The Artist Who Glimpsed Carl Jung’s ‘Collective Unconscious’, And What We Did to Her

Michael McKay
Jul 10 · 12 min read

Over a century ago, Carl Jung proposed a radical idea. What if our unconscious mind was shared, perhaps by the entire human species? And what if this shared unconscious had a profound influence on the lives of individuals?

Jung proposed that this ‘collective unconscious’ was populated by narrative archetypes — universal patterns and images, symbolic in nature, such as the great mother, the wise old man, the shadow, the trickster, and the tree of life.

His theory was that these archetypes are shared elementary structures manifested from a dynamic substrata common to all humanity, and that these structures gain complexity and individuality only as we will them into consciousness.

In other words, he proposed that these archetypes exist in relatively innate nebulous forms, common to us all, but when these unconscious forms become conscious, they gain individuality because we colour them with our unique culture, personality and history.

In later years, Jung broadened this concept further, conceiving these archetypes as not just a psychic entity, but a bridge to matter in general. He described them as arising from an objective order that transcended both the human mind and the external world.

To explain his theory, he drew an analogy between the psyche and light on the electromagnetic spectrum. The centre of the visible light spectrum — the light we can see — corresponds to consciousness, which transforms to unconsciousness at both the red and blue ends of the spectrum.

He described the invisible infra-red end of the spectrum as corresponding to basic unconscious urges influenced by biological instinct. And the invisible ultra-violet end of the spectrum corresponding to the invisible realm of spiritual ideas, including the archetypes.

The artist — transcending realities

Because these symbols are invisible in their purest forms and become tainted as we make them conscious, Jung believed that these archetypes could only be realised indirectly through mediums such as story, art, myth, religion and dreams.

If this is true, then it becomes strikingly apparent that ‘the artist’, an individual who adds meaning to the obscure, may in fact play a role in bridging the gap between these realms. After all, Jung was convinced that most of what we do is predetermined by our archetypal role, with ‘the artist’ being just one of the 12 personality types to manifest from this collective unconscious.

Perhaps, ‘the artist’ is the interpreter. Those with a gift to transcend realities and make sense of the senselessness? Those assembled to travel between realms and return to the tribe with answers?

While this may seem like nothing more than ‘woo’ to many in the western world, the eastern world has been onboard with this concept for some time. Perhaps not terms like ‘the artist’, but those with a gift for seeing and interpreting the narratives of other realms. These are the people labelled ‘gifted’, who often go on to become prized shamans and spiritual shepherds for the rest of the tribe. The same people who the western world calls ‘mentally ill’.

People like Jennifer Siciliano, a New York City body painter and writer. An artist in all senses of the word — bold, eccentric, creative. She was a high school English teacher for nearing on 15 years, but gravitated toward being a full-time artist after saying that despite being a “good job”, it made her miserable. Today she does anything she can to make ends meet so she can continue producing art, which she describes as “giving song to her soul”.

When Jennifer was just 22 she learned the true parameters of her mind. An experience that would forever change the trajectory of her life.

Jennifer’s story — touching the void

In 1994, just out of college, Jennifer Siciliano was travelling in India when she found herself alone on the streets of New Delhi. She had been staying with a local family and being a little young and naive, had made the mistake of crossing a cultural boundary. Asked to leave the house, she followed the host’s wishes and packed her bags.

The exit couldn’t have come at a worse time. Jennifer was already starting to get sick and when she found herself on the streets, her health quickly went down hill. Before the days of cell phones and the internet, she found herself completely isolated with no money to purchase an emergency flight home and several weeks wait until her scheduled flight.

For three days, she roamed the streets in terrible pain, vomiting and excreting. Losing water fast, she found herself growing weaker and weaker until she was overcome by a lightness. She exhaled and didn’t inhale again.

In that moment, she felt herself lift from her body and her entire life pass before her. She didn’t see a white light like many others who have experienced a near death experience describe, but everything in the universe seemed to make complete sense.

Jennifer describes the experience as a kind of auditory embrace. She says, “It was like an internal guidance system — kind of like a ‘fight or flight’ adrenaline response mode. It was like I was being led by something. Like a friend was with me who said, ‘Okay, get yourself together. How can you get home?’”

The return to NYC

In an almost autopilot state, a series of fortunate coincidences that were guided by the actions of her unconscious, landed Jennifer on a flight back to New York. Only when she returned to the city, the voices were still going on.

She describes, “The voices were friendly. They weren’t scary voices that made me feel like I was going to flip out and kill someone. This is often what people wrongfully believe.

