Speaking the Same Language: An Evolving Dialogue with Mary Whitehouse

by Janet Adler


Mary Whitehouse                             Janet Adler

I sit high up in a tower, watching the rainfall all around me. I have moved out of my ivy autumn house and am now with friends, waiting [to know when I can come to you] . . . I, for some reason, cannot relate to you in the formal manner traditionally appropriate for such an introduction. And yet we have not met—I have no sense of your eyes, your hands. I cannot write as freely as I seem compelled to want to do. So I will try again this morning. It is early and the tops of the trees are tapping on the windows, making me feel like I am indeed in a tree house, a good place, come to think of it, to write about things from the past and pulls toward the future. (1)

These were the words with which I began my autobiographical essay, October 1, 1969, in response to Mary Whitehouse’s request as part of our preparation to work together. In this shared inquiry, I was aware of an unchallenged clarity within me to simply do whatever was necessary to arrive on the doorstep of her studio. I knew my decision was correct.

Just before writing the essay for Mary, I found myself suddenly—it was a last-minute decision—a participant at a personal growth lab in Bethel Maine with John Weir. Until this life changing experience, I did not consciously know about an embodied path of awareness, though I trusted my body implicitly. I did not consciously know there was such a realm as the numinous, though I had often experienced it.

At this particular lab, Mary had been the person on John’s staff to lead movement sessions. Because she had just become challenged by her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, she was not there. Instead her student, Josi Taylor, guided us and I experienced my first encounter with what has become for me, the discipline of Authentic Movement. I knew that first morning, lying on a carpet under a piano, that this “way” belonged to me, to my very nature. This “way” was a clear response to such great longing within my twenty-eight years of living. John immediately introduced me to Mary on the phone. And so began a series of phone conversations between Mary and me in which we prepared, at many levels, to meet in the late fall of 1969.

Here is my journal recording of one of those conversations, dated November 16, 1969:

I feel a sense of completeness in finding what I need. It wasn’t at all clear until I spoke with Mary this afternoon on the phone. I do not need a good Mother. I have one. I do need a teacher—a person wiser, older, who has been where I have not, but who speaks my language.

And so our work together began, our relationship began, my commitment to authentic movement began—the Work which continues, day by day, to be at the center of my teaching practice. I had forgotten about these photographs pasted in my journal in which I am taking pictures of my own shadow on the beach in Santa Monica in those first days of my work with Mary.

 

Now forty-two years later, I begin to write about my experience of Mary, our evolving dialogue, with the same awareness I had when she and I began our journey together. It is time. My current tree house is now cluttered with storage boxes, ones I have not opened until today. My hand first goes to some personal audiotapes from the early 1970’s that we sent back and forth to each other, sometimes speaking over the other’s voice with our response.

How I love hearing her voice, her laughter. She often began her tapes laughing at herself, expressing frustration and confusion with the technology of the recorder she was trying to use and how invariably the machine wouldn’t work the way she wanted it to. These tapes, especially stirring as they unwind, chronicle for me the great changes, inner and outer, she was experiencing during her illness.

Mary knitted two baby blankets for our infant sons that are here at the bottom of one of the boxes. I remember being so touched when she insisted on making a new one for our second baby, wanting to make sure he had his very own. There are times on the tapes in which she is asking about each son, specific questions, and about me as a new mother. And I hear my own voice in response on tape, telling her, in detail, about my inner experience of the sweetness, the awe, the challenges of such an emotional and sensual immersion in the intimacy of my new family. I can see now that she held a special place of witness for us even though she was never in our home and never met the children.

And here are all of her personal letters to me, often beginning, in shaky handwriting, with “Bracha dear”. At John Weir’s lab we were asked to use pseudonyms, a different name than our given name. Without thinking at all, I witnessed myself chose the name Bracha, not knowing that it was a Hebrew word, not knowing what it meant until much later. John then introduced me to Mary as Bracha and that is what she always called me.

Here are some words in an opening paragraph of a letter from Mary, dated June, 1970:

Bracha dear,

Will you take a letter just as it comes . . . ? And so I must ask you to accept just random thoughts and responses as they occur to me.  I sit here knitting and wishing I were clearer headed but not wanting to put off writing any longer. I’ll try.

In another cardboard box I find a kind response from an organization to which I had written in 1970, apologetically rejecting my inquiries concerning funding for a film about Mary’s work. I find Mary’s reading list for movement workshops with books published from 1951 to 1967. I have photos of her sitting, with a shawl resting on her shoulders, the orange and yellow one I wove for her.

Just in the last months in my kiva studio, there are moments when I suddenly realize that I am sitting in my teacher/witness chair, with my arms resting on the arms of the chair and my hands folded on my lap. Often I am wrapped in a shawl, sometimes one given to me by a student of mine. This specific embodied configuration brings Mary to me . . . a soft meeting of an outer photographic image and an inner experience.

