“Our culture’s wounding and belittling of the feminine and its values has led many mothers to mistrust the world and men to a greater extent than ever before, and this mistrust inevitably becomes part of the emotional heritage of our children.” – by Massimilla Harris, Ph.D., and Bud Harris, Ph.D., from Into the Heart of the Feminine
If you were the child of a mother crippled by her own devaluation, you may have inherited the feeling of being unseen, invalidated, or worse – with the unspoken communication that you (or some aspect of you) was unwanted or even wished dead.
Long after you leave the family home, the tyranny of this archetype that Jungian analyst Marion Woodman calls the Death Mother continues its reign in our psyches.
Before you even think about attempting something new, asserting your voice, or stepping towards change, the Death Mother is there. Disapproving, denigrating, even repulsed by your impulse to expression and joy. Like Medusa, she only needs to look at you and raise a single eyebrow for your whole body to turn to stone.
Rejection from the one we love most can be so devastating to a young person that we internalise the belief that something is fundamentally wrong with us and deserves to be abandoned. So we take up the habit of repeatedly leaving our own selves behind, especially when we most need support in going forward.
Even the smallest trigger of disapproval or rejection can summon the Death Mother to rear up in her full, terrifying size. The best way to describe her influence on us is collapse, paralysis, even a longing for the oblivion of death.
When I first encountered this brilliant interview with Marion Woodman on The Death Mother by Daniela Sieff, I knew I’d stumbled upon something big. For years, I’d been searching to put words to the paralysing energy that not only haunted my own life, but which I found living in the psyches of so many of the women and men who share their dreams with me.
Without being conscious of it, the Death Mother continues to rule our lives in the form of unworthiness and self-abdication especially towards our own bodies. As one dreamer put it in Understanding and Healing Emotional Trauma by Daniela Sieff, “When I am hungry, I am not fed. When I’m exhausted, I’m not allowed to rest. When I need to move, I’m forced to stay still.” As Marion Woodman has written about extensively, even eating disorders, chronic fatigue and pain, as well as auto-immune diseases may also be expressions of that loss of inner valuation.
I was thrilled to be asked by the authors to review this fantastic new book by Jungian analysts Massimilla and Bud Harris called Into the Heart of the Feminine, which takes up the mantle of Woodman’s breakthrough work on the Death Mother. Using the guiding myth of Medusa, the authors show us how this shadow forms both personally and at the level of our cultural collective. In showing us a way forward, we are reminded to turn back towards the symbolic life, engaging with our dreams, and embodying our authentic feelings. You can also listen to Massimilla Harris give this hour-long talk on facing the Death Mother here.
In my own experience, I know this path to be slow and obscuring, at times frightening and often overwhelming. But from the moment you set foot on the dreaming way of life, there is a deeply-felt recognition in your bones of its necessity. And if you stay with the grief and confusion of it all, a kind of intrinsic order begins to reveal itself. Life has the chance at coming alive again. Magic begins to find us trustworthy and music returns to our silenced voices.