The Jewel in the Wound

The Jewel in the Wound gives an account of how its author, Rose-Emily Rothenberg, came to find transformative meaning through the suffering caused by the early loss of her mother, the spontaneous appearance of keloids or scar tissue, physical illness, and relationship stress as an adult.

The Jewel in the Wound: How the Body Expresses the Needs of the Psyche and Offers a Path to Transformation

Rose-Emily Rothenberg. The Jewel in the Wound: How the Body Expresses the Needs of the Psyche and Offers a Path to Transformation. Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications, 2001. xi pp. + [10 - 216 pp.]. 1-888602-16-3, $29.95 paper. Reviewed by Harry Polkinhorn, English and Comparative Literature, San Diego State University.

Reviewed by Harry Polkinhorn

The Jewel in the Wound gives an account of how its author, Rose-Emily Rothenberg, came to find transformative meaning through the suffering caused by the early loss of her mother, the spontaneous appearance of keloids or scar tissue, physical illness, and relationship stress as an adult. To a necessarily limited degree, we experience something of her story as she recounts it, through her memories, fantasies, and narrative restructuring. The story itself could perhaps only have been told from the first-person point of view in which we get it. As such, Rothenberg is thrown back on the central dilemma of such writing at least since the early twentieth century in the West, summed up as the uncertainty of the narrator. Before going further into this, I want to summarize the content of Rothenberg's work more directly.

When she was six days old, Rothenberg's mother died. She was cared for by a nursemaid, other caretakers, her older sister, and her father. Later, when she was almost 2, her father remarried, introducing another woman into the author's life. Fear and anxiety characterized her relationship with her stepmother. As a young girl, and later on into adulthood, scar tissue appeared on Rothenberg's body, causing her emotional pain. As she moved into her adult years she entered into the profession of speech therapy, then began an extended course of analysis with Jungian therapists. This analytic work involved painting and sculpture, as well as active imagination. One day Rothenberg discovered a reproduction in an art book of a Mesopotamian figurine that had what looked to her like representations of scars on its shoulders and breast area. This discovery lead her deeper into an investigation of the keloids, at first from the medical or dermatological viewpoint, then later from the ritualistic perspective. The categorical rejection on the part of some dermatologists of the possibility of a psychogenic origin of the scars, while frustrating, did not stop Rothenberg from pursuing what had become her Ariadne's thread. Eventually her widening and deepening research brought her to the realization that she wanted to go to Africa to talk with people who had engaged in ritual scarification. This became a profound experience for her, in which she was able to move directly and physically through the landscapes of the projection of the sacred pole of the mother/orphan archetype. As her analysis progressed, she was able to understand the archetypal foundations of such activities. That is, she now had a way to understand her own experience in a manner that was healing and growth-furthering, thereby transforming the scars from incomprehensible, dark, painful realities into the symbolic jewel referred to in her title.

The Jewel in the Wound is unusual because in it Rothenberg unites several of the main themes or motifs to be found in recent Jungian studies but does so in a unique fashion. First, it is important to realize that her work is not presented as a demonstration of Jung's ideas as such. Rather, we must understand the relationship between the theory and what William Blake calls the "minute particulars" of Rothenberg's life experiences. Jung's work has helped Rothenberg understand something about her life, through her meditations on her dreams, the medium of her art work, and, most importantly for our purposes here, the medium of the language in which we are given the account. Frequently, works in analytical psychology will discuss a theme (that of the darker aspects of emotional experience, for example, in Swamplands of the Soul by James Hollis), citing passages from Jung, fairy tales, literature, and other sources, mixed in with material from the writer's analytical practice, most often patients' dreams. However, we learn little to nothing about the narrator, whose position in the telling remains largely unexamined. The Jewel in the Wound, while manifesting some of these practices, rigorously adheres to the first-person point of view, firmly contextualizing all claims about the individuation process in the detail's of the narrator's perceived life experiences.

Such an approach is refreshing and has the advantage of enlivening the discussion of what could otherwise be somewhat abstract and theoretical concepts such as the animus, archetypes, and the shadow. At the same time, we are given the story of a life—one of many possible ways to see form and meaning in the welter of experience—and the bodying forth through the narrative language of the memoir of a fully developed, flexible, and powerful theory of the psyche's inception, incarnation, structure, and wholly personalized adventure towards its own accomplishment of itself. At the center of this process we find the religious or spiritual problem that so fascinated Jung, who in his conceptualization of the psyche elevated religious experience to the level of a core instinct, a drive for meaning through the confrontation of the ego with the unconscious whereby both are forever changed.

"The loss of my mother shortly after my birth," says the narrator, "created the wound that made it possible for me to accomplish my task" (13). So begins this tale of suffering and transformation. Throughout, and especially because of the nature of the keloids, the narrator makes use of the quasi-medical vocabulary of "wounds." Trauma, a rough synonym, is a term that has meanings in both everyday parlance and clinical theory. In the everyday sense of the word, trauma signifies negative experiences of many kinds, and is used to indicate through exaggeration any unpleasant experience. The dictionary defines the term as "a wound, especially one produced by sudden physical injury . . . an emotional shock that creates substantial and lasting damage to the psychological development of the individual, generally leading to neurosis" (Morris, 1970, 1366). The term derives from Greek, meaning "wound or hurt." It's interesting to consider where these meanings do not overlap. Physical wounds heal, whereas emotional shocks presumably do not. Rather, emotional shocks "heal" to the degree that the system produces defenses (the equivalent of scar or repair tissue) that, as a by-product, may delay development. Keloids, the cause of which "is still unknown" (Majno, 6), pose a special problem since they do not serve the purpose of sealing an open wound so that healing can occur. This and other charateristics of her experience with them allowed Rothenberg to use them as a dynamic bridge with the deepest levels of the unconscious, and one of the chief results of this process for her had to do with constellating the individuation process. Curiously, in the ancient world, people were often identified by their scars: "Since the Greeks did not have surnames, in many of these legal documents the individuals are identified by their given name plus any identifying scar (oulé) . . . Otherwise, the individual was labeled ásemos, "not marked" (Majno 316-17).

