from GoldenMic - Wednesday, December 10, 2003
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The author, a cult survivor, articulates and analyzes the psychology of myths, discussing how important depth psychologists have understood and valued myths as an expression of humanityís effort to identify and resolve interpersonal conflicts. This is followed by an examination of the story of Joab from the Bible, and a look at how this seldom-mentioned myth has formed a basis for the authorís soul-work and cult recovery.
Cult Healing and the Depth Psychology of Myths
It is likely that many people enter and then leave new religious movements with no psychological damage, and that they then describe the experience as having enriched their lives, or at least having done no harm. However, many others are far more than self-excusing apostates, but have actually experienced themselves as having been profoundly injured by their participation in a destructive cult. In that sense, it is immaterial whether or not they have actually been "brainwashed", or if they simply resent and regret the lost time and broken dreams; the damage is real, and it can be extensive.
In 1980, I left a cult after being there for 20 years. The cult began in Southern California in the 1960ís, and it is now based in rural Northern California. The cult described itself as a "Christian community" and was loosely based on pseudo-Christian fundamentalism and Judaic ideology. It featured an all-powerful "prophet" and her circle of sycophants, the "elders", and included most of the negative features of destructive cults; control of finances, control of associations, separation and constant movement among families, monitoring of thoughts, mentally repressive dogma, and the use of guilt and "shunning" to enforce an oppressive lifestyle of isolation, deprivation, and the destructive denial of self-actualization.
I left the cult with my wife and two small children, part of a constant exodus that has included over 3000 ex-members (though the cult still has nearly three hundred members). After 20 years, I still feel many ill effects of the experience, and these are shared by many other ex-members who keep contact with me. As a result of my own experiences, and in the desire to understand them, a significant part of my current studies are focused on the phenomenon of cult recovery.
One way that I have chosen to examine and understand the nature of cult recovery is in my pursuit of a doctorate in Depth Psychology, the study of psychological phenomenon from a deep and soulful interaction with that phenomenon. Depth Psychology has a significant tradition of utilizing and honoring myths and mythology. This is largely a result of the ways that the Depth Psychology and Mythic Studies intersect and focus on similar themes and methods. Like Depth Psychology, mythological studies rely heavily upon the telling and witnessing of a cultureís stories, and they both attempt to provide metaphors that chronicle and explain the human condition and humanityís underlying motivations and impulses. The two fields also share a strong parallel emphasis on such issues as life and death, love and hate, Eros and sexuality, the living presence of the natural world, conflict and tension of opposites, synchronicity, initiations and rituals, and the importance of playfulness and the unexpected in human affairs.
Even a cursory look at some of the founders of depth psychology, Freud, Jung, and Hillman, reveals the importance they place on mythology. The first and most obvious example of this relationship is Sigmund Freudís use of the Oedipal myth in his theories about repression, the unconscious, and male development. Bettelheim (1983) notes that Freud used myths and metaphors to deal with psychological facts that could only be inferred through imaginative interpretations and the explanation of hidden causes. Since psychoanalysis attempts to identify and ameliorate the effects of internal censorship, repression, and since the unconscious seeks to reveal itself through metaphors, the analyst uses myths and metaphors to explain these processes. So Freud used myths and metaphors as key elements in the practice of psychoanalysis, in the development of his understanding and explanation of how humans are often motivated by unconscious forces, and maybe even more importantly, in his realization that the ancient myth of Oedipus explained his own personal complexes and reaction formations.
Carl Jung also used myths to investigate and understand the human condition. Of particular interest is Jungís attention to the Christian myths, and his work on the Christian myth of Job is a powerful and paradigm-changing examination of the nature of God in relationship to humanity. In his interpretation of the apparent contradictions and small-mindedness of God in the Job myth, Jung provides a strong argument for the important role that humanity plays in helping God Himself to acknowledge and work through His own "shadow side" (Clift, 2000). In fact, as Dyer (2000) notes, the importance of the Christ myth itself is in humanityís attempt to reform the old testament God and to remind the Divine to refrain from His own destructive impulses. For Jung (1938), religion itself functioned to help mankind, using concepts such as spirits, gods, and demons (and the myths generated by them), take into careful consideration any forces too powerful or too dangerous to be ignored.
