Mary Watkins is a psychologist at Pacifica Graduate Institute who focuses on reorienting psychology toward social justice and liberatory ends. She has a foundation in the depth psychologies of Carl Jung and James Hillman, as well as holistic approaches to community healing such as indigenous, liberation, and eco-psychologies. She has worked in a variety of settings, such as immigration detention centers, prisons, and marginalized communities, with the aim of social transformation beyond the individual.
Her research interests include a focus on the restorative power of dialogue, creative imagination, forced migration, adoption, and socioeconomic justice. In addition to numerous articles, she has published several books, such as Waking Dreams, Invisible Guests: The Development of Imaginal Dialogues, Toward Psychologies of Liberation with Dr. Helene Shulman, Up Against the Wall: Re-imagining the U.S.-Mexico Border with Dr. Edward Casey, and most recently, Mutual Accompaniment and the Creation of the Commons.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.
Micah Ingle: Can you give a basic description of your interests as a psychologist?
Mary Watkins: I began reading psychology in my adolescence. I was mainly reading Freud and Bettelheim. When I got to college, I was stunned that the psychology that I was learning in 1968 was completely different from what I thought psychology was going to be. I’ve been involved now with psychology for almost 50 years, and I’ve had an abiding desire to reorient theory in psychology and to reorient practice.
I had a very important mentor when I was in graduate school at Clark University, named Bernie Kaplan, who was a developmental psychologist. What Bernie did for me with regard to developmental psychology was to say, instead of studying what is (which is quite impossible because you’re always bringing your values to it), why not make very clear what your values are and then study what and how you would like to see things transform. What are the end goals that you’re most interested in, what are the conditions for people in communities that would help bring about those ends, and what mitigates against it?
That’s been very helpful to me as I’ve tried to orient my work around social justice, sustainable peace, and environmental concerns. I can say, what are the kinds of psychology, what are our approaches to psychology that would help reach those ends in solidarity with other people? So I would say my interests are in really looking at theory and practice with regard to liberatory ends.
Ingle: Can you talk about your background and how you got into this work?
Watkins: Initially, when I was in college, I fell into a deep depression. And in that depression, the imaginal world was very vivid for me. I was able to close my eyes and see images quite clearly, on both sides of sleep. I had to write a senior thesis, so I began to do a lot of research into the use of fantasy and imagination for healing across cultures, but also within Eurocentric psychologies.
That’s what got me to the study of Jung, and then two years later, to the study of James Hillman’s work in archetypal psychology. At first, I was turning towards psychology as a way to understand myself and to understand my family, the dynamics of my family, my mother’s psychology, et cetera, as well as thinking that I would enjoy helping other people in a kind of clinical way.
Right after college, I began to work at Cambridge City Hospital in Cambridge in an inpatient unit. I was living at the same time in an experimental community of people who had been in psychiatric hospitalization as young people for ‘schizophrenia’ now living in a halfway house situation. This was about the same time that R.D. Laing was doing his work, out of interest in how people could accompany each other in situations of psychosis.
I was seeing both the way that this unfolds within a psychiatric wing of a community hospital, and also just living with people. That eventually took me to the Jung Institute in Zurich, because I was trying to rewrite my senior thesis on waking dreams into a book.
I was lucky enough to find the work of James Hillman then. At that point, he had already written Dreams in the Underworld, and he was delivering the lectures that formed Re-Visioning Psychology. It was a very, very exciting moment in Jungian studies because he was breaking with a few of the taken for granted ideas within Jungian work and trying to show what it would be like to practice and to think with imagination more in the forefront of concern.
When I came out of my eight and a half years of graduate study, the expectation was that I would go straight into teaching. That was the expectation of Clark, but I wasn’t able to do that, because I hadn’t yet discerned what was worthwhile to teach. Part of the problem was that I had three separate sets of interests: one in spirituality, one in political issues, and one in psychology, and they were completely divorced from one another.
I had to figure out slowly how they fit together. For instance, in the early 1980s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Helen Caldicott—the pediatrician from Australia that founded Physicians for Social Responsibility—was waking up people about the nuclear danger. I had a whole series of nightmares during that time about nuclear Armageddon. In the usual way at that point in time, even within the Jungian world, the method of interpreting those kinds of dreams would be in terms of repressed issues of rage, et cetera.
It was quite clear to me that it wasn’t about that; it was about a genuine concern that was breaking in from the outside in. It was helping me clarify that the veil that we imagined between the inside and the outside is just enormously porous.
When we begin to focus on what we think of as our subjectivity, we find the world inside of us as, not just ourselves, but other people, animals, places, the earth. I began to see that there were some key ideas in psychology that had to be critically reflected on, and alternatives posed.
One of the most central ones was individualism, which I think now is rather widely understood to be a Euro-American construct that’s particularly severe in the United States. In the US we think in terms of radical individualism—where we imagine our development of firm, equal boundaries that separate us from others; our development of logic, mastery, and control; that successes we enjoy are the fruits of our own labors, rather than coming out of our own complex positionalities socio-culturally and historically.
I began to see that a lot of the depth psychological theory that I had been learning, and that I was using in my clinical practice, was embedded within this paradigm of individualism. This meant the clinical work was trying to attune itself to helping individuals survive and thrive amid a wide variety of social, cultural, and historical crises. But those crises were very rarely ever articulated as any kind of contextual backdrop or any kind of causative framework for the types of misery and suffering that people were experiencing.
So I turned to the question of what would happen if we thought about people in a much more interdependent fashion and saw them, their wellbeing, as coinciding with the wellbeing of their families, their communities, their schools, their ecosystems. If so, then we have to liberate our psychological thinking and our psychological practice from the narrow confines of clinical practice as it was being framed.
Ingle: Can you talk about liberation work that you’ve done?
Watkins: The work I’ve been doing more recently has to do with borders and forced migration. I had a powerful experience the first time I encountered the U.S. wall at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2002. In the San Diego sector, a place called Friendship Park, you have people divided by this wall, which has now become increasingly militarized, with family members that can no longer live side by side.
That tragedy that I experienced that day for the first time because I had grown up on the East Coast and was new to California, has become a tragedy of monumental proportions—and a tragedy in many countries as people are forced to migrate and find themselves locked out.
I have actually gone back to a part of my clinical work that I didn’t use much at all, which was psychological and forensic evaluation. I’m working now with people in detention centers who are seeking asylum and who need a forensic evaluation to help the immigration court understand that they are credible, that the kinds of traumas they are talking about are consistent with their psychological state. That’s one thing I’m doing presently.
The other is working in prison settings with educational initiatives. There was a certain point as I began to teach that I realized that education itself is therapeutic, education of a certain kind. Not a banking model of education as Paulo Freire would criticize, where you’re just supposed to learn and regurgitate things, but a critical education that helps you to think about your place in the world and history.
I deeply believe that that kind of education is one of the best forms of coming to know yourself, if that’s what we think of as one of the goals of therapy, of caring for the soul. A more ecological self, that term comes from Arnie Næss, that we have inside of us every place we’ve ever been, not just the people that we love and that we’ve come into contact with, but also the plants and the animals and the mountains and the rivers that we swam in, et cetera.
Ingle: It sounds like your introduction into liberatory work was unique, that you had to go out into the community and find places and people that wanted to work with you. Do you see any pathways into this work for psychologists or people who are interested?
Watkins: Absolutely. I was recently at a Psychologists for Social Responsibility conference at the Wright Institute in Berkeley called “Healing Justice on Decarceration.” There were many people who had been inside who took part in the conference and were teaching psychologists. Of all the people who had been inside a prison system, none of them had had a positive interaction with any mental health provider, except one who had given them the right form to fill out for a parole request.
And yet it was quite clear that they all, or at least the ones I spoke with, would have welcomed someone to have ongoing conversations with that were attentive to the kinds of trauma that they were experiencing and the type of desperate situation they were in. When you go as a mental health provider into a prison, every conversation you have with the prisoner is not private. It’s part of the record if you will. They spoke about psychologists coming to the SHU, to the special housing units where they’re in solitary confinement, and shouting through the door at them. Many other people would inevitably overhear the conversation, so that’s not a conversational context in which they would engage.
So what if the psychologically minded person joined a prison visitation program, visited a person over time, and developed a relationship that might have many of the aspects that you would think of that are therapeutic, but outside of the usual frame of therapy. First of all, there’s no payment. Second of all, it’s not linked to an institutional framework. It’s not based on expert knowledge, because the person who would be doing the accompanying would also be learning quite a lot from the person who’s inside.
