Editor’s Note: Michael Cornwall originally presented this piece at the conference entitled “J.W. Perry and Analytical Psychology: Care and Compassion,” held by the Italian Center for Analytical Psychology under the auspices of the International Association For Analytical Psychology.
I was in close personal contact with John Weir Perry for 18 continuous years until the time of his death, when I often cared for his physical needs at his death bed during hospice. I loved him deeply and am grateful for the love he gave me.
I was in analysis with him for four years beginning in 1980.
With me, in analysis, John was soft spoken and gentle. I brought my dreams every week on 3 by 5 cards. He never interpreted them or pointed out a connection to various myths as I had expected. He did say my intense dreams showed I was in an ongoing archetypal process. He never really mentioned or quoted Jung. He responded to my dreams as if they were real experiences that had actually happened to me, as much as the things that happened to me in my waking life.
He listened to me tell him about the terrible year, 15 years earlier, when I was going through an intense extreme state/psychosis that was an underworld, hellish torment of uncanny psychic and spiritual torture. I was not medicated then or hospitalized, but weathered it at my loving aged grandmother’s house that was a true sanctuary. (Cornwall, 2012a)
When the sinister and sadistic hallucinatory voice that shouted for me to “die, die, die” would cause my terror to make me shake and cry out, I used to go sit on the floor before her chair and ask her to rest her loving hand on my head as she did when I was injured or ill as a child.
During the many months of my madness, she never asked me questions, but often just sat there with me silently, her hand on my head, softly patting my head until the wave of terror had passed. One time she smiled down at me and said lovingly as I whimpered and shook, “There, there, Michael, you must have the flu, dear. You’ll feel better soon.” She had taken care of me when I was a boy and was delirious with the flu.
She had raised me as a boy after I suffered severe third-degree burns requiring skin grafts when I was a toddler. Both of my parents had abandoned me during that time. I know those early traumas made me vulnerable and contributed to me going into madness later.
During my time in madness at age 19, my parents were on the East Coast, so no one knew what I was going through. One day at grandma’s as I pondered suicide to stop the tormenting voices and terrors, I reached to a small book my grandmother had that I’d never seen before. When I opened it to a random page my eyes went straight to the words “Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” I was an atheist before the dark forces of my madness had possessed me, so when I read those words of Jesus, I felt a jolt of something warm and electric press on my forehead. In an instant I knew that there was a loving power that could at least meet the malevolent powers that had consumed my body, mind, and emotions. I finally became able to sleep again, and the voices and fear soon subsided.
My life slowly emerged from the stark existential madness as I held onto that promise of rest that had spoken so powerfully to my condition.
John was the first person I shared all this with.
I felt his loving presence reach out to me as we sat together, and his eyes were full of merciful understanding and love, very much like my grandmother’s eyes had been.
After my analysis ended, I went right on to become friends and colleagues with John, and I did the follow-up research on his Diabasis House project that was published in 2002.
My Diabasis research is entitled, Alternative Treatment of Psychosis: A Qualitative Study of Jungian Medication-free Treatment at Diabasis. (Cornwall, 2002)
The central research result shows that there was a distinct “way” that staff were encouraged by John to practice. It was intended to help them be very open and emotionally present with the young psychotic residents, while simply being there in the same loving way John had been with me in analysis, and that my grandmother had been with me too.
From many years of leading conferences on madness at Esalen Institute, the APA, and from my many published articles on madness, all in the spirit of my practice of the Diabasis “way” of loving receptivity, I was invited to be the editor of the historic two-volume special edition of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, titled Humanistic Perspectives on Understanding and Responding to Extreme States. Of the 26 authors I invited to write articles, eleven of them had lived experience of their own madness. The journal includes my article “Merciful love can help relieve the emotional suffering of extreme states.” (Cornwall, 2019)
A former Diabasis resident that I interviewed had been expected from childhood on to be a lawyer. She completed law school and passed her bar exam, but her soul said no. She instead entered a powerful but purposive psychotic process at Diabasis and came out in tune with her true life path needs. She never practiced law but became a very creative person and successful painter. She told me that her fulfilled life would never have been possible without having been at Diabasis. (Cornwall, 2015)
When caregivers of any kind practice the loving receptivity way that John taught to Diabasis staff, it brings the crucial heartfelt affect to fill the space between two people.
The essence of love is given across the space and is received as the merciful and healing gift that it is.
