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House as a Mirror of Self presents an unprecedented examination of our relationship to where we live, interwoven with compelling personal stories of the search for a place for the soul. Marcus takes us on a reverie of the special places of childhood--the forts we made and secret hiding places we had--to growing up and expressing ourselves in the homes of adulthood. She explores how the self-image is reflected in our homes/ power struggles in making a home together with a partner/ territory, control, and privacy ...
House as a Mirror of Self presents an unprecedented examination of our relationship to where we live, interwoven with compelling personal stories of the search for a place for the soul. Marcus takes us on a reverie of the special places of childhood--the forts we made and secret hiding places we had--to growing up and expressing ourselves in the homes of adulthood. She explores how the self-image is reflected in our homes/ power struggles in making a home together with a partner/ territory, control, and privacy at home/ self-image and location/ disruptions in the boding with home/ and beyond the "house as ego" to the call of the soul.
As our culture is swept up in home improvement to the extent of having an entire TV network devoted to it, this book is essential for understanding why the surroundings that we call home make us feel the way we do. With this information we can embark on home improvement that truly makes room for our soul.
This ground-breaking book explores what our relationships to our houses reveal about ourselves. Featuring interviews with over 100 people, and their color drawings about their homes as well as photos of their actual homes, UC Berkeley professor Marcus tells us what our houses would say to us if they could talk. Color drawings. Photos.
House as a Mirror of Self
That people could come into the world in a place they could not at first even name and had never known before; and that out of a nameless and unknown place they could grow and move around in it until its name they knew and called with love, and call it HOME, and put roots there and love others there; so that whenever they left this place they would sing homesick songs about it and write poems of yearning for it ... and forever be returning to it or leaving it again!
—William Goyen, The House of Breath
Why was Jean so attached to her house that to move away seemed to threaten her very being? Why did Robert buy what seemed like the perfect dwelling, only to spend as much time away from it as possible? How was it that Alan loved their house and Marion felt sick every time she parked in the driveway? Why did Peter choose a run-down apartment in a dangerous neighborhood when he could have lived anywhere? Why did Sara love her cottage, Jeff his houseboat, Michael his city loft? What is behind these profound feelings about house and home? These are the kinds of questions that have intrigued and fascinated me most of my life. I set out looking for answers and was often stunned by what I learned.
This is a book about people and their homes. It is not about architecture per se, or decorating styles, or real estate, but about the more subtle bonds of feeling we experience with dwellings past and present. Some people have profound memories of a special childhood home and unconsciously reproduce aspects of its form or essence in a house of adulthood. Others find their current dwelling-place curiously uncomfortable, yet know that it has nothing to do with the usual concerns for privacy, security, or personal space. Some people, on experiencing the stress of divorce or death of a loved one, find their bondedness to home to be dramatically changed.
A home fulfills many needs: a place of self-expression, a vessel of memories, a refuge from the outside world, a cocoon where we can feel nurtured and let down our guard. A person without a fixed abode is viewed with suspicion in our society, labeled "vagrant," "hobo," "street person." The lack of a home address can be a serious impediment to someone seeking a job, renting a place to live, or trying to vote. Those of us lucky enough to have a home may rarely reflect on our good fortune.
At the base of this study is a very simple yet frequently overlooked premise: As we change and grow throughout our lives, our psychological development is punctuated not only by meaningful emotional relationships with people, but also by close, affective ties with a number of significant physical environments, beginning in childhood. That these person-place relationships have been relatively ignored is partly due to the ways in which we have chosen to "slice up" and study the world. Psychologists whose domain is the study of emotional development view the physical environment as a relatively unimportant backdrop to the human dramas of life. Those who are interested in people-environment relations—geographers, anthropologists, architects, and those in the newly emerging field of environmental psychology—have for the most part ignored issues dealing with emotional attachment.
Home can mean different things to different people. Those far away from their place of upbringing may refer to England, or China, or "back east" as home. For immigrants to a new country, there may be a long period of adjustment revolving around the issue of just where home is. In young adulthood, many vacillate between thinking of home as where they now live, and thinking of it as where they grew up. For many people living in cities, home may be the village where they were born or the cabin they go to on vacation. City dwellers in Nairobi, Kenya, for example, refer to their ancestral farm or village as home and expect to be buried there when they die. Apartment dwellers in Stockholm, Sweden, often consider home to be the second home, where they spend weekends and vacations on the coast or in the forest. Ties to the land and nature, and memories of extended family, prove stronger than the mere number of days spent in a particular dwelling.
Much of my academic career has focused on low-income housing. I was intrigued to discover what the residents of public housing projects felt about the physical environment in which they lived, all the more so when the design of that environment had received an award from the American Institute of Architects. Did professional appraisal and resident experience coincide?.
