A correspondence last week prompted me to write down some thoughts regarding how to think symbolically about crimes that occur in our society. Without being able to consider unconscious motivations for criminal activity, people can be left endlessly wondering, “Why?!” “Why did that have to happen?” “How could we have stopped it?” Society at large must learn that in addition to conscious motivations for crimes (revenge, money etc.) there are also endless unconscious motivations that can leave everyone confused, including the perpetrator himself. Mentally ill or generally healthy, there are psychological imperatives to growth that must be taken seriously and can take control of one’s life if they are not appreciated. There have been a number of young men in recent history in the States (and elsewhere) who have killed their parents. The exploration of these actual events can provide insight into what the individual was attempting symbolically to actualize. When abuse and violence were not part of the household, a particular motivation is hard to divine. Symbolically speaking, all young men need to find a way to “kill their parents”, to kill the psychological ties to their parents that keep them infantilized so that they can live full, independent lives. This is a critical aspect of development that, if not actualized internally, can literally drive men insane. Young men with no abuse history can be driven mad with frustration and confusion about how to separate completely from their parents, emotionally, economically, and psychologically. This separation of boys from their parents, mothers in particular, was once actualized through ritual initiation ceremonies that once took place in communities all over the world (ceremonies that were archetypally extremely similar, though they could never have been influenced by one another). Boys of around 13 years of age would be taken into the forest or desert, separated from their clan, and be forced to submit to an often painful and terrifying ritual death. Their mothers back in the community would grieve their deaths as if they had actually died. When the boys returned to the villages, they would be transformed and reborn as men. They would psychologically be different, and all of their familiar ties would be altered.
Of course, this doesn’t happen any longer. Social laws protecting children would never allow such a radical form of ritual initiation. But the “archetype of initiation”, which Jungian Analyst Joseph Henderson explores beautifully in his book Thresholds of Initiation, appears in any young person unconsciously when it has not been consciously evoked.
No individual can grow to full adulthood psychologically without some form of radical separation from their parents. I would argue that the journey of Christopher McCandless, depicted in the book and film Into the Wild, chronicles a young man’s attempt to actualize this psychological imperative. Tragically, his own journey ended in his death. What should have been a symbolic death was made literal without proper mentorship and guidance. So many of the travels of young people into the world can be seen in this same light; whether it’s joining the army, or traveling abroad, or hitchhiking across country, or perhaps experiencing a painful internal crisis, the travails of many people in their teens and twenties are related to a deep, unconscious search for physical and psychological independence.
Sometimes, it can take form in an act of violence.
Andrew Solomon wrote an excellent piece for The New Yorker about the father of Adam Lanza, the Connecticut shooter, who killed his mother before his shooting spree at Sandy Hook. According to Solomon:
Matricide is usually committed by overprotected boys—by a son who wishes, as one study puts it, “with his desperate act, to free himself from his state of dependency on her, a dependency that he believes has not allowed him to grow up.”
If one feels that there is no way to wrestle oneself out of dependence on the mother, he may irrationally conclude that the only way to do so is to literally kill her. Again, the symbolic necessity of matricide may become tragically literal if it can not occur within psyche.
The journey to separate from one’s parents can be undertaken through difficult personal trials, a deeply engaging therapeutic experience, and risk taking which need not be related to drugs or violence. This pursuit may indeed be terrifying to one’s parents, but if some trust can be established with them, hopefully the process can find a healthy end in which the young person feels like an adult and not just like they have the external trappings of adulthood. In this process, mature adults, mentors, and a non-punitive society, which allows young people to screw-up without throwing them in prison, is critically helpful.
Q: I’m in an underground room, all white and I’m making a horror movie. A scruffy hippy in his 30s is playing an innocent little girl who I’m chopping up and burying in a white bathtub. I have a big bowl of pasta sauce I’m using for blood. I have work appointments and I need to get upstairs for them, so I’m telling her to wait in the bathtub so we can keep doing the movie when I get back. I look in the tub and next to where the girl is shoved into the tub there are many flower bulbs growing. I see them working to make their way to the surface. I have a change of heart, upon seeing them. I feel hope, like spring is coming. I put the lid on, leave the room, and start walking up the stairs to my appointments. Halfway up the stairs I think, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I turn around and go back to the room, open the door, and the little girl is standing inside the door. I tell her we can stop and not finish the movie. I feel relieved and I start cleaning the pasta sauce splatters off the surfaces of the room.
