Climate, wind, season, hour are not of another nature than the things, animals, or people that populate them, follow them, sleep and awaken within them… animal-stalks-at-five-o’clock.
(Deleuze & Guattari 2003a: 263 quoted in Dodds 2011, Psychoanalysis and Ecology at the Edge of Chaos; Complexity Theory, Deleuze|Guattari and Psychoanalysis for a Climate in Crisis, 147)
After a ten-plus hour flight with several hours of delays, a slow and hazardous cab ride through a snow and ice storm, over slick roads and through dense fog – two teenagers, myself, and three geriatric cats arrived at an empty house on the western face of a mountain in northern New Mexico on Christmas Eve, at two in the morning. We climbed up the steep icy driveway that no vehicle could scale, each dragging a carry on and a pet carrier through the pitch black night. The cats instinctively stopped their many hours of constant complaining as soon as they caught the scent of coyote, mountain lion and bobcat in the air. This was our introduction to the high desert, a new reality, one where the weather, the ground, the sky and the wildlife were all more powerful than we were.
A few days later the chihuahua and the beagle would arrive by car with my husband. A suburban car, a sensible station wagon, one that would make no sense at all on the muddy, icy winding dirt roads in the hills. We would turn it in within the week, struggling with our conflicting desires for a car with minimal emissions and maximum all-wheel drive.
It took several weeks of sleeping in our winter coats and wearing extra socks before we learned how keep the wood burning stove pumping out necessary heat. Start the fire with quick burning pinyon and then after the first few hours when it burns really good and hot, start adding in the slower burning apple wood. Keep it stocked, don’t ever let the embers burn out. A few extra apple logs before bed and it will almost make it through the night.
We were city folk after all, living and working our whole adult lives in and around New York City. We had moved impulsively.
I dream of a desperate injured squirrel that came clawing and dragging itself – very fast – out of a friend’s house in Española, into the court yard. We run to open the doors for it and hold the dogs back – the beagle particularly- so it wouldn’t be further injured and could hopefully escape, to live or die where it belonged.
Women and men who become with other life-forms are among the anomalies of horror cinema. Inhuman entities possess human bodies. Bodies without souls have non-human life of their own, and spirits without former bodies become ethereal… (Powell 2006: 64 quoted in Dobbs 2011: 129)
The “life-long” chemotherapy I’d taken for two and a half years for a supposedly chronic and incurable cancer was suddenly stopped – my blood, bone-marrow and MRI scans all showed no evidence of disease – a remission we had understood was impossible was declared. Over the next few months as my strength returned – I itched to move, impatient to shed an old a skin quite literally as my skin and hair texture began to change as a the medicine left my system.
I dream about a zoo I am surprised to discover that I own, filled with powerful, restless caged animals. “I have thousands of animals!” I realized.
As Deleuze and Guattari (203a: 29) write, ‘Freud tried to approach crowd phenomena from the point of view of the unconscious… he did not see that the unconscious itself was fundamentally a crowd’ ( Dodds 2011: 144)
The kids were up for an adventure –and so I flew out and found a house and a school in October and by the end of December we were packed and had left thirty years of our old life behind.
I spent January unpacking the house, getting the kids settled in their new high school, and when I could, venturing out on foot to investigate our new “neighborhood” of adobe homes scattered here and there in the middle of the high desert wild. I was, at first, frightened carrying a large stick with me to use both as a cane and a defensive weapon as I walked our effete city-dogs on the empty dirt roads and trails.
Deleuze and Guattari’s approach of “becoming-animal” distinguishes ‘Oedipal’ animals (pets, domesticated animals) from “State” or mythic animals –and from ‘nomadic’ wild or pack animals. (Dodds 2011; 134)
I dream my husband brings home an old traumatized mule to live with us in our new house. This sweet old mule is somehow a gift that is suppose to to make up for all the entertaining and company we had to foreclose on during “the troubles”. The mule, rescued, battered, hairless in places, skin scarred, stained or tattooed from being painted for festivals- was so affectionate. The mule will spend her senior years with us. I brought her into the house to stay warm. And then the mule herself led me to discover an ignored, forgotten back yard when she noticed and was excited- wagging her mule tail- to see some song-birds and a small kitten through the sliding doors. It was clear that the mule would be an integral part of our new lives in New Mexico
I am nature-starved after thirty five years in the city, but this landscape is totally “other.” I feel vulnerable, but I want to come to know this place. There are large stretches of land on my walks with no cell service. I have a slight limp from cancer-damaged nerves, and I wonder if I look like prey, if the chihuahua is the amuse bouche. I don’t want to get lost among the foothills and unmarked trails, and I don’t know how to live among coyotes and mountain lions.
