Written by Marilyn Marshall and published in Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture, vol. 88, Environmental Disasters and Collective Trauma, 2012
There is something captivating about the power of a hurricane. My first experience of this power was in 1957 as a six year old sitting in my grandparents’ house as Hurricane Audrey devastated Cameron, a coastal community in southwest Louisiana about sixty miles south of their home. I watched with awe through a window as the trunks of the giant elms in the yard swayed in the howling wind and branches high in the canopy whipped and cracked as Audrey moved inland. As a resident of several towns throughout southern Louisiana and of New Orleans since my late twenties, I remember the threat of many hurricanes and the indirect impact of others. There were those with winds that demanded taped or boarded windows, snapped telephone poles, mangled power lines, felled trees. Others ushered mammoth tidal surges, unleashed torrential rains and flooded coastal communities. Others, many in fact, changed course or passed by with a stormy warning and headed west or east along the Gulf of Mexico.
“Missile from the Sea”
Missile flying through the air
Brings destruction as I stare
Buildings crumble one by one
Dust, debris does block the sun
This invasion, I surmise,
Takes this world, now, by surprise
Chaos reigns through city streets
Raging fires compound the heat
Here and there a bomb explodes
Calling for survival mode
On and on the chaos reigns
People in a trance-like pain
End is near, there is no doubt
No rescue and no way out
Climb the ladder and I see
Struggle there on ladder’s steps
She and I, the one adept
On and on the chaos reigns
But for me there is no pain.
This was my journal entry on July 22, 2005, five weeks before Hurricane Katrina. I was in analysis at the time and in training to become a Jungian analyst. Part of the way I worked with my dreams after putting them on a computer disc was to paint them or engage with them in poetic form or dialogue. In this dream the night before I watched a missile, launched from the depths of the sea, break the moonlit surface, arc through the night sky and destroy a city alongside the water. At first, I was just a distant observer as the missile traveled and the chaos in the city began. Then, I was in the city witnessing all manner of response to such a catastrophic event and needing to respond, as well, for it was the city in which I lived.
My strongest association to this dream related to war. Foremost was the reality that, at that time, one of my sons, a member of the National Guard, was in the war in Iraq. In the external world missiles had been launched, bombs had exploded and his life was threatened daily with destruction. His death would have had the impact on me of the Missile from the Sea. This association once again flooded me with the emotions of fear and anxiety I first experienced when my son told me his unit was going to Iraq. Tender memories had surfaced and assailed me with a longing for the past. In my mind he had become a little boy again, wrapped in my arms, protected from harm, and years younger than the man of twenty-eight. Regression had pulled me down into a whirling vortex of emotion and back to a time when the sweetness of life as mother and child existed in its infancy of development. For all mothers the physical umbilical cord is cut at the birth of the child; the initial separation is mandated, and for the first time the child is forced to breathe separately. For many mothers the psychic cord remains and is only periodically cut away as we are forced to breathe separately and, yet, relate in a new way.
My identity had been formed around the role of mother. Until college, I was of necessity a second mother to ten brothers and sisters born within a twelve year span. Then after college and marriage, I wanted children and, in time, had three sons. Through the years, other parts of me had interfered with the mother and demanded their places in my life. These new expressions of myself had helped me breathe separately. Yet, this dream with its turbulent association was another invitation to consciously respond to the archetypal mother within and to recognize the power and complexity of the psychic relationship between mother and child. It had invited me to acknowledge at a deeper level the separate destinies of individuals. I had my own life with its path, its necessity and my son, along with his brothers, had his. This seems a simple realization and one that began long before he and his brothers were adults. But I think anyone who has identified with or depended upon a particular role or attitude in life, with its defenses in place, knows the difficulty in experiencing the internal chaos incumbent with the necessary destruction or loss of that one-dimensional way of being.
There was no denying or avoiding this destruction. I had been clumsily, gradually changing through my relationship with the unconscious, but there are those pivotal experiences or defining moments that usher in, even force change and my dream seemed to indicate one of those. It presented me with a sudden and immediate image: from the depths of the collective unconscious an aggressive, masculine archetypal force was destroying an established interior city, the psychic home of an identity as well as the collective structures – its standards, attitudes, and ideals – that formed and protected it.
