Close to the Bone Exposes the Myths and Wisdom of Illness

Article excerpt


It is said, in mythology and in human life, that only when a person is stripped of all pretense, all joy, all beliefs and all roles, to the point of feeling that there is no return, then-ah, only then-can the real work of living begin.

Such is the central insight of Jean Shinoda Bolen's landscape of work, most recently celebrated in the ioth anniversary revised edition of her best-selling Close to the Bone: Life-Threatening Illness as a Soul Journey (San Francisco: Conari Press; $14.95, 244 pages). Bolen has popularized and deepened the quest for wholeness with such landmark titles as the best-selling Goddesses in Everywoman: Powerful Archetypes for Women, Goddesses in Older Women: Becoming a Juicy Crone and The Too of Psychology: Synchronidty and the Self. However, she feels that the oeuvre represented by Close to the Bone is her greatest source of pride.


Bolen's pride in Close to the Bone is not a statement of ego, but of meaning: In the time elapsed between the publication of the first and the ioth anniversary editions, she has gone through her own life-changing passages, including the death of her son Andy. That tragedy, along with her more urgent sense of activism for world peace and what she believes to be the healing power of what she calls the sacred feminine-the essence of women's spirituality-have inspired her message of living a what she calls soul-life, a concept she hopes will be received with grace, understandingand action.

Her work as a Jungian therapist has brought her to a gifted understanding of the depth of what illness represents, far beyond physical symptoms. Illness, for her, especially includes an archetypal or symbolic level, a level beyond the drugs and surgeries of Western medicine where true healing-if not also curing-can take place.

Healing, she told Aging Today, is the work of the soul: "I don't know anybody over 30 who lives and works in a decentsize community that doesn't know a contemporary who has something that could kill them, or a contemporary of theirs who has died of AIDS or cancer. And because [they] don't have extended families, people are forming circles of support."

This interdependence on community is what informs Close to the Bone', the book title is a phrase Boleri uses to indicate an intuitive awareness of ourselves. "Whether we are a patient or a witness," she writes, "when illness enters our circle of people, it touches us deeply. Lifethreatening illness takes the patients, those who love them, and those who treat them into the realm of the soul. Whether suddenly or gradually, a life-threatening illness has the power to cut through illusions and bring us close to the bone, maybe for the first time in our lives."


"Myths and stories and images are evocative of emotional richness," Bolen said. "Mythology is a language that taps the unconscious and brings psyche and soul into play. I use myths that are 5,000 years old. The reason they stay around is because mere's life in them, like a collective dream. We may not understand them, but the symbols in myths touch something in us deeply. The myth of Persephone, for instance, tells of the maiden's abduction by Hades to the underground, her uncertainty at ever seeing her mother, Demeter, again, and her eventual jeturn-forever changed."

Bolen explained, "Myths amplify the significance of what a person is surviving, what he or she has gone through, and it helps people acknowledge how deep an experience this was for them. It's more than cathartic; it gives meaning to what has happened, and it says there is a path to follow."

Illness is one kind of journey into the underworld. Bolen noted that one addition to Close to the Bone is a strengthened concept of chronic disease, such as cancer, as what could be called a wisdom illness. …