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Women Who Run with the Wolves
An interview with author and analyst
Clarissa Pinkola Estés

By Isabella Wylde

From the Radiance Winter 1994 Issue

"I am built close to the ground and of extravagant body." So writes the Jungian analyst and cantadora storyteller Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés in her number 1 New York Times best-seller, Women Who Run with the Wolves (Ballantine Books, 1992). Remaining on the prized list for one year (as of August 1993), her book uses multicultural myths and folk and fairy tales to help women reconnect with their instinctual selves.

Having struggled with body size most of my life, I was especially curious about Dr. Estés, and fascinated by her book and audio tapes (available through Sounds True, Boulder, Colorado). In Denver bookstores, where brochures and fliers announce upcoming workshops, I found that several local women had begun to offer workshops and ongoing groups to facilitate "finding the creative Wild Woman." Dr. Estés's work was catching on. Further proof came when her name appeared as a clue in a New York Times crossword puzzle!

I was eager to attend a conference for women where Dr. Estés was scheduled to speak in Boulder. After the introductions, a large woman in a black dress with a blue yoke climbed the stage steps. Her dark hair was pulled back and adorned with a red bow at the nape. The audience began to applaud immediately. Suddenly, everyone stood up, clapping and yelling to honor this woman who had not, as yet, spoken one word. It was obvious that many women at the conference had been touched deeply by Dr. Estés's work.

Though skeptical when I had first bought her tape, I found myself listening to "The Wild Woman Archetype" over and over again. I gained emotional strength from each hearing. I began to feel more alive, excited, empowered. I told friends about it, I bought her book, and I soon found women in all walks of life who were being strengthened by Estés's words, by the stories that she calls soul vitamins.

They seemed to reach me at a subconscious level. The stories affirmed my inner core self and reminded me that I am valuable, creative, important. Her stories and interpretations strengthened my resolve to dig out more of my own inner feelings and desires, and to put time and energy into them; to value what my sometimes rigid family and community do not - creativity, vision, personal power; and to trust my own oft-trampled intuition, my wounded "inner child."

Estés was raised in the rural midwest near the Great Lakes. She describes her childhood environment poetically in the introduction to her book. "There, thunder and lightning were my main nutrition. Cornfields creaked and spoke aloud at night. Far up in the north, wolves came to the clearings in moonlight, prancing and praying. We could all drink from the same streams without fear."

This early exposure to nature and a later study of wildlife biology, focusing on wolves, led Estés to make a comparison of women to wolves. "Healthy wolves and healthy women share certain psychic characteristics," she writes. "Wolves and women are relational by nature, inquiring, possessed of great endurance and strength. They are deeply intuitive, intensely concerned with their young, their mate, and their pack."

Her analogy continues: "Yet both have been hounded, harassed, and falsely imputed to be devouring and devious, overly aggressive, of less value than those who are their detractors. Separation from the wildish nature causes women to become confused and lose their way."

And when women hear the term wild woman, it is like "the fairy-tale knock at the door of the deep female psyche" and "an old, old memory is stirred and brought back to life. The memory is of our absolute, undeniable, and irrevocable kinship with the wild feminine, a relationship which may have become ghosty from neglect, buried by overdomestication, outlawed by the surrounding culture, or no longer understood anymore. We may have forgotten her names," Estés writes, "but in our bones we know her, we yearn toward her; we know she belongs to us and we to her. A healthy woman is much like a wolf: robust, chock-full, strong life force, life-giving, territorially aware, inventive, loyal, and roving."

In her book, Estés explains that she uses the word wild to mean living "a natural life, one in which the criatura, creature, has innate integrity and healthy boundaries." She stresses that balance is necessary and good, and that women should beware of overdoing it in any area of their lives, even in creative work.

The wild and instinctual nature means "to establish territory, to find one's pack, to be in one's body with certainty and pride regardless of the body's gifts and limitations, to speak and act in one's behalf, to be aware, alert, to draw on the innate feminine powers of intuition and sensing, to come into one's cycles, to find what one belongs to, to rise with dignity, to retain as much consciousness as we can."

Estés put herself through college and then earned a Ph.D. in psychology after a divorce and a year spent on welfare with her young daughters. She next earned a postdoctoral diploma that certified her as a Jungian analyst. Working as a psychotherapist, Estés soon recognized that traditional psychology looked at women as men would have them be, missing the "deeper issues important to women: the archetypal, the intuitive, the sexual and cyclical, the ages of women, a woman's way, a woman's knowing, her creative fire."

In 1976 Estés developed the first psychology course on women in Colorado and taught it at a local community college. She had seen women in her psychotherapy practice with a similar problem. They, like the larger patriarchal society surrounding them, did not value women's creativity but rather their "niceness." This effectively squashes, and drives deep within, women's true nature and creative gifts. In her practice, Estés found that telling stories worked better than traditional psychology in helping both women and men find their strengths.

