Hillman and the Power of Words

As far back as I can remember, I have loved words. My grandfather was a newspaper editor, and my grandmother was a kindergarten teacher.  From them, especially my grandfather, I became curios about words, their meanings, origins, the way we play with words in our speech and how that reflects in literature.  One of the things that really struck me about archetypal psychology was the acknowledgement of the power of words and how the words we use shape not only the fictional stories we write but the fictional stories we live and create through memory.  For these reasons, I have chosen to focus on Hillman’s Healing Fiction.  The book is broken into three sections, one on Freud, fiction, and case studies, the second on Jung, images and daimons, and the last on Adler and what the soul wants. For this paper, I will look at each of these sections, the ideas that stood out as especially significant, my reaction to these ideas, and how I plan to apply the ideas and follow up with further inquiries.    

The section on Freud and the fiction of case studies addresses a huge issue that ‘true scientists’ have with psychology as well as shows a way to use literature to help people to take charge of their life narratives. Many in the science community refuse to consider psychology, especially depth psychology, as a science because it deals with the activity of the mind and can’t be easily measured or solved because it deals with things that do not exist as matter.  Hillman quite clearly points out that he acknowledges that fictional nature of a case study. As he points out, patients in therapy are not giving factual data about past events, they are telling their therapeutic versions of those stories.  The telling is just as important as the story itself.  By acknowledging the lack of facts and hard evidence, Hillman successfully addresses the issue by showing the importance of these narratives even if they didn’t ‘actually happen.’  The facts of a person’s life are not significant – everyone is born, most people go to school; the significance in life is not in the facts but the experiences. 

My memory is not very good. I have learned tricks for remembering things but when it comes to my own personal history, the details are hazy at best.  It can be embarrassing in social situations but it also bothered me because as Hillman points out in Re-Visioning Psychology that we want to have a history, a story to live by.  For many of my memories, I often wondered if I remembered the event itself or just the retelling of the story of the event.  When I was younger, I suffered from feelings of inadequacy and depression.  As an adult, I was not immune to waves of depression but I learned to control my reaction to these feelings.  I am now at a point in my life that I feel content.  It feels like I had been living my life with everything turned down and now, I see real colors, truly hear sounds, and taste foods.  I did not come to this point through traditional therapy but through education and experience.  Hillman writes that “We are all in therapy all the time insofar as we are involved with soul-making.  The idea here is that if we are each and every one a psychological patient, we are also each and every one a psychotherapist” (Re-Visioning Psychology, xviii).  I find this to be true for myself and especially because of the way I feel that I got to the place that I am in because I rewrote my narrative.

What I really liked about this section was how it says our stories change by the way we see ourselves in our stories.  The way, style we tell our stories is as telling as the stories themselves – this is really important when thinking about our personal stories and how we see them.  When we see ourselves as victims, as passive individuals that things happen to instead of active heroes that make life what they want it to be.  This idea was solidified when we did the class exercise where we wrote the facts of our lives, then rewrote them as victims and again as heroes. The facts of the story don’t change but the stories change as does the perception of the storyteller. 

I knew it to be true that the way we see ourselves effected the way we lived our lives.  This section really influenced my thinking though especially as it applies to helping others to reach their full potential.  As an educator, I am in the position to use some of what I have learned in this class to help inspire my students.  When I was younger and suffered through depression and feelings of hopelessness, I saw myself as a victim – life was something that happened to me and I reacted with self-pity.  It wasn’t until I matured and learned to take an active role in making my life the way I wanted it to be that I began to see myself not as a victim but as a hero.  I had the same story but the way I tell my story to myself and others is not as a helpless victim but as a strong woman, the way I now feel and see myself. 

Here is an example of how the same detail, seen through a different lens, changes the story and changes how it colors my personality and future. My family didn’t have very much money when I was growing up. It was embarrassing when we didn’t have a working car or had the phone turned off. As a victim, this was something that made me feel shame and also envy towards people that did not have money issues growing up. This effected not only the way I saw myself but also the way I lived my life. I avoided situations and people that brought out my negative victim feelings. Once I realized This, I was able to change. Instead of being a victim of a lower socio-economic background and all that went with that, I became a hero in my own story. The focus of the story isn’t on what I endured but on how my childhood made me who I am today. Events aren’t good or bad, the way we react to those events, the part that Hillman says has to do with making the soul, that shapes our past, present, and future. In social situations, I do not feel uncomfortable the way I did before. This is because I changed the way I saw myself which changed the way I saw my story which effected my behavior and forms the present and future events.

