Skeletons in the Closet

George L. Vergolias interrogates the implicit, lost meaning of the word closet through an investigation of the word’s etymology. In so doing, Vergolias discovers both the authentic, fluid meaning of the self (i.e. it is not ego-centered) and its capacity for transcendence.

Skeletons in the Closet:
An Exploration of Psychic Closets and Hermes in the Consulting Room

by George L. Vergolias

What may this mean,
That thou, dead corpse, again in complete steel
Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous, and we fools of nature
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our soul?
          Wm. Shakespeare.  Hamlet, act I, sc. iv, 51-56.

This essay is an imaginal exploration of closets, first conjured up in 1993 during that mysterious month of October when All Hallows Eve and The Day of the Dead beckon us living souls to encounter that which transcends beyond our tangible realities. At this time, my reflections on the imagination of closets was summoned, so to speak, by a series of dreams I had involving closets. Yes, closets. Those familiar places we all know too well, yet the very same places we have rarely, if ever, entered into fully. Starting with our common sense notions, the closet is a place of storage. It is a room, albeit a small one, that we set apart and designate by giving it a very specific part in the organization of our lives. It is a place where we hang clothes, store boxes, place shoes, etc.. We go there, to this place, set apart from the hum-drum traffic of our lives, and from it we gather the very materials which cover us, protect us, dress us-- the very pieces of physical matter which are so important to, matter so much to, the personas we wear and give off to the world.

Webster (1984) defines the closet as: 1) a small compartment, cabinet, or room for storage; 2) a small private room, as for study-- To shut up in a private room, as for discussion. From a more metaphorical and psychological perspective, the closet is that place where we keep forbidden images. We say about a family secret, "Keep it in the closet." It is this psychic room, private, set apart, which is a part of our psychic life where our daemons, ghosts, and skeletons reside. These "skeletons in our closet", these secrets no one can know about, secrets which can never be disclosed, are condemned to a place that we rarely go into, but where we often come to the border of, and perhaps most importantly, where we obtain the very substance we clothe ourselves in. Hidden within Webster's literal definition, our inner closets are metaphorically the private places, shut up, where we store ideas, memories, dreams, fantasies, and which, if we dare to re-visit, must shut up about and hold to ourselves silently.

Let us continue and broaden our understanding of this notion by referring to the etymology of the word closet. This word, closet, is a derivative of the Middle French word by the same spelling, which means "a small enclosure, hence a small room" (Partridge, 1983). Further, it is a diminutive of the Old French word clos, which derives from the Latin noun clausum-- meaning "an enclosure"-- which in turn is the past participle of the Latin claudare-- meaning "to close or shut." Hence, we find at the root of the word closet, the action of closing.

Such etymological studies are enticing pleasure for the philologist and ardent intellectual, but of what practical purpose does this serve for the psychotherapist? If one regards the word practical in accordance with Webster's definition, meaning "down- to-earth, sensible, virtual, and serving a direct purpose," then, on the surface level, etymological study serves no practical purpose whatsoever. For, by its nature, and although an arduous task, the study of etymology is beyond the sensible and the virtual. Its study is not "down-to-earth" but rather "below-the-earth." Words, like a genealogy of a family, have a distinct lineage and history. But like the family who does not know where or how its maladaptive patterns, meanings, and interactions began-- in essence not knowing its own history-- the influences and consequences of these patterns, meanings, and interactions remain unknown, insensible. "Where did this begin?" the family asks. Why did Johnny-- the perfect student, captain of the football team, parents still together, living in a suburban two story house with a white picket fence-- why did Johnny start drinking? Within the family therapy context, Murray Bowen (1966) opened psychology's oedipally blind eyes to the skeletons hiding within the familial closet, skeletons not only of the living souls, but also of the ancestors from generations before. These skeletons remain un-real, un-practical, until we till through the fertile history of our familial past. Words, in the same manner, have a history, an ancestral past, and by uncovering the top-soil and tilling the roots of this etymological earth, we find the myths and meanings hidden within. What appears on the surface may allow us to convey practical meaning, but it is what lies underneath which provides breadth and depth of understanding.

