He came just before dawn my first companion in chains the father of four sons who died exhaling his last fevered breath onto my back now he returns breathing softly onto my worn flesh he whispers in my ear words I cannot understand but I know it is him telling me of the pain the joy of leaving his body the apprehension of giving up life. I listen intently to know what my life could be on another journey a different kind of journey.
He does not touch me will not touch me unless I say yes, take me.
Pushed forward by the cradle rock of the ship, leaning, I smell him not as when we were chained brothers with the pungency of vomit, bloody sweat sticking to our salt bodies, but different.
Slight guava scent after first morning rain.
I am tempted to touch him, let him take me
beyond where my captured body lay but a great fear grabs me.
Squeezes my heart. Holds my breath. I cannot release, free myself.
And so he leaves me with my fear and the terror of this life.
From, Journey: The Middle Passage, Psychological Perspectives, v. 59, Issue 4
A Day in August
Four hundred years ago the White Lion arrived in Hampton, Virginia,following it’s ocean voyage from Britain.This ship’s arrival and its occupants were to contribute to the creation of an American society that combined all that many of us hold dear, and paradoxically that which many of us have the strongest desire to change. Aboard the White Lion were twenty-plus enslaved Africans stolen from Angola. These men and women, were the ancestors of African Americans who were sold throughout Southern states, building an economically strong plantation system that amassed wealth for white America.
Many of us who seek change in our American social system wish to increase social justice. This type of justice points to a history of slavery and racism in the early American colonies and through four hundred years of social injustice. Injustice that included not only economic suffering, but also immense psychological and mental trauma.
It is difficult to separate Africanist suffering into strands of economic, gender, educational. These and more are so evenly braided together—from our American Constitution, to our contemporary education system. Not one place of our American society and psyche has been untouched by the arrival of the White Lion Africans who came ashore that day in August.
Engaging the psychological work of healing intergenerational trauma, recognizing cultural complexes, understanding archetypal DNA and epigenetics involved in attachment theory, related to the African Holocaust, binds us. All of us—as Americans. There is often a wish, perhaps as an aspect of a racial complex, to forget, create amnesia regarding those first African American ancestors. However, it rests with all of us who live today to remember them as creating the path for millions who followed. Their journey was one of suffering, as was that of their descendants. My writing is to remember and honor those first Angolan Africans stolen and brought to America. It is to remember them with love and compassion because their path has been our path, and we have not yet finished the journey.
Dr. Fanny Brewster is a Jungian member analyst with PAJA, Professor at Pacifica Graduate Institute, and the author of The Racial Complex: A Jungian Perspective on Culture and Race. (Routledge 2019). Dr. Brewster is available through her website, www.fannybrewster.allyou.net/
Everyone knows about terrible mothers in fairytales – and they
were originally mothers. The Brothers Grimm spun them into stepmothers, feeling
that multiple instances of mothers who envied, betrayed, and abandoned their
daughters would be too grim for public consumption. (They may also have considered
the likely negative impact on sales.) Happily, stepmothers were safe to hate,
and their eventual defeat could be all the more celebrated.
As a child I was hazily aware of peculiar family dynamics in
fairytales, but what with fiery lakes, magic mountains, and mean stepmothers, a
disappeared dad was almost beyond my capacity to notice. I got to thinking
about this because my friend Audrey recently told me she hadn’t allowed her sons
to read fairytales when they were young. “Too many weak fathers,” she said. “I
didn’t want my boys learning that women would compensate for their failings.” I
thought of Cinderella, Snow White,
Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, Beauty and the Beast, and Rumpelstiltskin, well-known tales that come readily to mind. There
are more such tales but I think I’ve made my point.
Cinderella and Snow White had tuned-out dads. After their
starter wives died, they acquired new ones as easily as buying a new appliance.
Household order now restored, these lords of their respective manors whisked
themselves off to—somewhere. Perhaps these fathers were too dissociated–or
just disinterested–to notice their daughters’ abuse, much less their collusion
Other dads were surprisingly witless wimps. When Rapunzel’s
old man got caught stealing the greens his pregnant wife craved – doubtless the
start of the kale craze – he agreed to hand over their baby after birth as
payment. In Hansel and Gretel’s even more food-deprived home, dad ditched his
kids in the forest—twice—because even though he felt bad about it, his wife
insisted, so what could he do?
The third group of failed fathers skipped any pretense of
blamelessness and out-and-out sacrificed their daughters to save themselves.
Beauty’s father allowed her (she insisted!) to live with the Beast so he wouldn’t
have to. The father of the nameless maiden in Rumpelstiltskin set her up for life in a dungeon or decapitation
(take your pick) by telling the king she could spin straw into gold. The father
of The Girl Without Hands – a lesser-known
tale for grisly reasons — chopped off her hands after making a deal with the
Now I know that from a Jungian point of view, all the characters in a fairytale represent various aspects of an individual psyche: we all have an inner maiden, witch, prince and so on. From that point of view, each of the tales I’ve cited can be viewed as a depiction of the psychological development of the feminine. These heroines snap out of their innocence complex to overcome their negative father complex. Then the contra-sexual inner opposites unite, which means each she marries a princely he, and happily-ever-after wholeness is achieved.
