group. Children of that age know who is the best reader in the class, who is the fastest, who is the funniest, who is the best artist or who is the naughtiest or who gets into trouble the most. She knows that her classmates moved forward and she did not. She knows that it isn’t anxiety that interfered – she says clearly that she was not afraid – but that she doesn’t have the ego strength alone to focus herself.
- She also sees that her failure has cast a pall on the whole house, perhaps activating her parents anxiety and worry and frustration – leaving everyone in the house out of balance and throwing off the household homeostasis. She is worried that she may “fall” again, but is able to stay afloat for a bit.
- The store downstairs makes me think of the unconscious instinctive resources that she also has available to her – not only the energies forces that she cannot yet contain. She is able to “go down” into her depths, and come up with some sustenance – she makes some contact with, a nascent adult self, or parent introject, or her own inner “wise woman” who tells her how important it is to hang on to the bread.
- I might wonder if the bread represents some kind of emotional nourishment – or provisions, fuel, to feed and strengthen her – and perhaps both the girl and her mother needed to be fed some healthy narcissistic supplies so that they can get their inner balance, and find their faith in her again (I think here of the bread of the communion – as this is likely a Christian, churchgoing family in that place and era – and how all are welcome at “God’s table” and each person ingests and holds a piece of the sacred inside themselves) before facing another school year. But she tragically is unable to hold onto these supplies – it slips from her fingers and becomes rotten before she or her family can internalize it. She just couldn’t hang on.
- But this girl does not give up easily. She is trying very hard in the face of all of her struggles. She goes back down, and gets more supplies from the store in the basement – and is able to hang onto her sense of self – as she tries to negotiate some narrow developmental “steps.” This time, even with the bread in hand – the poor thing falls again – into a hole in the steps. This seems to me to be pointing to some real developmental challenges that this girl is facing. And the dream to me doesn’t seem to be about a neurotic or emotional psychological problem. She isn’t afraid. She doesn’t give up. She has some real inner resources she can access. She doesn’t become despairing and quit. But there is a hole. A lacuna. Something missing which makes her unable to take the next step. She stuffs her sense of self in the hole – perhaps trying to get by on confidence alone or in an attempt to cover up the hole so she doesn’t have to face it, or so others won’t notice. She cannot bring her mother the rewards (money) or sustenance they both yearn for. But this leaves her with nothing to offer her mother but stones. She ends the dream punished, despite how hard she has tried to complete the various trials she has faced in the dream.
- I would wonder about the repetitive theme of falling in this dream: falling off the lion, almost falling in the out of balance slanty house, the bread falls, and then rots and falls apart. The body falls from the tree, the arms and legs fall and she falls over and over. And she falls on the stairs.
- I also notice that she has to get bread twice, and fails at that test twice – and that this is a child who is failing at her second attempt at second grade
- I would also notice the positive aspects of the dream: the girls experience of being cared for and carried after a painful failure. The resources in the basement. The woman who offers her provisions.
- As I listen to the dream, I would also take stock of my emotional response. I feel a bit heartbroken for this girl who keeps trying, who mourns and feels off kilter and who tries and tries again. Hopefully, in this day and age, this is a child who would already be identified by the school system – if by no one else – as a child who is potentially struggling with some learning disability or who is non-neurotypical in some way – perhaps a kid with some executive function disabilities, or ADD/ADHD. This is a child that I would want to see have a full neuropsychological assessment if they had not already, and I would make that recommendation based on the dream in conjunction with the presenting problem.
In talking to the child – I would likely just try to mirror the emotional content of the dream – How brave the dreamer was, how scary it must have been to see that in the magic mirror – I might ask questions that would encourage her to express some of the emotional content of the dream: “that must have been upsetting! But you went right back and got more bread! You didn’t give up!” or “Oh no, you got in trouble even after you tried so many times!” I might ask more about how the hole, and possible ways to get around or up or over it. I might create some active imagination exercise for the girl: “The bread didn’t work to fill the hole… is there anyone we could ask to help you get up the stairs because they sound like hard stairs to get up! Was the lady in the basement helpful? Maybe she could help you get over the hole? Should we pretend to ask and see what she says?” We might make drawings of a new way around the hole, or if I had a sand table available I might just let the child build the house in the sand and see if she could create new solutions.
If I was talking to the parent (lets say mother since she is the one present in the dream) : I might underscore that the child’s challenges seem to be beyond her “will” at the moment. Perhaps the energies that overwhelm the child are active/aggressive drive -– and manifest as hyperactivity –needing to move and pounce and run and disrupt her attentions at school – or these energies could manifest as day-dreaming,– as intrusive fantasies emerge to derail her industriousness.
I would try to show the parent the ways in which this dreams depicts this little girl as trying very hard – and how often things keep falling apart and disintegrating despite her best efforts. I might explore with the mother the ways that a “spell had been cast” over the household – and how her daughters struggles and failures were effecting her. I might try to help her identify aspects of her daughter that she felt admiration and tenderness for and has faith in, and try to help her modulate her frustration if it was present and not merely her daughter’s fear of making her mother angry. I might explore the loss and falling apart that the magic mirror revealed – give the parent some space to mourn for the “ideal” that she had hoped for her girl and point out that the girl experienced this little death too. I might also explore the ways that both mother and daughter are getting frustrated – how the girl is getting fed up with trying, wants to “stuff it down” into the hole and throw away the possibility of reward – and how she is also feeling punished or is fearful of being further punished for her failures.
I’d also be aware that both the girl and mother were left in need of strengthening and emotionally hungry at the end of the dream – and try to identify ways for me to offer, and to help them identify others around them who could provide some nurturance.
In short, in my view– this is a dream with a few archetypal images – but which is also extremely close to the child’s current central developmental and environmental dilemmas– and which offers us some clues as to what challenges and resources exist for her.
Next seminar we will look at some of the ideas Jung and his trainees have – some which may lead us far afield, and some which might enrich our understanding