Estés, Clarissa Pinkola: 1943—: Writer, Psychologist

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Clarissa Pinkola Estés: 1943: Writer, psychologist

When Clarissa Pinkola Estés went on a journey of self-discovery, she never intended to make a living telling the stories that made up her personal identity as woman and an individual. Yet with the publication of Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, Estés directed the field of women's studies toward the study of the self through storytelling, both in reciting individual unique stories as well as putting the individual self into myths and tales to decipher how the concept of self and womanhood has been constructed by society. Estés, who worked her way up from poverty into the realm of academia, breaks down large issues of social psychology into simple stories that all women can relate to, and many readers use her books to answer questions about themselves they had yet to even consider.

Childhood Embraced by Storytelling

Clarissa Pinkola Estés was born on January 27, 1943, in Indiana. The date of her birth has become somewhat less clear in recent years. Initially, her year of birth was listed as 1943, but in later interviews, she changed her year of birth to 1946 and later still to 1949; however, the most commonly cited date is 1943. When asked in interviews about her age, Estés declined to reveal how old she is, and so the differences in dates of birth may be her attempt to muddy the dates and create some mystery about her age. Estés is equally reluctant to provide biographical information. In the 1994 Marquis Who's Who, her entry consisted of about 150 words. In later editions of this book, the entry is reduced to ten words, presumably at her request. Thus her past, except for whatever information she chooses to tell in her books, remained less well known than that of other best-selling authors.

Yet much is still known about Estés' early years. She was born to Cepción Ixtiz and Emilio Maria Reyés, who were mestizosMexicans of Spanish and Indian descent. At the time of her birth, her parents were Mexican laborers, who worked near the Michigan-Indiana border. From her parents, Estés learned to speak Spanish, but for reasons that Estés has never explained, she was given up for adoption when she was a small child. She was adopted when she was four years old by Maruska Hornyak and Joszef Pinkola, immigrant Hungarians, who were uneducated, and who, like her biological parents, could not read or write.

As a child, Estés was surrounded by people from many different traditions, most of whom were first generation Americans, immigrants who were not educated but who were the repositories of much knowledge, which they passed on through the stories that they had learned. In her household, the oral traditions of the European storyteller were an important part of everyday life. She was told stories and was expected to remember and retell the stories that she heard. Her family bought their first television when she was 12 or 13 years old, but this object did not replace the family's storytelling tradition. How strongly Estés felt about both the oral tradition of storytelling and the intrusion of the television as a replacement for this tradition was made clear in a 1997 speech before the Catholic Press Association's national convention. Estés told her listeners that the television has turned "into a hole in the wall in our houses that pours sewage into our homes." The promise that it once held as a storyteller has emerged instead to contribute to a picture of society that is akin to a river "overflowing with filth and garbage set afire." Instead of television, Estés found that her family's stories and her own love of books, which grew from a gift of books when she was 14, have led to a lifelong love of books, poetry, and writers.

At a Glance . . .

Born on January 27, 1943, in Indiana; three children. Education: Loretto Heights College, BA, 1976; The Union Institute, Cincinnati, OH, PhD 1981; The Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts, Zurich, Switzerland, post-doctoral diploma, 1984.

Career: Psychologist, 1971; "Writing as Liberation of the Spirit" developer and teacher, 1971; Women in Transition Safe House, Denver, co-coordinator, 1973-75; writer, 1992.

Memberships: C. G. Jung Center for Education and Research, executive director; Colorado Authors for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, co-founder and co-director; C.P. Estés Guadalupe Foundation in Colorado, founder.

Selected awards: Las Primeras Award, National Latina Foundation in Washington DC, MANA, 1992; Book of the Year Honor Award, American Booksellers Association, 1993; Colorado Authors League Award, 1993; The President's Medal for social justice, The Union Institute, 1994; Joseph Campbell Keepers of the Lore Award, Joseph Campbell Festival of Myth, Folklore, and Story, 1994; Associated Catholic Church Press award for Writing, 1994; The Gradiva Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis, New York, 1995.

