The Mother Tongue

Why women’s initiation stories require a uniquely feminine language.

I gave my mother a copy of Women Who Run With the Wolves for her birthday when I was 16. It was both a well-meaning and a snot-nosed, prescriptive gesture; My mother was and remains a hard-line pragmatist who once dismissed psychotherapy as a form of “crawling up your own ass.” She would eviscerate any book that bore even a whiff of Self-Help. But I scanned the first few pages and realised that she could read it as she did the Joyce or Tolstoy she squeezed into her few free minutes before sleep — as literature. From the first page, Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ voice established for me what Yusef Komunyakaa calls the “music of trust” between reader and writer; I trusted her language and rhythm, her obsession with style; I trusted this voice to render something deep and true — and I thought my mother might catch and ride some of this trust, too.

But she didn’t venture far; the book floated quickly from my mother’s bedside to a bookshelf. So I read it, and managed to cart a copy from one shitty apartment to the next all through my twenties. I would open it at random in moments of (frequent) indecision or crisis, after praying for whatever clarifying wisdom I didn’t possess at the time. It was one of the few books I took with me from Seattle to London where I moved with my husband a couple of years ago, and it was the one I poured myself into during the wild bouts of insomnia that seized me in the first month of our arrival. In the wee wee wee hours of those weirdly ecstatic and sleepless nights I saw myself as the capsizing protagonist in every story: I was the girl seduced by the shiny red shoes and dancing to her death; I was the seal woman who lives with the man who stole her pelt until she is thin and dry; I was Bluebeard’s dewy-eyed and hapless wife who didn’t get enough home training to spot a predator; I was the weeping woman combing a dead river with long stick fingers for the creative progeny she had drowned years before.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Liberated from the specificity of history, it is the gift of a fable to let us jump in the skin of every one of its characters. They allow us to cycle through various dream bodies and visit, for a time, a possible fate. That said, the degree to which I identified with those women and girls was pretty unsettling, as if Estes herself was flaying me open nightly to expose all my unripe and chicken-hearted parts.

On my most recent reading I was less haunted and more nourished, struck most by the how-ness of the book: how it was made and what it reveals about the uniquely feminine genius of Estes’ storytelling, and how it might stretch — and exalt — our notions of what constitutes a rite of passage in a woman’s life.

The tales told and then unpacked in Women Who Run were culled from Estes’ memory of childhood yarns and decades of field research and historical study. These are stories that have been spun every-which-way, and Estes, by her own admission, has done a little intuitive patch work on the holes and smudge-marks left by time and the patriarchy. Later honed through performance in her role as cantadora, Estes says that the narratives chosen for the book were meant to smoke out a sinewy little character near-buried in the feminine psyche, and serve her greater mission: to help women remember their “alpha matrilineal being.”

This thru-line of feminine vitality is embodied, says Estes, in the ‘Wild Woman’ archetype which has survived through stories — usually appearing in cameos and slender fragments, or tucked into margins — but is made whole and alive in this volume, and brought to the very centre of the page.

Estes is prone to gathering a lot of shiny buttons in her beak; she effuses with ideas and images, piling one on top of the other, and drills deeper and deeper into the strata of stories to find more and more of their liquid gold. She views their ‘wisdom’ as an endlessly morphing substance that might illuminate the darker passages of women’s lives.

Her primary tool of excavation is Big Language Magic. Estes’ voice, equally at home in the primeval campfire rootsiness of storytelling, and with the depth-psychological exegesis of those stories, becomes a grounding and unifying force throughout the text. It is a language of the body, one that employs all the senses, and is devotedly animistic:

“What comprises the Wild Woman? […] she is the incubator […] she leaves behind on the terrain of a woman’s soul a coarse hair and muddy footprints […]She is the smell of good mud and the back leg of a fox. The birds which tell us secrets belong to her […] She lives on quarter notes and grace notes and in the cantata, in the sestina, and in the blues.”

Flowing into the oblique, and resourcing all phenomena, Estes’ language makes tangible what writer Ursula Le Guin, in a commencement address at Bryn Mawr in 1986, once dubbed, “the Mother Tongue,” a language she describes as “always on the verge of silence and often on the verge of song.”