I was interested in this question because most people of low or modest income have little choice about where they live, while the designers of the housing projects rarely have the time, training, or inclination to ask them about their preferences. I authored a couple of books that attempted to fill this gap, using a format that designers could consult at the drawing board.
As I continued this work, I became vaguely dissatisfied. I was learning and communicating a lot about house (kitchen design, room layout, privacy needs, inadequate storage, and so on), but little about home. During my early years as a graduate student and young faculty member at Berkeley, I moved ten times in ten years. Each time, the actual physical move was followed by weeks, sometimes months, of getting used to the new place. Hanging pictures, moving houseplants around, rearranging furniture, I gradually created a home in each new setting. I reflected on my own feelings about moving and settling into a new place and realized that my door-to-door surveys in housing projects were only skimming the surface of what house and home mean to the human heart. I searched in the library but found little guidance: Psychologists, anthropologists, architects, planners—few had delved into the deeper emotional meanings of home. Novelists and playwrights, filmmakers and poets had more profound insights. Reading Swiss psychologist Carl Jung's autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, was a turning point. Here was a deeply reflective man who had built his own house and linked its form with aspects of his own psychological development. This was the start of a new direction in my work, which has absorbed me for the past twenty years.
Since the mid-1970s, I have talked with more than sixty individuals about their homes, most of them living in the San Francisco Bay Area. The people I spoke with were young and old, owners and renters, men and women. The dwellings they lived in ranged from urban mansions, rented apartments, cottages, and suburban homes, to converted factories, houseboats, mobile homes, convents, and domes in the forest. Some people were wealthy enough to own two houses but felt at home in neither of them. Others lived in great contentment in a single room or an illegal self-built shack. What all these people had in common was a strong emotional relationship with their homes, either positive or negative. Some felt profoundly at home; others felt distressingly alienated. What I was interested in discovering through the real-life stories of a wide variety of people was why people felt the way they did about their homes.
The people I talked with were from a range of backgrounds, but all had a number of things in common: They all had strong feelings about where they lived and were able—and willing—to share these feelings with me; and they all had some degree of economic freedom about how and where they lived. In this particular study, I was interested in people who had a certain amount of choice: Given some degree of freedom, where did people select to live? What kind of dwelling did they choose? How did they relate to their furniture and possessions? If they disliked where they lived, what would be an ideal home? I did not talk with the very poor, with residents of housing projects, or with homeless people; for some of them, my questions might have seemed strange, superfluous, even insulting. Nor did I talk with the very rich, or those who employed professional interior designers. I was interested in the average, middle-of-the-road house- or apartment-dweller who had created their own homes, whatever they might now feel about it. Each story is unique, and yet there is a touch of Everyman/woman in all of them.
It is not necessarily comfortable to talk about feelings with a relative stranger. Two things made this easier for the people I spoke with. First, I made no attempt to select a random sample, so people were not contacted via an unexpected phone call or formal letter. All of them volunteered to speak with me, having heard of my work, either through a friend or through a lecture or informal talk where I spoke about it. Thus, if people knew they would be very uncomfortable talking about feelings, they didn't volunteer. Those who did—regardless of gender, educational level, or socioeconomic status—had some capacity for expressing their feelings.
Another reason why people were able to talk freely—often emotionally and poetically—about their feelings for home was, I think, the particular method I used. Even with the best rapport, it is not easy for people to launch into an answer to the question: How do you feel about your home? How I stumbled upon a better approach is a story in itself.
In the early 1970s, I wrote a paper entitled "The House as a Symbol of the Self." It was a "think-piece," partially inspired by the work and theories of Carl Jung, and was published in several academic readers. While I was gratified by letters from people telling me that they had been inspired by this article, I was impatient to move on, to find out from "real people" whether some of the ideas in this paper had validity. Academic colleagues tried to make helpful suggestions regarding controlled experiments, but that was not the route I wanted to follow. Meanwhile, I was busy raising two small children and put the project on the back burner.
By the mid-1970s, I found myself going through the emotional turmoil of a divorce. For support and guidance, I joined a women's group run by a therapist using the Gestalt approach. A year later, two Roman Catholic sisters, Pat and Joanna, joined the group. Pat had recently moved to California from Tucson, Arizona, where she had lived in a convent close to the desert. One evening, she began to talk about how much she missed the desert where she had gone each day to pray and meditate. Since a basic technique of Gestalt therapy is role playing, the therapist running the group suggested that Pat talk to the desert and tell it her feelings. The resulting dialogue between Pat and the desert was poetic and deeply moving. Scales fell from my eyes! If Pat could speak so eloquently to—and as—the desert (an inanimate setting), why couldn't I ask people to do the same with their houses?
