–by Daniel Mackler
[Written in late 2006.]
Elnora Van Winkle was clearly a complex person. She had a combination of passion about the psychological healing process and she had deep insight into the nature of human beings, mental illness, and emotional conflicts, and yet in part she was deeply off the mark in these same areas. I write this paper to tease out what was correct in her point of view and what was incorrect, because Van Winkle herself saw her own arguments as being so foolproof that she dismissed as being in denial anyone who contradicted her.
I initially approached the subject of Van Winkle and her therapeutic hypotheses because I read on my website’s bulletin board about people who had undergone her therapy methods and saw great value in them. Naturally this piqued my curiosity, and all the more so when I found that some of the emotional logic upon which she based her arguments overlaps with my own point of view.
When she wrote the following, I felt as if I was reading something similar to what I myself might have written:
When people abuse you now you are likely to over-react because your anger, which may now be rage, is a mix of anger that was suppressed in childhood and your anger at the current abuser. [Van Winkle, 2001, FAQ]
The most profound and long-lasting influence one individual has on another is in the parent/child relationship. [Van Winkle, 2000a]
When parents mistreat or neglect their children, whether physically or emotionally, they nearly always force them to suppress their justifiable anger, and this sets up a pattern of suppressing emotions throughout life. [Van Winkle, 2000a]
Van Winkle, however, takes her ideas in a direction slightly different from my own. She writes:
Childhood abuse in itself is enervating, but the primary cause of mental illness is the continual suppression of emotions. [Van Winkle, 2000a]
I find this idea worth studying, and I will address it in depth later in the paper. In the meantime, I will study one way in which Van Winkle takes a step I wouldn’t dare take: she offers what she claims is irrefutable biochemical evidence to back up her point of view. I read both of her biochemical papers (links provided in the reference section below) and felt them to be scientifically weak, more along the lines of dogmatism and demagoguery than real science, but as I lack sufficient education in neuroscience, I was not able to take my point of view beyond that of a strong hunch.
One of the anonymous visitors to her web forum from the year 2000 addressed some of the very concerns I had when I initially read her point of view, and Van Winkle’s answer is telling.
On her forum (a link is provided in the reference section), her visitor wrote:
I am finding it increasingly difficult to sort out my feelings and responses to issues when being pointed to the pamphlet as the answer to everything. I now perceive the pamphlet as vague and almost a “mantra”. [posted 7/19/00.]
Van Winkle replied:
…It seems you have not studied the simple biological concept in the pamphlet (or the other articles on my sites) to understand that it is not necessary to connect the specifics of current interactions with specifics of past trauma, but only to accept that you have repressed anger related to early caretakers, and that this anger is being triggered in current interactions by current abusers. The self help measures in the pamphlet are based on the toxic mind theory, which is proven by over fifty years of scientific research, and have been fully effective for all who used them as described. ‘It works if you work it.’ There is nothing vague in the pamphlet, and unless you study it and believe in it, there is nothing I can do to be of help in your recovery. [From her forum, 7/19/00.]
Translation: Believe it because I say it to be true! It’s not vague…because I say it’s not vague.
(But there’s a problem: it is vague.)
Van Winkle wrote in several places that psychiatrists, whom she was trying to convince of her “Toxic Mind Theory” – which disavows psychiatric medications – would not take her work seriously because they were too committed to prescribing medications and thus could not afford to have their whole point of view flipped on its head.
From Van Winkle’s web forum [posted 12/9/99]:
In 1962 we discovered a toxin in the urine of schizophrenics. We didn’t understand it’s [sic] significance, but my theory now explains this. I spent several years in the medical library searching for more evidence for this theory and there is NO evidence in the literature that does NOT support it. It is a very revolutionary view of neurotransmission, and those who are intent on drugging people, and suppressing the very symptoms that are healing, are not likely to support this. My former colleagues acknowledged this theory, but have since avoided me. Most of them are pursuing psychopharmacology.