Each of her ethnic heritages - Mexican and Hungarian - has contributed to Estés's love and immense knowledge of stories and myths. In her adult years she traveled and spent time with people of many cultures, including Native Americans from the north, throughout the west, and down to Central and South America. She writes in her book that she became a "gypsy scholar" traveling in a little trailer in which she would "drive down any dirt road [she] could find and see who was at the end of it."

I've traded stories at kitchen tables and under grape arbors, in hen-houses and dairy barns, and while patting tortillas, tracking wildlife, and sewing the millionth cross-stitch. I've been lucky to share the last bowl of chili, to sing with gospel women so as to raise the dead, and sleep under stars in houses without roofs. I've sat down to the fire or dinner, or both, in Little Italy, Polish Town, the Hill Country, Los Barrios, and other ethnic communities throughout the urban Midwest and Far West, and most recently traded stories about sparats, bad ghosts, with storytellers in the Bahamas.

In Women Who Run with the Wolves, Estés uses nineteen folk tales to empower and enlighten women. She attempts to reconnect us with the Wild Woman hidden somewhere deep within each of us. From the tale of "La Loba - The Wolf Woman," through "Bluebeard," "Vasalisa The Wise," "The Ugly Duckling," and "The Red Shoes," to "The Handless Maiden," Estés offers solutions to the common pitfalls of women's lives.

Originally Dr. Estés attempted to publish her work with the Jungian presses, but was rejected. She then made several audio tapes available by mail-order, which sold well by word of mouth. Luckily, one of her tapes reached a New York editor, and the publisher came to her.

Dr. Estés is now writing a second book, one of several in the works. It is called When This Tree Has Stood Winter: Myths and Stories of the Wise Woman Archetype. A former executive director of the C. G. Jung Institute in Denver, Estés currently spends time writing and keeping a small practice. In addition, she is a longtime human rights activist who has developed and heads the Guadalupe Foundation, which has as one of its missions broadcasting strengthening stories via radio to troubled areas throughout the world.

During the open microphone sessions at the conference I attended, many participants thanked Estés further for her book. One woman said that no book had helped her deal with the aftereffects of a rape as much as Women Who Run with the Wolves.

"That's because it isn't self-help!" Estés exclaimed.

Several days later, when I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Estés, she explained what she had meant.

"People are starved for poetry, starved for things that strengthen them," she began. "There are any number of so-called self-help books and tapes on the market, but I don't think that people are needing or wanting self-help as much as they want to be strengthened. It is useful, most definitely, but it leaves out the underworld, the deep inner life. Deep inner life," she emphasized. "It also leaves out the spirit."

Estés described for me her method of healing. "I come from the Curanderisma healing tradition from Mexico and Central America. In this tradition a story is 'holy,' and it is used as medicine. The story is not told to lift you up, to make you feel better, or to entertain you, although all those things, of course, can be true. The story is meant to take the spirit into a descent to find something that is lost or missing and to bring it back to consciousness again. For some people that may sound mystical . . . and it is!" she added, laughing.

I recalled the advice for her daughters that Estés had listed at the conference. 1) Be friendly but never tame. 2) Misbehave with integrity. 3) Don't let the bastards grind you down! I asked if she thought her own daughters were Wild Women.

"I would say that they have a good start as pretty strong pups. They have a really good connection to their instinctual life," she answered. "What I mean is not that they live within that bound all the time, but that they know immediately when they are out-of-bounds and make actions to correct it.

"The injunction in our culture is to 'be perfect,' which is ridiculous, impossible, and not only that - it is boring! Perfection means that you have to be totally still, that nothing can ever change. To live that way would be disastrous."

Estés explained how our egos interfere with our instinctual nature by convincing us of false paths. "A gorgeous person walks into our lives and we drop everything and go off. Or we take a job we hate for the money we love, or think that if we just do something, that somehow life will be made miraculously better. That's the kind of out-of-boundary that most people struggle with. If you don't have a sense of the instinctual nature, then sometimes you are outside of your own cycles rather than in them.

"The cycles are birth, light, and energy, and then depletion, decline, and death. Then incubation and new life comes. Cycles, that is how we are supposed to meet everything," she emphasized. "Our children, our work, our lovers - everything goes through that cycle. There is the time to say that is enough, to incubate, and then to come back with new energy and new life again.

"And when a woman is in that mystical and practical sensibility called the instinctual nature, then she knows when it is time to make things live and time to let things die."

Estés told me two life circumstances that had contributed to her unusually strong self-esteem in relation to body size.

"I was born of Mexican heritage and adopted as an older child by Hungarian immigrants," she began. "My adopted family had bought the culture lock, stock, and barrel. They did not want people to know that they could not speak English very well, that they could not read or write. They also bought into the cultural injunction against the natural female body, so my foster mother and her sisters all tried to starve themselves - to be thin, to wear to church the pointy high heels, and girdles - all the devices of torture.

