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On Marion Woodman by Jean Kirsch


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The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal (Volume 6, Number 3)

On Marion Woodman

Marion Woodman. The Pregnant Virgin: A Process of Psychological Transformation. Toronto. Inner City Books, 19 5. Reviewed by Jean Kirsch

In this her newest offering Marion Woodman shares with us a sensitive and personal celebration of the individuation process.

She draws from her own experience and that of her analysands who liberally open their souls and their journals for our participation.

Here one will not find discussion of psychodynamics, pathology, transference or technique, but shifting kaleidoscopic glimpses into the liminal world of the chrysalis that is Marion Woodman’s metaphor for the analytic container.

Her bibliography shows a sprinkling of references to the works of C. G. Jung, M. L. von Franz and a few other psychologists.

By and large though, her references are literary, reflecting her background in education and continuing her emphasis on amplification of archetypal and symbolic forms.

Her writing style is intuitive, in her own words rather like a frog leaping from one lily pad to another to another; slippery and not easy to grasp or discern, her green thoughts blend into the surrounding material.

It is not always clear whether she’s leading us through sacred or literal time and space, because her lunar consciousness blurs the boundaries.

She is writing directly from her center.

With her provocative title and little ado Woodman pulls us into the process by which certain individuals, men and women, have begun to integrate their own femininity.

A virgin in her usage is neither chaste nor necessarily unmarried. Rather “vi rgi nil is made to signify a state of self-confidence and ego strength sufficient to permit awareness of bodily.

Instinct and unconscious imagery as well as vulnerability to the spiritual.

In short, the pregnant virgin is one who is open to the Self.

Many of Woodman’s analysands have eating disorders-anorexia, bulimia, obesity–or some form of substance abuse.

Anyone with experience treating these disorders knows ·how difficult is the task, and how refractory the problem, when the psychological energy needed for real change is repetitively bound up in a concrete, ritualistic behavior pattern.

By meeting her patients in her direct and genuinely feeling way, doing some kind of “body work” (never very clearly described), and teaching them to substitute a personally created, conscious ritual for the blind stereotyped ritual of the addiction, Woodman is

able to help them find a way out of their suffering.

“Altars are set up in our lives whether we realize it or not, and unconscious altars encourage demonic visits.” (p. 86)

Crucial to her treatment is teaching patients to recognize the spiritual dimension hidden in the matrix of their symptoms.

To personify the despair at the root of addiction, which she believes must be uncovered and identified for healing to occur, Woodman calls this despair the ‘dream sister.”

Carrying the repressed side of the mother or the repressed femininity of the father or husband, the “dream sister” forms a symbiotic bond with the ego and denies the feminine reality of the suffering woman.

Woodman sees her analysands coming from “good” homes where children were molded to an ideal collective image under the influence of a power-driven, unnurturing mother.

Possessed by their own damaged instincts, and ironically driven by the same desire for power that their parents used in raising them, some children wolf down food, or reject it, or vomit it out; whatever their reaction, food is the magnet around which their lives circulate.

In that context food symbolizes the life force, The Great Mother, with which the wisdom of the body is desperately attempting to connect. (p. 103)

Woodman posits an ideal of loving, warm acceptance to counter the influence of the negative mother.

Empathy recognizes and accepts the total human being. Instead of driving anger underground, love recognizes and forgives, thus transforming negative emotion into potentially positive energy.

Young plants need warmth and water and light.

Love is the valuing of individual feeling that provides the warmth.

Water is the essence of life, the energy that wants to flow, to explore everything.

Light is the insight that illuminates. Nature is energy manifest.

The sanctification of matter has to do with the human love that recognizes the power of animal energy, recognizes it as sacred and that human nature evo1ves from that foundation.

That foundation is the Great Mother, Sophia, in whose womb we mature.

Our biological nature, quickened by the Spirit, receives energy, through the five senses, as well as through the inner eye and the inner ear, until the red robe of passion worn by the virgin soul is enhanced by the blue mantle of wisdom.

Positive energy is life, light, god, love. It holds atoms together.

When it is recognized as sacred, and when the soul’s able to contain it and still flow, then the virgin is sitting on the lap of the Great Mother.

The woman has become conscious of herself as an individual soul.

Out of her individual feeling, she loves individually.

Linked to the Great Mother, she sees in the body the soul in action.

Securely related to the feminine side of God, she is capable of personal relationships that are no longer based on power or dependency, but on empathy.

She is free.

Now she can displease the collective, and instead of feeling the terror of rejection, know that she’s blessed among women.

And her child, inner and outer, is free to act out its own nature, able to accept discipline because it is secure in its mother’s love. (pp.106-107)

Woodman apparently feels she must shower her analysands with loving acceptance

and create for them a warm imaginal world in which they can begin to discover themselves in a new light.

She therefore damns a behavior modification approach to these disorders.

When the heart speaks, reason usually finds it indelicate to comment.

Silence, though, is liable to promote in our Jungian societies and in our literature deference to any explication of the feminine that appears to be.

To attempt to enforce strict discipline on an ego that has been raped all its life merely reinforces the psychology of the victim and with it the compensatory rebel and liar.

Compulsive dieting reinforces already firmly entrenched compulsive patterns and releases more violent compensatory instinctual needs, creating a conflict which tears the soul to shreds and may lead to a psychotic break or suicide.