Horror can be understood as an exploration of many of our deepest anxieties such as persecutory anxiety – annihilation, fragmentation, destruction, dismemberment, engulfment, retaliation, biting/clawing, poisoning… (Dodds 2011: 116)
I study the satellite view on Google Maps so I can learn which narrow dirt roads connect and where the dead ends are. I watch videos about how to “haze” any aggressive predator we encounter by making myself large and making loud sounds. I order cans of compressed air that make a loud SSSSSHHHHHHT sound.
At dusk I hear the coyotes howling, insane laughter like the witches of Macbeth around their cauldron. The sound makes something inside me feel wild myself, or fills me with a yearning to be. I try to mimic the noise at night under the stars but I am too self-conscious and “civilized” to release such a feral sound.
“… the fragile boundary between nature and civilization, animal and human… the lure of the uncanny; the desire of the human to return to its primitive origins…” Creed (2005: 137) quoted in Dodds (2011: 125)
The white-people who colonize this space tell us “That is the sound when they have made a kill” but the people who live in the Pueblo communities that we have met who are proficient in hunting and tracking, and farming and foraging on this land tell me that is ridiculous. The calls are a joyful greeting when members of the pack reconvene as a big group after spending the day alone or in smaller sub-groups. The sound felt more like laughter than murder to me, and I am glad to have my intuition validated.
I dream of Extinction Rebellion- convincing some former client (not a client I recognize) to take climate change seriously- and I start a small sustainable house & garden with her and her son. She seem to have also built a bunker – but I hope it is a root cellar – food storage seems a good and prudent idea to me. We go to an Extinction Rebellion meeting- and no one stops talking. I want to make use of my writing and psychological skills. But activists keep launching into speeches at me and no one listens to my thoughts or strategies. I sense my ideas are unconventional and have a low expectation of being heard. My dream client is effective with them – the group listens to her and her speech about her feelings of persecution. The client has armed the small house we built and is preparing for Armageddon, for doomsday and is organizing against her fellow man. My goal is not a defensive one. I do not want to live in a fortress. I want to stay open to the natural, animal and the human world at once, whether we are living or dying, good or bad. I decide Extinction Rebellion is not for me
City mice and cockroaches are not an issue here, as they were in New York. Here we have pack-rats – who gather up bits and pieces of anything and everything and make nests in any small space they can – collecting anything shiny, anything soft, any grass or straw any nut or berry or seed and “pack” them tight into their nesting space wedged under any loose shingle or crack or hole. I am initially upset and disturbed that we have to deal with “rodents” until I look them up online. Their eyes are bright and their ears are round and large – not like city rats at all. I think of them like squirrels and determine to accept them as part of our household in the high desert. When the cat brings me a dead one, I scoop up the corpse and toss it into the brush for the ravens or bobcats to eat. And I congratulate the cat. I tell her she is a fierce warrior with an impressive killing bite and I give her a piece of cheese in exchange for her labor.
This is unlike me, in my former city life. I was a mouse-a-phobe, and once made my husband disrupt a session and leave a patient to come home because the cat had caught a mouse and had trapped me upstairs with my little children – bringing us its writhing body in its death throes any time we tried to come down, the three of us screaming and crying with horror at the cat’s murderousness and the rodent-gore.
As well as terrifying sights and sounds, we perceive affective textures of a repellant nature, such as the wet stickiness of human blood or the slimy trail of the monster. (Powell, 2006:142 quoted in Dodds, 2011: 132)
Last night I had dreams I can’t remember but woke up thinking about how fear is a reminder of our embodiment, that we live in a fragile, breakable finite body. Other emotions may give us feelings of expansiveness but fear reminds us that we are not omniscient or omnipotent. We live in mortal bodies, and our loved ones do too.
