The Empowerment Process Starts

I remember the first day Astra came to my office because it was with difficulty that I got out for my daily lake walk meditation. We were having one of our coldest Januaries in Vermont. The night before, the wind had kept my windows rattling, and when the pale early morning light came through my bare bedroom window and I looked out at the big thermometer on my barn, it read a chilling twenty below.

The lake that day was completely frozen over with no hint of the rich dormant life of last summer thriving below the white silence. Mt. Mansfield and Camels Hump, my usual orientations to the east, had slipped into the pale yellow whiteness of early morning, and the Adirondack Mountains to the west were lost in a bluish whiteness, not yet knowing that a new day had just barely begun.

I see Astra clearly in my minds eye the first day she arrives. A whoosh of cold wind comes in with her as she enters through the door to the outer room. A few snowflakes on her hair create a halo effect from the light behind her. She stomps the snow off her boots, and as she moves out of her own silhouette and into the light of the outer room, I see deep mysterious eyes, a somber look. She would have not gone unnoticed in any room.

I looked out at the big thermometer on my barn...

Tall in frame with reddish brown, shoulder length, wild curly hair, she wears an oversized black coat that hangs loosely to her ankles, black woolen slacks, and high, dull black leather boots. She finds the hot water and herbal tea by herself, but she doesnt seem to notice the volumes of books and art objects that line the shelves. Maybe she isnt an avid reader, or maybe shes too anxious or depressed to look. As we head into the Inner Room, Astra glances at the Athena, Goddess of Wisdom and Knowledge figure, riding a chariot near my chair and plops down in her own chair. We are not total strangers because we have spoken on the phone at length before this visit.

Our eyes meet. I start the empowerment process. “Why don’t you just start wherever you’d like to? I may ask you some questions along the way, but I think of this as your journey, your walk. So if it is okay with you, you take me by the hand and I’ll try to see what you are seeing and feeling along the way. As I’ve said, it’s your story. You’re the one who has lived it. You’re the one who knows it best. After an hour or so we’ll take a short break and then continue. Is this okay with you?”

She nods.

The empowerment process starts

“Later, I will go over with you the mechanics of the office. How you can reach me during the daytime and at night. How the lending library works here. What my fees are and if you need any modification in this. How the billing works and things like that.” Astra sits partially slumped in the oversized corduroy lounge rocker. She drops her coat and purse to the right of her.

“Oh, by the way, I’ll be taking notes. They’re your words and my questions that I’m writing down, not my analysis or diagnosis of anything. Just go ahead and start where you’d like.”

Office orientation

I wonder, Who is this woman sitting before me? What does she need from me? What has her life been like? Where is her pain? What is the state of her health? Can she see and hear adequately? Does she feel physically safe? Threatened? What does she say to herself when no one is listening? Whom does she love? Is there anyone out there to love? Does she feel crazy? Does she trust what she thinks? Does she know she has wisdom? Am I the woman who can help her?

The stories she tells are the stories borne by this particular woman. She will tell her stories in her own particular way and in her own time. She will use her own melody, cadences, nuances, and tone. She may tell them in the manner of the original mother tongue of her family or community or ethnic group, or she may not.

Who is this person?

As she tells her stories, I may get to learn something about how she goes about her journey, what she packs in her knapsack, or shopping bag, or pocketbook. I will be interested in what survival tools she carries with her, how she fashioned them, and for what purpose.

Which survival tools?
My curiosity is insatiable, but I must honor the flow of her narrative, avoiding the search for immediate continuity and connection. For now, I will not usurp her life narrative with my questions. I wait to hear the dynamics of the words she is telling me. I know that she will tell her story in her own particular way and in her own particular time. Putting my own questions aside, I listen to her with what the Buddhists call a beginner’s mind, with a loving receptive acceptance for whatever is there, open to everything she tells me.

Beginners mind

Nascent images and questions of my own start a beginning mental map as I work with Astra. Often these maps take on a material form, but for now Astra’s particular map starts with a sketch in brown and gray washes in the manner of the 17th-century Baroque artists, creating dimension with light and dark values as I make a quick study of her unfolding life story. This picture along with my notes creates a rich first map.

This woman sitting before me is engaged in a vulnerable task because she will be telling me more than the facts of her life: where she was born, where she lives, and where she went to school. She is beginning the highly complex and creative process of remembering and self-reflection in which she attempts to construct a story that has meaning to her. To tell her story, she must be able to organize or explain the past, present, and future in some way. This is how I got where I am. This is how I went from here to here. This is where I’m going. And she must tell this story from a particular point of view. The why of it. It is not anybody else’s story. It is her story. The story must be organized and coherent and make sense from her unique reality. Not only as an expression of her own unique reality, but a requirement of the culture as well.

Remembering, self-reflection, meaning
Astra begins. “Well, by the standards of our society, I am a success. I’ve gone from Cinderella to Horatio Alger. But here I am at 42, and I feel like a total failure because I am alone.” She cries. “And I have created it. Blame, blame, it’s all right there. There’s all this judgment I place on myself. I swing from saying I’m the victim, or else I say I’ve created all the problems. Either I say poor me, it’s been done to me, or I must take the credit for all of it not working. So my pressure is that either way I cut it, I don’t come up looking good at all. It’s just not working and I don’t know what to do.” She reaches for her first blue tissue on the small glass garden table near her left arm. Her arm drops like the arm of a wooden puppet when someone has just let go of the strings.

I glance over at Athena, knowing I will need her, and we settle in together for the long haul.

Failure is being alone
Astra has a deep voice, about the timbre and range of my cello. The volume of her voice swells and recedes on the waves of her emotions. “Everyone thinks I’m a great success, but I’m not in my own eyes. I started my business ten years ago. I wasn’t planning to go into business at all. It was a special product I invented for women. I was divorced a year later, and I have not had a successful relationship since then.” She takes a shallow breath.

A product for women
The salt water flows with her words now and mix with her memories. “I come from what I’d call a dysfunctional family. At 16 my parents took me to a psychiatrist. I met Carl at 21. He was my bridge out of my family mythology. I married someone totally different from my father. My father was a domineering man with a terrible temper. Carl was a mild guy from the Midwest. Women to Carl were either lusty wenches or Madonna wives. I was going to do it better than my mother did.” Her body shudders now from the cellular memory of it.

Lusty wenches or Madonna wives

Carl and father
Then, in an agitato voice, she adds, “Now I’ve become just like my father, and, strangely, Adam, the man who lives with me now, is just like my mother. I’ve gotten very demanding. I’m arrogant, thoughtless, not compassionate, and he just passively sits there. There’s a whole judgment that I do on myself.” She pauses, then adds reflectively, “And I have this idea” (knitting her brows). “I think maybe I have PMS and maybe that’s why...” Her words roll over into the pounding surf, and she leaves this ovum of a thought suspended somewhere in the wet sand. "I told Adam, I am very needy, and he still can’t give me anything. All of my structures are falling all around me."

Adam and mother

Side note: PMS?

I feel washes of blue sadness and add them to my mental sketch. Astra sobs, and I hear a long plaintive wail that evokes memories of the slow opening bars of Faure’s “Elegy” for the cello – the elegy that I played at a public memorial concert the day after John F. Kennedy was shot. Her voice comes through the sustained note.

“How sad. How sad. There’s just me and money.” She takes another tissue. “So much grief and mourning. When I decided to sell the business, I never expected such a backlash at work. The staff, you know, they need to express their own stuff and their shit and I’m getting it. I haven’t been honest with them, and that feels just rotten.” She runs on. “I’m the youngest of four. I was very sheltered. The message was don’t ever be alone. I was taken to all my parents’ cocktail parties.” She reaches for a generous handful of tissues and readies them in her lap.

She continues to move forward and backward in time: “My parents got old and sick and died penniless. All in the same year, I got divorced, learned to drive a car, and started to live alone. We children were never taken seriously. We were the props in my parents’ lives. It was like a Tennessee Williams play. My parents were hypocrites and bigots. But, then I say to myself, I’m lucky. I have my health, and I don’t have money worries.”

Suddenly, with deep furrows between her eyes, lips that expand tightly over her upper teeth, fists clenched, and in a deep, scolding ancient voice, Astra stirs me to an uncomfortable attention. “How dare I bitch and groan like a spoiled child!”


She composes herself, takes back her first voice and starts again. “I feel I am cracking under the pressure now. I have so little time outside of work and I’m reacting negatively all the time to everything. What do I want now? I don’t know. I think there’s no way out. It’s terrible. I feel just terrible.” The woman sobs. “There’s no respect for what I do now at work. The business went from zero money to a great deal of money. I feel it’s a cruel trick because there’s no one to enjoy it with. Just think of the joy I could feel.” Her voice trails off. She wipes her now reddened and moist nose.

I lose her for a while as she silently roams around somewhere in her own unmapped territory.

There’s no way out

Then she pushes on with her story. “I believed in my business. It was my baby, but I was not naive. My business wasn’t about money itself, but it definitely was about financial security. I thought, who will take care of me if I am sick or old? I saw the business as a gamble. The payoff would be eventually selling it. Like now. Now, that’s the big thing that’s come up for me: selling my business. We sold the business.”

Slipping into another thought, she adds, “Did I tell you yet that my mother called me ‘googly eyes’ when I was a child?” She heaves a deep sigh. “I need to sleep. If only I could sleep. I just can’t sleep. Everything goes back to my sleep.”

Sold business

Next to my mental wash of tonal values, a side list of follow-up ideas has begun: “Support system? Sleep deprivation? Time off? Medical workup? Frequency of visits?” For now, I continue to let Astra lead but allow my list of questions to grow.

Support system?
Sleep deprivation?
Time off?
Medical workup?
Frequency of visits?

“What made me pick up the phone and call you? When did I start feeling this way? Well, I was okay. Then, about six months or so before coming here, after the business was sold, I started feeling depressed. Then about two to three months ago, I started feeling…” She rolls words around in her mouth as if there is a taste or certain flavor to the ones she is seeking. “…fraudulent, and guilty too, because we didn’t tell anyone that we had sold the business. I felt like a liar. I started getting worse and worse, and then I spoke to my friend who had worked with you and she gave me your name. So that’s how I got here.”

The challenges of the young child continue to mingle with the needs of the adult woman narrator. “We lived in New Jersey, and we always lived near the ocean.”

So that is what I was picking up: the ocean.

“I love to be near the ocean. We lived in big expensive houses, but they were always rented. We never owned our own, so we moved every year or two. I went to private schools. In one school—it was junior high—I was kicked out because of my behavior. It was terrible because it was the only school I was at for three consecutive years. My parents sent me to Florida for a while to live with an aunt, and then in the middle of the year, I was sent to a school in New York City, and I really learned there. It was a tutoring school. But,” she slows down, “some things happened there I didn’t like...”

Again, her thoughts drift off somewhere. She comes back, “Believe it or not, I didn’t go to high school like everyone else. Then I wanted to go to the Parsons Institute. My mother and sister had gone there, but I was sent to a women’s college in Rhode Island. Then the family ran out of money, and my mother said, ‘You have to go to Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School.’ So I went. You know, it just never occurred to me that I could borrow the money for college.”

Referred by friend

Some things?

“I’ve certainly heard that one in here before,” was my response.

“My home had the feeling of being...” She is rolling some choices around in her mouth again. “...formal and old. I always felt different. I was the youngest, so I spent a lot of time alone as a child, and when I was in fourth or fifth grade, we lived out in the country. There was no one around to play with. I can remember growing up and how my friends’ parents were and how they talked to them and they knew the latest hip language, and they knew what was going on. It was like stepping into another world.”

The “I” becomes “we”

She shifts quickly now. “I have a sister in Denver. That’s another thing I’m feeling just awful about. She is pushing me away, and I can’t keep giving in. In her eyes I’m the poor little baby. I feel I’ve become a plastic cutout person. My sister doesn’t really see me—who I am. When I was little, she was the one who took care of me; I adored her. I was my sister’s shadow. I hid behind her. She protected me. She was six when I was born. I need to come to terms with my sister’s relationship with me. The illusion of it all. I mean, I don’t want to give up, but I fear the worst.” Astra’s voice trails off. “The fear of it.”

Relationship with sister?
Now she curls herself into herself as if she is experiencing a small death. Then uncurling, she comes back again. “What I really have to do is think about what I want. I think I’m being reactive all the time. I want to get to some proactive place. That’s really what I want.

Desire: reactive to proactive

“Did I tell you yet that my mother called me her little pocketbook? She took me everywhere with her. I always had to go to these parties with my parents. I got to know a lot of basements. I would sit and think and make things up in my head. Hah! I saw a lot of night life in New York in the fifties: Club Twenty-One, The Stork Club, Luchow’s Restaurant.”


In the middle of her childhood story, I suddenly have a flashback, a merging of politics and music from my own youthful days in Greenwich Village. Luchow’s, an old-world German restaurant requiring reservations, contrasts with my own working-class experiences in New York in the fifties. It is summer. A New Yorker by birth, I sing with the crowd at a large fountain in Washington Square Park as the young Pete Seeger plays his guitar and sings, head high, body proud,

“Oh, you can’t harm me, I’m stickin’ with the union.
I’m stickin’ with the union ’til the day I die.”

Therapist’s flashback

Then I hear Marion Anderson’s rich, black, contralto voice in the warm night air, uptown at Lewisohn Stadium, singing, “He’s got the whole world in His hands, He’s got the whole wide world in His hands.”

Astra’s cello voice interrupts my own altered state of consciousness. “I also had these huge temper tantrums. We moved every one or two years. I knew my age by the house we lived in. Did I tell you I knew I was a mistake? That’s what I heard in the family. I wasn’t planned, wasn’t wanted.

Marion Anderson

“Competition in my family was a sport, the fast repartee. My family used sarcastic humor. The job I had as a little child was could I keep up with it all?” She slides into a previous theme. “In four months I must make a decision about my business. I’m feeling terrible about this. I just keep going in circles. I can’t solve anything.

Going in circles
“So now you know that my father was very abusive. I never actually witnessed any abuse, but my sister and two brothers did. By the time I came along, I would hear the shouting and furniture being thrown and really derogatory remarks. I can remember when I was about 9, walking into my mother’s room after hearing her sobbing in the night; my room was next to hers. I went in because I knew it was because of an argument they had had. She was sitting on the bed with her legs crossed. I knew she was unhappy. I asked her, ‘Mommy, why don’t you get a divorce? Why don’t you divorce Daddy?” She kind of wiped her tears and tried to look cheery. “You know, pacify the little child.”

Mother and child in abusive situation?
A cold shadow seems to hover over Astra now. She shivers. “My sister remembers when my mother was physically beaten, with blood all over her. But, I don’t remember this.” Deep heaving and sobs. “My mother was always in a lot of emotional pain. My father was tall, dark, beautifully tanned, a former Cavalry Troop, polo, golf, gardening, jogging, mega vitamins. ‘The body is the temple of the soul,’ he would say. He was lord and master. He had these herb gardens. My father drank, and he had mistresses.” She pauses with a painful look. “But it’s confusing. I had a special place in his heart.” She sighs. Silence. The confused and hurt child rests for a while. My baroque watercolor wash is now splattered with a deep viscous red.


Then Astra continues, in a different, high-pitched voice, imitating her mother: “‘Everything’s all right. Everything’s all right.’ And then my mother went on to say, ‘I don’t know a single divorced woman who is any better off than I am.’” Sorrowfully, Astra adds, “You know, she really believed that.”

I am compelled now to respond to the child’s pain. “You must have felt very helpless at such a young age trying to soothe your mother’s pain.” She whimpers and nods, but she will not be diverted from the memory of her father.

“I don’t remember my father showing any remorse either. He was more like a sulky child afterward. I remember one scene in the kitchen. We had this big table like a picnic table, and he picked it up and threw it at her. He picked it up at one end, and she was standing at the other end of it.”

She moves on quickly, unable to bear the scene. “In that house there were intercoms, the old-fashioned ones where you blow into them. So we’d be listening on the intercom to hear all of this going on. One of the classic memories all four of us recall is of my sister, my two brothers, and me sitting on the stairs listening to the stuff going on below. You know, now that I think about it—I always heard it, but never saw the actual scene. At least, I think that’s true.”

She pauses, then adds, “All of my structures are falling apart. My work, my sister. In one year I was divorced, my father died, my cat died, and I split my head open. I felt so betrayed by my business partner. She tried to steal the business from me. During that time, I tried to commit suicide. I overdosed on barbiturates. I just got so tired I didn’t want to see another sunset. I hated all the confrontations.”

I jump in now, continuing the empowerment, “But this time you came here instead. You didn’t overdose. You’re trying another way. Is that right?”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way. Yes.”

“Can we back up a minute? Did I hear you say you split your head open?”


“What happened to you?”

Suicide potential?
“Well, I had another seizure. I have a seizure disorder. Did I tell you that my mother and the whole family called me googly eyes? I don’t remember. It’s because of the way my eyes fluttered when I was younger. You know, from my petit mal seizures ….”

Googly eyes?

Astra has a seizure disorder! I must now rethink everything she has told me, through the eyes of a child growing up not only with an abusive father, but with the burden of a seizure disorder as well. I understand now that she has the special knowledge of a child who has experienced other states of consciousness. I make another side note: Get medical problem list. Her words and images are freed up now from their cellular prison. She breathes more easily.

“You’ve been waiting a long time to tell this story, haven’t you? I’m sorry you’re experiencing so much pain.”

She nods and sobs uncontrollably. I wait, respecting her emotional space.

Then, leaning forward to create less physical space between us, I say, “Do you think you can live on my faith for a while? Can you let me carry some of this with you?”

Seizure disorder!

Get medical problems list
She buries her head in both hands, leans forward and rocks a fragile “Yes,” with her whole body. She reminds me now of the deep despair of a black-and-white Kathe Kollwitz lithograph.

I don’t remember now if we ever took a break during the two hours that winter afternoon. My notes show no break after the first hour as we had planned, just a blank section probably where we dropped through ordinary time. I have a vague memory of the movement of the low winter sun in the south window on my left to the west window and the pale blue-purple lake behind her. And I remember her overwhelming sadness, her plaintive wail, and the “Elegy.” Neither of us would have guessed that cold January day, when everything seemed so frozen in time, that we would be working together through fourteen seasons, the thaw of three new springs, and many lake walks. I only know that my mechanical timer, which I had set for two hours, brought us back to the requirements of ordinary time.

Creating a Joint Narrative

Kathe Kollwitz

It is already spring. On my lake walk today, the lake is wild and swollen like a woman before she menstruates. The trunks of the large elm trees sitting now in the high frigid water of early spring are full with the lake’s wetness. Large gray logs and driftwood from another shoreline sit on our upper banks now. A dark green wave throws itself amidst three logs on the shore and sings its way back to the lake with a slow gulp...gulp...gulp...gulp. At regular intervals the hypnotic sound repeats itself. The swollen spring lake today reminds me that nothing is frozen in time forever.

As I continue to listen to Astra’s story, I hear, of course, the Astra-self of the adult storyteller. However, within this story many other chronological selves with their own experiences and sources of knowledge emerge. I must make sense of the quality of these experiences and what meaning she has made of them. I listen for patterns or clusters of emotions, knowledge and experience bound together. She is remembering her experience, feeling it, and naming it.

I especially listen for those early knowings that are not subject to appeal or repeal by the rational mind, or any other amendments that inform. These original childhood knowings remain markers through the long days and nights while all other markers fail. That they may keep the rest of the ocean of knowing in darkness does not matter; they exist by virtue of their early snaillike attachment to us. Some of these early knowings are the constructs of the child’s mind—created as protection from some perceived or real evil. At some point their power to direct our lives must be examined.

Our plan to see each other twice a week is a good one. In the interim, at my suggestion, Astra has seen a physician regarding her sleeplessness. He prescribes medications, and they don’t work. She has warned me that she has idiosyncratic reactions to drugs, and, knowing her body better than anyone else, of course, she is correct. She has decided to take no medications, and her sleep has improved. The urgency and desperate feelings of her first visit have lessened somewhat.

Soon, we work in the way good musicians learn to play together in a trio or quartet, poised to listen and play the silences as well as the sounds we speak to each other. If two cellos are sitting facing each other, when the string of one cello is struck, the same string on the other cello vibrates in attunement with the first. So it is with two human bodies sitting across from each other. The one-woman narrative has changed to a shared harmony.

We hug comfortably now as women friends do, and she sits down quickly, eager to continue where she left off after the last session. She drops a new lighter-colored ski jacket on the floor in its usual place. Like her jacket, her mood is lighter, more relaxed.

“I want you to know that I’m feeling some relief now, that there is someone here to help me.”

