— The Washington Post
Growing up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinksby Micah Toub
Micah Toub faced quite a few psychological challenges when he was growing up. And two of his best guides through them – as well as the biggest causes of them – were his parents.
Part memoir, part introduction to famous and infamous psychological concepts past and present, Growing Up Jung tells the story of a boy raised by two psychologists. It's/b>… See more details below
Micah Toub faced quite a few psychological challenges when he was growing up. And two of his best guides through them – as well as the biggest causes of them – were his parents.
Part memoir, part introduction to famous and infamous psychological concepts past and present, Growing Up Jung tells the story of a boy raised by two psychologists. It's an extraordinary coming-of-age story, replete with more sexual confusion and domestic dysfunction than even the average adolescent has to endure. And through the telling of that story, Toub is able to discuss such topics as why Freud's obsession with Oedipus threatens our chances today of being close to our mothers; the methods a Jungian psychologist might use to help a young man overcome sexual anxiety; and why it is okay to sometimes let your inner-murderer out for the night.
Referencing the written works of the thinkers discussed, books that have been written about them, and relevant contemporary pop culture, Toub discusses and explains such topics as Synchronicity, Archetypes, and the Oedipus Complex, as well as lesser-known corners of the psyche, such as the Ally, the Dreambody, and what Jung called Active Imagination. And he is able to weave all this information seamlessly into his own story, because if there was a psychological problem going, it went Toub's way. Call it synchronicity. And if you don't know what synchronicity is, see chapter 5.
— The Washington Post
- Doubleday Canada Limited
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Read an Excerpt
(A Terrorist in the Family)
“Well, if you’re just going to stare at the ceiling instead of making eye contact with me and won’t tell me how you’re feeling, why don’t you describe what you see? Perhaps you see a figure or a story in the shapes of the plaster that will help us to know what’s happening with you?”
My father said this in the fluffy-edged psychologist voice that he would have used with all his clients that week. It’s marked by a soothing sound that begins far back in the throat and is followed by a series of slow, encouraging nods. I always knew that when he spoke like that to my sister things were not going well.
“I see a ceiling,” Andreya said. “And I don’t feel like talking about it.”
I later dubbed this event, which occurred in the downstairs family room of our house, the Toub Family Peace Conference of 1986. I was ten years old; my sister, fourteen. We lived in a tract housing suburb of Denver, Colorado, so our family room was identical to the thousands of other family rooms in the thousands of other houses that expanded outward from ours in a seemingly never-ending and symmetrical grid. I can’t help feeling, though, that what was happening that day, in our family room, was unique.
I viewed the proceedings from the kitchen, half a floor up, where I engaged my G.I. Joes in quiet battle on the linoleum floor. My father sat on one side of the long, red, velour couch and my sister leaned against the arm on the opposite side. My father wasn’t a huge man, but he always maintained an athletic physique due to his weekly racquetball matches. Compared to Andreya, he was the physically dominant one, but he always undercut his muscular stockiness with a gentle demeanor that seemed, in its affect, to equalize the two of them. Andreya, with her half-black skin and curly brown hair—hair that she spent hours straightening every day to look more like the girls on television and in her school—didn’t much resemble our father. Well, actually not at all. She is a child from our mother’s first marriage; my father adopted her when she was three. Leaning toward her chin-first, my father was attempting to make eye contact with Andreya through his square-framed glasses. She refused to capitulate, shielding herself with her scowling dark eyebrows and arms across her chest. My mother, an ally to both parties, sat on the rocking chair on the other side of the room, her small frame swallowed by its plaid pattern. She had been a tireless mediator over the years, but now she was letting the negotiations take place without her involvement, trying to say nothing. There was very little light coming into the room since it was halfway underground, lending the event an ominous air.
My father let out a great sigh and shook his head slowly, sadly. I eyed the ceiling above their heads. The white mass of ridged plaster was a scorched and hopeless landscape of dunes. A prisoner, ankles tied, was being marched across the desert to his execution while, alongside, his captors rode a camel. An unidentified flying object hovered above the scene, observing. I wished that my sister would see these things too, but she wasn’t even trying.
“Every family has a culture,” my mother told me a few years ago, “and as in all cultures, whether it’s a country or a company, there’s a mainstream way of doing things—the way most people do them—and then there’s a smaller group that doesn’t do things that way. That group is the marginalized faction.”
I nodded. We were discussing—and not for the first time—what had happened so that my father and sister were hardly speaking anymore and had had almost no relationship for fifteen years. We were analyzing the history of the struggle, trying to tease out the root causes and I could tell my mother was coming to a conclusion.
