|Wild Man, Wild Woman
An Interview with Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Bert: What is the "Wild Woman"?
Dr. Estés: She is ... God.
Bert: Are you talking about finding a god within?
Dr. Estés: I would say it in a little different way. I would say that if you look in a
woman's face, the god shows in her face. You see this furred criatura right behind her
visage, right behind her eyes. If you are an intelligent person, you will be respectful. If
you are not an intelligent person and the woman is in her biting instinctual nature, she
may bite you. Or if she is afraid of you, she may run away and never come back to you
again. If you are respectful of her, she will come around and find out who you are. She
will develop a relationship with you.
Bert: How does the wild woman compare to the wild man in Robert Bly's Iron John?
Dr. Estés: My sensibility is that what is wild is nature. We need to see and understand
that whatever stands behind nature is what is god. Nature itself, it is the
manifestation. We see things about nature that are beautiful, like your blue sky outside
today, and it fills us with almost a prayerful excitement. When I look at it, I feel still. I
have seen this sky every day of my life and I am still in awed by it. That is what the wild
is -- this intense medicinal beauty. To look at it makes you feel whole. To hear it, if it is
ocean or water running in a stream, is to feel made whole again. To see a thunderstorm
or a lightning storm is to somehow be energized by it. Even tornadoes and earthquakes
-- to be rocked to your very foundations by the power made in all these things. If that is
the wild and if that is in every human being, then a man and a woman would essentially
be no different from one another at the very elemental core.
But the personality and the culture that grow up around each, then of course, makes
things more problematical because there are extreme differences in the way that the
personality is developed. And I think personality has a different tone for men and
women, period, regardless of culture, any culture. I have lived with at least 17 different
native tribes. In many of them there is not too much differentiation in feeling tone
between the young women and the young men, although some of their duties are
Bert: Do you think it's important for men to read your book?
Dr. Estés: Yes, I do. Sam Keen and I had a conversation about this. I also received a very
nice letter from Robert Bly , saying that he really liked the book very much. People were
recommending it to him, and he was recommending it back.
I feel that men are as much of a mystery as women. Once we get past a certain amount
of self-consciousness and protection of certain sacred cows by each gender, we could
have a real conversation, maybe, for the first time ever in the universe, in this century.
What is our common concern? Why are we here with one another? What is the reason
for being with a person of the opposite gender? Whether it is in a love relationship, or a
brother and sister relationship, or a father/daughter relationship, or a friend/friend
platonic relationship does not matter. But what could be the, you may say, the
chemical catalyst in a relationship with "The Other?"
I would like men to read it, and men do. They not only read the book, they buy it for
their lovers and read it together. Whether that lover is their wife or their anamarata for
the moment. I have also received some letters from men saying, "Do not say that you
wrote this book for a women. I read it and it applies to me." It makes me smile, because
of course it would. It would apply to their feminine nature, very much.
Bert: You talk in your book about the animus, wondering whether some feminists have
gone too far in saying that the animus is culturally induced. You talk about women
developing a masculine side.
Dr. Estés: One of the things that I see much more of in the younger generation of
women is that they do not have to struggle as much for their right to be free within the
family. But they still have to struggle in the outer world. Even though the family may
have changed, there are plenty of people who have not. So they're struggling to avoid
things in the outer world that would be efforts to diminish them.
It seems to me that what we call masculine development is the ability to take ideas
from one's inner life and implement them in the outer world. That's how I understand
masculine development within. Their ability to manifest in the outer world; to speak up
for themselves about things that matter that are important. To be able to take their
book, their art, the products of their imagination into manifest form in the outer world.
To be able to rouse themselves from comfortable situations. To see what is needed out
in the world and to attend to it. Those are manifestations of adequate animus
Some men as you know, have much more feminine nature than others. Jung drew a
circle and divided it into four parts, and said a man is three-quarters masculine and one
quarter feminine. A woman is three-quarters feminine and one quarter masculine. And
that's a good start. The problem is that he says this is the way it should be, and that's
not the way it is. It is too rigid a form. Some men I have met are three-quarters
feminine and one-quarter masculine, and the one-quarter masculine they are -- jump
back -- very strong, fuerte, strong! But they have tremendous feminine development
because it is who they are. It is from the souls, not an overlay from cultural family.
