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THE DEATH MOTHER

An Archetype of Our Times and
What She Tells Us about Trauma

Pat B. Allen

I am rereading an interview with Jungian analyst Marion Woodman in an old copy of The Sun. I am reading on the toilet, annoyed that I don't have something more current to read, I've read this piece about ten times. She is talking about Jung's idea of the shadow and says she's working on a new book about what she calls the "Death Mother". Today this phrase rivets me as if I am reading it for the first time. "When we become possessed by the death-mother archetype, we feel an unconscious longing for death. It's different from Jung's "negative mother," which hits us in the mind with criticism and shames us into self-rejection. The Death Mother hits us in the body. We feel stung, paralyzed. We give up in despair. Our body is turned to stone, and we abandon who we are." p. 12. Woodman feels this archetype is at the center of our world right now. She distinguishes it from the surrender to the Divine that comes in praying "thy will be done."

I know this Death Mother. She emerged in a scribble drawing years ago during my own Jungian analysis. Her catch phrase is "What's the use?" Woodman is right that the Death Mother is an archetype of the body. I keep her at bay through daily, rigorous exercise, running, walking, lifting weights or yoga. She lives close by my soul, ready to spin a fog that prevents me from moving and more frightening, from creating. She haunted my art school days when I would often abandon work on the brink of completion, unable to imagine a successful outcome. My way of dealing with her now is adaptive, healthy, I think. Yet, I am uneasy, maybe I need to get to know her more fully. If, as Woodman suggests and I tend to agree, she is at the center of the world, shouldn't I invite her to speak? Can't I learn more than to keep her at bay?

A night or two later I awake in a hot flash, the kind that isn't just sweats but a fiery tingling that begins in my fingers and toes and relentlessly snakes inward from my extremities to my heart. I believe this is a transformative impulse, the forging of a new self, not some random hormonal errata. I have decided that when this happens the Creative Source is speaking. When so possessed, I am commanded to move. I get up and as I often do, stumble into my studio. I write my intention: I open to the Death Mother, and allow her to arrive. I make a messy watercolor painting and return to bed, falling into sleep immediately.

death mother

"Death Mother"

In the morning I look at the image but don't witness her. But I write down a dream I had: I am jogging along lake Shore Drive. It is unseasonably warm. I see Bill Clinton leaning against his car, which has broken down. He tells me that no one has stopped to help him. It is an old car, a maroon Chevy, like one my husband had when I first met him. The floor was rusted through and the front seat no longer attached to the floor. Bill and I laugh about the car and walk hand in hand towards Oak St.

I am busy preparing to leave town for the American Art Therapy Association conference in New Orleans. I don't think a lot about the dream. I will be teaching a pre-conference course in Studio Process, an all-day opportunity to make art and witness. Since the imaginal realm has no linear time, it is easy to pick up where I left off. The messy watercolor image is alive in me. I invite her to return during my conference workshop. I witness the new image of the Death Mother that I paint in the class:

I began with red and orange fire marks on wet paper which have faded to pink and coral. Then the black seated figure. The red of her eyes and mouth, breasts and vagina fade into the murky grey-black of her body.

P: Your mouth is open, hands are open. Who are you? You are familiar from that other night painting and the one long ago (although you were in disguise in the old one, dressed like a waspish schoolmarm and wearing a wig and garish lipstick)

She: Yes. Shut up and listen. I am tired of waiting in the box.

P: The box?

She: The box where despair keeps me in most of you. Don't you see that despair is important step it is a crucial step to...

P: To what? To What? I talk because I don't want to know...I talk fast, is the world ending ending ending DING! Times up the little red thing pops up in the turkey, dinner is ready, the goose is cooked!!!

She: Whoa sister!

P: Oh, now I look at you again, you are Katrina, am I being trite? The Death Mother?

