Marion Woodman (Profile) | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Marion Woodman (Profile)

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on May 13, 1996. Partner content is not updated.

In the 17 years since she began popularizing the dream theories of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, Woodman has become one of the biggest names in the continent's human potential circles.
Woodman, Marion
Woodman challenges women and men to heed their hearts (courtesy Maclean's).

Woodman, Marion (Profile)

It might have been an occasion for pomp and platitudes - a little rhetorical cheerleading, nothing more. But last June, as the 264th convocation of the University of Western Ontario got under way, there were already suspicions that this would be a ceremony unlike any other. Tipped off by university officials, a crew from London's CFPL-TV trained its cameras on the crowd. Then, Don Morrow, a professor of kinesiology, asked the 700 black-gowned graduates to rise for an exercise that would help them grasp the work of the keynote speaker. Urging them to pretend they were golden retrievers emerging from a swim, he directed them to shake themselves with bushy-tailed abandon. As the convocation solemnity erupted in mock-canine convulsions, no one watched with greater glee than the choreographer of that workshop technique: analyst Marion Woodman who has spent nearly two decades shaking up the psychoanalytic world with her contentious call to heed the impulses of the soul locked within the body.

In the 17 years since she began popularizing the dream theories of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, Woodman has become one of the biggest names in the continent's human potential circles. Her five books have sold more than 320,000 copies and been sighted at the White House in the private library of Hillary Rodham Clinton. A sixth, Dancing in the Flames, co-authored with Elinor Dickson, head of psychological services at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, was published last month. But to many, Woodman is best known for her videotaped workshop with Minneapolis poet Robert (Iron John) Bly, the pioneer of the men's movement. Called Bly & Woodman On Men & Women, the series has been hailed for spanning the chasm between the sexes by such diverse sources as ABC's Good Morning America and the prerelease program of California's Folsom State Prison. "Marion is the bridge builder between the male and female worlds," says New York-based psychologist Jean Houston. "She's one of the few people who understands that dynamic."

Woodman's influence is all the more significant considering that her message has never been easy. Nudging individuals towards self-realization, she exhorts them to stay tuned to the signals from the spiritual realm that Jung called the Unconscious. But while Jung believed those signals appear in dreams through the images he termed archetypes - the symbols common to myths and folktales around the world - she has gone one step further. Pointing out that psychic promptings can also be felt in the flesh, she warned that, if ignored, they emerge as illness and addictions. "If we don't release the energies of the body," she says, "we end up in the hospital."

Those theories have made Woodman a controversial figure. And some analysts accuse her of bastardizing Jung's principles with the voice and movement sessions she insists on including in her workshops. She shrugs off the attacks, but she has never countenanced complacency, either in others or herself. And nowhere was that clearer than at Western's convocation when she took her turn at the microphone. Fresh from a two-year battle with uterine cancer that had forced her to close her Toronto practice, she dispensed with the usual inspirational bromides to offer a cautionary query - one that had haunted her since girlhood. "Even then, I was appalled by the thought of realizing too late that I had lived the life others had projected on me," she said, "and missed my own." As murmurs of discomfiture rippled through the hall, notably in the parental bleachers, she asked graduates to ponder their notions of success, constantly posing the question: "Am I living my own life?"

In a midtown Toronto high-rise, the sun skitters across an Oriental carpet as Marion Woodman pulls up a chair for an interview, then marvels to see herself squirm in it. At 67, having spent years on the watch for others' body language, she is astonished at her own. "Look at me!" she says. "I just find it so difficult to reveal myself." As she admits, it is no accident that she has devoted her career to helping others doff their masks: she learned early to don her own. For Woodman, that was the price of growing up in small-town southwestern Ontario, a preacher's daughter.

Shortly after her birth, her father was posted to a United Church parish in Port Stanley. There, her mother fell ill with tuberculosis and Marion Boa, 4, felt responsible for her two younger brothers, Fraser and Bruce. Together, they formed a self-contained tribe, improvising plays from the daily fodder of parsonage life - "an archetypal world," as she sees it now. "The game was always birth, death and weddings."