So long as a woman secretly despises her own womanhood, fears her own sexuality, flagellates her body with curses and starvation or food that is poison to her, no healing can take place, however fat or thin she may become. (p. 107)

To bring this group of patients to a state of “pregnant virginity” is no small accomplishment.

A reading of this book without familiarity with Woodman’s previous volume, Addiction to Perfection (Toronto, Inner City Books, 1982), may leave one puzzling about her methods and her theory, which were more fully delineated there.

The Pregnant Virgin is a broad and poetic amplification of material set forth in Addiction.

What then is new?

First, she has found in the image of metamorphosis a metaphor well suited to the feat of bringing an anorectic patient within reach of the analytic attitude.

Second, whereas in Addiction she focuses on the mind/body split experienced by her analysands, in Pregnant Virgin she extends the idea to diagnose a masculine/feminine split in Western culture.

Third, she includes more subjective materials from her analysands, this time from men as well as women, which illustrates her thesis that not only is the modern female cut off

from and in desperate need of relationship to her female body, but so is the modern male spiritually starving through 1ack of connectedness to his own femininity.

Finally, and most touchingly, she shares with us a near-death experience that marked the beginning of her own transformative process.

Marion Woodman has an inimitable and personal style.

I would never expect a book by her to teach me to work as she does.

What I did expect is the presentation of a set of ideas which would add to my understanding of the psyche and enrich my own therapeutic style.

And I guess I expected it to be presented in a digestible meal of reasonable proportions.

Pregnant Virgin would be capable of meeting the first of my expectations, save for its failure to meet the latter.

It has grains of truth and morsels of wisdom buried in mounds of psychospiritual  whipped cream.

The book piles up metaphor, lays vignette upon vignette, is replete with literary references, and overflows with a sentimentalized religious imagery.

It produced in me the cloying satiety of the overfed, the avoidant impulse of the anorectic, and the impulse to vomit it all up.

These reactions disturbed me because I respect the ongoing process out of which this author writes, and I believe she has often offered and continues to offer valid insights that make a real contribution to our understanding of the psyche.

Possibly Woodman is something of a Cassandra.

By spurning an Apollonian ideal of writing based on clear definitions and well ordered

reasoning, and refusing for fear of blunting her creativity to mold her work, she may suffer the fate of an incredulous response from readers not tuned in to her own intuitive vision.

Healing begins with questioning the meaning of the symptom. Inquiry uncovers inadequate mothering and the deficient nurturing of body, instinct and spirit which is endemic in our culture.

This deficiency is all the more pernicious because it is an unchallenged norm.

Healing continues through conscious efforts to satisfy the now uncovered hunger with constructive means, means which differ in each case, since they arise from the unconscious and are accessed individually in analysis is through dreams and body work.

As Woodman states so clearly, “The body is the unconscious in its most immediate and continuous form.” (Addiction to Perfection, p. 79)

When attended with the same concentration that analysts have employed to learn the language of dreams, the body’s images and its wisdom become apparent, or to be more exact, sensible.

We can tap that sensible wisdom, engage it as an ally in the healing process.

Awareness of deficient nurturing produces a terrifying anxiety.

Body work releases simultaneously the terror of annihilation that is locked in the muscles and the dreadful rage of a long neglected child/animal.

Therefore, it is not to be undertaken lightly nor without the secure containment of an analytic relationship.

In true Jungian fashion Woodman’s body work trusts that if the conflict of opposites is sustained long and well enough the transcendent function will be activated and a creative solution will appear consciousness.

Because the body has been engaged in the process and because a personal and collective spiritual hunger is at the root of the illness, the solution will embody religion in some way–a ritual sacred dance perhaps, personally derived and enacted.

Feminine mysteries long-dormant in the collective unconscious will emerge through self exploration.

Only two decades ago, by Papal edict, the Virgin, Mary ascended to the throne of God.

The elevation of the feminine to divine status, is a central myth of our age, a living reality in the modern psyche.

With all its inherent healing power and linked to feeling.

I offer my own reaction with the feeling that we need to be careful lest we find ourselves dominated by sentiment and wading in kitsch.

Nevertheless, I do not think her work should be overlooked just because its presentation is so diffuse.

Because of the debt l owe Marion Woodman for articulating the symbolic reality one discovers through attention to the body, and for turning to her subjective experience of the feminine and exploring it for itself rather than bowing to Jungian convention which equates feminine with relatedness, I would like to close by attempting a restatement of what I perceive to be her valuable contributions.

Modern society is a spiritual wasteland.

Few participate in a meaningful religious ritual.

Materialism stands at the center of our holy days now.

Woodman traces the sequence: Materialism – Matter – Mother; and concludes that something has gone wrong.

The modern function of the materna1 is to perfect the physical and promote material aspirations.

From childhood a woman is objectified and she perpetuates the myth of perfectibility through ingrained attitudes toward her own body.

We all participate.

And we all suffer the resulting alienation of body from mind.

This pathological state of affairs is revealed in addictions– addiction to food, to no food, to drugs, to alcohol, to overwork and to physical beauty.

Ritual is central to any addiction and a spiritual  hunger drives its obsession.

Both ritual and spiritual hunger are unconscious, hidden in the symptom, risks of inflation. some women are living it now through their analyses.

Their experience of this reality is what· I think Marion Woodman’s work is all about. ~Jean Kirsch, On Marion Woodman, The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal Volume 6, Number 2 1986