“We call that marginalized role in the group the terrorist. And Andreya,” my mother said very gravely, “was the terrorist of our family.”
The theory, she went on to explain, was something she learned from one of her first mentors, post-Jungian Arnold Mindell. At the time, she wasn’t in contact with him much, but when I was growing up, she and my father were members of his inner circle and his psychological theories and practices had been a constant presence in our house. Back then, he was always just referred to as “Arny,” but nowadays I like to refer to him as my parents’ “former guru.”
In my head, I created the movie: a family sitting around the dinner table—a Thanksgiving spread with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, the works. They’re all wearing knit sweaters and smiles. But if you peer beyond the table, into the darkness of the family room below, you can just make out a trench dug in the carpet, a teenager peeking above, her face smudged with dirt so as to be camouflaged with the brown shag. Her arm is cocked back, ready to pitch a grenade and take out the whole placid lot of them.
It sounds like an exaggerated illustration, but my mother would say that my scene is exactly what she’s talking about. In fact, my mother never exaggerates, though she is prone to the use of metaphors. The scene, she would say, represents what is really happening.
The terrorist, she explained to me, acts in opposition to a family’s prescribed way of being. The terrorist is the one who refuses to be involved in family rituals and doesn’t laugh at the family jokes.
He is the black sheep, the one people are referring to when they say, “They’re such a nice family, but that Joey, well, he’s different, isn’t he?”
In a wealthy, social-climbing family, this person might sell all his belongings and head off to Africa. If one’s parents are artists, instead of being creative, eccentric, and persistently broke, the terrorist might become a clock-punching accountant with a spouse, two kids, and a dog. Like a family’s signature odor, a family’s culture may not always be something that’s considered positive by the world outside the boundaries of that family’s walls: “C’mon, Jimmy, have another beer. It’s not going to kill you. Since when did my son become such a wuss?”
Sometimes, the marginalized member of the family actually appears to be in the mainstream by most people’s standards. Alex P. Keaton, the Ronald Reagan–loving, money-grubbing son of two bleeding-heart liberals in Family Ties, was the terrorist of his television sitcom family.
However, even if the grenade-wielding daughter at Thanksgiving is an accurate picture of what’s really happening emotionally, I figured that when Arny used the same term given to suicide bombers for a member of one’s family, he meant only to hammer home his point. But, as I found out after stealing some of his books off my parents’ shelves, this is not exactly the case.
As it turns out, Arny has worked not just with groups of hippies, but has also been a mediator in international conflicts that involved the kind of disputes and violence we normally associate with the term terrorism. In his book Sitting in the Fire, Arny suggests that alienation and anger, whether on the world scale, in companies, or in families and relationships, are in some ways parallel in their dynamics. The book is mostly written about working with political groups, but Arny writes that like these bigger groups, small groups like families also include members who are marginalized as a result of possessing qualities or attitudes that the mainstream system has shut out. In fact, he says the very existence of the terrorist comes about because certain qualities are repressed from the mainstream. The main thrust of Arny’s book is that conflict arises in groups—between the terrorist and the mainstream, for example—from a need to shift the culture in a direction that is more inclusive and whole. Both the country and the family need to figure out how to integrate the terrorist’s qualities and attitudes into the mainstream culture to make the terrorist role unnecessary. Therefore, one could consider his wayward sister akin to a suicide bomber and, at the same time, a suicide bomber could be viewed as a sister—a sister in a family in which she doesn’t quite fit in, and who has taken up an unwelcome viewpoint simply because no one else did.
Our family culture was a particularly calm and encouraging one. “That’s good that I died in your dream, Micah,” my father once told me. “That means you’re integrating your inner father and becoming more independent.”
We talked about our problems, and we understood that our issues with each other were often just issues within ourselves. “I am angry with you right now because the part of me represented by you is not being allowed to emerge into consciousness,” we might say. “It’s not you, it’s me.”
Self-reflection—or taking the metaview—was a highly valued trait and, even now, the fact that I’m writing this, stepping back to consider the concept of a family culture and applying it to my own family, is a direct result of that. And the fact that I just wrote that sentence raises me to an even higher plane—the meta-metaview. Reflecting on life in double-meta land is perhaps a bit, I don’t know, self-indulgent, but in my family, it is a great achievement. Little practicalities like trimming the weeds in the backyard or buying a new kitchen table when the old one is falling apart are lower functions, and if you have time to get around to them, fine.