I learn about rattle snakes and their brumation cycles and seasons. I hire a dog behaviorist to help me teach our hopeless infantilized dogs how to stay alive. I throw a rubber snake in front of them and if they go near I give a can of pennies a loud shake and bark NO! at them. The chihuahua, knows that he is out of his league and stops peeing or pooping entirely from dusk to dawn. Back east he would beg for two or three trips “out” between dinner and bed. But now he prefers to hold it. We are frustrated at first with the change, concerned he will find a secret pee spot in the house but once it is clear that this isn’t going to ruin our rugs we accept it as a Sullivanian security operation.
…Becoming-animal is closely linked to becoming-death. (Dodds 2011: 129)
The beagle comes alive in a world of extraordinary smells. She is a nose with a dog attached, and she quickly finds every prairie dog compound and every hole filled with burrowing owls. She cannot be trusted off-leash because although she loves us, her loyalty to a scent-trail overpowers all else. One afternoon she pulls into a bush and startles a beautiful Coopers hawk – who is annoyed that his lunch has been disrupted and sits on a fence post five feet from me – and glares into my eyes for a good five minutes, while the dogs sit frozen and staring and completely silent. When I see the hawk turn to eye the bush and see if the rodent or bunny corpse he was feasting on was still there, I pull the dogs away and let the annoyed hawk go back his meal.
Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘becoming animal” is no a matter of imitation, metaphor, analogy, or even identification, but a new way of being-becoming where heterogeneous elements recombine into new assemblages. (Dodds 2011: 135)
I learn about scorpion infestations and scorpion dangers – the redder they are, the more poisonous they are and their stings can be toxic to dogs. We learn that we should leave the giant fire ant hills along the driveway and the arroyo (the dry river bed which is essentially our “yard”) because they keep not only scorpions but millipede invasions at bay.
I learn the names of the plants, and what parts of the yucca, the prickly pear and the cholla you can eat.
One morning I hear some strange sounds and walk outside and look at the sky: a flock of sandhill cranes circle overhead, calling to each other, their feathers shimmering like the gilded wings of angels in the morning sun.
The mule deer have huge ears like rabbits, and they “sproing” instead of run, but they rarely “sproing” away from me or the dogs. At most they simply meander along, and always it seems one or two hang back and tilt their heads and stare back as curious about me as I am about them.
I watch the ravens who fly though the updrafts like jokester acrobats – flipping over on to their backs and dive bombing and twisting into loop-de-loops. I observe three ravens call to each other and strategically drive a red-tailed hawk from the territory they wished to claim. The ravens are the animals I feel most “acquisitive” about. I want one to claim me, to befriend it. I want one to trust me enough to eat a dog treat out of my hand.
Back East I used to visit a crow several times a month at a rehab center who loved women with grey hair, and who would race to the edge of his cage when I would arrive and shout: “Hello Hello Hello!” and beg me to rub his shiny black beak. I know his contained life at the rehab center was a tragedy. But making contact with him made something feel alive in me that wasn’t alive in any other transaction or relationship.
So when I see these wild, smart, strategic, corvids and watch them soaring overhead – I want one to choose me as an ally and also for it to remain wholly wild. I toss dog treats along the path when we notice each other and they call to warn the rest of the “ unkindness of ravens” about my approach. I hope they will start to think of me as friend rather than a danger. I’d like to be accepted as a member of the flock, and although I know this is ridiculous fairy tale trope I still yearn for it.