That led me to contact my colleague Grace Jackson, M.D., an internationally respected psychiatrist who writes and lectures about the potentially devastating effects of psychiatric medication, to assess Van Winkle’s hypotheses. I felt Dr. Jackson, who is one of the most outspoken voices in the psychiatric community about the dangers OF psychiatric medication, would be perfect to do such a review, because she would have none of the motives which Van Winkle ascribed above.
The results of Dr. Jackson’s analysis of Van Winkle’s hypothesis is, to be blunt, scientifically scathing, flipping on its head each of Van Winkle’s basic claims, and showing them to be outdated, simplistic, or just simply wrong (Jackson, 2006). Because of this one might be tempted, however, to dismiss all further therapeutic claims made by Van Winkle, but I would hold this to be erroneous, though Van Winkle herself essentially begs for such a rejection, and hinges the entire strength of her therapeutic claims on the utter correctness of her biochemical hypotheses.
After all, to the questioning visitor above, she wrote:
The self help measures in the pamphlet are based on the toxic mind theory, which is proven by over fifty years of scientific research […] and unless you study it and believe in it, there is nothing I can do to be of help in your recovery. [From her forum, 7/19/00.]
And a few months earlier, on 1/4/00, Van Winkle wrote on her forum:
Yes, this self therapy is not new, but the discovery of the biology has provided the proof that the many methods that seem to come naturally to people are effective.
Translation: If my Toxic Mind theory is incorrect then “the many therapy methods that seem to come naturally to people” have no proof of being effective. I do not agree with this.
Van Winkle takes it further, however, and even admits how and why her own self-therapy method, called “redirecting” – that is, redirecting one’s present anger at one’s past abusers – is not really even hers. She learned it at the Caron Foundation, a psychological treatment center in Pennsylvania.
From her forum, posted 8/18/00:
I learned redirecting at the Caron Foundation at a week long program for dysfunctional families where we set up little scenes like you just did feeling yourself in a crib and then screaming at your Mom. I did just that in a group at Caron, my group members pretended they were my parents ignoring me, and then the therapist gave me a bataka and I pounded on a pillow and yelled.
It is also noteworthy that Timm (interviewed in Mackler, 2006b) points out that it was Van Winkle’s time at the Caron Foundation itself that effected the beginnings of her life’s last stage of emotional demise. It was after her time at Caron that she lost the poise she had built in ten years of AA sobriety – albeit, likely only a premature and somewhat dissociated poise that AA praises – and disintegrated into a more overt expression of mental illness, with rage and inappropriate blame spilling out indiscriminately.
But before I address Van Winkle’s “Redirecting Self-Therapy” method, I would like to study Van Winkle herself as a person, not as a self-therapist or psychological theorist. For this I rely most heavily on the interview I conducted with Fred Timm, who is a friend and colleague of mine, and was a close friend of Van Winkle’s from 1982 through 1992, a conflicted friend through 1996, and estranged from her up until a day or two before her death in 2001 (Mackler, 2006b). Timm provided a candid interview about her as a person, and while much of it corroborates her own self-evaluation, it conflicts with her representation of herself on several key points.
According to Timm, Van Winkle was hardly the healed woman she claimed she became. As for her claims of proof of her being healed, these references should suffice:
The self therapy based on this discovery brought my remaining symptoms swiftly to an end. This self therapy is on the Internet in many languages, and persons from around the world with differently diagnosed disorders [such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, etc.] have reached virtually full and permanent recovery in periods from a few months to a year or so. [Van Winkle, 2000b, “Autobiography.”]
Proven to work in theory and practice… [Van Winkle, 1999, The Biology of Emotions]
All those who used the self help as described recovered permanently. [Van Winkle, 1999, The Biology of Emotions]
On the flip side, Van Winkle corroborates Timm’s perspective by describing having had what amounted to a nervous breakdown in 1999. This not quite mature response came to pass after she was rejected, supposedly because of her own history of schizophrenia, from speaking on the same bill as her idol Alice Miller at a convention.