I often secretly visited my father’s office when I was growing up, because it was usually located in the house. As a boy, I’d sit in the client’s chair, which was unusually cushy and made of a dark red fabric as soft as velvet. I’d imagine my father sitting there across from me, the two of us talking about some very serious things. A box of Kleenex sat on a small wooden table to the side, one tissue straining to escape.
The walls were covered with magical and frightening pictures that represented past layers of my father’s unconscious. He’d had an important dream about Robin Hood and so, for a while, drawings and paintings of Robin Hood colonized the office. Newer obsessions would come along and take over, but certain favorite pieces from each stage remained.
Old, tattered hardback books lined his shelves, including a whole row of those mysterious black ones by Jung with strange titles like The Psychogenesis of Mental Disease and Mysterium Coniunctionis.
On the small table next to my father’s chair was a lined yellow notepad and one of the refillable pens that he always used. The notepad was blank, ready to be scribbled on with dream symbols, interpretations, reflections. I imagined him sitting there across from me, taking notes about what I was saying. I was sure that he would double underline certain things I said, because my psyche was that interesting. I wondered what he would write about me: “Micah is shy, has trouble making friends, but seems to possess an above-average intelligence. He occasionally suffers from delusions of grandeur (imagines that his life is a movie in which he is the hero). Appears to find gratification in being analyzed by his parents. Self-centered?”
Obviously, my sister didn’t romanticize their profession as much as I did. She was the terrorist, after all. “Getting upset and holding a grudge was not allowed,” my mother said, summarizing my family’s culture. “So Andreya was marginalized.”
The inciting incident that led to the Toub Family Peace Conference had occurred the previous week. For the amusement of her best friend who lived across the street, Andreya had made me walk through a pile of dog shit.
“Hey, Micah, do you want to see something really cool?” she had asked me. Cindy was standing next to her smiling like an angel. I, being gullible and desperate for attention from my sister, didn’t question their motives.
“Yes,” I said. “What is it?”
“We can’t tell you, you just have to see it. Close your eyes,” Andreya said and held out her hand to me. My sister never wanted to hold my hand. I gave it to her and grasped tightly.
I heard the screen door groan open. Then as I was being led forward, the sun hit my face. I was walking on the soft grass of our front yard, then onto the concrete of the sidewalk.
“Turn right,” my sister said, so I did, quietly expectant.
Then she let go of my hand and the two of them burst into laughter. I kept my eyes closed because I had not yet been told to open them.
“You just stepped in dog poop!” her friend squealed. I opened my eyes and saw the flattened piece of poo behind me. I lifted my bare foot to see a yellowy smear on my skin. My sister turned her head down, shyly ashamed, but her friend was doubled over, cracking up. Tears flooded my eyes and I ran inside.
“You better not tell Mom and Dad!” my sister called after me. But I did, of course. I told on her.
Normally, my parents’ solution to something like this would have been to have a “talk.” The purpose of the talk would be to get to the root of the problem, to find out what was going on with Andreya. Things were never just what they were. No, something was happening and my parents would get to the bottom of it. Or not, as was the case with Andreya.
The questions: Was Andreya’s disobedience a symptom of her unhappiness with the family dynamic? Was she acting out because she wasn’t able to consciously communicate an emotion?
Her answer was: “I don’t want to talk about it and you can’t make me.”
Andreya had always put up a wall whenever pressured to dialogue in this way and as she made her way into adolescence, the wall wasn’t coming back down. She’d been hardly communicating with my parents at all, shunning my father in particular.
The dog poop incident had followed another, perhaps more serious, infraction. Andreya was caught coming home after sneaking out her window one night with a bottle of our parents’ vodka under her arm.
In our family culture, like most, sneaking out of the house on a school night or walking your innocent, sweet and loving younger sibling through dog shit was grounds for punishment. But even worse than those acts of teen delinquency was refusing to talk about it. Not wanting to figure out what unconscious anger was behind such acts was a serious transgression.
Andreya was grounded for two weeks, which was the first time my parents had ever resorted to such a conventional punishment.
Dinner the day after was tense.
“How was school today?” my father asked Andreya.
Andreya acted as if nothing had been said, because to her my father didn’t exist. I stabbed at my peas, silently praying that she would just say something.
“Come on. Just tell us one thing,” he said.
My mother attempted to intervene. “Maybe she doesn’t—”
“I’m just asking her a question. She doesn’t have to talk if she really doesn’t want to.”
“School was fine,” my sister said.
“Were you able to get help from your math teacher?”