James Hillman is a major figure in the development and articulation of "archetypal psychology", and extension of Jungís perspective that archetypes represent universal themes and idealized representations of various personality styles and configurations. Like Jung, and Freud, Hillman relies heavily on the Greek gods as examples of these archetypes, recognizable throughout large sections of the population and, giving validity to Jungís idea that there is a collective unconscious among humanity. Hillman goes even farther, contending that the polytheistic nature of Greek mythology is a more accurate view of the world and the soul, and that the soul is multi-faceted, with innumerable faces and representations, and with each aspect having its own autonomous message and agenda. In fact, Hillman holds that Jungís writings are an explicit endorsement of the truth that "all things bear messages for the soul from the Gods" (1983, p.34), and his work in archetypal psychology is premised upon the idea that images are part of the realm of psychic reality, fully autonomous, and seeking to be consciously witnessed and experienced. Hillman posits a psychological parity of the self and the archetypes, and he contends that the metaphysical discourse of myths is the primary language of the archetypes in speaking to us of their existence (Samuels, 1985/1999).
Clearly, then, depth psychology has a relationship with mythology, including a focus on similar themes and issues, and in the way that many depth psychologists have used myths to understand and explain humanityís, and their own, psychic reality. While many depth psychologists have mostly relied on Greco-Roman mythology, some have used the myths of other cultures and from marginalized or lessor-known systems and groups, and some have also used biblical mythology.
The Biblical Story of Joab
In discussing the relationship between myths and depth psychology, I would like to focus on a little-known biblical myth as an example of how myths can assist in a depth understanding and interpretation of human reality, perversity, and the relationship between humanity and the divine. This myth is based on the life and actions of an obscure figure from the Bible, Joab, who was a chief general under King David of the Israelites. Unlike the myth of Job, which was a distinct and ill-fitted writing that may seem to have been rather capriciously inserted into the old testament of the Bible, the story of Joab is fitted seamlessly into the fabric of two old testament writings that are considered to be more historical and central to the story of the Jewish people, and is found scattered among the chronicles of King Davidís life and times, in the second book of Kings, and the second book of Samuel.
The myth of Joab is a story of loyalty, possibly misguided, that is first rewarded, but ultimately severely punished. Joab, a high officer in the army of David, found out that the king had made peace with a Jewish chieftain named Abner. Joab believed that Abner was likely to betray the king, so he approached Abner under the pretense of a warm greeting, and stabbed him to death. Then, King David announced to everyone how sorry he was about Abner, and how it was all Joabís fault, so that a potential enemy was gone and the king was not held responsible. Meanwhile, despite his protestation of innocence and his supposed disagreement with Joabís actions, King David kept Joab in his army and soon made Joab his chief general (2 Samuel, 3:1-37).
Later, King David ordered another chieftain, Amíasa, to call up an army in order to quell a rebellion. After a time, General Joab found out that Amíasa was not following through on the kingís orders, so he went up to Amíasa, again under the pretense of greeting, and gutted him with a sword (2 Samuel, 20:1-13). Again, Joab continued as Davidís chief general.
Then, Joab really blew it, killing King Davidís son Absalom who had started a rebellion against King David that very nearly succeeded. Absalom and his rebels had already driven his father out of Jerusalem, and Absalom had raped some of his fatherís wives, when he accidentally got hung up by his hair while riding through some trees with low-lying branches. Joab found out that Absalom was hanging there, and even though Joab knew that King David wanted his son Absalom taken alive for loveís sake, Joab stabbed and killed Absalom as he hung in the tree. David mourned this killing for weeks, and his entire kingdom was very disturbed that he was so distraught for the sake of a rebel. The Bible notes that Joab used stern words to convince David to get over it and quit acting like he would have been happier to see all his loyal subjects die if only Absalom was still alive, so David stopped mourning (2 Samuel 19:1-8). Also, Joab once again remained as King Davidís chief general.