In the dream, in the end, I left this city. Subsequent dreams offered additional images to help me process this experience. Then one month later on August 21, 2005, I made this journal entry in response to a dream:
“The Wall, Cracked Open”
There against the wall she cries
Telling me her sorrow
Noise that keeps the air in flow
Prevents me from hearing
She thinks I can help
She thinks I can at least listen
Her dam has broken
And tears spill out
As the rain pours through
Cracks in a brick wall that
Can no longer hold up
The young woman crying
And the dissolving wall
And the new cat that comes to investigate
My watch has stopped
And so has another
While two other clocks announce I’ll be late
There is tension everywhere
The woman, the wall about to crumble,
The watch and clock
And then falling, falling
Her tears come forth with a force that breaks walls, once again allowing the flow of life.
Through my analysis during the previous ten years, I had also struggled in the anguishing tension produced by the awareness of many unconscious complexes and the turmoil of their effects on my relationship with myself and with others. The young woman of this dream was symbolic of that process. She evoked a quality of the feminine that had been born at a time when I began to express my own voice rather than the echo of another’s. Then she was lost. In the dream, even though I could not ‘hear’ her voice, the at-oneness of the image and emotion, the tension, and the dissolving wall communicated her message. Grounded in the experiences of beauty and ugliness, of mistakes and imperfections, and of the descents and ascents of my life, this figure represented a new feminine consciousness.
The synchronicity of these dreams and internal processes and what occurred the following week with Hurricane Katrina was a powerful personal experience of what many in depth psychology describe as the anima mundi or world soul. That intimate relationship of inner and outer, of the individual and the collective, of above and below, and of the human and divine held me in awe!
Hurricane Katrina adjusted my memory with the words ‘before the storm’ and ‘after the storm.’ I was no longer the little girl looking through a window at the captivating power of a hurricane’s winds. I was a woman experiencing the cataclysmic destruction of its power. I lost my house. I lost all of its furnishings. I lost the clothes in closets and drawers that had not made it into a large suitcase. I lost precious artwork of psychic life I had created throughout my analysis and family photographs of the past that I had thought safe up on a closet shelf. And, with the exception of personal journals, my laptop, Jung’s Collected Works and a few other books I could fit into the trunk of my car, I lost my library.
Before the Storm
What do I remember – the experience of an energy that surfaces from within, permeating cells, moving bodies, creating words, catalyzing thoughts, communicating life and death – emotions of excitement and dread, awe and fear, and the storm, whose satellite images showed its monstrous counterclockwise spin encompassing much of the Gulf of Mexico, was still hundreds of miles away but with a possible eye on the city I loved and on my home.
What do I remember – the neighbors helping one another in preparation, boarding up windows and storing away or anchoring down large objects in our yards that could become projectiles in the catastrophic winds of a Category 5 hurricane. I remember the critical announcement for the voluntary evacuation and the organized process of geographical phases of movement for the coastal population of southeast Louisiana, including the New Orleans area; the lines at gas stations and strangers at the pumps talking of routes and destinations; the many cell phone calls between loved ones about plans and emergency numbers, just in case; and, then, the hours of driving west on crowded interstates and highways to my mother’s house in southwest Louisiana.
Mercifully, Katrina’s ferocious winds had calmed from 175mph to 125mph, a Category 3, by the time she hit on the morning of August 29, 2005; gratefully, she made landfall to the east of New Orleans near the Louisiana/Mississippi border rather than the expected and feared path of a direct hit. Relief! Relief? These words ‘mercifully’ and ‘gratefully’ could suggest the belief or idea that, like Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel of God’s finger pointing towards Adam, reaching out to give life, the god’s finger reached out and pointed to a different target of destruction, sparing New Orleans. But what of the new target, of the others who would not be able to use these words?
What do I remember – the disbelief, the numbness, the inability to think – struck, hit, stopped, staring, unable to move from the television’s images of devastation and despair. In New Orleans? This couldn’t be – the Category 5 had become a manageable 3 and Katrina had even missed the city! What I was seeing was not the direct impact of Hurricane Katrina’s wind and rain but a flood described in the news as biblical and caused not by the ‘breach of’ but by the ‘breaks in’ earthen walls, in the levees built to protect New Orleans. I had evacuated but others hadn’t or couldn’t, and there they were, projected on this screen for the world to witness their plight – standing on rooftops, wading through chest-high water, clinging to rescue lines, clutching children, carrying elderly, floating dead; waiting on overpasses, waiting at the Convention Center, waiting at the Superdome, waiting in hospitals, waiting in makeshift triage at the airport; waiting for drinking water, for food, for medical supplies, for transportation out. Thousands waiting for help.