No child—and few parents, for that matter–read fairytales
this way. I had worked my way around the library corner from the syrupy Peter Rabbit, Raggedy Ann and Mother West
Wind tales to the juice and justice of fairytales. Here, fish and frogs
talked, mile-high beanstalks sprang up overnight, and forests were places of
mystery and surprise. I was thrilled.
The heroines who inspired me were the ones who sacrificed
themselves for others. I could–would!–love the Beast, or silently knit
sweaters out of nettles to save my six swan brothers (and nobly ignore my
bleeding fingers). I would take on the tasks required to rescue Tam Lin from
the Queen of the Fairies, though having to hold hot coals gave me pause.
I can acknowledge the logic and merit of Audrey’s injunction
against fairytales. If her sons might have learned that they wouldn’t be
accountable for missing backbones, daughters like me learned that love was often
defined as unstinting and selfless service. But I also absorbed a felt
recognition of a truth that hadn’t risen to consciousness: feckless fathers and
mean mothers are a reality. Heads up, kids —you’ve been told, this story is
old, and you’re not alone.
If the heroines I loved were self-sacrificing, they were also radically persevering – and/or brave, clever, and incredibly good. If these girls (and they were girls) were overlooked, neglected or abused, neither had they been steeped in cultural gender norms. They didn’t learn what they were not supposed to do, so Cinderella took off for the ball, Rapunzel hopped into bed with the prince, and the miller’s daughter faced down Rumpelstiltskin. Harsh circumstances forced them to find individual solutions, which even today is not a bad idea.
We tend to idealize parental love and paint childhood in
pastels despite what any therapist (or your next-door neighbor) can tell you
about family shadow. Or trauma. Fairytales dive right into the dark side. Whether
our situation then or now is merely unfair or unspeakably awful, fairytales
tell us that given the givens, we’d better get real and get going. Even if we
don’t live happily ever after (spoiler alert: we won’t) we can live
authentically, learn a lot, and climb hand-over-hand into wholeness.
Deborah Stewart is a Jungian
Analyst and Licensed Clinical Social Worker residing in Cape Cod, MA. She can
be reached at www.DeborahCStewart.com She
is a member of the Philadelphia Association of Jungian Analysts, where she
co-chairs and teaches in the training seminar. She is an active member of the
Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts and participates in other
professional organizations. She is co-creator and contributor to This Jungian
Life podcast at www.ThisJungianLife.com.
She has a special interest in trauma and is the author of Encounters
with Monsters: The Significance of Non-Human Images of Trauma in the Psyche.
It was the Best of Times; It was the Worst of Times
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
–Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Recently, I re-read this paragraph which was, as I recall
the experience, forced on me in Highschool. It had meant little, or nothing to
me at the time, except for the music that the rhythm of the words left in my
ears, and a slight vibration to that music, that the music in words, always leaves
in the heart. I am surprised to discover that the depth of meaning contained in
these oppositions could, this many years later, offer me something so essential.
Now, the words bring light to the dark
corridor, I have recently entered. I had attributed this darkness simply, and
one-sidedly, to the “Spirit of the Times,” giving no nod to its opposite, and
its potentially broadening “Spirit of the Depths.”
Ali Smith, a Scottish author, states in her interview in the
Paris Review, in the Spring of 2017:
What is the point of art, of any art, if it doesn’t let us see with a little bit of objectivity where we are?…I use the step-back motion that I learned from Dickens—the way that famous first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities creates a space by being its own opposite—to allow readers the space we need to see what space we’re in.
…We are living in a time when lies are sanctioned. We always lived in that time, but now the lies are publicly sanctioned. Something tribal has happen which means that nobody gives a damn whether somebody is lying or not because he is on my side…in the end will truth matter? Of course, truth will matter….But there is going to be a great deal of sacrifice on the way to getting truth to matter to us again.
tells us in fiction, the truth, that perhaps, at times, only fiction can offer.
“Fiction tells you, by the making up of truth, what really is true.”(Smith,
2017) In this case, and, obviously, in many others, fiction offers entrance to
a world that we may not have yet come to fully know from the travels and
meanderings of our own psyche.
through fiction that we have an opportunity to occupy the realm of the
opposites. Dickens’ prose creates for us the organic experience of occupying the
coveted realm of possibility. Reading the beginning quote, has within it the
inherent possibility of transporting us to a moment when the opposites can be
experienced together, or at least in in the vicinity of one another.