In yet another story of Joab, there came a point where King David wanted to perform a census, which was apparently some kind of bad-faith thing to do in relationship to the Hebrew god (Yaweh) and His people, and Joab tried to talk David out of conducting a census that would make Yaweh mad (2 Samuel 24:1-17). David ignored Joab, took the census, and Yaweh got so mad at David that the Yaweh sent an angel to earth with a pestilence that killed 70,000 Israelites before David repented, and Yaweh forgave him.
The final twist in the myth of Joab occurs at the end of King Davidís life, when the king tells his son, Solomon, to have Joab murdered for killing Abner and Amíasa. Joab is killed, and his family is cursed, and Solomon indicates that this means that Davidís royal lineage will therefore avoid being cursed for the murder of the two chieftains. (1 Kings 2:5-34).
It is interesting that the myth of Joab is seldom, if ever, examined by Jewish or Christian scholars. The entire story presents a feckless king who lets Joab do the dirty work, and keeps his own hands clean, while incompetents and rebels are eliminated. Further, even when Joabís advise to King David is ignored and results in the death of tenís of thousands, King David gets a blessing and Joab gets cursed for the death of only two men. This story is only one of dozens about King David that reveal an arbitrary and capricious Yaweh, rewarding His favored children and harshly punishing those He did not seem to care for. There is no logic or justice behind this mean-spiritedness and favoritism, and Yaweh is revealed as either very gullible or very prejudiced.
The depth psychologist seeks to understand the nature of human experience from myths and metaphors. She also attempts to articulate and explain the nature of the cosmos, the soul, as acted out in the experiences of archetypal personifications. Just as entire cultures once worked out their confusion and angst by creating a "big picture", the heavens, populated with archetypal representations that matched the confusion of human existence, the depth psychologist attempts to "hear", and apprehend, and bear witness to the soulís methods and purposes.
Jung need not have gone to the odd little story of Job to find an out-of-control god that needed civilizing, he could have found it in every part of the Jewish history, and simply epitomized and underscored by this arbitrary treatment of David and Joab. The story of Joab provides clear evidence that we have a god in serious need of the human capacity for justice and compassion and reason. From this perspective, the Joab myth provides evidence of an altogether too-human capacity in Yaweh for erratic, selfish, and foolish behavior and reasoning. This is a god of perversity and disproportionate consequences, and a god that cannot be held accountable. This is a god that makes insane decisions, rewarding adultery and mass murder with blessing. This god goes around punishing humans who are loyal and selfless and rewarding those who are stupid or self-serving, based on whims and an appreciation for audacity. Clearly, this is a god with a shadow side, and one who contains the full spectrum of the opposites. Lusty sexuality and murder are sometimes rewarded, while thoughtful strategists like Joab are sometimes brought low by fate, a kingís fear of curses, or that same kingís clever manipulations to redirect punishment away from his own lineage.
The Value of Myth in Cult Healing
The story of Joab is a myth that helps us describe and explain the insanity and perversity of the cult experience, and can help us bear witness to the destructive cultís seemingly endless capacity to spurn the obvious and to ignore justice in favor of sentiment, self-indulgence, and chaos. Like Freud, gaining a sense of self explanation from the Oedipal myth, the Joab myth has become a personal talisman and source of soul work for me. And, just as the myth of Oedipus affected Freud because of how it resonated with the particulars of his own life and struggles, the Joab myth resonates with my life. I believe that Freudís relationship to the Oedipal myth was highly personal, and that it was important to him for its ability to help "see through" and psychologize his own inner workings and unconscious. Clearly, this had a profound effect upon him, and formed the basis for his belief that people can examine themselves, gain clarity and understanding from the effect of unconscious forces in their lives, and thereby be healed.
As Freudís own experience with the Oedipus myth shows, if a myth or metaphor is to have meaning for an individual, It is important to see how that myth relates to oneís personal life and history, and how it works out issues that oneís life have not resolved or, possibly even more importantly, not even acknowledged or known. In allowing the myth of Joab to speak to me, I have personally drawn important lessons and made many discoveries about the nature of my life story and my own personality.