The next section was on Jung and images and what Hillman calls active imagination.  As a person raised in the Christian faith that experienced my fair share of personal daimons, this chapter was especially relevant.  Hillman writes about how Jung uses images, daimons, to follow the practice to Know Thyself.  He says that daimons are the unconscious and by creating images for the unconscious, we are making another way to interact and understand ourselves.  Western Reformation led the attack on images and imagination.  Speaking to one’s inner voices is considered dangerous.  This is true, discovering our shadows and delving into the unconciousness is risky but it is a necessary risk.  In Wisdom of the Psyche, Ginette Paris points out that to heal illnesses like depression and anxiety, we need to look down and inward, not up.  Her daimons were a bull and butterfly, they confronted her and she them but it was those interactions that helped her to survive.  To heal the patient may need to open their imagination “often producing dark, twisted, frightening images, symbolizing what needs to die” (Paris, 39).  Still, with this knowledge of the need to face the shadow, there are critics of this practice of visualizing the inner voices. 

Karl Jaspers is one of the many voices against the use of demonology.  Hillman uses Jaspers’ arguments against demonology in reverse to show the benefits of using this method in therapy and for personal understanding.  I understand the Christian objection to demonology, the very word is packed with fear and misunderstanding.  Christians believe that the devil is actively attempting to cause the downfall of each human soul.  He is plotting and tempting us at every corner – even in the corners of our own minds.  This is why the church is so vehemently against listening to one’s inner voices.  These voices, they claim are from God or from the devil and the only way to know who is speaking is through interpretation from the church.  This kind of thinking led to the demonization of demonology. 

When I was younger and was going through my darkest period, I was approached by several demons.  Unlike the practice that Jung employs, at the time, I did not completely acknowledge that my demons were from within my unconscious.  I knew they were but at the same time, they became so real that they frightened, even paralyzed me.  Since I was raised as a Christian, I thought these were literal demons, come to trick me into losing my soul.  They were some form of punishment I had earned from being a typical rebellious teenager.  One especially troubling encounter I clearly remember was with two demons that were goading me to kill myself.  The appearance of these images in this dark period allowed me to work through the intense feelings I was experiencing.  By putting them outside of myself and interacting with them, I was able to deal with complicated emotions and process the difficult task of maturation.  Since I was raised in the church, I felt scared of these demons and ashamed because I left myself open so the devil was able to reach my inner self.  Instead of being open to face my inner demons and engaging in healing, I felt like I was possessed or that I was going insane.  In fact, these encounters helped me become more sane.  Employing active imagination is a great approach to healing the psyche because it helps the patient to re-establish their inner story (Hillman, healing fiction, 81).  Reading this chapter really helped me to see that I was not insane, evil, or weak to engage my inner demons and guides, I was actually just employing active imagination.  By realizing this, I can now see those encounters with images as positive experiences that helped me get through a difficult time in my life. 

The final section of the book introduced me to Alfred Adler and the idea of guiding fictions.  Sanity is recognizing that our histories are mere fictions.  Memory is an illusion that can be seen through many lenses.  Hillman makes the argument that while Freud focuses on the psyche’s sexuality and Jung it’s religiosity, Adler’s contributions to the field are primarily focused on inherent altruism (healing fiction, 106-107). This chapter especially made me excited to try to use some strategies with my students.  I teach at a community college.  I am only an adjunct as I am also a mother and student.  I recently learned the sad statistics that 97% of the students entering the school are tested into remedial reading, English, and/or math.  Also, of the students that complete the remedial reading program (some have to take only one class while others may take several classes) only .06 % complete an Associates degree or a certificate program.  This statistic shocked and horrified me – over a 99% failure rate for the students that passed my class.  I have since made it my mission to make sure that my students have a better chance than that.  In order to do that, one thing they have to do is to change their narratives.  I think I can use some writing excercises for my students to get them to tap into their imaginations so they can see themselves as heros instead of victims.  My students have for the most part had hard lives and struggle to do work that shouldn’t challenge a high school student.  It is hard to see them struggle but exciting to watch them succeed.  I am planning to try some things with my class that will be starting this week.  I am hoping that some of them may see that they too can change their personal narratives and live the lives they want to live.  I teach them how to be active readers.  This is the term I use often – be active, not passive.  This to me is what I have gained from learning about active imagination and archetypal psychology.  It is also about being active in your own mind and creating the life you want.  We can choose to be victims or heros, it is all in the power of our words.

Works Cited

Hillman, James. Healing Fiction. Putnam, CN: Spring Publications, Inc, 2009. Print.

Hillman, James. Re-Visioning Psychology. New York: Harper, 1992. Print.

Paris, Ginette. Wisdom of the Psyche: Depth Psychology after Neuroscience. New York.: Routledge, 2007. Print.

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