Druscilla French with Dr. Barb
Druscilla French is an author, lecturer, and cultural mythologist. She first studied communications, and returned to school at midlife to earn her PhD in Depth Psychology and Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, California. She is among the founders of the Women's Leadership Council at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and has published two novels.
And if you'd like to go further when you've heard the interview, Druscilla provided us with a discussion or journaling guide you can use to consider your own stories. It's available here.
Barb: Our guest today is Druscilla French, author, professor, and long time champion of women’s studies and women in leadership. She is also a cultural mythologist, which is what drew our interest to her. We’ll explain more about that in a minute. Welcome, Druscilla. Thanks for joining me today.
Druscilla: Good morning.
Barb: Thanks for joining me today.
Druscilla: My pleasure.
Barb: So, my background is in science and with my job day to day, I’m working in the more didactic world of taking facts and sorting through what I hear from people and making decisions based on that. And the term cultural mythology sounds like it has a different connotation from what I might expect, so I’d like you to explain to our listeners what that term means and how you can educate us further on that.
Druscilla: My background is in depth psychology, which began essentially with Freud and the notion that human beings have an unconscious that operates in their psyche all the time, but we’re largely unaware of it. So we spend a lot of time trying to understand what’s in that unconscious, because only then do we have a choice about how we interact with it, if that makes sense to you. If you don’t understand what your story is, then it just feels like reality, and you feel like you have no choice about it.
Jung called it individuation, the process of bringing that which is unconscious to consciousness, so that you have an understanding of who you are, and you have a choice about those beliefs. When we talk about the word mythology, we are talking about a collective set of beliefs or assumptions of which we are largely unconscious, but we treat them as if they were reality. And you’d mentioned that you are a scientist; well, what we are learning from neuroscience these days is that the brain scans for ways, basically, to stay alive. The brain operates in service to the survival instinct, and it looks out at the world, “How am I going to stay alive and, indeed, what path will make me prosper?”
So a personal mythology is a number of – it’s that collection, a roadmap that you assembled as you grew, about how the world is, what is your place in it, and what is a strategy for living that you believe – unconsciously – will be most successful and keep you not only alive, but lead you to prosperity.
The thing about mythologies are that we really cannot tolerate not having one. If you don’t have a story that you are living in, the angst, the anxiety, the fear is so great that you really can’t function and will descend into a kind of schizophrenia, or madness, or disorientation, or whatever you’d like to call it.
So there are collective mythologies. There are personal mythologies. There are religious mythologies. And in none of these applications do I mean that they are false. I simply mean they’re a set of beliefs that we all operate as if they were the truth when, in fact, all mythologies lead us to be blind to some perceptions because they immediately provide a lens through which we look at reality and say, “This is the way the world is.”
The task of depth psychologists is to work with people in a way that says, “This is how you are looking at the world. Are you aware of this?” For example, if you grew up in a situation where women were considered inferior to men, that may not be a belief you want to treat as if it were so as you mature. But you have to first come to an understanding that you did incorporate that. Or, as a scientist might say, “Those neuropathways exist,” and you operate from that perspective.
Barb: So when we spoke before, you ‘ve talked about the stories we learn when we’re young often shape our expectations, our decisions, our filters. I assume a lot of those stories are both spoken and unspoken.
Druscilla: I just got back from teaching a workshop last weekend in which we looked at what were the stories that captured your imagination. And we had categories: what were the stories with you as a child; asked to be read to over and over; the image you wanted on your pajamas, the things you hung on the wall. Then we looked at those kind of stories that occupied your attention when you moved into early childhood, and then adolescence, and so on. As people began to explain to you which ones out of the vast things that we are exposed to, like what books we read, what movies we like, the music we hang on to… it tells us a lot about how your mind is fishing for stories that you think will work for you. And you’re using them as like raw material in your construction of your personal mythology.
Now that’s just one source. You also are looking at the world through the lenses of say your religion, or your family, or if you live in the western hemisphere or the eastern hemisphere. So many different factors come along. We all know that, for instance, we tend to look at marriage or sexual relationships in terms of the situation we grew up in, which may lead you to trust or distrust partners; and yet, there’s also an aspect of the psyche we don’t really understand about why it is it reaches out and grabs “a story” and says, “This is my story.”