A: It’s a blood bath! Or so it seems. That symbolic phrase denotes slaughter, a theme that is repeated throughout your dream. You are filming a horror movie and (forgive the gruesome repetition) chopping up the little girl. But… this slaughter is not real, it’s just a movie: the blood is pasta sauce, the girl is unharmed, and you can put the whole thing on pause as needed. The realization that this is only a pseudo nightmare suggests to me that you already have a good handle on what this inner turmoil has meant for you. You can look at it through a separate lens. It also seems, however, that your inner life has had to take a back seat to your work life for a while (note that you try to “put a lid on it” as you head to your appointments). But things are shifting now. As you are climbing the stairs, an image that suggests you’re gaining consciousness around this issue, you stop short and state clearly: “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Thank goodness.
You’ve been in a state of emotional fragmentation (dismemberment) but you are moving towards new growth and wholeness (spring and the little girl standing up in the doorway). Things have undoubtedly been difficult lately, and your role as the director of the horror film suggests that your conscious mind has believed it was her duty to be hard on you. Your ego self was directing the torture of your inner child. Your conscious mind has been putting your vulnerable parts through the wringer. But you’ve had a definite change of heart. You don’t need to do that anymore. You’ve developed some self-empathy where it may have been lacking. A new time is dawning. Spring is on the way.
The images in this dream are really quite remarkable in their archetypal and alchemical progression. The mythological motifs that appear are worth further exploration to shed light on this dream, your own personal myth. For starters, the descent into the basement where there is a little girl and a scruffy man, as well as the motif of the return of spring, point to the myth of Persephone in which Hades abducts the newly matured young woman and takes her to the underworld. Despite the abduction and suffering that Persephone and her mother Demeter undergo, this story reflects the growth of a young woman into an independent person, away from her more psychically binding relationship with her mother. She is stolen into the depths, but she finds growth and union there as well. This myth is also a wonderful reminder of the cyclical nature of our inner lives. It can be helpful to remember that, when things are hard, new growth will follow: year after year, the frost of winter melts and spring arrives. Descents into the underworld are a natural part of human psychology and from those periods of life we can find new growth. Out of the blood, you see flower bulbs growing.
Another parallel story is the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Fitcher’s Bird, in which a new bride discovers the dismembered and bloody bodies of her sisters in a tub behind a locked door. (Yikes!) Ultimately, this young woman saves herself and her once chopped-up sisters, putting them back together again and bringing them back to life. It is a story of the redemption of feminine power and strength, and it’s a story that can represent the conscious transition of a woman into a new level of psychic independence. As there is no mother in the beginning of this story, it has also been interpreted as recovering a self-care instinct for women without proper mothering in childhood.
There is a great deal in your dream that also reflects the alchemical stages of development: the colors red and white, the blood, the dismemberment, and spring. Like stages in Kundalini yoga and other systems of enlightenment, alchemical imagery reflects psychic progression and growth. The goal of alchemy, like the work with the unconscious, is to turn non-valuable matter into gold: to turn the stuff of life into greater consciousness. We could explore the alchemical themes in this dream for ages, but to keep things brief here, I’ll share a quote from Jung with you which suggests the real power and benefit of this bloody scene in this all white room: “…In this state of ‘whiteness’ one does not live in the true sense of the word, it is a sort of abstract, ideal state. In order to make it come alive it must have ‘blood,’ it must have what the alchemists call the rubedo, the ‘redness’ of life… Blood alone can reanimate a glorious state of consciousness” (as quoted in Edinger, Anatomy of Psyche, p.147).
A new phase of creativity and life is dawning, my dear. All the images point in that direction. There is blood, life force, an image also synonymous in alchemical language with fire, heat, passion, energy. You are also moving upstairs from the depths. The girl is whole again. Flowers are growing. And you state that you are ready. Some youthful, vulnerable part of you is now free to move forward and integrate into your consciousness. There is so much more for you to explore, should you choose to do so. How old is that girl, for instance? What was happening at that stage in your life? And what about that scruffy hippy? Who does he remind you of? But regardless of how deeply you continue to explore these images for yourself, I feel confident that you’re emerging from what sounds like a difficult period. Trust it. Spring is coming.
Have you had a dream like this? Leave a comment and share!
Satya is a Jungian psychotherapist in private practice in Portland, Oregon specializing in dream work, the quarter-life crisis, and work with individuals in their late teens, 20s, and 30s. www.QuarterLifeCounselor.com