The American Express advertisement admonishing “American Express: don’t leave home without it!” is familiar to most Americans. The implication is that a person can leave home ill prepared. And we know that this is true.
For some time now, I’ve wanted to write about leave-taking and how a person can take her leave in an archetypal way, and also about how leave-taking can go badly wrong. I’ve also wanted to write about whether leave-taking gone wrong can be righted, and if so, how and under what sorts of circumstances.
TALES OF LEAVE-TAKING
At the risk of over-simplifying what is in actuality a long and arduous process, let me state that in addition to healthy developmental leave-taking, which at its best is a perilous process, there are the less desirable processes of leaving too soon, too late, or not at all.
One can turn to a large variety of literary sources for archetypal myths of leave-taking. The Bible’s story of the Garden of Eden, the sin of Adam and Eve, and their subsequent expulsion from the Garden illustrates one kind of leaving. But even prior to the expulsion, we have the creation story undergirding the Biblical idea of marriage as a process of leaving and cleaving, for upon being united to his wife, Adam said, “For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Using psychological theories of human development, and most particularly Jungian theories of individuation, one could teach a great deal from these two stories alone.
But one needn’t stop at the Bible or even use it at all to find a multitude of leaving-and-cleaving tales, or of tales of leaving gone awry. Tales from the brothers Grimm such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Hansel and Gretel provide helpful examples from which we can (and will) learn.
Human development itself provides archetypal ways of understanding what appears to be a straightforward physiological process: growing up. Children move from infancy to toddlerhood, to early childhood and on to adolescence and adulthood by circumnavigating a predictable developmental sequence. Similarly, Jung and other analytical psychologists theorized that the process of individuation is also predictable. I’d like to take a look at just how predictable the process is, and how it can go wrong, by beginning with a decidedly non-Jungian theorist, Melanie Klein.
Klein’s theory of object relations is as good as any (and better than most) for usefulness at understanding psychic processes, so I will refer the reader to her theory and also mention that the Attachment Theory that has become so prevalent in the adoption and child welfare literature (and not without cause) has been a logical outgrowth of object-relations theory.
The examples I could give of misshapen leave-takings by orphans and others whose developmental needs for safety, containment and nurturance were simply stolen from them are too many to recount here. One common thread that runs through so many of the wrong sorts of leave-taking is that they often occur between adolescents and their parents, though. The perfect child goes wrong somewhere along the way, becomes the “identified patient” (the one everyone points the finger at for being the root cause of the family’s problems), and is unceremoniously ditched by the parents whose own lack of individuation has been projected onto their own now inconveniently large and uncontrollable offspring, who then becomes some friend’s couch-surfing albatross.
And good riddance, the parents say.
But their own comeuppance is coming soon enough, as they enter late middle age and old age and wake up to find themselves singing Cat’s in the Cradle.