The process of attunement

“I’m really glad to hear that I can be of some comfort to you. I believe that there isn’t anything two women can’t solve if we put our good minds to it! It’s on the basis of this belief that all of our work is constructed.” We smile together, sharing this two-woman secret.

At this point in our work together, I lay another mental map over my earlier ink wash. It takes on a different look. I am now the busy surveyor, placing colored markers on Astra’s topography as I listen for critical nuclei of learnings. I am beginning to orient myself to the map of her idiosyncratic life space.

Our joint narrative expands her life story, and other newly remembered stories have a larger space for expression and mapping.

Reliving a Childhood

Today Astra comes into the session more relaxed and spontaneous, with questions of her own.

“I’ve been on a childhood trip of sorts. I got out some of my old journals this past week, and I’ve been reading them. In times of crisis, I don’t write—like when my mother and father died,” she begins. Then she adds, “But now I can. Do you keep any journals?” she asks me.

I take the invitation. “It’s funny you should ask that because I am reading Anais Nin’s diaries and essays. In the introduction, she explains that her diaries and her later writing are like two communicating vessels, and that her diaries feed her later work. To answer your question, I use my journal writing as a way to nurture my mind and spirit. I think more in terms of patterns and clusters of ideas. I paste in symbols and images, things I don’t yet know the meaning of, but things I am drawn to. I add religious symbols from different cultures: Tibetan prayer wheels, Buddhist prayer flags, rosary beads, mezuzahs, hamsas, things like that. I think I’ve created my own missal of sorts. If you like, someday I’ll share some of them with you as we work together.”

Two-woman secret

“Well, that’s interesting. I’ve done a lot of writing in mine over the years. I have volumes of notes and drawings.”

“Maybe you wanted a shorter answer from me,” I say, testing my contribution.

Survival tools

“No. I was really interested in what you said. I was thinking as I looked over my journals, have I ever been happy for any sustained period of my life? I don’t think so. I have to endeavor to work really hard to make the glass half full. I’m beginning to wonder if I use pain as a way of measuring my strength?” She pauses reflectively. “I think my nature is to be a basically happy person, but you see, I think my nurture didn’t celebrate it.” Then dismissing herself much too quickly in a cute little child’s voice, she adds, “Ah, well, ah well, that’s me.”

What is it that Astra does here? She seems to negate her own serious thoughts with a trite voice that says, “I’m here, but don’t pay attention to me.”

She takes out her spiral notebook and starts reading to me. “You asked me to come up with some goals for my therapy. First, I need help with whether to try and stay at work or orchestrate my leaving. And, as part of this, how not to be victimized by the circumstances I created myself. Second, I don’t understand the depth of my reactions to all of this. It feels so deep. What is it all about? There are deep places I can’t seem to get to. Third, I think that I had an unhappy family, unhappy marriage, and unhappy work relationship. I have no joy or rapture in my life. So I want to understand what I have been doing to create it? Next... is that four? Am I using work as an excuse to avoid my personal life? That’s what I really think I’m doing.”


Then with that high-pitched voice, cute smile, and a big shrug of her shoulders, she says, “Ah well, there it is, that’s me.” This is not the cold, agitato, intruder voice of the first visit, but the other one again, that trivializes and almost negates the seriousness of what she has just said to me.

I decide to confront her. “What is it that you do with your voice here? It seems that often when you are talking intelligently and seriously about your own needs, you shift to this voice that cancels out or negates what you have just said.”

She begins crying. "I knew you would say that.”

“Please know that I’m not judging you, but I want to support your own needs and intelligence. We need to understand this voice, when and where it was born. Getting back to your goals, I think they are reasonable and wise.”


She hurries on with her own narrative. “I was like the doll in lots of people’s eyes. My mother used to call me her little pocketbook because she would take me everywhere with her, and to this day, I am not exactly sure why that was. The term bothers me.” She looks to me now for new data.

“What do you think about this?” she asks.

“Well, let me think. My first reaction is that a pocketbook is an object. It has no voice. It has no movement of its own. It sounds a lot like the way you felt as a child. Not listened to. Not noticed. No voice, just an object that was taken places. But I understand that your mother had at least one good reason for keeping you close by: your safety.

Doll, Pocketbook

“I’d like to learn more from you about how this bright and gifted child sustained herself. Did you feel you had a voice as a child?”

“Well, I did. I had more power over my parents than the rest.”

“Really? How did you use this power?” I ask Astra.

The child’s efforts

“In about fourth grade, I started intervening in my parents’ fights. First, I started writing notes. One night I put a note on my father’s desk. ‘Stop treating my mother this way or I’ll never speak to you again.’ Then, I actually physically intervened. I would just push them apart. That’s what I did.”

“Were you able to stop them?”

“Yes, they would actually stop fighting.”

Writing notes

Physical interference

“You know, even though you felt some power in that situation, parents are the ones who are supposed to monitor and help us to know what is appropriate behavior and to help us to know how to handle strong and difficult feelings. From what you’ve described, in your home you were trying to do the parenting part. The roles were reversed in your family, and your sister often had to parent and protect you. This is a big burden for someone just six years older than you.”

This new information I hope will help Astra reexamine and rename her experience. I continue with my teaching.

“All children have to learn what their place is in the family structure. As you’ve noted now over and over again, you were being asked to accommodate very frequently: moving often, keeping yourself level in your parents’ tumultuous marriage, trying to protect your mother, finding a zone of comfort from which you could function with periods of some reprieve and peacefulness. Lots of activity for a young child.

New information

What children need

“You got the idea as a young child that love was conditional. You didn’t have much opportunity to develop your own uniqueness and strengths, or to have your specialness validated. Your primary task was surviving emotionally as best you could. Your developing interests and needs were secondary. A kind of compromised person developed, ‘a persona,’ as the Greeks called it, a mask that’s worn. This has been at a great cost. You certainly tried to test yourself out, support your mother, challenge your father, fit in at all of these schools. The compromised child comes out of pain. What about a voice for yourself? Where was it?”

She begins crying. “I didn’t have a voice for myself. I never felt encouraged about anything.”

“So, to get your child needs met, you had to go into battle. You must have experienced terrible anxiety and helplessness.”

“Well, not exactly. I felt some power.”

“I understand that you felt some power in the situation you just described. Any young child would have had a rough time adjusting to so many changes of houses, schools, teachers, and peers. A child needs to feel that her basic needs have been met, to feel safe and secure, that her parents will be there to feed her, protect her, care for her with some consistency. The child needs to feel that her own body has been attended to, the basic rhythm of her own body noted—going to bed at a reasonable hour, for example. The child needs to feel listened to. Developmentally, your needs were not met, and your seizure disorder gave you a tremendous burden to handle at such a young age.”

A compromised person

“Well, I don’t know what’s normal,” she tells me pensively.

That one line of Astra’s, “I don’t know what’s normal,” carries much emotional weight, for it reflects the lack of information, both in terms of basic knowledge and the ability to deal with strong emotions, that many children from alcoholic homes have. What is reasonable? What am I entitled to? How do I do this? “I understand. That’s what I’m trying to help you with here. I’m giving you new information. What’s okay? What’s reasonable to ask for?”

“Well, there were two levels of culture in my house, the parents and the children. We were the props. We lived on witty sarcasm, you know. Can you pass the acid test? Can you take the sarcasm? There was scapegoating and cruelty, and the trick was to see if you had the ability to hide your pain. Nobody was ever real.”

“How did you feel toward your father?” I ask.

What’s normal?

“As a very young child, I knew he truly cared for me. You see, this was before I knew about his violence. At the time, his drinking wasn’t in my awareness. My recollections of my father were of him scooping me up or putting his face close to mine and saying, ‘You’re so cute I could eat you up with a spoon.’

“I remember there is a family story that was retold often when I was very young. My mother had to leave because of illness in her family. The story is that when she left, I was crawling, and when she came back, I was standing up. I understood this story to be a special family story and a special experience for my father.”

“And for the young child hearing it repeated. Am I right?”

“Yes.” She sighs. “But sometimes it’s so confusing.”

The core emotions of fear, hurt, anger, sadness, and loneliness of a young child in an abusive home are slowly becoming evident. But this strong willed, dispirited child has tried to break the rules of silence of most such homes. She questions her mother for answers and challenges her father about the unfairness of it all.


It is summer now. The south window is open. Someone is using a power mower under our windowsill, and our conversation is brought to a sudden halt. So much for the peace and quiet of a therapist’s office! We sit quietly and wait to regain our work space. Finally, the noise fades and Astra begins.

“I feel that thirteen years of my life are ended. I equate it with the time of my divorce. During the divorce, I remember I wailed and howled on the floor. The neighbors called the police. I wanted the wailing to make me unconscious. I just wanted to bring on a convulsion and check out. I can remember yelling and screaming on my stomach when I was very little. I had this terrible rage about not being noticed. No one paid attention to me,” Astra tells me. “I feel that is going on now too. I’m sad and my feelings don’t really matter to anyone. When I allow myself to care so much like this, I feel this terrible outrage and pain. I keep swinging between I don’t care about anything versus look at me, I’m a person, and it’s very painful. I like stable things and structure, and I like to be needed. I think I found this in the job, but [material deleted to protect privacy] difficult, like my father. I went from my divorce to [material deleted to protect privacy] work. The last two times you talked about a little child needing expression. That’s a radical new idea for me.”

Outrage and pain

A new idea for me

She begins crying. “I tried to be the brave, smart, funny, grown-up little girl to get their attention. The only time I could be authentic was when I was alone. I could never be authentic with consistency and acceptance. I have a lot of evidence in my life that I am not worthy of love. I thought I just wasn’t quick enough, that I was stupid. I tried to get even with a temper tantrum. They ignored me. I just wasn’t important enough. My family agenda was more important than going to school, like playing Scrabble with my mother on my school lunch hour. Can you imagine this? That always came first.”

The named and unnamed fears sit beside us now. The helplessness and hopelessness of the young child are evident. I make a decision to find out what other roles she played in this alcoholic family. What else did she actually do to lessen the tension in her chaotic household? Children in alcoholic homes often play out different scripts over and over again to reduce family tensions. But for now I stay with the emotions of the moment, to find out what this child did to deal with her pain.

Playing Scrabble with mother

"Astra, where did you hide yourself as a child? Did you pray? Did you speak to God? Do you remember what you did to sustain or soothe yourself? Did you have any special words or prayers that you repeated over and over? I am searching for how you, this sensitive and frightened child, responded to such pain and confusion. Do you know?"

There is a clear qualitative shift in her attention now as she looks beyond me. She has a glazed look in her eyes as she describes a scene from her childhood: “Yes. I was about 8. I remember I was alone ice skating. There was this large frozen stream with large bends in it, first left and then right. It was dark and mysterious. The pine tree boughs were bent low and frozen over right into the stream. It was very quiet and beautiful. Then, as I went around the last bend to the right, I suddenly saw a huge lake with many people, dazzling colors, and sunlight. It was a wonderful feeling of being in nature—a connectedness with beauty—a whole and peaceful feeling.”

Just at that very moment, sharp edged shadows created by the afternoon light become soft and subtle as the sun sets behind her. We both slip together again from ordinary time into Dream Time. We sit for a few silent moments bathed in the golden rays of a summer setting sun and the peaceful, unitive experience of a happy childhood memory. So I understand this is one way in which the child survived.

“That was such a beautiful place you brought me to,” I tell her. “I don’t know what you would have done if you weren’t such a gifted and imaginative child. You were a child who tried to protect a dream somewhere, to keep it safe. It’s as if you made a compact with your higher self to retain this sense of awe and wonder.”

What did you do?

“She listens, then wistfully and tearfully, she nods. “Beauty. I feel I’ve lost that. I think that’s why my home is so important to me. It’s a sanctuary, a place I don’t have to play a role. Do you understand this?”

“Yes, I do.”

We sit in the silence of Beauty appreciated now. I continue, “Can we go back to something that you said before about a period of your life being over and that you equate this time as similar to the time around your divorce? So in a real and some symbolic way, as well, the two periods have some things in common?”

“Yes, but I’m not sure what...”

I am curious and would explore this with her, but she moves on in to the landscape of her own map and needs.

Home: A sanctuary. Home visit?

“Do you know that I went to first grade in one school, second grade in another, third grade in another? I stayed back in fourth grade because I was sick a lot. Sixth grade in another school. Seventh, eighth and ninth, one school. Tenth, two different schools. Eleventh and twelfth, believe it or not, I did in one year at one school.”

“What happened to fifth grade?”

“I can’t remember. There’s so much I don’t remember.”

“How do you know this?” I ask her.

School movings

“Well um … because I feel these…” she swishes a bunch of words around in her mouth again, “…large holes of silence in me, that feel so awful.” Large heaves of sobs.

“Well, we may not have the words for all of these silences yet, but at least we have an image for them—a large hole. Can you tell me what you did as a child to adjust to all of these changes as a result of those frequent moves? How did you handle it? What did you do to fit in? This was an enormous burden for such a young child. And then I wonder too about your adolescent years. You were dealing with so much.”

Large holes of silence

Astra remembers. In the biological process of remembering, the one hundred billion or more nerve cells with their minute dendrites and axons in the brain respond to at least ten different volumes of sound produced by strong emotions. (Any musician knows there are more than ten, and any mother trying to get her child indoors for a bath and bed on a summer evening knows the volumes of sounds she needs to accomplish this task.) These messages are sent through neurotransmitters. Remarkably, the same cell firing can occur from that which is remembered without actually seeing. The brain stores and recalls these shorthand notations, called neurosignatures.

The fidgetiness and fear of the young female child is evident now as a memory sends Astra’s whole body into alert mode. Her dark brown eyes widen. Her pupils enlarge. The skin across her cheekbones is taut. Her inspirations and expirations are syncopated. Her body informs me and accompanies her words.

“By changing schools so often, I got into a whole routine of establishing myself with every new set of classmates. I had to figure out how I was going to fit in. And that took the shape of primarily deciding what I was going to be in this particular class with this particular set of people. I could be the artist, the writer, and the comic. I would observe the group and see what the competition was, or where I could fit in. And so, if there was one kid in the class who was the acknowledged artist, I might back off and be a reader or a writer because these kids had all gone through school together. Do you know what I mean?”

“…an image is formed in the brain when a certain constellation of nerve cells are activated. To recall an image, the brain reconstructs the constellation of activity that first occurred. Patterns of brain activation are stored and remembered: To revive a memory, the brain calls on the same actors—nerve cells, synapses, and circuits—that converged originally in viewing.

“Yes, so you did a lot of disciplined scanning and assessing where you could fit in that would not upset the balance of your peer group that was already established. Not threaten anyone. So you were constantly accommodating to others. Finding a place for yourself. Not an activity that you might be interested in or would have preferred, but what you thought could get you accepted into a new group?”

“Yes, that’s it, over and over again. That’s what I did.”

“You know, another child in your situation might have given up. It requires fortitude and intelligence to do this. Do you have any memories of who did nurture you in your childhood? Was there anyone else, any other adult, who loved you in your house? You must have drawn from whatever strengths you could muster up.”

She knows immediately. Her face is animated now. Happy. Anticipatory. “Yes, the black maids. There was a string of them. I remember especially our black maid, Liza. Liza was the one with the black dress and white apron. She was large, so warm, enveloping. She was older, with white hair and spectacles. She was very much a mother figure to me. Now Julia, the other maid, only came in the summer.” Her eyes widen. “She made the best iced tea on earth. I would stand there at the table and watch her. It had just the right amount of everything. It was and is the most perfect tea I have ever had.”

Survival tools

This pattern of brain activity needed to recall such an image is sometimes called a ‘neurosignature.’ All of our life events and emotions have neurosignatures, shorthand notations the brain stores and recalls. With notation upon notation…our brains and nervous systems entertain a constant dialogue that cultivates and maintains our life memories, emotions, personalities, even our ethics and morals. And because all of our lives are different, each of us has unique, unequivocally unique, neurosignatures.

“You know, I can almost taste Julia’s tea.”

In that happy moment, the young child, parched for lack of understanding and attention, is transformed through a summer tea into the loved, happy child of summer. As is true for many other middle-class white women I have worked with, the task of earthly love and nurturing is placed on the shoulders of poor black women. A more stabilizing and nurturing kitchen story sits side by side with the earlier violent one.

“It’s funny ... no one has ever asked me that question.”

“What question?”

“About who else might have nurtured me, who else was there.”

“Well, the origins of it come from a childhood experience of my own, and from my work here.” I tell Astra. “I want you to know that under my pale skin is a black soul. That soul started being born on a train headed south with my parents. I want to tell you a story.”

Tea and Love

How scientists believe it works

“The brain is an extraordinary switchboard with immense numbers of calls being transferred, connected, interpreted, and returned simultaneously. Nerve cells ‘fire’ or transmit messages to other nerve cells constantly, at rates of hundreds of messages per second. The cells come in microscopic, three-dimensional puzzle-piece shapes, with stringy extensions on the end called axons and dendrites.

I now drop myself into another state of consciousness: “When I was about 8 years old, my father’s mother gave us money so that we could take a two-week family trip to Florida. We went by train, and the trip took twenty-five hours. That trip was one of the most significant events of my early childhood. I was glued to the window seat. My eyes hungered for the excitement of anything I could learn or see from the train window. My parents could barely get me away long enough to eat the sandwiches they had brought.

“The train left Grand Central Station and went from the dark of the terminal and its long tunnel into the bright light of the day. For a long while, I saw apartment houses not much different from the one I lived in, although higher, more crowded, and in much worse condition. I noticed that the people were all black. I noticed there were no whites anywhere, not in the street or the stores or the houses. It was a simple observation.

“Soon the landscape changed, and my eyes took in many country sights unfamiliar to me... miles and miles of trees, dirt roads, rural homes. No more crowds of people, but people walking alone, in twos or threes, appearing to move more slowly. For the first time, from my train window, I was experiencing what the world was like outside of the life and movement of Greenwich Village and metropolitan New York City.

“I delighted in learning the names of states I had never heard of before and noting them in my new diary. As we headed into the late afternoon and night, I began to notice fewer white faces and more black faces, and then, as in a film in which the picture frames move more slowly and one notices with greater intensity, no white faces at all.

“As I watched minute after minute, a slow but very deep understanding came over me. All I was seeing were black people. All the black people were living close together. All of their homes were small and poor. Many children wore no shoes. As I looked into their homes, I realized the walls of the homes were covered with newspapers. Their houses were dimly lit, but I could see the same sparseness in each home—a table, some chairs and mattresses and some beds. Suddenly, I understood—with that mode of knowing before culture corrupts the innocence and perception of a child’s mind, when she is open to seeing things just as they are. The black people in my city and the black people in the country were all kept together! White people did not live among them! They were all very poor. Since the black people seemed very much poorer than the white people I knew, then the white people must have done this to the black people somehow! And I knew in the pit of my stomach, it was all wrong!

“Coming from a working-class family, I understood what living under crowded conditions was like. But that day I saw what real poverty, real sadness, real deprivation were like. Before we reached Florida, I understood something I had no words for: racism.

“When I heard someone in front of me whisper, ‘We are now passing the Mason Dixon line, and this is Jim Crow country,’ I did not make the connection between those statements and what I had just learned without any teacher. The train ride was the teacher.

Teaching story: train ride

The axon transmits messages to other nerve cells while dendrites receive the inputs from other axons. “Nerve cells are well-connected beings, able to communicate with between 1,000 and 6,000 other nerve cells, making about 100 trillion connections at any given time. But the axons do not deliver these messages personally, relying instead on a kind of chemical courier called a neurotransmitter. Axons emit these chemicals at synapses, junctures between dendrites and their neighboring nerve cell axons. Each nerve cell has between 1,000 and 500,000 synapses. Every thought you have, every move you make, every sensation and emotion you experience derives from these connections, from the trillions upon trillions of encounters between axons, neurotransmitters, and dendrites that occur every fraction of a second, every hour of the day as brain messages are formulated, sent, and received.

“More than 50 different neurotransmitters have so far been identified.

“Because the brain is ever-changing, we have the ability to rewire and modify those automatic reactions in a process sometimes called ‘cognitive restructuring.’ In fact, the very act of reading these words—processing, incorporating, and integrating their meaning—is forever changing your brain’s wiring.

“Before we reached Florida, and before I had any college-level courses in sociology or economics, I had seen and responded to someone else’s oppression and activated a deep sense of compassion within me. This event was one of the earliest constructs on which my views about the world and my core body of knowledge were built.” I sigh, remembering this childhood awareness.

She nods from a place of her own wisdom.

We sit for a while in the silence of oppressions, and our session ends.


