Issue 188 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


My first argument with James Hillman [“The Myth of Therapy,” Issue 185] concerns his assumption that therapies which emphasize the child archetype also encourage blaming. In bad therapy, perhaps, but when the child archetype is effectively explored, the opposite occurs. By adulthood, most abused children have gone into a state of inner denial about what happened to them. Out of this denial comes their need to inflict the same abuses they experienced onto their own children, or spouses, or some child substitute. It is their symbolic way of coming to an inner truth about who they are. Since their denial does not allow them to see themselves directly, they must see who they are by inflicting who they have been on someone else.

Good therapy does not encourage blaming, but rather encourages a true recognition of how one felt during painful childhood experiences. Paradoxically, when one feels deeply the pain that has been denied, the urge within is ultimately to forgive those who have trespassed against you, not to blame. Good therapy softly encourages its clients in this direction.

My second contention with Hillman has to do with his emphasis on eloquence. He speaks for self-creation in the present, as if one could set aside one’s past as no more than a useful fiction. He wonders if we cannot create ourselves by the words we presently speak. “Can one think one’s way past who one was?” he asks. “Can we conceive the possibility that I change what I once was by what I say now?”

Hillman uses the words “think” and “say” very deliberately here. He argues that “eloquence is the mirror of the soul.” But Hillman’s strong emphasis on eloquence seems too disconnected from the body. Eloquence is more than just the words spoken; it is also the timbre of the voice, the resonance. If we can create ourselves by the words we presently speak, then this formulation must also include the way they are spoken, the depth from which they emerge, which is no more than to say the depth of our personal histories.

If one’s voice is high and screechy, caught in the throat, then such a voice is historical in us, an unresolved chronic tension that will be a determining factor in what we say. Eloquence must also address voice, thus our bodies, thus our histories. Eloquence happens in the present, but as the fruit of personal history.

Hillman sharply downplays our lives, our bodies, as historical processes. Though we live in the present, surely the present contains the past.

In the mid-seventies, as I was three weeks into primal therapy, my voice dropped two octaves, and stayed dropped. It was a common occurrence among primal patients. Now if I say something eloquent, or deep, it corresponds to a depth in my physical voice. No amount of sitting knee to knee in therapy, opening up to the mythological implications of dream images, would have effected this change in my body. Now I believe I would be ripe for Hillman’s approach, but first things first.

Or take sexual dysfunction, for example. Hillman says, “If the fish turned belly up in the river, that is far more important to what is happening to my soul than what my mother did to me when I was four.” I feel that Hillman errs in polarizing these two events. I see a connection (even in imagery) between the fish turning belly up and the high degree of sexual dysfunction in modern society, especially if we include, as we should, premature orgasm in males and difficulty in attaining full orgasm in females. The process of sexual shaming may very well begin by the age of four, with mothers or fathers or both projecting their own shame onto their child’s body. If one becomes at odds with something so basic as one’s own sexual nature, surely it will follow that one will become at odds with nature at large.

In calling for a new kind of therapy, in which the client is seen foremost as a citizen, Hillman suggests that his vision is not in the historical line of Freud and Jung, although I believe it is. Here he could take a lesson from Jung, who did not condemn Freud for becoming too focused on the shadow side of human consciousness. Rather he understood that because Freud was the first to see the shadow so fully, he inevitably got fixated on it, overwhelmed by it, and lost sight of the substance that cast the shadow. Jung didn’t try to negate Freud; he tried to take Freud to the next stage, to integrate the shadow back into the substance.

Jung also pointed out that a major service of therapy is to open up feelings that we are habitually unable to express. He recognized that further work (understanding one’s life in mythic terms, for example) required this beginning. Wilhelm Reich, Alexander Lowen, and Arthur Janov spent decades refining this step of opening feelings, opening up impacted bodies. Such work is not to be scoffed at. Maybe in the end, these therapies became self-absorbed and lost sight of the fact that such work could never become the fulfillment of therapy. Here enters Hillman to blow out their dying embers, but he does his own vision a disservice to divorce therapy from feelings, the body, and personal history. His work is better served if he is as generous as Jung was to Freud, glad for the work that has been initiated, and in some cases successfully completed. Rather than polarize, why not say now we are ripe to go forward, thanks Reich, thanks Lowen, thanks Janov? In taking the baton, need Hillman hit them over the head with it, calling their work fruitless, worthless?

When I first entered primal therapy, for crying out loud, I hadn’t cried out loud in a decade. I didn’t even tear at sad movies anymore. Once a close friend died, and I expressed nothing but a stoical sadness, even though as a kid I had worn my heart on my sleeve, as my mother said. My job was a routine. My marriage was not happy. My pleasures were becoming increasingly mental and vicarious — books, armchair politics, movies, TV, spectator sports, hours of solitaire. I had sore throats that lasted weeks. Nature bored me.

