Phil Garrity is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology with an Emphasis in Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. He recently had a piece in the book Gemini and the Sacred: Twins and Twinship in Religion and Mythology. I’m delighted to speak with him about twinship, otherness, and his work and experience with critical illnesses.
Angela: You recently contributed an epilogue, along with your twin brother, to the book Gemini and the Sacred: Twins and Twinship in Religion and Mythology, edited by Kimberley C. Patton, who is your former professor at Harvard Divinity School. Tell us a little about the book and also what it was like to co-write the epilogue with your twin.
Phil: Shortly before starting divinity school, I participated in the making of Twinsburg, a short film written and directed by my identical twin brother Joe. The story was set in the town of Twinsburg, Ohio, a real place that hosts the world’s largest gathering of twins every year. Although Joe initially conceived of the film as a light-hearted comedy, a meta-narrative began to unfold on the film set. As tensions escalated between us, we edited the script in real-time to mirror our darkening dynamic. We were starting to see how the story we were trying to write was actually writing us.
A few years later, in my final year of divinity school, I stumbled across a course entitled, “Twins and Twinship in Religion and Mythology” taught by Professor Kimberley Patton. I was intrigued but also ambivalent about taking the course, as the complexities of filming Twinsburg and the turmoil that followed made me wary of retreading that terrain. As we read about twin myths across different geographies and cultures, I came to see how mythology could illuminate the subtleties and particularities of my own twin dynamic—the interchange of consonance and dissonance, intimacy and alienation, recognition and non-recognition. A few years after graduation, Professor Patton invited Joe and me to co-write the epilogue to Gemini and the Sacred, an anthology of scholarly essays on twin myths. Through the writing process, we were able to revisit the tumultuous making of Twinsburg, to situate it in the broader context of our lives, and to examine all of it through a mythological lens. The process of writing the epilogue, similar to the making of the film, was certainly challenging, but ultimately cathartic and healing for Joe and me. We were able to see how, at its core, it is a story of deep love, a meditation on grief, and coming to terms with the threat of losing each other—me to bone cancer and Joe to suicidal depression.
On another note, I owe it to Professor Patton for pointing me toward Pacifica after divinity school. She helped me continue what had been initiated in the twins class: making the journey from what Hillman calls the “spirit-realm” of reason, order, clarity, and light (characteristic of the theology and philosophy I had been immersed in during divinity school) and descending into the “soul-realm” of emotion, chaos, murkiness, and embodiment (characteristic of the mythology and depth psychology we’re studying at Pacifica).
Angela: In the epilogue, you and Joe write of childhood as “taking one step further than the other, inventing and mutually defying boundaries, we mapped a vast territory… We created and amplified our own rules, those foundational myths that were more convincing than anything that came afterward in our lives.” All cultures have mythological figures of twins, many possessing magical qualities. I love the idea that twins both create their own mythology together and also touch upon a nerve in humanity that reverberates into the mythic. What is it that so draws us to twinship as something special, in some cases, even sacred?
Phil: I think that twins embody a deep paradox about our identity as human beings. They seem to represent a kind of unity-in-multiplicity or, to use a term introduced by Henry Corbin, an unus-ambo, which conceives of selfhood as a “bi-unity,” a paradoxical state of being “one-yet-two.” In writing the epilogue, Joe and I arrived at a perplexing question about our own origin as identical twins: Who were “we” before the zygotic cleavage that split us into bundles of cells? Presumably that single zygote that preceded us was its own potential being, before it became two actual beings. But who was that? Was it Joe? Me? Someone else entirely?
Any attempt to answer that question seems to point to a place of non-duality, where “me” and “not-me” somehow coexist. I’m reminded here of a Buddhist kōan: “Show me your original face before you were born.” Of course, this is an impossible task for the rational mind, but I think it speaks to a deeper and more universal truth about all of us. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it “interbeing”: the reality that we are interconnected with everything and that no one thing can be cleanly separated from the rest of existence. While the bond between twins may seem anomalous, I believe it is a reflection of the connection we all possess, twins and singletons alike. We are all tied into the web of life and entangled with one another.
Angela: How does depth psychology treat twinship? In a world where it is considered healthy to individuate from our families, does one ever individuate from a twin, and would one even want to do so in the first place?
