In the Therapist’s Chair: Professor Rinaldo Walcott in conversation with Dr Marion Woodman
(On the occasion of her being presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award in Diversity and Gender Psychology by Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto)
RW: Well I am a bit overwhelmed by the opportunity to sit down and have this conversation with you. So thank you for agreeing to be In the Therapist’s Chair.
MW: Thank you, I am delighted to be here.
RW: Thank you. Last night when I noticed that you were wearing such a beautiful dress
I thought I would be a little bit performative today. So I wore my t-shirt saying ‘‘Mind Body Heart and Soul’’.
MW: Excellent, I’m impressed.
RW: So, I’m hoping that even though on the surface we might look like opposites or that we might appear to be opposites, that this meeting between the two of us will be a lasting one for both of us. I’m going to ask you the first question. It very much relates to the events of last night. Last night you were honoured with the lifetime achievement award, how does such an honour make you feel? Is this a still point for you?
MW: I would say, yes, it is a still point, in that it is a new beginning.
I was very surprised and moved by the number of people who were working on my books at OISE and by the work that students are doing, to see how those ideas are opening out in new ways that I could never have imagined.
So yes it was very powerful. Thank you.
RW: Have you had any dreams about such an experience and can you tell me about the dream if you did have one?
MW: No, I haven’t.
RW: You didn’t have any dreams about being honoured or what being honoured would mean at any point?
MW: No, I did not have a dream about that, sorry.
RW: That’s ok, that’s absolutely fine. Let’s talk about something that comes up in your work quite a bit, which is the notion of being balanced.
MW: Being what?
RW: Balanced. So I want to know are you feeling balanced at this point today? How is your spirit expressing itself today?
MW: How is my spirit expressing itself? Good question.
I think my spirit is expressing itself wonderfully today.
I think of soul as being embodied.
That wonderful work that we did this morning with the Native American.
Nature coming up into our bodies, our bodies being a part of nature, being dependent upon nature.
I see the soul as being embodied in nature. So that this body then becomes the feminine entity and the spirit the masculine, the fire and the air that are hot and come in to meet soul periodically.
Too fiery to be held all the time and so it comes in, drops its golden sperm and flies away.
But in those moments I write in my journal or, if I’m writing a book, that’s the moment that I really hope will happen.
Then I am not doing the writing, but the spirit is coming through my soul. That union is moving my pen.
RW: You began to answer one of the questions that I had for you a bit further down. So let me see if I can get you to expand a bit more on the question of writing from the soul and spirit and energy of the soul. In some of your writing I noticed that you mention that you sometimes found it difficult to write from the space of the feminine even though it is a very important place for you to write from. Do you still experience that difficulty?
MW: Not as difficult as it used to be. I was used to meeting certain kinds of standards; you know, the topic sentence, the development of the paragraph, the opening of the idea in the topic sentence.
I was impressed by that and obeyed it. I think I don’t obey that quite enough now.
Because I tend to get caught in an image and let the image take me where it wants to take me, which is much more the feminine way of doing it.
But often I have to really hold and say, ‘‘So what’s the significance of this?’’ and bring in the masculine differentiation.
I try to work out a balance but I am not always successful.
I think that’s good actually, because that’s when spirit can take over and I can pause and think, ‘‘My goodness, that’s quite good.’’
But it doesn’t always stay.
RW: So how do you prepare yourself for writing from that place?
MW: How to prepare myself for writing? I cannot write when I’m going to be interrupted by the phone, or by anything, because once it starts I like to let it move. So I get up at four o’clock; that’s no problem for me. I quite enjoy writing at that hour, particularly these spring days. I write until about nine.
I usually have a candle lit on my desk. I have a Black Madonna on my desk and I say
a prayer. I try to let that energy come in from below and above and meet in this region (touches mid-section), and I feel totally dependent on the transcendent for the writing.
Honestly, I do not know where I’m going once that inspiration begins to come through.
RW: Well let me ask you a question that you may be able to reflect a bit more on now. What were the factors that led you to Jung?
MW: My husband was very interested in Jung.
I come from a religious background; my father was a minister.
When I was in real difficulty psychologically, the analyst I happened to find was an Anglican priest, Dr Bennet was his name, in London, England.
He saved my life. Then when I went to Zurich, I read a book by Barbara Hannah which had a profound impact on me.
It was her study of the Bronte¨ family, Striving Towards Wholeness.
They were minister’s kids torn by opposite passions within. She told me that Jung, a minister’s son, said to her, ‘‘Only a minister’s child can understand another minister’s child.
