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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: