House as a Mirror of Self: Clare Cooper-Marcus

I quite loved Clare Cooper-Marcus’s book House as a Mirror of Self. I loved the uniqueness of its approach; its fearlessness in connecting the material, the social, the psychological and the spiritual; and the very real insights it develops around the intertwining of our sense of self and our sense of place. Using Jungian therapy is such an interesting methodology for exploring our connections to place, how this is formed in our childhood and how this plays out through our lives. It is a way to get more to the centre of what place really means to us as human beings.

A core theme of this book and the stories within it is the notion that we are all — throughout our lives–striving toward a state of wholeness, of being wholly ourselves. Whether we are conscious of it or not, every relationship, event, mishap, or good fortune in our lives can be preserved as a “teaching,” guiding us toward being more and more fully who we are. Although this has been widely written about, especially by Jungians, what this book adds to the debate is the suggestion that the places we live in are reflections of that process, and indeed the places themselves have a powerful effect on our journey toward wholeness. (10)

In this aspect of the book, it is reminiscent of Bachelard’s work on The Poetics of Space, particularly as Bachelard also attempts it from within a Jungian framework. It helps that Jung built his own house and tied it so explicitly in his work to his own psychological development. I can’t believe I haven’t read it yet. it is trying to get at the same thing Yi-Fu Tuan writes about from the anthropological side of things, which also makes me slightly uncomfortable, though just as interesting.

Anyway, like all good psychoanalysts, Clare Cooper-marcus begins at the beginning.

“First houses are the grounds of our first experiences,” writes Australian novelist David Malouf. “Crawling about at floor level, room by room, we discover laws that we will apply later to the world at large: and who is to say if our notions of space and dimension are not determined for all time by what we encounter there.” (19-20)

I always get a bit uncomfortable on this territory, don’t really like edging towards the psyche — and at the same time I am driven there, recognising that it is only there that many answers can be found in thinking about belonging, as well as things like violence that I have been wrestling with. I felt this way reading Fromm, and I am sure I shall continue to feel this way…

But of course it feels true that most would regard childhood as a sacred period in our lives, and that it is formative in so much of who we are:

We hold the childhood memories of certain places as a kind of psychic anchor, reminding us of where we come from, of what we once were, or of how the physical environment perhaps nurtured us when family dynamics were strained or the context of our lives fraught with uncertainty. (20)

I love this sense of place-making as deeply embedded in our lives and childhoods, think of the desert where I grew up where all of us had places named after us, and we had names for many others…

The designation of special names is an important component of childhood appropriation of space, the beginnings of a lifetime experience with place-making. (25)

She later writes:

To appropriate space, to order and mold it into a form that pleases us and affirms who we are, is a universal need. (68)

So back to the book. Cooper-Marcus qualified as a therapist, worked with people to examine their living spaces as a way of examining their lives. For this reason it was a self-selected group of the middle-class edging upwards — I realise I have no real sense of where middle- and upper-class meet. For so long I thought anyone was rich who had a car they could depend on or pop-tarts for breakfast. Some of the people she interviewed challenged my more mature understandings of middle-classness and sent it skyrocketing upwards. But she is honest and open about this, as well as the ways in which she met people at conferences and through presentations, the nature of her snowball sample in primarily the Oakland Hills, and the limitations of all of that.

The limitations of the well-off talking about housing still really annoyed me at times, but the book was worth it all and engaged with the co-constitutive natures of self and place in a way few other books do, or even could. So a few quotes — though given my interest is in how this intersects with more structural aspects of house and home means I won’t quote quite as extensively as my usual absurd standard. Still, there’s a great quote from Kim Dovey on how some fo these layers come together, and broad meanings of home and belonging:

Home can be a room inside a house, a house within a neighborhood, a neighborhood within a city, and a city within a nation. At each level the meaning of home gains in intensity and depth from the dialectical interaction between the two poles of experience — the place and its context at a larger scale…. Yet the dialectics of home involve more than inside versus outside. Home is a place of security within an insecure world, a place of certainty within doubt, a familiar place in it strange world, a sacred place in a profane world. It is a place of autonomy and power in an increasingly heteronomous world where others make the rules. (“Home and homelessness”, 191)

I loved this on the difference between being able to huild a home and shape it over the years, and not just because this is how I grew up and what I rather long to have now:

…the house is me. Because I built it and because it’s everything I wanted it to be; I think of it really as an extension of our family. It is not an object you buy in a showroom, like a car or a piece of furniture. It’s us. Its imperfections are as revealing to me as its satisfactions, like a friend or member of the family whose imperfections we can see… I don’t think we change our habits to suit the house…we change the house to suit our habits, so it’s constantly evolving. We live it, we don’t live in it. (54)

Cooper-Marcus notes that our desire to have control over our home spaces are more significant when we don’t have control over other aspects of our lives. Hell of true.

Also coming out so strongly through these interviews — almost makes me sorry for rich people — was the gendered differences in how people experience place and how they are limited or freed by it. Cooper-Marcus notes the studies that show the ways in which women are much more affected by the location of the home than men — particularly access to services, This is particularly visible in studies of suburbs where distance separates home from services and services from each other.

One study of over 200 couples in upper-middle-class sections of Stamford, Connecticut and NYC found ‘the most satisfied group was suburban men.’ These men spent significantly less time with their children and spouse. (199) That floored me, while at the same time, am I honestly surprised? Susan Saegert summarises another study that sheds additional light on this:

it appears that men prefer residential environments that reinforce the public-private distinction. This may be an inadvertent consequence of the bonuses of suburban life–retreat, outdoor activities, home ownership,relief from the pace of the city– or it many be partially motivated by the perhaps unconscious desire in many men to assure their home will be taken care of by a woman with few other options. (200)

I wonder how much this is shifting, and how this is working with other factors such as the return to city centres and resulting gentrification I wonder all of this in relation to suburban people, mostly white people, this is not a book that examines the kind of neighbourhoods I have long worked in, care most about, at all. But it certainly points towards a very interesting and rewarding way of looking at such neighbourhoods, building on work done by Mindy Fullilove and others.

The real importance of understanding and grappling with this is the way that this creates patterns over the course of our lives and down the generations — particularly in view of generations of segregation. Cooper-Marcus writes:

Research suggests that though few of us remain living in the same specific locale throughout our lives, many of us have a tendency to prefer living in the same type of setting…we each have a ‘settlement identity.’ (201)

This is an identity bound up in whether we prefer, and how we feel while we are in, the city, the suburbs etc… This tends to form in our childhood — whose setting often becomes our ideal, though if a childhood is unhappy people will often chose a contrasting setting. This isn’t a simple thing, but important to understand as taste in home and neighbourhood can be ‘significant indicators of group identity’, particularly socioeconomic identity.

Whether by choice or not, where you live and what you see around you are a reflection of who you are–or who society says you are. Making neighborhoods safe, secure, beautiful, and socially nurturing is not just some pie-in-the-sky aesthetic dream. It needs to be an essential component of urban policy, a high-priority expenditure of tax dollars. If the place where you grew up is as critical to your psychological development as I have tried to communicate in this book, imagine the damage to the next generation of youngsters who cannot freely play outside of their homes for fear of being shot? (213)

The crux of why this matters.

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