She: Damn right. I take everything, your poor, your smelly demented masses, your pompous asses, yearning yearning yearning yearning why do you think people here (in New Orleans) are, were So alive? They lived close enough to me to smell my swampy breath and so their choice of life was is LIFE capital L!! They did not try to preserve themselves with health foods they danced with me and sang with me and loved and lusted all around me...You, the rest of you need to see this face the face of transformation that is giving up sinking into the murky black nothing. Because that is what you are doing. Transformation is happening, the only choice you have is what it will look like: war, pestilence frogs blood It can be plagues but it can be pleasure Love each other into newness...

P: You sound a little hucksterish

She: So?

P: So, I don't know..

She: This is a time of re-vival re-vival Bill Clinton knows that, that's why he came in your dream. Let me be then make it all more gaudy and intense.

Throughout the conference I alternate between attending presentations about brain research and workshops where I make art. Trauma is a constant theme. The same message comes from each presenter in a slightly different way: trauma occurs when the body cannot move, not just away from danger but towards home, towards loved ones and meaning.

new orleans death mother
"New Orleans Death Mother"

We humans react by fight, flight or freeze. Some animals freeze when a predator is nearby. They fade into stillness and blend with their surroundings. I watch the squirrels do this sometimes when I walk my dog Bina, a terrier bred for catching rodents.

When we humans freeze, a part of our experience goes into exile. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a neurologist and one of the speakers, says that in trauma, the frontal lobe of the brain shuts down. We no longer produce language but do continue to produce images. The limbic system of the brain takes over. We must take action, run, hide or fight. Once the body is safe it comes to rest. The essence of trauma is that something prevents action. Van der Kolk says that overcoming inaction is necessary for the recovery from trauma. The energy that is suppressed in the 'freeze' response becomes toxic as it is held in the body. Intense feelings of helplessness and anger congeal when they are dissociated from effective physical action.

Van der Kolk says that action and movement help the body come to a sense of safety. Bradford Keeny, a family therapist and the subject of the book American Shaman agrees. He believes talk doesn't always help, but dancing, singing, touching and transcendent prayer often do and instead of helping people calm down we should be helping them become more aroused (Kottler and Carlson, 2004, p. xi). This arousal takes place within a social support network that holds the traumatized person in safety. In Keeny's experiences with shamans around the world, the village gathers to hold and witness, to shake with and dance with the person in need. The community is restored to balance along with the individual who is manifesting the problem.

When the energy aroused by trauma can be transformed into something else, a flow of life force energy resumes. For this to happen the memory of the trauma must be reactivated safely and be completed with a different outcome. Yet, van der Kolk holds, healing is not about telling stories, which can re-traumatize the individual and even traumatize the listener, (see B. Fish on the idea of "Harm's Touch" Allen, 2005, p. 214) since no action is possible. He challenged the art therapy truism this way: "The expression of misery on paper doesn't necessarily liberate anyone. Expression is sometimes necessary but never sufficient."

The return to the site or source of trauma via imagery can activate the Death Mother, the "What's the use?" response. I believe she inhabits the zone of transition like the hungry ghosts in the bardo as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. She evokes a sensation of fog, of melting into nothing. She is about dis-connection. She is not Kali with the sword of truth, she is an opium pipe, a hit of crack, a numbing airbrush of the here and now. Some of us keep her at bay via counter phobic busyness, activity that has the illusion of meaning but mostly tires us out enough that we don't have to meet the Death Mother in our dreams. Marion Woodman sees addictions to drugs and alcohol as a common response to the unconscious allure of the Death Mother.

Without the ability to imagine different outcomes and move toward them, the past cannot be completed, only repeated. Isn't this what we witness everyday played out in our foreign policy in Iraq, in Israel? Our politicians spin a broken record because it's the only one they have. One can keep acting when in the grip of the Death Mother archetype but cannot initiate any new action because her currency, the sensation of despair, is denied and so the body is locked down. Trauma shuts down the left-brain. Van der Kolk says: "Trauma circumvents the tyranny of language." Parts of the brain know things that other parts don't know. The sensate body knowing cannot give words to despair. The Death Mother produces a profound sense of being just outside of reality, next to one's self but not really inhabiting one's own skin.

