Marion Woodman is described as a Jungian analyst and feminine psychologist.  Her commitment to Jungian psychology has been the major investment of her career (five years in Zurich). Her husband, 10 years older and 71 at the time of writing, had recently retired as an English academic. In spite of her vast range of lecturing and teaching about the Great Mother, the Black Madonna, the Dark Mother and the Light Mother, Woodman has never actually given birth.  Not that this should be used to disqualify her. The rôle of Ross, her husband, is mysterious in that he is always absent, never at her side at key moments. They do not attend hospital appointments together.[1] On an icy pavement, when frail post-radiation Marion is shoved onto the road by a passer-by, Ross is striding away, some fifteen yards ahead. In a rambling Afterword, he as good as says he is distant; they seem to live separate lives. Only after forty years of marriage does she finally induce him to do some washing up (but she continues to cook), but he draws the line at pans. Nevertheless, she speaks of him always with affection and gives her marriage as a prime reason to go on living.


Both Jungian psychology and feminism were voguish during the period — they are much less so today.  No doubt if the fashions had been parapsychology or animal psychology, Woodman would have trained in one or other of these. When I was in my 20s Carl Jung was a hero to me and a significant influence.  Years later, when the biographies had tumbled forth, it became clear that Jung had been serially unfaithful to his long-suffering wife Emma. How then could one continue to take seriously such grandiose ideas as archetypes and the collective unconscious if these emanated from a man who did not know right from wrong?


Only ostensibly is this book a cancer diary. True, these are jottings from a journal kept on a daily basis, and for the most part the entries are written by, for and to Marion Woodman herself. There is little sense of the perspective of a reader. For instance, only well towards the end are we told that there is a 12 year pre-cancer history of osteoporosis, back problems and osteoarthritis.  This casts almost everything we have been told up to that point in a different light.


The first thing to be noted about the book is that it does not say what it means.  One quickly learns that the way to read it is by reading between the lines — to find out what’s really going on.  When I began to do this, I could see it as a human story and, as such, moving, confused and educative.  As a fellow cancer patient, I could readily identify with many of her experiences, although I would have to have a very different sense of my own importance to build a public diary, a blow-by-blow account, out of what has become a rather boring, long drawn out endurance task. Sure, it could go either way; but life is not the greatest good nor death the greatest evil.


Woodman is clearly a warm, lovable person, intensely sociable, frequently insightful; and as with any inspired vocational teacher, one is eager to learn from her.  But she has constructed for herself a complex fortification of ideology which sees itself in opposition to the conventional world — “the collective”.  Cancer is hugely inconvenient for her beliefs.  She feels that to contract cancer in the first place is some sort of personal failure (“Have I betrayed my femininity?”). Then she feels that not to have been aware internally of her own cancer is some sort of professional failure in her own body image.  To submit to “medical science” is, again, an example of a lack of faith.


So gradually the reading between the lines becomes more and more careful, more cautious.  One is looking for and finding and picking up hints. More and more one feels the dead weight of superstition.  Woodman frequently prays to Sophia — I’m not quite sure who that it is — and draws freely on every conceivable strand of New Age fad — crystals, mystical stones, reflexology, herbology, naturopathy, homeopathy, Native American traditions and even, at Christmas, Christianity.  But this is all eclectic and all these elements sink into the general swirl.  For some reason she seems to draw the line at astrology — but it’s not clear why she should.


I have long suspected that if you remove the words dark, darkness, darkening, darkened from the works of DH Lawrence, the novels would shrink to a fraction of their size. Similarly, Woodman’s book is replete with references to energy, vibration, visualisation. Mostly these seem quite interchangeable. One ought to be able to take a sample paragraph and substitute these words one for another without any very perceptible shifts in meaning.


There must be some sort of practical limit to the number of times in a single day one can read sentences such as the following:


That’s where I first realised the mediaeval love of glass came from its sense of the cathedral as matter mother (p. 181)

Kill the metaphors and you kill desire; the image magnetises the movement of the energy (p. 165)

Again awed by the isness of soul meeting soul in the spaceless, timeless world where essence is all. (p. 163)

At the same time, I am honouring life by trying to bring more consciousness into my own journey. (p. 112)

The Positive Mother that opens me to oneness and love would carry me into Being in life.  The Negative Mother that opens me to rejection and fear would carry me into blank nothingness. (p. 88 )

Radiant masculinity can be the creative masculine spirit radiating through the density of the negative mother concretised in cancer (pp. 73-4)


Woodman is not a gifted writer.  There is hardly a sentence in the book she seems to have thought about.[2]  This is how books are churned out but it is not writing.  Quotations from the poets tend to the trite and familiar. Perhaps her therapy, her dance or her singing are more inspiring. Nor could she be described as an original thinker or dealer in new ideas: indeed, the case readily presents itself that she is not a thinker at all.


For this surely is the nub of the matter.  In this world of unlimited, narcissistic freedom, there remains one taboo — the use of the intellect.  To enter this world with questions or criticisms is to be negative.  One’s critical and reasoning faculties must be left outside the door, rather as you take off your shoes before entering a mosque.


Needless to say, this rapidly produces the impression that the author is a complete idiot, but this is not true.  She seems to be an intelligent woman with an important mission, but to have created a world in her own image, such that she sees “soul” in opposition to “science”.  Every time she meets a doctor she gets into a fight with her or him (mainly him since these are ‘medical patriarchs’).  In her own perception they ‘bark’ at her, ‘roar’ at her, ‘snap’ at her or their eyes ‘glaze over’. She somehow knows that they are mindless slaves of the machine and positively uninterested in any form of spirituality. To submit first to chemotherapy, secondly to radiotherapy, is a betrayal of all her soulful principles.


We are all engaged in the existential search for meaning, to which mill all events, including dreams, are grist. As Frankl has described, the growth of a person arises from the construction of a world of meaning. With Woodman, like a mouse in a wheel, this has accelerated out of all possibility of contact with external reality.  She might be described as passionately unrealistic.  There is almost no objective interest in cancer knowledge from the early 1990s — already quite a time ago in terms of cancer research. There are hundreds of cancers – cancer itself is a portmanteau term of convenience – but one learns nothing at all about Woodman’s illness. She shows minimal levels of scientific literacy. Indeed, the word science occurs in this book only infrequently and incidentally, mainly in conjunction with medical. There is little discussion of the logic of the various treatments and Woodman is surrounded by a claque of fans and admirers urging her on to ever harder lines, deeper burrowings in her cul-de-sac.


Consequently what began as the reading of a cancer diary gradually gives way — as one learns to read between the lines — to a study of the conflict between an esoteric ideology and the accepted scientific norms of a modern society. This is the real drama. But neither the cancer nor the ideological conflict are addressed in any direct fashion and it does seem as if Woodman is unable to gain a degree of proportion  – vision or awareness, as she would say – in relation to either.



[1] He presumably wishes to avoid the perennial conflicts with physicians.

[2] Until right at the end when she carefully describes the flight of swans migrating northwards.