Ursula K. LeGuin

Le Guin defines its opposite, the “Father Tongue,” as the language she learned in college; it is the language of “social power and public discourse,” used in lectures, speeches and debate, and whose function is “not reasoning but distance-making, a gap between the subject or self and the object or other.”

The Father Tongue demands objectivity because “to be subjective is to be embodied, to be a body, vulnerable, violable.” And while our public institutions — our universities and offices and the political theatre — not only banish references to subjective experience, but enshrine this banishment as law, the Mother Tongue lives on “clear as sunlight in women’s poetry, in our novels and stories.”

Estes exalts the subjective and crafts an associative, impressionistic language to carry it. She says that her proof of the “ineffable female numen” expressed through the Wild Woman archetype are the experiential and “intra-psychic” encounters women have in their waking and dreaming hours, and are, by Estes reckoning, entirely self-validating; gut-level knowing is proof enough.

In many passages, especially those where she gets on a rapt descriptive roll, Estes is enacting the “relatedness” of the Mother Tongue, connecting this with that, encouraging a collapse of consciousness, asking that we let our sensing diffuse into every crack and corner — not only of the world, but of the individual and collective psyche. Here she is talking about La Mariposa, the Butterfly Woman:

Goddess Figure, circa 6,000 BC, unearthed from Catal Huyuk, Turkey.

“She is really big, like the Venus of Willendorf, like the Mother of Days, like Diego Rivera’s heroic-size woman who built Mexico City with a single curl of her wrist […] oh, she is very very old, like a woman come back from the dust, old like old river, old like pines at timberline […] Her back is the curve of planet Earth with all its crops and food and animals. The back of her neck carries the sunrise and sunset […]She cross fertilises, jus as the soul fertilises mind with night dreams. Just as archetypes fertilise the mundane world.”

By bringing the whole world into the female body, and atomising a woman’s feminine essence into every part of the world, Estes expands the depth and variety of initiatory possibilities in women’s lives. She is offering a vast spectrum of potential thresholds for women to cross — edges that include the body, but are not limited by it.

Most traditional feminine initiation myths that herald women’s developmental stages are blood-encoded: A girl bleeds at the time of her first menses and becomes a sexually viable woman; she bleeds again on her wedding night and enters partnership; she bleeds once more at the birth of her child and becomes a mother; she stops bleeding and becomes an elder.

In these stories, a woman’s body does the essential work of evolution: She bleeds into her next stage of growth, inhabits the role, and her consciousness naturally follows suit.

Setting aside the fact that fewer and fewer women, in the West at least, experience all of these mythic ‘stations’ in their lives, the ‘blood as initiation’ story is in itself a myth, one that uses a biological phenomenon to uphold a social norm, and wholly ignores the interiority of women’s experience of their own bodies; Many women bleed and mother without becoming true adults, and many women stop bleeding without acquiring any real wisdom. Many women achieve ultimate creative and emotional fulfilment without (or even in spite of) having children, and many more enjoy full sexual expression and maturity without the intervention of men. In the life of the feminine psyche, biology is not destiny, nor is it pass-key to evolution and growth.

Estes subverts the traditional blood-encoded myth by forwarding the often invisible initiatory moments in women’s lives and wrapping them in the flesh and bones of Story: Graduating from naive victim to discerning and self-preserving adult (Bluebeard), from buying in to the status quo to “hand-making” one’s life and values (The Red Shoes), from bottomless grief to libidinous joy (Baubo), from fragmenting partnership to integrating solitude (Sealskin, Soulskin).

Such lessons and initiations are not celebrated in the culture; there are no showers or gift registries for the woman who has just reclaimed her erotic or creative powers and has found a way to move with maximum potency through the world. There is no Hallmark card for them — because the language is not available to most. We have no ratified “Mother Tongue” or rite for women’s growth beyond the contingencies of blood: Sex, Motherhood and Menopause.