I was furious at [the convention organizer who rejected me], but I knew to redirect my rage at my parents. I had a fever of 104 for over a week, high for someone my age. It was my increased metabolism helping me to detox. I raged on and off for several weeks and this is what brought me to post flood [i.e. nearly emotionally healed]. It was at this time I had the bruise marks from where I was held upside down at birth because I also raged at the doctor who assisted my mother. [Posted on her web forum, 7/4/00.]
Fred Timm also stated he saw her in passing on the street in New York City a few times toward the end of her life and that she appeared overtly mentally ill – “hunched over and furious, like someone babbling…like a street person.” [Mackler, 2006b.]
It is also possible that Van Winkle was exaggerating the degree of her cure to promote her own therapy method; she certainly wouldn’t be the first. Also, she might have deluded herself – she, who speaks freely of her history of delusions – into believing she was more cured to bring herself the comfortable feeling of self-righteousness and self-justification. And she would not be the first psychological theorist to do this. Her own guru, Alice Miller, has done it at various points in her own writing career [Mackler, 2006a]. And of course she would not be the first severely mentally ill person – if Van Winkle did remain mentally ill, as Timm contends, to the end of her life – to do such a thing. Delusional people – even overtly schizophrenic homeless people – often think they are the only ones who can see reality and that everyone who contradicts them is crazy.
Along these lines, on 2/2/01, six months before her death, Van Winkle wrote on her forum:
Toxic minds are delusional minds, and the world is running on delusion. Post flood people [i.e. people who are nearly emotionally healed, such as herself] are normal.
The idea that Van Winkle remained at least partially delusional to the end of her life is corroborated with her false notion that her biochemical theories are irrefutable. She clings to them with the fervor of the delusional. I can only speculate how she would have reacted to reading Jackson’s critique of her work, but I suspect, both from reading Van Winkle’s statements and from having personally worked with countless delusional people, that she would have found a way – and a simple, forceful way – to dismiss Jackson’s critique. I suspect that Van Winkle would have “discovered” – that is, created – a motive in Jackson by which to dismiss Jackson’s realistically scientific critiques.
For instance, on 3/31/00 Van Winkle wrote on her web forum:
But the real reason I think scientists will not accept this theory is becasue [sic] of personal denial about their own need for recovery. The proof for the theory is not in statistics, which cannot cover all variables, and are often misleading, but in proven physiological mechanisms based on years of research.
So the “proof for the theory” is in “proven” mechanisms – despite the fact that in her own paper – published in Medical Hypotheses (as opposed to Medical PROOFS!) – Van Winkle herself describes her ideas as mere hypotheses! It is no wonder that few, if any, scientists took her seriously, because she violates the basic principles of science, just as delusional people violate the basic principles of reality.
But Van Winkle goes on:
Most researchers, especially in the USA, want to have their theories proven by some recent exciting discovery or misleading statistics. They have buried the phsyiology [sic] textbooks beneath piles of reprints about current experiments. They have buried the very source of valid proof. [from her web forum, 3/31/00.]
It is worthwhile to note here that Jackson provides us with a comprehensive list of selected, non-buried references, in case we care to question Jackson’s writings themselves (Jackson, 2006). Thus Jackson shows us a thing or two about good science.
Also, it is also noteworthy that Van Winkle was not entirely honest about other things in her writings. For instance, she was not a “retired neuroscientist,” as she claimed in her scientific papers. According to Timm she did not retire from the field, but fell out its bottom because of psychiatric breakdowns. She then remained on psychiatric disability to the end of her life, though she occasionally did cleaning work for extra money, which she corroborates in her “Confessions of a Schizophrenic,” written in the year 2000.
Also, she minimizes a key aspect that Timm notes about her relationship with her elderly aunt (about whom she shared regularly on her forum): that her aunt was a provider of financial support throughout Van Winkle’s life, and gave her very generous financial gifts – including vacation cruises.