The need for the concept of a mixed pack… a loose pack, an unpacked pack that reflects the diversity of pack phenomena, and includes wolves banished from their pack, dog-wolf hybrids, lone hunters that become pack-like only during mating season… (Genosko 1993: 617, quoted in Dodds 2011: 145)
And perhaps even occasionally the loose pack might enfold a stray werewolf, or a squirrel-mule-coyote-raven-woman, or the odd infant human adopted and raised by wolves, into the the pack
I wonder if I want to be a therapist anymore. I often want to talk about things that most my clients are not interested in. I want to talk about death and acceptance and climate breakdown and loss and grief and to have compassion for ourselves even as we struggle to comprehend our own destructiveness. I think of how species over-grow and damage a particular ecosystem if they find themselves tossed by wind or water into environments where they have no predators and abundant prey. Are we any more conscious, as a hive, as a collective, than a colony of beavers who flood and “destroy” a prairie and transform it into a swamp, or a swarm of locust who kill all the plants and all of the other species that require those plants to survive, or an infestation of stink bugs accidentally transported by some bird or mammal into a space where they cannot stop growing and consuming? We imagine we are conscious as a species, the “most conscious” species – but I don’t see much evidence of that. A swarm of the fire ants is social and complex, capable of remarkable feats of engineering, with differentiated roles and jobs and social strata. They are also aggressive and murderous.
It seems to me an ego-inflation to imagine that we are any more capable as a world-wide species of controlling ourselves than any other over grown species on this planet. How different are we humans, from a swarm, or from this virus – its arrival too soon, too violent, to traumatic to even begin to write about – that consumes its host and leaves behind a stack corpses? Or the beetles that destroy an entire species of trees, the very trees it needs to survive? Swarms can be destroyed by external threats, or by their own pathologies. All the birds are capable of flying in the wrong direction.
Astronomers and those who speculate about life on other planets sometimes postulate that the reason we have never been contacted by other “intelligent” life forms is that they have all succumbed to their own consuming and destructive technologies. What if the destructive aspects of our technologies always outstrip the collective ability to comprehend them? What if it is tragic and also natural and not so unusual for a species to be wiped out by disease, or plague, or to unconsciously fuck itself and its environment up? We are surely not the only species to harm or even eliminate other species, or to be eliminated or to eliminate ourselves. Viruses consume and spread and destroy their habitats, until the living systems they depend upon collapse out from under them, and then they recede, or sometimes extinguish themselves entirely.
To collapse in paralyzing guilt feels to me to be as grandiose a response to the destructive capacity of humanity as it is to imagine we have been granted dominion and control over the world and all it’s species. We are, I suspect, just as- and no more – conscious than our fellow species-peers, but far more overgrown.
I begin to try to visualize a new way of working, although I can’t quite imagine how I will piece it together. I imagine a stew of thanatological work, palliative care, and ecopsychology. I imagine sitting in relationship to the world and the animals and humanity and staying in relationship to all of it whether it lives or dies.
I dream I am walking my dogs on an empty dirt road in my neighborhood. There are large bushes on one side. The dogs are far ahead of me, when out of tbe bushes, the profile of an African lion (not a mountain lion as would be expected) with a glorious mane, emerges. He is supernatural and glorious and terrifying. The dogs don’t see him, and the lion doesn’t see me. I freeze, totally silent so the dogs will keep going, and hopefully escape while also hoping that the lion doesn’t turn and notice me. The lion is simultaneously benevolent and terrorizing, as ambivalent and numinous and arbitrary as a Greek or Hindu god or a Voudou loa. It all depends on what he decides about you.
Later in the morning I am reading an interesting poet/theologian and this sentences strikes me: “Like a wild animal- a lion, an eagle, a wolf, a bear- Yahweh stalks the creation. Also, the One Presence manifests in lightening, thunder, wind, rain, earthquake, and fire” – (Martin Bell, Distant Fire)
I begin to study the use of plant medicine to work through end of life anxiety. I take a distance learning class for my continuing education requirements in Ecopsychoanalyis. I imagine one day teaching classes or leading large workshops outdoors that help people breathe into their death anxiety and bereavement and climate guilt and grief and love the whole mess anyway, but I can’t imagine anyone willing to sign up.
In the unconscious the experience of death is common, and occurs ‘in life and for life, in every passage of becoming’. Intensive emotions tap into and control the unconscious experience of death. Death is enveloped by every intense feeling and is ‘what never ceases and never finishes happening in every becoming’ As every intensity if finite, and finally extinguished, so ‘every becoming itself becomes a becoming-death!’ (Deleuze & Guattari 2000: 330, quoted by Powell 2006: 52, quoted by Dodds 2011:129)
I don’t want to disrupt those who have the energies for the heroic battle against the unconsciousness of our species, or who want to fight the harms that we inflict upon the planet. I hope they can win. I hope they will. I hope as much of the life on this earth can enjoy this extraordinary reality for as long as possible. I wish the exact same thing for myself. But I have learned in the past several years, that it is easier to embrace and address the realities of life and death squarely when we are not driven by terror or paralyzed by guilt. And there will be so many and so much that will be lost. So much that will come to an end and will deserve a steady accepting, loving gaze to bear witness to the end of their individual stories, or the end of the whole story, and help them not to be afraid.