Gloria Steinem is a great example of a woman who has far more masculine development
then she has feminine development. Although now her feminine development appears
as though it is coming now. She is over 60 years old and now it is coming. So whatever
we have, as you know, the role in life is to develop it to its fullness. But also the
challenges is to develop its balance, which is also its opposite.
Bert: That brings to mind something you said about Jung and the soul being masculine. I
had a problem with Robert A. Johnson's view that for the man, the soul is the feminine.
To me, it makes more sense to think of the feminine as the gateway and the portal,
that which one must pass through in order to find the soul.
Dr. Estés: We cripple ourselves to say the soul is always masculine or the soul is always
feminine, or it's always three-quarters this way and one quarter that way, or it's always
50/50. It never is any of those. It is ineffable and you cannot really talk about it. We
make pictures and diagrams and we say, "well, if you could talk about it, this is what it
would look like." But in reality, we are reaching into a dark bag and we are feeling what
is in there, and we're saying, "I think it must be this or I think it must be that." And we
are trying, hopefully, in a poetic way, because we can never describe in common words,
what it is that we feel and see. But there is no, there cannot be.
I say also this about the concept of soul-making that my colleague James Hillman talks
about. I do not agree with soul making, because the soul is, the soul is complete. It is
never doubted, it is never lost. A chink in the transmission may occur or someone may
sever the conduits to the soul, but the soul remains here, it never goes The ego may
go. The ego becomes injured. The spirit may also become injured, but the soul remains.
I don't think there is soul making. I think there is consciousness-making. But I think the
soul is incredibly ineffable. It's an interesting idea, soul making, but I think ultimately, it
may not describe the process.
And yet, for people like Hillman, Bly, Robert Johnson, Gillette and Moore and myself, we
must have the ability, like all poets, to move through different images as we develop an
idea. So that the idea Johnson had 10 years ago, he could move away from and develop
a new idea, the more clarity he has. Jung did it all the time. If you read Jung's works
you will see him constantly contradict himself because he is developing as he goes
along. So I always think that, whatever metaphors we use, it will be very interesting to
see if we still believe them, or if we have not found better ones in 10 or 20 years.
Bert: That process you describe of reaching in a bag and trying to describe the soul
brings to my mind theologians trying to describe God.
Dr. Estés: Yes! Yes! There is a story in my book, "The Four Rabbinim." They all wish to
see God. The story evolves around the sacred wheel of Ezekiel. They are taken by
angels to the seventh vault of the seventh heaven, and each has an experience of God.
And the experience is shattering for three of them. Not because they are bad people,
but because their fantasy of what God is, was shattered. There is a saying, do not come
too close to the inevitable. Ultimately, it is such a phenomenally vast force that it's like
what Baba Yaga says to Vasalisa in one of my stories, "but remember, too much
knowledge can make a person old too soon." It is dangerous. You just have to wait. You
cannot always pursue it like you would climb a mountain. Sometimes you must just wait
until something of it comes to you and fills you, and then you begin to understand.
Bert: What do you think about the mythopoetic men's movement?
Dr. Estés: You know, I have never understood the phrase "mythopoetic." Many people
have asked me in interviews what I think of the men's movement, and I continue to say,
"I have not met the men's movement. The men's movement has not come to my door
and said 'we would like to introduce ourselves to you.'" But I do know men who are in
groups with other men, who are there trying to learn about life and their own deep well
Mythopoetic is, I think, James Hillman's word again. It is for me an intellectual word I do
not understand. I understand mythology. I understand stories. I understand poetry. I
understand that they cut close to the bone. I am a poet who became a psychoanalyst.
That is my background. I am a cantadora. I am a storyteller. It comes from my feet,
upward, not from my brain, downward. So I think that "mythopoetic" means that you
use mythology to try to understand something about deep aspects of your nature.
I interviewed Robert Bly in 1990. I can remember saying to him, "Now, what about the
men's movement?" And he said, "No, it's not men's movement." And I said, "Well, what
will you call it?" "Men's work, just work with men, that's all." And, I really like that. I like
that he called it work with men. Mythopoetic is too big a word. It is better to have
I would like the men's movement to come see me. I would like to meet them. It, them,
all of it. I would! I would! I feel that they are hidden, somehow, from me. That they do
not come where I am. They go away by themselves.
Bert: I hope that this interview will start the process of bridging that gap.
Do you see any connection between the work that you're doing, women's tales of
power, and men's work?