Instead, on her web forum on 3/16/01 Van Winkle notes about her aunt:
My 95 year old aunt was severely depressed last year. She’s in a retirement residence in Illinois. I used to go out a lot and try to be there for her. At one time they took her off anti-depressants and at that time she was begging me to go out and stay with her. She hoped I would move in. Thank God, they put her back on the antidepressent [sic]. I told her the truth about her co-dependency with me–that I could not be there for her. That it wasn’t fair to me for her to expect me to go there and be there for her. I was very blunt with her and told her she had to lean on the people at the residence to help her.
This is disturbing, and especially so when you consider how supposedly anti-medication Van Winkle is, and how this aunt had been helping to financially support Van Winkle in her adulthood. Clearly her philosophy and point of view relax when it doesn’t suit her.
In this vein, Van Winkle counsels people to beware of confronting parents or parental figures too harshly for fear of losing one’s inheritance. In 6/30/00 she wrote on her web forum:
Be careful not to confront parents directly [i.e. my wealthy aunt] and risk losing out on inheritance. You earned it.
And furthermore, a year later, on 6/5/01, she wrote publicly to one of her readers:
PLEASE DO NOT rush to go off Soc. Sec. disablity [sic]…You earned it. Wait a good long time after using the RST [Redirecting Self-Therapy], maybe a year is needed to get through the muddy basin period and know what will be best for your future life.
In her Frequently Asked Questions, though, she notes that the “muddy basin” period – in which you supposedly resolve ALL of the remaining unresolved anger in your psyche – can last the rest of your life:
There is what I call the ‘muddy basin’ period … which can last a good year or more, or perhaps will linger indefinitely.
Are you therefore supposed to remain on disability – dependent on the government (as Van Winkle herself did) forever – if you can’t fully heal the last of your unresolved anger, an anger which she notes that most people in the world are not even close to being aware of? Thus, according to her logic, is everyone in the world supposed to be on “well-earned” disability? Who does the work then and pays for her disability?
Her advice here directly contradicts her psychological theories. If emotional freedom means firstly having to squelch one’s anger and be nice to parental figures in order to insure one’s inheritance and secondly having to fake insanity in order to stay indefinitely dependent on the government’s psychiatric disability, then this doesn’t speak well for the deeper truth of a theory that preaches fully accepting one’s own appropriate anger and having honest, mutually independent relationships with others. Instead it speaks of holding back your truth and anger when it suits you financially!
Thus it is important to take Van Winkle’s theories with a big grain of salt – and yet not to write them off entirely. For instance, although I totally agree with Jackson’s dismantling of Van Winkle’s scientific arguments, I don’t want to imply that Van Winkle’s science had NO relevance at all. I find it highly relevant – but similarly relevant in the way a schizophrenic’s delusions and hallucinations are relevant: not relevant literally, but relevant metaphorically. And because Van Winkle failed to see the difference, the work is left to us.
For starters, I think Van Winkle hits the nail on the head with many aspects of her point of view, and I admire her for this. I think repressed anger over one’s childhood traumas is a terrible contributor to all forms of mental illness, from the mild to the severe, and that if people can find appropriate ways to release their anger, and quit either squelching it or acting it out through modern repetitions of ancient dynamics, then they truly have a much greater chance of healing.
That said, Van Winkle underestimates the role of grieving, probably in large part because she did much less grieving than raging and thus understood it much less and could give it little more than lip service. A simple search of her 1,098 postings on her web forum brings up 642 posts containing the word “anger,” 225 with the word “angry,” 133 with “rage,” and a mere 101 for “crying,” ninety-eight for “grief,” eight for “grieving,” and only two for “mourning.”
Nevertheless, I agree with Van Winkle that very few people, and an equally rare few psychological theorists, are healthy enough to feel any realistic measure of their anger at their perpetrators – primarily their parents. Likewise, it is no surprise that Van Winkle relies heavily on the work of Alice Miller – and even Judith Herman – to buttress her point of view, just as I do. Granted, Van Winkle views Miller and Herman much less critically than I do, and tends to follow their lead and focus more on the extreme cases of abuse and trauma, to the exclusion of the milder varieties, which, oddly enough, she claims formed her personal childhood experience. But regardless, her reliance on these theorists helps her build a strong case. I respect her for this – and am drawn to her for it.