Jung, it is shadow, that stands at the gateway to this experience. Shadow’s presence
leaves the door open to begin our acquaintance with the opposites. Jung, in describing the
function of shadow, draws attention to shadow’s subtle, and unconscious
exclusionary process, and suggests that it requires a depth of moral fortitude
and integrity to be willing to tolerate the dissonance that the presence of
How much can we learn from
the phrase: “It the worst of times,” when we have the courage to add, it’s
shadow opposite, “it is the best of times” to it; and when we add to “we had everything before us, the
phrase, “we had nothing before us”? For me, expanding my psychic realm like
this, creates a sympathy for noticing things at the margins. I have learned
from life, that extraordinary things happen at the edges. Jungian theory
requests that we hover there, gaining perspective and regaining a lingering
sense of the possibility offered to us at the edge of things.
Many of us have grown up in the
margins of the realm created by our mothers, challenged by the world of our
fathers; the realm of the nationality of one parent, transformed by the
nationality of the other; the realm of our home life, augmented and changed by
our school life; our private internal life, augmented by the outside world in
which we live; our lived life, transformed by the life brought to us by our
reading, and the multiplicity of our education.
Collectively, has also been
enlarged for me in my lifetime. My sense
of “White” has been augmented and transformed by my changing sense of “Black”;
the meaning of “Nationalism” has changed by the foul history of “nationalisms.”
On my first trip to Europe my sense of being an American, was shattered (and
enlarged) by the French seeing my country as inhabiting only part of the vast
continent of North American. Also, the word “colonies” that I learned all
about in history has been profoundly transformed by my understanding of the
I have learned from all of this
that opposites do not exist easily and cooperatively, and naturally in
consciousness. One side of the equation seems to live in the darkness to allow
us to exist peacefully in the realm of the “oneness” of the other side, and it’s
consequential, one-sidedness. It is only when we are able to hold these
oppositions as neighbors that we realize how much is hidden from us, how much
has been lost.
know from all this, that transformational things happen on the edges, that the
numinous and the mysterious happens on the edges. Great art, fiction, and our dreams informs us
again, and again that much that seems impossible, is possible at the edges. It is where the opposites meet, where margins can
be celebrated and where anything is possible.
However, there is a great deal of sacrifice on the way to
getting the margins of things to seriously matter to us again. It always
involves allowing ourselves to be seriously and utterly disturbed.
Joan Golden-Alexis, Ph.D. is a Jungian Analyst and psychologist in New York City. Her practice consists of individuals as well as couples. drjoangolden@gmail
Begley, A. “The Art of Fiction, No. 236,” Paris Review, Issue 221, Summer.
trauma is often defined, less in terms of the personal (the individual), and
more in terms of the collective (the social-political) with its potentially insidious
soul-destroying qualities. This is Maria Root’s concept of everyday or
“insidious trauma.” Root, here is referring to the “traumatogenic effects of
oppression,” racism, marginalization, and hegemony.
psychoanalysts recognize the resulting condition of psychic paralysis that
exists in an individual exposed to collective psychic trauma. Such individuals
are said to have a psyche colonized by collective and colonial imperatives, including
the internalized attitudes of cultural inferiority. (Fanon, 2008)
This internalization often entails “the loss of an unnamable domain…which one
might…mistake for constitutional exile.” (Kristiva,1982)
exile (the feeling of being set adrift, disoriented, and disconnected from
oneself) produces one of the most damaging aspects of psychic trauma. This is the
loss, of a connection to one’s interiority, and access to a creative
unconscious that can provide the psychic space for the reparation and
reconstitution of internal processes, impacted by trauma. The result is a
devastating inhibition in the growth of awareness of the extent of the psychic
injury, and above all, a loss of a linking to one’s autonomy and agency that could
provide the psychic space for repair.
schools of psychoanalysis emphasize the power of the unconscious in the healing
of a socially traumatized psyche. Some point to dreams for bringing a more
detailed map of the psychic territory impacted by the trauma, and exposing the
linkages to other vulnerable places within the individual. In this context,
Jung offers what he terms “The Spirit of the Depths,”  an aspect of psyche,
composed of both conscious and unconscious processes, available through our
dreams, that offers a space
of reflection, born of an understanding of the images that flow from the
is this force, according to
Jung, that offers the vision to unshackle both an individual life and also provides
the symbols that offer recovery from the impact of a culture that may be
tumultuous, disorienting, and assaultive to its members’ autonomy. These kinds
of dreams can prove fertile for the personality, enabling it to move creatively
forward, reacquiring or transforming inadvertently overlooked parts of the self,
and linking them to those encapsulated by the trauma.
It follows, that our
dreams, once embraced, can provide, one way, that we can return from a place of
exile, homelessness, rootlessness, and powerlessness, and help reinstate the inalienable
rights denied by a corrosive, society. Our dreams can offer us entrance into
the psychic space that we can call “home,” a home that offers acquaintance with
what is essentially ours, initiating autonomy from what has been destructively imposed.
Freedom, redemption, depth of feeling and understanding of the world around us,
and ourselves, is intimately connected to keeping the door ajar to this psychic
There are some dreams
that appear to be specifically commenting on the “Spirit of the Times”—the impact
of the social context—the collective—and at the same time seem to be commenting
on the personal. These dreams offer the special gift of shedding light on both
the distinction between the personal and the political, and their juncture, giving
insight to their linkage, and their impact on each other.