September has always been a melancholy month for me and now even more so. September is the month of my birth, the time of the High Holy Days, and the month of my wedding anniversary. This September, after a chaotic scene in an otherwise quiet, but too rational and controlled household, my marriage of thirty years blows up. I must live alone and face my own personal crisis.

Places of wisdom and knowledge

Every new experience, every new fact entered into your brain changes its configuration and your awareness and understanding of who you were, who you are, and who you will be. Because of the brain’s intrinsic malleability, you have the opportunity to literally ‘change your mind.’”—Herbert Benson, Timeless Healing

Since Astra and my oldest daughter have somehow met and become close friends, I don’t know what the two women may have shared about me. I am deeply concerned that Astra will pick up my own undulating emotions and ensuing body sensations, since at this juncture in her own healing, she is sensitive to and intuitive of my thoughts and moods. If I allow myself to feel my own pain, as we work, I will be pulled under. As I struggle with these feelings, I think about how Virginia Woolf might have felt when she filled her pockets with stones and headed out in the River Ouse, hoping for a quick and strong undertow. When I feel somewhat stabilized and my pain is lessened, I decide to tell Astra in a few sentences about my current situation, believing that my own life experiences can enlarge her repertoire of possible narratives from which she can draw.

My own crisis lasts for about eight months and, at different points in our work together, I experience waves of sadness, disillusionment, and uncertainty about the future. The shards of my own life are now dumped on the shoreline at high tide along with Astra’s. So much for the "individual" lives of women.

Therapist’s pain

Virginia Woolf

Our work moves forward despite changes in the high tides and low tides of the therapist’s life. I seek help from a colleague regarding my own challenges.


“I want to get back to your sister today. What did you do when your sister wasn’t around? Were you anxious?”

Therapist gets help

“Oh, yeah. She got married when I was fourteen; I was furious. I hated the man she was going to marry, not because there was anything wrong with him, but because he was taking her away from me. I felt a tremendous betrayal. Hah! And that’s when I stopped talking.” Her voice and chest are puffed out. The child is feeling her power again.

“There I was in this big house with just my parents. My brothers were already gone. I tried everything to let them know how upset I was. Nothing worked. So I decided to try the silent treatment. It worked! They took me to a psychiatrist when I was 13. For a while I gave him the silent treatment too, but then I started talking. I got the Rorschach test and something about draw a man. I thought it was a gas. Then he wanted to figure out why the men were all facing away from me! Like I would tell him anything about the men in my life.”

With a triumphant voice, she continues: “Somehow, after that, things were better. My father watched his language. You know, in second grade, I knew every four-letter word there was. They made an effort to be civil to one another. They kept the sarcasm to a dull roar. And that all felt very powerful to me.”

“I can see that.” I smile.


How did this sensitive and bright young female child growing up in such a tumultuous household deal with frequent moves, relate to peers at school, experience her young, maturing body? What knowledge and wisdom has Astra learned about herself as a result of her seizure disorder? To her story I bring the piles of notes I have stored from my work with other children and adult women with seizure disorders.

Survival skills

“I had my first seizure in sixth grade at school,” Astra tells me.

“How did you deal with this?”

Sixth grade - first seizure

“Well, all of the children laughed at me. I thought, how would I go to school the next day? Then I realized that I could do three things—feel like shit, be embarrassed, or talk about it. Even though I was still embarrassed, I took the attitude that if you laugh at me, you’re the jerk, not me, and it worked! I remember vividly that night asking my mother about what was in this body of mine. I’d lift up my skin on my arm and, you know, pinch it and say, ‘Mommy, what is under this pink skin?’” She pulls up on the skin of her left forearm. “But no one wanted to talk about it. And my menstrual cycles, too. I got no information. Nothing.”

“So the bright sixth grader used her good mind to deal with what could have been a disastrous turning point. Instead, you fought back, took action. Is this accurate?” More empowerment.

Survival skills
“I hadn’t thought of myself as a fighter. I knew that I had a body that regularly betrayed me, from as far back as I can remember. You see, from third until sixth grade, I thought the betrayal wasn’t my body. I thought it was my mind and my self betraying me. Remember when I told you that my father used to say that the body is the temple of the soul. So I thought, well, I lived in this house, this temple, but the control of the house was a constant struggle.

My body betrayed me

“When I was 10 years old, my sexuality wasn’t up to my sensual body. I got the wrong attention from men for the wrong reasons. I felt very threatened. My father’s golfing partner and other friends.... Once one of them cornered me and my sister out on the porch. Another time, it was the parent of a child when I was babysitting.”

“You mean the father, don’t you? Not a parent, not the mother,” I clarify.

The risks of babysitting

“Oh yes, of course, the father.” She is silent for a moment, pensive. “Of course, the father. I had some not-so-pleasant experiences. I despised my body. I realized that I had powers that I was not comfortable wielding. I would think, I want you to pay attention to me the person, not my body. I started feeling there was something very wrong with me. I felt I got weird and suspect attention. I would try to cover my body with these big T-shirts. One summer I was so miserable, I spent the whole time in the hammock just to get away from people.”

“So to protect your psyche and your body from men, you had to stay away from all people, everyone. Right? Did you tell your parents about these ‘friends’ of your father’s?”

“I did, but they laughed it off.”

“That’s a familiar story here, both the event and the response, and, of course, it saddens me greatly.”

I despised my body
“Then, when I was 16 and being tutored at school, my French tutor decided he wanted to have an affair with me. That was kind of shocking. I was a virgin, you know, never been kissed. I decided that there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t involved with any boys my own age, but all these older men. I’m thinking, what’s wrong with me? I don’t have a boyfriend. I’m not like the other kids.... I knew that if I told anybody, not only would I be whisked out of the school, but he would be fired. I was protecting the French tutor.”

“Did you say protecting? You were protecting the French tutor?” Her narrative isn’t clear to me, and my own anger is growing, ladened with my own childhood memories.

Fighting the French tutor
“Yes, but I mean protecting me, because I didn’t want to leave the school. I felt I could handle it because this guy wasn’t ever trying to force me into anything, but it was uncomfortable and I needed to protect myself somehow. So you know what I did? I picked one of the boys at the tutoring school and made him into a boyfriend. Actually, we stayed together for two years of college. Then we got engaged, and of course, I broke off the engagement.” She puffs up again with a sense of her own power, then continues:

Survival skill

“You know, if my head had been where my body was, I might have welcomed their advances and thought it was exciting. As it was, I was scared to death. I remember having thoughts standing in front of the mirror, and I became aware of all this power I had—which is actually why I think I keep this extra weight now. Because I am tall, well proportioned, and when I’m not carrying this extra weight, I have a drop-dead figure. And when I was 15 or 16, this was causing me some awkward moments. The men would look at me and be thinking one thing, you know. It’s hard for me to conceive that so many of these men didn’t realize that a 16 year-old was a virgin. I mean, I wasn’t even making out in cars with boys my own age. I was really totally inexperienced.”

“I’m sitting here getting angry with what you’re describing,” I tell Astra. “What do you mean if my head had been where my body was? These experiences were not a reciprocal thing. It didn’t start out as two mature people enjoying each other. They took advantage of your age and inexperience. I don’t see the power coming from you. You were imposed upon—objectified.”

“I was a desirable object,” she tries to explain.

“By whose standards, yours?”

“Well, no.”

“I have to get back to this. You are fast to say that your own body is cursed in some way, being ahead of your head. Where is the curse here? Your body was growing at its own rate. It was the men who were out of sync, not you.”

“Well, I meant that I matured early.”

“It sounds like you blamed your maturing body and then that excused the men. That’s what I was hearing.”

“Oh, no. I was furious at the time,” she adds.

I refuse to let it drop. “Again I remind you, every child has the right to feel comfortable in her own body and to have the right to experience the pleasure of self-ma-.”

Body - 15 & 16 yrs old
In a moment of role reversal, the woman who has come for help says, “What’s the matter? You look troubled.”

“I was going to say the pleasure of self-mastery, but I can’t accept the master part of that word, especially when referring to a female child.”

Role reversal

“Well, let’s see. Maybe I can help. How about self-mistressy?”

We both crack up with laughter.

“These word problems are not so easy to solve,” she says.

I nod. “That’s right. It takes some thinking, doesn’t it? Getting back to what I was saying: Every child has the right to feel comfortable in her body and also to have the experience of pleasure in gaining the skills to cope with her environment. In your case, experiencing your growing body as a pleasurable event was diminished by these men older than yourself and compounded by the feeling of being out of control already with your seizure disorder.

“Parental acknowledgment and support and input from the environment help a child to achieve a sense of entitlement to experiences that feel good—to gain the self-confidence and pleasure in getting these necessary skills. Your environment, both at home and in the community, was hardly supportive and stable. In fact, it was dangerous for you. You had to protect yourself.”

Word problems

“You know, when I allow myself to examine all of this and to care so much again, I feel so much pain and outrage. It scares me to think about it—the significance of it all,” Astra says.

“I understand. I understand, and for me this is also painful because, in my practice, I have heard so much about predatory adult men in female children’s lives. It continues to overwhelm me with sadness. We should never be ‘therapized’ into forgetting our personal experiences. Never, because these experiences inform us greatly.” I decide not to tell her how well I know this.

Music and Seizures

Today, on my walk, the October lake mountains are full of reclining female forms, long and endless curving torsos, a firm breast here, a swollen belly there, buttocks against a knee, a full thigh, an extended leg. Patches of color lie above her silver blue lake. Swells of sunlight cross the mountains of her body, scooping out areas of darkness and mystery. Clouds touch the mountains and lie between the great forms. The mountains are washed with ribbons of sunlight. It is difficult for me to pull myself away from the lake today, but I bring back to the office the tones, forms, and colors of the lake.

Pain and outrage
Poignant stories emerge about Astra’s experiences with a seizure disorder. This week she is able to tell me more about how she experiences her seizures. “ Temporal lobe seizures affect the soul, you know.” Then in an almost reveried state, she adds, “Once when I was having a petit mal seizure, I thought, ‘God breathes in me and I disappear.’ There are a lot of altered states of consciousness going on during a temporal lobe seizure, you know. It’s like the unimpaired parts acting without the orchestra leader. It often felt like I could see ahead into the future. It was like death visited and went away again. Sometimes I have an image of digging my own grave.” She sighs deeply.

Altered states
"You know it’s funny, in the sixties, while other people my age were experimenting with drugs to induce altered states, I was having them all of the time. I was being medicated to stop this experience. The auras were like doing drugs. I can remember having out-of-body experiences and a number of times huddling naked in the corner of the room. I was so frightened.”

The sixties

At this point, I decide to share with her my own childhood experience that I call “cellobodyknowing,” hoping it will soothe her.

“I have another personal story to share with you. Are you ready? Music school was my second home from the time I was 8 years old until well into high school. I was a scholarship student at the Greenwich House Music School in New York City. Each week I paid my fifty cents, and I got a little white slip of paper in return, which I put in my cello case. For fifty cents, I got a weekly private cello lesson, a class in music theory, and a string ensemble class that filled my Saturdays. It entitled me also to a free cello, without which I could not have lessons. I didn’t know, until many years later, that this school was a well-known music school for gifted children.

“One of my earliest memories was being taken into the locked instrument room by my cello teacher and being fitted with a new cello that met the needs of my growing body. We made this journey for a quarter size cello, and when I got older a half size cello, a three-quarter size cello, and finally, a full-size cello. I did not know that I was in need of a larger instrument, but my teacher did. I remember the warm body scent and touch of my teacher’s breasts against my left shoulder as she leaned over to measure my fingers on the fingerboard. She would then stand away from me for a moment and examine the relationship of the new larger instrument to my overall body. Were my hands comfortable? How did the cello feel to me? Yes, it would feel a little bit strange and large at first, but I would grow into it fairly soon. When my teacher was satisfied about which size instrument it would be, she would then involve me in the final decision making. If there were a few cellos in the correct size, I would have the chance to play the instruments and pick out the one that sounded the best to my ear, or more likely the one whose color, smell, and patina I was drawn to.

“For me, the musty scent of the old instrument room, the muffled sounds of stringed instruments coming from the practice room upstairs, and the warm body scent of my teacher were the events or sacred markers celebrating the changes and special needs of my growing body.

“You see, an ordinary secular event, being fitted for a larger cello by my beloved music teacher, became for me a sacred event of great meaning, and my ’cellobodyknowing’ was a core source of knowledge for me.

“Now I know for sure that I heard and felt music through my abdomen and groins long before I was taught that ears were the primary sense organs for hearing. My earliest and most private sensations and conversations were with my cello. No one ever told me that hearing in that way was not in the natural order of things. What I call my cellobodyknowing was one of my deepest understandings about what is true, beautiful, and good.”

It is only much later in our work that Astra tells me she loves this story because she understands that I value other ways of knowing, other than what we were taught. She knows that I appreciate that she has other ways of experiencing through her body.

“Good, that’s what I intended,” I say with a smile.

“Today, can we get back to your business? I feel I don’t know enough yet to be of any help to you. First, how did [material deleted to protect privacy], and what do you need now from me?”

“Okay, I’d like to start a little before that. I was exercising near the lake one day, and I had this idea that would help women. I never expected that ten years later it would be so successful that a conglomerate would want to purchase it. I was surprised about the success of it all because I never started out with the idea that I wanted to climb the corporate ladder or make a lot of money. My motivating drive was about doing something that would make women’s lives easier, stemming from a deeper place that is not all that clear to me yet.”

Teaching story: cellobodyknowing

“So your success story of the American dream gave you the eventual economic security that many women hope for, but your idea was embedded in something larger?”

“Yes. To answer your question, when we first incorporated, after I invented this product for women, I had set things up so that … [material deleted to protect privacy] I had to get lawyers. It was awful. It took time and money, and then I had to buy the shares back, not at the original price, but at the current price. It was so unfair.”

“Beside being unfair, it was a terrible betrayal for you. A loss of something and someone you believed in and trusted.”

Something larger

“So my questions are, should I leave the business now that it has been sold to the conglomerate? It’s not my philosophy to go this corporate route, where the sole interest is in profit. I have a contract for one year, and the company will soon want to renew it. I just don’t know what to do. What do I want? The ‘shoulds’ of it. What would be right for me? [material deleted to protect privacy]

One Orienting Map

This week, my office schedule has been very heavy, and we have a late session. It is the time of the winter solstice. The full moon is very bright and very high in the night sky. The pine tree outside our window places a moving and lacy pattern in front of the white lunar disc. I turn the lamp down so that we get less of the artificial jaundiced light of the Edison bulb and more of the blue white lunar light. We are now, in this moment, not the woman who comes for help and the woman who acts as guide, but two women bathed in the same ancient light.

In this light, I decide to introduce some new concepts: “Are you up to a mini-lecture? I want to say a little about the various components of therapy, at least the way that I practice here. I was looking over our work together, and I realize that I have forgotten to go over one of my maps with you.”

“Sure. Go ahead.” She grabs her spiral notebook out of her purse.

“You don’t have to copy any of this because I’ll give you some cards I have made for you to take home that will have this information on them.” I pull over the large easel that I keep in the corner of our Inner Room.

Should I leave the business?

“I call this my A, B, C, S, R diagram. The way I see it, therapy here occurs at a number of different levels. First, the affective level. This level has to do with your emotions and feelings, what you say about what you are feeling, which feelings and emotions are evoked by which people, events, or memories, and why. The second is the behavioral level. This is about what you do about something, or how you act toward people or events, or what you do after you have new knowledge, or what behaviors you might choose in the future. Then the next is the cognitive level. This has to do with new information, new data, and new ideas that we bring to our work together. It might be something you read, or learn yourself, some new knowledge, or it might be something that I learn from you. It might be some reading I suggest to you. Broadly speaking, cognition pertains to our mental processes of perception, memory, judgment, and reasoning.

“Now we get to S. This is the spiritual and philosophical level. This is about our philosophical world view, our religion, our spiritual way of being in the world. Are you with me?” She takes a few moments to formulate her thoughts.

“Yes. This is interesting. I think that I covered some of these ideas in a graduate course I took with your colleague Betty. The course was about the creative process. Somehow in the course we got into the question of how do we know?”

“Good. Maybe Betty can join us at some point in our work together. Then we get to the R, the relationship of therapy itself, the experiencing of each other in this process together. The shape and direction our work takes will depend on what the two of us create together here, what you elicit and draw from me about my own thoughts, beliefs, expectations, meanings, life experiences, and what I draw from you in our dialogues together. The emotional component is important at this level as well as the faith we both have in the process.

“All of these levels of work are cradled or held within a female body, which, of course, houses your mind and all of your personal experiences. All of the work we do here takes place in a particular period of history and in a certain culture. I’m not saying this is a complete diagram at all, but I have found it useful in thinking broadly about our work here together. It also creates a more egalitarian way of working because now you have a better sense of my own map, I hope.”

Her mind is quick. “Are you saying that this diagram wouldn’t apply to men? Oh, but I can see right off that ‘he’ wouldn’t be housed in a ‘she’ body.”

“Sometimes, but not ordinarily!” I grin. “Let’s hold that question for now and see what your answer would be as our work together continues, if this is okay with you. I think that your own answer to that question is more important than mine.”

“Okay. I need to think about all of this.”

“Good. You may have some additional ideas of your own as we go on.” With this new joint negotiation, we move forward.


Over the next few months, I continue to learn from Astra what it takes to make a small creative idea grow into a large business. The strategies, the wisdom and planning required, the amount of energy and work and travel and late nights and speeches. I learn about the new corporate conglomerate that she sold her business to. But I also hear her hurt, betrayal, fatigue, felt invisibility, and abuse and see how much they are templates of her earlier life. I see how she has gone from a divorce into a changing business in which some people are equally abusive.

Astra is considering the economic ramifications of not renewing her one-year contract. I wonder whether I have the knowledge, wisdom, savvy, to be practical about her future financial needs and security over her lifetime. I have to be honest with Astra about my own ignorance, ask the questions I need to ask, and be educated by her so that I can be of help in supporting her in her own decision-making process. We discuss which big-time lawyers to use, how to keep her rights to founder status in the company.

Therapist’s learnings

I am a product of a marriage of the early fifties. Although I managed my own money before we were married, I experienced a hiatus of many years while raising our children, in which family funds were managed through my husband’s office and checkbook. Even when I returned to graduate school and full-time work, our finances were pooled, and the money I earned was deposited by my husband into our checking account. It was only after my own doctoral studies and the eventual opening of my practice that I began to understand the economics of women’s lives. I then seized back the right to manage my own money as I had before my husband and I were married. I have no idea what a woman living alone would need to support herself and provide for herself.

The fifties

As our therapy continues, it becomes clear to Astra and me that she should not stay on with the new conglomerate that has purchased her business, whose main motive is now profit. Nor should she stay in an environment that is so toxic to her health. We stay in a holding pattern. We are reluctant for her to leave her work until she has examined in what ways she allows other’s behavior and presence to ensnare her in the old pain.

However, the day finally does come when she is ready, happy, and eager to leave her business. I suggest that we visit her old office and have a celebration event. She is clearly delighted. She picks me up at my office, and we drive there together. This is the beginning of a number of activities that we engage in together outside my office because it is a ritual of importance, a special day in her life.

Her office building sits in a pastoral setting. It is more like a series of cottages than the large industry that it is. The buildings are done in this way to reflect a humanistic philosophy. As she takes me through the large warehouse and work areas, it is evident that her staff truly cares about her and that they relate to each other in an open and generous way.This field trip reinforces my belief about the idea of pushing the geography of therapy out into the community. Thus, therapy moves from the personal to the communal experience.


I continue to mentally sketch Astra’s life’s journey with an ever-expanding map. On a good day, if I am as finely tuned as I would like to be, I discern the various chronological voices seeking expression. These voices have different capacities and special learnings. The voices are sometimes in harmony, sometimes discordant.

Astra continues her ‘business’ narrative. “As I reflect back on things, I realize I felt trapped for years in the business. My life has been hampered by the business. I realize I have to throw away the baby with the water. I knew that if I didn’t sell the business, I would never have a life beyond it, but now here I was in this mess.”

“So, you were in a mess because of certain things you have set in motion for yourself to have a life for yourself. This mess is of some benefit to you then.” Again empowerment.

“I hadn’t thought of it that way.” She pauses, then begins again with the words of the recurrent theme of her early sessions with me. “I don’t have a husband, children, lots of friends, a good life. I’m a failure in my own eyes. Yesterday my robe caught fire when I was making a fire in the fireplace….”

“My God. What happened?”