She also leans heavily on certain ideas from twelve step programs, particularly Alcoholics Anonymous, to bolster her arguments, and on her web forum she came across like an AA “sponsor” publicly dispensing written advice to AA “sponsees” all over the world. Although her boundaries are often loose, much of her advice is not bad, actually, though she tends to play herself up as something of the guru, which of course is suspect.
However, certain aspects of her point of view, for instance her dietary advice, leave me questioning. My suspicion – not dissimilar to my early hunch about her biochemical theories – is that she fails to base her ideas on sound nutritional science, but as I am not a nutritionist and don’t have a nutritionist version of a Dr. Grace Jackson as a colleague, I will have to leave it as a suspicion for now. That said, Fred Timm told me that when Van Winkle was in the hospice dying of pancreatic cancer in 2001 she had an old church friend of hers running all over the city looking for organic watermelon, as if that would save her (Timm, 2006). I cannot judge, however, if that incident was the exception or the rule, though it certainly indicates a slightly addled state of mind regarding diet.
But again, I find it easy to drift into criticisms of Van Winkle as a person rather than address my criticisms to her point of view. Yet this is understandable when one considers how strongly Van Winkle based her point of view on her own experience. Granted, she relied on the testimonials of others to support the efficacy of her point of view. Interestingly, those anonymous claimants were the same people who wrote the most correspondence on her web forum – and seemed to have the most projections and mother transferences onto her, which does not speak so highly of their levels of independence and healing.
Also, when one considers that on her forum she was the mother-guru and her followers were like children seeking her love and support – and got it when they praised her methods, and presumably were much less likely to get their ideas printed on her public forum list, which she controlled, unless they agreed with her – one can consider that such people might have some motivation to exaggerate their claims of healing. Autocratic parent figures tend to create that sort of willful obedience in their followers. Hear Van Winkle in her own words on that very forum, less than a year before she died:
It’s interesting that some one in denial said about Alice Miller that she was ‘self centered and autocratic.’ I get this criticism too and consider it a compliment. In sharing our experiences with each other this kind of self centeredness and autocracy is what is healing the world. [10/15/00]
This is scary, and sounds eerily close to the corruption to which so many are susceptible to when they gain absolute power – if only over a web forum.
Meanwhile, although Van Winkle had not been a practicing neuroscientist for decades, she refused to even engage in debate about her scientific theories with non-neuroscientists.
From her forum, 2/2/01:
If you are neuroscientists, I will be happy to discuss the biology [of my theories] with you. If you are not, but question the science, I can’t debate it with you. The self help measures in the article, The Biology of Emotions, are based on the toxic mind theory, and because the theory is true, the self help measures work if you work them. 100% of persons who used them as suggested have been relieved of chronic anxiety and depression and in time of emotional disorders and addictions.
Yet on the flip side she behaved very unscientifically in being more than willing to post non-neuroscientists’ testimonials that claimed her biochemical theories were true. Where is the fairness in that?
Meanwhile, I return again to the essence of Van Winkle’s therapeutic point of view, which I will attempt to condense: Don’t be angry at the wrong people, and don’t block your anger – find out who wronged you early in your life and get angry at them, though not in person, but in your mind, and acted out in the privacy of your present life.
I mostly agree with what this idea, and see how it could be very beneficial to many. Blocked anger can be deadly and destructive and often does play out in any number of ways – from the mental to the physical to the interactional. To me this is no mystery and has been consonant with my point of view for years. This is just good therapeutic common sense, though of course many seem to lack this common sense and still desperately hold to keeping everything that is painfully emotional swept under the rug – and criminalizing those who “blame the parents.”
