Dreams as “data”



The first phase of the actual dissertation work began in the springtime. A journal entry records the beginning:

“New Lisbon 6th month 20th 1843. Though many months nay, (must I confess it) years have elapsed since the receipt of thy truly acceptable letter, think not thou art forgotten, attribute my neglect to any thing else my dearest friend rather than to forgetfulness or a decrease of affection.”

It is halfway through May of 2005, and time to find out who the first of my collaborators will be. I sit on the deck and leaf through the box of letters from the Ladies again. Reading this letter from Ellen Janney to my great-great-grandmother, 162 years later, I begin to sob. “Oh, how I miss Ellen!” The emotion, though powerful, doesn’t seem to relate to anything in my conscious life. It seems that Ellen has been chosen to be first.

Who Was Ellen Janney?

Little is known about Ellen E. Janney, not even the exact date of her birth. From the “thees” and “thous” in her letter (see Appendix for the full text) I knew she was a Quaker, but after nearly four months of searching, I still could find no reference to her in the genealogical literature. It seemed that she had vanished into history, leaving the marks of her pen on brittle brown paper as a record of her existence. My other piece of evidence that Ellen had once lived and loved was her namesake: Ellen Janney John, my great-great grandmother’s much-younger sister, who married Joseph England and raised three daughters. But of Ellen herself I could find no other trace. Who was she? Why was she missing? How and why had her letter survived for more than 160 years?

Finally, in the Encyclopedia of Quaker Genealogy (Hinshaw, 1938/1994, 1950/1993), I came across five or six references to her: Her father Jacob Janney and his wife Elizabeth (Hughes) Janney, along with four children from his first marriage and four from his second, moved from the vicinity of Alexandria, Virginia, to eastern Ohio in 1834. In 1855, Ellen and her father moved from the Cincinnati, Ohio, area back to Alexandria. The records indicate that Jacob died in 1861. Ellen moved to Philadelphia in 1871, then to Baltimore, Maryland, in 1883, where she died in the home of her brother Henry at the age of 65. She is buried in Baltimore’s Friend’s Burial Ground (Friends Intelligencer, 1887, p. 393).

One can trace Ellen’s ancestry on her father’s side back to Elizabethan England. She and I are probably distant cousins several times over, though there may be no direct blood tie: Some of the surnames in our sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Quaker lineages are the same, and there was a “cousin” of mine by marriage who married a third or fourth cousin of hers in 1816. As a community deliberately set apart from the rest of society, Quakers were notorious for intermarriage, so this is not surprising.

Only inference can help in reconstructing Ellen’s life. What is known of her childhood is this: Her father, who had at one time been a large-scale tanner in Alexandria, Virginia, married Hannah Hopkins in 1807; they had three sons and a daughter before Hannah died in 1819 at the age of 31. Jacob then married Elizabeth Hughes, Ellen’s mother, in 1821. Ellen, based on her age when she died in 1887, would have been born in 1822. At that time Ellen’s half-siblings would have ranged in age from 8 to 14 years old. Elizabeth (Hughes) Janney had three more children after Ellen, two daughters and a son. The date of Elizabeth Janney’s death is not recorded, but her last child was born in 1829, when she was 41. We know she was alive when the family moved to Ohio in 1834. All four of the children from Jacob Janney’s first marriage survived to adulthood, married, and had families of their own. None of Ellen’s full siblings, or Ellen, ever married, but what happened to her brother and sisters is not clear.

Without knowing what Jacob Janney was doing to support his family (was he still involved in tanning? Was he farming?), it is difficult to know much about what the family’s life was like. New Lisbon, Ohio, was first settled in the early years of the 19th century (Columbiana County, 2005), but even if the family lived in town, eastern Ohio was still very much the frontier in 1834 when they arrived. Each family needed to be largely self-sufficient, clearing land for their own dwelling and raising livestock, crops, and vegetables to feed themselves. Life would have been hard, but at least by that time the original settlers, the Indians, had been removed so that the Quaker settlers were not troubled by raiding or other skirmishes.

[The omitted part covers Quaker history from their roots in England to their experience in the New World, and includes a discussion of Quaker women’s relative freedom as compared with other women of their day.]

The Work

Work on the dissertation broke loose late in May with the following experience in active imagination:

I am walking down a lane that seems endless. Then it curves to the right and I see some kind of a huge stone building—a castle? I walk toward it but begin to have difficulty staying grounded in this new reality. I decide not to try to see anything, since sight seems to be problematic here for me. Instead, I focus on other senses, mainly touch. I feel my way with my feet. To my left I sense someone—a page, perhaps—bowing and motioning me to enter.

I shuffle my bare feet forward and encounter a step—a stone step, then another, then a third step into what feels like a vast, echoing hallway. It seems quite dark, but then I see a glowing area like a doorway directly across. I move toward it. Immediately I feel as if I’m falling, sliding, down a steep ramp into the glow—is there a fire down there? I nearly come out of the imaginal out of fear, but manage to stay put and examine the sensations. I realize I’m not falling at all, and there’s no fire. Perhaps it’s just the image of my fear!

Then I’m back in the hallway, feeling the cold flagstones with my feet, moving forward down the hall to the left of the doorway where I entered. There is light above me, far up in this vast space. I look up and can make out stone arches and painted or chiseled images on the vaulted ceiling. Nothing is clear, and I grab the wall for support. It too is stone, and cold. I move forward again.