I interviewed a few members of the women's group who had strong feelings about their homes, using this role-playing approach. The results were more than I had hoped for. I had finally found a method with which I could proceed. In order to learn to use this approach in a responsible way, I went into training with Anita Feder-Chernila, a Gestalt counselor leading the women's group referred to above. My motivation was not to become a therapist, but to utilize role playing as a means of uncovering feelings in a way that would not be damaging to my informants.
Each story in this book was told to me while sitting in the person's own home. I found this to be a necessary part of putting people at ease. In order to have them begin to focus on their emotions, I first would ask that the person put down his or her feelings about home in a picture; I supplied a large pad of paper, crayons, and felt pens. If they objected with "Oh—I can't draw," I reassured them that this was not a test in drawing, but rather an opportunity for them to focus on their feelings without speaking. Some people did childlike house diagrams with words or colors indicative of feelings. Others produced mandala-like symbols, semiabstract images, or artistic renderings. For most people, it seemed that this experience of beginning to explore feelings in a visual image while I absented myself from the room was extremely helpful in allowing them to focus before starting to talk.
While this was going on, I would wander around the house or apartment, taking photos and notes about how the setting seemed to me. Then, after fifteen to twenty minutes, I would return and ask the person to describe, somewhat objectively, what they had put on paper. For example, a young woman who was happy with her recently purchased woodsy house described how she had first drawn an image of a pond with the phrase, calm like water in a pond and then had added small, smiling houses and the words cosy, spacious, gracious, and lovely.
After the person had described what they had put down, I would place the picture on a cushion or chair about four feet away and would ask them to speak to the drawing as if it were their house, starting with the words, "House—the way I feel about you is ..." At an appropriate moment, I would ask them to switch places with the house, to move to the other chair and speak back to themselves as if they were the house. In this way, I facilitated a dialogue between person and house, which often became quite emotional, sometimes generated laughter, and occasionally brought forth statements beginning, "Oh, my God ...," as some profound insight came into consciousness.
A recently divorced woman, for example, spoke to the house she had left and had never liked; the house, in turn, was glad she was gone, since it had never felt cared for. A retired man shared his feelings of profound attachment to a home which mirrored that of a beloved grandfather. A woman who lost her home to fire grieved as if for a deceased lover. A middle-aged man rejected home, family, and job as he went through a crisis of identity.
If, as sometimes happened, the dialogue aroused deep emotion or unexpected insights, I made sure before I left that the person had a close friend, partner, spouse, or therapist with whom to continue the conversation. In some cases, I did two or three interviews with the same person over a seven- to ten-year period; in this way, particularly fascinating insights were gained as to the different meanings of home at different stages in a person's life. For example, a professional woman who hated the house her husband had remodeled reflected very different feelings about home when I interviewed her in her own cozy apartment five years after a divorce.
To protect the privacy of those I interviewed, some requested that I not use their real names. In a few cases, details of location have been changed for a similar reason. The many extensive quotes throughout this book are the verbatim words of those I talked with, tape-recorded, and transcribed. Many interviews lasted two hours or more, hence the quotes represent a small proportion of what any individual actually said. I have attempted to recount these stories as accurately as possible. Where a sentence or two has been omitted from a particular quote in order to facilitate smooth-flowing text, I have not observed the standard academic practice of three-dot ellipses (...) to indicate that something is missing.
The more stories I listened to, the more it became apparent that people consciously and unconsciously "use" their home environment to express something about themselves. On a conscious level, this is not a new insight. We have all had the experience of visiting new friends in their home and becoming aware of some facet of their values made manifest by the environment—be it the books on their shelves, art (or the lack of it) on the walls, the degree to which the house is open or closed to the view of visitors, and so on. All of these represent more or less conscious decisions about personal expression, just as our clothes or hairstyle or the kind of car we drive are conscious expressions of our values. What is more intriguing and less well recognized is that we also express aspects of our unconscious in the home environment, just as we do in dreams. Adolescents may leave their rooms in disarray as an unconscious gesture of defiance against their parents. A woman may buy a home, unconsciously emulating the style of a much-loved deceased relative. Or a man may be mystified as to why he rented a house that is completely inappropriate for his needs, only to discover later that it is a copy of a childhood home that is still reverberating in his unconscious.
Excerpted from House as a Mirror of Self by Clare Cooper Marcus. Copyright © 1997 Clare Cooper Marcus. Excerpted by permission of NICOLAS-HAYS, INC..
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One * House as a Mirror of Self
Two * The Special Places of Childhood
Three * Growing Up: Self-Expression in the Homes of Adulthood
Four * Always or Never Leaving Home
Five * Becoming More Fully Ourselves: Evolving Self-Image as Reflected in
Six * Becoming Partners: Power Struggles in Making a Home Together
Seven * Living and Working: Territory, Control, and Privacy at Home
Eight * Where to Live? Self-Image and Location
Nine * The Lost House: Disruptions in the Bonding with Home
Ten * Beyond the House-as-Ego: The Call of the Soul