Even then, on parish visits with her father, she displayed a knack for blurting out unwelcome truths. "I would walk into a room and say, 'Somebody has been fighting here and I'm not going to stay,' " she recalls. "My body was like a lightning rod, reacting to everything." Her parents begged her to put a lid on her psychic pronouncements, at least until she was home. And at school, too, she found her instincts quashed. "I learned to hide my reality," she says, "in order to exist." In Emily Dickinson, she found a reflection of her own thwarted intensity. "I saw she had a world in her poetry that nobody knew about," Woodman says, "and that's how she kept her sanity."

But her own mask soon betrayed its first cracks. In Timmins, where she landed a teaching job in 1951, she was chaperoning a school dance when a student pulled her onto the floor. It was a frivolity that her father had forbidden, and, she notes, "I never stopped dancing after that." Three nights a week, from 9 p.m. till dawn, she twirled euphorically through waltzes and reels in mining halls. But friends worried as she grew increasingly skeletal. "I just thought I was wonderfully beautiful because I was thin," she says. "But I look at the pictures now and I see the immense fear in the eyes."

At the time, anorexia nervosa was still unknown, but that experience would later shape her Jungian thesis on the spiritual yearnings behind eating disorders. In 1980, it became her first book, The Owl Was a Baker's Daughter, establishing her as one of the world's leading experts on the subject, which became central to her practice.

Meanwhile, in the fall of 1953, in one of those twists of fate that Jung dubbed synchronicity, Woodman stumbled into the job that served as a dress rehearsal for her analytic career: shaping generations of students in her English and creative drama courses at South Secondary School in London, Ont. Laura Robinson, who starred in CTV's Night Heat, credits Woodman with her acting career. "She totally awakened my theatrical self," Robinson says. "She was like an earth mother to her whole class." London playwright Herman Goodden agrees. "At least half of every class would fall under her spell," he says, recalling how, when Woodman once phoned him at home, his father took the call. "My father talked to her for maybe two minutes," Goodden says. "And he left a message for me: 'Herman, call the Enchantress.' "

But at first Woodman found herself frustrated by her inability to make students sense the power of the poetry she loved. Then, with a physical education instructor named Mary Hamilton, she marched them down to the school's theatre to act it out, coaxing them to feel the passion of Shakespeare and Yeats in their guts. Those exercises - the seeds of her later movement workshops - grew into elaborate annual dramas. In one 1967 performance of E. J. Pratt's The Titanic, Woodman gave the role of an iceberg to a student whose talents she had already singled out: Trish - now better known as Kate - Nelligan. To Nelligan, who was desperately unhappy at home, Woodman and her brothers represented "figures of great glamor. For a kid like I was, they all gave us a sense of hope that there was a life out there beyond the one you were leading."

That mystique was not entirely the product of her wistful teen imaginings. In the 1960s, as painters like Jack Chambers and Greg Curnoe turned London into one of the country's most dynamic regional art centres, a key catalyst behind that scene was an iconoclastic English professor named Ross Woodman, who had married Marion Boa in 1958. They had fallen in love when she enrolled in his course on the Romantic poets - a "soul union" she describes it still. Not that either compromised the other's passions. While she dragged pupils home to rehearse, he brought Chambers who, for months, turned up nightly for dinner. With poet James Reaney, they regularly fomented rebellion against the cultural establishment around the dining room table.

But beneath the hip patina of Woodman's life, she felt something crumbling at its core. In 1968, she took off for India, where, wracked by dysentery, she had a feverish brush with death. The teacher who had prided herself on being a paragon of self-control found herself unable to venture beyond her hotel. "Before I went to India, I was a perfectionist," she says. "Clock and calendar were very important to me." But she knew she was forever changed: "I started having dreams where the rigid structures of my life kept breaking down."

Later, Woodman would chronicle that upheaval in Addiction to Perfection (1982), a title with a resonance for thousands of women. But at the time, she was yet to understand the principle that would become the cornerstone of her analytic work: the notion that neglected feminine energy - associated with creativity and emotional chaos in both women and men - eventually rebels against the rigidity and obsession with control that characterize patriarchal values. Those insights would not come for another two years when, on sabbatical with her husband in England, she found a Jungian analyst who helped her decode her nightmares. "I would have dreams that he was pulling out a rotting tooth, and with it would come my spine," she says. "It was very clear: the structure that had given me my backbone had to change."