“No? Andreya, you have to ask for help or you’re never going to get your grade up.”
“So . . . are you going to do it tomorrow?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe she doesn’t know what questions to ask,” I interrupted.
I often acted as my sister’s dinner-table defense attorney. Like my father, I couldn’t understand why Andreya wouldn’t want to do better in school, but I hated fights between them and it seemed like she needed help. She could express raw emotion better than any of us, but matching my father on logical grounds was not her strength.
“Micah, it’s true that even asking the right questions takes some idea of what’s going on, but you can always get a teacher to repeat something until you understand. Andreya should be talking to the teacher after class one-on-one.”
Andreya’s eyes darkened. I braced myself.
“Can we please talk about something else?” she said.
“No. I think we need to resolve this issue. Don’t you?”
“Andreya . . .”
My father took in a deep breath, then said something that was probably not from any of his psychology textbooks. “Well, I guess it’s up to you. But if you don’t start being more assertive with your education, you’re going to end up stupid with no job!”
“Don’t say that!” my mother shouted.
Andreya slammed down her fork and left the table.
Those two weeks passed slowly. No matter how much the rest of the family tried to pretend everything was okay, when Andreya was in a bad mood, it cast a darkness throughout the whole house. You could hear her silence emanating from her bedroom, and you could feel every word you spoke being hated by her.
But finally, the date of her release came, and the Toub Family Peace Conference was arranged. Being only a junior member of intrafamily affairs, I was not informed of the exact agenda, but it seemed to me that this was not simply a discussion of what to do about Andreya playing a prank on me or sneaking out of the house. It was more of a State of the Family deal and, specifically, was meant to examine the deterioration of the relationship between my father and my sister. Yes, this monumental occasion was going to take the whole, huge, ugly issue of the father-daughter conflict head on.
So there they were, my father asking—begging—my sister to look up at the ceiling and tell him what she saw, and my sister refusing to do it.
“Well,” my father said, after the long silence, “if you won’t talk to me, and you won’t even tell me what you see in the ceiling, I’m going to just say what I’m thinking.” Arny had always preached extreme in-the-moment honesty, even if it meant just taking a guess or saying the wrong thing, a directive my father had been trying to follow. “Or . . . really it’s a feeling. Andreya, when you won’t share with me the problems in your life, and enter into a discussion of how to solve them, I feel like you don’t love me anymore.”
My G.I. Joes on the yellow-tiled linoleum field of battle abruptly halted their combat. There was a brief moment of silence as Andreya’s face reddened, and then came the explosion. “Maybe I don’t!” she screamed, the words ricocheting off the wood paneling, followed by my sister dramatically storming to her bedroom, stomping her feet as hard as possible on the way. The splintering bang of her faux-oak door slamming shut was the loudest sound that was ever heard in that house.
It seems to me now that the problem between my sister and my father might have been my fault. Or rather, it might have been because I was born, which is not technically my fault, but the condom’s. (I’ve been assured by my parents that they were “happy” when they found out I was on the way.)
To gain a greater understanding of how my parents might have learned to view sibling rivalry during their training, I went looking into Jung’s books. I got quickly distracted, however, by a case study Jung shares in The Development of Personality, which details a three-year-old girl’s reaction to the birth of her brother.
Besides inspiring the girl to coax the truth about sex and conception from her parents, the new baby also inspired in her a darker motive.
“On the evening before the birth,” wrote Jung, “when labor pains were just beginning, the child found herself in her father’s room. He took her on his knee and said, ‘Tell me, what would you say if you got a little brother tonight?’ ‘I would kill him,’ was the prompt answer.”
Andreya did not try to kill me—not right away. Initially, she tried to breast feed me. I was told this story when I was very young and during the dark ages of her adolescence I used to think back on it to remind myself that she loved me and, in fact, had once loved me so much she wanted me to be her baby.
“But you wouldn’t do it!” she reminds me to this day.
“I’m sorry!” I always reply.
“It’s okay. I feel bad, though, because when you wouldn’t do it I dropped you and hit you on the head.”
“I know, and I forgive you.”
“I got in major trouble from Mom and Dad for that. They wouldn’t let me touch you for weeks.”
My mother has told me that my father and Andreya were close before I was born. I’ve seen the faded photographs that prove it: my father, sporting a ponytail and a handlebar mustache, holding toddler Andreya; my father in the backyard watching as Andreya played with mud.
I never thought of her as my half-sister—she had been there since I was born. And while her half status became more apparent after I arrived and must have had something to do with her becoming the black sheep of the family, the fact is, her personality simply stood out in contrast to the rest of us.