For some reason, this myth called out to me for many years, asking that I bear witness to a relationship between two men, and between a man and his god. At one point, by the time I was 16 years old, I had underlined the name of Joab every time it appeared in the bible. By the age of 23, I had also searched through every resource I could find in an attempt to see what the biblical scholars made of this bizarre myth, finding nothing of substance. This story haunted me for days at a time, and it was the source of many dreams in a life otherwise devoid of dreams. I find it fascinating that, during all that time, it never occurred to me that the Joab myth was my own story being played out, and that my life in an abusive and exploitive cult was finding solace and meaning from this obscure myth.
I am a cult survivor. I experienced repeated physical and mental abuse, emotional emasculation, and then I eventually became one of the cultís "elders", having internalized the oppression that went on around me. I learned to doubt my own sanity and significance, and I learned to betray, and be betrayed by, every person I loved. I also learned to function in a state of constant tension and guilt-laced fear, desperate to please "the prophet" and willing to commit any act (or omission) that would serve her interests. I was raised in an environment where endless work was required of every non-elder, along with many hours of meetings where loved ones were emotionally castigated for every un-acceptable thought or action, and where it became routine for me to build my life around the non-stop objective of serving my prophetís interests, even at my own expense. I even became, at least to some extent, one of the abusers as I grew older, participating in verbally and psychologically assaulting any group member who was "out of the spirit", or otherwise not acceptable to the prophet. Though I am thankful I was never put into a position where I physically or sexually abused anyone, I was betrayed by, and betrayed, my friends and loved oneís at "stripping" sessions (verbal harassment, guilt inducement, second-guessing, and castigation) for any imagined slight against the cult leader or her so-called divine interpretations of how we should devote our life to her objectives and needs.
By the time I left the cult, at age 25, I had seen every form of oppression imaginable. I had seen children and adults sent to work-camps where they were forced to perform hard labor, be shunned by the group, and undergo repeated shaming sessions. I had seen children taken from their homes and families, sent to live with elders that had the right to assault them or imprison them for any offense. I had seen children and adults "labeled" as having a "demonic spirit", wrapped in sheets and subjected to 30 hours of non-stop prayer and lectures. I had seen medical needs go unmet, once probably resulting in the death of an infant. I had seen repeated scenes of elders assaulting adults and children, and I had watched as spouses were forced to turn on each other and where parents turned on their children, ferociously attacking them for attitudes and actions that were deemed unacceptable. I had watched every child be indoctrinated to believe that their sexuality was evil and disgusting, even as older adult elders preyed upon them. I had observed all outsiders, including family members not in the group, being told complete falsehoods about the conditions at the cult. At every step, it was my endless job, along with hundreds of others, to glorify the prophet as the direct representative of God on earth, and to be willing to make any sacrifice to achieve her agenda. Over the years, I became a regular Joab, a "chief general" in her service (Martella, 2002).
Given my experiences in the cult, I can now appreciate what the soul was trying to tell me from the myth of Joab, and why it resonated so strongly with me. I recognize the myth was trying to resonate to me and tell its tale, and how I felt like Joab, forced to commit acts for the love of my leader that were wicked and mean, protecting her from what I perceived as her perfect love by metaphorically killing off her enemies, and yet knowing that my very acts of sacrifice would soon be used against me. From the stories of Abner and Amíasa, I recognize how I repeatedly allowed myself to help her build an image of restraint and kindness, allowing me and others to do her dirty work, and arranging it so that I could also take on the guilt, while she could appear blameless.
I also strongly identify with the part of the myth that discusses the census, because, on those occasions where I did use restraint or intelligence to suggest a more decent course of action, the prophet ignored my advise and caused her and the group trouble, but her actions were always exempt from judgment, while my every thought and deed was subject to any form of repercussion she could imagine. I think I was also identifying with Joabís growing awareness, which I infer from his story, that he must have understood his position as a chief general was secure only so long as he served the interests of the king, and that, in the end, I would also be murdered (at least in the psychological sense, as in having no life left in me).