In sharing this work with my friend Wendy Lauter, artist, art therapist and rebbetzin, she reminds me that many women carry the Death Mother archetype from and for their own mothers. Many of our mothers did not have agency in their own lives, which were sharply circumscribed by caretaking and strict role expectations of submission in traditional marriages, at times complicated by histories of sexual and emotional abuse. It wasn't until the consciousness raising of the women's movement in the 1960's and 1970's that women began to find words for their body knowing and share their experiences with one another.

Forgiveness, Wendy says, is what we must strive for. We must forgive our mothers and our selves and forgive the men as well, fathers, husbands and even the men in power who were and are living out of an unconscious template. The chaos and disorder we see now in the world is in fact the disintegration of that template that for generations held our lives in place and with it the trauma associated with not having voice for experience. Enormous energy is being freed up, especially for women, as the old order teeters on the brink of collapse. The temptation of both rage and despair are great right now, especially for women. In contrast to the hopeless "what's the use?" of the Death Mother violence and attach can seem libratory. We must let the air out of the Death Mother when she enters the room. We must strengthen one another not to give up or to attack but rather to activate the imagination as we together envision the world in which men, women and children live in peace and creative harmony with all inhabitants of the earth. We must create a new round of consciousness raising groups where men and women alike can share the unnamed despair engendered by a violent and changing world. These groups are being created in churches, sometimes called 'chalice groups' and even in social change movements such as the Network of Spiritual Progressives of which I am a member. We call them 'Spirit Matters' groups and they make a space for personal support and reflection of the emotional and psychological aspects that can undermine our activist work.

In a conference workshop combining art and movement, Meghan Pugh invites us to notice a frozen or painful part of the body. She asks us to call in a quality for the experience. I choose compassion and focus on my pelvic floor. Meghan tells us that different parts of the body shut down with different types of trauma. I remember that the original Death Mother scribble drawing I made many years ago had her legs forming a distorted lotus posture that locked her pelvis. Although we have a very brief art making time, I create a small sculpture of a vulva out of cotton batting covered with bright tissue paper, a flower at the top and a golden cord winding through it. We witness to our image and experience.

I see bright magenta and soft pink, a magenta flower with a red nodule and white tendrils, coming out a gold cord runs through and circles out the bottom. In the visualization I enter my body through the pelvic floor and inside is soft and wet and warm, like being in a living bed. I am surprised at how lovely it is and bright. What do you have to tell me?

-We are waiting for you to come home

P: You and who else?

-The Death Mother, which of us will you choose?

P: I don't know what you mean...

-Yes, you do, you have been having fantasies that you've done enough, it would be okay to go now.

P: No, well, yes I guess I have from time to time, I don't mean it

-You think it, you mean it

P: I've tried to force this place often before, force entry into my body...I WANT it to be true, even though I know WANT is the fact of not having.

-Let it be true, let it be, this is a time of waiting, not pushing, being with, not trying so hard, if you can wait and not want, it will unfold, break open in its time.

P: How can I trust this?

-How can you not trust it? With all you know and have done and witnessed?

P: So you or the Death Mother?

-That's right: "YES!" or "What's the use?" There is the in between place for just a while longer then you have to choose...

P: Choose life, that's why I chose Judaism, Catholicism has the Death Mother lurking right behind the Virgin Mary. The only way to keep that pristine virginity is to give in the Death Mother.

-Okay, Okay calm down, she isn't really all-powerful you know, she's more like a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon; you decide how much air to pump her up with.

P: I know I am sensitive to her expression from others; I react against her, what is the right reaction, the right relation to her?

-Compassion, the quality you called in. She has many faces, the waspish schoolmarm is one, the suicide bomber is her son...just don't try to root her out and make it a witch hunt, compassion, compassion....

P: I feel like knowing her is important somehow.

-You do know her, its me you don't know, joy, sensuality, dancing, fun. I am where you need to go.