In addition to being largely uninterested in academics within a family that based a large part of its identity around getting straight A’s, Andreya was a material girl in a family that didn’t believe in such superficiality. Our house was furnished almost exclusively by other people’s junk we’d found at garage sales, while Andreya had a lust for new things, the best things, and lots of things. And in a family devoted to conflict resolution, she wanted to stay angry and wasn’t going to let my parents take that away from her.
The funny thing is, in the suburbs where we lived, Andreya’s personality didn’t stand out so much. The fact that she liked to own nice, new things was not exactly odd in late twentieth-century America. The fact that she wasn’t crazy about New Age ideas in the early 1980s was certainly in sync with the way most people were feeling at the end of the “free love” decades.
Of all the inhabitants in the rows of houses of our suburb, where the backyards all lined up in one long, green stretch with wooden fences dividing them into equal plots, my mother was, I believe, the only adult who ever sunbathed nude. She did this despite the fact that the balconies of the houses on either side of us had clear sightlines into our backyard. And we were probably the only family on the block with Bob Marley blasting out of the stereo and whose family room on occasion took on the sweet scent of marijuana. In my second grade class, I was the only kid whose parents supported Mondale over Reagan, which I discovered when my construction paper cutout of a blue donkey was crushed beneath a pile of red elephants in our mock election. I can guarantee that my father was the only man in the area who practiced regular meditation. Of course, none of this was visible from the outside (save the nudism). My father owned a normal enough Jeep Cherokee, and headed off to work every morning. On his way to help clients use dream signs to navigate their true life paths, he looked just like any other dad heading off in his button-down shirt and slacks. Eventually, though, neighbors would ask what he did for a living and, sticking to his code of honesty, he would be forced to tell them. He once told me that after he’d reveal that he was a psychologist, they were always on guard about what they said to him, fearing that he would analyze them.
So if you take the metaview—as I like to do—my sister was the terrorist of our family, but our family was the terrorist of our neighborhood. Andreya was embedded, so to speak.
Throughout my childhood, I was sheltered from the cynic’s opinion of Jung. Nobody ever said anything overly negative about him to my face. Not until just a few years ago, in fact.
“Jungian therapy is just a way for privileged, middle-class people to feel better about themselves. It’s utterly useless to help people who have real problems,” Helen felt compelled to tell me an hour after I’d arrived from out of town for a visit and had announced excitedly that I was going to write a book about growing up with Jungian parents. It takes a special friend to feel comfortable enough with you to challenge your parents’ whole raison d’être.
Silence, I believe, was my response.
I didn’t have a defense straight off because I hadn’t ever really given it any thought. I’d always assumed that what my parents did for a living was useful, that it was worthwhile for people and even that they were performing an important service to all of humanity. My father had been a Jungian analyst since I was a baby and though my mother had followed him on the Jungian path a bit later in my childhood, that was still before I even understood what their jobs entailed, other than talking to people about their dreams.
Helen was earning her PhD in clinical psychology and had done some of her training at a hospital where people with “real problems”—schizophrenia and other serious mental disorders—came to get healed enough to function in a very basic way. She told me that no one studied Jung anymore in school.
“But Jung helps people uncover the mysteries of their unconscious,” I said. She raised an eyebrow. I laughed sheepishly.
It struck me then that, in contrast to Helen’s job, the Jungian technique of talking to relatively normal people about the mythological content of their dreams did seem kind of soft-focus. Helen deals with the people who don’t choose to go into therapy and most of them couldn’t afford to, regardless. A lot of them would be unable to function on a daily basis without the aid of medication and therapeutic support. Their problems are perhaps more pressing than those of a whining executive who needs help dealing with guilty feelings caused by having two mistresses.
“Your parents just make rich people feel okay about their lives,” Helen repeated. And, presumably, I thought, okay about being rich.
Apparently, Jung had this very concern himself. According to Deirdre Bair’s definitive biography of Jung, when his practice was taking off in the 1920s, his clients mainly consisted of middle-aged women, most of whom were rumored to be in love with him. Jung made wads of cash helping these women with their bourgeois anxieties. Collectively, they were sometimes referred to as the “Jungfrauen,” which was a play on German words. Frauen means “women” but since Jung also meant “young” the whole word carries the meaning “virgin.” So these women were Jung’s virgins. Bair shares the words of a former patient of Jung’s, who wrote in her diary that he’d complained later in life about the situation: “I never seemed to have an interesting patient, some scientific mind, some man of quality who had achieved something at least. Just the eternal line of spinsters. They arrived in droves; it never seemed to end. I used to ask myself ‘why am I cursed?’ But I plodded along, looking after them the best I could, doing my research work on the side.”