I have termed this
type of `dream, “dreams at the interface.”
Although not all dreams prompt a feeling that they are commenting on the “Spirit
of the Times” as well as personal complexes and issues of the individual
dreamer, Lama Z. Khouri in her poignant essay “Buried Neck Deep” in Room 10-18.5offers just such a dream and gives us the opportunity to study the linkage
between the personal and political in some detail.
As we explore Khouri’s dream we will see how the
personal and political have interacted to produce her current experience. The
dream, itself, with its message understood, can help her restore generativity
and choice in her psyche, a psyche that she describes as impacted through her
identification as a Palestinian (a people, both colonized and abandoned by
other Arab countries, their plight overlooked) and having a profound emotional
connection to, and understanding of the people of a village in Gaza
symbolically (and literally) described by her as an “open-air prison.”
It is almost impossible, not to pause, as one
attempts to absorb the catastrophic and emotive power of the image, which is
center stage in Khouri’s dream, dreamed 12 years ago, when her son was age 4,
and now again is rising to consciousness. It seems that such an image can only
emerge from a psyche that has had the primary experience, and in addition been
a primary witness to, the insidious traumatogenic power of oppression. The
dream imagery carries forward to her consciousness and ours the soul-destroying
aspects of collective trauma.
However, it is important to note, that dreams rarely
restate what the dreamer already knows, their gift is always to be our most
informing friend, constantly surprising, urging us to notice shadow aspects of
ourselves, existing, in the darkened areas of our psyche. Focusing on these areas,
clarifies linkages, and assumptions that may give us the capacity to unlock doors
to internally, and externally constructed prisons.
It is this aspect of Khouri’s dream that we look to for
the vision to unshackle her personal complexes, and issues that have arisen in
relationship to her collective experience of trauma. These personal issues can
be just as catastrophic and immobilizing, left unnoticed, as the original collective
psychic trauma. In addition, when the collective and personal aspects of the
trauma are not sorted, their interaction can dramatically intensify psychic
In addition, when such a powerful dream image
rises to the surface of consciousness yet a second time, it carries the suggestion
that there must be something important that Khouri needs to notice. Perhaps it
might possess the quality of the “unthought known” of Christopher Bollas. a
“thought” that is existent in one’s psyche, but its poignant and
transformational power makes it impossible to process.
Lately, a dream I had twelve years ago has been coming back to me. I dreamt that my four-year-old son (he’s sixteen now) was buried neck deep in the middle of a neighborhood and surrounded by modest houses. Passersby would kick his face, but he remained silent, as if the kicks were part of life and not to be contested — as if, to survive, he needed to keep his mouth shut.
This dream has had many meanings for me. Twelve years ago, I thought my four-year-old son in the dream was me: buried in a failed marriage with nowhere to go. Of late, my son in the dream has become the Palestinian people: “You either capitulate or we will continue to beat you to the ground.” Their struggle for freedom is terrorism, children throwing rocks are arrested or killed, many young adults have no hope —
Although many of the assumptions and images in the dream
may seem resonant to, and even a result of living intimately connected to a
colonized nation, it is important to note that there are many assumptions in
the dream that are stated as “just so” aspects of life, and it may be those
that the dream seems to be opening up for consideration and questioning. I have
noted these in bold above.
Are kicks in the face part of life and not to be
contested? The dream figure acts “as if” this is true He acts as if to survive, he needs to keep his
mouth shut. Is it true that in orderto
survive, one must remain silent?
Khouri says, at
first, she thought the dream image was her, buried in a failed marriage with no
place to go. However, one can be buried in a failed marriage without being
silenced and kicked in the face, and buried neck deep with no efficacy, no
motility other than the voice.
says, later that she felt that the dream image reflected the reality of the
Palestinian people. However, one can be oppressed, harassed, socially
imprisoned, and impacted by the Israeli’s abuse without assuming kicks are part
of life, and not to be contested, or without assuming that abuse is normal.
centrally one can be in an oppressive marriage, and/or oppressed by an
aggressive nation, and still not decide in order to survive one must keep their
mouth shut. The dream describes a certain conscious orientation to reality, certain
assumptions about life, and what one needs to do in order to survive, and it
shows the dream figure “buried up to the neck” in these assumptions, and
immobilized by them. It appears to me that it is these assumptions that allow
the dream figure no “wiggle room,” and
that it may be these assumptions, left unquestioned, that have accumulated to construct
his “open-air prison.”
appears that it is not the collective trauma itself that has destroyed the
dream figure’s power, and autonomy. Rather it is these assumptions about life
that has the dream figure catastrophically and hopelessly mired. The dream figure
has no wiggle room in relation to the assumption that abuse is a normal part of
life; that there is a normal and natural connection between abuse, and the
inability to act; that the connection between abuse and silent acceptance is
normal; and that silence, and
immobility are the only survival techniques. Above all, the
dream appears to be attempting to bring to the consciousness of the dreamer a
new option—the possibility of questioning the wholesale truth of the powerful
phase—”You either capitulate or we will beat you to the
It appears that the dream is here now, or 12 years ago,
and is remembered, again, to continue its dialogue with her. The dream specifically
throws light on these assumptions, and opens them to reflection.