P: but I need to make peace with her somehow. I think she took my mother

-Yes, she did, but that's gone now. Your mother made her choices within the limits of her time and space, now you make yours, they need not be the same. It doesn't honor your mother to follow her but to release her with compassion and go your own way

Forgiveness.

Linney Wix and Josie Abbenante offer a workshop called Imagination in a Time of Ruin. I am captivated by the title. This is exactly it. They start the session by reading a Mary Oliver poem, a line of which "...here or nowhere I will make peace with the fact..." Yes. This is the message. I make my intention for compassion for what is. I forgo the enticing array of materials they have generously set out and return to my watercolor of the Death Mother. I am sitting next to my dear friend, Patty Isis, who prefers Patricia, I understand, it's my name too, and it doesn't fit me either. Neither of us would have ever been party to driving the snakes out of Ireland. I show her the image, which I have been carrying around the conference all week. She says "Its so seductive". I, who make it a point of forbidding commentary on artwork, am released by her words. Yes, this Death Mother is seductive. Seduce: to persuade to disobedience; to lead astray with false promises...usually to sexual intercourse. Some kind of key here. Not a story, not a story of sexual seduction, no, my earliest seduction was away from the world by the Death Mother. Is this true? I witnessed by mother's seduction by the Death Mother. She left me for death, that's how it felt. She preferred Death. To have been sexually seduced would have been to betray my mother. Perhaps to live in full-embodied joy and sensuality would be to betray all the women who suffered in silence, body divorced from mind, sentenced to victimhood and anonymity.

Obey is from audire, to hear. I am struggling to hear today, my ears are clogged up. From too much travel I tell myself, another way of saying from not being still and sitting with what is. Here, hear, hear, ye hear ye. Shema. Listen! I look at the Death Mother painting. Small figures drown and struggle in her flowing blood river. Small figures rise in the flames behind her; they wipe the slate clean, start over, give up. They cash in.

I write: I know you are holy because everything is holy but I do not know your holiness.

While other workshop participants around me tear paper, paint and apply glitter to constructions built from cardboard, I sit and meticulously paint black spaces to define the flames surrounding the Death Mother. I witness:

I returned to you with a tiny paintbrush slowly increasing the black in the white or pale spaces creating shapes, abstract shapes amidst the red and orange and yellow. You asked to have some of the black around your eyes lightened. Your gaze does not meet mine. If I remove my glasses, soften my gaze I see only your form. Is the light (around the figure) right? Yesterday I added yellow, an aureole around your black shape. Is this a lie? With my softened vision it, the yellow, seems false. You are silent. I see that I have tried to redeem you with light.

Linney and Josie have us pair up and read what we write to a partner then in the large group of more than twenty, we are to choose a phrase and read it. I am writing down phrases that move me as others read before I realize that Josie is doing that too, transcribing for all of us. A poem is formed from the scraps I collect:

It is not yet pointed and pushing upward
Slicing into five different places
Crossing out a hint of the festive debris
Party, New Orleans!
Damp and wobbly swamp green house
beauty in the ruins
The bones so clean and bleached pierce,
attempt to pierce culture
Color life's burning passion for life
Sanitized death rough to smooth,
Black bottom
Holding wide-open mouths
Looking directly at you
What once was.
The rest is elemental
Stop. Dance.
Let it dry more.
The storm is the digger, not me
Backbone of Nature, enduring Eden
Is the light a lie?
Darkness, the black void
Wade in,
Wade in see what you find, bring it back*

*The last sentence is from a conversation with my friend Janis Timm-Bottos, but it completes the poem. This is the point. Not that there is trauma and we try to recover or help others recover but that we wade into what-is and find something, bring it back. Then we make something new. We activate the imagination and take action directed by new imaginings.