The hallway leads into the main part of what seems to be a cathedral. I’m entering from the rear, on the right-hand side as I look toward where the altar should be. I can’t see clearly but there appear to be robed figures there—priests? Feeling my way, I walk, or rather shuffle, to the main aisle and turn toward the altar. Moving is difficult and I grab onto one of the pews—wooden, ancient.

At first I think there is no one present but me and the priests, and I call out, “Ladies! What does this have to do with our work?” Then I realize, from the shushing and murmuring, that they’re all present, sitting in silence, waiting—for me to go forward? I keep moving.

I decide to see if I can use my left hand—I’ve been following along with my right hand all this time—so I move and grab the pews on the left side of the aisle and walk forward from one to the next. Suddenly, I feel a hand grasp mine—who is this? No words are spoken but I recognize the bird-like presence of Grandmother Mary Ann, urging me on, reassuring me.

I can no longer see the priests or hear anything. All I can do is move one foot in front of the other, sliding so as not to stumble. The floor here is marble, cold and glassy. Then I reach another set of steps—two marble steps up to the level where the priests are. I think this level is a kind of rounded dais but can’t really see anything. I sense the priests moving away from me, making way for me. It does seem that I’m supposed to be here, but why, I have no idea. I look past the priests and see another hallway “leading onto forever.” Then, some short time later, I realize I’ve fallen asleep, so I rouse myself and return to the waking world, to tea and flowers and sunshine.

At the time I did not fully understand the significance of these images, but it was a powerful experience and I knew I could no longer put off work on the dissertation. That afternoon, as I sat once again in a state of reverie, I sensed a connection with Ellen Janney:

I got a glimpse of an off-white cotton dress, and a white cap or bonnet that leaves the back of her neck exposed. I sense her as light-hearted, fun-loving, but there’s something darker, too. This is going to be difficult, the sorting out of my fantasy and her “reality.” She says she has no talent for art, but I told her that wasn’t necessary, that I’d supply that. All she needs is to get her ideas to me somehow. I’ll work on the letter, reading it and re-reading it, meditating on it, whatever seems useful. This is all very new and different!

In the following days, I kept Ellen present in my thoughts as much as I could, but work in the yard continued almost unabated. The idea for the artwork crystallized around the making of some type of garment, incorporating lines from Ellen’s letter onto the fabric. All well and good, I thought, but I still had no clear idea of the topic for the artwork, for Ellen’s chapter in this work. What was the message? What story did she wish to have me tell? I read her letter daily, looking for themes that would resonate with my dreams, with my life, and that had enough energy around them to work with.

[The next part of the work details the creation of the dress and background painting, and the experience of an imaginal “sewing circle” of women who instructed me on many techniques of dress construction and also about the experience of life as a woman of the 19th century and earlier.]

[Finally the work was completed, and I and my imaginal friends celebrated.] As I was sitting on the top step of my porch, Ellen, in her new dress, came over to sit next to me on the steps and just took my hand to say, “Thank you.” Such a simple gesture—no words—that it brought tears to my eyes.

Making this painting—not just the dress, but the painting itself—was a breakthrough experience for me. It brought home to me just how powerful the inner critic—the internalized father—has been for me, and how that internalized judgment has made it impossible for me to bring my gifts out into the world. In the dream, my mother, her image representing that voiceless part of me that resonates so strongly with all the Ladies, is finally able to imagine a life of her own, a voice of her own. “Dad” and “Aunt Doe” have not been banished—rather, they have gone off on their own to do something they both enjoy. I have not banished judgment and perfectionism from my life, but now, perhaps, can keep them appropriately in bounds where they can be useful adjuncts to my other talents and tendencies. Perhaps my growth in this way, my own individuation, will in some ways help the Ladies even now, when they no longer reside in this world that we call reality. Ellen seems to think so.

The Finished Piece: Themes

The final artwork, entitled “Missing Ellen Janney,” reflects what I know of Ellen and her world. The background might represent any number of buildings—a schoolhouse, a Quaker meetinghouse, that Ellen would have found familiar. Its sepia tone is reminiscent of an old photo, and also of the dove-grays and warm browns of Quaker garb. The dress itself is made of plain cotton fabric sturdily constructed and unadorned. This dress, though “only” designed to be seen, “is made to be worn, and therefore worn out” (Paris, 1986, p. 18). In style it would not have stood out in a crowd any time from 1837 until well into the 1840s.

Coming out

What does set this dress apart from typical Quaker attire in 1843 is the patterned fabric. The cherry pattern—a distinctly Aphroditic element!—in this garment would have been unusual for Ellen to have actually owned and worn. But it seems oddly appropriate when viewed in the context of the rest of the work, and of the events that contributed to its creation. A feeling of opening, of emerging, of new-found freedom seems to infuse so much of this entire piece, and the new and slightly shocking bits of color are a perfect highlight.

The dress, viewed against what we know of Ellen’s cultural surround, could be interpreted as a kind of breaking free for her, a loosening of cultural restrictions. The dress is modest, becoming, and fashionable in her time though without frills. Wearing it, she can be a bit more expressive and yet still feel comfortable. Ellen, I sense, has no wish to be shocking—she just wants more freedom of expression than she had in her lifetime.