Dr. Estés: Oh yes. Very much so. The way I understand my work is that it is like putting
out food -- a certain kind of food. People who have great hunger for that food will
come. What I think for men and women is food, is healing food actually, is stories.
Stories will draw people as they always have. It isn't a new phenomena. All the novelists
and all the radio programs and all the television for years and years has been nothing but
stories. Some of it pitiful story, broken off story, shattered story, incomplete story, and
some of it very foolish story. But nevertheless, enough substantial story that people
have been attracted to it. It is said that the grand storytellers of your generation and
my generation is the cinema. Teenagers and young adults aren't going to grandmother
and grandfather anymore to sit in the kitchen and listen to their stories. We go to the
cinema to see the cliffhangers on Saturdays.
Your grandmother and grandfather did not have the same news at hand that we have
now. We are now the new grandmothers and grandfathers and what we have available
to us are audio tapes, newspapers, letters, gatherings of people, books that are
written. We have means to extend the kitchen out into the world, or to extend the
hearth place or the bonfire out into the world, and to gather together people who
would ordinarily not be within our reach. So it is actually a very exciting time.
Bert: In your story of Vasalisa, you talked about the women's need for initiation to
develop her intuitive life, to leave the protective, "too good" mother, to dive into the
unknown. How does that compare to male initiation that Robert Bly and Joseph
Campbell talk about, of separating from mother and joining the community of men?
Dr. Estés: I do not agree with that "separate from mother" business. I think it is silly. It's
the only thing that I can think of that I feel that there has been inadequate dialogue
about. The external mother of men needs to be separated from the archetypal ever
nurturing mother which is, in my mind, the same as the "too good" mother in Vasalisa. It
is an internalized mother that must be distanced from, otherwise one will remain like a
child forever, who will think that one is the center of the universe and should always be
taken care of. One will always want to suck at the tits of whatever womanly --
womanish -- element that comes along in their life. And that goes for women as well as
men. There's not a difference. I would like to see the emphasis on the internal
archetypal mother as the one who needs to be separated from.
Because, I have learned that what my own mother told me is not true, that when
children are 18 years, they are grown. When I was raising my children I had the feeling
that I was in a dugout canoe going down a river filled with filth and on fire with snipers
on both shores. And I had these three precious bundles who were my daughters. It was
my job to get all the way down this river with them alive. Not drawn into the murk of
the water, not killed off the drugs or alcohol or bad relationships or a phantasmagoric
ideas that would lead them to their destruction.
And I am clear that my daughters now, even though they are older people, still need my
guidance. The mother, if she commits herself to life and builds a vast storehouse of
knowing inside of her, is her children's bastion. She has a relationship with her children
forever as mother. And she has the wisdom, hopefully, to know when to let go and let
them lead their lives on their own. But she also is there when they come back and need
something. There has to be a prototype for the mother who remains mother forever.
Now, if women did not live their life so filled with so many things that they do, that
they cannot say no to, it would no longer be such a common phenomena that when the
grown children ask for an hour for them to listen or give advice, that the mother will
feel put upon.
I cannot speak for men, men will have to speak on their own. But I understand that my
relationship with my daughters has become what I call a mother/sister/daughter
relationship. As they have become older, the relationship has aspects that they are my
daughters no longer. But at other times, there is a sisterhood relationship, a sorority
relationship, that has a sensation of peer to peer in it. And although the primary
relationship is a mother-to-daughter relationship, there are also moments in time when
it is something else. For instance, as my own foster mother becomes older and
physically disabled I have experienced my daughters acting as mother to me with regard
to my sorrow about my own foster mother. So I am beginning to see that the
relationship with offspring can be a full-circle relationship.
But we could go on for pages and pages to try to separate out people who are
disappointed in their mothers and angry with them. Who then cannot see what
reconciliation would look like, because they are angry and disappointed and sad and
grief stricken that their mothers were unmothered mothers themselves. And have,
maybe, not so much to give as a result.
But you have asked me about the ideal, and in the ideal, I feel, there are various ways a
child -- male or female -- separates from mother and father and becomes, through that
experience, something more than what they were before. But also, and unequivocally
so, throughout their experience directly with their mother and father they also become
who they are. It is not only that you become who you are when you go away. There is a
kind of becoming that happens when you go away, and there is a kind of becoming that
happens when you are connected to your parents.