By the same token, however, I, unlike Van Winkle, recognize and make a point of stating and restating how dangerous unearthed traumas can be if we do not do the healing work of inner exploration, emotional discharge, and resolution in a safe and structured environment – be it in a healthy therapeutic relationship with a mature and boundaried therapist or with oneself and one’s inner structure in self-therapy. The fact that few people and few psychotherapists can offer themselves or others this emotional structure is a point that Van Winkle never addresses – because it seems she lacked it in her own life.
Thus, in the same way that Jackson assesses Van Winkle’s biochemical theories as simplistic, I level the same charge against her self-therapy theories. If simply getting angry and raging at past abuses and abusers were enough – and enough to cure someone in a matter of weeks to a few months to a year, as Van Winkle contended – then I and many others would have been fully healed, and thus fully enlightened, many times over. And Van Winkle would have experienced this too. This is why I am only led to conclude that Van Winkle wrote from a delusional perspective about her degree of healing and a delusional view of the Caron Foundation’s notion that radical, condensed healing is safe and effective.
There is a serious risk in blasting open repressed traumas and connecting to one’s buried fury, and yet often, in my experience, people who become rageful spewers of the Van Winkle variety find a great comfort and pleasure in it. They become like tantruming children: they believe they are right all the time for no other reason than they feel right, and if anyone contradicts them then the other person is inherently wrong, because, of course, tantruming children believe THEY ARE RIGHT BECAUSE THEY FEEL RIGHT. Their logic is circular, and if they cannot break their own perspective’s airtight seal and self-reflect upon the possibility that they just might be wrong, or heaven forbid very wrong, they end up alienating everyone close to them.
As Fred Timm noted in his interview about Van Winkle:
It was just like I watched [Ellie Van Winkle] push everybody away and attack them. I remember the priest at church said, “Ellie can’t take any personal responsibility. In Ellie’s world it’s everybody’s fault but Ellie’s.” [Mackler, 2006b.]
Such people can always justify their own rightness easily. And all the more so easily when none of their followers, such as seemed to be the case with Van Winkle, even know them in person and only know them through internet exchanges, or perhaps at times via long-distance telephone contact.
This is why people who cannot self-reflect on their own inappropriate behavior – and instead always justify their own anger as being appropriate and mature and correct – often end up socially isolated, as both Timm and Van Winkle herself note that she became in her later years.
On 2/23/00 Van Winkle wrote the following in her web forum:
I wanted to mention that most of my socializing in the past was with codependent friends. […] Those relationships fell apart as I became healthy and I did wonder if I was meant to isolate and be estranged from the world for the rest of my life.
But Van Winkle’s justification for her social isolation deserves some attention. She stated that there was no one in her direct social life who was “post-flood,” that is, according to her definition, had released “about” 95% of their pent-up historical anger and the corresponding evil neurochemicals which she believed toxify the brain.
From her “Frequently Asked Questions” of 2001:
Post flood is not a sudden point of cure, but an arbitrary point chosen as a goal, when about 95% of the repressed anger is gone, and mood swings are minimal. … You can become post flood in a few weeks to a few months.
I question if it is even possible to quantify how much anger we each hold inside. Perhaps it is, but if I would take a stab at such a quantification myself, I would believe that the healthiest living people in the world have at best discharged 50% of their repressed anger, and likely much less. Yet because repressed anger and grief are unconscious, it is easy for people to feel happy, confident, and good about themselves while radically underestimating how traumatized and rageful and forlorn they really are. After all, dissociation (that is, being split-off from one’s deeper self and traumas) mimics enlightenment. Even Oliver Sacks noted this phenomenon, in the case of a severely brain damaged man who became worshiped by his Hare Krishna associates because they mistook his declining mental state and seeming retardation for enlightenment! [Sacks, 1995.]
Meanwhile, it seems Van Winkle went with what I see as her delusion that the quickest way to become “post-flood” was to come to her website, accept her (erroneous) biochemical theories on faith alone, and follow her self-therapy methods.
Those who embraced her point of view became her new family, and from them – and through them – she found solace, peace, and a stopgap for her loneliness. In this vein, but on a more extreme level, many people diagnosed with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders use their imaginary voices and fantasy relationships and delusions to protect them from their loneliness, and find the healing process of waking up to reality – if they ever take the step toward reality – to be very painful and emotionally jarring. I have personally witnessed this process several times.