Khouri, concludes her essay with these thoughts:
It is not enough for me to hold and contain the client’s
pain. I need to do what I can to change their sociopolitical environment.
Impacted by the powerful image in her dream, I would also
add that Khouri may notice dream images of her clients, or thoughts and
associations that demonstrate personal vulnerabilities and narratives, that exist
in their personal psyche in relationship to the larger collective trauma. Bringing
these to consciousness, differentiating the power imposed
from the outside, from the power given to the outside through internal personal
assumptions, and personal narratives, giving the link between the two, heat, focus,
and conscious reflection, may bring these “just so” assumptions to awareness,
and create a greater inner sense of personal choice for her clients.
Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, (London, United Kingdom: Pluto Press,
Kristeva, (Leon S. Roudiez, Trans.) Powers
of Horror; An Essay on Abjection, (Columbia University Press,1982).
CG, “Liber Primus,” The Red Book, (New York and London, W.W. Norton and
Company, 2009), 241.
A Sketchbook for Analytic Action. (2018) Iptah.org (analytic-room.com)
Bollas, The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known (New
York, Columbia University Press, 1987).
Golden-Alexis, Ph.D. is a Jungian psychoanalyst and psychologist in New York
City. Her practice consists of individuals as well as couples. (email@example.com)
I have been thinking about the Frog Prince, and more specifically about the method, so to speak, of his transformation from frog to prince. I first encountered him a long time ago at the children’s library. The librarian took my mother and me to the shelves to the right of the entryway, where I met Mother West Wind and Tom Swift. I worked my way across and down the shelves four books at a time – the maximum number I could check out – until I got to the fairy tales, a riveting upgrade in drama.
In this fierce new realm bad people, like stepmothers, witches, and Cinderella’s sisters, were punished in gloriously gory ways: burning, beheading, and blood. Good people—aka heroines–were rewarded, usually with a prince, for various virtues: Cinderella persisted in going to the ball, Snow White nurtured dwarves, and Beauty’s compassion transformed a beast. I was hardly into dress-up and dancing, much less homemaking or marriage, but I understood that personal strengths were rewarded. I did have a low opinion of Sleeping Beauty, however, who received her prince merely for falling asleep on the job.
Eventually, I came across the Frog Prince, in which a rather prissy princess makes a deal with a frog: if he will retrieve her golden ball from the bottom of a pond, the princess will allow the frog to eat from her plate and sleep in her bed. The princess gets her ball back, ditches the frog, but when her king father insists that a deal is a deal she has to endure the frog’s proximity. Some nights later, the princess even had to kiss the frog—which turned him into a prince. I didn’t think it would be so hard to kiss a frog, and accepted the rightness of a by now familiar fairy tale trope: eros transforms.
But in the second version of the tale, maybe a couple of shelves down, I read that the petulant little princess, required merely to share her food and pillow with a frog, had a royal tantrum and flung the frog against the wall. I imagined the frog exploding like a balloon filled with Jello, and was shocked that the princess’ rage, revulsion, and rebellion were rewarded with the usual prince. This was a whole new storyline – talk about cognitive dissonance! – and it thrilled me.
Suddenly there was room in the goodnesses of the feminine for the authenticity of no, even if it meant defaulting on a deal, acting aggressively, and defying patriarchal authority. There was, and is, room for protest, even if it’s emotional and messy. This princess – and all our inner princesses – may be rageful, impulsive, and defiant, but they are entitled to no – and to choosing their own bedmates.
The Jungian perspective on fairy tales is principally internal, and considers the characters in the tale (or a dream) as images of individual psychic realities. But before we get to that, I’d like to make the case for a frog-flinging recent event: Christine Blasey Ford’s protest against Brett Kavanaugh’s suitability for the Supreme Court. Her truth hit the media and splattered Kavanaugh’s reputation everywhere.
But Kavanaugh did not become a prince in anyone’s eyes–unless there’s someone somewhere who doubts Dr. Ford’s testimony and the courage it took to provide it. Kavanaugh’s wilding days of inebriated sexual predation belied the “choir boy” persona the PR team had promoted. Perhaps there was some justice for the Justice after all, for when the Kavanaugh frog hit the wall it left a permanent stain.
So where, you may be wondering, is the prince? He resides, as ever, in every woman, and Christine Blasey Ford demonstrated that we all have access to our inner prince. It takes the qualities all those other fairy tale heroines demonstrated, especially fidelity to one’s inner truth, and adds our right to claim it with all the fury and force of an authentic no.
Sisters, if there’s a horrid frog in your life, you know what you can do.