One other part of the Joab myth that speaks very loudly to me is the way his story is only presented in the context of King Davidís life. There is no record of the story from Joabís perspective, or how he may have felt. This speaks very powerfully to my own relationship with the cult leader, and my strong sense that I was really no more than an actor on the stage of her life. My own life was only valid to the extent that it effected her in some way, I believed, and thatís why there was never any real hope of personal gain, or even survival, beyond the boundaries of her life and needs.
Looking at the Joab myth from the perspective of my own cult life, I now see what the soul was trying to say. It was telling me of an un-lived and exploited life where justice and mercy were never going to occur, and where death was the ultimate end. It is no surprise to me, then, that my mantra for the ten years after I left the cult was "its all over... its all over...", and I now understand better why I was so depressed and sickly for such a long time. I also understand why I was so often angered by Joabís story, and why I spent so many hours bearing witness to his life and his pain... because it was my own.
Even some Jungianís have concluded that Jungís interest in archetypes and myths is objectionable, suggesting that the voice of antiquity does not necessarily guarantee wisdom or compel veneration, and with others suggesting that archetypes are simply "left-over" aspects of childhood, valuable only for what they tell us about oneís developmental story (Samuels, 1985/1999, pp. 36). While I do not attempt to refute those arguments, I am simply more powerfully persuaded by Hillmanís contention that to dehumanize is to de-center the human being, to see humans as merely a part of the whole, and composed of both good and evil, and to recognize that myths allow us to see from the soulís point of view. To dehumanize, then, is to notice and speak for those aspects of existence outside of humanity, to become mindful of the normally non-noticed and forgotten aspects of reality. In archetypal psychology, one important way this is done is by allowing the myth to be the issue, rather than the person. One of Hillmanís primary goals in archetypal psychology is to give a language to our world and to let our world give us a language. It is an attempt to engage with the imaginal and the Soul by fully appreciating the meaning of myths and our experience of those myths. As Hillman notes in The Thought of the heart and the Soul of the World (1981/1997, p. 48):
Phenomena need not be saved by grace or faith or all-embracing
theory, or by scientific objectivity or transcendental subjectivity.
They are saved by the anima mundi , by their own souls and
our simple grasping at this imaginal loveliness... The aesthetic
response saves the phenomenon which is the face of the world.
From this perspective, the images and symbols of mythology give us a true meaning from those events, and it is the dialogue with soul in the imaginal world that provides the container for the enriching process of soul-work. Hillman describes this as the process of providing "containers for the many configurations of the soul..." (1975/1992, p. 14). Myths are a part of that configuration, providing an autonomous voice from the soul, telling a story that wants to be, needs to be, heard, enhancing and enriching, even defining, the nature of depth psychology.
I believe I have demonstrated the clear relationship between depth psychology and myths. First, by looking at how prominent depth psychologists use mythology in their work. Second, by seeking to hear the myth of Joab as an autonomous entity seeking witness to its own elegant and terrible nature. Third, by looking at my own life and the myth of Joab as a depth psychological examination of and from my own soulís despair in its attempt to clarify and heal the wounded aspects of self.
Clearly, mythology is a powerful medium for the soul to express itself, in personal terms and in terms of the psychology of being. A myth gives voice to the soulís autonomous expression, and invites one to identify with and witness its truth. Myth allows depth psychology to do this from within the rich tapestry of cultureís shared imaginal world.
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Bettleheim, B. (1983). Freud and manís soul. New York: Knopf.
Clift, W. B. (2000). Jung and christianity. NY: Crossroad Publishing.
Dyer, D. R. (2000). Jungís thoughts on god. York Beach, ME: Nicolas-Hayes.
Hillman, James. (1975/1992). Re-visioning psychology. NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
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Hillman, James. (1981/1997). The thought of the heart and the soul of the world. Woodstock, CT: Spring Publications.
Jung, Carl G. (1938). Psychology and religion. Binghampton, NY: Vail-Ballou Press.
Martella, M. (2002). Oppression and the soul of the world. (Term paper, Post-Jungian Psychology, Pacifica Graduate Institute, 2002).
Samuels, A. (1985/1999). Jung and the post-jungians. NY: Routledge.