Address: Agent Ned Leavitt Agency, 70 Wooster St., Suite 4-F, New York, NY 10012.

Self Exploration Lead to Nature and Education

In the introduction to her first book, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype (1992), Estés related that when she was a small child, she "was an aesthete rather than an athlete, and my only wish was to be an ecstatic wanderer." A love of art and of nature led her toward a different life. Rather than remaining indoors, she preferred "the ground, trees, and caves for in those places I felt I could lean against the cheek of God." Estés described her childhood as one of having "been brought up in nature." She learned about nature and about the history of the land by exploring and even digging in the dirt. She learned compassion for all things by observing animals and the necessity of death for the ill and old. In Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, she discussed her childhood and the joys of living in a rural, wooded location. Estés' first book also provided an opportunity to tell stories about her childhood. She especially loved winter in Michigan and the snow that it brought, "for these meant the time of flower blossoms on the river was coming." She also related that it was on a trip that she and her family took to Big Bass Lake in Michigan, that she first learned of the unity and love that women can find in the telling of stories. She says of this trip that she was about twelve years old, and after breakfast, she was playing near where the women were sunning themselves on chaise lounges. She heard riotous laughter, as they laughed at something one was reading. Later she came to understand that the women's shared laughter was a gift, a way to strengthen their lives. These women had been widowed by war, but although she understood that "none of us can entirely escape our history," she also understood that stories were a way to move toward healing.

After she completed high school, Estés began an odyssey that would lead her both to a career and to her future as a storyteller. In the 1960s she left Michigan and moved west, eventually settling in Colorado. She was looking for a place that was thick with trees, and that was densely populated with the animals that she had loved in the forests of Michigan, the fox, bear, eagle, and wolf. The wolf was being exterminated in much of the United States, and so Estés headed to the southwest in search of wolves. What she found, instead, were stories, especially stories about wolves, which occupy the opening chapter of her first book.

Estés, however, would not become a writer or a storyteller for many years. She married for the first time in 1967 and was divorced by 1974. Estés came out of the divorce in the custody of her three daughters and minimal child support, thrusting her into poverty. To make ends meet, Estés baked bread early every morning and took on other menial jobs. It was not long, however, before she realized that the best future for her family rested on her continuing her education. Estés enrolled at Loretto Heights College, a small Catholic college in Denver that has since been purchased by a group of Japanese businessmen and been renamed Teikyo Loretto Heights University. At Loretto Heights College, Estés earned a bachelor of arts with distinction in psychotherapeutics in 1976.

After graduating from Loretto Heights and securing schooling for her daughters, Estés traveled to Mexico to meet her birth family, where she found herself an accepted member of a second family. Like her Hungarian family, her birth family also had a strong tradition of storytelling. The stories that Estés learned were more than just entertainment or the passing down of oral traditions. Both her adopted and her biological cultures viewed such stories as a path to healing. There were lessons to be learned and paths suggested in both the telling and the listening that led to personal recovery. In her travels, she visited many communities in the American Midwest and Southwest, and in Central America, where she heard many more stories. Her love of both stories and of the diversity of culture led Estés to enroll in graduate school, and in 1981, she completed a doctorate in ethno-clinical psychology at The Union Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio. Estés' field of study included both clinical psychology and ethnology, the psychology of groups, especially tribes. While studying psychology, she studied the amplification of motifs in music, archetypal symbology, world mythology, ancient and popular visual motifs, ethnology, world religions, and fairy-tale interpretation. After she completed her Ph.D., she also completed a post-doctoral diploma in 1984, as a certified Jungian analyst from the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts in Zurich, Switzerland. Jung used storytelling as a way to study the archetypal patterns of the human unconscious, and so his approach fit well with Estés' own experience and interests. After completing her education, Estés became a Jungian analyst, but she remained a collector of myths, legends, and fairytales, in her a search for the female archetype.