My thanks to Jungian-oriented friend and colleague Lisa Benger, LCSW-R in Brooklyn, NY for a conversation about this tale, and Brett Kavanaugh as an example of an invasive frog who galvanizes the princess into full-blown authentic protest.
Deborah Stewart is a Jungian Analyst and Licensed Clinical Social Worker residing in Cape Cod, MA. She can be reached at www.DeborahCStewart.com She is a member of the Philadelphia Association of Jungian Analysts, where she co-chairs and teaches in the training seminar. She is an active member of the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts and participates in other professional organizations. She is co-creator and contributor to This Jungian Life podcast at www.ThisJungianLife.com. She has a special interest in trauma and is the author of Encounters with Monsters: The Significance of Non-Human Images of Trauma in the Psyche.
To tattoo one’s body is merely one of the thousand ways of conjugating the verb ‘to be’ that fundamental concept of our metaphysics—Michael Thévos
What lies deepest of all in man, is the skin—Paul Valery
In the last several decades both in academic circles and as a method of healing, analytic psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, with its central focus on the unconscious and the multilayered psyche, has decreased in popularity. Seemingly, reflective of the current zeitgeist, cognitive therapy with its narrow focus of symptom reduction, has taken the lead. In the popular therapeutic discourse, symptom relief, has replaced symbolical understanding of the symptom—the symptom understood as an access point to unconscious and potentially transformative aspects of the personality.
In contrast, tattoos, and other forms of body modification, as a method of healing (having been utilized for centuries to cure arthritis, to express autonomy, and to connect with higher and sacred curative powers), have increased in popularity. Seemingly reflective and reinforcing of a zeitgeist which emphasizes the innate metaphysic of becoming and memorializing that metaphysic on the surface of the body, tattoos have made an explosive impact. Currently, tattoos creep like vines on the arms, legs and torsos of many, unabashedly and comfortably crossing gender, educational and social barriers.
In fact, ink art has exploded, and now according to research studies 15 to 38 percent of Americans have some kind of long-term body art. What was once considered self-mutilating behavior and a psychiatric problem has now become the cure. Body art is on the move, and for the first time in history American women are more likely than men to get tattooed; 23% have tattoos as compared to 19% of men; and 14% of men and women have two or more. It is a now a credible hypothesis, that the increase in body modifications have arisen to fill the vacuum left by the loss of a symbolic and metaphorical connection to the unconscious.
Tattooing and the process of tattooing brings the emphasis back to the body, the skin, and most directly to the multi-layered psyche as a focus of interest. In fact, except for psychoanalysis, little in my opinion more directly connects the body, and corporality to interiority and the Self, than various forms of body modification. Privileging the body, always privileges psyche; modifying the body, often awakens and strengthens linkages between consciousness, and the unconscious psyche.
Although many express the importance of the surface appeal of their tattoos, rarely does the narrative end at that point. Most, who tell their stories, weave an intricate connection between the tattoo of choice, the story of its healing potential, and its connection to the never-ending project of self-expression and transformation. “Written on the skin—the very membrane that separates the self from the world—tattoos are diary entries, public announcements, conversation pieces, counter-cultural totems, valentines to lovers, memorial to the dead, reminders to the self. They are scars and symptoms, mistakes and corrections. Collectively they form a secret history of grappling with the self in relationship to body….” [i] In fact, tattoos often directly transform the place of profound wounding, (from sexual assaults, to deeply invasive or deforming surgeries) sealing and containing them, reclaiming the body for the Self and initiating a generative process within.
The defining feature of tattooing is the making of indelible pigmented traces which are inside or underneath the skin behind what seems like a transparent layer. When in tattoo, the skin is transformed, and gives its own half-life over to a newly “living” image. This underscores the tattoo’s potential to effectively represent the interior of the psyche. It is the transformation of an area of the skin into an image (or script) which appears to elevate the tattoo to a form of psychic expression. This combined with choosing a particular image, and designating a particular placement on the body, places the power in the hands of the person who is experiencing something internally and makes choices. These choices result in a physical permanent mark on the skin, and a potential point of deep connection with the unconscious psyche.