Like going to the closet to pick our garments for the day-- carefully choosing the conservative business suit, the power tie, the sensual dress-- to emphasize the appearance we desire, we choose our words in a like manner. Like the rhetorician, the words we choose are chosen for a particular effect. Yet, just as we rarely enter into our literal closets, but only pick and choose items from them holding steadfast at the border, we rarely enter the closets of our words. As a collective, we have yet to cultivate an appreciation for the skeletons residing in the nooks and crannies of the very words we use.

But let us return to our etymological line of thought. We have discovered earlier that closet represents "an enclosure," deriving back to the Latin claudare, meaning "to close or shut." But what of this word enclosure? From where does it derive? We find that this word comes from the Old French word enclore, meaning "to shut in." This is not surprising, and it seems that our line of study has circled back upon itself. But wait! Enclore, we find, derives from the Vulgar Latin incluadere, and further back to the Latin incudere (Partridge, 1983). It seems that we have made a phonetic shift, and Partridge urges us onward to the word include. The root of this word then leads us to the word clause.

Webster (1984) defines clause as 1) a group of words containing its own subject and predicate and forming part of a compound sentence; 2) a distinct part of a document. Clause, we find, stems from the Middle Latin clausa, meaning literally "a thought closed," and from its Latin synonym clausula, meaning "the close of a rhetorical period." Both of these in turn relate back to the earlier mentioned claudere-- "to shut, hence to end."

We find in closet, an enclosure and the action of closing, and in enclosure we find clause, "a thought closed,” and "the close of a rhetorical period." Could it be that our psychic closets include the closed, shut up, shut off, thoughts which always reside just beyond the borders of our rhetoric, just beyond the edge where our rhetoric closes? Indeed, I believe so. We may persuade and change others with the "clothing" we gather from our psychic closets, but we cannot persuade, nor change, the very skeletons residing in them. As we engage deeper into the therapeutic process, we can only encounter, hear, and relate with the skeletons in our psychic closets, but we cannot persuade them. For, they are deadly stuff, stuffing themselves into our psyche forever. A woman traumatized in a car accident during her early twenties, or a combat veteran traumatized by combat, cannot forget, undo, redo, these deathly trauma once realized, but must "come to terms" with them. The skeletons lying in our memory, like shades in the underworld, are condemned there forever. Yet, paradoxically, it is in our very psychic closets that these skeletons are saved. It is here where we save them, store them, enclose them, shut them in. And perhaps, it is through the very saving of these skeletons that we ourselves become saved. For identical with the word close, meaning "to shut in," is the word close, meaning "in near proximity." Our skeletons are enclosed in us, and therefore always close to us. We try to shake them off, pretend they are not there, and often repress them. But, as Freud taught us, it is in the very act of repression that we re-press and impress these skeletons deeper into our psychological story, making them closer to, and giving them more of a hold on, us than they were before. We cannot disown them, cannot ignore them, so what is one to do?

The answer comes from opening the closed-in memories residing in the enclosure, not as a means to change them, they are embalmed there, but as a way to relate to them. We look into our closets, hear the skeletons, and they come, comment, commend, command, and communicate all that is deeply in-common with the commune of our inner voices. In so doing, we are no longer in a psychic coma, cut-off from the unconscious aspects of ourselves. But how do we open these closed in, shut in places within us?

Etymology provides the very key to this epiphany. Returning to the lineage of the word clause, as illustrated above, we find this derived from the Latin claudare, meaning to shut, hence to end. Claudare, in turn relates to the English word clef-- "a symbol that indicates which pitch each line and space represents on a musical staff" (Webster, 1984). Clef derives from the Middle Latin clauis, which means "a key, which serves to close a door." We have moved from closet to enclosure, enclosure to include, include to clause, clause to clef, and now within the word clef, we have found a key for opening up the skeletons in our psychic closets. Indeed, we have found a skeleton key! However, the function of the key we have found is for closing doors. We must close the doors to our psychic closets so that the skeletons inside remain close to us. These closets cannot be fully opened or revealed, for imbedded in this word's historic meaning, everywhere we have turned we have found privacy, enclosure, and the act of closing. At the same time, we must re-visit these closets, open them, as a means to clothe ourselves, our personas, in the very material so personal to us. As Webster (1984) tells us, key means "A usually metal notched device for opening or closing a lock." Common sense tells us that a key is not only for closing or only for opening, but serves the function of both. Both actions are intrinsic to the function of a key. We have arrived at a seemingly paradoxical situation. The skeletons in our psychic closets, privately closed in, shut in, enclosed in us, must at the same time have the potential to be opened by the skeleton key hidden within the very same closet.