Phil: I can say that, from my own experience, individuating as a twin has been a fraught and delicate process. Some time ago I learned of the term “enantiodromia,” which is credited to pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus and was reintroduced to the West by Jung, who describes it as “the emergence of the unconscious opposite in the course of time [which] occurs when an extreme, one-sided tendency dominates conscious life [and] in time an equally powerful counter-position is built up [in the unconscious].” In many ways, I feel like enantiodromia helps to explain the tension and turmoil that surfaced between Joe and me in our early adulthood. While we had always shared similar interests in childhood, the differences that emerged between us later on threatened to divide us from each other. Joe didn’t seem to understand or appreciate my interest in religion and spirituality, and I didn’t value his interest in art and filmmaking. It reached a point where we didn’t seem to recognize each other or really “get” what fueled each of us on a deeper level. There was something deeply painful and even threatening about that, which led to the turbulence that culminated during the making of Twinsburg.
Freud spoke of “the return of the repressed”—the notion of neglected, abandoned, or discarded parts of us showing up again and asking for our attention—or, if unheeded, demanding it—often in uncomfortable or painful ways. In a certain sense, Joe served as a vessel for my own grief that I didn’t want to face, and despite my attempts to push him away, he emerged as that “unconscious opposite” or “powerful counter-position” that eventually demanded my attention. Toward the end of the epilogue, I ask Joe a rhetorical question: “Why do you need me?” adding, “It is a question meant not really for you, but for the universe or God or whomever wove us together as two-in-one, whomever stitched us into the fabric of everything and everyone else. I pull at the threads to free myself, insistent on finding security in selfhood, safety in self-sufficiency, but find it only unravels us both.”
Much of our journey since Twinsburg has been learning to see and accept each other as truly “other.” I’ve learned that the more that I can make peace with the “other” in me—to accept that part as a mystery beyond my control and understanding—the more I was able to accept Joe as “other.” In this way, the intrapsychic work of making peace with the inner stranger has facilitated the interpersonal work of making peace with the outer one. There’s something paradoxical here: In a certain sense, by acknowledging each other’s ineffability, Joe and I are returning to our mysterious and fused identity as young children, when we called each other “YaYa” until the age of five. Joe was YaYa, I was YaYa, and nearly everything around us was YaYa. It’s a strange consolation to recognize that even though I don’t know Joe now, I didn’t know him then, simply because there was no “Joe” to know—there was only YaYa.
Angela: You are two years into your Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology here at Pacifica, having done your Master’s at Harvard in part on “the psychospiritual dimensions of spirituality and illness experience” and focusing in your current consulting work on Serious Illness Care. Was your own experience with illness the foundation for your academic and professional focus, if you don’t mind sharing about that?
Phil: The question about how to carry forward my cancer experience is alive for me, as I am ambivalent about putting it at the center of my academic and professional life. My mentor during hospital chaplaincy training said, “We should minister from our scars, not our wounds.” I wonder sometimes whether I’m keeping open a wound that should otherwise close and heal. I’m currently doing my practicum training at a medical hospital in San Francisco, and some days I wonder, “What the hell am I still doing in a hospital?” I spent so many nights in a hospital bed and tied to machines and now I’m back here again. It’s like jumping into cold water most days. The smell of the soap still nauseates me—a Pavlovian response that I associate with my experience doing chemotherapy. This is perhaps the archetype of the wounded healer, which is not a particularly comfortable one to embody. But there’s something that draws me back to that place, and I recognize it as something of a calling. It’s a beautiful thing when you spend time with the sick and dying and you come to sense the precariousness of things. The boundary between patient and provider becomes porous, and you come to see how we are forever interchanging who is in the hospital bed, who is giving and receiving care. It is a recognition that I have been here before and I will be here again, that I am caring for you now, but you will care for me later.
Angela: What drew you to Pacifica, and in particular to the Clinical program? Will your dissertation work here continue to focus on illness, and are you intending to take this work into clinical settings once you graduate?
Phil: I appear to be moving in that direction, as my class assignments have generally been revolving around the psychospiritual dimensions of illness experience. At the moment, my dissertation topic is gravitating toward the exploration of how psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy can help alleviate existential distress and death anxiety in patients facing life-threatening illness such as cancer. We’re on the cusp of a revolution in psychology with the renaissance of psychedelic research, and the therapeutic potential of these medicines is astounding. We’re likely only a few years away from psilocybin being legalized in California for therapeutic use, as it was recently in Oregon and Colorado. The need for integrative psychotherapy will be key, and I’m curious to continue exploring that frontier, especially as it involves people at the end of life.
