Witches, Trauma, and Depth Psychology? The Practice of Psychology Today

Posted by Nikole Hollenitsch on Jun 28, 2017 2:40:30 PM

Resistance and Radical Edges Conference, June 2017
Introduction to Dr. Donald Kalsched and clinical depth psychology by the Chair of the Clinical Psychology Department, Dr. Oksana Yakushko

On the weekend of June 16-18 of 2017 The Retreat at Pacifica Graduate Institute hosted over one-hundred guests at the landmark conference Response at the Radical Edge: Depth Psychology for the 21st Century. Chair of Pacifica's Clinical Psychology Program, Dr. Oksana Yakushko, welcomed guests on the morning of June 17th and gave some opening remarks. We hope you enjoy the replay of the live presentation. If you would prefer, Dr. Yakushko has kindly offered her written speech which you can access below the video.

Opening Remarks:

A warm morning greeting to all of you. I hope you have enjoyed yesterday’s offerings, opening plenaries, and connections.

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I am Dr. Oksana Yakushko, the chair of the Clinical Psychology department which includes both the Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs here at Pacifica. I have the privilege of giving the opening remarks on this day and an introduction to our next distinguished speaker, Dr. Donald Kalshed, one of the top scholars on depth psychological perspectives on trauma.

My introductory comments will focus on offering a frame, a different container and symbol for the practice of psychology today.

On this beautiful day on Pacifica campus, feeling well fed and contented… But in my ex-Soviet and feminist rogue and rebel style of staying Nasty, what I want to take all of us to is… WITCHES. Aha! The broom-flying, havoc-reeking, magic-wielding… wonder women! I am not speaking about the cauldron wielding Disney witches. Not the practicing witches of religious traditions such as the paganism or Wicca. Not the wonderfully re-imagined witches of J.K. Rowlings Harry Potter. And definitely not the so called witch-hunts evoked by our current president in his reaction to being investigated for the obstruction of justice. These appropriations of witches are yet another maddening aspect of paying attention to the politics and culture.

Because today I want to speak about the history of the real extermination of mostly women for their sin of witchcraft in Europe and around the world. I also want to speak to a parallel way, in which mainstream psychology has viewed depth traditions as a form of witchcraft, with efforts to root depth out of otherwise pristine scientific paradigms of psychology.

This past year I along with several of Pacifica students and faculty worked together on a special issue in one of the premier women’s psychology scholarly journals on indigenous healing traditions and women. I served as its co-editor and the author on several publications, including one with Pacifica clinical Ph.D. student about one of the first known women-shamans in Brazilian Amazons. My own contribution focused on history of indigenous knowledge and women, which led me to a horrifying and fascinating history of witch-burning by Western authorities. My research, based on scholarship of many historians, anthropologists and social scholars in these areas, focused on not only the devastating effects of mass extermination of women into whom the evils of society were placed but also on how Western sciences and medical professions were founded on the repression of indigenous knowledge, especially knowledge produced and practiced by women.

It was rather shocking and saddening and then maddening to read that what we have all learned about as the Renaissance and the Age of Reason or the Age of Sciences or the Age of Exploration, also co-insided with major extermination of women. Our textbooks are filled with Michelangelos, Galileos, and Columbuses when there were hundreds of thousands, by official numbers in church documents, of women killed over a period of 300 to 400 years as Europe supposedly left the Dark ages for the new era of creativity, exploration, sciences, and progress. Their evil bodies were killed so that their souls could be saved. These numbers typically did not include women who died while being tortured, who died before being executed, who were tried and released, including because they were found to be pregnant, so as not to harm the child who was believed to be innocent of mother’s crimes. Considering these other cases are leading some scholars to believe that women impacted by witch-hunts were in fact in millions.

Historians suggested that between approximately 1400s and 1800s there were many towns across Europe that were so devastated by witch-hunts and witch-burning that there were almost no women left. Some towns were left with one or two women. Witches were typically tried, tortured, and executed in public. In Europe most small and large cities held witch-burnings with one or two women executed per day in the heart of the city – usually the central square. Each day except for Sunday.

