FECKLESS FAIRYTALE FATHERS

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 in it.

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 devil.

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 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.

Dickens 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.

It is 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.

For 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 shadow creates.

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 word, “colonization.”

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.

I 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

Reference:

Begley, A. “The Art of Fiction, No. 236,” Paris Review, Issue 221, Summer.

Dreams at the Interface of Personal and Collective Trauma

Courtesy of Gregory Pagano

Currently 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.

Presently, 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)[1] This internalization often entails “the loss of an unnamable domain…which one might…mistake for constitutional exile.” (Kristiva,1982)[2]

Constitutional 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.

Many 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,” [3] 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 unconscious.

It 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 space.

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 10-18.5[4] offers 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 pain.

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[5]. a “thought” that is existent in one’s psyche, but its poignant and transformational power makes it impossible to process.

She writes:

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.

She explains:

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.

She 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.

Most 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.”

It 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 ground.” 

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.

Footnotes

  1. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, (London, United Kingdom: Pluto Press, 2008). 
  2. Julia Kristeva, (Leon S. Roudiez, Trans.) Powers of Horror; An Essay on Abjection, (Columbia University Press,1982). 
  3. Jung, CG, “Liber Primus,” The Red Book, (New York and London, W.W. Norton and Company, 2009), 241.
  4. Room-18.5: A Sketchbook for Analytic Action. (2018) Iptah.org (analytic-room.com)
  5. Christopher Bollas, The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known (New York, Columbia University Press, 1987).

Joan Golden-Alexis, Ph.D. is a Jungian psychoanalyst and psychologist in New York City. Her practice consists of individuals as well as couples. (drjoangolden@gmail.com)


 

The True Story of How Frogs Become Princes

frog.jpg

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.

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.

Author
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.

Some Commentary on Psychological Ethics and the Plural Nature of Consciousness

alchemy

In contemporary society the reigning notion of psychology has increasingly come to be dominated by the physical sciences. Consequently discussion of ethics in psychology has largely been framed on the practice of medicine. The supposition underlying such a framing holds that events in the psyche are much like those in medicine, that is, due to specific causal factors and this furthermore suggests a definition of the psyche as a collection of effects. There are a number of good questions to ask with regard to this state of affairs the most important of which is whether or not the actual nature of the psyche is consonant, or even compatible, with the terms imposed upon it by a medical accounting of its nature. If the answer is yes, we may give some credence to the present state of affairs. But if the answer is no, even in part, a new notion of ethics must be introduced that would accord with the actual nature of the psyche.

One need not take the matters very far in order to realize that any approach to remediation of psychological suffering that proceeds from a fundamental misunderstanding, or mischaracterization, of the phenomenon with which it is concerned is likely, at some level, to yield problematic results. The question regarding the relationship between the nature of the physical sciences and that of the psyche is not a difficult one to answer. The psyche is not by nature an exclusively physical entity and its workings exceed those describable by the cause and effect relations that would characterize a purely physical universe. The phenomenology of the soul, therefore, cannot be adequately folded into either medicine or the physical sciences. It exists at a very different level of manifestation and pertains to an entirely different order of phenomena.

I feel the need to pause here. I have learned from experience that to suggest that science is not the only means through which one may define what is real is regarded as a sort of heresy. Doing so often invites dismissal and even scorn. This is an odd occurrence in psychology whose natural order includes, not only those measurable forms and patterns that would be the legitimate scope of scientific inquiry, but the entirety of those aspects that make up the context of immediate experience. It is also an odd appearance if the prevailing air currently adopted by psychology is scientific in nature as science purports dispassion as one of its core tenants. This latter feature reflects a shift in the situation of science within the cultural consciousness, one that alerts us to the fact that science has slipped it bounds and had become a belief system. However, if one removes from our understanding of the psyche, the existence of consciousness, of meaning, and any notion of the creative, which itself reflects the living aspect of psychic existence, one then has no need for the term psychology at all, for we are not longer speaking of a logos of the soul but simply an arrangement of matter. Herein lies the problem. The passion with which the contemporary mentality has molded science into a social belief system, and accorded it an exclusive status as the arbiter of what may be considered real, is something that actually represents an obstacle in even understanding psychologically, let alone establishing a genuine ethics of the soul. The exclusion of some criteria, and the overemphasis of others, leaves us with a distorted concept of the soul, not to mention the fact that the chosen means for authenticating reality runs counter means that would be appropriate for truly psychological understanding.