As part of my dissertation, I’m also planning to draw on some things I was studying in divinity school, in particular apophatic theology, which refers to the “unsaying” of the divine by means of negation. I want to examine how mystical experiences engendered by psilocybin can be understood through the lens of Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart, who spoke of God as both ground and abyss. The journey of the mystic is characterized by “existential and epistemic divestment” —or the loss of one’s sense of self and orienting beliefs—which precedes the unio mysitica, and this trajectory seems like an apt framework for understanding both the psychedelic journey and the process of dying. Jung was strongly influenced by Meister Eckhart, too, so there’s a bridge there between Christian mysticism and depth psychology that I would also like to explore.
Angela: What does depth psychology bring to the experience of illness that can help us to understand and perhaps even endure things that do not seem endurable? Can it help people to heal or at least find meaning in the experience?
Phil: At its core, I think that depth psychology is about encountering the “other”—intrapsychically, interpersonally, and transpersonally. Especially in the cancer world, it is easy to adopt an adversarial stance toward the disease, using the battalistic language of “fighting” and “beating” the cancer. However benign it may seem, these metaphors imply a kind of self-division and enmity, pitting the good parts of us against the bad parts, the healthy cells against the rogue cells. During my own cancer experience, I was deliberate in abstaining from that kind of language. The intrapsychic work I had done in the year leading up to the diagnosis, when I struggled mightily to make peace with the inner stranger, served me well. The “other” was no longer an aspect of my mind; now it was embodied. In this sense, the confrontation wasn’t intrapsychic, it was intrasomatic. And I was plenty familiar with what it meant to go to war with myself, so when the diagnosis came, I surrendered, wanting peace instead. The practice that year was to cultivate forgiveness for myself, to offer love to the wayward parts of me, to the cells that had gone rogue. The question was: Can I love this body, even if it kills me? Can I love this life, even if it lets me down? To live into the “Yes,” even with all the doubts and uncertainties and mess of feelings, is to practice a kind of love that defies all logic and breaks the heart—but breaks it open.
Jung famously said, “I would rather be whole than good.” I would rather accept all of myself, the good and the bad, than cut away and cast off the bad parts, even just mentally. And just as this was true for my body, I tried to cultivate that attitude toward my life. There was a natural temptation to see cancer as a mere detour, one that would eventually lead me back to the main road of my “real life.” But the sobering, undeniable fact was that there may not be a main road to which to return. If my treatment failed and the cancer spread and I spent my final days in hospitals and hospice, I didn’t want to deny the path I was on, to stubbornly insist that I should be back on the main road. So when I found my mind escaping to that idealized future, I would gently invite it back to the present, to stay with what is, rather than insisting on how things should be. There was a profound peace in simply abiding in that place, rather than trying to mentally escape the present, however uncomfortable or imperfect it was. I found that my own resistance was often more agonizing than the thing I was resisting. When we stop trying to push away those unwanted parts, we can listen to what they have to say and recognize how they’ve been silenced by an ego that insists it is the maker of its own destiny. To quote Jung again, “The experience of the Self is always a defeat for the ego.” When we learn to yield to the “other” in this way, we discover something far more precious than a healed body or a long life.
Angela: Thank you so much for sharing with me, and I look forward to seeing your academic career continue to blossom here.
Phil Garrity is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology with an Emphasis in Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. For the past decade he has worked in the global health field, helping to strengthen health systems in Latin America and Africa with a particular focus on cancer and palliative care programs. He also works with the Serious Illness Care Program at Ariadne Labs, a joint center for health systems innovation at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He holds a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School and a Bachelor of Arts in International Development Studies and Spanish from UCLA.
Angela Borda is a writer for Pacifica Graduate Institute, as well as the editor of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal. Her work has been published in Food & Home, Peregrine, Hurricanes & Swan Songs, Delirium Corridor, Still Arts Quarterly, Danse Macabre, and is forthcoming in The Tertiary Lodger and Running Wild Anthology of Stories, Vol. 5.