Before becoming a student of psychology, Jung was just another cynic about his future profession. At university, Jung was equally interested in hard science as he was in religion and philosophy and agonized over which path to follow (in his memoir he describes at length possessing two personalities—he calls them No. 1 and No. 2—which went to battle over the decision). In the end, he studied medicine because he figured it would give him the best shot at a viable career.
It was while studying medicine that he first picked up a textbook on psychiatry, at the time a loathed profession. “I began with the preface, intending to find out how a psychiatrist introduced his subject or, indeed, justified his reason for existing at all,” Jung wrote. He explains that his early disparaging attitude toward the field was due to the fact that both psychiatric patients and their doctors were locked away in isolation. Nobody heard much from them and the rumor was that the psychiatrist was sometimes as crazy as his patients. Meanwhile, mental disorders were largely unexplainable, so were generally avoided by those in medical school who wanted to have an easy, successful career. But, while reading, Jung came across the phrase “diseases of the personality,” and something clicked in him. His heart started racing, and he realized “that for me the only possible goal was psychiatry.” He’d still harbored an interest in philosophy and metaphysical matters, and psychiatry, he wrote, “at last was the place where the collision of nature and spirit became a reality.”
After graduating, and suffering from ribbings from his medical school buddies, Jung obtained his formative position at the Burghölzli Mental Hospital in Zurich in 1900. It was the same year that Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, though the friendship and professional alliance between the two wouldn’t begin until six years later. At the hospital, Jung was charged to make the rounds to hundreds of patients, taking detailed notes by hand on the status of each one. He often felt frustrated that he did not have more time with them, but he started to do something that was unheard of up until then: he talked to patients as if they were “normal” people, asking them about their personal stories. Through these dialogues and running association tests, Jung came to be able to work with patients who had schizophrenia, known then as dementia praecox.
It was at this time that Jung and Freud first read each others’ work and realized they shared a belief in the unconscious, and had similar methods for discovering the unconscious motives behind psychosis and neurosis. They bonded quickly—at one point Freud even referred to Jung as the “crown prince” of psychoanalysis—but their cooperation was destined to last for only about six years when, finally, Jung became interested in mythology and metaphysics, a direction Freud scorned.
It seemed, from what Helen was saying, academia agreed in the end with Freud’s judgment.
“Helen, you’re on the front lines. Somebody needs to be on the front lines. But Jungian therapy helps people more on a spiritual level.” This was Helen’s husband, William, also an old friend of mine, coming to my defense.
Helen rolled her eyes. “Maybe,” she said, “but I’m just saying, there isn’t even any proof that Jungian therapy works.”
“Everybody needs a different kind of therapist,” I countered. “And it’s more about the bond with the therapist that is important.”
“But nobody has ever tried to collect data to prove it even helps people,” she said finally.
I kept debating, trying different angles to defend Jungian analysis, but in the back of my head I did wonder: Were my parents just the psychological oil of the bourgeois?
The first time I met Arny was in the early 1980s at a large cabin in the Rocky Mountains, a few hours away from where we lived. It was a weekend retreat seminar he ran, which was attended by around twenty people, including my parents.
I remember Arny as a shape shifter, in one minute a mischievous clown capable of a thousand facial expressions and then, in the next, a stern sergeant in command of any room he occupied. He’d carry himself with the ethereal detachment of the Buddha, and then suddenly would peer hawklike into your eyes and say hello to your naked soul. As a young boy I was equal parts intrigued and frightened. Also, Arny seemed rarely to be wearing a shirt.
My sister and I were the only kids at the seminar, but nobody minded us being there. In fact, I once caught some of the adults huddled around a window, watching me as I ran around, pretending to chase down Russian spies in the forests of Siberia. I waved awkwardly when I saw them and then retreated deeper into the woods. (My father later told me that observing me had helped them all contact their inner children.)
When I was tired I’d go inside and sit down next to my parents, who were gathered with everyone else in a big circle in the main room. The scenes I saw in that circle are a blur of participants dancing in slow motion accompanied by high-pitched wails, gripping each other’s forearms like Sumo wrestlers, barking out random swear words and nonsensical insults at each other. It was all a part of Process Work, Arny’s very own splinter sect of Jungian psychology.