The supposition that the psyche is a scientifically definable entity is actually a logical absurdity, but it is an absurdity void of any awareness of its absurd nature. Once any approach to the soul is limited to that framed according to a single mode, it is impossible for awareness to come into contact with any dimension of experience that would challenge what has now become a fundamentalist stance. The underlying mode of consciousness underlying scientific inquiry is the rational mode. This mode has its specific function, an important one in the conscious life of the individual, as well as in society. In the development of technologies, and in acquiring information regarding the spatiotemporal order of things this mode functions in a vital manner. But set up as an arbiter of all reality it becomes an agent of dissociation, establishing schisms between the diversity of aspects of consciousness that would naturally inform one another. Understood from another viewpoint that is capable of engagement with a plurality of forms of consciousness, even contradictory ones, it represents a hegemonic state of affairs, absurdly so. One does not go too far in analogizing this situation to a kind of colonization of the psyche by a particular mythic structure, and this is the core of the problem. The rational mind has sought to take over the role of the mythic consciousness rather than assuming its rightful place as one mode within a plurality of modes of consciousness. It is likely that it is the assertion of its factual basis that leads rational consciousness into a denial of its unconsciously mythic role. Under such circumstances, one aspect, within a plurality, has managed to assert dominance over the rest of the possibilities.

Were it the case that rational consciousness actually represented the apogee of emerged forms of consciousness, one might make a positive argument for its hegemonic status, but alas, this is not  the case. It was not idle intent that moved Einstein to state, “The rational mind is a faithful servant and the intuitive mind a sacred gift. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” If we can speak of a hierarchy of forms, rational consciousness would naturally assume a lesser role. It is therefore ethically problematic to exclusively equate rational consciousness with psychological health, as some forms of psychotherapeutic approach tend to assert. Such an assertion merely points to the idea that conformity to an established societal myth is the measure of psychological health. If so, the ethical question then rests upon the ethics of the society in question. Here, there may be problems.

One of the problems that we face is the fact that any mode of understanding will tend to extend its structural principle so that it appears universal in scope. This process has a functional aspect in that it expands the depth of understanding along the lines of the particular mode in question and, in some cases, forms the binding structure of a society. This latter tendency, to act as a binder, is a mythic role. But at the same time this process gives rise to a shadow result as it narrows consciousness and begins to imprison consciousness within its own limited confines. This secondary result is pathological, not only in the individual, but also at the broader societal level. The rational mind organizes its vision of the cosmos according to its precepts, as a rational entity that will ultimately be reducible to rational terms. This assumption is, from a mythic standpoint, almost indistinct from the religious one that saw in the cosmos the workings of a divine will exclusively. These two modes never shared the same reference language because they arose out of very different functional roles within consciousness and pertain to very different orders of phenomena. Both have historically appeared purposeful in their respective realms of functioning. However, once established in the role of being at the top of a hierarchic paradigm and armed with an insistence on an unassailable claim to confer truth, what was at first purposive, became altogether malignant. The very same thing that once extended humanity’s embrace with life now begins to constrict it.

Part of the problem resides in science as a legitimate mode of engagement with phenomena within its own parameters, as opposed to science as a mythic structure. The dilemma that we are in is that one mode of consciousness has attempted to usurp the functional role of another. The notion that religion could replace the function of science is a fairly easy fallacy for most in contemporary society to perceive. But that science has assumed the mantle of myth is less clear to us. This is so because we are living within it. The myth of origins of rational consciousness is one in which all phenomena must conform to physical law. However such a notion excludes phenomena that are more than physical in nature.