This past semester my students were all very bright and struggling, struggling to understand themselves. "I always believed if I could say what is wrong, it would free me," Cass writes in her final paper. But it doesn't happen. Expression, as van der Kolk states, may sometimes be necessary but is never sufficient. Cass has a breakthrough when she makes something three-dimensionally. Her paintings, highly abstract automatist works gave her more and more tiny spaces in which to hide. The repetition of the tiny spaces in Cass' paintings remind me of the black spaces that delineate the flames of the Death Mother as well as the tiny figure in the flames and the blood sea. As I painted them I felt myself drifting into a mute zone of self-soothing. Cass begins to incorporate small objects, fragments of circuitry, into her paintings after she makes a small sculpture in class with found objects. "Working them through the canvas and figuring out various ways to literally connect the objects without using glue...I decided on this because I feel it is more helpful to actually MAKE connections and bonds rather than just dropping a dab of glue or taping." She describes the breakthrough piece, a 3-D box which: "...did more than express an idea. Rather I had to make it come together and literally express the idea through tying and wrapping and making physical connections."

So the coda to this meandering meditation is the drive through the devastated parishes of New Orleans on Sunday with Yoshi, Joe, Ryan and Barbara. Generous of the guys, since they are facing the drive back to Chicago afterwards.

We don't get out of the car; except once to use a restroom in a gas station and get gas. We simply slow down to take photos from the car windows.

I see a lot of wrecked homes, splintered walls, roofs sliding over onto the ground, chairs on the roof, nativity scene, its characters tipped over onto the driveway face down, a stuffed blue Eeyore behind the wheel of a boat on a trailer in the driveway

new orleans

"New Orleans 2006"

new orleans flag

"New Orleans 2006"

Tattered American flags flapping on poles askew, a chandelier hangs and shivers in the breeze that blows through what once was a dining room.

We drive and drive. Ryan gives directions sporadically "turn left at the next street". Why are we doing this? What will we do with the images?

new orleans dining room

Katrina and Rita attended the AATA conference and sat up front and sometimes blocked the view. I felt their presence as the powerful feminine energy of nature telling us that we have a role in change, in how the inevitable transformation of the world looks and feels.

Saks Fifth Ave. had a grand opening down the street from our hotel pretending to be the beginning to the festive holiday shopping spasm. The food court at River Walk adjacent to the hotel felt like a hospital ward for shell-shocked war victims. Mexican people from somewhere else make me a po'boy catfish sandwich with a side of Greek salad and spoke to each other in Spanish ringing up the sale with protective rubber gloves still on. One out of ten food stalls are open the rest shuttered and dark. Places with signs promising Cajun food and beer are dim in the dim nearly endless food court corridor. Victoria's Secret is shuttered; Coach is open for business.

Don't people need underwear more than fine leather goods? In amazing irony the Imax Theatre nearby shows a 3-D hurricane movie

Back at the conference, I leave the 'Swamp Stomp" party and its bad frat house band early. I don't dip any pretzels into the chocolate fountain. I don't feel like dancing. Up in my room I switch on the TV, Comic Relief, a benefit for New Orleans. I could walk over to where it is happening and watch it in person. Terribly unfunny bits by performers are beamed in from Las Vegas, that final refuge of the Death Mother rouged up and high. No one introduces her but I feel her presence in disjointed manic banter between Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams. Next year, it is announced, Comic Relief with be held for animals in the wild. Endangered animals, one presumes. Do they have some way to spend the money? Do the cheetahs have a 501-C-3? Charity as Industry, this is the twentieth year of Comic Relief. This ennui, this déjà vu, these are the scent of the Death Mother.

I glance at my painting propped up on the ice bucket next to the TV. "I am trauma" she says. I have to look up that word that echoed like a mantra throughout the conference. To pierce, to wound, laceration, breaking a membrane, external violence, laceration, to tear or rend... I keep feeling that something seems so familiar. I have seen all this before. There have been disasters everywhere in the world. Many lay in ruins forever. What does that mean? Joe remarked while we were driving around that he is so angry that fifteen months later the government hasn't done anything. Halfhearted righteousness is another hangout of the Death Mother. What's the use?

I ask the painting: Why did you show up?

She: You invited me to.

P: I did. You seem so tired, what do you mean? Or what do you say?