How could I not remember – The Missile from the Sea! The chaos, the trauma and the trance-like pain. The woman’s tears and The Wall, Cracked Open! A city destroyed. Order destroyed. Safety destroyed. Protection destroyed. Control dissolved. Capacity dissolved. Mercy denied. Humanity exposed. The archetypal power of the god’s pointed finger!
I had had a simple dream in the early hours of that morning of the storm:
My analyst, (who also lived in New Orleans and had evacuated), stood before me, looked directly into my eyes, and, with his hands chest high, he began purposefully pounding his right fist into his left hand.
This was an aggressive gesture depicting a side of him I had not known, a gesture a man could use to indicate he was inviting a fight or warning he would fight. He showed no emotion, just the action. Synchronistically, my brother in Austin, Texas called me that morning. Affected also by these images on major news channels, he responded with a practicality that had not occurred to me: “Get to Baton Rouge right now and find a place to live. Hundreds of thousands of people are going to be displaced and looking for somewhere close to New Orleans to live.” The commanding intensity of his voice suggested the aggressiveness of my analyst’s fist. Reality defied disbelief and action dislodged my numbness: My own aggression was launched.
After the question of a place to live was settled that day in Baton Rouge, I returned to my mother’s house holding onto magical thinking: Despite the report of the break at the 17th Street Canal levee which was two miles north of my house, and despite the images of flood waters surrounding the Superdome which was about five miles south, I thought that maybe the area around my house did not flood; I could, gratefully, be spared. Internet access and its satellite images in the days that followed deflated that psychic defense.
I continued watching the news as more and more images and information assailed me; chaos reigned in floodwaters, on the concrete islands of refuge and in the city streets unaffected by the waters. I began to feel a rising anger at the slow response to people’s vulnerability and need. The United States has the capacity to send humanitarian aid to countries that are devastated by tsunamis and earthquakes in a matter of hours, distributing water, food or medical supplies where necessary from helicopters, ships or planes. Its military proudly displays its capability to destroy with a weapon from the air a singular building, among many surrounding it, hiding a terrorist in Iraq. But in a port city thriving alongside the legendary mighty Mississippi River where cruise ships and tankers deftly snake through its curves and currents and in a Superdome donning a heliport on its high and dry upper parking lot, thousands of men, women, and children were left without water, food, medical supplies or assistance for days!
It was all unbelievable – the impersonal, unavoidable power of Nature or of the god who points a finger and the incapacity of humanity to control it and, in this case, defend against it. Parts of the levee system built surrounding the city to protect it from just such a flood had failed and eighty per cent of New Orleans, which had been established centuries ago in a bowl-shaped topography, remained underwater for weeks.
After the Storm
I was allowed to return in October because my office was in the Uptown area of New Orleans which, along with the French Quarter, did not flood. Had I not had that address on my business card, I would have had to wait another six to eight weeks: The return to the city had been systematically organized for citizens living in certain zip codes with the most heavily flooded areas scheduled at the latest dates. I had tried to prepare myself for the shock of what I would find but that preparation failed.
I had decided to return to my Lakeview neighborhood via a main boulevard that crossed the short bridge over the 17th Street Canal, not far from where this levee gave way. This canal and the protective levee on either side served as a boundary between the suburban city of Metairie and the city of New Orleans. If you can remember in the film The Wizard of Oz Dorothy’s experience of moving suddenly from the black and white of Kansas to the vibrant color of the Land of Oz, imagine it in reverse. On the Metairie side of this bridge where police waited to check an identification of my zip code, life was in Technicolor – streets bustling with a broad palette of cars, businesses open, neighborhoods populated and landscapes thriving with flowering plants, carpets of green and trees dripping with thick leaves offering shade in the ninety degree heat. Here, there were cats scurrying, dogs barking, and people everywhere going about their day, albeit with an unfamiliar solemnity. I imagined words like ‘mercifully’ and ‘gratefully’ peppered their compassionate distress for New Orleans and their understandable relief about the finger that pointed to her side of the canal.