The most important part, though, as we look at personal myths – whether we look at them – there’s as many, many different approaches to how we unearth the contents of the unconscious. For some people, they consider the Greek mythology as a map of the unconscious. But the real point about doing the work – whether you are doing it at the level of a post-Jungian, post-modern analyst or you’re working with young women at age 12 trying to figure out what ideas and constructs they’re making about what it means to be a sexual being as they enter into puberty – the real point is that you don’t have any control over these beliefs until you recognize that they exist. And then your relationship with them shifts dramatically.
So, if you have grown up in an environment that tells you that one race is superior over the other race, or one sex should dominate the other, or those kinds of – girls cannot do this or girls can do this, and so on and so forth. While they are in your brain – and they are laid down as we now know because neuroscience tells us – you do have a choice. Once you look up and go, “You know in my family, for instance, no one’s believed in my family that women should go to college, but I’m making a new choice. And it’s going to be a step out into faith; I’m not going to know exactly how it’s going to be, and it’s going to be scary, but I’m making this choice.” And that’s how we work with the people that we try to assist as they try to create a path in their lives that is meaningful and purposeful, and that they believe in.
Barb: Is it more often a new story is adopted out of necessity, because of a crisis or a disruption in where their lives are going? I’m just curious how an individual who, I’ll take myself for example, may feel like my story is where I want it to be, my relationship with my family, my marriage, my religion, is there a way to be introspective to understand how to even better a story or is it only if you’re looking for a different direction?
Druscilla: No, there’s always benefit to understanding your story and where it comes from. One of the workshops I worked in this weekend was talking about the relationship with the dark feminine. So we live in a culture, and most monotheistic religions cast the shadow or the darkness on the feminine aspect of humanity. That might be something that, even though your life is working and you like your marriage, and you like your religion and so on and so forth, to be aware of that is useful information. To say, you know, this notion that Eve carries the curse of humanity is something that I personally – once I came to an understanding of that went, I reject that! I just flat out reject it. It’s not something I want to believe in, and it’s not something I want to carry.
Sometimes we are digging. This is deep work. It’s not on the surface. Now, as you say, you may reach a crisis that requires you to come up with a new story that you can live in. Say you’re an immigrant or when your reality collapses, and you have thought the story that you were going to live in was going to be about living in your culture, in your place, and that all goes away. You have to find a new container. Because you absolutely can’t tolerate the notion that you have no purpose, and there is no story, and there’s nowhere you are going. But also, it’s useful work, and I will be doing it for my whole life about what is in there, and what am I unearthing, and am I, in fact, driving this bus, or am I just along for the ride?
I’ll give you an example. I have a friend who just got her second divorce. She comes from a military family, she had five brothers (one of them died), but they all went to military academies as in the Coast Guard Academy. Her father was a high-ranking officer. They were a Catholic family. She was the only girl in this family, and she grew up in a situation that wasn’t really supportive or valued her to the extent that it valued her brothers and her father. Her mother operated from that point of view as well. So my client developed, as a child, a story about how she would find purpose and meaning and value for herself. I call this story An Officer and a Gentleman. It’s kind of a version of “one day my prince will come and they will see.” This woman has put herself through college, has a fabulous job, owns her house, has done very well, but she was going through her second divorce. And she says to me, “It’s all I’ve ever wanted was to be a wife.” And I said, You’re 63 years old; that’s not a story – this Officer and a Gentleman stuff is not a story that is going to work for you at this point.
You need to go back and figure out how much of that was constructed by wounded child, and as a mature woman, find a story you can live in that makes you happy. That you can actually manifest; that you can say, “This is who I am. This is what I’m about.” As opposed to automatically relating to, “I’m going back to a story that someday some handsome man in a uniform is going to come carry me out of the bar.” It’s not going to happen for a 63-year-old person.