How do we hold, and work with, this paradox? To do so, we must call on a paradoxical figure which allows the back and forth barter over the borders of our closets. As mentioned earlier in this paper, we rarely, if ever, enter fully into our literal closets, but gather items from them. Further, the contents the, the clothing, within our literal closets rarely, if ever, all come out of the closet at the same time. Only choice items of clothing, depending on our mood, the occasion, and the purpose, move across the threshold at any given time, leaving the rest behind to be encountered on another day under different circumstances. Similarly, we do not enter fully into our psychic closets, nor do all the skeletons within them come out to haunt us at the same time. Memories, thoughts, fantasies, dreams, and emotions are carried over the threshold of consciousness in particular packages and doses, and under particular contexts. But, who does the carrying over these thresholds, and why is this movement so important for therapy?

The answer to this first question can be addressed if we hold the image of the Greek god Hermes. As Rafeal Lopez-Pedraza (1977), a Jungian analyst, illustrates, "He [Hermes] is the connection-maker and he is the Messenger of the Gods" (p. 8). Grimal (1990 ed.) enhances our image of Hermes, "The son of Zeus and Maia. . . . Hermes was also the god of commerce and flight, and the one who guided travelers along their way. He also had the task of accompanying the spirits of the dead to Hades, and because of this he was given the name Psychopompus, 'accompanier of souls'. Hermes was most frequently shown wearing winged shoes and a large-brimmed hat and carrying the winged staff, the symbol of his position as divine messenger" (p. 199). As the "accompanier of souls," it is Hermes who moves us across the threshold of our psychic closets, down to our own underworld where our own spirits of the dead, our own skeletons, reside.

To deepen our discussion and the connections we are attempting, it is necessary to introduce a few other figures from Greek mythology. We often describe the skeletons in our closet as past, unpleasant memories. In speaking of memory, we constellate the Greek goddess of Memory, Mnemosyne, who gave birth to the Nine Muses after joining with Zeus. The Muses, we are told, were divine singers who inspired and presided over thought and memory in all their forms (Grimal, 1990 ed.). It is the music of the Muses which deeply moves us in remembering, and over which we muse about. This musing, meaning to think about at length, allows for psychic movement as our thoughts and memories come alive into consciousness, moving, shaping, and igniting our perspectives.

But how does all this relate to our discussion of closets? From our preceding illustration, we see that Hermes and the Muses are both children of Zeus. That is, they are blood relatives, descending from a connected familial genealogy. And likewise, the mythical implications of each of these figures-- Hermes as the messenger of the gods who connects and carries across thresholds, and the Muses who, through their music, re-mind and in-spire our memories-- are connected in an etymological genealogy. We see this connection from our preceding discussion where we followed the word closet through enclosure and down to clause and clef. We have found in the word clef a key to opening our psychic closets, but remaining there, we had yet to find a way to hold the paradox which this key presented. Our discussion of Hermes illustrated such a figure who could take us over the borders of our psychic closets, allowing the commerce to commence between our personas and the hidden material residing in those closets. But, although an interesting mythological digression, how does our introduction of Hermes and The Muses to this discussion relate to our original exploration of the word closet? The answer is hidden (not surprisingly) in the word clef. As mentioned, in English clef refers to "a symbol that indicates which pitch each line and space represents on a musical staff." Ah yes, musical staff! It is here in this word that we not only find the skeleton key for closing and opening our psychic enclosures, but also the music of the Muses and the staff of Hermes. Indeed, clef provides the object and the process with which to open and close the psychic closets within us; it holds the symbolic and etymological expressions of the many emotional pitches imbedded in our memories, represented across the lines and between the spaces of our consciousness, and all of this, carried by the staff of Hermes. Lopez-Pedraza (1977) states, "This God, Hermes, ‘Lord of the Roads,’ as he came to be known, also marks our psychological roads and boundaries; he marks the borderlines of our psychological frontiers and marks the territory where the foreign, the alien, begin in our psyche" (p. 3). It is the staff of Hermes, his walking stick, which directs us down the darkened pathways, leading downward and inward, where we engage our skeletons and hear our memories stirred by the music of the Muses therein. And all of this, hidden within the closet.