So that’s just one example that there is the need in many places for people who can be available, who can witness, who can listen, who can sustain contact over time so that they can be trusted. So that they are not just be parachuting into a situation.
Many of us are called into particular crises that are going on. In my thirties, I got this unusual call into the nuclear crisis and followed that for about ten years. And then, when I hit the U.S.-Mexico wall, I had an unusual feeling of revulsion about it. With some people, it will be a river that they loved when they were young, and now it’s polluted, or it will be reaching out to older people.
I think if we start with where we’re called—and that can come in a dream, it can come in what we’re tracking in the newspaper—our heart gets moved. We can begin to invest ourselves there. Then in time as we get to know that situation where our psychological knowledge can be of use, and if there are other kinds of knowledges that we need, we can go about learning them or finding resources.
I’ll tell you about a situation in my present hometown of Santa Barbara, California, where I teach. I mentioned coming from the East coast. I didn’t understand this town where I arrived. I’d never spent any time on the West coast, but if you get up early and drive downtown, it’s like a little Beijing because there are people in bicycles riding off—something you don’t see later on in the day.
The housing all looks nice, but one day I was helping a daughter find a place to live, and I opened the garage door of a place she was thinking of renting. I saw 15 mattresses and people, a young boy, 13. There were no bathrooms, no kitchen. This was a place where 15 people who had come across the border were living. So I began to search out a group that was invested in justice for immigrants in human rights and began to attend their meetings. It was called Pueblo, and it eventually morphed into a group called Cause. I would do whatever needed to be done, help with childcare, bring a little food, whatever.
Then in the second year, a young person stood up, and she said that she had a dream that she would like to create an oral history of what it’s like to live in Santa Barbara without your documents without your citizenship papers. She didn’t know exactly how to go about that and wanted to know if anybody was interested in helping. I knew something about oral history, so I volunteered. A number of young people were very interested in this process.
My Spanish was so poor at that moment that I didn’t understand until a few months later that everybody in the room, 20 people, that none of them had their documents. So they were interested in bringing forth the stories that their families and their neighbors, and they did so in a really beautiful way through interviews and translation, and then creating testimonials that could be brought to churches and schools and community groups.
What they wanted to do was to incite compassion in U.S. citizens for their situation. So that’s an example. When we take something that we were moved to understand more about it, and we commit ourselves to showing up, we can begin to understand how we might be of some use.
Of course, we need an invitation. You wouldn’t show up at a group that didn’t want you there. There are many reasons why people don’t want strangers showing up in groups, because of being infiltrated and being undermined by people who really shouldn’t be there, who don’t have good intentions. But I think that psychologists can open the consulting door both so that they can connect the issues that people are bringing with history, with socio-cultural and ecological issues, but also to walk out past the consulting door as citizens who are available in a psychologically minded way. There’s a great need for that in many, many different contexts.
That’s one thing that we’ve learned at Pacifica over the last 20 years. Our students who are studying in this way have worked in about six or 700 different community contexts, not as clinicians. It could be in a humane society where a lot of the animals are being killed, euthanized, and the staff is traumatized. It could be helping Palestinians. We built a home that’s been destroyed by Israeli demolition. It could be working on a community garden inside of a prison, or helping youth put their experiences into hip-hop inside of a juvenile detention facility.
The needs are really many and in many places. So, in the same way, that we talk about independent scholarship, I think we have to talk about people creating the niches in which their psychosocial and ecological work can unfold. That can be within the context of nonprofits, foundations within schools, community groups—to begin to write themselves in, because people also need to be compensated for their work, right? People who are paid for their work can use that compensation to fund pro bono work that needs to happen.
Ingle: You’ve talked about accompaniment. When it comes to the second part of the title of your most recent book, “creation of the commons,” what’s your vision for that, and do you think that accompaniment in the ways that you’re talking about leads to this creation of the commons?
Watkins: Yes, I think it’s at the heart of creating commons. There’s a story I gave in the last chapter when in Ireland, people were being driven off their land when the commons were being enclosed. There may be neighbors down the road who would have taken in those people who were losing their land. They were told that if they took in these people, they would be killed and that their own houses and fields would be burned.