Here are my movement and dream journals from those initial months with Mary in Santa Monica. In rereading these now, I am amazed by so much naming of what I experienced as a return toward my nature, yet simultaneously what I experienced as nascent, what actually required the following decades to mature. For example, I write the word “discipline” and then forgetting, only consciously choose this word maybe twenty years later when I realize, know that the practice is indeed a discipline for me.

…it seems that this is the discipline I’ve been looking for, ready for, can be drunk on…

…important, dark, definitely on the right track

…search is FINALLY directed inside rather than outside.

These artifacts, evocative and poignant, remind me that I recognized Mary as a Teacher, having never had one before. My brief, but organic, intense work with her in Santa Monica during the winter of 1969 and the spring of 1970 was essential regarding both my personal and professional growth. So much of my gratitude has been expressed in my own writings, in interviews, in choosing Mary’s name as the name of the institute I founded in 1981 for the study and practice of authentic movement (2), and most importantly, within my own continuing teaching practice.

Mary’s experience of multiple sclerosis is inseparable within me from my experience of receiving Mary’s teachings, of being in her presence. Mary was entering this deep sea change in her life exactly when she and I met. At times, she commented on her gratitude for this fact, as we had no history together. Soon after I arrived, she spoke one day in her studio of the absence of previous relationship as comforting for her, reminding her that I could have no expectations of her relative to “who she was before” she became ill.

I find the following clarity appearing in particular letters from Mary concerning the dawning of her illness within her body, within her psyche:

But it was wonderful to feel so much better after that long spell of crawling on the floor . . . it has been a very limited life . . . I would so love to… be able to give something to people again.

It is as hard to get well as it was to become ill.

You find me at a time when my main statement is: I don’t know. I don’t know.

I think the major point of some such illness as mine has to do with what I can get out of it in an inner sense and that leads right into the most private and intimate part of my understanding of myself that simply isn’t possible to convey even to people one loves.

What I saw was that Buff’s death was the beginning of a process, a clobbering of which MS was really the last chapter . . . the whole illness has indeed been inner, no matter how outer the disability looks or shows.

Mary wrote a book, unpublished, about her experience of the sudden death of her sixteen-year-old son, Buffy. She told me on an audiotape that she did not know what she was going to do about “that book”, but something eventually, she guessed. The following words are mine on tape, in response to my reading the book:

I loved you so much through that book and found a whole side of you that I always felt . . . we never really talked about Buffy . . . a whole realm present in you. It has been such a precious gift to know the story through your experience.

How much it is a book written by a woman and for women…The book was powerfully speaking about receiving and surrender for me, in such feminine ways. I think of many mothers, many women who, whether they have literally lost a child or not, would be moved . . . and feel your gift of that book so strongly. I just hope that there is a way to publish it.

As is evident in her writing, Mary was a woman of her time, working from her own unique history as a dancer and dance teacher. From what I experienced to be a place of love, her risks were evident, her honesty in not knowing was necessary, and her courage to work as she felt compelled to do seemed available to her. In choosing to invite a conscious relationship with me as I moved in her presence, my life deepened, as did the lives of her other students, our students, their students, and so on. Her actions were radical. She truly “broke ground” in both the field of dance, guiding souls returning to dancers, and in the field of depth psychology, guiding bodies returning to those seeking consciousness.

In an interview with Tina Stromsted and Neala Haze in 1994, (3) I remember speaking about my trips alone as an adolescent, for two consecutive years, every Saturday, from our small town in Indiana to the city of Indianapolis, to study privately with the Sadler’s Wells prima ballerina. Frightened and excited, determined and uncomfortable, I seemed to persevere until one day when, just before entering her vacuous studio, I briefly glimpsed to my right a white spinning form, propelled up and away from me, maybe a suggestion of a classic ballerina figure, disappearing. Was it my soul refusing to stay any longer inside my body that was about to dance, once again, without it?

Inside the studio, my teacher showed me the sequence of steps from last time and told me to do them. What were they? How could they have vanished after so many hours of practice? I could not find them in my body or in my mind. Or was it that I would not remember? Then came the long bus ride home in the winter dark and my going immediately to my room, where I closed my jewelry box, the one with the spinning ballerina in the center, and placed it under my bed. So died my dream of becoming a professional dancer.

Fourteen years later, in my first experience as a mover in Mary’s studio, I was instantly conscious of my source—my soul returning to my body moving. In the very same session, when Mary and I were talking together after I moved, I was acutely reminded of what I had recently discovered in John Weir’s presence —my body is the primary requisite for my search toward consciousness.