Why is this psychic movement, this encountering and hearing our skeletons, so important for psychotherapy? To answer this question, we must first address a popular, collective myth currently held by the field of psychology. This is the myth of disclosure. Disclosure, according to Webster (1984), means "To make known or open to view; to expose." As much as we may assert that psychology has evolved since the early 1900s, the field of psychology still remains largely caught in a psychoanalytic myth of absolute disclosure. We tell ourselves as therapists, "I don't understand what's going on with him," and we ask ourselves, "What isn't he telling me?" In essence, what isn't he disclosing? If we were supervising this very same therapist, we might say, "Don't worry, whatever the issue is, it will come out with time." We often still assume: for successful therapy, all must be disclosed. We try to unearth the grave, unseal the tomb, and look directly at the skeletons of the client's psyche. I am not questioning the need to understand the client's psychic experience, for this is the fulcrum of successful therapy no matter what one's theoretical orientation. I am questioning, however, the particular use and notion of this word disclosure. It is this very word we throw around so often when we speak about the psychotherapeutic process. This word has weight, and it is not simply just a word we use which can easily be substituted by another, for we use it time and again. Its particular meaning, as well as its hidden etymology, shapes the way we conceptualize and approach the phenomenon of therapy. An old proverb says, "If you do not say what you mean, you will never mean what you say." Is our goal to disclose, to ex-pose, the inner skeletons of our patient's psychic closets, bringing them across the threshold into the bright light of consciousness? Or rather, should our goal be to remain at the border, as Hermes, moving and bartering back and forth, neither going fully into those psychic closets, nor pulling all the contents contained therein out to be exposed.? If we say disclose, and if we mean what we say, then we are endorsing the former option. I think we need to cultivate an appreciation for the latter perspective, where we neither sacrifice our conscious understanding by diving fully into the unconscious-- in essence falling into psychosis-- nor deny our unconscious material by attempting to pull all of it out into the light of consciousness-- in essence falling into a narcissistic myth of absolute ego-control.

In the same manner we interact with our literal closets-- neither entering them fully nor fully taking out the clothing, material, from them completely-- we could benefit to interact with our psychic closets. This is a Hermetical move, where we do not rigidly stand on one side of the threshold or the other, but have the ability to move back and forth, as Otto states, "It is in his [Hermes] nature not to belong to any locality and not to possess any permanent abode; always he is on the road between hear and yonder" (Quoted in Lopez- Pedraza, 1977, p. 9). In this way, we attend to and hear our skeletons and those of our clients, rather than attempting to transform, re-do, and re-incarnate them. Our perspectives of them-- or put another way, our relation with them-- certainly can change, just as any relationship changes over time. However, their presence and their nature cannot. Their nature is of death, and as such, they lie in the catacombs of our memory forever. Yet, although of a deathly nature, they need not remain dead, but become animated once we border their tombs and conjure them up. Thus, they animate our imagination with the images they hold, the images they speak and muse about. The woman who experienced the car accident cannot change the very real and painful fact that this trauma occurred. The Vietnam Veteran cannot change the very real and traumatic images of death he experienced. The presence of these emotions and images are as unavoidable as Death itself, but our relation with them is not so fixed. Their place is fixed in the underworld of our psyches forever, but as "spirits of the dead," they can be related to. In this relation, we arrive at a deeper under-standing of those inner parts, so close to, so personal to, and so closed around us. We no longer im-press and re-press these inner, skeletal spirits, but rather con-verse and re-hearse with them, and it is in this re-hearse-ing that they and we are moved. . . .

Within our psychic closets, our skeletons rattle their dry bones, yearning to be heard, to be attended to. And within the word closet we find a skeleton key, Hermes' guiding staff, and the music of the Muses. Although deathly, these skeletons will speak if we border the enclosures they are closed in, muse on their music, and allow our personas to be clothed with the images they hold, so close and personal to us. Perhaps it is the very tears we shed over and for these painful skeletons, which moisten, melt, meld, and mold our muse-ical memory into the woven psychic material we wear so close to us and closed around us.

Copyright 1996 George L. Vergolias. All rights reserved.

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