If your house could talk, what would it tell you?
If your house could listen, what would you tell it?
Silly questions? Not at all, says Clare Cooper Marcus. These seemingly fanciful questions can lead to as much insight as hours spent on an analyst's couch, particularly during a personal crisis.
"Almost everyone has a deep emotional connection to their home," she said.
Marcus, a UC Berkeley architecture professor with expertise in low-income housing needs, is a specialist in talking to houses. For almost 20 years, she has encouraged people to "role play" in a dialogue with their houses, first speaking to the house, then pretending to be the house.
The results, detailed in her new book "House as a Mirror of Self: Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home" (Conari Press), have been eye-opening.
"Throughout our lives, whether we are conscious of it or not, our home and its contents make very powerful statements about who we are," Marcus said in a telephone interview.
The dialogue often unlocks unconscious wishes and emotions. A middle-aged woman frustrated by her inability to sort through her junk-packed house discovers her grief over her children being grown and gone. A successful lawyer acknowledges that his attachment to his antique-filled house is a substitute for a human relationship. A young woman links the unpacked boxes in her drab apartment to a childhood pattern of being jerked away just as she had begun to love a home.
"What is amazing about this technique," Marcus said, "is that people tend to access the truth about their feelings, especially when they are speaking as the house. They often astound themselves with what they say."
Everybody knows that our homes express who we are--the house as status symbol has been researched exhaustively, Marcus said. But her book, which blossomed out of an academic project and includes self-help exercises, looks at a house and its contents as a mirror of the psychological self. This is important, she said, because such unconscious ties can sabotage us.
How, for instance, can someone who designs a "dream house" hate to live in it? Why do some people find themselves in one unsuitable home after another, like a series of bad relationships? How can someone who grew up on a vast ranch be perfectly happy in a single basement room?
This emotional component has long fascinated the English-born Marcus, who came to California 30 years ago. She was among a handful of academics who, in the 1960s, began to object to the way architecture and city planning were being taught. "We said you can't separate them from the human implications of design," she said.
In a 1986 book titled "Housing as If People Mattered" (University of California Press), she and co-author Wendy Sarkissian compiled an extensive set of 254 guidelines for making medium-density family housing more responsive to human needs. One example: balcony drainage so that plants could be watered.
"Having done that book, and observing my own life, I began to be aware there was almost no literature about the deeper feelings we have about house and home," she said.
As she began her research, Marcus found rich insights in fiction, such as E.M. Forster's "Howards End" and Willa Cather's "The Professor's House." But her premise, that the way we feel about our houses has psychological meaning, was shaped by the writings of psychiatrist Carl G. Jung. In his autobiography, "Memories, Dreams, Reflections," Jung describes building his house on Lake Zurich in many stages, representing in stone all the stages on his own personal development.
Whereas Jung knew what he was doing, most of us imitate the process without realizing it, Marcus said.
"We do create some space in the world," she writes, "and we shape and decorate it to express our values. The colors we choose, the objects we select, the pictures and posters we put on the walls--all of these have aesthetic or functional meanings of which we are aware. Many of them also are projections, or 'messages' from the unconscious, in just the same way that our dreams contain such messages."
Marcus stumbled onto the idea of tapping such unconscious messages--through dialogue in a women's support group she joined after her divorce. The group used the Gestalt technique, in which a person analyzes a dream or a relationship by taking on each role.
One day, a Catholic nun in the group was saying how much she missed the solitude of the desert, and the leader suggested she talk to the desert. The resulting dialogue brought forth so much emotion and feeling of loss, Marcus recalled, that she saw the potential for having people talk to their houses.
"It was a fortuitous event in my life, and nothing to do with academia," she said. She trained with the group's leader in Gestalt technique, not to become a therapist, she emphasized, but to learn how to help the volunteers she would interview for her book to focus inwardly.
Meeting with them in their own homes, she began by having them draw a picture depicting their feelings about home.
Typically, the sketches were childlike. A woman living in a house decorated and furnished by her husband's first wife drew a tiny stick figure boxed in by thick borders of color and encircled by a sea of brown labeled "The Past." Another woman, who sensed her life was in a rut, depicted her rural cottage as a cozy house in a grassy yard, but encircled by high strands of barbed wire. A man who didn't feel comfortable in his home drew a circle with arrows pointing outward in all directions.
In contrast, an artist whose house was so stuffed with junk she could no longer paint, produced a beautiful rendering of a room, with her almost hidden behind a large houseplant, an accurate portrait of someone burdened by too much clutter.
With the drawing in a chair in front of them, each person then described their feelings. Then, switching places, they responded as if they were the house.
Sometimes, the speaker's voice would change. The woman who felt trapped in her snug cottage spoke to it with hesitation and regret ("I love you because you are safe and cozy . . . but, speaking as the house, her voice became demanding and cocky ("You really need me--I need you and you need me!"). The experience, writes Marcus, helped the woman make the break she needed, to get on with her life.
"When I began this work, I had no idea what I would discover," Marcus said. "All I sensed at the beginning was that there were multiple layers of meaning in our feelings of attachment to house and home. As I listened to story after story, themes began to emerge and repeat themselves."
She began to see a developmental timeline, that houses can help or hinder our psychic growth, starting with the treehouses and secret clubhouses children design as early steps toward separation from their parents. There are particularly treacherous points in life, Marcus said.
"Marriage or a partnership can often be dynamite in the relationship, particularly if one moves into another's house. The homeowner suffers feelings of invasion [it is even trickier if there has been a previous spouse or a partner] and unexpected territorial protection. They may be deeply in love, but 'Gee, she wants to rearrange everything. . . .' "
Marcus said she counsels couples in that situation to move to a neutral place.
"For most of us," she said, "the house is a kind of comforting backdrop to our lives that we can take for granted. It comes into the foreground powerfully if there is any sort of change--a death, losing your job, leaving home. We feel vulnerable and we project it onto the house. Then it settles back as the cocoon."
Marcus, who is taking an early retirement from Berkeley, expects to spend more time in her own home--a turn-of-the-century Queen Anne with a big porch and a large back garden with vegetables, flowers and fruit trees. She is finishing a book on co-housing and then turning to a different project she calls "fairy stories for grown-ups."
"I write them very intuitively. I would say they come from a dream space.'
Like Jung, she is devoting the second part of life to exploration of the soul. "I'm sad to have left teaching, but very happy to have time to expand the part of my psyche that is intuitive and creative," she said.