“It was fluky, and it was funny from a distance. But again, see, there was no one there. This power of the witness....” Her voice trails off. “Then I said to myself, ‘Astra, this is typical of how you have conducted your life. There’s nobody here when you need them.’ I feel like a child who can’t make choices about conducting her life. As a child, I remember being really scared watching TV when someone was accused of being guilty when they weren’t. That’s how I felt, unfairly blamed.”

“Yes, but the young child didn’t have the words, knowledge, or insight to say this. It is only now that you can reflect back on this and try to make some meaning of it all. Then it was just terrifying to you.”

Community: office visit

The fearful life of the young child during these years is expressed now in a poem she has recently written. She unfolds it slowly, cautiously, lovingly, and hands it to me.

Dark violent nights,

I love you dear

Screaming fights,

You have nothing to fear

Fisted caresses,

You’re lovely in white

Bloodied dresses,

Such a pretty sight!

Hit again, again–

It’s alright,

I hate men.

Daddy loves you.

“You see, this was my experience. Do you understand it?” she asks me.

“The beauty of a poem or a work of art is that it speaks to us so directly. It speaks for itself. I think to summarize your poem takes away from what it is in the first place. It speaks from your heart to mine. Having said that, I’ll try.

“The left column looks like your direct experience of your mother’s abuse by your father, and the right side looks like the public persona, the lie they showed to others.”

“Yes. But do you see the next to last line? That’s me in the middle, between the private experiences and public voices. My voice. Do you see?”

“Yes, now I see it.” We sit now in the silence of childhood fears remembered.



“I want to get back to something we’ve talked about before," I say to Astra one day, "and that is your occasional glib, sarcastic voice. You use it right after you say something tender or serious. Why aren’t you taking your statements seriously enough? As soon as you say something tender or serious or profound or insightful, you negate it with this other voice. What is it you are doing? Can you tell me?”

“It’s the glibness that comes out of my anger and pain, I think. I’m sorry.” She begins sobbing.

“It’s nothing to be sorry about—just be kinder to yourself. You deserve it. I understand what you are saying here. The glibness covers the powerful feeling.”

“Did you know that my mother valued girls? She didn’t want sons. My father did nothing to help his sons. They were on their own,” she says when she stops sobbing.

I hypothesize, “You know, this is a perfect example of typical gender roles - that is, the girls being devalued and the boys valued - being confounded by family idiosyncrasies. In your family, the boys are put down and female children are valued by their mother, but all of the children in your family, and your mother, are locked in a submissive relationship with an abusive man.”

We sit again in another painful silence.



It is a warm spring day today. The rain on the south window of the Inner Room obliterates all boundaries. The sky dissolves into trees, trees into grass, grass into earth. I have a great love for this woman sitting before me. My ability to demonstrate my capacity to understand her helps Astra to move forward with her narrative. She has allowed me to hear her truth as she knows it. She is less imprisoned now in her memories of compromise and conformity for the sake of acceptance and love. Her gifts of mind, her courageous attempts to fight back for what she needed, are in the light of day now, and there is a witness to these retold events. This is what happens when a woman freely chooses to liberate herself in the presence of another woman committed to the same goal.

Conversation in therapy is different from ordinary conversation. Our life stories are told to different people for different purposes. As a therapist, I have a privileged position in hearing another woman’s life story. In the way in which I work, I have chosen to allow some of my own truths to be known to her in areas that seem to match her needs, because I believe that this is one of the significant ways that healing takes place for women. Familiarity with and knowledge about my own map journey add authenticity and validity to Astra’s life experiences.

As her therapist, I have been given a cultural authority over the decision about what events in her life are worth attending to and what alternative meanings she might possibly place on these events. Women’s therapists are, after all, culturally sanctioned interpreters of women’s life experiences and remembered stories. Therefore, I must be sure through whose eyes and for what purpose I spot a “good story” and for what reason I want to know more.


I have always been impressed with how women are able to navigate through different situations that can come up in our work as a result of living in a small and intimate community, and how well we two do this. We must have the ability to be aware of the rules and roles and patterns of behavior, which change, as relationships move from the professional domain to the personal domain, or the reverse.

Today, Astra wrestles with a dilemma as a result of her friendship with my daughter who lives in our community. We do not have the safe boundaries that women have in large cities, where a therapist may have a personal life in a suburb and a professional life in an office in Manhattan. This difference adds a rich dimension to our work and leads to deeper, more self-disclosing narratives.

“You and your daughter are the most important people in my life right now. I feel so loved and acknowledged by you both.” Crying, Astra muses, “It’s funny, I’ve been thinking how the same person can be one person’s therapist and another’s mother. That’s very interesting to me.”

“I know what you mean. I’m still the same human being in each situation, you know, the same human spirit.”

“I know.”

“But there’s at least one difference. You got to pick me!”

“And we have no personal history,” she postulates.

Daughters and therapy

“Right. But we are creating a history now. I remember writing in my journal one day shortly after I started my practice twenty-five years ago, that being a mother and being a therapist are similar. I wondered why I got paid for what I do now as a therapist and why I didn’t get paid for it then as a mother! I realized that a therapist’s skills are valued by the culture at large and a mother’s skills are not. As I began to think about this, I realized that in either case the core ingredients were love, hard work, and an awful lot of faith, ancient wisdom, and creativity.”

More experiences of her seizure disorder emerge. Yesterday afternoon she saw flashing geometric images in patterns of black and white and visited a place she couldn’t name. When she returned, she found a large floor plant overturned. That’s one of the ways she knows that she has had a grand mal seizure when she is alone.

“You know, I was snorkeling with a friend a few years ago, and I had a seizure in the water. If my friend hadn’t been there, I would have been a goner. You know, I worry about flying and getting a seizure.”

Teaching story: mother and therapist

Astra could be one of my daughters now. She is in my thoughts when she drives or takes a plane or when she is tired. I feel her loneliness even when she is not here in the office. I want to soothe her suffering, and I am very concerned about the lack of good medical care for her seizures, but she is not ready to meet with a neurologist.

Medical care?

“I know that you are afraid to lose your driver’s license, that if you tell the truth about your seizures, it will be taken away from you. What about going out of state? You’ll be freer to say what’s really going on, and you are not the first woman sitting in that chair to be concerned about this. Plenty of other women have the same fear that you have.”

Last week she had a petit mal seizure while talking to a large business group at a meeting in Georgia. She checked with one or two friends, who said they didn’t notice it. Years of “Googly eyes’” practice in controlling her eyes has paid off again.

“You know I wish I could find out more about the research about—I wish I could have an intelligent conversation with somebody about the research on seizures and hormones,” Astra tells me. “My past experiences have not been good. I was often overmedicated.”

“Well, I don’t really know who’s out there for you to see. I need to think about this. What I can say is this: I don’t know if you realize how little research has been done on women’s lives in all areas of research—sociology, psychology, anthropology, history, education, archaeology, the arts.

Facing the realities

“In the late sixties and early seventies some women who had been active during the Civil Rights movement came home and, with other women, started to do an analysis of oppression in their lives in consciousness-raising groups. They and other women started to question the places they studied or worked in: Where are the women in my field of study? Where are the works of their minds, the artifacts of their lives, their role in history, their works of art and music? These women and others out in the community started their own areas of research and study to address these absences and silences. Considerable new research is out there, but I am not sure about the research on seizure disorders and hormones.

“I was recently astounded to learn that the data for the Stressful Life Events scale—you know, the one that lists categories of stressors such as losing a job, buying a house, getting a divorce—that so many of us had been using for years in our work, was done on twenty-one-year-old white males in the navy! And more recently, I learned that most of the research done on post-traumatic stress disorder was done on male veterans. My profession has used these studies unilaterally for decades.”

“It would be interesting to see a woman’s list. I could sure make up one,” she smiles.

“I’m sure you could.”

The sixties

“Why were we left out?”

“Well, I can give you a few of the reasons. First, it was generally men doing the research, and women’s lives were not seen as worthy of study. Secondly, we complicated their research projects by the wonderful changes occurring in our bodies each month and by our pregnancies. Male researchers would have to factor in more components to their projects because of the richness of our biology and physiology. It was simpler to use men.”

“That’s mind-boggling. I can’t believe this.”

“Well, look for yourself. I have some materials out in our women’s studies library I can give you to read.”

Why were we left out?

Astra spends the next few weeks doing what I call a form of implosion therapy. Reading everything I have on the subject to blot out the old bits and fragments and strings of knowledge in her body and fill it with new knowledge.

She comes in a few weeks later, saying, “Well, maybe that’s why I can’t find any intelligent people to converse with.”

“Well, you may just have to push for the dialogue somewhere. You may have to start it yourself often. That’s what most of us have to do, you know.”


Today Astra is anxious to get back to one of our sessions in which I had introduced the concept of the inauthentic self. [A term that dates this period of therapy; a term I would not use today.]

Implosion therapy

“So, not to make waves and to be accepted,” she reflects, “that’s what I did. Cloaking my true feelings and putting on different personas. I see that it started way back. In my family, trying to figure out how I was going to fit into these different social groups when everyone was bigger, more powerful, and got their own way. I was like the doll in lots of people’s eyes. I see now that the outer protection really does serve a purpose. I had forgotten that there were personas. I need to be more conscious of what I’m doing.”

“Yes, it’s hard to know your true essence when so many times your response came out of pain or as a protection.”

“I learned to let go of my feelings because that’s how I got hurt. I learned to separate instead of being all there. I became discriminating.”

Survival skills

I expand the narrative by examining her choice of words: “What do you mean by discriminating? Can you be more concrete?”

“I chose what I would put out and what I wouldn’t. I learned that I could cloak my behaviors. I can choose what other people see of me and not be there. I did that all the time. As I re-examine it, I see what I did.

“When I look over my childhood dreams, I realize now that there was a lot of dread. I dream houses all the time. Houses are personal markers for me. And another thing: I think it would be interesting to probe my relationships with women. I always thought that womanhood was a special club, you know—me, my sister, and my mother—and that men were the outsiders. I thought about what you said last time. What is this power that my business partner has over me? I see now that I am always scanning my business partner, but I don’t know why.”

Word: discriminating

“Scanning. That’s a good choice of words because it’s what frightened children do.” I add, “Adult women often need to do this too—but let’s stay with the child. Children who don’t feel much protection from their parents keep checking things out, scanning for signs. Is it safe? If it’s not, where do I go? How do I make it safe? Is there anyone here to help? That’s what young children do in a household like the one you grew up in. It’s of interest to me that as an adult you did that with your business partner, this same scanning. What has she set off in you that feels so violent, and what is it you want from her?”

“I don’t know. I need to think about this. I was at a meeting the other night, and I thought, when my life is over, who is going to know the person I am today? Maybe they will only see the drudgery, the achievement, and the glitz. What will people say of me when I am gone?”

“How about you enjoying your stay on this earth now? I like the saying that God is present whether welcomed in or not.”

“But I feel like a failure. So I built this business and have some money, but the process and the product don’t make me feel fulfilled.”

“I understand that. You have adult needs, human needs for intimacy, companionship, and reciprocity,” I say.

“The way I figure it, there are three areas in which you can get acknowledgment: your friends, your family, and lovers or mates. I have no family, no friends, and no love.”

“Wait a minute! What about your acknowledgment of yourself? And what about your friends and colleagues at work?”

She sobs. “I knew you would say that.”

“It’s only because I care about you, and I know your deep capacity for joy.”

“I believe expectations are the root of all the evil and unhappiness there is, rather than the ‘isms’ of things. I’m not doing anything. Am I withdrawing from the world? I’m feeling in limbo. I say to myself, You won’t meet a man sitting on your deck! I’m getting too comfortable by myself.”

“I thought I’d never hear that—getting comfortable with yourself.”

She’s feeling lost and lonely again, disoriented as she re-experiences some of her childhood pain, and she questions what she’s doing.


“Look, you learned that reaching out for anything would bring you unhappiness—but together we can place a new thought in between the reaching out and the expected pain, in between the stimulus, your thought, and the response to your pain. If you can, just continue sitting on your deck. Stay with this openness to everything. That’s not an option the young child had, but you have it now as an adult woman.”


Stimulus / thought / response

Today Astra is back to the deep, sad, basso continuo voice and theme of her first month of work, but she moves forward with it. “There are no witnesses to my life. No parents, no lovers, no business.” She rocks her adult body, soothing the rejected and hurt child within. "So now there’s [my business partner]. That’s all there is, and she doesn’t really care.” She is sobbing. “You remember I said the two main women in my life were victims—my mother and my sister? I have no role models other than my business partner, who [edited to maintain privacy]. What would a good marriage or relationship be? I don’t think I really know.”

“Where does Adam fit in here? Isn’t he living with you?”

“Well, he’s there, and he’s not there. When I ask for things, he doesn’t give them to me. He takes off for skiing and doesn’t invite me. I don’t seem to be able to reach him. He’s not there for me.”

I push the narrative forward. “Maybe he’s there only for himself. He doesn’t seem to be giving you much of anything from what I’ve heard, except a kind of creature presence. Why do you allow him to stay? He seems to be giving you so little.”

I have no role models

“Well, you don’t realize that he is much better than anyone before him. I mean, compared to some of the other men in my life. I have been in a number of relationships, in particular one with this guy, Bill. I almost hate to think about it now.”

Other men

She goes to a cold territory now and speaks from this place: “He was possessive. He had a terrible temper. He would stalk me, arrive at my house unexpectedly. I was really in danger with him around. You see, I don’t know the balance being with men, when to be authentic and when to be careful.”

Her shoulders rise and meet her ears now. The memory brings a momentary chill and tremor. The branches of the pine tree outside flail wildly and scrape and rattle the south window. The natural environment matches our joint rage.

Abusive men

I lean over and anchor her with a touch on her clasped hand. “You know, there is a difference between loneliness and being alone. I was reading Hannah Arendt last night. She wrote that thinking is a solitary activity, but not a lonely one. She said that solitude is the human condition in which we keep ourselves company. Think about that, keeping ourselves company. That should be a rich experience, keeping yourself company—someone with your gifts and imagination.”

Hannah Arendt

I pause. “Can you learn to live with some ambiguity now, the confusion about what you’re feeling and what you might do next? Do you know the Buddhist term samadhi ? It’s a state of tranquility, of peacefulness when a person goes about her business of the day, but remains above everything, observes everything. It’s a matter of observing life in a new and different way and staying open to possibilities. By the way, just a reminder, you do have a witness to your life.”

She cries. “I know that.”

Word: Samadhi

"You know, I think there are people in our lives who either give us energy or take energy from us. I think it’s very important for us to monitor this in the people we let into our lives—to pay attention to this. We need to pay attention to our body responses to different people. It makes a difference in whether we stay well or get sick. I’m still concerned about your schedule. I’m sure that your fatigue is not helping your seizures.”

She agrees and says that she expects things to slow down soon and promises to make some effort toward this. Today I have loaded her arms with some more good reading. On her way out she borrows some quartz crystals from the Divination Table in the outer room.


A Divination Table

The Divination Table is a special place in my office. It is a place that has evolved out of need and a desire to share. Clay Goddess figures from different periods of history, sea shells, nuts, smooth stones with markings and small holes, acorns and pine cones, handmade drums and tambourines, small bells and chimes, rattles made out of gourds, handmade masks, small pieces of driftwood with ancient heiroglypic markings, fresh fruit and other snacks for the palate—women give, take, lend, borrow, and speak with other with these rich offerings.

It is a month later. Astra comes back after a week of vacation, excited. She has tanned skin, rosy cheeks; she’s wearing khaki shorts. She plops down in her chair. The book-based implosion therapy has worked. She reads to me from one of the books about women and mental health because it reflects her experience with one of her former business associates.

“Look, this is the situation I found myself in!” She flips a few pages of her book. “Here it is! ‘Women in positions of power who conscript other women to accept dependent relationships and inferior status as part of womanhood. These women see this dependent relationship as a virtue rather than a problem to be solved, as a way to prove to herself the correctness of her beliefs and behaviors, and to establish the approval of her power system superiors. There is a self-hating person concealed within a saint’s demeanor. Humiliation, inculcation and retribution are doled out to those women who don’t go along with the system. She conscripts new believers into an oppressive system. (1985)’

Mary Ballou
Nancy Gablac

“This was exactly my experience. I had this dream about how women would work together, you know, be there for each other, support each other.”

“A Utopia ?” I ask.

“Yes, but why a Utopia? Why can’t it be that way now?”

I had this dream

“Do you know the Latin word adequatio?” I ask her.


“A person has to be ‘adequate’ to an event. Not everyone is capable of being in this place with you. We have talked in the past about overlays of experience. Just think of the power [material deleted to protect privacy] has over you if you are expecting her to make up for all the injustices you experienced as a child. I share your world view and try to live my life that way myself, but not everyone is there in that place. Not all women have your level of consciousness, have done the kind of critical thinking that you are doing here. Not all women have an understanding about their business philosophy or stance at work and how it affects other human beings.”

I know her better now. There is a great fullness to Astra. An expansiveness. Everything is writ large: Her pains. Her joys. The problem is that she often cannot separate the two emotions. They are locked together in her history, her old first learnings of “Joypain.” Her passions, like the ocean that she loves, have their high and low tides.

Archaeological Digs

The following week she comes in like a happy child, telling Mother, “You’ll be proud of me. This past weekend I just stayed home. I didn’t dress. I just read the New York Times. I watched TV. I realized I was tired. I just hung out.”

The implosion therapy continues. She pulls out her notebook and reads to me. “Listen to this by Charlene Spretnak : “It seems that the origin of goddess spirituality in the upper Paleolithic era lay in the power of real women, which was mundane and awesome…. Paternity was not recognized and the elemental power of the female was expressed as the original deity, the Great Mother, worshipped as the source of life.’

Word: adequatio

“I can’t stop reading! I have also been looking at the images of older women in the mythologies of the pre-Christian and oriental cultures, the Trinity of Original Trinity—the Virgin, the Mother, and the Crone. Maybe you know about this? This awesome power and privilege that older women had and how currently the Wise Crone has been replaced with the Old Witch. I see how this is a problem for older women today. In the matriarchal cultures, an aging woman functioned as a healer, teacher, and priestess. As the Crone, she was the most powerful entity in the original Trinity. Then she was displaced and transformed into the debased image of the hag, witch, and evildoer.”

“Yes. If you get a chance, read the work of Barbara Walker. According to her, the aging, older woman, the Crone, has been separated from the whole life cycle of a woman’s life. She is placed in a special derogatory category. Her power has been taken away. And, don’t forget, it’s not only in myths and fairy tales. Just go to any video store, or watch some TV ads for a while, or cable TV. You will see the maligning and trivializing of older women, who are only important in the sense that they are a market for someone’s products—anti-aging creams and laxatives.”

Astra adds to my list. “Or as buyers of products for their grandchildren.”

Words: Wise Crone or Old Witch?

“Yes. The power and harm of a stereotype is what has been left out. They are dangerous half truths.”

“You mean what isn’t shown, not there.”


The power and harm of stereotypes

“What strikes me, too, is that we never talk about the older woman as having any wisdom that the culture might benefit from. What would a Crone’s wisdom be?”

“Well, it would depend on the older woman, wouldn’t it?”

“That’s it. That’s what I want. I want to get in touch with my Croneness. To bring it forth in me.”

The hour is up, but not our subversive underground activity.



Today one of the books Astra has borrowed is by Marija Gimbutas, an archaeologist whose book is a record of the ways in which the mysteries of the Great Goddess were celebrated and experienced as the whole earth and as female. Gimbutas’s monumental study of the Old European Great Goddess culture covers the period from 7000 to 3599 B.C.

Astra clings to the oversized black book on her lap as if someone might take it from her. She is totally immersed now in reading about a previously undocumented archaeology and mythology. “I have been staying up late and winding, meandering, and circling my way through underground passageways painted red ochre—you know, the color of life.

Marija Gimbutas

“And these ancient labyrinths. Did you know that these labyrinths served as dance floors and ritual places? These earth works are made in the forms of a living woman, as a female body, but also as the mysteries of the earth herself.”

She is fascinated by the repetition of symbolic associations on the pottery, figurines, and other objects, which are more than geometric motifs. “This book reads like a glossary of the metaphysical. I love the serpentine forms of the energy symbols of motion and torsion. Did you know the winding snake with fourteen to seventeen turnings denotes the waxing moon? And the ones with twenty-nine to thirty turnings symbolized the days of the moon cycle? And look at all of these other wonderful forms.” She gets up and kneels beside my chair and shows me the marked-off pages. “The V of the vulva form, the double V or zigzag, that is, the magic of doubles, the circle, the double circle of female breasts. See? And the center point, the omphalos, the navel of the earth.

“And I read in another book that our menstrual periods are moon-determined and therefore related to the earth’s magnetic energies and to the ocean tides. Did you know that? Why don’t we all menstruate at the same time now?”