Sometimes what we find is the story we are living in is one we need to let go of. Maybe we’ve outgrown it. Maybe you are a woman whose life has been about your children. And you’ve done a really great job of bringing your children into the world, educating them, being a great mom. They’re launched, they’re out there living their lives, and you are without a story. So, it’s time to look into your interior psyche and go, “What’s a different direction for me? Where can I find meaning other than being a mom?” That’s a useful kind of work.
Barb: I can see where that would be very useful kind of work. What are the resources required for someone to proceed adopting a new story? Is there, does it require an individual to encourage and coach or dialogue with – or are there written resources that individuals can access? Because, I assume that your client, who you just referred to, once mentioned, probably could see your point and understand where you were coming from. On the other hand, when you are 63 and that’s the way you’ve been operating, how do you pivot to move forward and be comfortable in that new story?
Druscilla: [laughs] The same way you get to Carnegie Hall! Practice! Practice! Practice! And when you look up and you say, “Why am I so miserable today? Well, because I’ve been sitting here feeling distressed about the fact that I’m not married, and duh-duh-da-da-da.” You go, “What other possibilities exist for me?” You go and search a story, I guess. Now, some people do this by finding an analyst. Some people do this by reading a lot of books about depth psychology, about goddesses, or about religion. It’s an exploration, and it can be self-guided or, if you are truly in distress, you probably need to find an analyst or a social worker or a coach.
But it is also work you can do yourself with journaling and dream work. It’s useful to at least read some books about it and become aware of, well, “I notice that what my heart is longing for is a dream of a life that I’m not going to be able to create at 63.” And so you say, “What else is possible for me? What else would fill that longing?
And for this woman, coming to the realization – I said, “You know, you’re a young girl who is extremely intelligent and capable to invent a story that allowed you to live within a family nest that demeaned you; that in fact sometimes abused you, physically hurt you, and you concocted a story that you steered your way out. You left town, and you made your own way. You can do that again. You are capable of doing that. It’s just going to be a different story. Because you need to know that you had the resources of an eight-year-old or a ten-year-old. But now you have all different resources.” We call it coming to consciousness.
The exercise that I did with these women this weekend was really a very simple one: What were the stories that attracted you? I talked about that in high school, I played Guinevere. And then I talked about how I didn’t know until I started looking at that, what it was about Guinevere that attracted me. That’s an interesting exploration. Or if you say, “What fairytale was mine?” And much has been written about fairytales and their relationship for children. Maria von Franz is one of the best. The Freudian who wrote about it was named Bettelheim, Bruno Bettelheim.
But, you don’t have to really walk through such heavy, dense, academic waters. You can sit down and go, “Who was I trying to become when I was six? And when I was twelve? And what appealed to me? And what was it about the movies that I liked, and which were the movies that I went, ‘These are not for me?’” As you look at that, you’ll know something about the way you constructed your map. Your map, as everybody’s map, will contain some things that you won’t like. Even though you may basically like your life, we all have what we call the shadow. And there are things in there that the only way to take it out is to say, “I’m not going to operate it from that reality.” I realize that, say for instance, my religion is not the only religion, or my color is not the best color, or my country is not the greatest country in the world. And so, maybe that belief colors my ability to be in the world in an authentic way.
Does that make sense to you?
Barb: It does make sense. It’s fascinating to me and I think it also reinforces to me, the responsibilities as a parent, and the influences we have in our childrens’ developing stories.
Druscilla: Exactly! I mean, one of the things that I personally had to come to grips with is the animosity that I feel for some political people right now. There’s a part of me that I didn’t even know existed. And yet, there’s a sense of that I’m being violated, that I’m being attacked, and there’s an anger in there that I wouldn’t have guessed I was capable of. But it’s in there. I need to come to grips with it because when I make choices about what I really want my story to be – it’s important what your story is – I don’t want it to be hateful. I don’t want it to be revengeful. I don’t want it to be angry. Because what I know about the human brain is, when I’m angry and fearful, I don’t think all that well, and I don’t behave from my highest and best self.
So, I promise you, you have demons. [laughs] Even if you really really like yourself and like your life, we all do. All of us have demons.
Barb: Of course. Of course. I read somewhere you defended your doctoral dissertation on your 50th birthday, is that true?