That encircling crucible of person-to-person deep connection is needed to hold and transmute the affect-charged archetypal energies that are consuming the client. There, at the inner core of the psyche, at the level of self as John described it, the incredibly powerful, activated archetypal opposites of good versus evil, dark versus light, male-female, life and death can clash, compete, morph and transmute into a bearable inner tension that the waking function or ego can tolerate, without being sucked back under and into the waking dream or nightmare of madness.
This dramatic initiatory ordeal is really only possible if the person’s erupting affect isn’t silenced and stopped by the emotion-killing drugs called antipsychotics.
John told me before he died that he wished Jung could have lived long enough to see how Diabasis really proved what Jung at times had stated about the potential for madness to bring about a necessary transformation of the psyche. John believed he had intentionally tested that possibility at Diabasis. He realized that almost all initial psychotic breaks of young folks trying to break through into adult autonomous functioning in our post-modern, social Darwinism-dominated culture, are really like initiatory ordeals. He saw these psychotic episodes being an existential necessity for some souls, and therefore as purposive rites of passage.
He believed the results of Diabasis, which replicated the earlier dramatic Agnew’s project acute psychosis research that he had helped design, proved the durability of the psyche to contain the integration of the surging affect imagery of madness. Agnew’s project was a large randomized trial that showed that young men who got placebo instead of Thorazine had a 75 percent lower rehospitalization rate than the patients who were drugged at three-year follow-up. (Rappaport, 1978)
The success of Diabasis also greatly challenged the whole psychiatric disease model of human emotional suffering and its formulation of the dead-end schizophrenia label. Diabasis was in a race to have the young adults resolve their acute psychosis before the fateful six-month artificial deadline that looms for a schizophrenic label. (A person must have psychotic symptoms for six months before they can be given a schizophrenia diagnosis.)
John was able to sell the Diabasis program model to San Francisco Mental Health Services because it could divert countless young people from ending up with a schizophrenic label and becoming a financial burden on the system for the rest of their lives. The Agnew’s results that John used to get Diabasis funded, proved that the large group of randomly-assigned young men who got placebo instead of Thorazine had a 75 percent lower rehospitalization rate than the patients who were drugged at three-year follow-up.
He took the best elements of the Agnew’s hospital ward design milieu and used them at Diabasis. For John, it basically boiled down to refuting the whole psychiatric theory and practice edifice on psychosis. In other words, for 80 to 90 percent of young folks going into acute psychosis, you don’t need drugs, you just need residential staff who can practice the basic human heartfelt way of loving receptivity.
John told me he believed this evidence of Diabasis would have gone past Jung’s own understanding and comfort zone because there never had been a totally Jungian 24/7 residence for psychosis before. Perry told me that he believed the Diabasis evidence would have helped Jung be less afraid about the rapid onset of acute psychosis. He said Jung would have known that the psyche was durable enough to weather a transformative psychosis if a Diabasis was there waiting.
John said he knew of Jung’s sometime fear of what he saw as an incipient psychosis looming in a patient’s psyche when a patient’s dreams started signaling the possible intense archetypal overwhelm of the ego. John said that could cause Jung himself or Jung to urge others at Zurich to suspend or stop an analysis.
After Diabasis, John lamented that anyone who needed to go through a psychosis would be prevented from doing so if a Diabasis was not available to them to ensure a successful course of transformation of the psyche.
John Weir Perry and Carl Jung
It’s good to remember that John’s connection with Jung was very unique and prompted John to explore the kinds of inquiries into what Jung would have made of Diabasis and its implications for a deeper understanding and humane response to madness.
Jung wrote the forward to John’s pre-Diabasis book, The Self in Psychotic Process, which marked John being Jung’s heir apparent in this central aspect of Jung’s work and life.
John met Jung in 1936 when Jung stayed at the Perry home. This was after Jung had met John’s father in Zurich. John’s father, James DeWolf Perry, was the presiding Anglican bishop in America.
John had picked up Jung and Emma at the train station. He told me the reserved Swiss scholar he had expected turned out to be a big, almost boisterous man, who was full of energy and emotional power. That evening, at dinner, Jung regaled the gathering about myth and ritual and dreams. John’s psyche responded with a powerful dream he shyly took to the dream master in the morning. He told Jung of a wild Native American warrior bursting into the living room and throwing a tomahawk to be buried in John’s heart. At the last instant, John caught the axe between his two palms before it hit him. He told me Jung let out a loud whoop and cried to John, “Yes! See how the wild man inside of you is trying to get your attention!”