One can conceive of the process of tattooing as a converting of the skin into a “ritual space” for healing.[ii] The tattoo and the process of tattooing, despite its conversion into a sanitized and modernized process, remains a form of corporeal transformation. What is external is transformed into something internal to the subject; and memory, a critical property of contemporary self-identity, is externalized and fixed upon the skin. Accordingly, tattoo artist Vkyvyn Lazonga claims that “getting pierced and tattooed tends to develop a person’s awareness of memory; the piercings or tattoos become points of reference that reinforce the self and history, and such practice do more than merely ‘remind’ or ‘reinforce’, they may also elicit who the person is or is becoming. In this sense they evoke, not only the registration of external events but internal depth.” [iii] Chinchilla, the British tattooist adds that, “everything that she inks on people is already inside them…she only opens the skin and lets it out.” [iv]
What is central to the conversion of the skin to a vehicle of psychic transport is what Alfred Gell, in his account of Polynesian tattooing, has termed the, “technical schema” of tattooing: “the puncturing, cutting and piercing of the skin; the flow of blood and the infliction of pain; the healing and closure of the wound; and the indelible trace of the process, a visible and permanent mark on, yet underneath the skin: ‘an inside which comes from the outside…’ the exteriorization of the interior which is simultaneously the interiorization of the exterior.” [v]
Central to this process, is both the intentional wounding, the opening and then closing of the body, and the pain. Pain is an intrinsic and necessary aspect of the process of body modification and psychic penetration. Such practices speak to important and powerful concerns around flesh (body) and Self, linked with these processes of bodily inscription. Lacassagne[vi] speaks of these tattooed marks as “scars that speak”. I would add here, these are scars that not only speak, but in so doing, create a dialogue between inner and outer, and between interiority and exteriority.
This method of theorizing about the tattoo, is interesting as it captures a quality of the paradoxical and turns on the idea that there is an interaction or play between the “interior” and the “exterior” aspects of the tattoo, and the indelible mark that is simultaneously on and under the surface of the skin. This play of opposites, inside and outside, symbolic and corporeal and their interaction creating something new, underscores Jungian thought, and provides a context with which to explore with our analysands, (a population already involved in symbolic work) how tattoos function within their own internal-external processes, and opens the question, if this population, requires bodily inscription less than other groups.
In this context, it is interesting to understand, the moment when an analysand already involved in a deep symbolic connection to psyche, develops the need to have an indelible pigmented mark carved into their skin. Is that a moment akin to how Jung imagined the “big dream,” a notification from psyche of a momentous transition in the person’s life? Culling from the many narratives surrounding tattooing, I think this may be true. But, if this is the case, the question arises as to why some analysands are called to mark the occasion in this way; why is it that he or she are called to have it, “written in the flesh”; and how does this act impact the on-going treatment? Cultural and social changes, provide the opportunity for those who seek analysis to feel comfortable tattooing, but this is clearly not the whole of what is involved. The link between the metaphorical connections involved in body modification, and the generative movement of psyche appears to be a fruitful area for further study.
[i] Mifflin, Bodies of Subversion, 2013, p. 147. [ii] Lars Krutak, Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification, p. 8. [iii] V. Vale and Andrea Juno, ‘Introduction” in Modern Primitives, ed. Vale and Juno, p. 5. [iv]Tattoo International, CLLV, November 1994, p. 11. [v] Alfred Gell, Wrapping in Images: Tattooing in Polynesia. Oxford, 1993, pp.38-39, quoted in Susan Benson, “Inscription of the Self: Reflections on Tattooing and Piercing,” p.237…in Caplan, Written on the Body. [vi] Quoted in Ibid p. 237.
Joan Golden-Alexis, PHD, is a clinical psychologist, and certified Jungian analyst, practicing in New York City. She is on the teaching faculty of the Philadelphia Association of Jungian analysts, the Jungian Psychoanalytic Association of New York, and the clinical faculty of Yeshiva Graduate School of Psychology. Her practice consists of individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to Jung, the unconscious spontaneously produces images that are mythological in nature, meaning that they are symbolic, universal, and address the nature of the cosmos, and our place in it. Mythologems, or mythological motifs, are a kind of pre-existing psychic natural resource, present at least in potential in the deep layers of the psyche of every person. These mythological images are the raw materials from which the grand narratives that we know of as myth are formed.
Myths are products of the unconscious and reveal its workings. Jung wrote that “myths are original revelations of the preconscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings.”[i] Jung believed that myths and dreams spring from a common source – that they both draw from to the same aquifer of universal images. “The whole world of myth of fable is an outgrowth of unconscious fantasy just like the dream.”[ii] Jung believed that the motifs found in dreams and myths were so similar that they were nearly identical.
Dreams, being statements of the unconscious, play no small part in the therapy….The indubitable occurrence of archetypal motifs in dreams make a thorough knowledge of the spiritual history of man indispensable for anyone seriously attempting to understand the real meaning of dreams. The likeness between certain dream motifs and mythologems is so striking that they may be regarded not merely as similar but even identical. This recognition not only raises the dream to a higher level and places it in the wider context of the mythologem, but, at the same time, the problems posed by mythology are brought into connection with the psychic life of the individual.[iii]
Joseph Campbell adds some nuance to Jung’s assertion that myth and dream originate from the same source. He contends that myths are produced with the help of consciousness, and contain not merely upwelling of instinctual wisdom, but the distillation of generations of lived knowledge.
