Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D.
This book is part literary-criticism, part self-help book, focusing on the theme of the "wild woman" in traditional folk stories. Estes comes from a family tradition of, and has personal training in, using storytelling as a form of healing. Her book explores a particular piece of this - using the archetype of the Wild Woman to give women a model for understanding their needs and living their lives. It is Estes's premise that the Wild Woman reflects an aspect of all women's selves, and it is an aspect that society represses. Healing women psychically requires nourishing the Wild Woman within them. The book is divided into chapters each beginning with a story, which Estes then deconstructs with respect to the role of the Wild Woman in the story, and finally translates into a set of guidelines (varying between concrete and abstract) for women's own lives.
I was interested in this book primarily for its analysis of folk stories and the project of tracing the theme of the "Wild Woman" through the stories. That aspect of the book was not, in fact, very well done. The stories that were used were "literary" versions of oral folktales that Estes adapted and wrote specifically for this book. While the adaption of stories for an audience may be a key piece of using storytelling for healing, it makes Estes's arguments for particular objects and images being repeated throughout folktales lose their weight. Never describing the original stories that she based her versions on, or the types of changes she made in making the stories "literary", it wasn't clear that she wasn't inserting the themes that she wanted to stress in healing her female patients herself.
The book also doesn't offer a satisfying description of the method of therapy she practices. Estes clearly doesn't intend her book to be an exploration of the techniques of using storytelling as therapy. She gives frustratingly few details about how one chooses and crafts stories for healing. At most, she explains that it is something that takes years of training and an immersion in a culture that is built around storytelling.
This leave the use of the book as self-help material - a type of healing through storytelling where the stories are written rather than oral. And, despite her token efforts in other directions, I think this is the usage that Estes is really interested in. For some people, this book might be effective. She presents many stories that she helps the reader interpret with respect to their own path through life and personal turning points and injuries. It could offer useful points of focus for someone already considering the issues she raises of self-nurturance and self-reliance as special issues for women. However, she doesn't offer much to draw a somewhat resistant or skeptical reader in.
Most of the flaws come, I think, from her assumption that she is talking about things "all women know". There are many points in the book where she will point out an image or a scene in a story and say "At this point, women will nod and say 'I know exactly what you mean'." Beyond being frustrating by implying (or sometime explicitly stating) that these are things men simply can't understand, it also doesn't help someone who perhaps didn't immediately understand what the story was referring to. She assumes that certain symbols will resonate with all women, and that certain feelings are common to all women. In fact, her definition of the "Wild Woman" archetype is vague in much this way. She explains that it has to do with the desire within women to control their own lives, be in touch with a greater spirit (of people, of the world, or of some other larger essence), and their "wildish nature", but much of the definition comes down to being things like "the thing that makes women paint" or "the thing that makes women dance in the rain". As the central concept of the book, it would be nice to have it more clearly flushed out.
In all, I didn't find this book worth the effort to read it. It had none of the intellectual interest that I thought it might hold, and its usefulness as a tool of self-inspection presupposes a disposition to see oneself through the analogies and images that she personally chooses to use. For some people, this may be very useful, and I was able to deduce to some degree how this type of storytelling might be productively used in therapy. But it does not translate well to book form. I give this book a '-'.
Review written April 2001.
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