Befriending the Unconscious

By Sherana Harriette Frances

Published by MAPS $19.95

Reviewed by

Donald P. Allen


This is a notable book. In a surprisingly easy to read and revelatory manner, Ms. Frances gives us much more than a narrative into the workings of her psyche as revealed in a single experience with LSD. Not only does she provide a moving narrative account, she opens her soul revealing the presence and force of her deep personal trials and the presence of the archetypal, the mythological, and the more universal elements of the psyche—even hints of the ineffable.

The day with LSD opened a door to experiences of her deep self and the inner war that was being waged therein. It brought an eruption of colors, forms, images, and emotions that began a process rather than reconcile anything. Long submerged, formative issues erupted into consciousness. Her work processing those issues took 17 years and the book chronicles the phases. Fueled by the LSD experience and the aftermath, the author reveals how she dissembled her sense of self in stages and slowly rebuilt it over the ensuing years. The process was a painful unfolding that led to ultimate "resysnthesis" and integration.

Ms. Frances’ artistic ability became a priceless tool that furthered this unfolding and growth.

Where words faltered in conveying her experience, her artistic talent was enlisted, the repression of which was a major issue in her married life. She reveals in stunning pen-and-ink drawings, the elements and symbolic power of not only the onslaught of powerful, beautifully depicted images that wove themselves into the exposition of her eight-hour encounter, but the process of digestion and slow resolution that followed. In these striking drawings the reader will find her past experiences, her relationships, losses and pain blended with mythological symbols of both western and eastern traditions, Jungian and metaphysical archetypes, and hints of the universal underlying it all.

This reviewer spent nearly three years as a guide to 167 individuals who also went through the same psychedelic research program at the International Foundation for Advanced Study in Menlo Park, California. In that role I became particularly aware of the difficulty subjects had in conveying the content of such an encounter in writing. Ms. Frances has succeeded in a manner matched by few others. She chronicles both the visual and emotional language of her unconscious and brings us striking evidence of her connection with a "collective unconscious."

Ms. Frances’ journey is divided into three phases of her experiences. They are illustrated through 61 remarkable drawings accompanied by a lean, taut narrative. The phases include her LSD experience and immediate aftermath; a period of hypnotherapy that ensued during which she artistically portrayed the symbolic forces that were present in the hypnogogic states that arose in her therapeutic pursuits; and finally a series of drawings that illustrate the inner commentary that accompanied the ultimate dissolution of her marriage and another subsequent major relationship. Important signs of her reintegration appear here.

"Drawing It Out" gives testimony to the fact that all our human experience leads us, as individuals, to a number of personal issues that influence the shaping of the self. The book allows us to glimpse beautiful examples through Ms. Frances’ formerly unconscious messages to her psyche, usually only glimpsed by us in dreams, intuitions and extended meditations, and now portrayed in her stunning drawings.

In the Introduction, Stanislov Grof, M.D., the eminent researcher in the field of LSD psychotherapy, paints a historic context of personal, psychological, analytic, mythical and psychogenic research. Dr. Grof summarizes what Ms. Frances accomplished in this single experience and its aftermath: "Bringing this material (the roots of her problems) into consciousness and integrating it helped her to reach a new balance between the feminine and masculine elements in her psyche, accept the death of her father, and come to terms with the problems in her marriage and in her relationships with men."

Professor of Psychology Tanya Wilkenson, Ph.D., who is also a Jungian therapist, provides two contributions, both a revealing and insightful Prologue and an analytical Afterword that more completely explain the forces and context in which Ms. Frances journeyed.

In the Prologue she speaks of the fabric of the "…personal and transpersonal aspects of the unconscious that are woven together…and do not become differentiated until they are brought to awareness." She also speaks of the role of the "container... (temenos, holding function, frame)" necessary for a successful deep encounter, and that the research staff successfully carried out that role and function. Her prologue portrays a sharp picture of the unconscious as a storehouse of transformative images and describes how LSD opened a gateway for Ms. Frances that "…within the safe container of the research project, an archetypal experience of dismemberment, insight and rebirth was readily accessible, the forgotten resources were tapped." This is not an ordered storehouse, she says, but one that can be profoundly confusing and sometimes "dangerous to normal functioning." Dr. Wilkenson points out that the process is frequently chaotic, but can lead to powerful, central regeneration and "the creation of a new personal myth," a process that began in this first LSD experience and developed through her drawings and subsequent "internal exploration." (The Afterword is covered below.)