For me to come to therapy as a citizen first, at this stage of my life, would have been ludicrous. I had to rediscover my expressiveness first, for my feelings were impacted through years of disuse, suppression, and habit. I myself was turning belly up in the river; to have talked about the fish as a political issue would have only distracted me from the hard work of opening up my feelings again. And since the closing down of feelings/body had been a historical process in my life, the reopening had to be addressed in terms of this history. If the river of my affective life had become a trickle, then I needed to trace it back upstream to where the major dams had been erected.

When I was twelve my mother was deathly ill for a year, and in the hospital she got addicted to morphine. She was out of her head a good bit of the time, and everyone was hush-hush about it, as if she were not only sick but insane. Meanwhile, every morning I had to go to school, learn that the capital of Kansas was Topeka, the formula for water was H2O, only to arrive home to an empty house with no one to talk to about my fears and the pain in my heart for my mother in a faraway hospital, maybe dying. The very year in my life when I had the most to cry about was also the year I stopped crying altogether.

What a relief, and a healing, two decades later to cry for my poor mother, and cry and cry. Therapy encouraged me to reopen the outlets nature had given me for the expression of deep emotions. I realize this is the very autobiographical paradigm that Hillman decries. But how can we be worthwhile community people if we are not also free-flowing individuals, at peace with (or at least in creative tension with) our pasts?

Opening up my feelings to important events in my past also had the function of connecting my feelings to the present. In primal therapy, my voice deepened, my posture straightened, my creativity opened, my eyes brightened, my sexual capacity and appeal increased, my sensitivity toward others and nature (including fish) enlarged. Now I am ripe for concentrated work in the present, including politics, to give my whole life to it. But why does Hillman want to negate the stage of therapy that prepared me for his “re-visioning”; why does he disavow the work I had to do to be ready?

My bottom-line difference with Hillman centers on his antagonism toward individualism. He finds it a wrong model for human fulfillment, and prefers that the self should be “redefined, given a social definition, a communal definition.” Again, does not Hillman needlessly polarize? When individualism is interpreted shallowly, narrowly, confused with narcissism, egotism, or greed, of course it is a corruption. No true champion of individualism ever suggested that one ceases to be communally responsible as one becomes self-responsible. The path toward individuality, like all noble paths, gets easily debased because it is so hard to follow. The vast majority come up short, and are only too happy to fall back into the collective safety net when their attempts to be born as individuals fail. Out of their failure, individualism gets labeled as selfishness, doing your own thing, to hell with the other guy.

Hillman mocks the idea of “an inner world that can be made to expand and grow.” He refers to this as an “ideology of individualism” and claims that because it is an ideology, it is difficult to criticize.

He tries to criticize it, however, though most unsuccessfully, for he is proof against his own pudding. Take Hillman’s mind, for example. Was he merely born with a mind so rich? Didn’t he have to read and work late and think hard about things to develop such a unique look at the world, so insightful that it puts him at the top of the heap among current world thinkers in his field? Isn’t mental and creative development an important manifestation of the paradigm of “expanding and growing from within”? First and foremost, Hillman is an independent thinker, an individual. His rich inner world did not merely happen to him, as if from above. It grew and expanded over years of hard work — hard work on himself. What other way?

Jung and later Joseph Campbell have argued convincingly that social evolution lies in the direction of individualism, individuation. The highest meaning of the social group is to foster the development of individual potential, for the community’s own well-being depends on it. When the goal of the group ceases to be the individual, that group goes into decline.

The very best citizens have also been the most evolved individuals. Groups, nations, classes, clans, and families tend toward narrowness, meanness toward other groups, nations, etc. It has always been the individual who calls the group to a larger vision, who insists on compassion and fair play. It is always the community that is ready to stone the witch. The community of Americans was recently quite willing to pulverize 100,000 dark-skinned Iraqis to death, and was sorely lacking in individuals to stand up and decry this action. In the House and Senate, all stood with the group in the final analysis, supported our boys.

Thoreau was an individualist, and he embarrassed his fellow Concordians by speaking so strongly for the rights of slaves and Mexicans. Martin Luther King, Jr., was an individualist. The dignity of the individual person was his constant theme. Being a professional, Gandhi could have cozied up to the Britons and had a comfortable life, but he couldn’t see the blacks and Indians in collective terms as the Britons could. He could only see them as individuals, with the same potential to grow and expand from within as he had, through his insight and courage.

I think Christ was an individualist. Hillman says, “Jesus is powerful not because he was in Palestine two thousand years ago, but because he’s a living figure in the psyche.” But can’t one reverse Hillman’s statement: Jesus is a living figure in the psyche because he lived in Palestine two thousand years ago? Maybe not literally two thousand years ago; maybe his name was not literally Jesus. Maybe there have been many of him throughout history. My point is that the archetype can’t exist before it is first lived, in an individual life. In the case of the Christ archetype, this is the life that takes personal development, respect for the truth, courage to speak it, all the way to the cross, where even in the face of death, one refuses to deny who one is, or rather, who one has become, who one has made of oneself.