Arny started off as a student of physics at MIT, where he was drawn especially to the then-newly-discovered and unexplained world of quantum physics. It was an interest that led him to Zurich, Switzerland, where, as an exchange student, he says he was “trying to follow the path of Albert Einstein” who had also studied in that city. Arny arrived in 1961, coincidentally a week after Jung’s death.
In Zurich, Arny started to have some wild dreams. When he told a friend about them, the friend suggested that Arny go into Jungian analysis. He did, and shortly thereafter, Arny had a dream where Jung told Arny what his life’s purpose was.
“Well, Arny, don’t you know what your job in life is?” Jung said to him in the dream. “Well, the job that you have in your life is to find the connections between psychology and physics.” Not knowing much about psychology, Arny was skeptical of the idea. At the time, Arny says he didn’t think dreams were very important and was more interested in what could be observed in what he later called “consensus reality.” But the dream and Jung’s words stayed with him, he stayed in analysis, and enrolled at the Jungian Institute in Zurich in addition to continuing his studies in physics. After receiving a diploma from the Institute, he completed his PhD in psychology back in the United States, and, soon after, Jung’s prophesy in Arny’s dream became a reality. Arny developed a new therapeutic practice called Process Work, which asks that you examine everything that occurs in your life—especially what occurs in the physicality of your body or in the surrounding environment—as a manifestation of the unconscious. Jung looked at dreams for this, but Arny felt that you should also look at that pain in your ear, persistent headaches, or the energy that seems to be coming from the broom standing in the corner of the room as guiding messages.
Arny, influenced by Eastern philosophy, views everything as essentially connected, so that everything that surrounds us holds a possibility for finding meaning and direction. My father urging my sister to look at the ceiling and describe what she sees was inspired by this philosophy. Of course, this kind of practice is reminiscent of age-old psychological tests like Dr. Rorschach’s inkblots. Process Work takes it a step further, though. Instead of simply describing the inkblots, Arny would ask you to become the inkblot. How would the inkblot move? What would the inkblot say?
And so the political conflict in my family was solidified. On the one side were my parents, wielding their psychological techniques. On the other side was my sister, who didn’t want to have anything to do with those techniques or, increasingly, anything to do with my parents at all. Of course, my parents’ idea of working out the schism with Andreya was to use those same psychological techniques that my sister wanted nothing to do with. And the big surprise is—finally—it didn’t work so well.
Recently, I wondered if there was a solution to the problem of the terrorist. Rather than ask my mother, whom I figured would be biased to some extent by her own role in the family, I decided to go above her head and use Arny—as best as I could conjure him from his books—to figure it out. And, at the same time, put my family on the therapy couch.
A common reaction to the black sheep member of the family is to simply talk about him behind his back and tolerate his presence at gatherings. Or, in extreme cases, exile him. The gay brother would probably be happier on his own anyway, away from his fundamentalist Christian family. And if Susie wants to be a musician, she’s going to have to get used to sleeping on the street. If you kick the loser out of the family, the family becomes a group of winners again, right? Not according to Arny.
Arny explains that the terrorist in a group is not an individual. The terrorist will usually present itself as a person—your little sister with the attitude problem—but that person is simply acting as a receptacle for a role that can be filled by anyone. In his book Sitting in the Fire, Arny put it this way: “Just as no one person or group is the mainstream, so no one person or group is the terrorist. We all find ourselves sometimes in the place of power and other times trying to gain vengeance against the abuses of power.”
In a group, a contrasting figure will often emerge, an enactor of its “unacceptable” behavior. If you remove the terrorist, all you do is leave the role open for someone else to fill. “Roles in groupsare not fixed, but fluid,” writes Arny. “They are filled by different individuals and parties over time, keeping the roles in a constant state of flux.” If you kick the “bad” person out of the family, that role becomes vacant, and, who knows, you might be the next to fill it.
That’s why Arny’s solution to the terrorist problem, unlike that of most powerful governments for most of the last century, is to listen to the terrorist faction and try to understand how its point of view is a necessary one for the mainstream culture to embrace.
If my mother were here helping me to explain this concept, she might ask me, how can we in the mainstream be more like terrorists? I’d respond, Mom, are you crazy, we can’t all strap bombs to our chests and blow up the world. Then she’d ask me, why not? Her eyes would be really wide open when she asked that, which is the sign that she’s speaking metaphorically again. She wants to blow up the world—in theory. She wants us to be willing to shake apart the structures that exist to see what’s really happening.