Early on, Ms. Frances describes her "demon" – the intruder in her normal life that produced such psychic combat and was so present that her personal, married and parental life were in shambles. Her marriage to a "good Greek man" and the attendant familial expectations required of her an impossible separation of "the artist" from "the woman." This condition led to several suicide attempts, and a series of therapists. She believes that during that period her "demon was driven underground" from which destructive scenarios were played out in her life. She was desperate. She was finally willing to "risk insanity to cure insanity, as one reporter suggested," and thus approached the International Foundation for Advanced Study in a search for answers from LSD.

As to the process itself, Ms. Frances details important aspects of her preparation, the influences of her upbringing and the absence of a foundation for addressing her marital and family issues in her upbringing—not present in the Greek/Cretan traditions for the woman’s role. She tells of the conflicts with her husband. She was passionate about finding her "demon" and slaying it, to "put an end to its … unrelenting embrace of my life." Her husband viewed this passion of hers as "a stubborn, willful and selfish indulgence." She viewed it as "a necessity, as vital to me as breathing." She says it was as if she had two identities that were at war and "one of them had to die."

In the preparation for her LSD experience, she received a physical exam by the medical staff, completed extensive psychological tests, wrote her autobiography, discussed her life issues with the research associate assigned her case, read research reports on the process, and underwent short experiences breathing Carbogen, a mixture of carbon dioxide and oxygen that induced powerful, brief inner episodes that allowed her to practice letting go. Carbogen is a short-term anesthetic that frequently leads to abreaction of unconscious material. In Ms. Frances’ case, she bore no memory of them other than traces of vivid images and finding herself on the floor gripping the legs of a staff person.

Her central goal was to find the answers to the urgent questions of her life. What she found has a certain irony: "What I wanted…from this experience with LSD, was to save my life—what I found in that experience was, in essence, my "death," the total disintegration of my sense of self, my sense of reality—and my sense of who or what it is that runs this awesome show." In much of the experience, what Ms. Frances heard as being called the "dream drug," produced nightmares. Instead of being in ecstasy, she was wandering in the "graveyards of death." She speaks of "mind-quakes" and that she had been shaken down to her bones, her core turned inside out. Viewing her own prior paintings at various points during the experience produced both threatening and nurturing effects, symbolic prods into the war waging in her unconscious. "I had never experienced, in quite this visceral way, the unique power of art, or more accurately, its powerful effect in my own life."

She reports not being the same woman on the way home, nor could she guess at the nature of her resynthesis to come. A major outcome was that the long suppression of her need to express herself in art was ending. Art would now come to her rescue. "Words are inadequate to describe the experiences," she says. They "…are not on the same plane as images." And images have rarely been utilized to the extent accomplished by the author. The first 18 drawings illustrate significant encounters experienced under LSD. They in turn became the vehicle for further work.

Subsequent assistance came through treatment by an analyst who had also been through the program. By utilizing hypnotherapy and her pen-and-ink drawings, Ms. Frances begins to realize that the experience was a kind of birth trauma, "the birth of parts of me that had been held back, parts I’d been afraid to know about and claim and that had tried to claw their way out of their dark places to breathe in the light." In a following section, "The Return Trip," she covers the deeper discoveries that the images contained and communicated—images of mortal combat on the psychic level and issues of relationship with her husband and to her heritage. On the heels of this phase, the author, through much pain, decided to end her marriage and return to the San Francisco area.

The later sections of the book cover the death of her father and its impact in allowing a resolution of an important phase of her work that allowed her to open to a new deep and intimate relationship with a man. Ms. Frances views it as a real step forward in many aspects of healthy relatedness, but it too ended, the denouement resulting from alcohol which fueled a dangerous temper. The final drawings in the series represent a path of psychic resolution of the inner woman/artist with the loss of relationship. A striking element is presence of being chained in a number of the drawings, and finally unchained.