Meanwhile, if Van Winkle’s relationship with her internet followers (and with her elderly aunt, and with the United States government who faithfully paid her psychiatric disability for decades) wasn’t codependent – codependency being Van Winkle’s dreaded bugaboo, her philosophy’s purported root of all ills – then I don’t what is.
Van Winkle defines codependency as follows:
…co-dependencies are relationships formed (unconsciously) for the purpose of re-enacting the parental relationships. We are attracted to people who are like our parents, and there is a physiological need for these relationships because they are opporunities [sic] to release and redirect the justifiable anger we should have been allowed to have as children. [from her web forum, 10/5/99]
This definition is partially good, but it entails an over-focus on anger and a misfire in acknowledging the other emotions and needs that get played out in the relational reenactments. This allowed Van Winkle firstly to define her behavior in later life as non-codependent – that is, emotionally independent and mature – and secondly to remain blind to her own immaturities, inappropriateness, and illogic, which both Timm and Jackson (and hopefully I!) make clear.
On this subject, Van Winkle held high hopes for immature romantic relationships to the end of her life – to the point that her last post on her web forum, only weeks before she died, was an attempt to begin forming a dating circle for her followers – or at least those who were “post-flood” and thus supposedly healthy enough to be non-codependent.
She wrote, on 7/23/01:
I have this idea that my purpose in life will be to have a dating service for post flood people. This is why I started the second group, which is interactive and some of you have joined when you became post flood.
This suggests that she was attempting to implement the beginnings of a literal cult-like community where she herself was the matriarch. Of course, she had her reasons. She was lonely (whether she admitted it to herself or not), she was isolated, she presumably suspected – or outright knew – she was dying, and she felt her legacy slipping away, and she wanted to concretize her following for all time – and perhaps she even wanted a last minute boyfriend-parental-figure to come rescue her. The only problem is that her ideas were based on a heap of partially fallacious assumptions.
Yet in spite of this, what can we take from the work of Van Winkle? I believe we first have to give credence to her ideas that repressed anger is deadly. I respect that. But I also respect the slow and gentle process, and the massive amount of self-studying that is necessary to gain anything approximating a realistic perspective on who we really are. Forget engaging in healing for “a few weeks to a year.” Van Winkle even denigrates Janov’s primal therapy, upon which much of her point of view is based.
On 11/28/00 she wrote on her forum:
I have friends who have been in primal therapy for twenty years and are not post primal, whereas people who are post flood (same as post primal) have been reaching this point in a few weeks.
I just shake my head. Weeks? Try instead years and years of ongoing inner work. That has been my experience both professionally and personally. The deeper traumas are so dangerously insidious and imprinted into our psyche from our earliest childhood, from the moldings of our family systems and from the conditional love by which we survived, and formed the very emotional sustenance that we drank for so many years, that we are lucky if we progress at all on this journey. This leads me again to question how much healing Elnora Van Winkle really did. I suspect that it was some, because something broke her out of the overt schizophrenia with which she supposedly had been diagnosed. Something gave her the courage to step out of the box life presented her, something gave her the courage to get angry, something gave her the courage to go to therapy and keep on struggling – but something also massively blocked her way.
I suspect Van Winkle gave up her healing process in a big way, and just dissociated instead to find her seeming peace and pleasure in life. According to Fred Timm (personal communication, 2006), Van Winkle used her very theories to bolster her unconscious justification for not facing her childhood issues, and just used them to hide from the deeper truth – and even emotionally withdrew into them.
Self-therapy, if it is really to resolve deep and ancient rage, is hell, and the hell doesn’t end so quickly. Getting out the anger and directing it appropriately is vital, but so is feeling the grief. All the grief. Lucky are the few who can handle some fraction of this hell. Much more common is the endpoint that Ellie Van Winkle came to and wrote about:
I just want to say that now I am at peace with my mother, whose disease was long ago buried with her. I feel her spirit is somewhere nearby helping to spread this means of recovery so that you and I and others can be reunited with our parents, if not in person, in spirit. [From her forum, 5/14/00.]
