Learning to Fall (And Fail)

Photo of a sculpture of a woman about to do a back dive.

During two intense years of recovery from sexual trauma, I enrolled in a Model Mugging workshop. A dozen or so women — about two-thirds with histories of gender violence — gathered in a gymnasium for three days to groin kick, body flip, and eye poke a couple of sensitive men in padding willing to take the brunt of our attempts to learn self-defense.

Our model muggers catcalled us, invaded our physical space, grabbed us, and threw us to the ground. We used our newfound self-defense skills to fight our way out of assault. When one of us was on the mats fighting, the rest of us would cheer her on — Kick him in the groin! Palm to nose! Elbow to ribs! — together taking ownership of each other’s struggles.

In some assault scenarios, the only way to escape is to first fall on your back and then rely on leg strength to fight your way free. I hated this maneuver. It felt like the abuse was happening all over again. I could hear my classmates encouraging me to fall. Drop to the ground! Get on your back! I didn’t want to let down the group, but I just couldn’t fall. At that point in my life, my understanding of success, including recovery from sexual abuse, had metaphorically centered on not falling (and never failing). My body simply wouldn’t acquiesce.

Jungian analyst Ursula Wirtz wrote, “When viewed through a mythological lens, trauma is perceived as a descent of the soul, a dropping or falling down. … Often, it is experienced as a descent to the deepest, darkest regions of one’s being where one is forced to re-evaluate one’s core assumptions about life and death.” [1] Many of us (when we can) resist this fall and falling apart in response to the trauma of sexual abuse. We prefer dissociating painful feelings and memories as we try to get on with life. We think of recovery as the ability to obtain markers of success — education, career, a partner, friendships, children, creative self-expression, a safe place to live. We push the darkness into the subaltern underworld of our psyches. In essence, we abandon parts of ourselves as we strive to live successfully in the upperworld, hopefully bearing fruit from our efforts.

However, cut off from emotions and the body, the capacity to feel pleasure and joy is greatly diminished. Even love has trouble penetrating our defenses. Feelings of emptiness, depression, apathy, bitterness, and anger continually break through, threatening to pull us down. Such feelings may cause us to strive harder, as if we might outrun our suffering. Yet these are signs it is time to fall.

For years I tried to ignore the signs. Falling meant chaos to me. Falling meant failure. I thought if I surrendered, I would lose myself as well as the gains I had made in the upperworld. I lacked models for the journey of recovery that could help me see the value of surrendering. I also needed an intuitive understanding of recovery — one that I could rely on instinctively. I had already tried thinking and striving my way out of trauma, but it hadn’t worked.

According to Wirtz, “Metaphors are often far more helpful than purely abstract, rational formulations in helping survivors work through the haunting inner representations of their traumatic experiences.” [2] As discussed last week, metaphors are the language of the body. Through images and metaphors, the body gives voice to experience. We gain this language of the body through our cultures as well as through archetypal patterns found in myths — especially stories of redemption that relay how humans survived similar experiences.

The journey into the underworld is one of the oldest archetypal patterns addressed in myths. For example, the Sumerian poem The Descent of Inanna, which dates back to 1900 – 1600 BCE, is an account of the goddess Inanna’s visit to the underworld. During her journey, Inanna disrobes as she passes through each of the seven gates of the underworld. Naked and bowing, Inanna approaches the throne of the queen of the underworld, Ereshkigal. Despite her humble appeal, Inanna is struck dead and her corpse hung from a hook on the wall. Wirtz compared Inanna’s journey to working with women who had suffered sexual abuse. “The myth of Inanna, with its central symbolism of dismemberment, echoes in my work with traumatized women and their process of dismembering, fragmenting, and reassembling the pieces.” [3] Like Inanna, to enter the underworld of our psyches, we strip ourselves of our persona and other upperworld defenses in order to retrieve (and revive) our wounded parts. The process makes us feel profoundly vulnerable, akin to the feeling that arises in dreams of being in public naked and ashamed.

Once stripped of upperworld defenses, like Inanna’s corpse hanging on a hook, we confront the inner deadness caused by trauma and compounded by avoiding our wounding. Like Inanna, when we begin to drop into the depths of our hurt, we can feel as if we are dying inside. However, if we adopt the correct attitude of unconditional acceptance and love, we glimpse the shadow side of ourselves — such as spitefulness, envy, revenge, manipulation, addiction — the multitude of ways we defend against hurt. This descent is fraught with danger. We need support to take the journey as well as a good amount of inner fortitude — what depth psychologists refer to as ego strength.

Inanna’s corpse hangs on the hook for three days and nights before she is retrieved by spirits. The first thing her saving graces do is revive her body, nourishing it with food and water. This may seem like a small detail, but it is an important one. The redemptive aspect of the journey into the underworld begins with regaining the body. Following sexual trauma, many of us distrust our bodies as if they have betrayed us. Wirtz observed most of her clients are “plagued by feelings of unworthiness, of being dirty and flawed. They are constantly at war with themselves, raging against their body, which they perceive as having betrayed them….” [4] Rather than a source of wisdom and wellspring of intuition, the body becomes an object of submission and manipulation — much as perpetrators treat their victims. We also introject such attitudes through enculturation into patriarchal societies, which are then intensified by sexual trauma.

Many of us also get caught in either trying to be the hero and, like me, resist the fall, or perceiving themselves as victims whose only way to recover is to regain lost innocence. Both sides of this hero-victim dialectic sets women up to seek perfection — either as the impenetrable (and emotionless) hero untainted by abuse, or the victim who believes through perfection she will somehow be both redeemed and avoid future violations. Neither the hero nor victim is a sustainable way of dealing with sexual trauma. Each avoids the wounded body and fails to nourish the soul. [5]

The Greek myth Rape of Persephone also models the descent into the underworld. Like all myths, the Rape of Persephone carries multiple meanings. Persephone’s journey into the underworld has been used to explain the changing seasons. Rape of Persephone is also reminiscent of initiation rites into adulthood in which innocence is invariably lost. Yet it is also an apt model of transcending the hero-victim dialectic.

