painting by Hannah Dansie
A few days ago, a friend brought me a letter that had been sent to “Dear Abby” by someone signed Already Wounded in California. My friend remarked, “Here is one of the best examples of the Death Mother I have ever seen.” Already Wounded in California wrote that during her lifetime, “It has always been about Momʼs needs and not ours.” She also shared that her 85 year-old mother told her that upon her death, she is leaving each of her children a letter expressing to them how much each of them had hurt her throughout the years. Of course, she had never acknowledged how deeply she had hurt her children. Already Wounded told Abby that she planned to put this “final, hurtful arrow” unopened into her motherʼs coffin, at her funeral. Then, she asked Abby, “Am I wrong?” Of course, Abby answered that she wasnʼt wrong.
The letter sent to “Dear Abby” reminded me that as my wife, Massimilla, and I are getting more responses to our recent book, Into the Heart of the Feminine: An Archetypal Journey to Renew Strength, Love, and Creativity and our discussion of the Death Mother in the book, as well as responses to Massimillaʼs lecture on “Facing the Death Mother” and our book-signing lecture, we are surprised at how many people are asking themselves the same questions about their parents – “Am I wrong? Am I wrong to feel this way?” It might be helpful to remember that the first place we experience the wound to the feminine in our culture is through our mothers, so this journey begins in a very personal way, though it will end up going much further. We are then caught in what seems to be an unfair dilemma between what we feel and what we think we should feel, to be a fair or good person.
In Into the Heart of the Feminine, we emphasized the importance of reclaiming our true and strong emotions and indicated how they are needed to ground us, in becoming authentic individuals. Becoming aware of and accepting these emotions is crucial to becoming whole. But this acceptance of them doesnʼt mean we have to act them out, in foolish or self-destructive ways. In reality, the acceptance of these emotions often means that we actually wonʼt be unconsciously acting them out, or having them affect us in self-destructive ways.
The implicit attitude, alive with strength and power in our society is to “honor thy father and thy mother” whether one is actively religious or not. I am willing to bet that this commandment, deeply embedded in our psyche, is what prompted Already Wounded to doubt the validity of her feelings and ask, “Am I wrong?”
I donʼt think we would be remiss to ask her, “Why didnʼt you tell your mother to go to hell a long time ago?” But from my own upbringing and experience, I think I know the answer to that question. Our cultural attitude causes us to massively repress and detach ourselves from the emotions that would support us in confronting a destructive mother in such a way. And when, after a lifetime of suffering and abuse, Already Wounded begins to take a stand to heal and free herself, she, like most of us, still asks, “Am I wrong?”
Even after decades of being on the inner journey and traveling the same path with many others, Massimilla and I are still surprised at how many women and men, who werenʼt loved enough when they were small, not valued enough, not safe enough, and not encouraged enough, still feel deep in the core of themselves that they are somewhere between not good enough and worthless, or, in some cases, evil. There are other aspects facing these women and men, as well. The first one is that many of them are good people, successful people and, if they have children, they are struggling to be good parents. Behind their positive outlooks and competent personas, though, they are still fighting the darkness of self-doubt, fear, despair, and the urge to beat themselves up over every little perceived mistake or failure. The second surprising aspect that we have noticed is how difficult it is to acknowledge the intense hurt, pain, and anger we have repressed about our childhoods.
When we are haunted by feelings of fear, scarcity, failure, worthlessness, dissatisfaction, or depression, we find it a difficult challenge to accept that we need to face the effects of the Death Mother in our lives and personalities – and that the truth of who we are, began in our early years. No wonder we are afraid of our emotions, because if we really face and seek to understand them, we may have to contend with the daunting task of changing our lives. Collectively and individually, we fear the transformative nature of the archetypal feminine principle that wants to live and be honored within us. We view challenges to the way we have “institutionalized” our lives, feelings, value systems, and expectations, with fear and dismay.
So people ask us, “Why do I have to go back into all this old stuff? Canʼt you just help me get on with my life?” My answer to those questions is no. The experiences that make up our early lives are the foundations of who we are, and they are patterned in our brains to be repeated and to control us, until we heal them. Healing begins with restoring those parts of ourselves that have been scattered, hidden, suppressed, denied, distorted, and forbidden. It begins, especially, with restoring our ability to cultivate our emotions and our willingness to ask life for things for ourselves.
Developing self-knowledge is more than gathering information about ourselves. One of the most important aspects of tapping into true self-knowledge is to “re-member”: to bring together the parts…and bring together what pain has alienated us from, what fear has separated us from, and what our need for safety has caused us to disdain. Our inner journey into self-knowledge begins with re-membering, restoring, revitalizing, rescuing, reclaiming, and renewing. The very process of the inner journey, described in Into the Heart of the Feminine, transforms us as we live it, and our old self is healed…so that it may break down in order for our new self to emerge, like a phoenix from the ashes.
During this evolution, we are also transforming our history into a history that will support our becoming. In her paper “The Structural Forms of the Feminine Psyche,” the Jungian analyst, Toni Wolff, writes that the transformational aspect of the Great Mother archetype instinctually “protects the process of becoming, of what is undeveloped, in need of protection, in danger, or must be tended, cared for and assisted.” In this journey, our nature will support us and we must learn to take a loftier view of our possibilities than we have been encouraged to take.
Articles by Drs. Bud and Massimilla Harris