"After the Second World War, when I was about eight or nine, my foster father searched throughout Europe for any living relatives who might have survived the war. He found four of his sisters who had lost their husbands and all of their children. He managed to bring them to the United States.

"Here they came off the train in Chicago." Estés laughed as she went on. "These four big women. And I mean huge women. Their clothes were hanging on them, which means that they had been even bigger before they were starved. They were tall and broad. They came here with hair down to their ankles, braided and wrapped around their heads, and with only a few clothes.

"They treated me as though I were a 'Child of God,' because I was the only living child in the family. They could not hug me enough. I can remember them hugging me and hugging me and hugging me. They were always wanting to hold me. I was older, but they carried me around like I was a baby." She laughed out loud at this memory. "I just loved them - they were so wonderful!

"They grew bigger and bigger as they were recovering, and they returned to their natural size, which was big. I was just so thrilled with them. They raked and hoed and spaded and seeded and watered and harvested. They spun and wove and chrocheted and tatted, and they made lace.

"I can remember sitting beside them at night as they told stories with their arms around me, and their large hips - how big and how comforting the aunts were. How safe I felt near them.

"You know the phrase thunder-thighs?" Estés asked. "'She makes thunder when she walks' - you are supposed to be able to hear a woman coming by her thighs brushing against each other - that is what my aunts taught me!"

The second event that influenced her life occurred when Estés was in her early thirties.

"I went back to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico to meet some of my ancestral family members. I found this huge group of big women. They thought I was too thin and they were astounded at the idea of a 'diet.' Astounded. They kept trying to put dieting into a religious context - like purification, or strengthening oneself in a spiritual way.

"I said to them, 'No, no, only so that you can attract men.'

Estés continued, "They are the Tehuana. They are a matriarchy, and they would put their hands on their hips and would say, 'Que?' (What?) And they were really not only puzzled but also outraged. 'They do this to women far up north?' they asked me.

"'Yes, women do it to themselves far up north,' I said to them.

"My blessing that I received from them I would call a rebirthing for my own body. They lived in a way that I found I could also live by seeing the body as a vehicle. Some people naturally have a small body, and that is their vehicle. But some women and men have very large bodies."

After that visit, Estés stopped dieting. "I never, ever again went on a diet, because I felt that my body was meant to be large. I also saw that I came from a long line of women who were proud and stood tall. They were totally empowered, and they also had large bodies."

Estés added, "I think that it is all right if people want to control their weight, as long as they don't make themselves sick about it. But I also think that there is something to be said for not causing a woman to spend a huge amount of her entire life preparing food, shopping for food, fixing food, and eating food in order to maintain a weight that's less than her body would like to be.

"Robbing women's creative life from them - to set them after a foolish task - that happens in fairy tales and in mythology a lot. It shows the separation of the person form their own soul life. The person is set upon a foolish task, and finally in the midst of their life they wake up and say, 'Oh, my, this is a foolish task.'" Estés laughed.

"I can't even imagine that we were put on the face of this Earth in order to be thin. I think most of us are here on a mission different from a job or a career. I think we're here to do helping and healing and discovery and creation.

"I think the idea of body size is a diversion and a distraction from the real work. The process of being here is the most important, and we must honor that with respect and love."

I was reminded of an incident I had observed at the Boulder conference. Estés had been invited to join the panel of presenters on the stage after a lunch break. As she ascended the stairs, she noticed only one empty chair. She hesitated.

Glancing from the chair to the audience, she said, "One thing large people learn is to check out a chair with arms before sitting, or else when you get up you may be wearing it!" She walked bent over, demonstrating how she would look with a chair stuck to her backside.

The humorous way she handled what could have been an embarrassing moment was refreshing to me. Later, when I mentioned this to her, she said, "It's like with shoes. I have a size 9 foot, and I wouldn't try to put it into a size 7 shoe." Simple, no excuses.

At the closing ceremony of the conference, when a Native American woman began performing a ritual with drums and chants, Estés had already gathered her things and left the stage. Hesitating at the foot of the stage, she looked as though she wanted to make a hasty exit, but still didn't want to miss anything.

The drumming and chanting proceeded. Estés suddenly kicked off her shoes, put down her purse and glasses, and, with her arms raised high, swayed and danced to the drumbeat. As she continued to move around the large auditorium, other women left their seats to dance with her, and one of the women on the panel left the stage to join in.

Such life, such beauty in her movement! Estés's glorious large body was dancing with abandon and grace. This image has stayed with me, this image of a woman who truly loves and cherishes her own body.

For information on the audio tapes available by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, write to Sounds True Audio, 735 Walnut Street, Boulder, CO 80302, or call 303-449-6229.

ISABELLA WYLDE is a free-lance writer and social worker who is trying to live up to her new last name. She is currently working on a book about women and alcoholism.


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