There are other elements of “coming out” that show up both in the painting and in the events of its creation. Most obviously, in the picture Ellen is stepping out toward the viewer—coming out of the doorway into the sunlight. She has not closed the door behind her—she is not categorically leaving it behind, nor has she been closed out in any way. Again, she seems just to want more freedom than she experienced.

The theme of “coming out” showed up in my own life as well while I was creating this piece. The most important instance for me is the way I was able to “come out” from under my father’s thumb—the way I was able, through the experience of creating this piece, to begin to understand and grow beyond the heavy restrictions my father and the internalized patriarch had placed on me. Only when this piece was nearly done did I notice that I have begun to think of myself as an artist—and what freedom that has given me!

I have actually “come out” into the world as an artist: Shortly after it was completed, I loaded Ellen’s piece into my car and took it to a meeting with a group of Pacifica friends. In years past, showing my work in public would have been impossible for me; now, I do it with pleasure and anticipation. What a difference!

The Personal Father and the Patriarchy

The theme of “coming out” from under the father’s restrictions brings in the topic of the personal father and the relationship to the Patriarchy. This is a powerful part of the transference that I bring into this dissertation, and thus is bound to be a critical thematic element.

Ellen’s experience with her father and the Patriarchy began to come into focus in late August, when I finally located her name in the on-line Quaker genealogical records. These records, which represented all the real-world information I had about her at the time, are brief and cryptic. I now knew her parents’ and her siblings’ names and roughly where the family lived, but not much else about them. Her mother Elizabeth Hughes Janney is never mentioned again after the entry in which the family was accepted into the New Garden, Ohio, Monthly Meeting in 1834. What was Elizabeth Janney like? What was Jacob Janney, Ellen’s father, like? What sort of person was he? The records reveal that all of the children from the first marriage married and had children of their own, while none of Ellen’s siblings married. Did they survive at all?

As I began to mull over these few facts, wondering what Ellen’s life had been like, I asked her one evening what she could tell me about it. That night I woke from the following dream (Figure 6):

It’s the 19th century. I’m crawling along a river on my hands and knees, apparently as a penance of some kind for being a “bad” woman. I’m dragging my purse along the ground with me, and as I get tired it tends to kind of fall behind where it could easily be snatched up by someone or lost. I’m determined not to let that happen, as it has to other women, so I pick it up again and keep going. A boat goes by on the river and some people on it wave to me in encouragement—they know me somehow. My fatigue grows and even though I’m determined to keep crawling I roll off the embankment and into the river. The water is very cold and shocks me out of my stupor. “Damn him and his Book!” I cry. “He” seems to be an older male figure, father-figure maybe, and his book is what has caused me to be punished this way. I begin to swim, determined not to drown in the Thames but to survive this ordeal. I crawl up the concrete ledges at the edge of the river. Then the dream ego separates from the woman and I watch as she becomes a street person, very sly and canny, stealing when she has to but mostly surviving because she is willing to look in trash heaps and other places where others won’t. She not only survives but succeeds in making a life for herself, like the Duchess of Duke Street.

This dream is explicitly set in the 19th century, and the dream ego plays the part of a “fallen” women. “He” and “his Book” in the dream seem clearly to be a reference to the Bible and the patriarchal culture that has condemned this determined, resourceful, and independent woman to penury and loss of identity. Despite her hardships, this woman survives and becomes a success. The dream calls up the image of “The Duchess of Duke Street,” (Hawkesworth, 1976), a BBC drama loosely based on the life of Rosa Lewis, who worked her way up from cook to proprietor of the famous Cavendish Hotel in London. Was Ellen referencing hardships in her own life? I wondered if the dream spoke to how she eventually came to terms with difficulties she experienced with her father, or with patriarchal attitudes. Themes in this dream became even more important later in the dissertation process, and will be discussed again in the next chapter.

The next day I came upstairs from the studio and found my partner watching the movie October Sky (Johnston, 1999), about a coalminer’s son who wins a science contest for building a rocket with a group of his friends and grows up to work for NASA training astronauts. The only bit of the movie I saw was the scene after the science fair, when the young man goes to the mine to talk to his father and tell him that he is his hero, not the scientists or teachers with whom the boy has been working. The father cannot accept his son’s reassurance and turns away.

As I watched that scene, I burst into sobs. Some of us go to our graves, I realized, and never get the acceptance from our fathers that we so crave. This was my personal experience, and I am certain, given the synchronicities, that this was Ellen’s lot as well. As I cried, I could feel Ellen close to me. Her father, she said, was “a hard man,” and I can only imagine how she must have struggled with his disapproval. No wonder she could not get away from home, could not realize her dreams, even though the opportunity should have been available to her: I remembered reading about numerous Quaker women who were capable and outspoken—though no more intelligent or well educated than Ellen—and left their mark on history. I realized that I could easily have gone to my own grave without speaking out, without sharing my gifts. In fact, I realized at that moment, I could never have allowed myself to do this work if Dad were still alive, so strong was his hold on me. For Ellen, in a culture that valued obedience to one’s parents far more than does our current society, going against her father’s wishes must have been nearly impossible even to contemplate.