“Well, because our wonderful bodies are confused by the amount of artificial lights we are all exposed to—street lights, bedside lights, television lights, to name a few. I have heard that young women who live together in boarding schools often menstruate at the same time, but I haven’t come across any documentation of this.”

Astra continues her exploration. The new and relevant knowledge and imageries move her along into other dimensions of understanding.


Today, on her own archaeological book dig, she comes in wide-eyed, hair wet from her shower, and sits at the very edge of her seat.


An "assembly" of Snake Goddesses found in a vase, probably ready to be places
on an alter and used for the
re-enactment of rites. North East Romania c.4800-4600.

“I just had this astounding revelation that the standard textbook in art history that we used in my undergrad program did not include even one woman! That is mind-boggling to me.”

“Yes. And most of what has been interpreted about art until recently has been through men’s eyes, not women’s.”

“Yeah, and I’ll bet they owned the printing presses, too. This is overwhelming.”

“One of my problems as a therapist is that a woman comes in already stressed about certain things in her life. Then, at some point, I introduce new materials and ideas like the works you are reading. On the one hand, she is joyous, as you are about what she has learned, but at the same time she gets stressed with the realization of what we have lost, the overwhelming sadness of it all. What do you think?”

Art - through whose eyes?

“Well, I think that perhaps the absence of this material is part of what brings her here in the first place. I think we need our own female iconography. What would it be like, I wonder? It seems that our history has been taken away from us—obliterated, buried from our psyches. Someone is afraid of what we will learn, or of the accumulated power and knowledge of the women before us.”

I add, “Or the power of us speaking with each other profoundly in the present about that past.”

Female iconography

Women’s therapy and archaeology have much in common. We both work on what can be either recovered or imagined. In our therapy process, Astra is in search of meaning for what has been lost, what can be recovered, and what can be imagined. The activity is both exhausting and enriching.


Lost, recovered, imagined

The introduction of new information and permission to examine her own life and to consider the possibility of getting her own needs met creates its own energy, but the transition is met with tremendous anxiety. Her body memory of the old historical pain returns again.

“I am feeling so anxious and apathetic, I can’t stand it.”

Denial, a survival coping mechanism for the young child, no longer works. The closer we get to the painful events, the more she would like to change the topic.

The examination of her life, the re-experiencing of the confusion, the often muddled behavior of the young child in an alcoholic home, and the inability to act in a way that makes a difference bring back her sense of helplessness and hopelessness. The pain associated with all of this brings a quick response.

The old intense grief, anger, and sadness of the child and resulting confusion come up at unexpected times. She reports that, for no apparent reason, TV, movies, books will start her sobbing.

Now in our sessions, her narrative becomes somewhat fragmented and disorganized as she struggles with the memory of the original traumas. The old fears present themselves as a shortened attention span and a changed tempo and tone.

Body memory

Astra now has to fight off her older history of ‘going numb,’ of turning off her feelings. Sometimes she digs in and shuts down as any young child would do to protect herself from any overwhelming event. I have to balance giving her the cognitive information she needs with staying with her and supporting her at her emotional level.

“You learned to survive the emotional trauma, but that trauma was not adequately soothed or resolved. I’m sure you already know from experience that in an alcoholic home disorganization is a frequent experience.

“Do you see that the closer we get to talking about the painful events of your childhood, the more you are wanting to stop or change the topic as you get more anxious and scared? The more we talk, the more you start experiencing the emotional impact of the remembered events. One of the ways that a young child deals with painful experiences similar to yours is to mask the trauma with confused thinking. Showing your real feelings and speaking family secrets were not okay in your family.

Going numb

“As your wonderful mind remembers and as we examine the events of your life and enter the disorganized, confused, and lonely places and bring love and new knowledge to them, this deconstruction process at first feels frightening and unfamiliar. It’s like entering a chamber of horrors, and staying long enough to conquer your fears. You see, it’s not only about filling in the memory gaps. We actually go to that place together and take on the fears together.

“What does it feel like to not be trapped? To be protected? To be soothed? To be your real self? There is that moment, that gap, when we are sort of suspended, not knowing what may be coming next. I believe that it is an act of faith, staying in that space long enough to perhaps experience something new and wonderful.”

Filling in the memory gaps, staying with her as her friend and loving ally through the denials, supporting and encouraging her through the hopelessness and helplessness and beyond, bring forward the resilience and courage of the gifted, bright child.

Taking on fears together

“Getting back to your word apathetic at the beginning of the session: You have to pay attention to how you label your experience, because when you’re all done here, that will make all the difference in your life. We can get caught up in using words that really limit our movement forward.”

Word: apathetic

Its my turn to read to her: “Toni Morrison wrote her book The Bluest Eye after a period of depression. In an interview, she said:

‘…but the words “lonely, depressed, melancholy” dont really mean the obvious. They simply represent a different state. Its an unbusy state, when I am more aware of myself than of others. The best words for making that state clear to other people are those words. Its not necessarily an unhappy feeling; its just a different one. I think now I know better what that state is. Sometimes when Im in mourning, for example, after my father died, theres a period when Im not fighting day-to-day battles, a period when I cant fight or dont fight, and I am very passive, like a vessel. When Im in this state, I can hear things. As long as Im busy doing what Im supposed to be doing, what I must do, I dont hear anything; there isnt anything there. This sensibility occurred when I was lonely or depressed or melancholy or idle or emotionally exhausted. I would think I was at my nadir, but it was then that I was in a position to hear something. Ideas can’t come to me while Im preoccupied. This is what I meant when I said I was in a state that was not busy, not productive or engaged…. It was that I was unengaged, and in that situation of disengagement with the day-to-day rush, something positive happened. Ive never had sense enough to deliberately put myself in a situation like that before. At that time I had to be put into it. Now I know how to bring it about without going through the actual event.’

Toni Morrison

“Can you imagine disengagement as opportunity rather than apathy?” I ask Astra.

“Who said that?”

“Toni Morrison, in Black Women Writers at Work.”

“I’d like a copy of that.”

“You might think of this time youre calling apathetic as the second stage of the creative process. First there is the preparation, knowing all you can about the subject at hand, reading, talking, researching, defining the problem, but then there is a time when nothing seems to be happening. But actually things are brewing at some other level, an incubation of sorts, things brewing in a cauldron.”

“Everything in my life is hollow. There is no great lust that I have. Youd think it would be a recipe for contentment. I have this big overlay—such a sense of why and who I am. The time and place I was born into. The spoiled deteriorating consumerism. Im a product of that time. A neurotic angst. Ive been cut off from what’s more basic. What action must I take? I think it’s a naive pessimism—a defeatist attitude, actually. The fear of there being no future, just cement that hardens. It would take an earth shattering experience to change that for me.”

“Do you feel you would be lazy if left to your own devices—that nothing would ever change? That you’d be stuck? Is that it?”

“If I were a river, Id be the flotsam. Im feeling like a frightened child with no boundaries. When I think of the amount of power I had as a child—in a certain sense, I could do whatever I wanted to do.”

“Yes, but whatever you were doing, you felt that no one was taking you seriously. Does it feel dangerous for you to be out there on your own? Do you need to put some boundaries around something? Are you feeling too diffuse?”

Word: disengagement or apathy?

“I have the fantasy of going off and having a simpler life—a peaceful and spiritual life. Society says it’s not okay to tend your own garden. I want to either change the message, or experience the joy of my life,: she reflects.

“There is no society in here, you know, except of free women. We each have to find our own way of being in the world and then maybe...”

Her tears flow. “I know.”

I have this fantasy

“Look, as I see it, at some point we have to make a major decision in our lives. Do we go along with the consensus reality that has already named us—all of the people in our lives who try to limit us, our dictionaries that help to name us, the fashion and beauty industry that distorts and chops up our bodies into mannequin shapes…anything that has been constructed for us by others? All of the quick fixes. Or do we decide on our own way of being in the world? On what terms do we want to be here? Yet there is no clear path. If we look carefully, other women before us have left us some markers, but often we have to lay down the first pebbles and create the path.”

Today she leaves with another book or two.


We create the path

Astra’s independent reading moves her forward. She pulls out her notebook. She speaks, I listen. “In this article by Jean Baker Miller you gave me a few weeks ago, I read something really good about what we were talking about. I can’t wait to read it to you. Here it is:

‘When a person’s yearnings for connection are met with sustained and chronic rejections, humiliations and violations, then the yearnings become even more intensified. At the same time these yearnings are experienced as dangerous. The person then tries to connect in the only relationship available but does so by keeping more and more of herself out of relationship. She tries to protect against further woundings and rejections by not representing herself authentically; rather she alters herself to fit with what she believes are the wishes and expectations of others. These inauthentic expressions become ways of distancing from others, hiding her vulnerabilities and deep longings for connection.’”

“You see. That’s it. That’s me. I didn’t only do this childhood scanning. This paragraph describes me now, as an adult. It’s such a comfort to see that another person understands this and that it happens to other women.”

Jean Baker Miller

Astra sits down, and as I open my mouth to greet her, she anticipates my interruption. “I want to start today.” There is a surge of positive energy as she reaches in her large purse for a book, and then flips open her notebook. I see from the covers that she is reading my well-worn copies of Language, Gender, and Professional Writing and A Feminist Dictionary . “You know I’ve just been thinking about my mother again and her playing Scrabble with me – you know, I think I have a real interest in words. And I see that you focus on certain words with me. You ask me to pay attention to them, or re-examine them, as you have said. Well, I have been reading about dictionaries—what they do, how they are put together. And I just started reading this feminist dictionary. Did you know that dictionary means word book?”

No, I didn’t. “I too am interested in dictionaries because it is one of the first places that an elementary school child starts to look for what words mean.” I say. “Of course, the child has already learned a great deal about how to use language, before she ever goes to the dictionary. How does this child’s early search for the meaning of a new word affect her as a female child?”

Her mood rides high now on her new learnings. “This whole idea that dictionaries are not neutral and that dictionaries construct and create usage and that this usage occurs within a complex system and–”

I can’t keep quiet and just listen, of course, because I too am excited by what she has read. “Yes, dictionaries, like maps, occur within a culture, and of course there are all kinds of dictionaries, promoting certain words and interests and meanings. I assume for now we are talking about the standard dictionary where most of us go to look up a word, not the specialized ones.”

“Yes.” She nods.

Our voices are more contrapuntal now, interweaving together our own knowledge and excitement. She leads again. “And the whole idea that dictionary definitions are not simply reflections of what is, of a neutral culture that we are just looking out at—but are actually mirroring the values and beliefs about what the culture should be. The process of picking and deciding whose words really matter is a process through which meanings are authorized, or legitimized as real words, sounds pretty complex and also deceptive.”

She continues teaching me from her notes. “One criteria for the legitimization of a word for inclusion in a dictionary is the number of times it is found in print. It seems that men’s words are far more likely to appear in mainstream publications. These editors claim that they collect words and definitions from many sources, but actually their criteria and procedures of identification and preservation nearly always preclude gathering women’s definitions. Few dictionary editors have regular access to print media where women’s words would be in use, such as women’s periodicals, or where non-standardized meanings would be more common—such as feminist periodicals.”

“Yes.” I add. “So we can both see that few women are in a position to authorize their own words and definitions.”

She continues. “This one woman writes—where is it here? She searches through one of the books on her lap, “Oh yes, here.” She writes this,

“Dictionaries have generally excluded any sense of women as speakers, as linguistic innovators, or as definers of words.”

“And of course,” I add, “various male biases are often introduced by valuing the public world over the private world.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Different selection processes may work to introduce male bias by valuing the public over the private, like battles, over traditionally female interests which could include sewing and cooking. It has traditionally been the public world of politics, work, and commerce that has seemed to require authorization and community consensus on meaning—as opposed to private activities such as housekeeping and childcare in which many women are involved.”

“That’s interesting. And I read that the clitoris has been sometimes defined in dictionaries as a failed or vestigial penis! Can you believe that?”

“In this area, I can believe almost anything. Hopefully this has been corrected.” She reacts to the weight of my own concerns.

“But from what I am reading, it is changing.”

“Yes. But never enough for me.” I sigh. “Astra, just think what your mother started when she played Scrabble with you!”

“Yes. I am beginning to think about this a lot now. It seems that every word has a history and a story to tell.”

Paula A. Treichler
Chris Kramarae

Mother and Scrabble, story two

“Yes, I like the way you worded that! And I would add to what you just said, “And to whom is it telling its story, and for what purpose?”


It is summer. I establish myself at my summer shore. My journal writing at the lake keeps me centered in the moment. It slows me down to one moment, and another moment, and another moment, and then another until I am mindful. When I was younger, I used to see the beautiful shells on the shoreline as fragments of myself and fill my pockets with them to carry home. Now at 63 I am able to leave them on the shore, although I still find it painful to hear them fracture under the weight of my body.

Today Astra comes in excited. She cannot wait to tell me something. She is radiant, centered, in charge.

Whose story or for what purpose?

“I had this beautiful dream about you. It was mystical, warm, comfortable, creative, and magical, sort of all in one. There is a moving vehicle. I have this feeling that I was adopted by you. The sky is glowing—full of stars—a golden color. I say, ‘Oh, look at the shooting stars. The dream had what I would call the Judith essence. And there was a message embedded in the dream. You have to really open up, and when you don’t look for it, youll see it.”

This dream is followed by another a few weeks later:

“I had a dream about this raging Amazon woman, me. You pulled me out of the water. Im on the banks in the jungle. I asked you, ‘How are you going to get home? You responded, ‘I dont know how. There is no guide with the answers. But I said, ‘You know the jungle better than I do.

We both laugh at the joy of the dream and the pleasure of our journey together.

Two dreams

At the next session, she has a new energy. “Everything is flowing in me,” she reports. She is the wide-eyed, happy, anticipatory child. As she dares to allow herself to dream a future, all of her old admonitions return. These are not just statements in her head, like maybe I can be an artist, maybe I can really be loved, maybe I can ask for some things for myself. In that very moment of allowing herself to think about the possibilities of reaching out for a new life for herself, the images and scenes of childhood wash across her body and produce the very same biochemical reactions of her childhood. It is not only her brain that remembers. Her entire body remembers. Memory is stored everywhere. Thinking occurs in and through her body, everywhere, simultaneously. But the experience of my caring for her is also in those same cells now. Her wise and hungry mind has received this information, and she must act on the basis of it.

As a result of these healing dreams, Astra remembers a story about her mother. Amidst her mother’s pain and suffering, she managed to nurture in her sensitive, gifted child a sense of awe and wonder and the beginning of a pantheistic world view.

Everything is flowing in me

“I think that my belief in magic was from nature, the sound of the wind, the scent and color of the flowers, the smell of the water, the sunlight on the trees, it all got mixed up with God—and even though my mother didn’t believe in organized religion, she would often say that God was up there. When I think of magic—how things got created—I think of the mystery of it all. I associate magic with mystery. Look at how gorgeous the trees and wildflowers were. I thought there must be elves and fairies. You know, I realize now it was my mother who brought that out in me.”

The two Judith essence dreams continue to evoke a different kind of mother story at our next session. The mother who cannot leave her marriage, the mother who is beaten and bloodied, has given Astra the verbal foundation to create another secret subtext to her own life story.

Another mother story

“I would write all these things in a notebook, and my mother would read it. Can you believe this? She played Scrabble with me when I came home for lunch. I don’t think too many school children experienced that Scrabble at lunchtime. My mother instilled in me what I call ‘word snobbery’; she called my attention to the specialness of the words I used. I choose words carefully and often through her eyes.”

This woman sitting before me now is able to taste her own freedom through the tongue of her mother so long silenced.

She reminisces, “You know, every summer we went back to Sea Point. There was a continuity, a security there in my life. Today, the weather, the light was such that I started thinking about Bay Head. This community where we live is like that. Its reminiscent of the security I felt as a child. The manageability of life in this town. The harmony and love I didnt get at home. The beauty of the beach was always there, but I hated the people. There was one summer in Sea Point when I didnt go out of the house. I stayed on the porch all summer. I was so frightened by what happened, you know, what I told you about.”

Scrabble revisited

At a subsequent session, a powerful father dream emerges: “I was at the yacht club, the bastion of WASPS—of false superiority. It was always a cold place for me. I was standing in line for dinner. I’m there with other people and my mother. My father comes in with another woman, and I challenge him. I thought he shouldn’t have been there with another woman. I thought, ‘I can’t believe he brought her here.’ I said, ’I don’t have to play this game. I went to his table. I said, ‘Hi, Dad. I broke the unspoken pact. I played it straight. He was uncomfortable, and I felt free about what I was doing. I felt self-assured. It was his problem, not mine. I was not playing along with the charade. And that’s how I feel right now, too. That this partnership Im in is okay, and its really not. I realize that now. In the dream, I was able to be myself, finally.”

I see that Astras ‘Judith essence’ is the beginning of Self-Love. She is discovering her own essence and the proper mind with which to re-observe herself. To move forward now she must have the capacity to imagine new possibilities at the same time that she must grieve the world she is letting go.

The two stories run parallel to each other. The nucleus of trapped painful childhood experiences must coexist with new, relevant knowledge and the experience of loving kindness. A new alchemy now.


Today there is an urgent, troubling phone call on my answering machine from another woman with whom I work.

A father dream

“Hi, Judith, this is Sarah. Im on overload with work at the hospital, and guess what the latest is? Someone is leaving threatening calls on my machine. The last one said, ‘You’ll find someone in your garage when you get home.’ Im really depressed and angry. Just want you to know Im calling the police to put a tracer on my house phone. Im pretty sure its my ex-husband. Ill call back and keep you informed.”


Emotional events such as this office call can affect my own fine-tuning. The quality of my focused attention on Astras words is changed. I hear her words now as if the soundpost of my cello is dislodged. The spaces between the words, the connections from one thought to another, the swelling and receding of her words, the intricacies and subtleties of language are flat tones. I must work hard to hear her search for meaning today.

She tells me, “There is a rigidity about myself I am beginning to understand. I am being easier on myself now. I am more able to step outside myself and examine the scene. I wonder what it is in me that destroys my self-esteem. When I look in the mirror, I don’t like my own face. It’s like I have this alien face in my head. If Im all these things you say about me—my gifts—it should feel good. It would show through, wouldnt it? I swing from self-loathing to self-love.”

I move her very personal and painful description to a larger analysis: “Well, it might not necessarily ‘show through’ as you call it. Do you know that mirror means “face box”? Here’s my question to you: Do you see your face in that flat, one-dimensional, silvery surface, or do you see a self? Do you use the mirror as a reflection of your face or of your inner self, your character? Is what you see your face, or who you are? When we both gaze in mirrors, you and I, what exactly are we saying about ourselves and through whose eyes?”

“Well, through my eyes, of course.”

Lost attunement

“Are you sure? Physically, our eyes are our sense organs of vision, but what you name and value of what you see in your mirror is quite another story. It’s your eyes doing the looking, yes, but there are a whole lot of people standing there looking in that mirror with us. It’s a crowded bathroom—our parents, teachers, the people in our lives, the books we read, the films we see.”

“My God, that’s really overwhelming.”

“Don’t I know it. I want to tell you…” I pull out another woman’s map.

“Another teaching story?” she grins.

One woman’s reflection

“Yes! It reminds me of your own questions, and while the story is not an answer for you, I think it will interest you. I worked with another woman a few years ago who had an interesting mirror story of her own. The summer she was 10, her mother told her that she would have to pick strawberries to earn money for her family. The weather was very hot, and she had just finished school and was tired. She had a younger brother who was very sick with leukemia. At that time, she did not know that he was dying. She was very, very sad on that day and feeling helpless and discouraged. She happened to look in the mirror at the place where she was going to pick strawberries. She remembered exactly what she had worn that day when she looked in the mirror—a pink sweater with pearl decorations on it. Her hair was pulled back with a rubber band.

“When she looked in the mirror, she suddenly realized that if she could look okay in the mirror on the outside when she was feeling so rotten on the inside, then maybe she could reverse things. She could plan something on the inside, and it wouldn’t show on the outside; other people wouldn’t notice what she was thinking.

“And so that was the beginning of how she planned in her head to get out of a family and a community that wanted her to be the Dairy Queen not only in the annual parade.”

“What was it she wanted to do?” Astra prompts me.

“Soon after this event, she decided she wanted to become a doctor so that she could help her brother. She is now a pathologist and has two daughters.”

We sit now, and the self sits, in the Mirrored Knowledge of shared understanding.