Soon after, while sitting on a hillside, John had a life-transforming ecstatic vision overwhelm him of a globe encircling numinous energy of love. He had been obsessed with reading physics, and on human biological and cultural evolution. John said it all came crashing in that the human future wasn’t an empty story of endless wars and tyrants and ruling empires, but instead was a vibrant possibility of true progress into an age of human-hearted love infusing the entire globe.
He told me that years later, he’d learned that a very similar vision had been reported by the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin of a globe encircling noosphere of spiritual love.
With this vision propelling him, John became a doctor who served as a conscientious objector in rural preindustrial China during World War II. There, he experienced the horrors of war while treating the mass casualties of the Japanese invasion. He told me he lost all fear of death as a result.
When he went to Zurich after the war, he was a deeply soulful heavyweight who lowered his kindly but piercing eyes to no one.
Remarkably, Jung set up John in a dual analysis with Toni Wolfe and C.A. Meir. Jung also wanted John to meet with him alone frequently to explore wide-ranging areas of interest to them both. John felt very grateful that Jung would offer this unique opportunity to him, to be mentored by and learn directly from Jung.
During these hours alone with Jung, John shared with me that Jung divulged a very personal dream practice that John told me was the most valuable teaching that he received from Jung. I published Jung’s remarkable personal dream teaching in 2013. (Cornwall, 2013)
Jung told Perry that he had endured many terrifying repetitive nightmares of being pursued by a ferocious menacing dragon that Jung couldn’t escape, and that he would wake up full of intense fear. But one day, while Jung was in a reverie, he saw in an instant that the terror he felt in the nightmares was the exact, unmistakable fear he unconsciously had been feeling every time his wife’s mother came into the room!
He then told John that the real key to knowing what the unconscious psyche is most intensely gripped by is to look to where the exact emotion, or emotions, in a dream are unknowingly present in one’s waking life.
In doing that, we see what archetypal and personal energies are moving in our waking lives that are stirring deep affect and imagery in our dreams.
This crucial personal sharing by Jung about the primacy of affect being the birther of both dream and active imagination imagery, of symbols, words, hallucinations, delusions, and it all arising and expressing the powerful emotions that can keep occurring in nightmares and all kinds of repetitive thoughts and images, prompted John to go as far as redefining what an archetype actually is. Perry redefined an archetype as an affect image in his brilliant 1970 article, “Emotions and Object Relations.” (Perry, 1970)
In 1986, John along with mythologist Joseph Campbell and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, led a remarkable day-long event in San Francisco called “Ritual and Rapture, from Dionysus to the Grateful Dead,” where John shared about the rites of Dionysus and showed how madness was one of the domains of the god.
Some years before that, John suggested I read Walter Otto’s classic book, Dionysus, Myth and Cult, because of the emphasis on Dionysus as the chthonic mad god who was a source of mythic and archetypal wild energy in the psyche during psychosis, and because he knew I had been doing rituals evoking the presence of that Dionysian energy.
While reading Otto’s book, I soon realized that Dionysus was in fact the phallic deity of Jung’s seminal childhood dream. In the dream, the phallic subterranean deity that Jung encountered was scornfully rejected when his mother appeared and proclaimed, “Yes! Just look at him, the man-eater!” Jung awoke terrified.
I believed that Dionysus was in fact that deity in Jung’s dream and that Jung and his followers could not let that truth into conscious awareness. Dionysus was the savage man-eater god when appearing in his leopard epiphany, and Otto recounts human sacrifice and points to cannibalism in his rites. The Bacchae by Euripides recounts the savagery of Dionysus and his followers.
In my published article “Jung’s first dream, the mad god Dionysus and a madness sanctuary called Diabasis,” I share how John reacted when I made my claim to him that Dionysus was the man-eater phallic god of Jung’s fateful dream. (Cornwall, 2012b)
I was at his house one evening when I told him, and “Perry’s patrician jaw dropped and I saw him for the first time at a loss for words when I spoke my Jungian blasphemy about the big secret hidden in plain sight. When the defense of denial collapses on a secret that big it is a dramatic thing to witness. Perry became almost giddy. He kept repeating, ‘Of course Michael, you are right. I never saw it; none of us did. Oh you must publish this, must publish this!’”
In my article I suggest that the main reason Jung either knowingly failed to claim Dionysus as his life-influencing initiatory deity, or that instead Jung blocked it from awareness, was probably because of Nietzsche’s turmoil of madness as a devotee of Dionysus and how Nietzsche’s writings had been appropriated by the Nazis, and thus were contaminated in a way that Jung needed to avoid.