During a period of several months I had many, many dreams about dogs, and though I did not often remember my dreams during the time I was engrossed in my work on Ellen’s dress and the background painting, dogs became so numerous and insistent in the dreams that I did remember that it was obvious they wanted my attention. The dogs were of all shapes and sizes; sometimes it was my own dog Wendy, other times unknown single dogs, sometimes whole packs of dogs. The common element was that they all seemed dangerous in some way—not a danger to me, but to others. Most often they were off the leash and that worried me—they might attack another dog or a person, though they never did. When they were on a leash they strained to be free and I worried that they were vicious and uncontrollable. Here is a typical instance:

I’m working on obedience training with a strong-willed and somewhat dangerous animal the size of a dog but not quite a dog. It’s on a leash and I’m trying to get it to sit quietly but it wants to attack any other animal that comes near.

When I sketched the dream, the animal seemed to actually pull the image off the page (Figure 7). In active imagination, the creature turned out not to be vicious at all. It simply wanted to be free, off the leash, and able to run and play. It took several more weeks before insight really began to dawn. In one dream, I beat up a man who was trying to rape me, and in celebration I howled with a pack of coyotes. Another dream, without dogs but intuitively connected to those dreams, was this one:

I’m attending the public funeral of a bishop. Priests are carrying his open casket and I can see him clearly, dressed in his silk robes and miter. His skin has turned dark and slack and in his mouth, which lolls open, is a ball of dirt. As the priests move the heavy coffin onto a platform his body and head jiggle and roll around.

In therapy I was working on issues of family loyalty, which in my own case had resulted in an unwillingness to speak my own mind and difficulty in expressing my artistic leanings because they had met with such strong disapproval in my family. In my dreams the dogs—those most loyal creatures—struggled to be off the leash and run free as I worried about the danger. Nothing bad ever happened—the dogs never attacked anyone, and in fact, usually behaved quite obediently in spite of my fears. Finally the meaning broke through: Like the dogs, I strained to break free of the leash of loyalty to my family and their values. The Bishop, the seemingly divine exponent of the Patriarchy and my internalized father-figure, was dead. Nothing bad would happen: I could move on without fear of danger or reprisals. With this realization, the dogs vanished from my dreams.

Somehow, then, I have begun to come to terms with the internalized patriarch. He still haunts me in dreams and in waking life, but as we shall see in the next section, I am able better able to deal with him. This new phase in my individuation process was foreshadowed in active imagination months earlier: In the stone cathedral, in the presence of the Ladies, the priests step aside for me. And a year after the “Bishop’s Funeral” dream, an almost identical dream occurred; this time, it was my father who lay in the coffin, head lolling.

Religion and the Church

One night during the writing of this chapter I went to bed thinking about the picture and about Ellen’s letter, wondering what other themes were present that Ellen wanted me to discuss. As I drifted off to sleep I asked her to see if she could come to me in a dream and talk to me about it. This is the dream from which I awoke at about 2:30 in the morning (Figure 8):

I’m at “my Mom’s house.” Someone rings the doorbell to visit her—“Laura Bush,” here a 40-ish bleached blonde, and apparently a friend of Mom’s. I’m in my nightshirt but I stick my head into the living room just to say hi. Mom seems really pleased to see this woman, maybe because Mom’s so lonely, but I don’t like her—she seems kind of plastic and phony and somehow I know she’s very religious.

Then I’m at a meeting in the church basement. It has the feel of a potluck dinner but there is no food there. Mom and Aunt Doe are there also. At each place there is a Bible, bound with some kind of more or less interesting “current events” type of article. I finish the article and thumb through the book to see if there’s anything else of interest. Not finding anything, I put it down. Sitting next to me is the preacher, a balding, fifty-ish fellow. He looks at me disapprovingly, leans toward me, and makes some disparaging or threatening comment about how I always seem to put down the Bible. In turn, I pick up the Bible, lean in to him and tap him on the arm with it, saying, “You have no business checking up on my reading habits!” Then I stand up and walk out of the room. Aunt Doe follows me up the stairs, as though she were keeping an eye on me, though she just makes idle conversation. I have in my hands a children’s book of some kind that I’m apparently going to check out by signing my name in the back. As I walk up the stairs I say to myself, “A person can only do what they think is right in their life.”

As with any dream that pertains to this dissertation, we must first look at the transference issues: What is the dream saying about my own complexes and my personal history? Several familiar themes are apparent:

The Patriarchy. The church, for me, is a potent symbol of the patriarchal establishment. The “Laura Bush” figure who comes to visit my mother feels like a representative of those conformist, churchgoing women who believe with utter sincerity in what the Church teaches and never question. These women are often the most outspoken proponents of patriarchal views of women’s proper place in the world, and so promote the kind of subjugation of women that I abhor. Though the dream image could have taken a different guise, chosen perhaps from within my own family, the “Laura Bush” figure may have appeared here as a more generalized image, one that might also resonate with Ellen’s experience.

The figure of the preacher, usually balding, overweight, and wearing too much aftershave, is a familiar character in my dream life, related to my father but more patriarchal and less personal. The preacher, as a dream symbol, is potentially dangerous because he represents cultural authority, and often also because he is sexually threatening. In this dream, though, I am not intimidated. I give back as good as I get by getting right up there in his face. Then I walk out. Did Ellen also learn not to be intimidated by patriarchal authority?