According to the Witches Hammer, the official inquisition’s witch-burning guide, women were hunted for three main reasons: their sexuality (Eve was the seductress who fell prey to her own desire by being seduced by the snake and then in turn seduced innocent Adam), women’s knowledge (Eve fell for seeking knowledge from the serpent of hell, and moreover, women were not endowed by divine capacity for knowledge given to men and so whatever they knew such as reading of writing could only be given to them by the Evil One). Third reason for hunting them down was their capacity to heal. “She who can heal, can destroy!” said the Witches Hammer, and women who practiced or believed to practice any medicine, herbal lore, healing or care were especially targeted. Midwives were slaughtered because if you recall, Eve was supposed to be in the hands of her husband and the divine order for her procreation and definitely in pain at childbirth as her payment for her sins.

While certainly reasons for hunting down women, almost always only women, as witches, had many social, religious, and political reasons, there is one that strikes me as important in understanding subsequent development of scholarly fields, including psychology. This was the very time when Western universities were formed. These hallowed sanctuaries of thought and reason were only opened to men and upper class men at that, men who began to insist on empiricism, especially embracing scientistic approaches to studying humans through supposedly objective means. It was also the time when formal professions, such as medicine, were formed. These too were only open to men of certain social standing.

In short, what we now know as Western sciences, universities, academies, and professions was in part based on extermination of unwanted and typically female-held knowledge, which was burnt at the stake.

This was also the time of the supposed global explorations. Sailors, guided by their manifest destiny to save the world of the non-believers and to support their own pockets or those of their monarchs, cruised and conquered the world. One of the surest ways that they took control of these new “primitive” cultures, according to historians such as Howard Zinn, was to destroy them through denying the rights of women to be healers and leaders. For example, one of the most complete detailed historical accounts left by conquistadors and so-called explorers to South America, called the Florentine Codex, boasted of conquering peoples through killing their witches, whom they called “vulva rubbing,” “seductive evil-doers” who offered dark forms of healing to their kind. These witches were publicly tortured and publicly killed, just as they were in Europe, for edification of the newly conquered people’s souls.

Many sociologists, historians, anthropologists, feminist critical scholars and others noted that this centuries-long history ensured that indigenous, often women-honoring and women-held forms of knowledge were driven underground. This process, in my scholarly reviews, paralleled the Cartesian split of mind and body, and heralded the era of modern psychology that reduced everything human to rats through stats.

I want to shift your attention to ways that depth psychology, throughout its history has been vilified and at times associated with supposed witchcraft. If you recall, these depth scholars were interested in strange concepts such as the Unconscious, offered absolutely unconventional approaches to healing (how could someone be healed simply by talking!), and dared to comment on sex and death. C.G. Jung, often maligned more than others, was continually trying to look to very odd things – to early XX century physicians and scholars things that were full of witchcraft and woo-woo such as Taoism or yoga or tribal traditions.

In contrast, the rational, objective, neutral, and really void of any woo-woo methods became far more dominant in explanation of human experience among early XX century scientists. In Russia, Pavlov found that caged, starved and mutilated-for-experiments dogs responded to conditioning their reflexes through their stimuli. Their natural reflexes said only – “must have food!” – and scientists concluded that people, akin to these dogs, are guided and could be absolutely and totally controlled through manipulation of their instincts and reflexes.

By 1914, John B. Watson, known as the Father of American psychology gave his Behaviorist Manifesto, stating that what he called truly American brand of psychology was based on the notion that there is no difference, absolutely no difference, between “the man and the brute,” or a human being and an animal. There was no place in this new psychology, he stated, for the study of some consciousness or introspection but only physico-chemical reactions that constitute our instinctual reflexive animal behaviors.