She: I am Trau-MA, awesome. I am here to teach about sensation, beyond reasoning and reasonableness. The mother MA of breaking the membrane, a birth thing.

P: Are you a façade? A way of veiling the void? A view to distract us from the place beyond?

She: I am an exit path, that is so...

P: Your eyes, your hand what are you showing me, are you offering your hand. There is a lot of life in the blood and fire and yet you are apocalyptic, isn't that so?

She: ah aha ah

I want her to finish, to tie it up for me somehow, to point the way. But the Death Mother is the archetype of abortion, endings before their time, judged unfit to be seen, held, or engaged. Better to be swept away. The palindrome: EVIL LIVE comes to mind. Everything that is live takes part in evil. What is the evil here? What kind of evil does the Death Mother represent? The evil of carelessness, of indifference. Martin Buber says evil occurs from a failure to attend to the good. Running after the bad to root it out is a wild goose chase by this light. The world as it manifests in this moment is the result of past intentions. What manifests now is what we wanted then. How often are we horrified at how what we wished for manifests, at the unintended consequences of our acts and thoughts. Had we not become enamored with the Army Corps of Engineer mentality that Nature is to be tamed and controlled for humankind's use, we would not perhaps have been driving through neighborhood after devastated neighborhood.

Yet to stay with Buber, the good is present in every moment as well and in every moment we choose to be present or to be distracted. When we are present we have the still greater choice of speaking, acting, in favor of the good.

As the plane takes off the next day I look down in the dusk and see the vast sponge-like Louisiana coast fingered with bayous winding through lush green. There is no clear-cut end to land and beginning of the sea.

new orleans from plane

The beauty of this terrain is the vastness of the middle zone, the meeting place of species of fresh and salt water. We cannot violate Nature and then complain when she restores herself through storms.

Can we ever return to anything resembling true harmony with the earth? The pink vulva sculpture speaks: Still haven't decided yet, have you? It's all She wants, call out and She will answer. She doesn't want to lose you, humankind. But she will right things, make no mistake, with or without you.

The life we are presently living is the result of our past intentions. What does it take to make new ones? Rev. John Dear writing in Tikkun magazine tells this story:

You may have heard the true story of church activists who met in a church basement in East Berlin in the dismal days of the early 1980's around the ridiculous topic, "What Will It Be Like 1,000 Years From Now When The Berlin Wall Finally Comes Down-and-What Do We Have To Do To Help That Great Day Happen?" They were dismissed as idealistic fools. But their meeting was exciting and energized them, so they decided to meet again, and more people showed up, and they kept meeting, and soon, people were meeting in church basements across East Germany, and within a few years, in November 1989, we watched in astonishment on TV as hundreds of thousands of people marched every day throughout East Germany and the unthinkable happened, the Berlin Wall came down peacefully. p. 44

What happened was the imaginations of East Berliners became activated in the coming together to vision an alternative world and to create new intentions to replace the old. Like any capacity, the imagination becomes active through use. We cannot stop change; we can help speed it up and we can decide what it will look like. In my dream Bill Clinton knows the old car is a wreck that is no longer drivable. He is fine with that and more than willing to take the hand of the feminine and walk back toward Oak St., toward the sacred grove, to relearn what we have forgotten: how to live in awe and reverence with Nature and each other, how to respect and honor the in between places, how to let the old and outworn crumble without a fight but rather with forgiveness and thanks for the service it performed and how to celebrate the wonder and mystery of embodiment as we first imagine and then create, the new.

References:

Allen, Pat B. Art is a Spiritual Path. Boston: Shambhala, 2005.

Buber, Martin. I and Thou. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970

Dear, Rev. John. "Don't Give Up." Tikkun, (Sept/October, 2006): 43- 44.

Kottler, Geoffrey and Carlson, John. American Shaman. Brunner-Routledge, 2004.

Woodman, Marion. Men are from Earth, So are Women. The Sun, no. 368. (August, 2006): 4-8.

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