The process into which I was hurling myself demanded a necessary resource: the inexhaustible unconscious. Perhaps it was the dominant influence of her own psychoanalysis on her work that fueled Mary’s curiosity about how the unconscious, arising from the body moving, shapes the potential for conscious awareness.

I remember sometimes returning to Mary after moving in her presence, how her whole face would light up and she would exclaim: “ Now what was that all about?” Her trust in the body knowing seemed always to be held reverently in relationship to her wonder. She tells me on tape:

The physical body, as an instrument of living, is the most mysterious, most awe-inspiring complex. I think it’s a wonder that any of us manage, in spite of the traumas and complexes and buried things, to function.

Do you suppose that we could all get to the place where we know whatever it is that we find ourselves in, we have chosen it somehow . . . (that leads to a conversation about karma and reincarnation, you know) . . . and that we stop taking it too seriously, keep some of the energy for living it?

Mary was the one who transformed her dance studio into an empty space for something other than dance, who designed the format of sitting to the side of the space while her student moved. She was the one who discovered, later in her teaching practice, that talking after moving was important: one-to-one, and in dyads and triads within groups. Just these three original and critical facts alone can easily get lost, become assumptions within what happens in an authentic movement session, as generations of her descendants, in empty studios, move and witness, speak and listen.

As distinguished from other pioneers in the field of dance movement therapy, Mary was the first person of whom I know, who worked with adults who were not suffering mental illness. I experienced her primarily as an artist, maybe because of her expressed comfort with the unknown. To me she was a strong woman, a strength that I trusted because I experienced her vulnerability. And she knew how to safely enough invite those of us who came to work with her, toward opening to our own vulnerability—the source of our own developing strength. She appeared to me to be a handsome woman, with big bones, who sometimes spoke with the vocal tones of a child.

In those years when I worked with her, Mary thought of herself as the one who watches. She did not use the term witness, but was completely clear about the necessity of “seeing” her mover. Many of her students moved with eyes open. She could be directive from her seat to the side of the space. Sometimes she played music chosen by herself or her student. Sometimes she invited improvisation as a way of work. In both individual and group work, she offered mirroring exercises or specific movement tasks . . . all of these ways were different from how many of us work today. These teaching skills, her strong personality and her radiance, intricately created a presence of a woman whom I experienced as one possessing wisdom—offered originally and with vision—to the field of embodied consciousness.

In the studio, Mary was always concerned with process, not results—always. During those few intense months, when I was not in her studio working alone or in a group, which was most days, I was often with her in her living room. I usually sat at her feet as we taped our dialogues about the work, each trusting in the possibility of discovering an order within her way of work, a clarity to guide her writing. Almost a decade later in our communication, she spoke about her life’s work in relationship to where the “field is at present”:

The way I did it could only have been done back then. What is known now is way ahead of anything I know . . . . The questions now being asked are so useful and rich and were not possible then.

This humble and honest surveillance of what must have felt like a rapid and not quite graspable gallop within her own field of study and practice understandably might have deepened her need to offer her own way of knowing. Honing what she learned and intending to discern her own contributions within an historical context, her last years were filled with her great longing to write her book. Here are excerpts from her letters and tapes she sent to me, dated from February to September 1978, one year before she died, concerning her intentions to write:

I even have had the letter from a New York publisher.

. . . and it is noon and I dare not say that I have done nothing.

. . . as if there were value in certain things only. As if the whole point were something other than living my life as transparently as possible . . .

…that there is nothing against the essential nature, nothing fighting the truth, no deciding by the ego of what it will and will not permit.

I honestly don’t know whether the writing was so much of the ego that it really has gone by or whether I am just afraid of it . . . it is much bigger than that . . . or whether I am avoiding a genuine part of myself.

. . . it is only a problem if I resist.

My writing is spectacularly out of control and irrationally good and irrationally bad.

…as if I know nothing about THIS synthesis except by doing it.

Nevertheless, if I think of it that way, as a pilgrimage to the place where I am not, it begins to allow reflection and a seeing how it all happened, even why, and makes me gladder than ever to be here where I am right this minute.

I am having trouble getting down to where I suit myself as the source.

The impression was that the writing, whatever it is, lies way down underneath and needs to be contacted for no other reason than that it belongs to me.

. . . allowing me to get down where the words are an inner, not outer, expression.

. . . or is it decided by Haschem?

What I imagine could be a daunting task, that of being ready and able to know when it is time to end, as Mary called it, one’s “public life”, seemed to be part of her continuing inner dialogue, perhaps because of the interruption, the challenges, and maybe she would have said, the gifts, of her illness:

It is a long pull to become really clear that I cannot and don’t want to pick up where I left off. This is unsettling.

This weekend I gave what is certainly my last weekend workshop . . . I was able to feel that I no longer want to use the energy that way . . . it’s over, over, over.