Woodman began to see dreams as what she calls "the language of the soul." And after decades of analyzing the metaphors of Milton and Keats, she gloried in parsing the grammar of the Unconscious. Still, she returned to teach for another three years before she summoned the courage to throw herself into analysis full time. For her students, the only clues to that metamorphosis came in her annual dramas. In one, she depicted Eve cheerily waving farewell to Adam as she waltzed out of the Garden of Eden to find herself. No sooner had the curtain come down than Marion Woodman handed in her own resignation. In 1974, at the age of 45, she was off to the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich.

"Analysis," Woodman says, "takes you into the rotten foundations of your own personality. But you go through the grief of letting the known die because you trust something new will come out of it." Still, it was not until her second year in Zurich that she realized, like her brother Fraser Boa, that she wanted to become an analyst herself. Her journey, which had, in part, been prompted by the pain of her childlessness, ended with her emergence as what she calls "a midwife of souls."

But in the process, that decision risked costing her marriage. Ross Woodman had never discouraged her quest, but joining her briefly in Zurich, he recoiled from the cliquish intensity of her Jungian universe. One day as they confronted their unravelling relationship, he indulged in a little archetypal symbolism himself, hurling their wedding rings across the room. Quietly retrieving them, she kept them in a safety deposit box until the day, eight years later, when she finally felt ready to don hers again. By then, they had, as she puts it, "dialogued" their way to new ground. "We've come to our full stature because we've given each other freedom," she says. "Neither one ever stood in the light of the other."

Setting up her practice in Toronto in 1979 - commuting weekends to their home in London - she became known for her work fostering the full flowering of masculine and feminine energies in women. "Marion's message is full womanhood with sexuality and laughter and connectedness," says her friend Adrienne Clarkson. "It's about not living up to some false standard."

From the first, Woodman found "the doors flung open without my ever knocking." Then, they brought a controversial new figure into her life. In 1986, Robert Bly discovered Woodman's books, "and I thought, 'Whoa, this woman is very smart,' " he says. "I think it's her awareness that the feminine has been devalued for 2,000 years and now it's being driven into the ground by corporate life."

Bly invited her to his annual Great Mother Conference in Wisconsin, where he used the symbolic framework of fairy tales to explore men's and women's roles. But when he introduced her with a damning indictment of Jungian jargon, a few in the audience were horrified by what they saw as his bullying. Woodman repaired to her hotel room to rewrite her speech, delivering it with only one stroke of puckish defiance. Now, that incident has become the running gag in a partnership immortalized in their 1991 videotape by film-maker Ann Petrie, who still chuckles over the "kind of Tracy-Hepburn banter in their dialogue."

To watch them together, most recently in New York City last month, their delight in each other's company is obvious. "I look over at her in amazement and she's saying things I've never thought of," Bly says. "It just reminds me how different the feminine intelligence is." For some, theirs is an inspired professional pairing. "With Marion, you get the impression you're speaking to someone empathetic - not someone who hates masculinity or men," says Seattle psychologist George Parks, who has circulated their videotape among 300 of the city's residents. But feminists accuse Woodman of consorting with the enemy, and to others she appears either girlishly flirtatious or overwhelmed by Bly's flamboyant bluster. It is an impression she flatly rejects. "I say what I need to say," she insists. "And when I need more space, I tell him to hold his top."

To Woodman, that critique represents precisely the skewed outlook to which she has devoted her career - the imbalance of masculine and feminine energies both in individuals and in society. In her new book, she warns that only a melding of both those forces, integrating body and soul, can halt the current social and environmental devastation. And as Jungian analysts report images of a lusty black goddess figure increasingly appearing in dreams, she predicts that new consciousness is already stirring in the universal Unconscious. "The culture is collapsing," she says, "and something new is trying to push through."

If those theories are likely to make her a critical target again, Woodman no longer worries. After her battle with cancer, she says, "I think it's time to speak my truth more passionately." It is, she points out, part of the price of living one's own life. But she has no doubt as to the payoffs. During the bleakest moments of her illness, Jean Houston called daily to lead her through healing meditations and in San Francisco, noted analyst Jean Shinoda Bolen led a women's circle praying for her. "Each of us has a destiny to fulfil," Woodman says. "If we co-operate with that destiny consciously, and trust the guidance, it's amazing where we can go."

Maclean's May 13, 1996