Druscilla: Think that was a good way to pass into the second half?
Barb: So I would assume that your process of arriving where you are has been growth and reinvention and adapting new stories. I don’t know if you’re willing to share any of your own journey to be where you are at this point, but I think it’s interesting.
Druscilla: Actually, I have had many lives, like a cat. I grew up in the south. And I grew up in a privileged white southern family – very old Texas family. I went away to the University of North Carolina where I did an undergraduate degree in English and a Masters in Communication. I went to work for the university, and I produced and directed medical video tapes. Then I married my husband. I went to Washington, and then my Guinevere: I married a king, or a kingmaker if you will. I had a life in Washington that was – I lived out a story that I had probably put together when I was about 14 or 15. Because I looked up in a little rural Texas town that my family had indeed started, right after the Civil War, and I was like, “I want something more.”
But I still lived out that story. I still went to Washington. I was married to a prominent man. We were involved in politics. I lived in that container, and I brought my children into the world, and I did a wide variety of things – many of them very public – and at one point as I began to reach midlife, I’m like, “I need something new.”
My daughter was going into high school, and I sort of felt like that string had run out. You know when your story has run out. It sort of loses its shiny, if you will. And you feel like you’re just going through the motions instead of getting up every day and going, “I’m so excited about the life I’m creating for myself.” I needed a new story.
I had always been interested in Joseph Campbell. This is kind of a fun story. I started asking everyone I knew, “Do you know somewhere that I can do graduate work in this field that Campbell was teaching at Sarah Lawrence [College] of mythology?” I came home one day, and there was a message on my machine, and it said, “This is Dr. Tim Hennebry. You don’t know me; you’ve never met me, but the program you are looking for is in Santa Barbara, California, at Pacifica Graduate Institute, and here’s the number.”
So, I called them, and I flew out there, and I enrolled in the first program in mythology. It was a changing point. I completely changed the direction of my life, and completely changed everything about who I am. Was I still married? Yes. Did I still have children? Yes. But I lived in my body and in my imagination in an entirely different way.
Then, when I reached my early 60s, I said to my daughter who was in her 30s, and I said to my husband who was in his 60s, “I’m nobody’s mommy anymore. And I’m nobody’s wife anymore.” [laughs] “And I’m through with those roles. I’m retiring from those roles.” They were both kind of like, “Really?” I said, “I’m still your mother, I’m still married to you, but you both have to think about your story, because I’m not in charge of your underwear [laughs], or any of those things. I did my job. And now, I’m doing something else.”
I write novels, I write books, I do lectures, and I do a lot of fundraising for public universities because I believe that it’s important, particularly for women, that they have access to higher education at a price they can afford.
Barb: Well, you are an inspiration; thank you. And I, again, I see women, often at midlife who I think are looking at a fork in the road and are trying to determine how to proceed with the second half so to speak – or the next phase of their life. And I think hearing your story how you’ve stepped out will help them discover a new story.
Druscilla: You do it with courage, because it takes courage, and persistence, and a willingness to go into places that are unknown, and that’s how you do it. And that’s the story that Campbell was telling, that’s the story of Star Wars, it’s the story of the Wizard of Oz: All those stories are moving from I think I’m comfortable, I already know how the world is, to a place of wow! Everything I thought was true was not and now what am I going to do? And so, to answer your question, the map of a broader, bigger mythology to live in is in stories.
Barb: I think maybe you’ve already answered this, but I like to summarize our time together, often by asking the question: Where do you find richness at this stage in your life.
Druscilla: Living my life on purpose, staying in, as best I can, a place of I don’t already know everything, and living my life as if it matters!
Barb: Those are very important! And I appreciate your wisdom and insightfulness. So thank you for sharing with us today Druscilla.
Druscilla: My pleasure! Thanks for talking to me, and I appreciate the work you do. We work for women from different points of view but I think we’re probably on the same page about empowering women.
Barb: I think you’re right, yes, and we’ll continue our efforts in forging forward.
Druscilla: All right! Thanks for talking with me!
Barb: Thank you.