If we are to grasp the full value of the materials, we must note that myths are not exactly comparable to dream. Their figures originate from the same sources – the unconscious wells of fantasy – and their grammar is the same, but they are not the spontaneous products of sleep. On the contrary, their patterns serve as a powerful picture language for the communication of traditional wisdom. This is true already of the so-called primitive folk mythologies. The trance-susceptible shaman and the initiated antelope-priest are not unsophisticated in the wisdom of the world, not unskilled in the principles of communication by analogy. The metaphors by which they live, and through which they operate, have been brooded upon, searched, and discussed for centuries – even millenniums; they have served whole societies, furthermore, as the mainstays of thought and life. The culture patterns have been shaped to them. The youth have been educated, and the aged rendered wise, through the study, experience, and understanding of their effective initiatory forms. For they touch and actually bring into play the vital energies of the whole human psyche. They link the unconscious to the fields of practical action.[iv]
The grand mythic narratives, therefore, have been forged by culture. Myths tell us how to live and contain the distilled wisdom of the ancestors. Mythological stories, then, always tell us something important about the collective. They instruct the individual about how he or she ought to orient toward the wider culture. It may be that, at decisive moments in personal individuation, our individual choices intersect with larger collective currents. At these times, our personal story becomes part of the larger myth unfolding in the life of society around us. It is likely that mythological dreams appear at just such junctures.
As Jung points out, our dreams often include images that could have come from myths or fairy tales. There are big symbols such as snakes or trees, and these are accompanied by big feelings. Or our dreams have supernatural creatures or occurrences. Animals talk. There are witches or vampires. Then we know we are in the realm of the mythic. When mythological dreams appear, it may be that these are there to link our personal story to collective events, to place our personal drama decisively in a historical context. If we are indeed connected to the entirety of human experience through the underground rhizome of the collective unconscious, and influence flows both ways, then receiving a dream from this level of the psyche alerts us that we are in the flow of a collective psychic happening.
Consider the following dream:
It was a sunny day, and I was carrying a little girl dressed in a long white gown to be baptized. The path to the church led up a steep hill. But I was holding the child safely and securely in my arms. All of a sudden, I found myself at the brink of a crevasse. I had just enough time to set the child down on the other side before I plunged into the abyss.[v]
The image of the little girl alerts us that we are potentially in mythological territory. The child is a profound symbol of futurity, of that which is both fragile and yet destined to survive us. Jung says that the child is a symbol that new thing that appears spontaneously as a result of the union of opposites just at that time when we feel most stuck and desolate.
The “child” is born out of the womb of the unconscious, begotten out of the depths of human nature, or rather out of living Nature herself. It is a personification of vital forces quite outside the limited range of our conscious mind; of ways and possibilities of which our one-sided conscious mind knows nothing; a wholeness which embraces the very depths of Nature. It represents the strongest, the most ineluctable urge in every being, namely the urge to realize itself.[vi]
The transpersonal content symbolized by the little girl is being carried by the dream ego toward a ritual experience of rebirth and consecration. The dream is reassuring that this content will survive beyond the destruction of the conscious personality. As a symbol, the child can stand for that which was there before consciousness, and that which will remain after consciousness ceases to be.
The child…is thus both beginning and end, an initial and a terminal creature. The initial creature existed before man wan, and the terminal creature will be when man is not. Psychologically speaking, this means that the “child” symbolizes the pre-conscious and the post-conscious essence of man. His pre-conscious essence is the unconscious state of earliest childhood; his post-conscious essence is an anticipation by analogy of life after death.[vii]
Just as our actual children will survive us and go on to carry a part of our essence into the infinite future, the symbolic child carries transpersonal values into the future beyond our personal, temporally limited engagement with them. (The image of the child is used to suggest just such a content at the end of the film 2001 A Space Odyssey.)
In fact, this dream was dreamt by Sophie Scholl on the night before her execution. According to the biography written by her sister, Scholl interpreted the dream to her cell mate thus:
“The child represents our idea, which will triumph in spite of all obstacles. We are allowed to be its trailblazers, but we must die before it is realized.”[viii]
Such a dream reveals to us the mythic substrate on which our personal drama unfolds. Mythological dreams may also perhaps reflect the currents of history and world events which flow beneath us at all times, but which we may not be capable of detecting without the benefit of hindsight.
Mythological dreams are usually Big Dreams, dreams that affect us powerfully, and stay with us for years. Mythological dreams encourage us to fulfill our personal destiny, so that we can take up our unique role in the life of the collective. They seem to appear at nodal points in our life, often prefiguring decisive moments when we face a choice whether to move in the direction of our mysteriously pre-ordained unfolding.
[i] “The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, CW 9i, par. 261. [ii] “Principles of Practical Psychotherapy,” The Practice of Psychotherapy, CW 16, par. 17. [iii] “Foreword to White’s ‘God and the Unconscious,’” Psychology and Religion: West and East, CW 11, par. 450. [iv] Jospeh Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 256-257. [v] Beradt, C. (1968). The Third Reich of dreams. With an essay by Bruno Bettelheim. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, pp. 107-108. [vi] “The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, CW 9i, par. 289. [vii] “The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, CW 9i, par. 299. [viii] Beradt, C. (1968). The Third Reich of dreams. With an essay by Bruno Bettelheim. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, p. 108.