As a binder that establishes a coherent bond between individuals within a society that is highly diverse and fragmented, any cement for that bond is likely to become that to which all parties may agree. The problem appears to arise when such a bond assumes the form of a unifying myth that cannot actually function effectively in a mythic manner. The rational mind understands myth as a false or provisional explanation. Myth is an inferior, or un-evolved attempt at fact. But myths primary role is not the establishment of fact, nor even a compensation for its lack, but rather it serves to cohere a diversity of experience into a form that renders the flow of existence both meaningful and relatable. This means that myth acts as a bridge between forms of consciousness, and the diversity of phenomena that correspond to them, rather than reducing them to a single mode of understanding. Myths are fictive constructs that reveal an objectivity that is of an entirely different order than that understood by the rational mind. The two run in almost diametrically opposed manner. Ratio means to divide, but myth is a fictive construct whose form embodies within it the cohered reality of lived experience. It unifies a natural diversity into a unified livable reality.

Each myth has something that is true as it base but no mythic structure known to humanity is able to account for the totality of possible truths. Rather, it creates an image of a totality out of the truth it touches and provides a means of maintaining the continuity of our relations with it. The role played by each myth differs, not only between civilizations, but also between individuals, each of whom carries within them a construct in image form that holds together the universe that they know. That such a myth is born out of conditions of privilege, privation, safety, or trauma, has little impact upon the fact that it retains its unique and fully objective nature, an objectivity linked to the context of a lived life and a unique truth, rather than in spite of it. It is a naturally arising form that exceeds description according to means lying outside of it and can only be understood through entering into its world. An approach to this world is entirely different than the one utilized in the sciences as we now conceive of them for its nature exceeds linearity and is itself a creative mutation rather than another iteration along the lines of a previously established order. Such an approach as is needed, while perhaps not necessarily religious in nature, requires something of a stance in consciousness that one did find in most religious constructs; the ability to not know, and to anticipate the existence, or appearance, of an order that exceeded ones ability to predict in advance. The loss of contact with this ability within a society, as well as within a discipline that purports to now define what it means to be a human being in relationship to the broader cosmos, is a problematic state of affairs at best.

What I have been suggesting is that an ethic associated with the psyche will have far more to do with the nature of myth and the fictive, rather than with fact, so long as our definition of myth includes an understanding of its functional nature. This includes the meaningful unification of highly diverse modes of awareness into a coherent system, one that will allow life to be lived fully in a psychological sense rather than merely a physical sense alone. The implications of this for the ethical approach of the psychologist, is that the psychologist must be prepared to enter into the mythic reality of the patient as opposed to standing at a distance safely ensconced in a societal one which reduces the mythic function to a state of unreality. This is so because the mythic reality of the patient, no matter how non-rational it may appear, has at its core a truth that is conveyed through its dramatizations and imagistic expressions, only some of which may conform to the realm of fact.

It is this above all that seems essential if we are to consider an ethics of the soul, for soul speaks to us not in parts, so much as through them. It is the ethical task of the observing consciousness of the psychologist to tend as carefully as possible to all of the diverse utterances of the soul without resorting to a scheme that would assert one dimension of the psyche arbitrarily over another. This dimension of ethical consideration demands a discipline that is actually far more exacting than is found in other fields, for it asks of the would be explorers of psychological reality that they participate in the very emergence of psychic reality at multiple levels of awareness even as they maintain the ability to observe and relate to it. In that sense the psychologist is not merely recording but also tending to that which is emerging and even becoming a part of that process. In that sense it is through the very being of the psychologist that psychological reality is realized in an internal sense rather than through means that are external to the context of experience. This is a demanding task but perhaps given the nature of the psyche, the most ethically pertinent approach that we may take.

In a future posting I hope to expand on some of the natures of the diverse aspects of consciousness and the stances within consciousness that may be called upon (at least potentially) for any actual encounter with the soul to take place if we are not to overtly reduce it. These include not simply those that frame the modern myth, but mythical, magical, and archaic ones as well, ones that modern thought presumed it had surpassed. These seemingly more “primitive” forms continue as functional aspects of humanities intimate bond with the cosmos and their influence may be everywhere seen so long as one is willing to look. In that regard a visiting of esoteric thought in particular is well worthwhile. The image from the visionary Jakob Bohme, (above) is one such example. Bohme’s cosmology suggested a transit to higher knowledge through a return to an intimate contact with nature, a paradigm that has a profound meaning to it and is applicable to daily analytic practice. It reflects the position that I am putting forth here; that the plurality of forms of consciousness each have functional value, and that this functional value persists in our makeup in a manner that contradicts the modernist myth of matter. Indeed I would suggest that the incapacity of consciousness to loan its own function to nature is likely the singularly most tragic pitfall of modern civilization. It is not fact alone that ties us to nature herself any more than science can define the psyche. A review of esoteric forms will be helpful in showing how highly invested such forms are in compensating what is actually lacking in the contemporary mentality. What they restore is a function within consciousness that permits a spanning of the realm of the archetype with that of the discrete life of the individual. Another way of saying this is that they connect the mundane world of material things with their eternal origins. In so doing they complete a circuit of reconnection and renewal.