Birth trauma (Rank, passim; see also Grof) involves extreme changes for both mother and child and is thus to be considered "social" in nature. Healing, which trauma motivates and which it simultaneously hinders, now can be seen as a lifelong process; birth traumatizes the soul, which forgets what it is and where it came from, requiring an entire lifetime to be healed, a process of remembering. Only through the experiences of a lifetime, the accumulation of the scar or repair tissue of defenses that cover over the traumatic wound, can the soul finally remember who it originally was, achieve its unique identity. Trauma, then, is accompanied by loss of memory, which is to say that the pain of the severe wounding instantly reorganizes the entire inner world in order to bring about reduction of the pain so as to re-establish something resembling the primary homeostasis. Healing for the soul of the new individual involves remembering how things were prior to the pain, back through the pain wall. The Greek goddess Mnemosyne (memory) was the mother of the Muses (Grant and Hazel, 224). Healing for the mother occurs symbolically through her freshly established ability to project her trauma into the life of the infant, who heals her and makes her, the mother, complete. That is, the whole cloth of the original unity of mother and child is torn asunder during birth, this primal division being mirrored in the overlap between physical pains of childbirth and the emotional pain of separation.

But what happens if the mother is not there to become the medium for starting this lifelong repair work? This is the "task" to which the narrator refers. The body itself, in her case, stepped in to keep alive the possibility of the life's task ultimately being performed by the narrator, and it did this through generating the keloids. "Sickness," says Max Zeller, "is an integral part of life's totality and the shadow aspect of its eternal flame. . . . this flame . . . brings about growth, formation and transformation. It inspires man's creativity" (179).

This much we can understand on the content level of the account. Just as in Jungian theory the outer physical world is balanced by forces at work in the inner world of the oftentimes mysterious psyche, so too one can argue that language itself can be viewed under its outer or its inner aspect. How can we see The Jewel in the Wound's inside, so to speak? By examining the work as "literature," that is, as itself imaginative creation with the same ontological claims as the keloids themselves came to be seen by the narrator as having, we can begin to appreciate what is unique about this piece of writing.

In this regard, perhaps the most important distinction to bear in mind is that between author and narrator. Part of Rothenberg's artistry lies in how she blends them together. For The Jewel in the Wound to be considered as more than autobiographical reminiscence we must posit the hypothetical construct of the first-person narrator, the "I" or subjective ego center that tells the tale. What's unusual is that this is specifically a tale of the founding and development of an ego which at the same time is being told by itself. In the words of William James, "The universal conscious fact is not 'feelings exist' and 'thoughts exist' but 'I think' and 'I feel'" (in Kahan, p. 333). In The Jewel in the Wound we have no pretense of a transcendental point of view facilitating an objective study of the individuation process. On the contrary, the narrative viewpoint is completely identified with the ego position, as it must be in such endeavors, in such a way that a non-ego position becomes not only possible but inevitable. Thus, her account of her earliest experiences as a very young child is presented through the memory screen of an adult consciousness, after the changes which were yet to happen over the course of the narrator's unfolding life. In fiction ever since at least Henry James's renowned The Turn of the Screw (1898), the narrator's "truth" has come into question; in psychological language, the period of the ego's hegemony has begun to come to its end. The radical undermining of the narrator continues throughout the twentieth century. What can we trust of what we are told? Because of the massive erosion of the religious attitude in the West, once the ego position has been questioned the reader has been left with either the cynical dark laughter of a Jarry or an Ionesco or the bleak hopleless emptiness of a Samuel Beckett, or, in Jungian terms, the first encounter with the long-repressed shadow elements. On the brighter side, narratively, as the ego discovers itself, we do as well, lending a sense of freshness and discovery to the writing which is meant to parallel that experienced by the narrator as seen from within the tale's frame.

Rothenberg's work is patterned on a move from despair to a sense of profound meaningfulness, because of the role played by the creative relationship between the ego and the unconscious. She manages to accomplish this within the strict parameters of the first-person point of view, since the narrator acknowledges her contingent, limited status in the greater economy of the soul. As such, her position at the end of the story must remain open-ended, as is the narrator's life. "It," she says in closing, meaning the task of individuation, "is born as an inspiration, coming from the realm of the unconscious and the Mother, the womb of the psyche. To make the sacred visible and conscious is to discover and retrieve the jewel in the wound" (194).

© Harry Polkinhorn 2003

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Grof, Stanislav. Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death, and Transcendence in Psychotherapy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985.

Hollis, James. Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places. Toronto: Inner City Books, 1996.

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. New York: W. W. Norton, 1966.

Kahan, Tracey L. "Consciousness in Dreaming: A Metacognitive Approach," in Dreams: A Reader on Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming, Kelly Bulkeley, ed. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

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