In her doctoral thesis, Initiation and Descent, Dr. Hollie Jean Hannan writes:

“In my clinical work I find that many are in search of a more comprehensive female identity and are in need of images of the feminine Self…Many of us yearn for images of the sacredness of the so-called archetypal feminine in all its richness and complexity and a lineage of the female imagination in which to reflect upon in our lives […] Yet culturally there remains a need for myths, rituals, and a tradition of storytelling in which women can deepen their experiences, share them with other women, and pass them on to their daughters, students, and younger-generation women and men.”

This is why substantive books such as Women Who Run hit so hard in the feminine psyche, and why women lap them up hungrily, like a good broth. There are so few books that artfully and consciously add to the canon of the Mother Tongue, that allow women to see all of their complexity reflected and that reveal a path through — or at least point one in the direction of the path. That doesn’t mean that Women is a palliative, feel-good text. Estes knows that part of her work is re-instating the terror and horror that myth and fairy tale once held before ‘parenting’ became a gerund and ‘mothering’ a competitive sport:

“Most old collections […] have been scoured clean of the scatological, the sexual, the perverse, (as in warnings against), the pre-Christian, the feminine, the Goddesses, the initiatory, the medicines for various psychological malaises, and the direction for spiritual raptures.”

These stories bear all the stains and stitch marks of ages past when characters in children’s fables met bloody deaths, or fucked their daughters, or sent them off to the woods to die. There are real consequences, real grief. Essential pain. Estes doles out hope but reminds us: You can lose chances and you can lose years. You can lose your very soul. There are choices to be made and real horrors to be faced. And you will get cut crawling through that hole in the chain link fence when you’re finally ready to escape. Good stories are inherently homeopathic, poisoning us just a little in order to trigger our own healing powers.

In delineating an array of women’s initiations and showing their archetypal significance, Estes is also asking that we take radical responsibility for engaging with them, that we proactively pursue our own healing and growth. And this is no small task. As Audre Lorde writes in Sister Outsider:

Audre Lourde

“It is never easy to demand the most from ourselves, from our lives, from our work. To go beyond the encouraged mediocrity of our society is to encourage excellence. But giving in to the fear of feeling and working to capacity is a luxury only the unintentional can afford, and the unintentional are those who do not wish to guide their own destinies.”

I should say that on my second-to-last reading, Women Who Run didn’t help my insomnia. I was coming to it after having experienced my own set of failures and limitations. I was newly married and had just moved across an ocean, but all of my carefully researched plans for our ‘new life’ suddenly felt, upon arrival, irrelevant and unworkable. I walked around the city in a daze. I had a recurring vision of myself with my head sheared off or my body cut in two, and was sometimes waylaid by panic attacks that left me doubled over in the street. I feared the move might have been a bad digression from an (already) switchback path. And worse, I feared I might have no wisdom with which to meet my life as it was unfolding. In Hannan’s language, I was likely undergoing an “initiatory crisis,” a crucial part of which is that “the person is uncertain whether she will survive.”

When I gave the book to my mother she had lived through almost two decades of single parent hardship; years of soul-killing 9 to 5 desk jobs, and 8 to midnight service jobs, years of keeping her head down, her sights lowered. Years of peeling off chunks of herself to feed and fund two kids alone. She would spend weekends cleaning obsessively, scrubbing the corners of the kitchen floor, and break into tears when she thought of salvaging her creative gifts with piano lessons.

My mum kept herself really busy. So busy that the moments of reflection and quiet mulching necessary for transformation weren’t available to her. She would have said there wasn’t the time or money for such acts of self-reclamation, but as she would express to me later, there wasn’t even a cohesive ‘self’ present to ask for or deserve such things. Maybe she rejected Wolves for the same reason I read it obsessively: the pain of recognition.

Nourishing images of the feminine don’t always come through mothers or grannies or wise aunties. So you get them from fantasies and dreams and visions. You get them from stories and strangers. But when you do get them, you hold them close and tight. Estes says “Stories are medicine,” but sometimes they’re simultaneously the medicine and the wound. They don’t give you the ointment without poking you first, without making you bleed.

Originally published at

I study women and their relationships with power, and the places where art, belief and the body intersect.