On the New Orleans side, a mere thirty yards away from the checkpoint for entry, a desolate black and white landscape spanned every direction for miles. Made ghostly by a malodorous gray dusty residue left by the floodwaters and baked on by the sun, the surreal scene was heartbreaking. Sailboats and speedboats, two miles from their harbor at Lake Pontchartrain, lay battered on their sides or upside down alongside the boulevard. Magnolias stood exhausted, but tall regal palms and mammoth oaks had succumbed to the force of the flood, gouging roofs and blocking passages down neighborhood streets. Farther down the boulevard at the intersection of an even wider boulevard, tireless workers with trucks and cranes were piling debris on top of what was now a monument of destruction fifty yards wide and three stories high that extended a mile north towards the lake. Gray crusted cars left parked in driveways and on what was deemed higher ground significantly outnumbered the few traveling the eerie streets. Every bush had been stripped bare of leaves, and their branches, as well as the dead grass, wore that lifeless gray. And, house after haunting house, marked with the infamous red or black paint to designate inspection for dead bodies, sat anguished in a wasteland of devastation that even the birds had abandoned.
What do I remember – on the front door of my small cottage was the sign of the black ‘X’ with numbers in each quadrant indicating the completed search, the date, the searcher (who had broken a window to enter), and number dead – 0. I unlocked the swollen, saturated door but I could not budge it, even with a friend’s added body weight for force, so a crowbar and sledgehammer broke me in. That sordid smell polluting the open air was concentrated and assaulting in a boarded-up house with mud carpeting the buckled wood floors and mildew texturing the walls like repulsive, greenish-brown patterned wallpaper. The watermark, as distinct as a horizontal line of graffiti drawn throughout the house, indicated eight feet. Everything that wasn’t in the attic had drowned; even the refrigerator had been turned on its side to a position that seemed impossible in the small kitchen.
The curious thing about this nightmarish image, like something in a dream that stands out strangely different from the expected, was a synchronistic three-ness. Resting upright on a wooden chair leaning against a corner of the dining room, ten feet from its place on a glass shelf, was a bottle of tequila, its golden liquid holding a message emblematic of alcohol’s potential to medicate or numb pain. In the living room a box of Kleenex I had left on the upholstered ottoman, which must have floated like a buoy, looked as though someone could have placed it there that day; the Kleenex was white, fluffy, sticking out from the cellophane window atop the box ready to absorb a flood of tears. And in the kitchen, high atop the cabinet in its decorative clay planter was the ivy; weeks of enclosure in sauna-like moisture and heat had provided the perfect conditions, and its bright, rich green variegated leaves grew prolifically in graceful vines, promising life.
The Tequila, the Kleenex, and the Ivy. It sounded like the title of a fairy tale. Why tequila, I wondered? I rarely drank it. Why not wine or vodka, which would have been a more understandable image for me then? No, tequila did not make sense to me and I dismissed it; however, in time, I would come to recognize its image as symbolic of any form of retreat into a false spirit – a spirit of rising above all the loss and pain with rationalization, of being a kind of super human able to handle anything, and of flying into thoughts and ideas rather than staying on the ground of a vulnerable reality.
This tequila, I did drink, especially its intoxication of ideas and thoughts. Despite having lost my library in the floodwaters I escaped into study, the rigorous intellectual component of training. This was the same spirited defense enacted via graduate school twelve years earlier that had protected me from the full experience of the destruction and pain I caused by leaving my twenty-two-year marriage, including the guilt of leaving my adolescent sons and the home I had helped establish.
The archetypal process of destruction constellates such past traumas, including those of childhood. The little six year-old who watched the hurricane’s winds through a glass window felt vulnerable and helpless in the storms she witnessed at home. The vows she had made for protection from the emotional turmoil and loss had become the cement for similar bricks of experience. The wall behind which she had been silently hiding also began to crumble in the floodwaters of Katrina.
Destruction cannot be experienced all at once or once and for all. Defenses serve a purpose and only with time, attention, and, perhaps, with the gods’ influential finger do those protections crack and give way. Gratefully, this defensive flight with a false spirit did not have the same strength. Gradually, through confrontations in the external and internal worlds, through the vessel of analysis, and the added fires of the training process, the Kleenex served its purpose.