Loyalty and service. In my dreams Aunt Doe, my father’s younger sister Margaret who is much like him in temperament, is often a kind of female stand-in for my father himself: extraverted, judgmental, socially conformist, bullying. However, there is another, powerfully important issue that the figure of Aunt Doe reflects: loyalty and service to one’s family. This will be discussed more fully later in this section in connection with Ellen’s own life.

Isolation and loneliness. My mother in this dream is perhaps 40 years old, the same age as the bleached blonde “Laura Bush” figure. In the dream I sense that Mom is lonely, grateful to see anyone who will visit with her, willing to “settle” for even the pseudo-friendship of this plastic churchwoman. My mother was introverted and repressed, isolated both by temperament and by the fact that my father’s job required frequent relocations. She had, as far as I know, only two or three close friends in her entire life. Mom did socialize with ladies from the church off and on, especially late in her life. In the dream I feel protective of her but do not interfere. Interestingly, Ellen’s own mother would have been in her early 40s at the time Ellen wrote her letter. Is this perhaps another congruence? Was Ellen’s mother perhaps similar in temperament?

Being judged. In the dream I am not properly dressed, in contrast to the church woman who is beautifully, if artificially, coiffed. And in the dream I feel compelled to be polite in spite of my distrust of the woman. This may represent the fact that I always feel a bit inadequate around these people, a bit unprepared, a bit “less than,” and rather like the black sheep because I do not share my family’s and the culture’s views. One wonders if Ellen herself might have been something of a black sheep in her family.

Lack of “nourishment.” The main part of the action takes place in the church basement. Basements are often, in my dreams, the place where things happen that cannot stand the light of day. Yet this is a perfectly innocuous event. Oddly, though it seems to be a church supper, there is no food. There is no sustenance for me there, certainly, and perhaps Ellen had a similar experience.

The Church and everyday life. The Bible is bound with “current events.” This may represent how tightly intertwined the church has become with our culture. It may also be an acknowledgment that the Bible, the Church, is bound up with the “current events” of the dissertation, and therefore with Ellen’s life. For the Quakers in Ellen’s day there was no separation between Church and everyday life.

Personal communication with the Divine. The preacher accuses me of “putting down” the Bible. This I am actually “guilty” of in waking life—I refuse to take anyone else’s word for what God intends. This trait, I am certain, I share with Ellen Janney. The dream-ego’s statement, “A person can only do what they think is right in their life,” feels like an affirmation of what I, and perhaps Ellen, strive for: the right to judge the rightness of things for myself—to follow the Light Within—and not simply because others tell me so.

Moving past patriarchal control. Aunt Doe follows me up the stairs—perhaps my family, especially my internalized family, is still keeping an eye on me. But perhaps, in view of the other possible interpretation of this dream figure, she—and Ellen?—are watching me as I begin to move beyond the control of the church and the Patriarchy.



In the above discussion of the “Church Basement” and “The Book” dreams, I have mentioned ways in which the dreams might also be looked at as a response to my request for Ellen’s input on themes in her life. Looked at it in this light, Ellen may be trying to explain to me that while her religion was her entire social life, she did not necessarily see eye to eye with what the church elders believed and required of their flock. If this were true, and if Ellen found herself at odds with church teachings and requirements, what would that have meant for her as a mid-19th century Quaker woman in a patriarchal culture? For the Quakers, egalitarian as they strove to be, were nonetheless embedded in a patriarchal culture that tended to repress and silence women.

For the Quakers, there was no part of life that was not bound up with religion, and there was no social life outside of the bounds of the Quaker community. To act contrary to Discipline was to risk being disowned. Ellen would certainly have seen the effects of disownment: She was five or six years old at the time of the great Hicksite/Orthodox split which bitterly divided Quaker communities and even individual families for decades afterward. There is no historical record of Ellen’s personal beliefs, but all of the monthly meetings to which she belonged were of the Hicksite persuasion. Again, this fits with what happens in the dream: The preacher “has no business checking up on” my/Ellen’s personal views. Ellen, as a Hicksite Quaker, would have wanted to follow her own inner guidance and then do what she felt was right in her life.

For the moment, let us assume that Ellen did in fact disagree with some of the official church doctrines. What would that have meant for her? In 1843, there were few viable options for a single woman outside her family, Quaker or not. It would have been a huge risk for her to have split with her community—where would she have gone? How would she have supported herself? One can well imagine that keeping quiet would have seemed far less of a problem. I can imagine that she felt trapped, though, restricted by the customs and mores of both her local community and of the larger society, and with no way out.

This brings up a parallel with my mother, Mary Ellen (Couch) Tomlinson, who, not surprisingly, shows up in the dream. I have long suspected that she and Ellen Janney have many things in common other than just a name, and these dreams, if viewed as a communication from Ellen, supports that idea. My mother hated the church in which she was raised (Baptist, in her case), because of what she experienced as its hypocrisy and restrictiveness. She also had a problem with limitations placed by society on women in general. As a teenager and young woman she worked hard to get away from her childhood culture and a seriously dysfunctional family, and to make a new life for herself where she could enjoy freedom and autonomy. She threw herself into her schoolwork, earning a full scholarship to Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri, and then went on, again on scholarship, to the University of Illinois to study library science. It always feels tragic to me that as soon as she met and married my father, during her master’s program at the University of Illinois, she gave up everything she had worked so hard to achieve, and settled for a life in his shadow. She never even finished her degree. Her justification in later years was that if she had gotten a master’s degree the local school systems for which she worked would have had to pay her more, and therefore finding a new job every time my father was transferred to a different city would have been that much more difficult.

