Rescuing the Shadow
Since I was the only one in the hall at the moment, I turned around to face the Corrections Officer wanting my attention.
“That class you teach in Room 2…The Hero’s Journey. What is that?”
This Corrections Officer never talked to us. Never. He wore a perpetual frown, simply pointing us to our room each time we showed up.
I bumbled along, offering a short summary of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth that I was pretty sure made no sense at all to him.
He cocked his head. “So…the inmates? They’re the heroes?”
He rolled his eyes and turned away.
How can a man behind bars be a hero before he’s released from prison? my son wrote in an email one day.
While this is something I’ve taken for granted ever since I first started teaching The Hero’s Journey at the Monroe Correctional Complex—that the men in my writing group are all heroes—I’ve had to accept that many on the outside (and on the inside) have a difficult time with this concept.
While I don’t pretend to know all there is to know about the hero archetype the way Joseph Campbell intended it, I do know enough to explain to my son that we are all heroes of our own lives; it’s more about who one is on the inside than who one is on the outside. A hero isn’t just someone who runs into a burning building to rescue the occupants, or dives into a lake to rescue someone who’s drowning. Or even slays a dragon. Though heroes do do those things. But a true hero is a rescuer on a deeper level—at some point, when he’s ready, he shows up for his own life and rescues his shadow self from the dark where it’s been hiding. And once he learns how to do that, he assists others in doing the same.
His shadow self? What’s that?
The shadow is a container for everything we’ve collected over the years—experiences, wounds, others’ judgments of us, our judgments of ourselves– and have deposited in our unconscious. We hold our shadows hostage through much of our lives, until we feel safe enough to interact with them and begin to bring them out into the light. While prison doesn’t feel like much of a safe place to begin this process, or any process for that matter, I regularly watch the prisoners in my Hero’s Journey writing group courageously begin to examine their shadows.
What does it look like for a prisoner to begin to rescue his shadow from the dark? He owns the crime that put him in prison. He owns who he was at the time that he committed his crime. He accepts the consequences.
Psychologist Carl Jung taught us that in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness—or perhaps because of this—the shadow is the seat of creativity. As the men in my prison group are writing their stories, whether fiction or memoir, this is exactly what’s happening. It’s not often a conscious process—if they knew what they were doing, they’d start flinching, cringing and hiding from their shadows. So it’s not anything we ever talk about or even mention, but as they’re giving their shadows a voice, they’re finding a deep well of creativity that sometimes, when they read their work out loud, it takes our collective breath away.
I once gave them the assignment to describe their cells without using the words: bars, clanging, steel, bunk or cement. I secretly wondered if they could even do it. Not only could they do it, their creativity was expressed in ways I could never even imagine. One man described only the noises in his cell; creaking, water flushing, crying. John wrote from the viewpoint of his cell, telling us about the others who had lived there before the present occupant; the cell had a rich history. A lifer described the physical elements inside his “house” and connected those elements to the utter hopelessness of the knowledge that he would die there in that small cage.
The prisoner’s feelings can lay dormant in his shadow for a long time because there just isn’t a safe place for their expression in prison. What moves me to tears on a regular basis is how brave these guys are to allow themselves such free expression, to unashamedly connect with their shadows in their writing, how they create their own safe place, not seeming to worry about how they might come off to the others in our little group of writers. I always think about how much writers on the outside could learn from these men about writing honestly, authentically, without hiding. Without shame.
“Are you telling me I’m a hero?” Jeff said to me after class one day.
“No one’s ever told me that my entire life.”
And I wondered–had anyone ever told Mr. Corrections Officer that he was a hero?
Waking up the Hero. Rescuing the Shadow. I’m guessing Mr. Corrections Officer’s eyes would roll out of his head to think he had even one thing in common with the men in our little writing group in Room 2.
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The Outlaw’s Journey—Welcome to the Dark Side of the Hero’s Journey
It only occurred to me that Mythologist Joseph Campbell’s storytelling pattern, The Hero’s Journey, had a dark side once I started teaching a writing class at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, WA. And it’s not because I was new to teaching there. Or because something “dark” happened in my life. It’s not even because it surfaced in the prison inmates’ writing or came up in our discussions about their lives as “heroes” of their journeys. No, the idea of The Hero’s Journey’s dark side sprung into being in my mind when I gradually began to see that the archetype prevalent in many of the stories the men were writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, was the outlaw.
“If you called this group The Outlaw’s Journey instead of The Hero’s Journey, you’d fill this room twice,” one of the members of our prison writing group told me one evening. But what would the Department of Corrections think of a volunteer group called The Outlaw’s Journey?
The outlaw is not one of the seven archetypes found in Campbell’s writings on The Hero’s Journey. Yes, there’s the shadow archetype, often described as the darker side of the psyche, representing wildness, chaos and the unknown. In stories, it can appear as a dragon, the grim reaper, a serial killer, one’s spouse or mother-in-law. The shadow is the story’s antagonist. But, though they might have similar qualities, the shadow and the outlaw are two different archetypes. The shadow represents the story hero’s unconscious, which is why all stories need an antagonist, so as to surface the psychic wound the hero needs to heal, while the outlaw represents the hero’s compulsion to challenge conventional wisdom and break through society’s trance and wake us all up.
When I first started teaching The Hero’s Journey to our little group of men at WSR, I would tell them, “It’s not easy to put away your outlaw, exchanging it for the hero, but this is the only way to become the hero you’re meant to be.”
Thankfully, we learn. We grow. As I’ve continued to teach, I’ve begun to receive more clarity on the outlaw archetype. Having a strong outlaw archetype myself, I now know it’s not possible to put the outlaw away, as little Jackie Paper put away Puff the Magic Dragon when he transitioned from childhood to puberty. No, if we try to put any part of ourselves “away,” it will only pop back up when we least expect it, and the childhood jack-in-the-box we thought we’d put away is back bigger and bouncier than ever, refusing to be stuffed back in his box.
This is both the bad news and the good news: Bad news because now what? The dark side of our outlaw archetype is what got us into so much trouble in the past, maybe even thrown into prison. Good news because the light side of the outlaw archetype is available to us and waiting to be integrated into our psyche, its purpose to challenge our own personal, as well as society’s, rigid thought patterns and conventional, traditional, and outdated ways of looking at and being in the world.
The outlaw archetype is a most unlikely gift and teacher that shows up in our lives when we least expect it but when we most need it. It’s there to protect us from becoming a carbon copy of everyone else, to facilitate our creativity and originality. It’s the archetype that gives us the courage to find our true voice when others are trying to oppress us. It’s the outlaw that’s present when we know it’s time to challenge conventional wisdom, breaking us and others out of a traditional rut and forging a new path. Just as the hero goes on an external adventure for the purpose of healing his psychic wound(s), so does the outlaw, but outside of society’s system and conventions, and in spite of society’s judgments, integrating those wounds to the degree that his life becomes a sacred and honorable journey.
Welcome to my blog—an exploration of what it means for the protagonist to express his outlaw archetype in our stories, what it means for us to express our own outlaw archetype in today’s society. In our families. In our jobs. In our churches.
In our psyches where it all began in the Ordinary World.
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