Watson was charismatic, incredibly vocal about his ideas, offering promises of utopian societies with people who could be socially engineered to be happy and efficient. What a dream! Everything he did, he did with incredible passion and determination, dismissing all alternative perspectives. He set up academic American psychology as what he called the comparative experimental field – with every department based on animal behavior labs or applied experimental research on infants, in his case mostly orphans, to gain scientific statistically valid findings on ways to stop infants from feeling anger, rage or their insatiable need for human love – Watson’s three main problems to address. He was a true believer in the power of his scientific vision, and experimented very openly on his own four children, who were featured as paragons of behavioral psychological health in his many many books, including hugely popular books for parents, his articles, interviews in Life and Times and more. Fighting the ever-rising interest in depth psychological traditions, Watson openly called psychoanalysis the Voodooism – he did so in his scholarly books, scientific articles, in his letters as the President of the American Psychological Association, and anywhere else this very prolific and very zealous man made his ideas known.

Voodooism indeed. Forward to today, and you would be surprised to learn that mainstream academic psychologists still view depth traditions with disdain and dislike, still proposing it absolutely has no scientific support (which in fact is strikingly false because evidence that depth traditions work it aplenty!). Instead, many of them write that depth traditions still somehow guide the poor unsuspecting lost client souls into the dark woods of analytic rooms to be devoured by those analytic type Baba Yagas.

No, you say, not today’s psychologists. Well, I found one of the most hateful writings about depth traditions comes from one of the currently top mainstream psychologists, proponent of the so-called Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman. In almost all of his work, analysis of any kind, but especially psychoanalysis, is openly denigrated. Not only it is non-scientific, Seligman states, it never works, but worse he says, it teaches people what he calls “rotten to the core dogma”-- that past, including traumatic past or people’s suffering, matters to the present. He offers conclusions that analysis almost always ends in people doing worse than before they begin in therapy or even kill themselves all because they want to explore their difficult pasts! Freud and His Legion of Followers – Seligman’s exact words – yes, an allusion to Satan and his Legion of Followers, a hackle of witches – are doing evil dark deeds while his own Positive Psychology teaches that past doesn’t matter, present doesn’t matter, and only positive visions of future will keep you happy and productive.

I find this history of psychology, and especially these allusions to witches and witchcraft fascinating. And in our depth traditions of attending to symbols and to critique of their cultural influence, I want to reclaim witches as standpoints for clinical depth psychology today.

First, like in traditions of Wicca or pagan religions, like in indigenous forms of healing including shamanism, depth psychology offers a radical acknowledgment and connection to the Unknown. The Witch deals with mysteries and powers unknown. Healers of old and present actively acknowledge that our challenges and illnesses are incredibly complex, multi-determined, and must be approached with reverence – could it be the spirits, or ancestors, or maybe a meaningful calling to something we cannot yet see or know but have to face.

Freud famously offered the image of a human awareness as being that of an inverted iceberg. We know so so little of ourselves whereas the great Unknown, the Unconscious shapes, guides, and works on our lives. Jung recognized even greater dimensions of the Unconscious, which in his view included not only personal but also the collective Unknown. In contrast, there is something so disconcerting about watching psychology try to continue to dissect humans into concrete thoughts and behaviors or our brain parts we can identify and control when those from depth traditions write about the process of therapy or healing as much an art as it is science. This still sounds like voodoo and witchy to some. Another piece of history of witches, whether ancient healers or modern depth therapists, is our capacity to relate to Evil. This relation to Evil is, in my view, a contrast to sanitized discussions of so-called positive coping mechanisms, post-traumatic growth, or reductionist perspectives that it is just our animal nature that makes us, well, act badly in times. No, healers of old and present, are willing to see the very human reasons and ways that Evil is present, often within ourselves, and not because we are mindless beasts or puppets of malfunctioning thought programs in our computer-like brains. The Evil in our lives often comes from the outside, not our problematic brains or lack of self-control, but, even literally, from the “evil eye” or what we know in psychoanalysis as a Gaze of projections – the Male Gaze in viewing women and femaleness or the White Gaze in seeing people of color and race. Consider what such Gaze does to the psychic lives, the very souls, of people who receive it – girls who are watched predatorily as sexual fodder or young Black men as violent. Such Gaze is Evil.