I wonder if Ellen had much the same kinds of experiences. Unlike Mary Ellen Tomlinson, though, Ellen Janney apparently did not even have the option of going away to school. She found herself, it seems, truly trapped in her situation, at least until her father passed away.

In Ellen’s letter, written at age 20 or 21, we see a young and idealistic woman who is beginning to chafe at restrictions and to feel “stuck” in her life. She writes about being confined in the schoolroom (though I suspect she, like my mother, loved the experience of teaching and learning itself), of being without hope of attending the next annual meeting. She mentions that Carver Tomlinson (my great-great grandfather) passed through Lisbon in the spring (lucky man who could travel!) but did not visit. She speaks of her friend who has married and cares but little about her former associates.

Ellen begins the body of her letter with a reference to the schoolteacher Jesse Holmes, who has returned to New Lisbon. We know from historical records that Jesse Holmes—who did not disappear from history—had been traveling about the state and teaching in other places. Obviously, his return to town to start his new school is of primary importance to her. Why? My suspicion is that it is because he, as a man, is free to travel, free to move, free to carve out his own life and shape it in the way he desires. She, on the other hand, is “confined” to the schoolroom at the whim of others, dependent on friends and acquaintances to come and visit her, and even dependent on others for permission to travel to the yearly meeting that is so important to her. This is a young woman in a cage.

In active imagination, Ellen seemed to support these musings:

On the deck, drinking tea and sewing ruffles onto Ellen’s “petticoat.” “Ellen, can we sit and talk as I sew? I know you don’t especially like sewing.” There is lots of noise from the trucking company across the railroad tracks that threatens to drown out the sound of the birds and of the Gregorian chant I’m listening to through the screen door. Ellen would have enjoyed such wonderful silence, I think—the birds, the wind in the trees. . . . “Rather too much silence! I long for the company of men.” I think she means men, not women and women’s gossip.

Suddenly, I discover that Ellen dislikes Gregorian chant. She’s been listening politely but Grandmother (with a gentle whack to the back of my head) reminds me to pay attention to my guest. “Cheerless,” that’s Ellen’s word. Yes, it is. That’s the understatement of the last couple of centuries!

A few minutes later, Ellen asks if I’d like more tea. She’s talking fast and earnestly, leaning forward; I can’t hear a word she’s saying. I explain that it’s my fault, and suggest she show me images. “What would you most like for me to understand today?” I say. We walk to the edge of the porch and a bird flashes by. Ellen points to it. What does she mean? “Flight” and “freedom” spring instantly to mind—but are those her associations, or mine?

Unlike my mother, Ellen does not strike me as a person prone to depression. I have no logical reason, no proof of this, but just a sense of her: She is feisty, outspoken, opinionated, extraverted. That she is extraverted seems safe to say from the physical evidence: There are no references in her letter to her inward thoughts; rather, everything she says is focused on outward events and other people. Exuberance shows in the generous spacing of her writing and the freewheeling use of underlines and dashes—this, in a Quaker culture that frowned upon expressions of emotion. No, Ellen’s response to confinement would probably not be depressed withdrawal. My mother, by contrast, was shy and introverted, speaking up passionately only rarely and then retreating again into herself.

This brings up the idea of speaking versus silence. I have often wondered why Ellen, obviously well educated and with a fluent way with words, apparently did not become a traveling preacher as some other Quaker women did. If I am interpreting this dream correctly from Ellen’s point of view, though, the answer is obvious. Quaker women preachers spoke from the canon (whether Orthodox or Hicksite); they, like the men, were allowed to speak only if what they said was acceptable to the Elders (Larson, 1999). If Ellen found herself in disagreement with accepted views, she would not have been willing or able to preach the dogma. She does not strike me as someone who would speak something she did not believe, even as a means of getting out of her confined world. No, my suspicion is that she chose simply to not share her views openly. She probably acted in a manner acceptable to the church elders and kept quiet about the things with which she disagreed.

Ellen was a true Christian—that much is evident both from her letter (she sounds utterly sincere when she speaks of “precious ministers of the gospel,” for instance) and even from the finished artwork. Note the obvious cross on the door next to her, which was certainly not a conscious choice on my part. My sense of Ellen is that she remains a true Christian—I often feel the need to be circumspect in what I say or think around her, to tone down my own dislike of the church, out of respect for her views.

The finished artwork seems to speak to Ellen’s experience of the Church in her life, and of how she would like it to have been. The building in the painting seems to represent a meeting house (either that or a schoolhouse, which in Ellen’s Quaker community would have been more or less the same idea). The large cross on the door, right next to Ellen’s shoulder, may be interpreted as representing her devotion to Christ. This classic six-panel door, like those that many of us have in our houses today, was often called a “cross-and-bible” door: The two smaller panels at the top represent the open Bible and the four panels below outline the Cross. In the portrait’s original painted background, the opening was a window, not a door at all, but somehow a door seemed more fitting. The first painted door had only two panels visible, but the final version ended up with four panels in the frame; my conscious thought was that it would more clearly show the perspective. It was only when I stepped back to look at the nearly finished piece that I even noticed how prominent the cross was. Ellen seemed as delighted with it as I was surprised.

