On Remembering conversations, I have had—

New Yorker Cartoon by War and Peas (Elizabeth Pich and Jonathan Kunz)


My husband hears me talking on the phone, and standing at the threshold of my study, throws kisses. He says, with certainty, “You are talking to your boyfriend.” I laugh with embarrassment that he has caught me in the act of being happy. On the phone, a friend has just made it clear that he sees our friendship as important, and the reason he offers, in a most straightforward manner, is that it makes him happy to talk with me. I am touched, but also seriously bewildered that his desire for our friendship, means so much to him that it occasions this special call.

My husband admits, days later, that he was teasing me, and the kisses were because I sound happy for the first time in a longtime. He said that my mood is contagious, and it appears to restore the hope in him that I could be simply happy again. I muse, “Have I really been that unhappy?” “Who knew?”

Although bringing a certain pleasure, this sincere offer of friendship is also unsettling. How did my friend know for certain that conversations could make him happy, or more importantly understand that a friendship with me could have that impact? Can conversations make us happy, and if so, what is it that allows this to happen with some people and not with others?

Asking these questions to myself, jolts me into an awareness that I am beginning to feel like a visitor from another planet, an anthropologist from Mars, organizing facts to begin to understand what it means to be human. It appears I must have forgotten something basic. I am sure that I knew, at least part of the answer to these questions intuitively, and instinctively before, but the full organic understanding has now fallen away into the shadows. I am slowly coming to understand that these last few years have clouded, for me, the notion of what it is to be human, of friendship and what it means to simply talk with another human being.

Paula Marantz Cohen, in her book, The Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation, suggests that simply talking to each other freely, and without guile may help us out of what ails our troubled society. Perceptively rephrased, and enlarged by Hua Hsu in his review of Cohen’s book in the New Yorker, (“Good Talk” March 20, 2023), says, “Maybe because life moved at a slower pace and every interaction wasn’t so frightened with political meaning, we had the opportunity to recognize our full humanity. Nowadays, Cohen argues, we are sectarian and ‘self-soothing.’ Cohen suggests that we return to the basics: to brush up on the art of conversation.”

Does talking to others, and sharing our stories help us become more fully human? I find it hard to remember when I felt safe enough to allow myself to experience and share uncertainty with others, to dare to deviate from “group think,” and to struggle with paradox or ambiguity, in the face of the power of political polarization. Polarization always carries with it the serious danger of a possible hierarchical misstep, and the terror of social ostracization. Have I become a chameleon, changing colors to match the surround to avoid becoming a social outcast? This seems much more possible to me now, than it ever did before. Has fear of further isolation, dissipated what I once most deeply knew?

Cohen, describes true conversation as a kind of sanctuary, and I ask, “Is it still possible to create this safe space?” Pausing to recall, these cherished moments, products of conversations created in the safety zone that Cohen describes, I confess that I don’t recall the content of what was actually discussed. I only remember the experience of being in a moment, in time, when what has been asserted as the world order, morphs into something subversive inside of me, and the accepted social truths take on a new perspective, open now, to questioning.

I remember that moments before these conversations took hold of my psyche, I have a highly valued internal harmony and safety which holds me in a comforting and familiar nostalgia. Moments into these conversations, something that I can only describe as “happening” takes center stage with its bracing instability. Now, adrift in the wind between the imagined and the “real,” it is clear that I couldn’t have entered this territory alone.

What is clearly understood, or believed to be understood by me, appears in these conversations to re-surface as a newly formed unstable compound, a mixture of a newly known and unknown, both, oddly familiar and totally foreign. This newly created unstable compound also reveals a fragile moment of unanticipated personal risk.

It occurs to me that these kinds of conversations in the past, with their potential for internal transformation, have helped me piece together what it means to live in this world, to understand my own narratives, to distinguish it from others, to learn how to empathize and resonate with the rhythm of another’s life, and even to begin to value my own life. In short, it is in the temenos of the safe conversation, that I begin to understand how to love others and in time, myself.

How does one’s lexicon merge with and transform another’s giving each the strength to search out one’s own path, to value another’s path, and to no longer regurgitate the social proscribed truths, the easy “opiate of the masses”—an opiate that keeps us in lockstep, unthinkingly, reaffirming the truths of an often heartless world?

As I try to review, or describe what has happened in these ephemeral moments of conversation, as I try to understand what is not really understandable, it comes to me that what actually occurs is that two people simply have mustered the courage to talk with each other, heart to heart. The results can make history.

Joan Golden-Alexis, PhD is a clinical psychologist and Jungian Analyst practicing in New York city. She is the Director of Training of the Philadelphia Jung Institute. You can reach her at drjoangolden@gmail.com.

Written in the Flesh—The Transformational Magic of the Tattoo


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 drjgolden@earthlink.net.