Career in Storytelling Emerged

Estés was 25 when she began to write, although it would take nearly another 25 years before her first work would be published. Estés disciplined herself to write every day. She wrote down the stories that she heard, but she also wrote down other things, such as poetry that interested her. Over the many years that she was writing, she was also sending sections of the manuscript to publishers, but all she received in return were rejection letters. Then, when she was 45 years old, things took a turn for the better both privately and professionally. She met and married her second husband, a master sergeant in the Air Force. Shortly after, in 1989, Estés spoke about Carl Jung to a radio audience in Denver. Her approach on the radio was particularly engaging and popular. Very quickly her ease of speaking led to a contract with Sounds True Recordings to create audio tapes of her writings. Estés recorded a new tape every few months, and within a few months, Estés' tapes were the company's best selling product. Estés would eventually combine these tapes into a six-volume set called the Jungian Storyteller, and much like the individual tapes the series was financially successful.

Publishers began to hear about her success in selling audio tapes, and within a few months, at least six publishers were bidding on the rights to publish her book. With her audio tapes, Estés had a built-in audience for her book, but before it could be published, there was a lot of work to be completed. Estés had to revise and trim the first section of the more than 2500 pages that she had written into a more manageable length. It took her six months to get the book ready for publication. Estés' first book, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, was not an instant best seller, but within a few months, through word of mouth and excellent reviews, Estés' book was selling beyond anyone's initial anticipation. It held a place on The New York Times best-seller list for more than 70 weeks.

Because she was not able to attend college until she was in her twenties, Estés' writing style is a unique meld of influences, reflecting both her upbringing in an uneducated working class home and her later extensive university education. The result is an easy-to-grasp prose style that appeals to readers. She wrote as she spoke, in a relaxed first person narrative that combines the language of scholarship with the relaxed narrative style of a storyteller, which is how Estés most often identified herself. Women Who Run With the Wolves is made up of stories that she had heard and collected over several decades. Estés re-reads these stories from a woman's perspective. She looks for the hidden meanings in the story and not the conventional meanings assigned by the stories' much earlier male readers. Especially interesting are the stories that she now reads without the overlay of religious convention, such as the myth of Bluebeard. Without the overlay of Christianity, the pagan story of women's strength becomes an inspiring myth for women and not a story that denigrates women. Estés quite simply stripped away the interpretations that clouded the stories.

In a 1993 review of Women Who Run With the Wolves, written for the Montreal Gazette, Linda Helser reported that some readers were using the book in discussion meetings, in which they read a section from the book and then told something from their own lives that the reading recalled. Estés engagement with her readers has not gone unnoticed by the academic community. In "Covenants, Liminality, and Transformations: The Communicative Import of Four Narratives," a lengthy 2002 article that examined the works of several authors, including Estés, authors Marc D. Rich and Karen Rasmussen suggested that Estés' short story, "Guadalupe: The Path of the Broken Heart," is the kind of work that created "a covenant between the narrator and reader." The covenant is created when the reader takes an active role in the text. This is what has happened to Women Who Run With the Wolves ; women readers created discussion and study groups and then related their personal experiences to Estés' narrative.

However, not all women embraced the book. Some feminists were apparently disappointed that Estés seemed not to embrace their cause more completely. In a 1993 review written for The Vancouver Sun, Marke Andrews addressed this issue and noted that, "The fact that she hasn't come out and called for matriarchy to replace patriarchy has put her at odds with some feminists." Estés responded to this complaint by suggesting that matriarchy is not the answer to all the problems that women faced. Andrews quoted her as saying that, "A culture of decency that has regard for humans, regardless of gender and regardless of ethnic-itythat is more the idea to move toward. Rather than an idea of gender. Because there are women who have as much meanness as any man, and there can be men as nurturing as any woman."