I think that’s very relevant to what we’re seeing today, where we’re being told to lock our door against people who are being forced to migrate. On the border, I’m sure you’re aware that people who have been putting out water and food are now in court proceedings against them, possibly be incarcerated for years. For instance, picking up somebody who has collapsed because of the horrible journey and taking them to the hospital, that now becomes a criminal offense.
So what’s the alternative? The alternative is being acted out in many different places in many different ways, from housewives in Canada putting together their resources to sponsor immigrants and refugees who need a sponsor to come to Canada, to congregations in the U.S. that are offering sanctuary to people who are under threat of deportation. “Commons” can happen; you can create a liberatory context in the most adverse circumstances.
I can sometimes feel, when I’m in a detention center with an asylum seeker and often a translator, that we are making a little world, where we can discuss some very, very difficult experiences in a way that insulates us at least momentarily against the deleterious forces that have created this enforced confinement. And the same thing in prisons, I think.
So the commons relies on people being available for compassion. That is what Kelly Oliver calls response-ability, the ability to respond, responsive relationships, which might begin with one person accompanying another, but which very quickly becomes a kind of mutual accompaniment because there is a shared learning and mutual enjoyment of the relationship that’s unfolding.
Those kinds of relationships can form what Mary Belenky has called “public home places,” where a small or large group of people who have common concerns can find refreshment in relationship with each other while also pursuing, in solidarity with each other, the kinds of transformations that are necessary to relieve what Arthur Kleinman calls social misery, which is also psychological misery.
Ingle: So what’s calling to you right now is this work in detention centers and at the border. What’s on the horizon for you?
Watkins: Yes, this is very much on my horizon, in my present, and on my horizon. I’m also curious about the idea of sacrifice. We don’t find sacrifice talked about too much in psychology, and yet other cultures have been completely consumed with the necessity of sacrifice. I had the opportunity to visit Peru recently and really saw how important that was and in earlier societies there. I’m interested in why we’re not thinking about sacrifice.
I’m also interested in what I would call lamentation. There’s a lot of grieving that’s going on, and that’s going to be going on, given the ecological crisis that we’re in. I think that there’s a need to understand the role of lamentation. So those are two areas I’m thinking about.
We need to understand the deep history of the places that we live in, in the United States, and I’m sure other places as well. But in the U.S., we know that each town, no matter what town you choose, has got a very, very complicated history. My own Santa Barbara has a history of Mexican and Spanish people displacing and virtually enslaving the Chumash people.
And then Anglos placing Mexicans, who owned all the businesses and the land, into poverty and taking their land away, and eventually putting them on cattle cars and deporting them to Baja during the depression. They also deported the Japanese in the second world war, got rid of the Chinese downtown in the 1920s, and a community of African Americans in the 1930s.
Each of our cities and towns has histories of exclusion that need to be understood and addressed because what we’re experiencing at the border would not be going on if we weren’t already living those histories of exclusion in our towns. I see them as quite interlinked. You can work on things at the border, border issues, in many different border sites within any town or city.
So that has my interest, and as more and more people are forced to migrate under the current and ongoing emergencies that we’re facing, we need to figure out ways to open our doors. We will often be the ones seeking an open door as we go through climate change. You can be thinking you’re in a fairly safe niche and find that you have no house the next day. This is a psychological problem, a deep psychological problem that I’d like to see us attend to closely.
Ingle: Any final thoughts?
Watkins: In terms of Mad in America’s focus, in my most recent book I have a couple of chapters on what it means to shift from an expert model of providing clinical services, of diagnosing and intervening clinically—what it means to shift from that model to models of accompaniment, which include of course peer accompaniment. I try to outline some of the best examples of that.
Franco Basaglia’s work in Italy was closing down all the mental asylums there and then helping Trieste become a city that welcomes people with all sorts of neural differences. The Open Dialogue model in Finland, Fountain House in New York, the Family Care Foundation in Sweden. I’ve tried to give a variety of examples of where accompaniment can make a huge difference, but it needs to be unleashed from the expert model, which is quite tied, I think, to capitalism.
You can charge more for your services if you’re an expert. Still, the problem is that you undermine all the knowledge that the people that you’re with have about their situation, what they need and what they desire—where you could be of use, and where they prefer you to put your nose into your own business.