And he took her as an analysand. So I asked Ms Hannah if she would take me on and she said, ‘‘Jung took me on when he was old, and yes, I’ll take you on’’.
For me I had to have someone who could understand the polarities.
For a minister’s child who sees her father in the pulpit on Sunday as God, and sees what happens at home during the week; or finds out that the garbage collector in the town earns more than her father gets and that’s supposed to be a town joke!
The polarities are terribly difficult and they really tear me apart sometimes. So I knew from the first time I read Jung that he was my man.
RW: In reading your work over the last month, for me one of the things that was so apparent and so seamless in your writing is the role that art plays in your writing and your thinking. The role that art, literature, film especially, and music play in your writing. In your writing you seem to move so fluidly from talking about poetry to talking about dreams as though they’re all the same. How important is literature in your life?
MW: It’s my spine. I was taught to read when I was very young.
My father was Scottish and you know the Scots have an immense respect for the written word and for learning.
I can remember the first day of school. I was so looking forward to going to school because I had been reading my own books and I thought it would be wonderful to have other primers and other books to read.
Well, I got to school and I spent the whole day folding windmills.
Then you take the windmill and run around, (audience laughter) and I thought, ‘‘Oh, I can do this for one day’’.
But then we did it the second day. On the third day I looked the teacher in the eye and I said ‘‘I will not make another windmill’’ (audience laughter).
She was extremely angry and called my parents and said I was an absolutely incorrigible child.
Then I drew back into myself and all I had was my books and my poems and stories. Literature became my frame.
I graduated from the University of Western Ontario in literature and then I taught high school for 25 years – English and Creative Drama.
I cannot tell you how I missed teaching Shakespeare.
The huge privilege of teaching Shakespeare three hours a day.
My soul rolled with that music and with those metaphors. When they were not there,
I felt empty.
RW: I really like that story you just told about your experience in school as a young child, but last night you told another story of your experiences in kindergarten of not wanting to leave. What happened?
MW: What happened at school?
RW: In terms of school, why didn’t you want to leave kindergarten? What happened between those two experiences? What made those two experiences . . .
MW: Well I had to go on to another stage. I didn’t get along in school very well because
for one thing, we were a minister’s children and ministers’ kids are not part of the
community because they’re only going to be there for five years. They’re on the outside.
My brothers and I made our life; we always played death.
We buried all the birds we could find.
We had little rollers and beautiful little bags that we buried them in.
We played death, marriage and baptism, those were our games (audience laughter).
We repeated our father’s ritual language. I loved it. It was powerful. Everything else was boring.
That was very important. Now where were we heading with that?
RW: I was going to ask you the question, ‘‘Is the soul nourished by art?’’ But I think you just answered it.
MW: Yes, I was going to be a biologist; that’s really what I wanted to be, but I could not live without poetry. My soul was languishing, so I transferred from Biology into English.
RW: OK. Do you think the two can mix now, the sciences and the . . .
MW: Yes, and I do much better with them together than I did then.
RW: Can I ask you? Do you have a sense at what point you became a feminist? Or is the word feminist not adequate enough to describe who and what you are?
MW: Well I never did call myself a feminist. Fifteen years ago, there was a group
of women who very much disliked my work. In fact I remember one situation where one
woman ran down the aisle doing this (holds mouth as if about to vomit), and I said to the audience, ‘‘Isn’t somebody going to go with her? She’s ill.’’ Then about forty women stood up and ran down the aisles with their hands over their mouths like this, (gestures) as if they were going to vomit, and they said that they didn’t like my vocabulary and they wouldn’t tolerate it. That was the first time I heard the word feminist, in the sense of, ‘‘We don’t like you’’.
I never had any anger. I was never carrying a sword. I took it for granted that everyone knew women were equal to men.
Now I think that the man has to develop his femininity and his masculinity. The woman has to develop her femininity and her masculinity.
And those four are all the time interplaying in any relationship – eight, actually, because each has a shadow side.
RW: Well, let me ask you a spin on a pretty famous question. In your view, ‘‘What is a woman and what does she want?’’
MW: Oh heavens! Well, I can’t answer that. In Zurich even the male analysts used to say, ‘‘Women don’t know what they want. Men have to make the decisions’’.
Well, that is simply stupid.
If a woman really works with her dreams, with her images, she comes to know who she authentically is.
As we were working this morning with the images, ‘‘Those are my images, I work with them in my journal; these are how they are influencing my thinking, here is where I take my stand’’.
I think the man has to do this too. He can’t just be a carbon copy of patriarchy.