In Rape of Persephone, the maiden Kore innocently picks flowers in a meadow when she is abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld to be his queen. Kore’s mother Demeter, the goddess of harvest, searches nine days and nights for Kore. She eventually learns from Helius, the sun god, that Kore was abducted by Hades and that Zeus, the King of Gods and Kore’s father, knew of the abduction and did nothing. In her grief, Demeter forbids the crops to grow and slaughters the livestock, thereby threatening the survival of humankind. This forces Zeus to intervene. He tells Demeter her daughter can return as long as she hasn’t eaten the fruit of the underworld. Yet Kore had eaten seven pomegranate seeds. She is thus obligated to become Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld. Yet without Persephone’s return, Demeter refuses to let the crops grow. A compromise is reached, and Persephone must dwell three months of each year in the underworld, during which the earth is barren (winter).

Persephone’s innocence can never be regained. Once she has eaten the seeds of darkness, she is forever changed. At least part of the time, she must live in the underworld. Yet she can also return to the upperworld, where she enjoys the joy of companionship and earthly delights. By continually bridging these two extremes, she transcends both of them.

Persephone’s yearly journey between the upperworld and underworld mirrors Jung’s process of individuation, in which we move between the conscious and unconscious aspects of psyche, and optimally dwell at their threshold — the liminal space between them. Anthropologist Victor Turner described liminality as a “condition of ambiguity and paradox, a confusion of customary categories … and a realm of pure possibility” — a state that makes initiation into a new state of being possible. [6] Wirtz also observed, “To live wisely means to live with ambiguity, to tolerate contradictions, to be able to doubt, to know and not know, and to practice tolerance.” [7] To recover from sexual trauma we must embrace this ambivalence — living as ambivalent goddesses.

For Persephone, the introduction to liminality and living at the threshold between the upperworld and underworld is her ingestion of the pomegranate seeds. At that moment, the underworld became physically part of her. We survivors also need to physically ‘taste’ our wounding, to make it real, and no longer pretend we can heroically escape our pasts.

In the West we are enculturated in the heroic ideal — the person with boundless stores of resilience capable of resisting the consequences of abuse and oppression. As psychologist Tanya Wilkinson remarked, the hero is “too good to stay hurt.”[8] No matter how awful or degrading the injury, ultimately the hero overcomes — and usually on her own, as Wilkinson noted the hero ideal is also an autonomous individual with a singular sense of self.

With the model of the hero at play in our imaginations, the descent into the wound of sexual trauma becomes synonymous with the state of victimhood. If like me you hold tightly to the hero ideal, you may blame yourself for your traumatic reactions to abuse, believing you are somehow defective because you can’t just ‘get over’ the past. You may view feelings of vulnerability as evidence of powerlessness, or fear that if you truly acknowledge the wound you will forever be pulled into the underworld. These are real concerns, and why we need mentors and professional healers to support us on our journeys.

However, to fully recover we must take the underworld journey and retrieve all aspects of ourselves. Even as we seek support (and we must), we will also experience profound loneliness and grief. This pain is necessary and inevitable. It lies beneath the resentments, fantasies, addictions, and other defenses that keep us from embodying all that we are. Wirtz observed, “Mourning can cause these defenses to dissolve and open the way for healing and reconciliation.” [9] This reconciliation involves rejoining with our bodies, as well as returning to the upperworld of commitments and relationships.

Mourning takes time, and requires us to make peace with loneliness. Much as Persephone must have felt during her yearly sojourn in the underworld, we too must learn to tolerate feeling alone. Psychologist Clark Moustakas wisely remarked, “Being lonely involves a certain pathway, requires a total submersion of self, a letting be of all that is and belongs, a staying or remaining with the situation, until a natural realization or completion is reached; when a lonely existence completes itself, the individual becomes, grows from it, reaches out for others in a deeper, more vital sense.” [10]

In the West, the dialectic between hero and victim keeps us fearful of falling. When we lack models for how to transcend this dialectic, we either strive to appear to have it all together (while feeling a wreck inside) or cling to our lost innocence. Both positions cut us off from the wisdom of the body that is our way out of these extremes. When we ground ourselves in the sensations and movements of the body, and can tolerate our emotions and accept all aspects of ourselves, we begin to live more ambivalently. We move fluidly between the underworld and upperworld aspects of ourselves, accepting both our strengths and our limitations, along with the inescapable consequences of sexual trauma.

Questions to ponder: How does identifying with the hero show up in your life? How does identifying with the victim reveal itself? Can you identify a body sensation, such as openness in your chest, or a movement, such as spreading your arms out wide, that symbolize being present to all of yourself?


  1. Wirtz, Ursula. (2014). Trauma and beyond: The mystery of transformation. New Orleans, LA: Spring Journal, Inc, p. 117.
  2. Ibid., p. 159.

  3. Ibid., p. 118.

  4. Ibid., p. 151.

  5. See Wilkinson for further discussion of the relationships between feeling like a victim and seeking perfection. Wilkinson, Tanya. (1996). Persephone returns. Berkeley, CA: Pagemill Press, p. 184.

  6. Quoted in Wilkinson, p. 45.

  7. Wirtz, p. 80.

  8. Wilkinson, p. 3.

  9. Wirtz, p. 105.

  10. Quoted in Haule, John R. (2010). Divine madness: Archetypes of romantic love. Fisher King Press, p. 26.


© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).