A Christ wasn’t born a Christ. That is a debasement of the Christ archetype, because it disavows responsibility for our individual lives. A Hillman wasn’t born a Hillman. He got to be a Hillman by growing and expanding from within. We all make ourselves along the way in our own historical processes. When Christ said on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he made one of the most eloquent statements ever. Even that close to dying, Christ was still creating himself. And that eloquence contained everything in Christ’s life that had led up to that moment, every choice he had made, every test he had suffered.

Hillman has lost sight of these points in his re-visioning of psychology and therapy.

Jim Ralston Petersburg, West Virginia
James Hillman responds:

This sentence is pinned above my desk: “A serious man ought not to waste his time stating a majority opinion.” (G.H. Hardy, mathematician). I try to live this maxim. I try to start with the second shoe, assuming the first one has already fallen long ago. Everyone heard that one drop: it’s the prevailing opinion we encounter anywhere in the therapy world, the self-help world, the afternoon talk-show world. All make clear the importance of childhood, of coming out from disempowerment (“be in control”), recovering from past abuses, working through to self-acceptance (“I can be comfortable with that”), and the confessional witness of “my own journey.” These advertisements for myself sound like the old Charles Atlas ads: “I was a ninety-seven-pound weakling, but look at me now.” Sure, therapy can help you “achieve” full orgasm and all the other things that have become necessary to the whole person’s life as described by white culture’s therapeutic ideology. But that’s all old hat — or comfortable as an old shoe.

My critic is still hanging on to the first shoe, and for dear life. Whereas, I take for granted what we all know and have been through. I’m not interested in his personal testimony; it’s irrelevant. I’ve heard too many case histories and seen too many conversions to take any biographical story as it is told. Biography is an act of imagination; we tell the stories we need to tell to explain what we want to say now. Personal history is also fiction.

I may respect his subjective sincerity, but it does not establish the objective value of therapy. From Marxism to Jonestown people have stood up and borne witness to what good was happening to them only to recognize later the insidious self-delusion, brainwashing, and seductive programming that occurs to the willing psyche by an intricately messianic ideology.

The widespread acceptance of therapy today shows it to be more than a practice; it is also an entrenched ideology, and a messianic one. It offers not only healing and help, but appeals to the hope for personal improvement (salvation). But what about the health of the community, its improvement? Can an individual go uphill while his brothers and sisters (and plants and animals and buildings and rivers) are all going down? Can the individual be conceived truly distinct from community? I am not merely in the culture or a member of it. I am the culture. There is no “me” apart from it. The Greek word for “one’s own” is idios, which also means “apart.” Idios was often contrasted with demosios — of the people, demos, from which democracy. A person concerned simply and solely with personal and private matters rather than public and community affairs is idios. This suggests that therapy may be turning out political idiots in the pious name of consciousness-raising and personal individuation.

Your correspondent says, “For me to come to therapy as a citizen first [at a dysfunctional stage of his life] would have been ludicrous. I had to rediscover my expressiveness first. . . .” What he expresses is the usual therapeutic dogma: first get yourself together, then go into the world. First patient, then citizen.

This argument strikes me as faulty in several ways: a) All through history abused, impotent, nervous people with poor relationships and squeaky voices have entered the political fray in whatever manner they could, not waiting until they were healed or fully realized persons. There is plenty you can do out there even if your marriage is a mess and your father was a son-of-a-bitch. b) According to Aristotle, humans are first and foremost political animals, citizens, whether we admit it or not. Waiting until one is “together” not only denies one’s fundamental human nature, but is in itself a political act — the act of opting out and allowing, if not approving, the status quo. c) The less you do, the more you let the disempowered child hold archetypal sway so that you feel more and more the abused victim, focus on future growth and past oppression, as well as obsess about lonely separation from the community. d) It is inflating to believe that once well therapized — his term is “evolved individuals” — you can enter the political arena more aware and able than the misguided politicos who just act out their inner turmoil in public space.

Therapy does not necessarily improve political acumen. It may increase insights, sensitize relationships, elaborate feelings, and give tidy conceptual schemas for grasping the flux of life, but it simply is not focused on political issues nor does it teach political skills.