And as that feminine develops, maybe her creativity has developed, there comes a time when she has to take those pictures she’s painted out into the world.
And there is where the masculine comes in; she has to learn to use her discretion, her determination, her capacity to use the sword.
RW: Thank you.
MW: And in the world we are in right now where so much discretion is required by both
men and women, we have to ask, ‘‘What is my value here? What I do not value there is no time for’’. That’s how I see it.
RW: Thank you for that answer. I really appreciate that answer. In your work you have made the move to not simply talk about patriarchy but to talk about patriarchical power. In much of your work you have obviously written and deepened this notion of the feminine consciousness. Is there an equivalent masculine consciousness?
MW: Yes, there is. You see, I would say that each one of us through our dream
images – because I really believe those are from the soul – each one of us has to discover our own masculine and our own feminine and how they relate to each other so that we can really say, ‘‘I have worked basically all my life, because the balance keeps changing, to see who I am in this moment’’.
So when you ask me a question, I can give you an honest answer because it is coming from my gut.
I am not ashamed of that.
I also need the masculine, to speak it, to know that you can ask me a question that would cut deep and I have to be able to deal with that. I have to be able to use discretion – but I also have to hold relatedness, so that no matter how sharp that sword is, I’m using the silver handle, which is the feminine so that I can keep relating to you, even if we are really arguing. And I think that is true for men, equally.
They have to find who they in their essence are, and then live it.
RW: OK, has your work on Feminine Consciousness had an impact on Ross Woodman’s masculine questions?
MW: What impact has my femininity had on Ross Woodman? Well, I’ll tell you.
When I wanted to go to Zurich, when I realized I had to go to Zurich because of my dreams, it was extremely upsetting to me. It was four years or five, and I hoped to come back and forth, but he thought that would be the end of the marriage.
And when I came back from Zurich I would say things like, ‘‘That’s not who I am; you’re talking to somebody that doesn’t exist anymore.’’
Well, that was a terrific shock to him. ‘‘Who are you then?’’
And I was no longer interested in playing a mothering role all the time (I had, you know. I was a school teacher).
That left his little boy in difficulties and I think that happens in any marriage where the woman is trying to live her own reality.
That pulls the relationship into a very, ‘‘I’m trying to stand up for my truth and I want you to stand up for yours’’ attitude. ‘‘What is your truth?’’
But he took the challenge and we have a wonderful marriage now. I think it’s at least our third or fourth.
I mean that, you know. Marriage changes. It radically changes as you go through various stages of life – and through real hell.
There were times when we were in big trouble and I was sure that the marriage was not going to last, so there was separation in mind, not in actuality, but in mind.
And then we worked it though and came back in a totally different . . ..
RW: So using your metaphors of childhood, adolescence and maturity, you’ve passed adolescence in marriage and you’re now at maturity?
MW: Yes, you grow up. With each one of those places where you really come into conflict, there’s where you grow up or not.
RW: I want to ask you a series of questions about contemporary life. In particular in reading your work I am very much taken by the various ways you talk about the breakdown of various systems. Whether they are man-made systems or ecology systems, and the ways in which those breakdowns manifest themselves in cancers, environmental illnesses, HIV/AIDS, wars and so forth. And I’m wondering if you can spend some time thinking out loud with us, why the problems of the interior life are manifested outwardly in these ways?
MW: Well, I think if you really appreciate your values – I’m feeling this more and more – you have to stand up for what you believe or you’re going to lose it.
If nobody stands up for what they believe, we will just be walked over by other forces. So I think it’s important that you, and I’m speaking about myself here too, because I used to be quite quiet about a whole lot of things, but I feel more and more that I am going to be called to stand as an activist and speak what I think as an activist. I’ve never been that.
If they want to do it that way that’s alright with me, but once they start spreading insecticide on my trees and my lawn and trying to destroy all my values of Christmas and Easter and every other thing that has to do with religion, then I think I have a right to speak up and say ‘‘me too’’.
RW: In your work I notice that there is very strong religious imagery that ranges from the Indian goddess Kali to Christian imagery, some might even say ancient Christian imagery, in terms of the dark goddess and so forth. But you also seem to make distinctions between religion and spirituality. So I’m wondering, am I misreading you when I see a distinction between religion and spirituality and the divine, or are they all together as one?
MW: I think I didn’t separate them out when I first started to work, to write.
I now tend to think of religion as being associated with a church with a dogma, if you like, whereas spirituality would include the transcendent in whatever form. I spent time in India and it had a huge impact. I think of my life as before India and after India.
