The Call Of The Wild Woman

As a Jungian analyst in Denver, Colo., Clarissa Pinkola Estes kept seeing the same kind of patient. They were women cut off from their creativity-women who slaved at jobs they despised to buy expensive gifts for their family, women who felt compelled to clean everything in the house before they sat down to write, a woman who had won a scholarship to study violin in Italy but wasn't allowed to go, and simply gave up her artistic drive. In traditional psychology Estes found little to help these patients. Instead, she says, "what worked better than my training was to tell stories." The daughter of Mexican parents who was adopted and raised by fiery Hungarians, Estes began telling multicultural folk tales that tapped into what she calls the "ruins of the female underworld."

Her stories, gathered over 20 years, now appear in "Women Who Run With the Wolves," a 520-page tome of myths and Jungian analysis that has become a surprise best seller (Ballantine Books. $23). Although the book was hardly even reviewed when it came out in July, it is now in its 18th printing, with 250,000 copies in print. The common theme of Estes's 19 folk tales is what she calls the Wild Woman archetype-women who revel in their intuitive and sexual and creative energies. What she found, and what her book shows, is that such characters appear in various guises in nearly every culture. Like the Wild Man popularized by Robert Bly and the mens movement, the Wild Woman is at odds with civilized society that deadens animal instincts. For women, the enemy is also a society that values a woman's niceness more than her creativity.

For years, Estes thought that her work would remain unpublished, a private legacy to her two daughters. With no connections in the publishing world, she originally tried the Jungian presses, only to be rebuffed: "They were not interested in the psychology of women." So she recorded some of the stories, bringing them to life with a mesmerizing voice and the dramatic storytelling she learned at the knees of her Hungarian aunts. The Boulder-based Sounds True, which markets Bly's popular tapes, distributed Estes's cassettes, mostly by mail order (hers now outsell his 10 to one). When a New York editor heard one, she started a bidding war for the manuscript.

Estes's timing was just about perfect. Bill Moyers's PBS series with Joseph Campbell had sparked a widespread interest in myth. Beyond that, "Women Who Run With the Wolves" hit the market in what Estes calls the Year of the Wild Woman. "This is a year when women said, 'I'm not going to be nice anymore'," says Patrice Wynne, owner of GAIA Bookstore in Berkeley, Calif. "This book speaks to that instinct, that courage to speak our truth when we feel that our wisdom is not being respected and honored."

The book struck a resounding chord with women readers. When Cindy Dove, a supervisor at Andersons Bookshop in Downers Grove, Ill., read it, her response was to cry, "Yes, yes, yes!" and then call all her women friends. Annye Camara, founder of Books & Co. in Dayton, Ohio, bought copies for her female employees and sells the book with a "fervent guarantee that its message will reorder a woman's priorities."

This is the aim of Estes's stories. In "Little Match Girl," for example, a forlorn girl dies because she cannot sell her matches. To Estes, the story is more than just a sad tale for a Hallmark Christmas special-it is a warning. Instead of finding a way out of her miserable life, the match girl is selling her only source of warmth and escaping in useless fantasies of glowing Christmas trees. Estes's lesson to women: "Unresign yourself and come out kicking ass. When Wild Woman is cornered, she does not surrender, she comes ahead, claws out and fighting."

If you're wondering how Wild Women get along with Wild Men, the answer is, very well. Estes titles one chapter "Hymn for the Wild Man: Manawee." In this African-American tale, a man courts a pair of twin sisters but can't marry them until he guesses both their names. He tries, but fails, until his dog tells him. The story is about marriage in a polygamous culture. But for Estes it is also about a man who earns the love of a Wild Woman only by recognizing both the dual nature of the feminine and his own inner wildish man, which is symbolized by the dog. "What you're talking about is a certain wild root genius in human beings that is not gender-based," says Bly. "The part of feminism that believed women could do everything alone is over."

Estes confesses that she "feel[s] a little bit shut out" by traditional feminists. After decades of women arguing that the distinction between the sexes was a male-made conceit, Estes-along with Camille Paglia, Madonna, the punk rock Riot Grrrls and the New Age goddess worshipers-now contends that there really is a feminine nature, to be celebrated and not reasoned away. Says Jeanne Strieck, a Seattle counselor who is running a Wild Woman workshop next semester at Bellevue Community College (one of several such groups sprouting nationwide), "I want to reclaim who I am as a woman who is different from men." The Wild Women are often dismissed by hard-line feminists as flaky. But Estes remains hopeful. "I would like," she says, "to see a chair set at the feminist table for the inner life." Her book and its broad appeal suggest that day is not far off.