Estés continued to write following the success of Women Who Run With the Wolves. The Gift of Story: A Wise Tale about What Is Enough is a rewriting of the O Henry story, The Gift of the Magi, now set in Hungary during World War II. A third book, The Faithful Gardener: A Wise Tale about That Which Can Never Die, included stories she had heard as a child from her Hungarian uncle, a World War II slave camp survivor. These stories also center on the burning of European forests during the war.

Continued to Respond in Storytelling

Estés sees herself as participating in the storyteller legacy. In her first book she related that "In my traditions there is a storyteller legacy, wherein one storyteller hands down his or her stories to a group of 'seeds.' 'Seeds' are storytellers who the master hopes will carry on the tradition as they learned it." Estés thought that stories and storytellers grow within the person. "The story is most successful if it changes the life of the teller."

Estés also saw stories as a medicine that have the power to repair or reclaim that part of the individual that has been lost to the pain of living. Estés does not abandon organized religion in favor of storytelling. Instead, she sees a compatibility of the two to co-exist, but she also is also careful to avoid controversy whenever she can. In 1997 she was the object of controversy when she was asked to speak at the Catholic Press Association national meeting. Stories about Estés' sympathy for lesbian and gay groups caught the attention of the media and a debate ensued over her suitability to speak at a Catholic function. When these questions were put to her, Estés refused to engage in any kind of theological debate, and when pressed on the issue, she told Pamela Schaeffer, a writer for the National Catholic Reporter, that, "Your faith is something you can spend lots of time debating or you can live it as best you can. That's not to demean in any way the agonies or the opinions of others. I understand faith to be a struggle, not a cake that's baked."

In spite of the controversy about her choice as speaker, no reference at the meeting was made to Estés' championing of gay and lesbian causes. Gay and lesbian issues are an important focus in her professional life. In addition to her work as an author and Jungian analyst, Estés is also the founder of the C.P. Estés Guadalupe Foundation in Colorado, which funds programs on lesbian and gay issues, in addition to its use of shortwave radio to broadcast programming to the people in oppressed countries worldwide.

Estés also found the need to respond to the issue of terrorism and the threat of psychological insecurity that terrorism created. In an essay written after the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, Estés offered some advice to help people cope with the many fears that terrorism had left in its wake and that had caused its victims to become frightened of the future and of life. She suggested that people "dwell on what strengthens you," and "refuse to dwell on what psychically depletes you of hope, contentment and ease." She also suggested such common sense approaches as eating well and getting sufficient rest. But perhaps her most important advice was that people should refuse to think that they are less able to cope than they were before the attack. Estés suggested that one way for any individual to heal is in the telling of his or her own story. She also suggested that people should remember that "each person telling their story over and over is the way to heal." This advice certainly is in keeping with Estés' function as a storyteller and her belief that storytelling is a medicine that heals the soul. Estés currently lives in northern Colorado and in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Selected writings

Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, Ballantine, 1992, revised edition, 1995.

The Gift of Story: A Wise Tale about What Is Enough, Ballantine, 1993.

The Faithful Gardener: A Wise Tale about That Which Can Never Die, Harper, 1995.

"Guadalupe: The Path of the broken Heart," published in Goddess of the Americas / La Diosa de las Americas: Writings on the Virgin of Guadalupe, edited by Ana Castillo, Riverhead, 1996, pp. 34-45.

"Healing From Terrorism Sickness," originally posted at The Shalom Center,, 2001.



Estés, Clarissa Pinkola, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, Ballantine, 1992, revised edition, 1995.


American Communications Journal, Fall 2002, pp. 1-2.

Gazette (Montreal), December 13, 1993, p. F3.

National Catholic Reporter, May 16, 1997, pp. 3, 8.

Vancouver Sun, June 23, 1993, p. C4


"Healing From Terrorism Sickness," The Shalom Center, (May 21, 2003).

Sheri Elaine Metzger and Ralph Zerbonia