How did a former welfare mother, a "middle-class mystic with delicate intestines," end up on the national bestseller lists, just six weeks after her book was published?
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, the Jungian analyst who wrote "Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype," thinks the answer is obvious.
"It's not a how-to book."
But "Wolves" was written with healing in mind.
Estes wants her readers, primarily women, to recognize that the most vital and interesting part of themselves--the part that is earthy and instinctual--has been all but snuffed out.
The typical culprits? Nonstop demands from the family, the workplace--and themselves--that render women "a blur of activity." Says Estes, "(They are) pressured to be all things to all people."
Her antidote? A potpourri of folk tales, psychology and poignant self-disclosure designed to free the wild souls residing inside civilized, 20th-Century ladies. Estes believes stories have the power to heal because they reassure people on a subconscious level that happy endings are still possible--and that they have the "knowing" to discover answers for themselves.
"Women Who Run With the Wolves," published in late June, already has 100,000 copies in print. And Estes has started to attract crowds when she makes appearances. Says Sarah Hoefing, a Reseda musician who attended a recent standing-room-only presentation at Pasadena's Alexandria II Bookstore: "She gives me the courage to embrace parts of me that perhaps I would have rejected in the past."
Many women, for instance, routinely scorn their own bodies, and Estes addresses this in a chapter called "Joyous Body: The Wild Flesh." She writes of watching wolves--skinny, fat, long-legged, lop-tailed, floppy-eared, three-legged--romping in the wilderness:
They live and play according to what and who and how they are. They do not try to be what they are not . . . . Yet, despite their beauty and ability to stay strong, wolves are sometimes talked about in this way: 'Ah, you are too hungry, your teeth are too sharp . . . . '
Like wolves, women are sometimes discussed as though only a certain temperament, only a certain restrained appetite, is acceptable. And too often added to that is an attribution of moral goodness or badness according to whether a woman's size, height, gait and shape conform to a singular or exclusionary ideal.
Estes' own body is a long way from today's "ideal."
"I am built close to the ground and of extravagant body. . . . I was told that my body shape and size were the signs of being inferior and having no self-control," she tells her readers.
But now she's comfortable with her size.
It helped that when she traveled to the isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico and met some of her relatives, Estes discovered "a tribe with giant women who were strong, flirtatious and commanding in their size."
They insisted that she didn't eat enough and taught her that women are "made round like the Earth herself, for the Earth holds so much."
Estes has been telling stories for years. And Tami Simon, who publishes the analyst's audiotapes, points out that Estes had an underground following long before "Wolves" was published. Simon's firm, Sounds True Audio in Boulder, Colo., also publishes several tapes by Robert Bly, the best-selling author of "Iron John" and a pioneer in the drum-banging, soul-searching branch of the men's movement.
But despite the fact that "nobody had ever heard of Clarissa," Estes' tapes have outsold Bly's 10 to one, says Simon. "We send out reply cards with each order, and people gave these tapes the highest ratings."
"Wolves," on the other hand, has had few reviews to date and none in major publications. Most of the criticism has been favorable, but a few reviewers disliked the fact that Estes mixes traditional scholarship with her personal stories.
"They did not understand the long, long Latina tradition of nos otros y tu . It means you speak in the personal voice of we, you and I, and tu , the personal voice, as if we know each other very well," says Este. "I just understood the criticism as a case of not understanding."
When it comes to personal stories that aren't in her book, such as details of her experiences as a Mexican-American child adopted by a Hungarian family, she becomes suddenly shy. Estes maintains that just because she has shared intimacies with readers does not mean she has to surrender her privacy to reporters. Indeed, after recently completing a national publicity tour, she says she's ready to write about how privacy is viewed by the media and its subjects.
But she is willing to discuss the six months she spent on welfare back in the early '70s.
"I became married at a young age and had two daughters and divorced at 26. I had to go on welfare to make ends meet. I had no way to support myself," she recalls during a lunch at a posh Century City hotel.
"So I said, 'I will do everything possible to pull myself away.' I could see there was a way of life that pulls you down in that social program, but I was grateful for the welfare and for other social programs that were available then. These programs, which are almost all gone today, made it possible for single mothers to pull themselves up."
After her divorce, Estes earned a B.A. in psychology from Loretto Heights College in Denver. She then opted for a Ph.D. program at Union Institute in Cincinnati, an alternative liberal arts institution.
Since Estes finished her Ph.D. in 1981, she has worked as a psychoanalyst in private practice and has also served as the executive director of the C. G. Jung Center in Denver, where she lives.
In addition, she's Colorado's official cantadora or "keeper of the old stories in the Hispanic tradition."
" Cante means to be able to move sorrow and joy within the psyche through song, words and poetry," she explains. "I am invited to come and cante , do my medicine, at schools, at a museum, or I am invited by the governor."
Estes' next major writing project will be Part II of the trilogy that started with "Women Who Run With the Wolves." The original manuscript was 2,000 pages long, but after her agent read it, Estes was advised to turn it into a three-part work.
Part II, "When This Tree Has Stood for Many Winters: Myths and Stories of the Dangerous Old Woman and the Power of Age," is expected to be published late next year. Part III is not yet titled or scheduled.
Estes suspects that people are buying Part I because they are hungry for poetry rather than for how-to manuals: "Any time I find medicine that's helpful, I share it with everyone I know."