A story by Harris Smart about how the world of dreams, myths and fairytales can erupt into everyday life…
Harris Smart writes…have you ever had that experience where the membrane between the worlds, usually so thick and impenetrable, suddenly wears thin and the world of dreams, symbols, myths, legends and fairytales invades the “real” world, so that you might tell someone of an experience you had in the “real” world, but you can tell it as if it was a dream? You might say, “I had this dream that I owned a tower and in the tower was a beautiful woman living, a fairytale princess…”
A few years ago, I was the director of a Uniting Church welfare agency in Melbourne. We were called the Center for Creative Ministries and our mission was to bring together past, spirituality and healing.
We were situated near a beach-side inner-city suburb of Melbourne called St Kilda which has a racy reputation because it is the place where the prostitutes are to be found and drugs are sold on the street. Petty criminals hang out here and it also the area where homeless people and the de-institutionalized” people with psychiatric illnesses congregate. These were the people we were sent to minister to.
We worked mostly with art therapy – writing, painting, drama – to give them insights into their situation or just, as one put it to me, “it gives me a reason to get up in the morning”.
We were actually situated just outside St Kilda in an area called East St Kilda which is also interesting in a different way because it is the Jewish part of Melbourne. If you go there on a Friday night, you’ll feel like you’ve walked into some Jewish ghetto in Eastern Europe, or maybe into a painting by Chagall. Men walk around the streets on their way to synagogue wearing the traditional garb of those times, big round bearskin hats, and all other kinds of ceremonial regalia.We were like a little last outpost of Christianity in a sea of Judaism.
One day I went to visit some social workers who looked after the material needs of our clientellel while we catered to their spiritual and creative needs. On the wall of the social workers’ office I saw this painting which struck me very much. It showed a naked woman lying in the foreground with the back of a man disappearing out the door behind her.
I asked about the artist and they told me that she was a homeless woman called L. whom they were helping to get settled. She had been homeless for five years, living all that time in her car (a Datsun 120 Y.). She was 23 now so she has started being homeless at 18. They were fixing her up with a flat and all that kind of thing. They gave me a photocopy of the painting and said they would introduce me to the artist.
She was part Greek. Her mother was Greek. She had a fragile kind of Botticellii beauty with long fine-spun golden hair. I got to know her quite well. In some ways, she was just like any other 23-year-old inner city dweller. Hip and with it, knew all the bands and all that sort of thing. But then for weeks or even months she would be incapacitated by her illness.
This was something that I saw so often and that was so sad. You would find someone who had been diagnosed as schizophrenic and they would struggle to get their lives together. They might manage to start a relationship. They might manage to start a job. And then the illness would sweep through their lives like a firestorm totally obliterating everything they had built up and they would have to start all over again.
L was particularly given to self-destruction and self-harm. During these episodes she would pull out her hair and cut herself with razor blades and think continually of suicide. She had been rejected by her mother. I’ve known several women who have been rejected by their mothers and perhaps no more devastating thing can happen to a woman. Perhaps it is even more devastating for a woman to be rejected by the mother than it is for a man. It leaves them with a sense of utter worthlessness.
But perhaps Al’s problems cannot be traced to anything that happened to her in her life because I once asked the when the self-harm began, thinking that maybe there was some trauma in her life that had triggered it, but she told me that she could remember as a baby pulling their hair out, so perhaps it was already in her when she was born. It was inherited, it was generational, and as we all know change in the bedrock layers of our generational selves is usually a very slow process.
This is why conventional psychotherapy is essentially limited. It can generally only deal with what has happened in this life. It cannot deal with the karma of past lives or the inheritance from the generations. Present life events may intensify or exacerbate, may tip people over into crisis, but psychotherapy cannot deal with, indeed usually does not recognise the existence of, the fundamental fault or fissure in the bedrock of personality.
What is the function of self harm? What is its value? It is of course to inflict physical pain that can somehow override the inner pain. Like Shakespeare says in King Lear, “where the great ill fixed, the lesser is scarce felt, so e function of the self-harm is to create a “greater” physical pain that can make the inner “lesser”.
I spent a lot of time with people with schizophrenia and I was always trying to find out what it was that all these people had in common. I mean they all carry the same label, but what do they all have in common. What is the co0mmon root? I came to the conclusion that schizophrenia is about as useful and scientific a term as calling people mad or crazy. You might as well say they are looney and that would be just as scientific.
Schizophrenia is a bundle of symptoms, some of which some people have and others don’t. Some people hear hateful voices, some don’t, and so on. But what is the root? What is the common root?
I came to the conclusion that it is a very simple thing that you can name with an ordinary name. The common root with all these people who have become greatly dysfunctional in life is self-hate on a grand scale. We all carry self-hate to some extent, but in these people it is hugely and grotesquely magnified. The voices that they hear constantly criticizing them and urging them to self-destruction are like magnifications and objectification’s of the voices that we all hear in our heads sometimes. Voices of criticism and judgment, abuse and self-hatred.
I decided at one time that i was going to make a series of photographs of modern goddesses. The aim of the photographs was to show how the ancient goddesses had all fallen on hard times. I asked L if she would be the model for the goddess Hera. As you may know, Hera is the wife of Zeus, and she is the goddess of the hhearth and home. So I thought it was a god joke to have a homeless woman play the part of Hera. Hera is not an entirely happy goddess. The fly in her ointment is her husband Zeus and his many infidelities. While she is looking after the home, Zeus is off assuming the form of some animal or other, bull perhaps or swan, in order to “get to know” some earth woman.
So I had L, the homeless woman, posing as Hera in the Datsun 120Y in which had lived for five years. She had a friend come along to be Zeus and he is sitting in the back reading the racing form guide while she peruses Home Beautiful.
Our church had two towers. Over the years they had become filled up with rubbish. I decided to clear out one of the towers to make a place for L to paint because she did not have any room to paint in her flat. So I installed her in the tower and for a time I had my own fairytale princess.
“Rapunzel Rapunzel, let down your hair.”