AUTHOR

Mark Dean, MFA, MA, ATR-BC, LPC is a Jungian Analyst and an art psychotherapist with credentials as a Registered, Board Certified Art Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor (PA) with nearly twenty years experience. He has been an Adjunct Professor at Arcadia University since 1990. Previous work experience includes providing addiction treatment at the Charter Fairmount Institute, Clinical Case Management for the Adult Day Program, and serving as the Clinical Coordination of the Geriatric Outpatient Programs at Belmont Center for Comprehensive Treatment as well as his private practice. His volunteer work includes providing clinical intervention with violent and displaced youths in the Violence Postvention Program and at The Northern Home for Children in Philadelphia. Mr. Dean has been the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Award for Artistic Excellence and has twice received the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts Award. Prior to his graduate training as an art psychotherapist, Mr. Dean was a professional artist. His work is featured in several prominent private and public, national, and international collections. He can be reached at http://www.psychearts.org

 

 

Meditation on Mothers and Death

Eshu’s Vision

Crows with iridescent rich feathers
swoop in layers in front of my windshield. 
Their chatter hales down like hard pellets
fallen from an August rain cloud in this October month.
I drive into furious black wings, expecting they can be swept aside, made invisible,
that they have not chosen me, but  only like me, are weary after night flight across a sleeping continent.
 
Their black pea eyes refuse to blink.
They push roughly against air forcing me to breathe deeper
like the first time, out of the birth waters,
trying to catch that first breath of air.
 
On this umbilical highway each exhalation releases:
wings rise and fall to earth,
these messengers of Eshu, bring divination, falling like rain,
blur my vision in embryonic thin air.
 
Finished, they fly east to the ocean.
Sunrise reflects like water and oil on wings of charcoal.
The space behind my heart darkens, while nigredo feathers fallen to earth,
predict my mother’s death.

The summer is only beginning, though these hot, humid days suggest August, rather than the light touch of warmth that June most often brings.  For the last several months I have been thinking, actually more ruminating about mortality, and to say it in what seems a more blunt manner, dying.  This is the close personal death—not the distant one of a collective ritual such as Catholic extreme unction or the death of an actor playing someone dying in a movie. It is not the hearing of the death of an actor who has been immortalized on the screen.  I question.  How could he die?  How old was he anyway—surely not that old? Then I remember the years since I first saw him on screen.  I realize that the difference of our age is not that great.  I might be closer to death then I think.  Of course I am because I cannot know the minute nor the hour.  This thought makes dying seem so very close to me. As if I will die. Can die—soon.   For these few seconds I know this and think I can actually feel my body dying.

I have begun with my own mortality but I also want to talk about mothers and our holding and lose of them.  In a soft way, like a small pocket of lightly swirling cove water, under the ocean, I have been thinking only about my own personal mother’s death, and so a patient came not too many days ago, because she is in mourning about her own mother’s recent death.  Of course, every one who walks through the analytical door is carrying a gift, a contributing reason for my existence as I am for theirs. They are each bringing something I must hold with love and bear with courage.  This is because I have forgotten and need reminding of my necessary life work.

I wonder if it isn’t too mournful and dreadful in some way to be thinking about death in the summer.  Doesn’t it belong in a dark month, a rainy, cloud-driven late January day?  As a depth psychologist I can safely say not—it’s all right to bring the darkness anytime as it never really leaves us.  Yes, there is safety here but there is also safety in wanting the light—the beautiful light of a blue-sky June day.

I struggle with wanting both—because I actually need both.  It does remind me of what appears as a paradox to me of having someone bring you into the world, be your first place of heart connection, all the while having them die, and yet still be with them in memory. This is for all the years the rest of my life. This might seem so simplistic in thought but it holds a great importance in how I feel my life and feel into my life.