I have to say that a man can never know who he is, or a woman cannot know who she
is, until she has poured herself through the sieve that is her mother and poured
herself through the sieve that is her father and come to understand through both. The
fact of the matter is that everyone is born with their own destiny regardless of their
parents. They will become what they will become. For some, the hardship is more than
it is for others. However, in terms of the development of spiritual relationship and the
sense of where one belongs in the world, I think, both the mother and the father have
to be attended to.
Bert: So that men that are doing this reconciliation with the absent father need also to
be working on reestablishing the connection with their mother.
Dr. Estés: Think about this way. Think about diminishing the person who gave you life
in order to fly to the person who has abandoned you. Think about what that sets up in
the psyche. My theory, which is a blasphemous and heinous theory, is that as long as
men elevate the maiden and the sexual woman, they will trash the mother and the
daughter. Always. If the man is reconciling with his father, but continues to hold up his
view of women that perhaps his father held up, he will most likely continue to have
great problems with his mother. He will continue to hold her responsible for many
things that are not her issue.
Bert: In the Spider Woman, you then talk about the life/death/life cycle and the seven
stages of soul loving. One of the issues that comes up for men and women alike is man's
fear of reluctance to make a commitment.
Dr. Estés: No, it is not a fear of making a commitment. It is a fear of facing death. If a
man wants to love a woman, he has to be willing to die. He must be willing to go
through the life/death/life cycle. I think it's a misnomer to despair over the lack of
commitment on the part of men, because there are plenty of women who will not
commit their true self to a relationship. They make a commitment of the false self to
the relationship. Some men are not to ready pursue that and wonder why things don't
feel quite right.
Bert: In your La Llorona story, the modern version about the polluted river, you talk
about women giving up their creativity as they focus on acquiring material things. I saw
that as coming up for men too, men that are victims of the breadwinner myth, who
define themselves in terms of material success.
Dr. Estés: Oh, yes. I want to be clear that I have no doubt in my mind that men have
suffered terribly. No doubt. That men have suffered with bad marriages, bad mothers,
bad fathers. I'm not ever going to stand in this river and say only the people on this side
have suffered. If you are alive, you have suffered.
Many years ago when I wrote my doctoral dissertation, a man told me that his family
touched his money and never touched him. They touched the dollar bills coming out of
his wallet day after day, week after week. They touched it, they loved it, they folded
it, they put it next to their bodies. They carried it around, but they never touched
him. And I felt my heart broke because of the truth of it, that men have never been
touched. People will come to daddy, "Oh, daddy, give me this." "Oh, daddy, give me
that." "Daddy, give me new boots." "Daddy, give me a new car." "Daddy, give me." The
daddy stands at the door and doles things out. Maybe he would touch fingertips with
them over the money. If he got a hug, it was because he was buying a new set of mag
wheels or a new prom dress or something. So his whole currency, psychological
currency, was all around making money and giving it or not giving it.
Bert: Let's talk about men's drumming. In your book you talk about drumming, singing,
and chanting to call us to ourselves.
Dr. Estés: I like drums. I cannot remember a time as a child not making a drum out of a
tree trunk that was fallen. Or out of the bucket, the tin bucket that carries sand at the
beach. It seems to be a natural music that is accessible to all people, that probably has
something to do with the basic heart beat. Not just of humans, but the entire earth --
the thing that throbs under the ground.
Bert: I have a feeling sometimes that what I think I am seeing in men's drumming is
perhaps that drumming and chanting is the only way that some men can get beyond the
head and the intellectual and getting in touch with their feelings.
Dr. Estés: I am a Catholic, and drumming and chanting feel so familiar to me. That has
never been an issue for me. I'm surprised that they don't have incense and bells and
holy communion in the midst of all that drumming. This is what Mass has always been
about . It's chanting, the Gregorian Chant, the rhythm of the bells, the music of the
great pipe organ, the singing of the choir. All those things do not feel alien to me. But
to a person who has no religion, it might. You know, to a cynic. Cynicism is the
opposite of soulful. Cynicism means the conduit to the soul has a great kink in it, like a
garden hose in which nothing flows in either direction. That's what makes cynicism. If
those conduits are open, you cannot be cynical.
Bert: I can't think of a better way to end this interview than a passage from the end of
your book. "The fact that both the handless maiden and the king suffer through the
same seven-year-long initiation is the common ground between feminine and
masculine. It gives us a strong idea that instead of antagonism between these two
forces, there can be profound love, especially if it is rooted in the seeking of one's own