Suffering and oppression is not always or only individual. Because suffering, like poverty, is not just a “state of mind” one can control by positive thinking – something that was recently asserted by Ben Carson, who is supposed to be in charge of Department of Housing. And suffering done to us often begets more suffering and oppression – because evil often breeds more evil, oppression hurts, and terrible things are carried out at times in the name of greater good. Positive psychologists claim that any attention to trauma, suffering, and evil, including remembering historical evils, are what Seligman calls “rotten to the core dogma,” which make us physically and psychologically sick. Suffering and trauma themselves have become the new witches, whose extermination through rational behavioral light appears required to make us all think we live in the world free of Evil, where everyone is oh so happy and flowing.

Another terrifying and paranoia driven aspects of ancient witch-hunts was that “they are Everywhere!” or worse, “They could be one of us!” In fact, the Inquisition, including in manuals such as the Witches Hammer, continually warned that witchcraft is incredibly infectious. They cautioned that one day you are a religion-following, hard-working, family focused, caring citizen and then Bam! You are a witch! There is something psychologically powerful about that recognition of separation of Them and Us, and especially Us as the Good and the Great and them as the Bad Dangerous Other. In psychology, so many mainstream academy pursue the perspective of the very healthy rational, all knowing therapist working with crazy, weak-minded and lacking in self-control clients.

I imagine most of you know that in contrast to this We All Good/They Are Sick and Crazy paradigm, shamans not only undergo their transformation into becoming healers by opening themselves to all manner of worse human and spiritual conditions shared by all in their community as an absolute pre-requisite, but also during their rituals they enter into the inner world of those to whom they offer healing. They face every demon, every form of suffering brought to them directly and not through giving remote directions from manuals. Depth traditions, all of them, actively remind that we as therapists are wounded healers, that we are relational beings capable of the very same struggles, defenses, and flights into denial of suffering as the person next to us. They/us in phenomenological or intersubjective or relational frameworks is not possible – and in fact, creation of such splits is viewed by depth traditions problematic. They/us is, of course, the foundation for so many forms of oppression and social violence, from racism, sexism, or homophobia.

Lastly, when I hear “Witch,” I think Rogues and Resisters. Whether women and men of old refused traditional forms of religion by following pagan traditions; or midwives of old who taught women how to control their own reproduction or provided care for them during birthing despite risks they took with their own lives and supposedly Christian souls. Midwives, indigenous healers and other witchy-types continued to offer their care despite the wide-spread extermination and despite the fact that both academic scientists and medical professionals branded them as charlatans and their knowledge literally as old wives tales.

I think of a resisting and defying way that enslaved African peoples held on to their healing traditions to practice the Voodoo, a spiritual approach that still casts fear in the hearts of many White people. The Voodoo, in view of many scholars of history of enslaved peoples of America, provided a vital cultural bridge to African indigenous past, an imaginative place of spiritual power to heal and to devastate, and a venue for resisting brutality of slavery that destroyed humanity.

I believe that Freud, Jung, Woodman, Hillman and other depth psychology pioneers of past, and many of those who are here and teaching at Pacifica now, such as Chris Downing or Mary Watkins, are rogues and rebels. They offered scholarship that was maligned by dominant establishments in their fields. Voodooism, cultism, New Age ramblings, feminist prolix, same-sex desire normalizing, socialism and worse! Rogues all of them!

I like how the image of the witch remains a wonderful symbol of counter-culture and resistance. Those of you who marched or march recognize the many ways that symbol carries profound commitment to resist with all that we’ve got against the culture and politics of “greatness,” happiness, erasure, and patriarchal meritocracy.

To be clear, making witches or depth psychology scholars, past and present, into saints and pure heroines or heroes is to strip them of their humanity and their location within human cultural systems, often systems of oppression, from which they too benefited. Witches did practice dark arts with intention to hurt, often for payment. Midwives at times denied women their care during childbirth when the church officials demanded that a birthing woman give up the name of child’s father, if infidelity or unchastity were suspected or observed.