And Kali was the favourite goddess, and as you know she’s fierce. But I also saw the very ferocity of Kali: death was essential to new life. I experienced the polarities in India and that made it possible for me to accept the polarities.
The Black Madonna became very important to me, because she is of the gut, that feminine that comes through right from the belly.
RW: I think for me reading your work, one of the really powerful things about the dark
goddess was the way in which you tried to resurrect a figure who might possess negative energies. You wrote about it in terms of using the language of chaos, and saying that we had to go through chaos to arrive at some place new and different, and that was very, very powerful for me. But I was wondering as I read that, what was your relationship to global aboriginal cultures which have also created similar kinds of balances in their cosmologies between the positive and the negative. So I think of First Nations culture in North America, Santeria in Brazil and parts of the Caribbean. I think of various East and West African religious practices that are constantly in a struggle between positive and negative energies. Have any of those religious practices had an impact on your thought?
MW: No. Even Native American Indians, I don’t know well enough to speak to that.
All I can say is in my practice, in my life, in my marriage, I‘m continually working with those two energies.
I am more and more realizing that the negative, what we call negative, is often the very energy that gives us the strength to go into the new positive.
As Ross was saying this morning about the negative goddess Aphrodite in Psyche and Eros, she always seems to be attacking the heroine, but in fact she is taking her through to her genuine femininity and to her genuine happiness with Eros, so that Eros’ psyche had a mature relationship through what looks like a negative mother – even a death mother; she looks like she is trying to kill her.
RW: How do contemporary issues of multiculturalism, diversity, pluralism make themselves present in your work, or do they, and your life?
MW: Multiculturalism in my life? I live in London, Ontario. I don’t have much multicultural life there.
All I can say is, I have traveled a great deal and have profoundly accepted and loved the cultures I have met. India was as you know, before India and after India, and that’s in my blood. I love working with and being with people of other cultures.
I think it opens up so many doors. I love talking to you.
RW: I’m hoping that you do.
MW: I’m sitting here looking at your gorgeous skin and your beautiful curls.
RW: Thank you.
MW: So, all I can say is that it was a black woman who saved me in India. Her husband
sent her to me, and I’ve never forgotten that. The black goddess plays a very important
part in my life.
RW: Can you say a little more about how you were saved in India?
MW: In India? Well, I went down into the hotel foyer one day, into a small lobby. I wasn’t feeling well so I sat down on a couch and an Indian woman came and squeezed between the end of the couch and me.
There was plenty of room on the rest of the couch, but she insisted on sitting right in the couch.
I thought she could very easily be on the other end of the couch, but she put her black arm against mine, and it was warm. Now I’m all alone in India, here’s a warm arm and there’s my white one against that black one, and I just cuddled into that arm . . . as warm as I could be . . . And she moved, as soon as I moved she moved and by the end of the hour we were at the other end of the couch.
And she didn’t speak a word of English, and I, of course, did not speak her language. I had not been out of my room for about ten days. I was extremely ill with dysentery.
Then the next day I woke up, I thought, ‘‘I will go down to the couch again, she might come’’.
And so I went down and sure enough, she came.
And same thing, she sat down, pushed her way in between and sat on the couch. And she would touch me, and just (gestures of rubbing arm). And I began to come back into my body. I was gone, but she brought this body back.
And on the fifth day, a man came up to me and he said, ‘‘My wife won’t be coming anymore’’. And I said ‘‘Your wife?’’
And he said ‘‘Yes, I sent her. I saw you were dying and I sent my wife to sit with you, but you’re not going to die, so she won’t be coming anymore’’.
RW: Would you consider that divine intervention?
MW: Yes, divine intervention, unquestionably, because it was about two days later that I had the experience of being able to do that for another woman. And so the divine images open up, you see.
RW: We live in a time right now that is characterized by great collective fear, especially in North America and various parts of Western Europe. Has this kind of collective fear, the fear of terrorism, now the fear again of maybe a new Cold War, has this kind of collective fear had an impact on your spiritual and psychic life?
MW: Of the nation?
RW: Of the nations yes.
MW: Oh, I think so. I think so. I think people are terrified to look at it. What frightens me
most is that the value of ritual in the culture is undermined. For example, Christmas time.
The rituals that used to be so important in a family, or at Easter time, those religious holidays, the values aren’t there anymore.
So what do you appeal to, in terms of cherishing, loving?
I think people are terrified. The movies that we’re seeing of the end of the world, over and over again, are terrifying.
I think a lot of people just aren’t thinking about it.