The door on this building is wide open, and Ellen seems to be stepping out of it and into the sunlight. Again, she is “coming out”: It feels as though she is stepping out of the dark and repressive atmosphere of the church and culture in which she lived and into a more open environment. The cross, however, is still a vital part of the picture.

I have often wondered why Ellen left no mark on history that I can find, even on the local level. At first I thought she was simply silenced by the culture of the time, which by and large sentenced women to a life bounded by the four walls of the father’s, then the husband’s, home. As a Quaker, though, Ellen’s horizons need not have been as restricted as one might think. Quaker girls were generally well educated, because the Quaker belief that all persons were of equal value to God meant that education was just as warranted for girls as for boys. There were Quaker institutions of higher learning, and it was not unusual for women to attend them.

A good example of such a woman is Dr. Mary (Myers) Thomas, a Quaker born in Maryland in 1816, just a few years before Ellen. The Myers family moved to New Lisbon in 1832, two years before Ellen’s family arrived. Ellen almost certainly knew her, or knew of her, since they attended the same monthly meeting at New Garden. Mary’s husband Owen Thomas, in fact, attended school and was taught by the same Jesse Holmes whom Ellen mentions in her letter. In 1854 Mary Thomas graduated from Penn’s Medical College for Women in Philadelphia, and was a practicing physician in Indiana for many years. Thomas was also quite active in the woman suffrage movement, becoming involved after hearing Lucretia Mott preach at the yearly meeting in Salem, Ohio, in 1845 (Herzog, 2005; Morris-Reeves Library, 2005; Thomas, 2002). Ellen would in all likelihood have been at that yearly meeting as well. Ellen—bright, educated, well-spoken, and with an edgy awareness of women’s culturally imposed limitations—would have been a natural fit for the women’s movement. Unlike her contemporary Dr. Mary Thomas, Ellen Janney disappears from sight. Why? Do we have any clues at all?

Judging from the few entries in the Quaker records, it seems likely that Ellen lived at home until the death of her parents. We know she never married, though that was not unusual for Quaker women. One possible reason for her remaining at home may have been that Ellen took her Christian responsibilities seriously. “Honor thy father and thy mother” would have filled her with a sense of duty to her family that was certainly reinforced by the culture of both her Quaker community and the larger society of which it was a part. Girls, educated or not, were raised to be dutiful daughters and wives. If her mother was either dead or for some reason not able to care for herself, her husband, or the family (as I intuitively suspect may have been the case), Ellen, as the oldest unmarried daughter, would have been the one on whom that responsibility devolved. It would not have been easy, under such circumstances, for her to contemplate leaving the household for any reason.

The dream about the church basement, if it is indeed a communication from Ellen about her life, offers a curious confirmation of this speculation about why Ellen stayed home: the reference to Margaret Tomlinson, my Aunt Doe. Margaret Tomlinson is a strong, outspoken, intelligent woman who never married but instead chose to live at home with her parents, caring for them until they died. She attended nursing school during the early years of WWII and planned to join the Army’s Nursing Corps. However, when she announced her decision, it was vetoed by her mother (and probably, tacitly, by her father as well) because her older brother, my father, was already serving overseas. One child in the Army, my grandmother declared, was quite enough. Aunt Doe did not fight the edict, outwardly at least. Rather, she stayed at home and took a series of jobs as a nurse in the local area for the next forty years to support herself and, in their declining years, her parents as well. Is it possible that “Aunt Doe” appeared in this dream in part to reference a similar series of events in Ellen’s life? Perhaps so.


Service and Servitude

The “Church Basement” and “The Book” dreams fit into a new dream series that began as I was writing this chapter. This new series spoke to a different set of issues, and seemed to develop as I asked Ellen for more detail about topics she wished to see addressed. At first I was baffled by the images in some of them. Here is one that I found especially frightening, though I knew that one’s death in a dream rarely speaks of one’s literal death, but rather of transformation. It occurred shortly after the hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast:

There is a war. The next battle is at New Orleans, under the ocean. One can trade one’s life for that of a soldier, so I go to do that, in the plain and shabby lobby area of some kind of office building or hospital. When you agree, they give you a kind of suit or bag that you then put on and go out and die. Somehow I manage to sign up to trade for two soldiers, not just one. There’s another person, a young man, who has also traded his life and he shows me how to unzip the bag. I put mine on and go out through the double doors into a kind of underground parking garage place and lie down to prepare to die, kind of falling asleep. It’s not really unpleasant. I wake up in the dream just before I’m going to die and realize I need to write about the experience. Then I wake up for real.

In another dream a week later, I am a soldier in an unnamed war. My comrades and I are trapped behind enemy lines and I am trying to smuggle food and water to the rest of them who are in hiding. Meanwhile, I survive by trying to pass as one of the enemy.

I puzzled over these dreams for quite some time before coming to understand parts of  them at a deeper level. If one looks at images in other dreams from this same time period, one thing that stands out is the many, many images of self-sacrifice, examples of the possible ways in which a person, especially a woman, can “give up her life” in service to others.

First, she may simply give up in the face of patriarchal oppression and remain silent, like “Mom” as she shows up in so many dreams. She may choose one of the “service professions,” like the group of cosmetic saleswomen in one dream. She may stay home to take care of her parents and other people who need help (“Aunt Doe’s” way). She may completely introject the patriarchal values of the Church and become a zealot, like the “plastic” church woman, devoting oneself to furthering patriarchal values. She may go into hiding among the enemy in order to protect her comrades, or she may literally give up her life, like a soldier in a war.