“Today, I still connect with the auditory system and I’ve come to know it’s nothing but love and wisdom, but at the time I didn’t understand it because up until that point nobody I knew had ever experienced such a thing. So I started to think, maybe I’m crazy.”

Jennifer’s isolated and confused state was only exasperated by New York’s boisterous and volatile energy. She found the juxtaposition between the desolation on the streets of India, where leprosy was rampant and people were dressed in nothing more than loincloth, clashed against her fictionalised reality of New York, where billboard ads announced things like, ‘you can’t live without this moisturiser.’

Jennifer explains, “I saw the lies. I saw the lies to such an extent that it blew my mind, literally. Because up until that point, I had just accepted it and I was desensitised to it. I think the advertising is what threw me into a loop, because you’re just saturated in it.”

First psychiatry admission

Within four days of arriving home, Jennifer was admitted to the psychiatric unit. She had barely washed over the last few days in India and had lost a lot of weight. She looked tired, disheveled and in a state of stress. Her family immediately became distressed by the unfamiliarity of the situation.

Jennifer explains, “Their lives had just continued on as if nothing had ever happened and I had just wrestled with God in a life and death situation.

“I can only imagine it’s like what VETS experience when they come home after being in a war zone and nobody can really connect with them. I think that’s why a lot of them experience PTSD.”

I felt I had experienced my own PTSD. I was very alone and in a very scared state. Because of that, I went into my deep subconscious and started connecting with the other world, and my parents took notice.”

Jennifer’s parents took her to a hospital. Feeling safe, Jennifer broke down and began to share what she had experienced and what she was feeling. She had thought she would get compassion and understanding for telling the truth.

In hindsight she explains, “I guess it appeared like a kind of nutty episode.” The psychiatrists on staff immediately took a textbook meaning from Jennifer’s descriptions and labelled her psychotic. From that moment onward, everything Jennifer did was tied to her ‘bipolar’ label.

A life labelled ‘bipolar’

Assigned ‘bipolar’, Jennifer was placed on a treatment plan of lifelong antipsychotics. She explains, “As soon as I got labelled, I pretty much felt like my life was over. I knew that having any kind of label like that might, one day, put me at risk of having my freedoms taken away.”

It wasn’t long after her admission that Jennifer was given her first chemical lobotomy with Haldol — an antipsychotic that decreases activity in the brain. She explains, “It emotionally tranquilized me, creating a black heaviness around my thoughts, and making it impossible for me to read or express my ideas verbally.”

Beyond that, she was placed on a host of other drugs. Jennifer shares, “There was Risperdal, which wrapped my personality in a straitjacket and offered the attractive side effects of slurred speech and restlessness. Mellaril, which gave me dry mouth, strange uncontrollable tics, memory loss, and the chronic fatigue of a 90-year-old woman. And, lithium, which completely obliterated my creativity.”

Death of the artist

Jennifer had always defined herself by her art. She explains that her art has always been a way of expressing a deeper message from beyond herself. “My body painting is an expression of a larger message, which is positivity and self-acceptance. And my writing also delivers a deeper message, which is love yourself and fight the wrongs.”

Stripped of this creativity by the anti-psychotics, Jennifer found herself alone and despondent, sinking into a pit of despair. Perhaps, this is hard for those less ‘creatively’ inclined to understand, but for the artist to lose their creative fire it can be a death sentence. Jennifer shares,

“For the artist, if you take that creative fire away, there’s nothing left. It’s almost murder.”

“I mean, it’s taking away the wish for a person to live. Because, if you can’t access what is the core of your being, then you’re pretty much a vegetable.”

Carl Jung described the function of the artist well when he said, “As a human being, the artist may have many moods, and a will, and personal aims, but as an artist he is ‘man’ in a higher sense — he is ‘collective man’ — one who carries and shapes the unconscious, psychic life of mankind. The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realise its purpose through him.”

If you talk to Jennifer you get the sense that even before her first admission into the psychiatric ward, she was a person who felt the collective wound of humanity. You also get the sense that every inch of her purpose to create is driven by a desire to help mend this wound.

A curse, or a gift?

You don’t have to go far to meet people who don’t see Jennifer as “mentally ill” and in need of fixing. The Native Americans, South Americans, Asians, Africans… pretty much every culture beyond the western world would call Jennifer’s visions and ability to connect with other realms a ‘gift’.

As she explains, “I think that some people have a natural ability to enter these other realms. In Shamanic cultures, these people would be Shamans in training, and they would be led by the Shaman who is already able to do it. So they would kind of exist as the intermediary between the other side and the tribe — going there and coming back with answers. Going into that state, but knowing how to get home.”