Janov, Lowen, Reich, Jung, and Freud do not need defending, explaining, or praising. They’ve done good service from which we have each benefited; but that is not the point. I invite my critic out on the limb to say something interestingly different rather than conventionally clichéd. I ask him and each reader to consider this thesis: what has been for much of this century a virtue is now vitiating our intelligent attention to the crises of the actual world and to the abuses we suffer daily at the hands of the media, the administration, the academy, the research labs and art galleries, the medical profession, corporate and banking executives, architects, developers, and so on. I invite you to imagine therapy as reactionary — perhaps not in every individual case or session, but in its theory. It no longer lifts repression or is concerned with what is truly unconscious, since what is repressed today is political consciousness, and where we are most unconscious is in dealing with the problems of the world. We can fix ourselves and our personal relationships, or at least we believe we can, but we feel utterly bewildered and powerless before what needs doing in the daily world.

I am convinced that therapy did very good things for very many people, that it has been a social necessity for picking up the pieces of institutional inadequacies and Republican meanness, and that it attracted some of the keener minds and kinder souls of our times. This was the case; is it still?

The culture is in extremis, maybe the planet itself. We need extreme responses, radical, risky thinking. The body politic has just suffered a massive cerebral insult and a full-blown attack on its heart: the Great Victory of the Gulf War, opening the era of the New World Order, the heralding vision of which is the Persian Gulf slick with oil, the flaming wells of Kuwait and its choking sky, the charred trucks and tanks, the hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded Iraqis (“We have no war with the Iraqi people,” declared our president), and the destruction of a nation’s shrines, civil institutions, and physical plant. As I write this, the parades are assembling. Funeral marches would prove more appropriate, to mourn not only the war’s victims, but also the death of the American Republic and the beginnings of the American Empire. Caesar has entered the city; the Senate is impotent; the generals shaved like Romans, decorations on their massive chests like Russians twenty years ago; Schwarzkopf and Mickey Mouse and God. Floats, confetti, and Stealth bombers all together in one show of toys for the party. Toys Are Us, even as our prisons fill, our soils go down the rivers, our children go uneducated, ill-fed, and unwanted, the aging stored away in dirty, careless quarters, and our dark-skinned male youth systematically exterminated. Meanwhile the people declare themselves overwhelmingly in favor of what is going on, including the censoring complicity that prevents them from knowing what’s going on. The new world order seems comprised of three unholy components: psychological denial, militaristic fascism, and the last book of the Christian myth, the Apocalypse. I think it is therapy’s job to inquire into how it might be a conspirator in the first component. Could we be aiding and abetting denial by turning our attention away from the world?

How much therapy does one need in order to sense that something terrible is happening? More: is therapy the mode of awakening, or might it be caught in delusional shibboleths that pretend to “consciousness” all the while actually distracting patients from citizenship in the real world of dysfunction and abuse by absorbing their minds in private reconstructions, protecting their sleep?

Dysfunction and abuse: no, wholesale vicious slaughter! During the apogee of the personal growth movement and the spread of therapeutic ideology in the United States, the same United States has engaged in violent destructions in Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, and Panama — to name a few places only. Imagine that we were German patients of therapy in the 1930s and 1940s, the time of the extermination and labor camps. Would our blind inaction then be justified by saying, first we had to have a few months or years of therapy, find our real emotive selves, before we could remember that we are citizens fundamentally and absolutely involved in what the state does? There is an insidious complicity between the therapeutic turn backward and inward and the failure to feel the ugliness actually taking place and in which I have a part. I am ashamed of myself, and my country — for its action and my lack.

That your correspondent’s voice dropped two octaves and his posture straightened, that he can delay his ejaculations is all splendid. It does indeed make him a better man (cured patient) according to the criteria of therapy. Does it make him a better citizen — more courageous, more outspoken and outraged, more canny and effective, more acute to social injustice and political shortsightedness? He still seems more intent upon recounting his own journey than truly thinking about the decline of our culture and the planet all the while he was in therapy.

Kundera cites Flaubert’s discovery “that stupidity does not give way to . . . progress; on the contrary, it progresses right along with progress!” For Kundera, this insight is “more important for the future of the world than the most startling ideas of Marx or Freud.” And what does Kundera mean by stupidity? “Stereotyped formulations that people . . . enunciate in order to seem intelligent and up-to-date.” “Modern stupidity means not ignorance but the nonthought of received ideas.”

So your correspondent concludes his piece by referring to Christ — the major received idea of our culture. I suspect this reference is integral to his argument on a mythical level. It reflects the conviction that the past causes the present, that fundamental belief in literal history which undergirds the entire therapeutic endeavor at a level not even the founders were ever able to fully understand. That mythos too worships the heroic abandoned child, the victim who becomes empowered (inflated with divine salvational qualities because he is innocent). And that mythos regards personal suffering (rather than civic duty) to be the path of redemption. As well, it subverts action in the world with contempt for the world, which it relegates to Caesar. I see why, Mr. Editor, I meet a lot of “resistance.” The demons that keep me out on a limb grow red hair and spit blue fire when they espy received ideas that have become the dearest tenets of American therapeutic ideology.

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