In a modern-day secular society that contains within it a marginalized fundamentalist group, the initial question might be, how can the mainstream bring more “belief” into its core values? Perhaps if the mainstream examined itself to see what it believed on a fundamental level, it would discover that extreme secularity had erased some important things, which if identified and revived, might create a more whole society and solve some of the conflicts with the marginalized. But this is all just hypothesis. The process would have to be done with both groups in the room so that a real dialogue could begin. Obviously, the larger scale the group and the problem, the more difficult and multifaceted the dialogue will become.
My father’s initial attempt to “fix” things with Andreya—before the infamous Peace Conference—came in the form of two pairs of bright-red inflatable boxing gloves, a picture of Rocky Balboa emblazoned on each one. The gloves, which he brought home with him one evening after work, were made of that same smelly plastic that beach balls are made of. You blew them up with your own breath and then, as quickly as possible, shoved the plug in before too much air had escaped. Once you’d squeezed your fists inside them, the idea was to start whaling at the member of the family you were having a problem with. Looking back, I realize this was my father’s way of incorporating a more raw, nonanalytical form of expression into a family culture where unrestrained expressions of emotion were marginalized.
Of course, my sister refused to ever put them on. There’s not much satisfaction in punching someone who is telling you to do it.
The rejection of unmediated anger is something that Arny has often observed from mainstream groups. “Hidden ‘mainstream’ power,” he writes, “lies behind the generally unexpressed assumption that oppressed people must dialogue politely to work out their problems, even though someone who feels oppressed usually does not want to speak gently.
“Today, conflict-resolution schools often deal with social issues in an academic fashion and avoid working with the experience of rage. The mainstream in every country tends to skirt the anger of the oppressed classes. Politics and psychology pressure outsiders to assimilate and integrate. Western thought is biased toward peace and harmony. That’s why many non-mainstream groups consider the very idea of ‘conflict resolution’ a mainstream fabrication.
Ironically, procedures that implicitly or explicitly forbid anger ultimately provoke conflict, because they favor people who are privileged enough to live in areas where social struggles can be avoided.”
I used the gloves, of course, but not really in the way my father intended. My friend Charlie and I spent hours reenacting Mike Tyson boxing matches and once we got our hands into those gloves, they were quickly filled with too many holes for tape to patch up.
In a way, it’s all academic at this point. The political dynamics of my family didn’t get a chance to be fully played out because, in the middle of these negotiations and interventions, a more serious revolution was about to take place.
In my memory it’s a weekend, but I’m not sure that’s accurate. It could have been any afternoon. The structure of my twelve-year-old routine had been dismantled to the point of causing a disorientation of time. The day before, my parents had filed divorce papers. The reasons behind this could fill up a year’s worth of analysis, but the salient fact of it at that time was that my mother was leaving my father for another man.
Andreya, my father, and I were out in the front yard talking. The grass hadn’t been cut for a few weeks, but we weren’t sitting on the grass. We were sitting on our old family room carpet, because the real estate agent who was selling our house said she wouldn’t put our house on the market until we replaced the brown shag with something new. I kind of felt like we were all stuck to that carpet, like if we stepped off it we would drown.
Up until that point, I’d just assumed everything was going to continue on as it had, but now I saw that routine was only the stand-in for what really lies beneath. What’s really happening, as Arny, or my mother, might say. And in this case, my mother was saying it.
My father was angry. He was sad. And right then, there was nobody that was going to take that away from him. I don’t remember the exact words that he spoke to us out there on the front lawn, but his pain drew me to him. I remember wondering why, in the previous weeks, my mother hadn’t simply looked up at the ceiling and described what she saw.
It was weird—the three of us being out there on that island without my mother. My father, my sister, and I had rarely formed any kind of cohesive unit. What was weirder was that not only was I sympathizing with my father, but my sister was as well. She couldn’t believe that my mother had gone off with this other guy. She was touching my father’s arm sweetly and, I think, mourning the oncoming end of a family in which she had always been the outsider.
It seemed that, momentarily, my sister was no longer the terrorist in our family.
This wouldn’t last very long. Only weeks after that afternoon on the lawn, my sister would be headed off to live with my mother in a different city and I’d be off to live with my father. Tensions between my sister and my father would once again rise and result in the near silence that exists between them today. But that time on the island still exists, as a possibility.
I sat there that day silently and witnessed my father and my sister speaking to each other as if they’d always been close.
Meet the Author
MICAH TOUB grew up in Denver, Colorado. He attended McGill University and now resides in Toronto, where he writes on psychology and other topics, including a biweekly column on relationships from a male point of view for The Globe and Mail.
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