I dream of my friend Jason, who killed himself a year and a half ago. He takes me to the top of an unfathomably tall mountain. We sit at the edge of earth’s atmosphere on the brink of outer space and he shows me sunset after sunset after sunset. Thousands of sunsets. Each one is excruciatingly beautiful, setting the entire sky ablaze. After what seems like hours of this he turns to me and he says: “Do you see? Endings are the most important part.”
This January, a few weeks after I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I sat on the floor in my totally empty house and folded laundry while I talked on the phone with a writer named Stephen Marche about The 45 Dreams Project.
Today his very thoughtful account of our conversation was posted by The New Yorker. You can read the article here.
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
This is an essay that Jason Mihalko PsyD and I wrote together in 2014 that was published in a now defunct online magazine, and is no longer able to be found online. We laughed at the thought of titling it “Two White Shrinks Sitting Around Talking” – but I don’t remember what it was actually titled at the time of publication. I decided to publish it here for those who may be interested, and simply to preserve its availability. Time moves fast, and memories fade, and concepts of justice work continue to evolve but it is sometimes valuable to have records of our labors and the processes we have moved through.
Since the death of Trayvon Martin, and again this summer when the Ferguson protests began and now with the devastating Eric Garner case and the protests and demonstrations that have followed in its wake , I began noticing that I have become comfortable (or complacent?) in my role as a respectful listener and a grateful learner when a black client, friend or acquaintance is trusting or generous enough to share their complex thoughts and feelings with me. In racially mixed settings I also feel comfortable generally, supporting and amplifying the voices of people of color. Maybe because I am a reluctant leader anyway. Maybe because, as clinical social worker I’ve have been trained to hold still and offer support. Maybe because I am aware of the ways I could inadvertently shut the conversation down or damage a fragile trust with a thoughtless word, or error. Maybe I hold still because I am cowardly and fearful of making a mistake. And most likely a combination of all of these.
But the places I feel most self-conscious, most “not right with myself” and most disoriented is in dialogue with other white people: white clients, friends, and extended family. Heated confrontations, indulgent “patience” righteous tongue clicking, back-patting or colluding avoidance – no position, no conversation, and no silence feels right.
So I decided to use this column to talk with a white friend and colleague, Jason Mihalko, PsyD, a clinical psychologist (and author of the blog The Irreverent Psychologist) about how we, as clinicians, talk about these issues in our offices, on social media and in our lives. There is likely little here that will be useful or illuminating to black readers, or other people of color. Maybe, there are few white readers out there, like Jason and myself, who could always use another opportunity to, and check and challenge ourselves – to do whatever work we can do on our own – to examine our participation in oppressive systems.
JM: Yes. I’m also thinking about how we are two white psychotherapists talking about these issues. It’s making me think about how rare it is that I hear the voices of psychotherapists who are people of color. Their voices, I find, are often hidden within a special “diversity” class or locked away in a department of African Studies. I get frustrated when diversity and multi-cultural practice is something that is limited to a special class or special circumstances. We aren’t often taught to look at all of our interactions and work through this lens.
I think this is my work as a white man, and a white psychologist. I have to do the work to understand racism whether it is my own or institutional racism that is enacted by the systems within which I am embedded.
My very first semester at Antioch I took a class called “Dialogue and Difference” taught by the person who would eventually be my dissertation chair. It was one of my more profound experiences in graduate school. We spent a lot of time talking about how conservation, as it is usually thought of, is trying to convince someone to believe something other than what they already think. If I remember correctly, our professor traced the root of conversation down to percuss — to beat someone over the head with our ideas. So I’m not down with the idea in conversation like that. But dialogue, well that’s another story. I love that.
MC: And then there is silence. Sometimes silence is collusion. Sometimes it is active support that allows other voices to be heard.