Some elders make choices acknowledging a time to turn toward that inner place, the inner witness, as guide, when such an archetypal change—one that can feel like a death regarding the way one has known oneself to be in the world —becomes apparent. Mary’s studios held the space for the growing of her way of working, perhaps especially because of what I experienced as a ferocity of her commitment. I remember my own experience of awe when she knew it was time to leave the studio.

And for some, beyond the interior and exterior chambers of Work, there is a place—some spot of earth somewhere—that meets the soul always as it is. I am told that Mary flourished in her childhood summers and into her adult life on Monhegan Island in Maine:

Monhegan . . . the one place in my whole life that has a psychic continuity . . .

Years later, when I returned to live in California in 1986, I had forgotten about Mary’s love for Monhegan as I sat with Charlotte Selver (4) in her apartment at Green Gulch Farm in Sausalito, California, the woman with whom I had studied Sensory Awareness on Monhegan one summer years ago. As Charlotte was pouring our tea, her very old body curving over the tea tray, she told me that every summer when she and Charles returned to Monhegan to teach, one of her first destinations was to Mary’s grave where she ceremoniously brushed the winter away from the gravestone, honoring her colleague.

Mary’s daughter, Feather, recently told me of how she honored her mother by understanding the utter necessity of a last meeting between Mary and Hilde Kirsch, who Feather said was Mary’s chosen “mother and her teacher, the person who witnessed Mary’s internal and external journey.” Feather took her mother on an airplane from San Francisco, where Mary was then living, to Los Angeles and straight to the hospital. I find reference to this visit in one of Mary’s letters to me:

Hilde was having a clear, pain-free day and I simply walked into her room and surprised her. It was a revelation how much it meant to her and what it is like when two people meet, really meet, sans projections, needs, assumptions. I don’t suppose it happens much unless one of them is dying.

The night Mary died, April 29, 1979, not knowing, I dream and within the dream, the wholeness of my relationship with my Teacher becomes apparent. There is a long journey in which I experience both the light and the shadow of my relationship with Mary, specific aspects of which I was not previously conscious. Near the end of the dream, I experience a clear communion. Then Mary sits in a grey sweat suit on a wooden meditation bench with her legs crossed in front of her. Facing her, I sit on the floor, with one hand on each of her feet. Her head slowly, silently drops down on her chest. Her body falls lifeless into my lap.

Now from the perspective of this early winter tree house morning, reminiscent of those when I prepared to meet Mary for the first time so long ago, I begin to place things back into boxes. I find one more tape I have not heard yet in these days of reunion. Sitting here in my Mother’s old white chair, I listen to Mary’s voice as the light appears. She tells me:

There is such a sense that falling into the collective pattern of any solution to life is only a stop gap—that the real experience of loving and living, finding one’s way, in the end, is individual.

There is no published book written by Mary Whitehouse about her work, no film that she produced before she died. When Gilda Frantz  interviewed Mary in the beginning of the 1970’s,  Mary spoke about authentic movement: “To get to this authenticity a sacrifice is involved . . . the personal arrangement of movement on many levels”. Maybe Mary’s book would have required a “personal arrangement” of words in such a way that would have required a betrayal of what she knew to be true, what she called the “Tao of the body”. Maybe it was the book that had to be sacrificed.

Instead of her book, for me, there is something so precious, something grand, living well with an integrity at its roots, growing now across the world, regardless of the psychological or spiritual contexts within which it is offered. Such vital work exists because Mary Whitehouse took her unique and essential turn as a pioneer in authentic explorations within the unfolding realm of embodied awareness.

 

Endnotes

(1) All indented quotations are from the author’s private collection.

(2) The Mary Starks Whitehouse Institute (1981). Northampton, MA.

(3) Haze, Neala with Tina Stromstead. “An Interview with Janet Adler.” In Authentic Movement; Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler, and Joan Chodorow. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Pub., 1999.

(4) Charlotte Selver brought Elsa Gindlerʼs Sensory Awareness work to the United States in 1923 and continued to develop it until her death in 2003.

References

Adler, Janet. Offering from the Conscious Body: The Discipline of Authentic Movement. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002.

Hendricks, Kathlyn. “What I learned from Mary: Reflections on the work of Mary Starks Whitehouse.” American Journal of Dance Therapy 32, (2010).

Pallaro, Patrizia, ed. Authentic Movement: Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishing Co., 1999.

Pallaro, Patrizia, ed. Authentic Movement: Moving the Body, Moving the Self, Being Moved. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishing Co., 2007.

Ramsey, Mary. “A dancing Spirit: An Interview with Edith Sullwold.” A Moving Journal, 2 (3) 4-6, 12. (1995).

Whitehouse, M.S. “Teacher, leader, mediator”.  A Moving Journal, 9 (1), 3 – 7. (2002).

 

 

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