Pamela L. Travers and the Rebel Archetype (Part I)


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The Rebel

Pamela L. Travers’s psychological resilience in the face of her family’s unsupportiveness is astonishing.  We all know that it is not easy for a child to withstand the pressures of the family mold (it is difficult for many adults), and yet somehow Pamela succeeded in just that! How did she do it? Well, she explained her refusal to give up on her dreams in these somewhat universalised terms, assuming all families were alike:

Families, perhaps luckily, have a unique facility for minimizing capacities and aspirations simply by disbelieving in them, making them butts for witticisms. The wise child quickly learns to dissemble and keep its dream safe and intact.” 

However, if you examine closely the last sentence of this quote you’ll probably agree that it does not really make any sense. Children cannot be wise; they lack the necessary life experience. It seems to me that it would be more appropriate, and closer to Pamela’s personal truth, to reword the last sentence as follows:

The rebellious child quickly learns to dissemble and keep its dream safe and intact.

♥ I believe Pamela benefited to a certain extent from the powerful aid of her Rebel archetype in breaking out of old family (tribal) patterns. But once that accomplished, the Rebel failed to provide her with new and authentic patterns of being in the world. It is this idea that I want to explore in this week’s and next week’s posts.

After the early death of her father, great-aunt Ellie became the authority figure in Pamela’s life (see Pamela’s First Gods Part III). And Pamela attributed her dislike of authority to Ellie and the rest of the old relatives in the family:

It was not my parents but the generation before them, great-aunts and their kind, who sat like black crows on my horizon, old, rich, and righteous. My lifelong dislike of authoritarianism and my predilection for seeing life through my own eyes – these I owe to them.”

Personally, I doubt that one becomes rebellious because of another person’s behaviour no matter how unjust that behaviour might be. Rebelliousness, as far as my own experience of that personality trait goes, is that it is something innate, a deeply ingrained temperamental feature or energetical pattern. Call it what you want. It is something you either have or you don’t.

Pamela rejected the expected role of the helper and supporter of the family. It was precisely her inner Rebel that gave her the strength, at the age of twenty-four, to leave her family behind and cross the ocean in search of her true purpose in life. She returned to Australia only once for a brief visit. At the age of fifty-eight, her mother died and Pamela dedicated her first Mary Poppins book in her memory.

After rejecting the family’s expectations, Pamela’s rebellious nature also disregarded the pressures of the social conventions of her time. She socialized mostly with male artists in smoky pubs; she drove a convertible car with her dog alongside, she lived with a woman for ten years, and when she was forty adopted a child all on her own.

On the surface, at least, it looks like the Rebel provided her with the freedom that comes from living authentically. But was it truly so? I personally doubt it. Despite the obvious fact that she lived her life on her own terms, and made her own life experiences, there is another undeniable fact: her own terms did not make her happy nor the people around her. What blocked her on her path to authenticity?

♥ The Unresolved Relationship with her mother

The answer to that question popped out from the pages of the book The Way of Transformation written by Karlfried von Dürckheim. He was a renowned German psychoanalyst and Zen master whom Pamela (in her sixties) consulted at his Existential Psychological Training and Encounter Institute in Todtmos, Germany.

Dürckheim, many years ago, worded in psychological/spiritual terms what I intuitively felt to be the result of the inadequate nurturing provided by Pamela’s mother:

Psychologically understood, the transforming Ground is, in terms of human existence, the ‘realm of the mother.’ Any unresolved relationship between child and mother causes an obstruction in this sphere and hinders development. The effect is the same when the mother denies the warmth necessary for the child’s growth …. In the first instance, when the child becomes a man, he is inhibited and depressed because he rejects the protests that rise from his depths, defending himself against them by thrusting them down into the unconscious. …. Thus, he becomes wholly dependent on his world-ego, experiencing his repressed depths as frightening forces that either inexplicably attract him or demonically turn against him.”

Pamela was just that, a person caught in her own world ego, looking for meaning and validation from the outside world and depending chiefly on it. This made her (as testified by many who knew her) irritable, touchy and insecure. Even the snobbish façade she presented to the world in her later years did not change that reality.  

So here, I found the confirmation of my intuitive understanding! It was the more covert rebellion against her mother’s needs and the repressed resentment towards her mother, and probably some guilt for leaving her behind, that caused the inner conflict which remained unresolved and repressed deeply into Pamela’s unconscious mind.  

As a young adult, Pamela rejected her bond to her mother and seemed to have chosen the path of her father. As soon as she could, she left her family for Ireland, the land of her father’s fantasies, where she rapidly established contact with the poets whom he admired. Now, that pattern reminded me of something Joseph Campbell said in The Power of Myth, about the journey of the young boy into manhood: She (the young girl) becomes a woman whether she intends it or not, but the little boy has to intend to be a man. …. The boy first has to disengage himself from his mother, get his energy into himself, and then start forth. That’s what the myth of “Young man, go find your father” is all about.

♥  Pamela did just that; she disengaged from her mother and went on a quest to find her father, all for the purposes of finding herself.

Additionally, Joseph Campbell believed fairy tales to be for children and not at all in the same category as myths which have to do with the serious matter of living life in terms of the order of society and of nature. Pamela would have most certainly disagreed with that standpoint but what is interesting here is Campbell’s generalization of the fairytales: Very often they’re about a little girl who doesn’t want to grow up to be a woman. At the crisis of that threshold crossing she’s balking. So, she goes to sleep until the prince comes through all the barriers and gives her a reason to think it might be nice on the other side after all.

♥ Maybe Campbell’s assertion about a little girl blocked on the threshold of womanhood is not far from Pamela L. Travers’s life experience. Interestingly, Pamela’s favorite fairy tale of all times was Sleeping Beauty, and in her seventies, she wrote her own version of it. All this of course will be examined closely in future posts.

For now, let’s just say that Campbell’s interpretation of fairy tales never occurred to her, nor did Durkheim succeed in healing her mental and emotional torments. How was it that he failed to heal her mental and emotional torment?  I will attempt to answer this question in next week’s post.


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