Teaching story: mirror

Astra comes in with her own nugget today. “You know I feel something is happening now. The pendulum has swung. I really resent going to work. Work is more intrusive in my life. I realize there has always been in me something that is unshakable. An inherent golden nugget of self-worth. Something is here.”

“The Golden Nugget is your own spirituality,” I affirm. “It’s that humanness in you seeking expression in whatever form it takes, the divine spark. We are both creating something new here, giving birth to a new being. We enter another realm, another state of consciousness, an alternate reality, if you will, something you are surely familiar with.”

Something is there

The theme of inside/outside reappears in a new way. “You know, I was thinking about beauty. When you walk with beauty on the outside, you are in touch with it on the inside. How it makes you feel. The ineffable. But I have this hesitation and reserve. It’s hooked into a lot of fear. Why? I don’t understand.”

“What’s the worst scenario for you, your worst fear?” I ask Astra.

“Mediocrity, I think.”

“You once experienced beauty as a child. Why are you afraid to dream again?”

“Because it means so much to me.” She begins sobbing.


Long, hot summer days give way to cool, shorter ones now. It is early October, and there is less humidity and less light than in the summer months. The beams of sunlight are lower. Ground fog lies on the hills; the Canada geese are migrating, and we hear their haunting honking. The sugar maples, ash, birch, and poplars on the mountains are a brilliant yellow.

As Astra continues to work and sits with her own “beginner’s mind,” she develops an openness to see things as they really are without any preconceived notions or old maps. In this state, she will observe differently. The differences between perceivers are not a matter of truth or error but of noticing more rather than less. Unsophisticated perceivers are tuned to relatively superficial features in the environment, skilled perceivers to subtler ones.

Because she is willing to suspend old, preconceived ideas, Astra can look at people and events with a new clarity. And because of her new readings and therapy experience, she has an enlarged awareness and understanding with which to re-examine old and new events.

During our next session, she speaks of a recent business trip. “I met this sweet, gentle woman in Texas,” she tells me. “She’s 52. This woman said to me, ‘I’ve spent my life taking care of everyone.’ She has a quiet strength but not a martyred one. She doesn’t lose herself.”

“What did you like about her?”


“She was familiar, safe, relaxing to be with. I see there are women of a certain age who are not bitter and angry but peaceful, grounded.”

“Sort of like where you are headed, age-wise and maybe philosophically?”

Women of a certain age

“Yes. I’ve been thinking. Can you tell me, what is the self? It feels like such a vaporous, amorphous thing. It’s such a taken-for-granted word.”

“Good question. Concepts about ‘a’ self or ‘the’ self are central concerns in all fields of study concerning women, especially the fields of psychology and autobiography. You’ve heard terms like the inner self, the social self, the physical self, the outer-directed self, the thinking self, the unconscious self, the remembered self … each of these self theories is used as a way of examining and explaining human behavior.”

“Well, but what about what you feel, oops, I mean what I feel, what I experience through this self that is mine? You know, my experience of my self.”

“That’s been named, too— the experiential self. But we have to be careful here. To examine your experience requires a mind that has the ability to look back and reflect upon that experience.

“The infant and young child sense a continuity of self, but it is not self reflexive. It’s interesting. In infancy, the experience of self is more like music than anything else. The infant and young child experience events across sensory modes. The modalities of touch, sound, smell, movement, sight, and taste going through a moving body. It gets tricky as we get older because my notion of who I am and your notion of who you are reflect what we have been told about our ‘selves,’ and our ‘self’ theories affect what we might choose to recall, or what we think is worth recalling about our life stories. That brings up a whole other set of questions about memory: What is memory ?”

What is the self?

She moves back into her own life again and continues to use me as a sounding board: “I was wondering last night. Have you ever had such a chaotic time in your life when you felt like I’m feeling—so scared and lonely, not knowing the future? What about your ‘self’?”

What about your self?

“Well, yes, when I was 48, twenty-five years into my marriage, and after raising three young children, and having a clinical depression. It was a time, by the way, in which I, too, was overmedicated, like you were overmedicated for your seizures. I decided I had to return to school. No one supported me at the local university. The faculty in the local graduate school asked me what I expected to do with my degree in twenty years. That was so intimidating. After that, they wanted to know why I hadn’t written any academic papers. It was a lonely, desperate, and discouraging time. Then I found an educational institution that would support me. I decided to do my doctoral work in the field of women’s studies and psychology. It was both a hazardous and a joyous time, and my life totally changed.”

She pulls both legs under her, pulls out her notebook and questions me, using her laser-beam mind: “What was it that made such a difference?”

“Well, there were at least two factors. First, finding a school that was committed to the education of older students and had an egalitarian philosophy and a strong commitment to social action. Second, the profound impact on my education of working with women who were feminist scholars and highly qualified in their own fields: psychology, sociology, education, history, and philosophy. They showed their love and concern for me, giving me access to their personal libraries, welcoming me into their homes. Don’t forget, I was coming out of an early fifties marriage. I already had a nursing degree, an undergraduate degree, and a graduate degree. It gave me a chance to see how other women lived their lives. It was an exciting time when all of the research in the traditional disciplines was being called into question. They were reexamining everything in their fields. They taught me how to think logically, clearly. But most important, my doctoral program started with my own questions. I learned to examine my life with a critical consciousness.”

She leaves now with another of my stories, a Crone story to add to her own repertoire of knowledge.

Teaching story: another crone

Another Map

It is winter now. At my suggestion, Betty joins us today with one of her Big Maps, as we call them. I have already asked for and received Astra’s consent to share my working notes with Betty in preparation for today’s session. Astra knows that I have gone over her own original words with Betty.

Typically, it is unusual for a philosopher and therapist to work together in a therapy session, but not unusual for the manner in which I work with women. This practice of Betty and me working together has evolved because of my own knowledge of the split that occurred historically between philosophy and psychology. Psychological academic research has been based largely on the theory of behaviorism and information processing. This approach to human growth and development narrows the range of human capabilities and potentialities. Instead of focusing on the philosophical study of reality, truth, and values, behaviorism focuses largely on observable behavior, and does not give credence to emotions, cognitions, or spiritual values. While much valuable knowledge and practice have resulted from this research, the search for meaning that is so innately a human activity was left to philosophers. Betty brings from the field of philosophy larger maps, a larger panoramic view of the human condition. Her work is based on our joint assessment of what this particular woman needs to know from the Big Maps.

After a big hug between Astra and Betty, student and teacher who have not seen each other for a few years, the session starts. Astra begins.

“I would just like to say to you, Betty, that what made the longest and most lasting impression on me from your class was the work we did about the creative process. I still often refer to the book we used. Your ideas made such an impact on me because they validated my own process. Specifically, when I used to start a project and then leave it, before your class, I used to think I was just lazy, like when I’d get up and do the gardening, do the dishes, take out the garbage, and then go back to it. The raw scope of your class, the breadth of how you conceptualized creativity—you know, that mathematicians, musicians, artists, writers all share in it, was so important to my learning. So I no longer call this behavior of mine lazy or slothful, but part of the process of shifting to a different activity as my brain continues to work on the creative project in my head, a kind of incubation period.”

“Yes, and a renaming of your own process. Validating you,” I suggest.

Astra adds, “I’m glad that Judith suggested you join us today. This is an unexpected joy for me.”

We settle in, and Betty addresses Astra. “Well, today’s Big Map is called, ‘What Is There to Know—Levels of Reality.’”

Astra takes the leading voice and starts immediately with her own questioning. “All of my life I’ve wondered about my self. As a child I used to imagine who I would be if I were different, or if I had different parents. My family life was so full of confusion and anxieties as we moved from one place to another and yet another.” She pauses pensively.

Betty takes the second voice. “I can understand your search for self. This quest has mystified the imagination of philosophers, artists, and even psychologists! Yet all would agree that the notion of a self cannot be considered apart from the social, natural, and cosmic dimensions of our lives. As you know, no self exists apart from society, nature, and the boundless universe. Now, one of the ways we can envision these dimensions is as four concentric circles, which we can analyze in terms of their influences on and relationship to one another.

“You probably know from the work you have done already that Judith and I both encourage each woman here to pursue her own analysis on her own, to determine for herself the answers to these questions, which are of central importance to all of our life journeys.”

I take the next voice. “Right. We don’t deal with secondhand realities in here. We are the primary knowers.”

Betty pulls the easel closer to us, picks up the large purple marker, and draws the innermost circle, that of the self, the knower.

Betty leads now. “Consider the questions that concern you the most about your concept of self. If you notice, your concept of self is always somehow embedded in a social context—your parents, teachers, friends, siblings, and associates. This social matrix is the second circle, simply called society. As selves or individuals, we live in a society that is essential to particular culture. We are born and live in a time and space from which we gain most of our values and beliefs, as well as opportunities for growth and survival.”

Astra breaks in. “I’m wondering, are there any beliefs or values that could come from me and me alone and not from the culture?”

“Good question. You are not alone here. These questions about nature and nurture have preoccupied thinkers for centuries. In my opinion, we have three choices regarding cultural beliefs and values. We can accept them without questioning them; we can strive to change them; or we can attempt to ignore them. Essentially, the major work of therapy is to help us to become aware of how the processes of enculturation have limited our potential for our fullest growth and development as human beings.

Nature and nurture

“In your work with Judith, you spoke of the disillusionment that you felt regarding your associate. These experiences of the self in society, the second concentric circle, led you to a state of sadness and confusion. The sadness came about because you had previous notions of the good society in which people, particularly women, might relate to each other openly and equally. The pain that you felt in your relationship with your associate brought back the pain and abuse that you had experienced as a young child. It was at this point, when you fully realized that you were reliving the old oppressions that your progress in therapy moved forward. As we live, we can see many patterns in the rules, roles, and relationships that are part of our social reality from childhood to adulthood. The scenes may change, but the same themes often persist. When we become aware of our life scripts, particularly those that limit us, we can begin to change the ongoing dramas of our lives and recreate the future.”

I jump in. “Astra, is this a fair summary by Betty up to this point?”

“Yes. Betty’s summary gives me another perspective on what you and I have been doing.”

Betty draws the third concentric circle now.

“We are also part of nature. That is, our natural environment, which includes not only our earth and galaxy but the entire physical universe. We are as much a part of nature, because we are sentient beings, as we are a part of society. How we feel about nature, that is, caring for and appreciating the great beauty of nature, is another aspect of our growth as human beings.

“To go on then, nature, the third concentric circle, has been a sanctuary throughout your life. Your love of gardening, your sense of awe and wonder as you experience the beauty and mysteries of the natural world, your sense of the presence of angels, elves, and other gnomic creatures have all embellished your everyday life. As a child, you were spellbound by the rhythmic movements of the ocean, giving and taking its bounties in an endless dance of time.”

“I like that—what you just said about me. I love that.”

“Well. It’s the authentic you. It’s the you that you have allowed Judith to know. So, as we move from the self, the knower, to society and nature, we still experience at some deep human level a sense of mystery. What is there beyond these levels?”

Betty draws the fourth and last circle, the cosmos.

“I want to get in a thought here, Betty,” Astra interjects. “When I took that graduate course on creativity with you at the university, I was exhilarated when I learned that the multiple and complex sources of creative inspiration can often come from the unconscious mind or from mystical, transformative experiences. You know, I sometimes go directly from the self in the inner circle to the cosmos without much in between.”

“To me this means that you are probably capable of having profound mystical experiences.”

“Hmm. That’s really interesting.” Astra grabs her notebook and jots down some notes for herself.

Life scripts

I jump in again. “Betty, I don’t know if you remember that Astra has experienced altered states of consciousness during some of her seizures. Unlike many people on the ‘path’ of some of the eastern religions, she did not voluntarily or willingly choose to attain this state. She essentially experienced an altered state of consciousness at a fairly young age. She was in sixth grade when she had her first seizure.”

“Yes, and these sudden changes in my mental and physical states confused me, ” Astra adds.

Betty continues, “Yes, these states of altered consciousness are mostly chaotic and without purpose. When we systematically induce an altered state of consciousness, we do so for some particular purpose, such as biofeedback training or for use as a relaxation technique. But getting back to what we said earlier, about altered states of consciousness leading to creative inspiration, Buddhists claim that during an altered state of consciousness we may indeed be drawn to a higher state of consciousness in which we can glimpse aspects of that fourth concentric circle, the Cosmos. At this point in history, we really don’t know the possibilities of the human mind to attain mystical insights.”

I have more to say. “In all of the sacred traditions there are teachings, paths for experiencing this transcendent mystical experience. In fact, some of these states can be brought about through music. In a process of attuning we can—”

At this moment of cosmic speculation, the mechanical timer goes off and almost ends our hour of Big Map making, but Astra gets another question for Betty. “Can you explain how you, yourself, came to this map?”

Altered states of consciousness

“Yes. I can. In my teaching, as in my life, I try to have as wide a lens as possible. This is particularly important in academe where so many “specialists” in the various natural, physical or social services, as well as the arts and humanities, have a kind of tunnel vision. We are encouraged to specialize, to focus on smaller and smaller centers of inquiry and research. If our canvas is too broad we are deemed guilty of dilettantism. Also, there is also the problem of academic ‘turf.’

“The study of philosophy had legitimized the ‘big questions’ for me. I think I actually realized this, even while we were still being taught to memorize all of the state capitals in the fourth grade! So in my efforts to see and name what is out there for all of us to study, I narrowed the elements of reality down to four major areas, the self, society, nature and cosmos. Every field of learning must include one or more of these entities of our human experiences. Scholars and poets alike ponder the age-old questions concerning the individual being, the social matrix or culture, the natural world, and the cosmos or universe. What are they? How did they come into being? What is their purpose in the universe? How are they related to each others?” Now the session must really end. Nancy is waiting in the outer room.


The ideas from her work with Betty continue to reverberate for Astra today.

Betty’s teaching story

“I have been thinking about altered states of consciousness. There is the altered state of the place I go when I have a seizure, and I know things from that place—from the experience of it. It is not ordinary reality. And the aura I sometimes have just before the seizure is also an altered state. I was thinking that some of the work we do here is escaping from ordinary reality as well, but without the side effect, of course, of passing out on the floor!”

“Well, yes, there are many different states of consciousness. The Eastern traditions have known this and have practiced learning how to go into these altered states for centuries. Now that our Western machines of science, such as biofeedback equipment, can measure some of these states, scientists finally agree that, well, yes, some of these states do exist. If the machine says it’s so, it’s so.”

“Also, whenever you questioned me about where I went as a child, I felt that I went to a place other than ordinary reality. I don’t know if it was because I was recalling a childhood experience or because I re-experienced some inner peace or beauty in this other place.”

“How about both? And you know, it matters what we name this place of the mind, this state. A neurologist would name it one thing, in the case of your seizures; a Buddhist monk would name it something else. It depends on who takes hold of your experience and names it.”

“And then when I did all of that reading, I experienced the same thing.”

“Which reading?”

Altered states of consciousness

“Particularly the Gimbutas materials—all the female imagery and archaeological information from the goddess culture. The beauty of it and the lost history, and then the materials on the Crones as well,” Astra says.

Altered states and female imagery

“I am very interested in your ideas here about altered states. I want to embed this conversation in perhaps a larger picture about states of consciousness. I took a workshop a number of years ago with Charles Tart, a psychologist who has done considerable research on different states of consciousness and how we enter and exist from different states of consciousness and how discrete states of consciousness are stabilized.

“I underlined his conclusions many times in my notebook, because he described four major ways of stabilizing a system that makes up a discrete state of consciousness. He defined our ordinary or usual state of consciousness as a tool, or structure, that is, a coping mechanism for dealing with a certain agreed upon social reality—or consensus reality, as he called it”.

Astra grabs her notebook.

Charles Tart

“He thought they were similar to the ways in which people keep control of other people they want to keep as ‘good citizens.’ First, you keep the person busy with the activities that constitute being a good citizen, so that this person has no time or energy for anything else. Next, you reward the person for carrying out these activities, and you punish the person for any undesirable activities engaged in, and lastly you limit the person’s opportunities to engage in these undesirable activities. Now just change ’the person’ to ‘the woman’, and you see that this is something that women should pay attention to, because he is describing a form of social control—or thought control. That is, how a woman is kept in a special state of consciousness.”

“Or any group that somebody wants to control.”

“Yes. Right. Thank you. Now, we could label your childhood experiences in different ways: the altered state that comes from the experiences of the child in a home where there is abuse, or we can think about the altered state that comes from feeling nurtured by a woman who ritualized tea making, or the altered state of the gifted child’s sense of the awesome beauty of nature. What do you think about all of this?”

Good citizens

“I was just thinking about something. The period of history a woman with a seizure disorder lived in determined what this altered state was called. You know, whether it was called the falling illness, the sacred illness, the great disease.”

“Yes. Right. That’s it. The naming of it by whoever is in power or whoever thinks they have a fix on Truth and Knowledge or God. Just look at the Spanish Inquisition.”

“What would you name the altered state of consciousness when I was reading Gimbutas?”

“Well, it seems to me that the new knowledge and iconography were healing and transformative for you.”

“Before when you were talking, I thought we could have said that they were just emotional states or moods rather than altered states or discrete states of consciousness. Couldn’t we call them emotional states?”

“I don’t think so. I don’t like labeling anything ‘emotional,’ because it has been used so often to describe the essence of womanhood, that a woman is her emotions, and this is not really what you started out describing to me.”

“Well, then there are the altered states of the dreams themselves that I have had. Maybe when I have felt understood in here and bonded with you, I went into an altered state as well. Maybe when we work at times, the experience is state specific.”

The buzzer goes off as usual.

Creating Maps and Art

History of labeling: the fallng illness, the sacred illness, the great disease

I think of the women with whom I work not only as individual women but also as a community of women. Together they are a rich resource of talent for each other in various stages of the healing process. I often draw upon the resources of this community.

As Astra takes seriously now how she might best utilize her creative abilities in her future, it occurs to me that she might like to speak with an artist. What I must negotiate now is how to accomplish this. It is not an unusual practice in my office when I feel there is a way in which women can help each other.

First, I will check with each woman for permission to give the other her name and phone number and to explain why I have this idea. Then the rest is up to them. Today I introduce the idea to Astra.

“There is a wonderful exhibit in New York about different kinds of old maps. It occurred to me that this might be of interest to you. There is another woman I work with who might also be interested in going to this exhibit because she too is interested in graphics and old maps.”

“Is she a cartographer?” she asks with great curiosity.

“Well, she is an artist who sometimes designs her own maps.”


Community: shared intelligences

“I have always been interested in how we go about creating our maps and what cosmology and values a particular map claims to know.”

Cupping her hands around her tea, Astra asks, “What do you mean?”


“Every map has a point of view about something it wants to direct us to. Let me digress a minute here. As a musician I was trained early on in a basically graphic notation system as a way of communicating ideas. In addition to these graphic notations, there are words and instructions accompanying the graphic notations that further inform the musician or conductor. I am basically not happy with any idea or process that I cannot also map or draw.”

“That’s interesting. I would not have connected music with maps nor therapy with maps.”

“A woman doesn’t come in here with a mental map or diagram in her everyday awareness, because I don’t think you can map something until you have some knowledge and some reflections upon it. She lives with images and impressions that guide her anyway—unexamined fragments of moods, images, knowledge. In my opinion, in order for a therapist to work successfully with a woman, there must be some kind of mental map or construct, some way in which the therapist is organizing the data that a woman is bringing about in her life.”

“Why didn’t my other therapist mention this?”

“Was it a he?”


Graphic notations

“Well, I’m not sure, but I have a few ideas about this. First, your previous therapist may not be aware that he has a ‘way’ of doing this. He may not ever have done a critical analysis of his own particular process, or he may come from a philosophical—read that, power—position that says that you do not give away this information to the person with whom you are working. He thinks of knowledge as ‘property’ or the ‘possession’ of his profession, which he sort of thinks of as a ruling elite.”

She sits now at the edge of her chair, wide-eyed. “What do you mean by that? Wouldn’t he have to have done this kind of thinking in order to work with someone?”

“No, the therapist may be coming from a place of saying to himself that whatever I was taught to do, that’s what I have to do. There are no other maps, just the one I was taught. He may really believe that there is only one way from here to there. One Way. His Way. Their Way.”

“Well, suppose I don’t fit into this One Way? Then what?”

“He might find a way to engage you, initiate you into his own belief system, convince you that his way is the way to end your suffering.”

“In other words, if the person coming for healing buys into the belief system of the therapist, then healing can occur?”

“Yes, quite literally and figuratively.” We laugh. “But it might not be a conscious act on the therapist’s part that he is doing that. That’s what would make him dangerous, in my eyes—of course, it could be a ‘she’.”

“Well, I know that my last therapist didn’t talk about any of this, and still I was helped a lot. How do you explain this?"