But the way I try to deal with it is to think that whenever a whole new concept, a new and larger totality is involved, something has to die. And we are now as a planet joined by electronics and we’re going to have to be one planet in every way if we are going to continue to exist, if we are going to have food, if we are going to have nature.
As that wonderful man said this morning, ‘‘Nature is our mother’’.
We have to bring the feminine back in and believe it. And if she dies, we’re finished.
To come to that place where feminine and masculine are united. I think that we are on our way – we will never see it – to one world. That may sound awfully idealistic, but we are either going to be one world or we’re not going to make it.
RW: And that one world would be kind of a collective unit of ourselves as you see it?
MW: A collective?
RW: A collective healing of ourselves.
MW: A collective healing?
RW: If we could achieve that?
MW: Yes, that’s what I think, each in our own way. To be able to value each other,
everything we talked about this weekend, where we can value each other’s differences and value the opposites in ourselves and recognize that they are essential, even when they collide, to growth.
RW: You’re clearly someone whose thinking and scholarship has been deeply influenced by Enlightenment thinkers, whether they’re poets, or novelists and so forth, and the last 25 or 30 years or so, at least in spaces like the university, ideas of humanism, of what it means to be a human have been disparaging.
In many ways the university is in what many people call its ‘‘anti-humanist’’ phase.
And yet from your work it is very clear that human beings are not just one finished project, but that we are projects that are constantly in a mode of becoming. How have you been able to hold at bay the cynicism about what it means to be human?
MW: How have I been able to hold that love?
RW: To resist the cynicism of being a human being?
MW: Well, I would say I love people and I love to be loved.
And I cannot see any point in attacking anybody, unless of course they’re vicious.
If people want to be cynical, that’s fine with me. I just think, ‘‘You go ahead with your own thing, and you can be as cynical as you want to be’’.
I usually don’t bother with them, wasting my energy. And I try to find values that are my values, and that’s all I can do with my energy to live those values.
I haven’t got time for people who are vicious and cynical and continually trying to undermine everything.
I know people make fun of the values that I stand for and I don’t care.
RW: What are those values?
MW: Love would be the first. And that doesn’t mean super sweet syrup.
MW: It means I love you as you are. Not my idea of what you ought to be and I’m not
trying to force anything on you. I’m really interested in who you are. I hope you’re
interested in who I am, because then I can grow and you can grow. I know the cynicism is out there, and I know how vicious it can be and I know what it is to be attacked by that cynicism, but I see how warped people can become after twenty years of that. I’m older now.
I’m old enough to see where cynicism has taken many of my friends. Or where smallness, mini-ness has taken them and I’m not interested in going there.
RW: I’m going to ask you one final question.
MW: Yes? One final one?
RW: Actually two.
RW: What do we have to do in the 21st century, as we are now getting well into the 21st century, as human beings, collectively, to ensure that we are constantly working on what it means to be becoming and that we don’t ever think that we’ve arrived at the finished product of what it means to be human? What are some of the things we should be thinking about and doing?
MW: Well, I think if we pay attention to our dreams, the dreams will guide us.
Just when we think we have arrived, a new goal will come into our dream and we think, ‘‘My, that’s an interesting goal, maybe I should consider that goal’’.
Or the dream in some way will entice the energy or something will happen in real life where the energy is enticed towards a new person.
Or life has become too small, and you realize that you are rooted in an idea that is dead. I’m doing that right now.
Where are my ideas dead? Where is the new root going to go? Where is the new energy and the new soil?
That’s exciting! And I don’t want that old frame of mind or frame of body. I know that that will . . .No I don’t know if that will . . . (some audience laughter).
I mean, there’s something in me that wants to keep becoming, just by nature. And I think that especially now when everything is breaking to pieces, we have to find that still point that is opened up by the divine, so that we keep a strong, strong line with that divinity and our dreams will keep opening us, even if it’s the loneliest place we’ve ever been in our life.
Because old friends are going to say, ‘‘You know she’s not quite right anymore’’ (audience laughter). That’s the truth. But there’s a new world coming out there and to keep in touch with that is very exciting.
RW: So this is the final question, Marion. Tell me what you are going to do for the remainder of the day?
MW: The remainder of the day? Well, I’m going to see some old friends, and I have a couple of very important interviews I’m going to do, and then I will return to my husband tonight.
RW: Marion, thank you for being so absolutely generous.
MW: Thank you very much. ~ In the Therapist’s Chair: Professor Rinaldo Walcott in conversation with Dr Marion Woodman, Counselling Psychology Quarterly, http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ccpq20