JM: And sometimes silence is protection.
MC: Yes. I’m noticing the wish to be silent right now. It can be frightening, exposing to have this public dialogue. What will I miss? What mistakes will I make? Who might I hurt or anger? What might I learn about myself and others? And even though the information can move us further down the path of liberation – these can be painful lessons.
There are many ways in which professional psychologists & clinical social workers and the practice of psychotherapy can collude with systemic racism. But I believe that psychotherapy can also be radical form of empathy and a liberating force.
JM: Yes. I totally agree. I think there is a tension in psychotherapy, and especially clinical psychology (which I know best) between pressures of identifying the status quo (normal behavior) with seeking liberation. I experience this tension daily in my practice between tying to find way to help people conform to what they consider normal behavior (defined as behavior not representative as categories of psychiatric illness) and seeking liberation from punishing standards of “normal” behavior which are often rooted in racism, sexism, homonegativity, abelism, ageism, etc. etc. etc.
Just yesterday I was talking with someone and reframing psychiatric symptoms (in this case anxiety) as representative of normal responses to trauma. The trauma in this case was the experience of racist actions. The panic attacks suddenly became something much different when conceptualized as physical manifestations of the reexperience of racial violence.
MC: There are also, it seems to me, psychological realities that are omitted from social justice conversations – for example: a real psychological understanding of the implicit bias research and its implications. Which requires that we recognize that one of the effects and causes of systemic racism and anti-blackness are powerful and very real unconscious forces which inform or contaminate our snap-judgments, gut instincts, hunches, etc. impacting employment, policing, institutional access across the board, and which can have very violent external manifestations.
This requires an acceptance of the fact that we are largely unconscious beings – that there are and will always be impulses, fears, distortions, and prejudices, codes that have been uploaded by our culture, that exist in our machine, that we can’t completely eradicate, ever. This racist programming influences our choices and behaviors – the assumptions and expectations we have of others. En mass – these internalized biases become gatekeepers for our institutions and collectively our unconscious, implicit bias ends up crafting social policy.
JM: I find some therapists and patients have trouble responding and grappling with the unconscious. I like how you are also mixing in her cognitive behavioral imagery — codes. Many folks who don’t prefer imagery of the unconscious can get traction thinking about this when they think about computer codes that are running invisibly in the background.
I always thought I was supposed to acknowledge I am racist and sexist and homonegative and abelist and…. How could I not be? I’m a product of this society at this point in history. I feel powerful when I can own these things, name them, and work toward being more than what my limited society offers me.
MC: Yes, this is the work of a lifetime – its not a process that can ever be completed. That being said, you and I also both know that 1) some unconscious content can be surfaced and made more conscious and 2) that once made conscious of such implict programming we have a greater capacity to make choices and not be controlled, entirely, by our unconscious impulses.
And when client’s dream – especially white clients – but not exclusively for we all internalize these biases– you see the cultural coding emerge: a dream of being followed down a long street at night by a black man. A dream of being seduced by an Asian woman in a red dress. A dream of a black intruder breaking into the house. Consciously committed to anti-racism or not, white therapists have all absorbed the racism that exists in our cultural myths (ie: media) and stories. We drink in distorted and objectifying stereotypes and project out our own fears on to any group we perceive as “Other.”
JM: It now seems that many so-called progressive people are busy demonstrating how they are less racist than other people, or they are somehow more progressive (and thus better) and those “other” people. I find I have less and less time for this sort of sport because what gets hidden is the so-called progressives own implicit bias. None of us can exist outside of our bias laden society.
MC: Individually, in the confines of my office – I have the opportunity to address these oppressive forces: when I can hold and validate the grief, fear, and anger of black clients, and other clients of color. They have needed space to mourn, to rage, to tremble for their children. I hope, and maybe even believe, that making sure that my office is safe for those experiences can allow people to rest momentarily and refuel before heading back out into the fray.
JM: Shelter from the storm. And I imagine a white psychotherapist helping to create this shelter could be meaningful in ways that I can’t even begin to understand. I think of the ways in which my actions as a white psychologist hearing, attending, noticing, and opening discussing of racism and privilege might create some small amount of resilience and shelter for someone.