Another powerful gift that John shared with the world was his strong belief that we are at an aeon-changing historical tipping point, or “time of trouble” where our millennia old myth form of male power and dominance is giving way to a new infant myth form at the exact same time. John wasn’t one to repeat himself, but he often told me signs of the times pointing to this huge culture-transforming mythic upheaval that he saw was upon us. He was a visionary in many ways, from his early vision of a noosphere through the horrors of war to plumbing the depths of the human soul as it partakes of and is initiated by madness. It was this last great vision that gripped him in his final days. He outlined his vision of this impending new myth form arising in his article, “Myth, Ritual and the Decline of Patriarchy.” (Perry, 1992)
He used to tell me something like the following in the late 1990’s: “Oh, you could really see it speeding up and coming in the preview of the 1960s in San Francisco where all the norms and rules of our society were up for grabs for the flower children during the summer of love. There was a blissed-out prophet on every street corner in Haight-Ashbury. Free love, anti-war, peace and love filled the air.”
He then would tell me he wished that he could live long enough, until about 2015. He said then it’s really going to become prevalent, the clash of myth forms as the reactionary followers of the old myth try to slay the rising new myth in its cradle. I’ll never forget him looking intently at me and saying. “Michael, you’ll be alive as the wheel turns, you’ll see it in your own lifetime, what only has happened a few times in human history.” It gave me chills when he’d say that, and he’d always say this cultural mythic upheaval mirrors the initiatory ordeal of those in madness and he would add that there is never a guarantee that a true mythic initiation will succeed at the macro or personal level.
When I look out today at the insurrection in the United States, the war in Ukraine, and the possibility of nuclear war held in the hands of leaders drunk with power, I am sure John would say, yes, the time surely may be at hand.
A Blessed Kind of Mysterious Dream
I now want to read from a 1975 letter of support to the funders of Diabasis, from John’s friend Gregory Bateson, who also was a master scholar of human history. The letter is part of the inheritance of John’s many papers on Diabasis and the papers on all his books that he left me.
Bateson wrote, “Diabasis is one of a very few institutions across the country which carry the responsibility for advancing our understanding of psychiatric phenomenon … problems which are almost as complex as any which the human spirit can present. In just a few places and necessarily on a small scale, this complexity is being faced, and I would argue that those places are curiously precious, not only for the few patients who are lucky enough to pass through them, but also precious to the whole psychiatric profession and the wider field of helping skills.”
In the over 40 years I’ve specialized in serving people in madness sanctuaries like Diabasis, on the streets, on a crisis team, and in many other settings, the primacy of emotion is always my focus. Just being there, present, kind, loving, and as another fellow traveler and friend, is what John really helped me treasure. I’m very grateful to have received that compassionate gift from him and my grandmother, Laura Tompkins.
In closing, I’ll share a visitation I had from John and Jung in what could be called a blessed kind of mysterious dream.
We were together in a high mountain valley with breathtaking dark purple clouds overhead, churning as if alive. Jung came to stand up close on my right shoulder and Perry on my left. We walked in unison down a short path curving to the left towards an ancient arch of many stones about 12 feet high that was partly crumbling and partly covered in ivy. We silently entered under the arch, turned and looked back the way we had come. Then, in unison, not speaking to me, but communicating psychically as we all looked ahead, Jung and John together said, “Michael, always stay right here, no matter where else on Earth you may appear to be.”
Cornwall, M. W. (2012a). Initiatory madness. Madinamerica.com
Cornwall, M. W. (2002). A qualitative study of psychosis: Jungian medication-free residential treatment at Diabasis. (Doctoral dissertation). ProQuest
Cornwall, M. W. (2019). Merciful love can help relieve the emotional suffering of extreme states. Journal of Humanistic Psychology Volume 59 No. 5
Rappaport, M. (1978). Are there schizophrenics for whom drugs may not be necessary or contraindicated? Pharmacopsychiatry, 13, 100-111.
Cornwall, M. W. (2013). Dreams: Still the Royal Road to the Unconscious. Madinamerica.com
Cornwall, M. W. (2015). If madness isn’t what psychiatry says it is, then what is it? Psychosis, 7, 279-285.
Perry, J. W. (1970). Emotions and object relations. Journal of Analytic Psychology
Cornwall, M. W. (2012b) Jung’s First Dream, The Mad God Dionysus and a Madness Sanctuary called Diabasis. Madinamerica.com
Perry, J. W. (1992). Myth, ritual and the decline of patriarchy. Magical Blend
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.