Although Hurricane Katrina was not a missile, it was a force of nature that destroyed a wall of defense and ushered in a period of renewal for New Orleans, just as the flood of tears had dissolved my particular wall of defense and ushered in a new consciousness. The collective forces of destruction had started gathering energy in the waters off the coast of Africa to create eventually the conditions for the flood that broke the levees surrounding New Orleans, just as the forces in my individual journey of destruction and transformation began its track years before in the unconscious waters of the archetypal mother and child. The god/s had pointed a finger at this individual and at the collective. Something crucial was needed and could no longer be avoided. But with the destruction would also come the transformation; the ivy would thrive.
This third image, the ivy, was symbolic of the new growth that would come from the tension between the defenses that protect and the emotional experience of the protected. Ivy is a plant associated to the god Dionysus, a god who has a place in the soul of New Orleans. For me, the ivy symbolized a spiritual growth and awareness of the value of the Dionysian, the loosening of the collective standards and expectations I had unconsciously adopted, of my ideals of perfection, of the one-sided identity as mother and of the dominating value of the intellect. I had also hoped that it represented growth and new life for this city that honors Dionysus. The yearly celebration of Mardi Gras, in particular, pays homage to this god. This is a celebration that ritualizes the disrobing of convention and the donning of masks of perversity; a celebration that provides a container for the expressions of the irreverent, the irrational, and the irascible and allows for the loosening and unbinding of rigid attitudes and defenses. It seemed to me that such a city which hosts and contains the Dionysian might, itself, need to experience the god’s pointed finger – the destructive dissolution and dismemberment that accompanies a process of transformation.
Seven Years Later
After the storm, I commuted from Baton Rouge to New Orleans twice weekly to see individuals for psychotherapy. With different mythic motifs and symbols of meaning, the many stories of suffering I heard gave witness to this archetypal underpinning of destruction and transformation. Although Katrina and the flood created the disaster for such constellations, this pattern lives in the natural processes of psyche and is a universal human experience. On the collective level, I watched as a city began to rebuild and renew itself with the help of those of its citizens who could return and the aid of people from all over the United States and other countries who joined in the effort. These processes continue to this day.
I moved back to New Orleans in January 2009 to my old neighborhood in the Lakeview area. Gratefully, my sons are on their paths with their families and work and, right now, this brings a smile to my face; tears of joy glisten. It is good to be home.
When I was asked to write this article about Hurricane Katrina, I agreed to do it because I thought it might be an invitation from the psyche to process yet another layer of that experience. It was. The first invitation came at a yearly weekend get-together with friends with whom I had trained. One of the women made the most delicious margaritas for us, strong margaritas. Too much tequila for me! I was not only terribly intoxicated but sick to my stomach. My gratitude for the compassionate care of one friend in particular that night was matched the next morning by the shame I felt, despite everyone’s empathy, for the dissolution into such a state. Why did this happen and to what purpose? The second invitation came two months later with three women with whom I meet to share our internal work. I talked with them about the experience of writing this article and remembering Katrina. When they asked me to read aloud The Missile from the Sea, I broke down in tears saying the word ‘destruction’ in the second line. I was surprised by the strength of this emotion. This informed me that there must be more to experience than I was capable of before now.
When I processed these two difficult experiences in my journal, I remembered my interpretation of the tequila as a false spirit. With the margaritas in mind, I decided to look into that particular type of alcohol. I discovered that tequila is made from the agave plant, a fact that offered me a more specific meaning than I had discerned seven years ago. Although there are other amplifications for agave, one in particular had meaning for me. Agave (Agaue) was the name of one of four daughters of Cadmus and Harmonia of Greek myth. One of her sisters, Semele, was the mother of Dionysus. Agave, along with her two other sisters, were driven mad in punishment for not honoring the divinity of their nephew. During a Dionysian rite in the depths of the forest, gripped by the very madness they had rejected with domestic fervor and collective prejudice, Agave and her sisters tore to pieces Pentheus, Agave’s son. Gratefully, the interior wall behind which Agave retreated had cracked open when I experienced the young woman’s voice as my own with the word destruction. And life began to flow again.
I know my own sons have been wounded and hurt by my unconsciousness and by the destruction of their image, and mine, of mother. I also realize that psychic sons, animus qualities within, have been affected. I am grateful for depth psychology, for the experience and awareness of the difficult and painful processes of destruction and transformation, and, especially, for my two analysts. Had I not had the vessel created by their respect for and attention to the depths of the psyche and its archetypal dimension, I may have suffered the peril of Agave and Pentheus.
The tequila, the Kleenex, and the Ivy. I am in awe of the mystery!