Instead, Jennifer was forced to navigate these passages on her own, which led to countless hospitalisations because as she describes, “I couldn’t break out of the zones safely.

“Many of the admissions were also intensified by the response I received from western-minded practitioners who looked upon such shaman practices as nothing more than fluff and fantasy.”

The wakeful dream state

Dismissed by western medicine, Jennifer began to search for those more open-minded and greater versed in navigating between these realms. She met many figures who opened her eyes to different ways of interpreting her visions. One was Warren Falcone, a dreams workshop counsellor.

Jennifer explains, “He basically just opened up the door by saying, ‘Yeah, these dreams, you can experience them awake and sleeping.’ And, I was like, ‘Wait, that’s what I experienced, this wakeful dream state.’ So, then I started recording my dreams and I started seeing that a lot of the same symbols within the dreams were occurring during the day and that there was kind of like this thread of meaning.”

If Jennifer ever had the opportunity to meet Carl Jung, he would have explained to her that what she was interacting with was a manifestation of the collective unconscious.

Later, Jennifer met John Perkins, a Shaman from the Andes who lived in NYC. He ran classes at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, which was a wellness centre teaching all kinds of different holistic alternatives to western medicine.

Jennifer shares, “The intensive course was designed around how to journey like the Shamans of the Andes. There was a lot of drumming involved. Through rhythm and drumming and music you would take these journeys for an hour. And, then you’d come out of it through rituals and you’d share insights on the symbols you saw. It was a really really therapeutic way of dealing with psychological things that were holding me back.”

The archetype of the artist

Talking to Jennifer reminds me a lot of the archetypes described by Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. I asked her if she saw her visions in the same way and she burst out in agreement. “Yes! Those two names are right on target because it is our archetype. Like the bipolar artist, it’s an archetype.

“I mean, I’ve gotten very involved with a big network of artists in New York City and I can’t believe how normal I am compared to these people. I’m like, wow! You know? I’m considered bipolar and I’m like, ‘You’re really bipolar!’ The point is there is a personality type — an archetype. I really believe that.

“All of these different measures of ‘bipolar’ western medicine has come up with, they’re all really indicators and descriptions of archetypes and personalities.”

“I think these souls come into the world with some kind of purpose. And, based on all these special qualities that they have within this archetype, that’s what kind of leads them to finding their destiny.

“The bottom line is that yes, the artist is in my DNA. I was born with these talents. I believe it’s my purpose in life. I have to figure out a way to use what I’ve been given from my own composition to fulfil what I’m supposed to be doing here.

“When I taught for 14 years, I saw a lot of these kids who had these abilities — spunk in their personality and a fiery way of wanting to fight against the world. I saw them as the budding artists of our country. But, they’re often held back through labels and judgements. In the States at least, it’s very hard to break out as an artist and find your way from beginning to end.

“I think a lot of people are suffering because they’re struggling to find that voice. Even if you have to go through craziness and torment, because that’s the thing that takes society to the next level. It brings a balance to the hordes of people who are just marching on the status quo and toeing the line.

“I think it’s very easy to look at it from afar if you’re not that kind of artistic person and say, ‘Well, you know, isn’t it better to get those moods under control.’ But many of the best movements and works would never have been created without wild moods. Michelangelo, for instance. They say his moods were outrageous. Even Abraham Lincoln was accused of being bipolar. But where would we have been without them? They were really important contributors.”

A greater message

Jennifer’s involuntary hospitalisations have cost US taxpayers over $250,000 and achieved little more than to isolate her further from society. I wonder what Carl Jung would say about such a story. It’s been more than 50 years since his death and yet it seems we’re still in the dark ages when it comes to understanding the human psyche.

The big problem in my mind is how we view the psyche. Our ‘rational’ mindedness is holding us back. We’re desperate to quantify and prove everything when some things are unquantifiable and unprovable. Some things are felt and not seen. It doesn’t make them any less real.

When we get stuck in our heads, we lose the ability to feel with our hearts. I don’t mean this in a warm fuzzy way. I mean this in a deeply biological sense. I mean when we try and think our way out of things we actually lose the ability to connect with a deeper thread of ourselves. A thread connected to something beyond us that can feel just as much ‘us’ as our own bodies. At its shallowest, this is sad, and at its deepest, it’s downright dangerous.

We should listen carefully to those who have the perceptiveness to challenge the parameters of our reality and the bravery to speak up. We might just learn something.

You can read more about Jennifer Siciliano at her website www.notascrazyasyouthink.com

Michael McKay

Written by

Writer on psychology and mental health. Living in rural Victoria, Australia.

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