It doesn’t save the world, it doesn’t prevent violence, but I think this shelter can offer a profound and enduring validation that first transitional and later becomes an internalized and fully owned part of self.
MC: With clients of color and with black clients in particular at this historical crossroads – I can be receptive and respectful of the fact that there are parts of this experience that can never be contained, understood, or mirrored by a white therapist – and I’ve noticed the space for deeper breaths that is created when I state that explicitly.
This is a conversation that has been very active in my caseload since Trayvon Martin was killed – and part of my obligation is to respect that I benefit from a system that is terrorizing others. After Zimmerman walked free, a client had a dream about a sick black baby, near death, locked inside of an expensive white car and no one was paying attention. While I, as a therapist, am the one who is being specifically called upon to care for that crying sickened baby I am also one of many who holds the keys to the fancy white car.
JM: I like this dream. I also like the idea of working to unlock the doors.
A patient of mine, a person of color, asked if it was okay they cancelled their appointment the night of a protest in Boston. They offered to pay my missed session fee. I told them I was proud of them for wanting to go, that their presence was important, and that I felt the world was a better place because this was happening. After I hung up the phone I cried thinking about what it would have meant to have this person give me so much money so they could go to a protest, and what privilege was involved in that, and how awful it made me feel.
MC: Okay now: here is the confusing part.
There are those that are actively engaged in processing their implicit bias and their participation in systemic privileges – who understand that this is ongoing work, the work of a lifetime, and is never done. We can engage in critical self-examination together.
And then, there are many people who have never once spoken about race in therapy- who are now suddenly talking about their response to Eric Garner’s death, to the protests. Sometimes they are shaken, experiencing the first wave of the unfolding crisis of realizing that their experiences as white people are not universal for all Americans. Sometimes they are angry or reactionary, or complaining about the inconvenience of the protests or fearful of the up swell of public passion and emotion.
And there are those who have made no mention of it, no reference to it at all.
I try to remember when I was fearful confused and overwhelmed by the protests in Los Angeles that followed Rodney King’s beating, and all that I did not yet understand. I try to ask thoughtful questions that activate compassion and self-awareness in these client. It is a narrow line to walk, to have empathy for the fear, or upset or avoidance – while still challenging it – and to face the unprocessed racism in my white clients as reminder of my own, past and present.
JM: I love the idea of being curious–shining the spotlight of my attention and curiosity on a particular topic. I try to do that when I see or experience something that seems like racism or unexamined privilege. I get super curious about what I hear, and wonder aloud why someone experiences or thinks something that they think, or share what I experience and think. My patients make fun of me because they always know when I’m moving in toward something because I say “I wonder…..”
MC: That is an extremely helpful idea and reminder for me. To approach with a sense of true curiosity – about the formative experiences and notions behind these beliefs. And to let my curiosity make them curious too – to let it begin to question, to challenge the premises underneath these beliefs
JM: I notice people are anxious and scared. I notice that white people don’t have a lot of resources and supports to safely talk about these anxieties and fears. I notice there aren’t a lot of supports of people to learn and share their experiences in a way that they (a) don’t hurt other people and (b) don’t get hurt by other people. I see people directing a lot of anger (understandable anger!) toward folks who are enacting their racism. I’m not so sure public shaming without the provision of tools is helpful. I think people need to also have access to tools to understand their experiences and how they have come to have racist thoughts and notions.
I think of it a bit like coming out. I spent some significant resources of time and thought thinking about my sexuality. When I was a young teen and came out I expected people to be where I was at, right away, and had little tolerance for people and their own process. It occurred to me that not everyone has spent so much time thinking about sexuality. I had to find ways to give people a break so they can have their own process–and had to find a way to keep myself safe.
I think about this a lot with racism. People of color have lived their whole life in a racist system. It is something they experience every day, with every action, in ways that I cannot even begin to understand. I think of folks who are just discovering racism — and are totally unprepared for the process they are about ready to experience. When white folks grow up embedded in racist institutions and racist communities where have they developed a critical consciousness to explore these things? Where have they developed a community that can help them support their own process of growth and development.