Again, if we are willing to accept the premise that Ellen’s comments will show up in my dreams, we can look at each of these from her perspective as well as from mine. We have already talked about the parallels between some of these images and Ellen’s life: staying home to care for the family, remaining silent about one’s beliefs when they differ from the prevailing views in order to be safe, and so on. But I think there is more.

The references to the military are interesting, given Ellen’s Quaker pacifism. But these two dreams suggest that it is sometimes necessary to do battle: In one I give up my life for the soldiers in “New Orleans,” and in another I conceal myself within the enemy camp in order to get food and water to my fellow soldiers. Through these dreams, Ellen suggests that it is appropriate to fight sometimes, to be willing to die for what one believes in.

What might these dreams tell us about Ellen’s particular experience? What immediately springs to my mind when I connect these dreams with another set which abounded in images of people of color and from different ethnic backgrounds, is the Underground Railroad. It is common knowledge that the Quakers were involved in the anti-slavery movement, and eastern Ohio, where Ellen lived, was on one of the principal escape routes from the South by the turn of the 19th century. What is not so generally known, however, is that the Quakers themselves were divided, sometimes bitterly so, over the slavery question. Some Quakers were disowned by their Meetings for harboring runaway slaves or for espousing the view that Negroes should be admitted to membership in the church. Slavery divided the entire country, and it was an issue that divided Quaker households just as the Hicksite/Orthodox split had done (Baker, 2002; Hendrick & Hendrick, 2004; Janney, 1849b, 1849c).

It takes only a very small leap of interpretive faith to read this dream series as a reflection of Ellen’s willingness to put herself in danger for the sake of those she cared about. It may well have been the case that not everyone in her family or community agreed with her views and that she had to keep silent about her activities. Certainly if she was involved in the Underground Railroad and anti-slavery activities, she would have walked a dangerous path whether or not her Quaker family and neighbors were in agreement. This topic received an unexpected confirmation some months later, as we shall see in the next chapter.



In conclusion, we will probably never know much more about the circumstances of Ellen’s life. I know a fair amount about my mother’s life. All of this speculation may be nothing more than my own projections onto them. However, given the development of the work of this dissertation, we can also argue that through the work, something of Ellen’s voice has been spoken.

Ellen Janney, to whose memory this first art piece is dedicated, is just one of millions—nay, billions!—of women, living and dead, who have been silenced, just as I have, and whose stories have never been told. Why am in contact with Ellen? Why do these dead souls who call themselves the Ladies speak to me?

The stories of women’s repression resonate with events in my life, but in many ways my own life has been sheltered, privileged, easy relative to many other women, and yet I have experienced much emotional suffering. But at the same time I have long suspected that some of my suffering is not “my own,” but rather a kind of generational suffering that I carry for others. Jung spoke of doing the work of the ancestors, of seeking answers to the questions that they posed but were never able to answer for themselves. This dissertation does that work.

Freud (1913/1950) postulated a “psychical continuity” between generations, based upon an unconscious ability to interpret repressed and equally unconscious expressions of emotion. This unconscious understanding is sufficient for “later generations to take over the heritage” of emotions present in the culture (p. 195). Abraham and Torok (Abraham & Torok, 1975/1994) looked at this phenomenon as it occurred within families, and postulated a kind of “phantom”:

Should a child have parents “with secrets,” parents whose speech is not exactly complementary to their unstated repressions, the child will receive from them a gap in the unconscious, an unknown, unrecognized knowledge–a *nescience*–subjected to a form of “repression” before the fact. The buried speech of the parent will be (a) dead (gap) without a burial place in the child. This unknown phantom returns from the unconscious to haunt its host and may lead to phobias, madness, and obsessions. Its effect can persist through several generations and determine the fate of an entire family line. (p. 140)

The stories of the Ladies, the tales of the events that caused these phantoms, seem to cry out to be told. But why? Why should we care, fifty or a hundred or two hundred years later, what these people went through? Why are they still calling to us across time and space? Why are they important? How (and here is the crux of it) can their stories inform our own lives now?

In the context of my own life and times, what do the Ladies have to say? Their stories echo ones from my own family and their sufferings parallel my own. In my family, there have been many of us who suffered: my mother, who carried to her grave the stories of her trauma; an aunt, who spent time in prison for killing her abusive spouse but who refused to testify in her own defense; a grandmother, whose own ambitions died when she married, leaving her to live vicariously through her husband and son; another grandmother, who suffered with an unfaithful, abusive, drunken husband for years but then left her children behind to follow him to California; and how many others whose stories I have never heard?

I am heartened when I read Aurora Levins Morales’s Remedios (1998b), honoring the lives of her own ancestral women. These women were unsung, unremembered, until she called them forth and spoke for them; this is what I am called to do. The lives of all of these women are unknown, and they were never asked for their stories, for their wisdom. Through telling stories of her women ancestors, Morales seeks the healing power of reclaimed memory. That is the key. It goes back to memoria—it is the idea of radioactive fossils (Marks, 2000) that provide evidence for what is lacking—the lacunae in our remembered lives, the phantom (Abraham & Torok, 1975/1994) that haunts our psyche with its non-presence.