Depth psychologists too, past and present, often not just healed but at times created suffering through propagation of ideas that were racist, sexist, homophobic, and even evolutionary or social Darwinist such as references to indigenous traditions as primitive. In my opinion, we must continually apply our own voodooism to ourselves – working with split off and projected, seeing Evil within not just without, recognizing when we are seeing Them versus Us, and not entering the fray as Rogues and Resistors.

This said, the symbology of witchcraft stands out to me. Recall that witches were burnt not just for their capacity to heal but also for their knowledge and their sexuality. I wonder then that such allusions to witches in past history, by past and current American psychologists, like behaviorists and positive psychologists, show the true fear of the Big Three: the Eros (desire, sex, creativity, and the Libido); the Knowledge beyond what is controlled and approved from above by being supposedly neutral objective STEM disciplines using infallible MRI machines; and the Mysterious capacity to heal…

We all require a dose of good voodoo… I am convinced that American psychology is in dire need of some good voodoo… Did you know, by the way, that children and grandchildren of John B. Watson, that very famous father of American psychology and behaviorism, not only rejected his views, writing about the horrific aftermath of his experiments on them but also publicly shared their profound anger about these? They also openly wrote about finding healing and health through a big dose of… the voodooism for themselves – they went for intensive multi-year multi-day depth psychoanalysis to heal their many wounds from behaviorism. I believe that depth psychology tradition has been a magnificent and very needed counter-point to animal based and control focused mainstream approaches such as CBT and behaviorism.

This split between American animal based psychologies void of humanity and the absence of depth traditions are especially felt in approaches to working with trauma. So much of working with trauma appears to be developed on lab animals, animals who are caged and starved, but whose behavioral responses to traumas imposed on them by researchers are supposed to offer us systematic concrete and manualized ways to stop human traumatic responses. Moreover, so called Positive psychologists are writing that sciences supposedly tells us that all we need to do is to remind ourselves that we and those other traumatized people grow from trauma – if you get traumatized, remind yourself it will make you resilient, happy and productive, the so called post-traumatic growth.

Today we will hear that another, in my view, a more witchy and dynamic and relational depth view is possible- a view that draws on the long standing evidence of not just psychology scholarship or varied forms of sciences but on sciences of humanity we find in literature, art, philosophy, and history.

Our next speaker, Dr. Donald Kalsched, is a clinical psychologist and Jungian psychoanalyst in private practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is a senior training analyst with the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts where he teaches and supervises. His 1996 book The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defenses of the Personal Spirit has found a wide readership in both psychoanalytic and Jungian circles and has been translated into many languages.

Dr. Kalsched teaches and lectures nationally and internationally, pursuing his inter-disciplinary interest in early trauma and dissociation theory and its mytho-poetic manifestations in the mythic and religious iconography of many cultures. His new book Trauma and the Soul: A Psycho-Spiritual Approach to Human Development and its Interruption was published in 2013.


Yakushko_Oksana.pngOksana Yakushko, Ph.D. Dr. Yakushko's training and interests span depth psychology, women and gender studies, and psychology. Her clinical and research interests focus on immigration, human trafficking, diversity, and gender issues. In addition, she has written on indigenous healing practices, women's spirituality, multicultural counseling approaches, and qualitative cross-cultural research methods. Dr. Yakushko has published over 50 peer reviewed articles, book chapters, and book reviews. She has received several awards for her scholarly work and activism including an APA Presidential Citations (2008), (2011) and the Oliva Espin Social Justice Award (2008). In addition to her scholarly work, she has been active in the American Psychological Association and local initiatives focused on health and spirituality. Her goal as a chair is to nurture both the students and the clinical programs toward a soulful engagement with issues of today's world, inside and outside the classroom.

Topics: Pacifica Events, C.G. Jung, history of psychology, Psychology