This apparent eternal connection to life and mother, even through her death, sometimes even more so because of her death, interweaves through my life and that of my patients.

As I read through pages of author discussions in service of writing a book on what I have called Archetypal Grief—African American mothers losing their children for generations due to slavery, and the emotional pain of such losses, I feel myself to now be living within the phenomenological field of mothers and death.  But like many things, I feel myself to have been chosen in this moment because I have chosen a topic—a theme, that wants to be expanded upon and yet carries the weight of intergenerational trauma that remains today.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a pioneer in the field of writing about death and dying, begins to inform my writing work—allowing me to develop an idea for a new model of consideration.  This idea is that something changes the model of grief with intergenerational dying and mourning caused by an archetypal event such as slavery.  It is almost as if a mother, and all the enslaved future daughters she births and their daughter’s daughters, moving down the maternal line, will have no place for denial or bargaining as regards death.  Emotionally, there can only be room for anger, depression and acceptance.  This is what can frame the lived experiences of mothering slaves bound to death through birthing and intergenerational child loss.  I’m speaking of this because it has threaded through my consciousness for the past year as I write about enslaved mothers.  I also know that it lives in me as a member of this cultural collective.

Working Hands
 
Sunset red next to
azure blue
next to
spring green,
the colors
of the quilt
stream,
an unchecked flow
of
colored river 
gradually meeting shore,
the working brown
of my grandmother’s
hands.

This past Mother’s Day was a May Sunday in the middle of the month. I performed a short ritual in remembrance of my mother and all of the women of my matriarch lineage. I also remembered the women on my father’s side of family.  This day designated for mothers is not the only one in which we think about the women who have given us life.  In speaking of the mother archetype Jung says:

Like any other archetype, the mother archetype appears under an almost infinite variety of aspects….First in importance are the personal mother and grandmother, stepmother and mother-in-law….or a remote ancestress….The qualities associated with it are maternal solicitude and sympathy;  the magic authority of the female;  the wisdom and the spiritual exaltation that transcend reason;  any helpful instinct or impulse;  all that is benign, all that cherishes and sustains, that fosters growth and fertility.  The place of magic transformation and rebirth, together with the underworld and its inhabitants, are presided over by the mother.

C.G. Jung, CW, vol9i, para. 156, 158

As I consider the passage of my own mother into death, I think more of my own to-come experience of dying.  I think about how we can be afraid of dying. As I age, I realize I am in the category of one more likely to die.  This is sobering.  It doesn’t seem to matter how much presence death has when one is younger—in the twenties, thirties, the later years adds a different quality dimension.  How I can be afraid of it, and how each patient who discusses dying of a parent, friend or stranger is actually referencing their own death.  I believe this is why we must consider wisdom as we age.  It seems an important exchange—a trade-off, a softening offered against the hard edge of ego consciousness leaving the body.

As I write now, I wonder about my own purpose on choosing this meditation on mothers, death and dying. It feels not like swimming in a spiral of self-aggrandizement but more like a spider traversing her web.  Seeking a place to belong while knowing that all is at once home.

Blue Pearl
 
Stepping outside of the hospital where she had just died,
my arms have become wings.
 
Blue pearl surrounds my heart
and moves in the birthing motion of a star,
unencumbered by fear of loss,
now desiring only a child’s life.
 
I am warm with sunrays.
All false joys are tossed away like disappointing fruit,
fallen next to discarded sorrow.
All of it waiting to be washed away by the next rainfall.
 
Ocean stone shines cerulean glory,
pierces doubt, recovers with winds of truth
any falsehood about love,
and it’s power to heal all that hurts.
 
Caresses heartbreak.
Breathes tender.
Like the velvet softness of aged skin.
 
Sapphire reflects upon itself,
star to star,
captures my breath,
recreates it pearl by pearl.
 
And by this I know you have arrived safely.

AUTHOR

Fanny Brewster Ph.D. M.F.A., is a Jungian analyst and author of African Americans and Jungian Psychology:  Leaving the Shadows. (Routledge, 2017). She is a faculty member of the Philadelphia Jung Institute and can be reached through www.fannybrewster.com