“That’s a very good question. I think that a therapist can have a package of skills for different kinds of problems, and thus he or she can lead a person out of the maze of a troublesome situation. It can be very useful, productive, and symptoms can be greatly alleviated, but there is a real problem here for women. If we do not get to the root causes of many of our difficulties as female children and adult women, we will continue to have problems, and we will continue to see our problems as only personal problems rather than collective ones as well. And without these understandings, we cannot go back to our workplaces, various committees, and families and effect change. So we may heal from our symptoms…”

She interrupts me, wanting to arrive at her destination: “What is your map way?”

Whose way?

Which way?

“Well, my head is filled with hundreds of maps of other women with whom I have worked. When I work with you, I can place their maps—I think of them as clear plastic overlays—over your evolving one, and they can be a guide. I call these guiding maps femagraphs.”

She looks tentative. “I’m mixed up here. You have mentioned the maps that you have of other women’s journeys, but how did you actually create this map? On what basis?”

“I might change that question slightly...because it would lead us in a clearer direction. ‘Construct’ might be closer for a better answer than ‘create.’ And there is a slight problem here, because I am both in this map and involved in the mapping of it. I am both the person taking the journey and the one who is mapping it as well—a scribe cartographer.”

“That’s a lot of activity!”

“Yes, it is, but I love it. It is always a fascinating journey. Toni Morrison has written something I like: ‘Writing is thinking and discovery and order and meaning…’ The activity of doing and recording therapy is a similar process, to my way of thinking. But to your question, could we leave it open-ended for now, and maybe later we can look at it, or you may find you can answer it. I don’t mean to avoid your question.”


No, that sounds fine. Before we forget, by the way, I would like to call this woman about the map exhibit, and maybe we can meet.”

“Good. She would like to meet you, as well.”

The fifty-minute electronic beep of ordinary time startles us out of our map journey.


A few months later, in early spring, I have an idea for helping another woman I am working with, whose 21-year-old daughter has recently died of a rare kind of brain tumor. She has done a poignant painting of her daughter’s last days at the hospital. It is rich with symbols dealing with loss, and I have the idea that if she shared her work with other women, it might help not only this particular woman, but all of us. I ask Astra and five or six other women if they would be willing to share some of their work.

Astra brings in three simple pencil sketches, one of her mother, another of her sister, and a self-portrait. Her rich talent is apparent even in these three small examples, and I become convinced that I must further support her creative work. A few sessions later, it seems that she is allowing herself to imagine new possibilities.

Shared talents

“You asked me to hold off, to keep some distance, to not react to each thing that comes up for me—to live with some ambiguities, I think you said. I’m starting not to care about some things. To let them go. I’m starting to dare to imagine myself doing artwork and achieving and receiving recognition. I’ve always been demanding about my own work. I care about the process, not the product. To be able to draw or write feels very good. I feel like completing myself by expressing myself, a rebirthing, or re-visioning. When something moves from head to heart, that’s the place I’d like to be.

“You know, in the past, the harsh judge in me reviewed my thoughts and actions and found them lacking. As a growing child, I didn’t want to compete. My sister was the acknowledged artist. I’m beginning to believe that maybe I do have more than just average talent. I don’t know if it’s good enough just to love it. You know,” she reflects, “you can’t fake talent.”

Ambiguities revisited

“That’s true, but we can nurture it. I like your idea of moving from head to heart.”

A few weeks later, she brings in another self-portrait. “Okay, I said to myself. Let me sit down and really see myself. Something happens in the transmutation from looking at myself to putting it on paper. I beautify it.”

“Yes, you are bringing into your artwork what you know about your authentic self—your essence. It’s very wonderful.”


From head to heart

Astra would like me to see the piece of sculpture she is working on, which is still in the middle stages. We agree to a home visit. It is early June on a Sunday morning. Her home is about a half a mile from mine. A generous bowl of fruit, and cheese and crackers sit on the coffee table. The living room is flooded with natural light and flowers. The colors of the garden flow into the large room, and the flowers in the room are those freshly picked from the garden. There is a palette of purples, pinks, roses, beige, mauve, orange, reds, and fuchsias. On the white mantel a cobalt blue vase is filled with pink and white peonies. Outside, a bright cardinal sings at the feeder. It is a scene that Berthe Morisot would have been happy to paint at mid-afternoon in June.

I am unprepared for the startling beauty of the sculpture. The gilded head of a woman arises out of the clay. The garlands and vines around her head create a mythical and archetypal feeling.

I use this time to tell Astra something about my writing project and ask whether she is interested in contributing her story. We talk about what the healing process has been for her. She is surprised at the level at which we are working. She did not expect such fundamental changes in herself. I remind her that I am only helping to give voice to who she already is. She does not yet agree with me about the voice that is already there.


Community: home visit

From Astra’s suffering, she is able to discover a compassion for herself. She dares to dream now in ordinary time. “I really want to go to art school, and I want to get off medication. Is it arrogant asking for anything for yourself?”

“Is it arrogant to get your adult needs met, to want something for yourself? And please, first person.”

“Okay, to want something for myself.”

“Let’s check out the meaning of the word ‘arrogant’ in the dictionary. Let’s see, ‘ar-ro-gant—making claims or pretensions to superior importance or rights. See ar-ro-gate—to claim unwarrantably or presumptuously. To assume or appropriate to oneself without right.’ What is it you feel you have no rights to?”

“Well. I am not sure what is reasonable, again.”

“I think I would like you to answer your own question here. Give yourself time.

“I’m going to ask you to continue to examine the words you use to describe your experience, because behind every word we use is a concept, an idea. I have reached a point in my own life analysis where I have regurgitated almost everything I have learned. Every word is suspect until I put it under a high-powered hand lens. I couldn’t ask you to do this consistently earlier in your work because you might have thought I was being critical of you in some way, but now you certainly know where I’m coming from. I will support anything that leads to your fullest possible freedom as a human being.”


Word: arrogant

The home visit and art show in my office have their own rewards. In speaking about art, Audrey Flack (1986) has noted,

“There is a distinction between those artists who produce marketable images, and then produce variations for that market, and those who have resisted market pressures. One stops the flow, while the other allows growth to take place. This process of growing occurs during a total involvement in the creative act. You are not just producing images, but provoking and being provoked by those images. You get involved in a metaphoric revelation, and witness metaphors emerging from the work—…the ultimate achievement is a transference of that revelation from private to public.”

Astra participates a few weeks later in a local art show for people with various physical problems. Today she reflects on her experience: “I felt really vulnerable afterward. But people I didn’t know came in and spoke with me, and it really touched me. I am in search of a new self; mine has been cloaked for too long. Showing my artwork is like having my personal life on the coffee table. You know, a big book. It’s all out there and very public now.”

When anyone takes action, their actions can lead to new memories. The sculpture classes that she is now taking evoke new memories of making sand castles on the beach as a child.

“You know, I’m in a place of peace and quiet. There’s a slower tempo within me, like the ocean, a place to process, to reflect and absorb,” she tells me.

“Yes, the spontaneous play of the child and now the unexpressed and unacknowledged creativity of the adult in you is coming forward.”


Frost sits on our south windowsill now along with the smell of pine cones and the pungent smoke of wood-burning stoves. The notes of a seventeenth-century pavan from the stereo in the outer room live long enough to seep through the wall of our Inner Room. Our room now feels like a combination of a loving home where midwifery is performed and an immigrant sweat shop where we labor over the swatches and fabric of lived experiences. We both laugh as a young squirrel outside the south window runs perilously along a branch too light for its body and repeatedly drops its acorn to the ground.

Audrey Flack

Astra is especially excited today. She is struggling again with new ideas, which energize her. She begins a long, grounded soliloquy.

Ideas as energy

“It’s a new path, this pulling out of the knowledge I have in me. It’s new and strange. I understand now how as a child I manipulated things within me—hid my true self because I so often got scolded and ridiculed—so I hid my feelings. How to be seen and not seen. I have a streak in me that’s sneaky. It’s that false self. If I was my true self, I often got ignored or ridiculed, so I hid things. There are new murmurings in me. The image of a path is starting to emerge. I don’t know how to manifest myself—a path that will find me…beauty, spirituality, a higher consciousness.”

It’s a new path

She continues, “I realize now that all my life I compared myself to my sister, and I couldn’t lose her. And then I had enough, and I could do it because I was seeing you. My family didn’t confront things. I think now I can do it better. I’m beginning to own what I had suspected about myself. You reflected back to me this love of who I was. All of those self-effacing behaviors of mine. Whooping it up with adults, or staying quiet and invisible to get what you—oops, I mean, what I wanted by being verbally self-effacing. You know the family message, if you are proud of something, make light of it and all of that.

Sister revisited

“Your tears of sorrow can carve a smooth wall in the rock of your soul. I avoided pain and the joy. I learned all of that at a very young age. I used to feel such anguish, and I was told, ‘You’re so melodramatic, Astra.’ The joy and happiness would get ridiculed. To feel in any way would be pain. So don’t feel. No pain, no joy, no life. The gray, steady life. I need to unlearn that all feelings end in pain. Anything in my life that was joyful ended in pain.”

We sit in joypain silence.

“This is a significant death in my life. It’s an opportunity to break my armor. The person that is closing the business door is the same person who started running after my divorce. For me, running was a sacred thing. After my divorce, I changed. I would like some acknowledgment for that. No one ever noticed. I’ve stopped being the poor little sick child. I’ve become such a different person. I’ve broken through the myths and assumptions. I take care of myself now. I’m more confident. I think I can survive alone. What has passed was a major stumbling block to my Crone Wisdom. I want to celebrate the reclaiming of my Croneness.”

I feel a great peacefulness in my heart as I hear her. A long, full pause ensues.

Joyful pain

“But, if I give you up as my therapist, what if I need you? I’m truly feeling out of crisis. This place and you were critical to my survival. I was in tears, trapped, not knowing which way to turn—I was out of my depth. I couldn’t see it, couldn’t get a handle on it. I was nonfunctioning when I came here. I am doing things now. My life energy is back!”

“Well, to the best of my knowledge, I’ll be here. What’s in God’s hands is in God’s hands, of course. I’m not disappearing—either way.”


What if I need you?

We decide to space our appointments farther apart. This is a reasoned decision. We assess whether she thinks her own goals have been met, what she feels she has accomplished, and what else she needs. The decision is a preparation for ending our formal time together. Astra has planned a trip to England in the spring. She tells me she wants to walk among and touch the ancient Paleolithic stones that she has read about during her work here. I have a busy winter and spring, helping a woman in the legislature brainstorm about proposing a stalking bill and attending a number of professional conferences that interest me.


It is June, the time of the summer solstice. The moon is close to the horizon now.

The sun’s rays through the south window of our room bend the form of the tulip stem sitting in the pale green vase half filled with water. The scent of blossoming lilacs drifts through the window screens and envelops us with a scented voluptuousness that makes the ambivalent and painful memories of childhood seem an unnecessary burden. Astra is ready to shed things now, objects and people that weigh her down, old thoughts, like old musty clothes kept stored for too long in dark places, unyielding language that trapped us in our search for the exact word to describe a confusing memory. It is the time of the summer light.

There is something revelatory about meeting with another human being, at a voluntary, pre-appointed day and hour. Hours flow into days, days into weeks, weeks into months, seasons fold into seasons. We sit here together, and one day, so imperceptibly, we both lift past the limitations of mind, to a time and place where an act of imagination is required. It is a liberation from skin boundaries and mind boundaries. It is a place where numinous thoughts and dreams are possible.

The grasped, trapped, crunched time of our earlier work gives way now to a shimmering silence of possibilities. The relics and shards of her life, the old identifications, are strung out now in space the way a mother lovingly puts her family’s laundry out in the fresh air to dry. We are no longer tethered to them, because we have nothing to hold us now. Time is stretched out before us. Astra’s face is illumined with the expression of a newborn experiencing her mother’s face for the first time.


Community: stalking bill

Astra’s mother did not conform passively to her abusive husband’s standards, and Astra will not forever be the recipient of her sister’s leftover grievances. There were letters between the sisters that didn’t work, phone calls that didn’t give either woman what she wanted from the other. There were silences that seemed interminable to both women. Neither woman seems now to need the validation and bonding of the pain of their tumultuous childhood. I only know that she still loves her sister, continues to communicate with her by phone and mail, and that she, Astra, has not compromised herself for love at any cost. She tells me that her sister has returned to graduate school and is studying to become a family therapist.

I can’t tell you exactly where the pain about her relationship with her sister has gone. These painful objects of our attention, which were so clearly noted and marked early in our work together, have dissipated, interspersed with all the other fragments of her mind, too useless and too heavy to hold in a pattern of pain.


The woman before me is self-affirming. She is able to experience herself more lovingly and with more clarity. Her narrative has a comfortable coherence. The other voices that so often chided her, negated her, diminished her serious thoughts, are gone now. Her fragmented sentences have dissolved into a wholeness. The deeper, scolding voice that so often joined us is gone, and so is Adam. Her new self-assertion has made it easy for her to ask him to leave.

Planning a Ritual

Goodbye Adam

Astra comes in today knowing, for sure, that she needs a ritual, asking for a ritual, to say goodbye to some people and to put closure on this part of her life.

She is very clear that she needs three parts to this ritual: One private part with me, one in her home for a small group of staff to whom she wants to say goodbye, and a large party as a public event. She wants the first part to have a feeling of serendipity—playfulness. We talk about the sacred and the profane, about women symbols and myths, and about making every day of life sacred. Her hands reach out to me.

“This ritual, this celebration with you, is a private cleansing of my feelings for my ex-business partner and aspects of myself. And it’s the shutting of one door and the opening of another,” she explains. “The party is a public celebration.”

“If life is kind of like a flowing stream, the door doesn’t work for me personally,” I say, “and a path with a heart wouldn’t have doors either.”

In our usual way, we just leave some thoughts suspended. They don’t need a home yet.

“It’s so hard for me to ask for acknowledgment.” She starts crying. “I feel there’s a lot on the plate now, and what would I like to sample? My whole sense of myself is different. I’ve broken through a lot of myths and assumptions about my seizure disorder, I take care of myself now. I’m more confident. I think I can survive alone. I would like very much to celebrate with you the reclaiming of my Croneness.”

Needing a ritual

She has already named the three parts: Reclaiming, Laying to Rest, and Celebration and Prayer. She’d like the event with me to occur as day moves into night—light to dark. We both agree to do our own preparations and then bring the two together. I will put something together based on the thoughts and needs she has given me. I spend most of the weekend preparing the script, searching for the materials I might want to use.


Reclaiming, laying to rest, celebration, prayer

On a wild and windy day in late October, our plan materializes. Like many women before us, we go to the natural world. We go to the healing powers of water, a recurrent symbol of the soul in many spiritual traditions. Astra now consecrates the water through ritual. We drive to the lake, to a secret place where we make a small fire. She opens a cardboard box and brings out two small plastic Barbie-like dolls. One she describes as an effigy she wants to burn. It represents all the people in her life who have been cruel and unjust to her. The other doll is painted bright red, black, and olive drab. “These are the junk things that were attached to me. It’s the ‘me’ doll.”

She brings the “me” doll to the lake’s edge, dips both hands into the cold water, and gently washes the doll, freeing her “to get rid of all my bitterness, hate, and insecurity. These things were not me. They were hanging off me. They were attached to me but not of me,” she tells me. On this doll are written the words “fear,” “rejection,” “anger,” “guarded.” The doll looks to me like it has been in battle or was doing battle.

The effigy doll has big breasts and hips sculpted with Plaster of Paris, a painted black heart, and bright red lips. It represents the cruelty and dishonor done to her by [material deleted to protect privacy] and others who had limited her Utopian world. We solemnly burn the effigy in the fire. Then we go to my Glass Room, which faces the lake we have just left before sunset. I have laid out a black velvet panel, a sort of Divination Table on the floor, with gold stars and hearts, candles, flowers, and a crystal.

Astra wants to go outside of my house with lighted candles. I surprise her with sparklers, which we light when darkness comes to us. I have prepared a scroll on which I have added her name: Astra, Daughter of Good Fortune.

On the scroll is written,

Glass room

“This Holy Day of Sunday, October 18, has been set aside to honor the celebration of the life of the person known by the common name of Astra. Astra and I have together created a sacred ceremony in which Astra wishes to lay to rest all the pain, sorrows, bitterness, and disappointments of the past and to reclaim and celebrate her entire life on this good earth. She especially wants to honor the years since 1976. Astra wishes to be able to express joy and pain fully and freely without experiencing Joypain. She is willing and ready now to wash away Joypain.

“Astra, daughter of the Goddess, has asked me to be a witness to this transformation of her human spirit and the renaming of herself. In celebrating this day, Astra journeys from the safety of the known ordinary existence as it was taught to her in the past, to the vastness of the unknown future. In this process she will be transferring from the life of the profane to the life of the sacred.

“Her sacred rituals have included a lakeside ceremony laying to rest the past with cleansing and purification, and in the Anointment Room of her New Mother, the sacred blessing of her body and mind, the reclaiming and acknowledgment of her past and the re-dedication of her future, and the giving of her New Name.

“I, Judith Fortunata, call forth all the Wise Old Women of the past. We wish your presence, your loving energies, your wisdom, your strength and power here today to honor the Crone in this especially gifted and brave woman. In this day of her Renaming and Rebirthing, we honor that she has chosen the Path of the Heart as Her Way. Help her to have the wisdom and courage to stay on her Path even when those around her distract her or dispirit her.

“May she go forth with a light heart, and a melody in her body. May she look to the stars, the sun, and the moon to find her way. May the Angel Crones whose language she speaks always guide her in her journey.

“From this Holy Day forward in the presence of all women, I hereby name her Astra, Daughter of Good Fortune.

“May we all go in peace and harmony.

“Signed, Judith Fortunata [my grandmother’s first name], Midwife to Astra, Daughter of Good Fortune.”

Darkness comes. We notice that Venus is particularly bright in the night sky tonight. I find that as Astra’s perception is changing, mine is changing, also. I notice now when I look at the sky that this year is sprinkled with celestial events. Meteor showers, a blue moon, an approaching comet, and the alignment of the moon, stars, and planets. I too now have an Astraself.


Therapist’s perception

Astra’s healing ritual evokes a sense of mystery in and connection to my own life. That night I have a dream. I go down into a cave, where I am told by someone that I can have anything that I want there. In the cave there is a large, warm fire in the center of the room. The floor is made of white sand. I sit down near the fire and make a design in the sand with a stick. I have a bucket with me, and I mix plaster of Paris with water. I pour it into the sand. I make a mold of my design. It dries and hardens and I carry it out of the cave with me. I have nothing to carry it in, so I find a place to put the symbol on my belt loop. I do not recognize the symbol. It is mysterious and abstract. I have the feeling that someday I will find out what it means.

Judith’s dream

The next day I get a postcard from my younger daughter, who is in Spain. On it is written, “Hi Mom, I am on a beach making abstract designs in the sand with a twig.” Years later, I find out the meaning of the symbol, but for now I feel the mystery and the connection with my daughter.

Post Script


Astra and I meet a number of times in her studio, over lunch, and at her home because I need her collaboration to complete writing her story.

On an unusually warm Vermont summer day, we climb up three flights of stairs to where she shares a studio with the woman with whom she went to the map exhibit. There she takes out a large pile of her work. I see exquisite pastels of pink tulips, multicolored sea shells, blue and green glass bottles, ceramic jugs, copper kettles, fruits and vegetables, studies of hands and faces, and draped fabrics. She props up a large collage against the wall. The work is a study of her life, done as a kind of topographical map with human and mythological figures, a far richer map than my own therapeutic map.

Community: studio visit

The beauty and energy of the collage stun me. The background is a striking black; the central figure is a bare-breasted woman, with neck muscles taut, elbows out, and both hands covering her ears. The woman’s body is painted in pastel blues, beiges, and pink tones. A young child stands between her breasts. On her left upper arm sits a blue mermaid. Surrounding the central figure are white and black faces of women facing upward, downward, sideways, and some outward to the viewer. A man’s head with an open mouth is suspended somewhere between the foreground and background. A small blue angel flying above seems to be blessing the scene. Small serpentine forms in gold, of great beauty and energy and reminiscent of the Gimbutas diagrams, flow out of the mouth of one of the women and intersperse themselves in the blackness.

“I’d like to tell you about this one. At different points in our work together you would stop me midsentence and ask, ‘Whose voice is that?’ You would explain that my tone of voice or facial expression would suddenly change, making me wonder if it was still me who was talking. I realized almost instantly that I had been mimicking someone else. Who? What? Who was voicing some of the thoughts in my head? Which was my own voice, and which was some old stuck ‘tape’ of another time, another’s influence?