Ms. Frances ends with reflections on her "healing dialogue" with her drawings, "…how each drawing understood me better than I consciously understood myself…" Each time she reached an impasse, "the drawings intuited a path ahead and offered guidance and direction in a healing dialogue with pen and paper…keeping in touch with my own inner reality so that I could be better equipped to deal with the outer." She, like so many, admits frustration with the fact that she has to learn the same lessons over and over—"…the sometimes grace of my mind and spirit had to be relearned and recreated, not once, but many times..." She concludes, "The speck of psychoactive chemical that, in 1963, had blasted the sensory centers of my mind, had also blasted open the doors to my growth, healing and spiritual awareness."

In the Afterword, Dr. Wilkenson renders a learned review of the surprising imagery of the drawings in terms of Carl Jung’s archetypes, and Estella Lauter’s archetypal images, and also of ancient myth and ritual chronicled in the works of Joseph Campbell, including the Sumerian myths of Tiamat and Inanna that illustrate female dismemberment and reconstruction. Wilkenson states that women have suffered a sacrifice of identity for thousands of years. "Frances' descent functioned as an initiation into wholeness for her as an individual leading to the retrieval of exiled aspects of herself…" and the collective situation for women who "struggle with the divisions within self and world created by a patriarchal culture." She also discusses the symbols suggesting the balancing of her animus with her feminine nature.

Dr. Wilkenson spends time with the elements of Ms. Frances’ drawings that suggest Jungian motifs including .."a personal identification, a ‘oneness’ with the transpersonal" and the mythological such as how Euripides saw Medea. A striking point made was that as much as we readers would like to "decode" the symbolism in the content of her drawings as a path to understanding, Wilkenson points out that impact on the artist and on the viewer is at a deeper level than the intellect. Thus, these drawings may prove more useful in triggering unconscious processes in the reader than in giving explanations.

There is little to criticize. I did note that in spite of the amazing richness of the portrayal, hardly any signs were present of the ironic or the humorous, except perhaps in one plate where the face of Pan conveys an underlying humor while lying almost drunk against the side of a bull that is contemplating Ms. Frances’ supine form. At times I also craved to see the black and white come alive with the colors she mentions in her narrative.

A couple of final observations—first, Ms. Frances’ book contributes to the furthering of our understanding of how a properly prepared for and conducted psychedelic experience can open "long-shut doors." It also illustrates what serious researchers in this field have learned: that the integration of what is found takes time, dedication, sometimes professional assistance and much hard work.

Second, the author’s intense chronicle illustrates, literally and figuratively, how the psyche and spirit are like a vast cauldron—that can be full of fire and passion, pain and beauty beyond description. The narrative and illustrations reveal that her personal issues and the universal coexist in an intricate fabric, a union that expresses itself in its own language. The book gives testimony to the oft stated notion that we seem to float on top this immense sea, trying to maintain stability while navigating life’s vicissitudes. At odd instances we dip into intuition, insight, creative flashes, or striking realizations that clamor for our attention—all this accompanied by strong emotions and inner urges for movement, expression or action.

In the author’s case, the payoff was immense and we are served by reading her beautifully rendered account.

As a postscript, the book reminded this reviewer of an intense thought that welled up one day after observing the incredible array of experiences of clients at the Foundation:

"That which built me knows how to teach me what I need to know. The digestion of and action based on that knowledge are up to me—there is no magic."

The reviewer, Donald P. Allen, is a retired Silicon Valley entrepreneur/industrialist who currently is affiliated with Kara, a Palo Alto grief and bereavement counseling organization. He also lectures on business ethics at U.C. Berkeley. Mr. Allen interrupted his career to spend three years with the International Foundation for Advanced Study where he was a research associate. It was there he met and subsequently married the late Mary Hughes Allen, M.D. who medically supervised Ms. Frances’ LSD experience. In 1992 and 1993 he assisted Dr. Allen in editing her book, Explorer’s Odyssey – Up a Spiritual Creek without a Paddle which was significantly influenced by her experience participating in the LSD research at the Foundation.


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