Of course, I think white people are responsible for figuring this out for themselves. I think it’s my job to think about my racism in a place that protects people of color from being damaged by my own process.
MC: I am hearing a great deal about relationships damaged and friendships broken by the unconscious, unexamined and biased opinions or rigid identification white privilege on social media.
I know that my own relationships with old friends extended family members changed dramatically when I became when I became a transracially adoptive parent – and I see many people having to reorganize their own boundaries and expectations about the previously latent racism that is showing up on their friends timelines.
I have clients who’ve had to block or unfriend family members for self-care
Other have engaged in challenging conversations – which can painful, and result in loss.
And I’ve also heard of a handful of satisfying conversations where an online friend is open to ideas that are new to them.
What are your thoughts about this?
JM: I think we do the best we can. I think we all have to find what our limits are, and make sure we aren’t exposed to ugliness that we cannot process, handle, or currently lacking the resources to metabolize. I wish we had more tools to invite people back into fellowship and community with us after they’ve done their own work. There is so much polarized us/them conflict that I worry we will faction off into smaller and smaller communities and lose our connections to our larger society and world.
The other day on my facebook page I told someone I would not agree to disagree. I knew I’d end a relationship saying that. It was important for me to take a stand against throwing people way and creating a group of people who were voiceless.
A mentor of mine always talked about spending privilege, and the choices about how we spend it. I hope I’m a big spender, that I make wise investments, and that I continue to find ways to offer it freely. As far as I can tell, the society around me and history behind me has given me a supply of privilege that cannot be exhausted. I’ve decided to make my life about spending it in the service of helping the hurt, lost, and forgotten stand on my shoulders and make themselves be heard.
MC: Yes. We can spend privilege – but we can abuse it, and we must also consider how and when we can rescind it too. I practice martial arts, and often have a practice weapon – usually a sword that I work with in the park adjacent to the federal courthouse near my home. I’ve had that privilege. Young white cops occasionally approach me – and I show them that my sword is plastic, foldable. They say how great that I do this at my age –
JM: Ouch. A woman of your age.
MC: Yeah, no kidding – and they tell me to keep it up that they wish their mothers would do something like this – and they walk on. When Darrian Hunt was killed – a biracial black man was killed for carrying a fake practice sword on the street, just exactly as I have done many times I decided that it was an abuse of privilege and now I practice with a stick, or simply imagine a sword. Does this change the world? Does this overturn centuries of systemic exploitation and oppression? Certainly not. But it undermines its hold on my own perceptions. When we can’t dismantle destructive systems, we can at least try not to reinforce them.
I think white people need to consider carefully how they spend their privilege. Sometimes it means letting someone stand on my shoulders so they can shout louder. Sometimes it means getting out of the way. Sometimes it means standing up and giving voice to those who cannot be heard or do not yet have the skills to be heard. Sometimes it means waiting quietly until someone is ready to listen.
Most of all, I think about who the audience is. If I’m in an all white environment then I’m more likely to be louder and more forcefully in my wonderings and thinkings. If I am around people of color I’m more likely to work toward figuring out how I can be supportive of the work they are doing.
Unless of course someone’s humanity is getting denied. Then I’m likely to get myself into trouble.
My first dissertation chair spent a lot of time thinking and research about allies.
She thought it was important allies had a space to talk about things outside of the view of the community that they were allies to. I think it’s important that white people have places to discuss our racism, our participation in racism, our unawareness of racism, and the ways in which we’ve benefited from a racist system.
I’ve heard from people who’ve tried to set up setting like this and have been attacked for being racist.
MC: I think this is what is daunting to so many – that there is no way to actually “do it right” – there is no way, no path, no action we can take that we can be assured will result in our feeling “good” or “right.” We fear failure, and the consequences to ourselves and others. And if there is anything that being a therapist has taught me it is that failure is inevitable. There is not a single case I have treated in 20 years where I “did it right” and was perfectly attuned. I fumble, I flail, and I have to apologize humble myself again and learn from it. I used to have a George Bernard Shaw quote on my wall that read: “You have just learned something, and that always feels at first, as though you have just lost something.”
JM: And because of my commitment to not throwing people away, I’m also working hard to call people back into connection to me if they are willing.
So much work to do.