“In the ensuing weeks, I began to notice that certain messages I gave myself like ‘No, you can’t’ always were in a distinctive voice unique to the phrase. Other internal phrases or messages that were really melded together had other vocal characteristics. Whose influence, whose voices were these that I was choosing to enshrine in my behavioral arsenal of do’s and don’ts? Did I still want them?

“During this time I did several sketches exploring this theme. I started drawing dozens of faces—some known, some unknown, that seemed to go with the voices. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with these drawings, and this collage, which I call ‘The Voices in Her Head,’ evolved on its own from my pictorial musings.

“Something new is emerging. I have been waiting for my own voice,” she says. She tells me that her work has now been displayed in art shows for people with disabilities in Vermont, Connecticut, and New York.

“What was the importance to you of all the materials you read about the ancient goddess cultures?” I ask.

“The goddess history was a new form of magic for me—like the elves and fairies. The goddess writing reinforced my belief in magic, the magic of humanity and the magic of women, and my underlying belief that humanity is in trouble. The goddess literature was new to me. It was a more adult form of magic. In a factual and historical way, it gave me a much broader context in which to consider women, to consider everything. The history before Christ had been a dark haze to me. It also gave me a lot of images to work with. The literature lent some credibility and seriousness to the drawings and sculpture that I was doing during that time. So there was this dysfunctional unit over here, my family, and then the literature over here moves you out of the role that women have been in. It rearranges everything.”

My own eyes fill up with tears now, remembering the many seasons of work together, the many silences finally given voice and form.


Another day, we meet over lunch. I question her about the period of our work when I told her about my own crisis. What was the effect of my telling her? She says, “I remember you telling me about your separation. It alerted me. I watched for signs of it, but then I forgot about it until you mentioned later that things had changed again for you, and everything was all right again. I don’t remember anything else about my reactions. It felt okay.”

“Do you have any additional thoughts about the men in your life?”

Community: lunch

“I have been thinking about this. First there was Carl, then Art, then Gary, then Adam. It is only now that I realize that what I was trying to do was to handle difficult men better than my mother had. I was going to do it better than she had,” Astra tells me.

“Yes, the repetition of old family scripts and scenarios, if I can enlarge upon what you said for a moment. When an old familiar scene comes up, we try to correct the scene, that is, the original pain that we experienced in that old scene, that old memory—to undo it in some way.

“The problem is that we give the current person in our life control over us because we have mythologized them, made them bigger than life, made them more than they are. That gives them a tremendous power over us if we expect them to take care of the earlier pain.

Carl, Art, Gary, Adam

“And as we try, if we don’t succeed in changing things, changing the script, then we cling to this person, hoping for the possibility of salvation. We can’t bear the repetition of it again in our lives. The failure again to get what we need. So we keep clinging to the possibility of it with this current person. The person becomes a sort of God through which we are trying to heal an old pain.

“It feels like a repeated failure to get what we need. We don’t want to name it a failure again, to re-experience the pain, so we keep trying with someone who can’t really provide what we need. We almost are willing to trade anything for it.”


Mythologizing others

At another luncheon meeting, I question her, “I am curious. How did you learn to be such a liberal and so open-minded?”

“Well, because my parents were such bigots—blacks are inferior, the Jew boys will get you, the Italians... but then there were these black women who were nurturing me. There was this contradiction between what my parents said and what I experienced.”

“Yes, the cracks and flaws in our family narratives.”

“My father had an insecurity about his own Armenian lineage. He separated himself from his group. He married my WASP mother from a family who had money. He was trying to erase his heritage.”

“By scapegoating others?”

Community: lunch

“Yes, and don’t forget I was a teenager in the sixties, and a lot was happening with the black Civil Rights movement. I remember marching in Washington with all the other women.”

“How did living in the sixties affect your life?” I ask her.

The sixties: civil rights

“The sixties reinforced my fledgling value system. My parents were so hypocritical. They were racists. I rebelled against all of that. I remember when I discovered that word hypocrite.”

“What do you mean? I’m not sure I understand.”

She expands her story. “You know, the naiveté of the young child. Whatever your parents say, that’s it. That’s what you believe. You see, I was raised with no religion except the creed, ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.’ It was such a clear message from them. I remember my mother so clearly saying to me, ‘Put yourself in the other person’s place,’ or, ‘You have to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes.’ I would actually imagine myself doing this, putting my feet in someone else’s shoes, but then my parents were saying the Negroes are inferior. You know, they can’t read, they can’t think. My father would treat the maids like shit.”

“What exactly did he do?”

“In the Sea Point house, I remember there was something on TV about whether blacks should be allowed to sit in the buses wherever they wanted to. The black maid was at the sink with her back to us, and my father said, ‘What a bunch of crap this all is.’ I remember glancing at the back of this person, this human being, and feeling how offensive and awful that must be for her. So, I chose to believe one way rather than the other.” Astra finishes her story.

Word: hypocrite

She leans forward in her chair to share another two-woman secret. “Now, you already know that my experience with the black maids was different. Remember what the early markers in my life were? The schools I went to and the houses I lived in. Well, add to these markers the string of black maids that joined our household. There was a succession of them, and each one of these women was different, so no one could tell me that all blacks were the same!

“Then I thought: Wait a minute. Something is wrong here! Then, you see, I discovered the word hypocrite. This word became very important to me because it articulated my experience. All of a sudden I had a word to describe my experience. Do you see? Do you get it?”

“I certainly do. I’m sure you remember my childhood train ride.”

“Oh, sure. Of course! Exactly.”

“By what age do you think you thought about this and rejected it? 9 or 10?”

“No. I think it was as early as second or third grade,” she recalls.

“So, 7 or 8? That early?”

“Yes. I’m sure of that.”

“You were so gifted and sensitive. So alert at such a young age.”

“So now you see what was happening culturally. The Civil Rights movement in the sixties was reinforcing what I was experiencing at home, the conclusions I was coming to on my own.

“As a young child, maybe 10 or 11, I remember having this clear cognition that I was very lucky to be born in this country, living in the right time. I was happy not to be a starving child in India. But then came the assassinations, and I knew that something was rotten here and very wrong,” she says.

“So your world view was that everything about this time, this country, was the best. You were so lucky to have it all. Food and other material things.”

Which black story?

“Yes. But then—there are three parts to my process here. First, the wave of assassinations. I remember being very emotionally upset. I wasn’t surprised about Martin Luther King because I half expected it, even though it shook me terribly. With the second, Bobby Kennedy, it was total disbelief. I started to wonder about this country and the whole Vietnam thing. I began to think that these politicians were boys with toys, you know. The thing that finally did me in, in terms of my beliefs, that made me so apathetic politically, was the Watergate thing. I remember it was exactly in 1973, really seeing how corrupt the whole system was. I remember I didn’t watch the news anymore. It’s going to take a radical happening, I think, to change this.” She looks sad now from the weight of it all, and continues:

“I feel like I didn’t participate politically in the sixties - that is, the way it is popularly painted, but when I was older and worked at Princeton University, there was a bus going to Washington to protest the Vietnam War. I think I went more for the social event, but I remember that when I got there, it was an eye-opener, but it was also a scary experience. I remember my fear about getting squeezed against a fence at one point, but I wasn’t as politically involved as many other people were.

“I didn’t do drugs, but I could experiment sexually, so I did. I wasn’t promiscuous or anything. I had sex with my boyfriends, which were not great in number, as you know. It was real different for my sister, who was caught in the ‘little girls don’t do it’ ideology.”

The sixties: the assassinations

The War


As I complete my map of Astra’s life narrative, I see that it has a stronger, more clear matrilinear path now. Her universe has a broader, pantheistic view. I can almost see Astra, her mother, her grandmother, and the black women who nurtured her sitting in a patch of sea grass at the ocean’s edge looking out at a mark on the horizon. Audre Lorde, in her autobiography, has written,

“I am the reflection of my mother’s secret poetry as well as of her hidden angers.”

One afternoon, at Astra’s home, we shift back to reflections on her childhood experiences. “You know there are some children in these situations who would not have made it, who would not be able to use their imagination,” I remind her.

“Don’t you think every child has an active imagination?”

“Not equally so,” I tell her. “Not every child at 6, 7, 8 uses fantasy as a coping strategy. This told me from the beginning that you were gifted in many ways, that you had a rich storehouse of images and patterns. And you have kept that quality over the years. You valued it and have carried it into your adult life.”

Audre Lorde

“Well, I think my mother had a lot to do with it, for, you know, with all of her denial and her problems, she brought magic into my world. She read to us a lot as we were growing up, all the fairy tales, Winnie the Pooh, Pippi Longstocking, and Alice in Wonderland. And magic was a big part of my childhood and life, trying to find it. I’ve told you about it, spending hours in the woods looking for elves and fairies.”

“Wonderful. You still do!”

“And my mother taught me how to make tiny dish gardens. You know, she’d give me a cake pan, and I’d use moss for grass and twigs for trees, and pebbles as boulders. And interestingly enough, my mother was not the gardener that my father was. She wouldn’t have anything to do with the garden.”

“Maybe there wasn’t enough room out there for her.”

“Maybe so. I hadn’t thought of that. She preferred to arrange flowers, I think.”

“And you do, as well. So what oppressions was your mother dealing with in terms of her own life?”

“I think the Victorian period influenced her life, and that she adored her own mother. Her grandmother, who brought her up, was strong, and her own father was charming but weak. And then my father repeated this script. He said, ‘My sons are weak and my daughters are strong.’ Now, he happened to be right, but he happened to help to create a lot of it. My mother was disappointed that her first two children were boys. She kept trying for girls.

Another mother story

“Whenever pain or discomfort or unhappiness struck in her life, my mother’s response was denial. The classic example—I think I’ve told you about this—was when my father fooled around; he was well-heeled enough so he would literally keep women. He would have mistresses in an apartment in New York. So, my mother’s way of dealing with this was just to look the other way. And look down her nose. She would say, ‘I’m the wife. I’m in the driver’s seat.’ A lot of these women were actually part of our lives, because my mother’s way of dealing with them was to make these women her best friends. There were Aunt Susie and Aunt Flo and Aunt Helen. I think mother’s primary dysfunction was denial.”

“Denial a dysfunction? How about calling it a clever survival skill instead?” I suggest. “What do you think about your mother’s reaction to religion?” I ask Astra.

Word: denial or survival

“When she was 10, her mother died in the 1918 flu epidemic that killed all those pregnant women. Evidently, her mother was pregnant. My mother was the oldest of three children, and she never got over it. She started mothering her younger sister and brother. I think that she never resolved the grief. That betrayal. My mother’s mother was evidently very religious. My mother ended up with nothing but contempt for what she would call ‘Gawd.’ She’d say, ‘I believe in Gawd but not the way people talk about Him.’ She had utter contempt for any organized religion. I think it was because she didn’t understand why, if God was so loving and wonderful as her mother had taught her, why did He take her mother away from her.”

“So your mother’s lack of belief about a personal god came from disillusionment and sadness.”

“I think so.”

She remembers another female legacy. She beams. “Did I ever show you the poem my grandmother wrote? This is wonderful. She really disliked the usual child’s prayer that was said in bed at night.

Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake….

Well, she thought that was just terrible to be putting in a little child’s head before she went to sleep. She wrote a prayer I grew up with that I still say every night:

‘Dear Lord of Love, I feel you near. I know that through the coming night you will guide my dreams and keep me safe to wake up in the morning light. I’m just a little girl, dear Lord, but I’ll try to make somebody happier and not quarrel when I play.’”

“What in this story impressed you?”

“Well, it was a woman taking action, taking things into her own hands. She wrote quite a bit of poetry, and some of it was published.”


As we meet for the final draft of her story, Astra surprises me. Suddenly a story emerges without my prodding or questioning. It sits there, as a gift to me! There is a lesson here for me. I say to myself, “Things happen sometimes, Judith, without your striving for them!”

Astra tells me, “A year or so before I came to your office, I was totally surprised. I had won the Personal Achievement Award from a national organization. The large event was in Washington, D.C. They told my life through, you know, slides. It was very revealing to me, that experience. I had seen my seizures as a private struggle up until then. There was no one out there who personally knew me—so for all those people to know it, it was very, very powerful.

Grandmother, 1918

Flu epidemic

“You see, then I was forced to put these two realities side by side. How successful I had become in the eyes of the world, but I felt so unsuccessful in my private world. Part of my confusion was going from a high to a low of saying to myself ‘you’re nothing but a shit’; that is the way a business associate was treating me. Then I wondered which was true, what I was told out in the world or what was going on at work? I had this big dilemma.”

“And then you couldn’t settle for less—the inauthenticity, the incongruities. Looking for truth of some sort.”

“Yes, that’s it.”

“Finally, I understand the precipitating event that brought you to my office!”

Two realities side by side

“I didn’t know that that was an important concern of yours. You didn’t ask.”


Astra is now a board member of a large, national organization and has many new insights and new knowledge that has made a difference in her life. She also teaches women at the college level and does business consulting.

You didn’t ask

“I realize that my thoughts and experiences with seizures were not just personal complaints I had. Now we have started an ad hoc committee to explore the status of research on women with different medical conditions. One speaker spoke about how hormones affect a seizure disorder, and I have such renewed hope. Before this, I had no personal and technical backup, but the unpredictability of menopause still concerns me.”

I add, “I am not denying the importance of biology and hormonal changes during menopause, but all of this is surrounded by myths about women getting older and going crazy and out of control.”

She tells me about the work of her committee that is studying the relationship between seizure occurrence and the menstrual cycle. She has relearned what she already knew through her own body knowing. The role of hormones as a contributing cause or treatment of seizure disorders has received little systematic recognition.

”I’d like your readers to know that I am taking more responsibility for my body,” she tells me. ”I am no longer on barbiturates. I’m on only one medication for my seizures. I am working with two neurologists, one in New York and one in Boston. I’m working with one of these, a neuro-endocrinologist, around hormonal activity and seizure activity, and I’m entering menopause.

“I have met an unusual, sensitive man who is kind and intelligent. This past year his daughter has lived with us, and I have had a family again.” We hug as I say, “Maybe another ritual soon! Wonderful!”


It is early November. Today, while I put the few last changes on the writing of this book, I receive an invitation in the mail. “You have been invited to an intimate and spiritual gathering to celebrate the commencement of Astra’s final phase of the Face of the Goddess, the Crone.” I open the handmade card, and a note from Astra falls out.

Dear Mother of Good Fortune,

Not just personal complaints

It has been a long time since we have had a chance to connect. Time seems to be slipping by so quickly. And it is that very passage of time that has prompted this letter to you. It seems that the final phase of the goddess has claimed me: Crone! So on my fiftieth birthday, I am asking those women who have been or are a significant force in my life to gather so that I can better acknowledge each of them. I understand that you may not be comfortable attending such a soiree. Truly, I do. But your name figures prominently on my list. You have been an instrumental architect/participant in all the important rituals in my life in the last ten years.

Next week my oldest daughter and I will make the twilight trip to the celebration of another friend and Crone.



I was somewhat surprised at the willingness of academic woman who agreed to
read some of my work at different points in the writing process and to
share their thoughts from the perspective of their own scholarship and
research. These women had not previously met me, nor seen anything I had
previously written. I had sent them a brief description of what I was
doing and depending on the response I sent the entire manuscript. I have
included some of their correspondences to give the reader a sense of the
some of the ideas they presented. Their generosity of time and spirit
moved me and enriched my work.

Dear Sidonie Smith,

Enclosed is my book proposal and one woman’s story. I would appreciate any of your comments, reactions, critique of the work. If after you read this, you are interested in the other two life stories, described in the proposal, I would be very happy to send them to you. I didn’t want to burden you, initially, with too much reading. I am completing what I call the wrap-around piece, which is the beginning and end lake conversations between two older women (Judith and Betty).

I started this project about eight years ago. I wanted to challenge myself creatively and intellectually. I never expected my journey would be this long, this isolating, and at times, this difficult. Your support of my work means a great deal to me, at this point in my life.

Again, thank you for your generosity of your own life time.


Have you had a chance to look at my book proposal? I am almost finished with book now—final editing. It looks good. Tulips orange, pinks, yellows all in bloom. Pink crab apple blossoms are outrageous.

I am finally catching up on my backlog of things to do. I’m taking your manuscript with me to my next conference.

Judith—Thanks for the note. I look forward to getting the materials. I’ll try to read the theory chapter and the story in a reasonable amount of time, some evening when its blowing outside and a fire’s in the fireplace.

I am about halfway through the manuscript and am very moved by the accounts. I think I’d like to call when I’m finished so I can share in more detail my responses to the book. I hope to have the manuscript read by the end of the weekend—perhaps sooner. Will you be around early next week? I go to Chicago this weekend. Will try to do a reading in the next week.


An interesting aside: I am an external evaluator on a dissertation in Australia in which the student is looking at theories of autobiographical narrating and thinking about how autobiographical narrating might be used
as a therapy for Alzheimer’s patients.

Do you want to pick a time block, and the day, and I will either wait for your call, or I can place the call to you. What about me hooking up my tape machine to the phone, so I can get down your verbal critique?

I can be available in my office on Monday , Tuesday and Wednesday from 9-12AM.

Sid—Thanks so very much. I’ll call from my office.

Astra’s Bibliography

(Manuscript page number. Work cited; page number of quotation, if applicable. See bibliography for full information on works cited.)

51. Paraphrased from Ballou, Mary, Ph.D., and Nancy Gabalac, M.Ed., with David Kelley, Ph.D. A Feminist Position on Mental Health; p.94.

52. Spretnak, Charlene. Lost Goddesses of Early Greece: A Collection of Pre-Hellenic Myths. Quoted in Inglehart, Hallie. Woman Spirit; pp. 84-85.

Walker, Barbara G., Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, HarperCollins

Gimbutas, Marija, The Language of the Goddess, 1989, Harper and Row

57-58. Toni Morrison quoted in Tate, Claudia, ed. Black Women Writers at Work; pp. 128-129.

60. Miller, Jean Baker. From Connections, Disconnections and Violations (1988), quoted in Jordan, Judith V., ed. Women’s Growth in Diversity: More Writings from the Stone Center; p. 291.

60. Frank, Francine Wattman, and Paula A Treichler. Language, Gender, and Professional Writing: Theoretical Approaches and Guidelines for Nonsexist Usage.

60. Kramarae, Cheris, and Paula A. Treichler. A Feminist Dictionary.

78. Paraphrased in Tart, Charles T. States of Consciousness.

86. Flack, Audrey. Art & Soul: Notes on Creating; p. 9.

100. Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider; quoted in Brodzki, Bella, and Celeste Schenck, eds. Life/Lines: Theorizing Women’s Autobiography; p.223

Photo Credits

The photo of Marion Anderson was taken by Carl Van Vechten. As the restrictions on this collection expired in 1986, the Library of Congress believes this image is in the public domain. However, the Carl Van Vechten estate has asked that use of Van Vechten’s photographs preserve the integrity of his work, i.e, that photographs not be colorized or cropped, and that proper credit is given to the photographer. For more information consult Restrictions on Van Vechten Photographs.

The photo of Käthe Kollwitz and the photo of the Kollwitz lithograph are used with the permission of the Käthe Kollwitz Museum Koln. The Cologne Kreisparkasse has organized the largest international collection of the works of Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945):

Käthe Kollwitz Museum Koln
Neumarkt 18-24
Cologne 50667 Germany

+49 221 227 2363 / +49 221 227 2899

The photo of Virginia Woolf is in the public domain in the United States and possibly elsewhere. It was published in 1902. This is because its first publication was in the United States prior to January 1, 1923, or because its copyright expired in the U.S.

The photo of Hannah Arendt was taken by Fred Stein in New York City. The image is public domain. The source for the image:

The photo of Toni Morrison (circa 1977) from the U.S. Library of Congress.  Copyright by Helen Marcus. The image may be used in promotion of Morrsion’s book Song of Solomon. This is a copyrighted publicity photograph that may be used in context with her books.

The photo of Audrey Flack may be used for educational purposes only. The source for the image:

The photo of Audre Lorde is a video still from:  The Edge of Each Other’s Battles: The Vision of Audre Lorde  2002
Courtesy of producer Jennifer Abod.  

Selected Readings from Sister Outsider. Audre Lorde.  1988.  Producer Jennifer Abod, Profile Productions.

Both are used with permission of Jennifer Abod.

Jennifer Abod, with a Ph.D. in Intercultural Media Education and Women’s Studies, is an award winning feminist media producer and professor who was part of the dawning of the second wave of feminism in the U.S.  Visit her website at