The anger I directed toward my parents using the self help was not in person but was directed at their sickness. My anger is gone, and I now love them completely and feel their love for me. [From her forum, 8/2/00.]
Arriving at this dissociative viewpoint is much easier if one had never even uncovered the deeper traumas of one’s childhood. Van Winkle let herself off the hook by stating that she felt she was not really even abused by conventional standards.
In her paper The Biology of Emotions (1999), she wrote:
I was not an abused child by society’s standards, but was left by my mother in my crib to ‘cry it out’ and listened to my father rage, not at me but at my mother, brother, and sister.
This may be true, but I find it highly unlikely that it is the whole story. My experience has shown me that people like Van Winkle who develop schizophrenia and engage in severe drug abuse and marry alcoholic gamblers and remain on psychiatric disability for decades and end up isolated and alone in their lives almost always experienced horrible childhood abuse, if only emotional, though much worse than what Van Winkle described and certainly from which she never recovered.
But how to resolve these traumas? For starters, we don’t need scientific explanations. They can help, but they are incidental, and in my experience when people are too drawn to them and cling to them and can’t move forward without solid scientific evidence on their side – even when it’s the best Nobel Prize-winning evidence – it’s usually a sign that they’re terrified to look within. After all, looking within and healing from within are terrifying, and nothing feels scarier and more out of control than sitting alone with one’s unresolved, unfettered, and vulnerable feelings from childhood.
But looking within offers the most huge and powerful palette from which to work. The answers that the human spirit provide know no bounds, while the answers that biochemical science can provide are rudimentary at best. For all our modern medical and neurological technology, their area of proof remains small.
That said, I would love to provide scientific evidence – or even scientifically provable hypotheses – for my point of view, but I don’t yet dare to presume to try. I do not yet feel ready to measure the distance to the moon with a yardstick. Yes, like Van Winkle I was trained in biology. But unlike Van Winkle I don’t fool myself into thinking the answers to life’s deepest questions are in the chemicals in our brain or urine. The answers are in our heart. If we resolve and thus heal our traumas, through raging and grieving and gaining insight and assiduously exploring our psyches and souls, then we will be able to feel and know the answers, and not feel a delusional version of them that we spread to the world in a desperate outreach for others, as did Van Winkle. And yet this is the challenge: to heal enough to have an inner insight consonant with truth. Like Van Winkle, I believe I am onto truth. I don’t grasp it perfectly, because I remain partially traumatized, but I believe I have for more insight than she does.
Meanwhile, I agree with Van Winkle that everything that goes on inside of us emotionally has a biochemical correlate, but that doesn’t mean we can ever uncover, much less prove, every iota of it. To consider the possibility, much less to claim it with eyes-closed stubbornness and determination, is a sign of grandiose delusion. There is a comfort in living in grandiose delusion, especially if others believe in you and tout your point of view, as many who surrounded Van Winkle on the internet touted hers – and many religious followers tout the delusions of their gurus and leaders. But that doesn’t make it right.
The search to know truth is tough!
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Mackler, D. (2006a). An Analysis of the Limits of Alice Miller.
Sacks, O. (1995). An Anthropologist On Mars. Chapter: The Last Hippie. Pp. 42-76. Knopf. New York.
Timm, F. (2006). Personal Communication.
Van Winkle, E. (1999-2001). Web forum
Van Winkle, E. (1999). The Biology of Emotions: Self help for anxiety and depression.
Van Winkle, E. (2000a). The toxic mind: the biology of mental illness and violence. Medical Hypotheses 2000; 55(4): 356-368. See also: http://www.redirectingselftherapy.com/toxicmind.html
Van Winkle, E. (2000b). (Autobiography) The toxic mind: confessions of a schizophrenic.
Van Winkle, E. (2001). FAQ; Frequently Asked Questions.