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James Hillman, April 12, 1926- October 27,2011

This morning, my boyfriend and teacher and long-time inspiration, Dr. James Hillman lost his battle with cancer. And to say I am sad doesn’t quite do it. I loved Hillman. I did.  And I still do. Anyone who knows me knows that I love Hillman. Loving Hillman is part of my identity. I have, with sincere and unshakable affection, called James Hillman my boyfriend. He wasn’t, of course. Hillman didn’t know me from Adam. But that didn’t stop me from loving him. I didn’t love him in “that” way. I loved Hillman’s mind. I loved the depth of his intellect and I loved his bold, brave and brash spirit. And, for an 80-something-year old man he was a bit of a hotty( as you can see in the picture, well I can see it—maybe you can’t).

I have read and reread everything that he’s written and if you spend more than a day with me you will likely hear me quote him or use one of his stories as my own. I made annual pilgrimages to Pacifica Graduate Institute to hear him talk. I would get there early to get a good seat and be close enough to make out what color socks he was wearing( Hillman was fond of colourful socks and because I was so fond of Hillman I found his idiosyncratic footwear to be adorable, in a lesser man I would find red socks to be nothing but an eyesore). I loved hearing Hillman speak for so many reasons. I loved his mind. He was unbelievably brilliant. I don’t think that in my life I have met a person who could match his intellect. He was fantastically funny. And he, my dear Hilly, did not suffer fools gladly.  No, he had an incredible bullshit detector and he wasn’t afraid to use it. Because of Hillman’s genius he tended to have an audience filled with intellectuals and many of these intellectuals wanted to flex their cerabellum in front of this great teacher. Many of these cerebellum flexors were men. As soon as they would get up to answer a question Hillman could see through them and their posturing and their 15 minute questions that would often include quotes in Latin, Ancient Greek or Aramaic and some other obscure and unreadable text. Hillman would yawn with impatience and say. “What’s the question?” or “I’m not interested” or “That bores me.” I know it may sound like he was cranky and cantankerous, and he was. But he was cranky and cantankerous in the cutest of ways—and that ain’t easy.

All the years I went to see Hillman speak I would never ask him a question. I would when close to Hillman be sure not to make eye contact. As much as I loved him he also scared the shit out of me. I didn’t want any of that cantankerous coming my way. However, two years ago when I went to see him I finally got the nerve to speak to him.  A friend who is a Jungian analyst, knew of my crush and encouraged me to finally speak to him. I was apprehensive. I didn’t want to ruin my affection for Hilly by having him hurl some hostility my way. I spent the better part of a day coming up with a question for him that was relevant to the topic. I made sure that it was a clear and concise, and not stupid and one that he might actually like to engage with. When I finally got the nerve to ask him I got up and stood in line, behind the long line of cerebellum flexers. I stood way back from them as if I didn’t want to actually own my place in line. Hilly’s wife saw me standing in line and she encouraged me to move up, so I wouldn’t lose my place. I whispered to her, “he scares me. I need some time to breath before I get up there.” His wife nodded compassionately, “I get it.”

I have no idea the questions that the people before me asked. I have no memory of what they said or even what Hillman said back to them. I was in a maelstrom of panic, anxiety and rehearsing what exactly I was going to say.  I rehearsed so much that I didn’t even know what the words meant anymore, the words lost their life with each anxiety filled repetition. When finally it was my turn to stand in front of the microphone I took a deep breath and was about to begin when Hillman interrupted me, which only exacerbated my anxiety.  Hillman said, “I need to make this point. It is very important to consider who it is our patients have a crush on. This is important stuff.”

Okay, so here’s the thing, this point about crushes was a total non-sequitur.  According to friends who were in the room and who had been able to listen to him speak, as they hadn’t been in the anxiety state that prevented them from hearing or feeling their legs, as I was,—they told me that there had been nothing before said about crushes before I made my way to the microphone.The crush thing just came to him when I stood there ( Hillman,if pressed to explain why this happened,  might have said their was a causal relationship between my crush and his inspiration to speak on the topic). Hillman finished that thought and then turned to me and said, “okay, now you..” So, with the absolute best comedic timing of my life, I said, “Um, well, I have a crush on you.” Hillman looked up at me and smiled boyishly and said, ” This could be dangerous.” The crowd went wild. I relaxed when I heard the laughter and dared to say, ” I was scared of you but you aren’t so bad.” Hillman retorted, “I can be.” Again the audience laughed at our somewhat bawdy interchange. Hillman then invited, “so what’s your question?”. I asked it, and I won’t ask it here as it would take me 500 words to explain the context of the question in any meaningful way and it would take me about 2500 words to give you Hillman’s thoughtful and engaging answer.

When I left the microphone I was beaming, Hillman liked my question. I spoke to him. I survived it. Nothing bad had happened. Strangers came up to me after and told me that our interchange was the highlight of the conference—-and even if it wasn’t for them it certainly was for me.  Truly, this was a big moment in my life. I remember the first session I had with Igor after this event and how I told him how by daring to speak to Hillman and surviving it that I wondered what else I could do that I thought I couldn’t. Something about that interchange gave me the courage to speak up. It changed me. I can’t give you concrete ways. I don’t have examples that will prove my point, I just know it’s true. Something happened to me through that interchange, a kind of boldness began to emerge. And I don’t think it is hyperbole to look back at the changes that I have made in the last year and to give some credit to this interchange with Hillman playing a part in my courageous life changes that followed.

When I heard the news that Hillman died I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I knew he had been sick. He had to cancel his last conference that he has been scheduled to present in March. He had canceled because he was ill. At the time I was in the midst of my own personal crisis and the news of Hillman’s illness amplified the pain. I couldn’t imagine a world  without Hillman. In March I wrote the following: My beloved boyfriend is not doing so well. I was supposed to be going to Pacifica this weekend to see him. However he had to cancel the event due to serious illness. Hence I will not be spending my birthday with Hillman. As soon as I heard of his canceling I had a horrible thought come to mind, “I can’t imagine a world without Hillman”. This is an awful thing to think and a worse thing to write. I can’t tell you how much it hurts me to think it. It feels like a betrayal to him to even write it. I don’t want him, with the help of Google, to ever find this post and have him find that for a minute I ever doubted his capacity for immortality. I want him to know that his existence is important to me( insert tears). Even though I have never met him, my Hilly holds father energy for me and so if he’s gone then I am once again fatherless. I know its irrational and that it is strange and absurd to project so much power on a man who doesn’t know me from Adam—-however, there you have it, this man means something to me and his presence in the world and in my psyche is grounding and important to me. And I grieve even the thought of losing him.

Today Hillman has left us. Some of you may not feel impacted by that truth. Some of you may never read his books or know his theories and that’s fine. I share this with you not to prosthelytize or to convince you of anything. I share  all of this with you to tell you that a man I love is no more and that I am better for knowing him and deeply saddened that I now live in a world where he doesn’t.

A few of my posts featuring James Hillman: I <3 Hillman

Follow your uncertainty

What I brought back with me from Santa Barbara

Red Faced

I dream of boots and beauty and making up

Some of the best of Hillman:

The Soul’s Code

We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse

Re-Visioning Psychology

*****

Hillman’s obituary

17 Responses to “James Hillman, April 12, 1926- October 27,2011”


  • As I sit here, drinking my early morning coffee, I can’t imagine a better post to accompany it :-)
    I read your post in March and often wondered if you’d tell us something more. The story about the conference question and the conversation that ensued is just precious. I don’t know anything more about Mr. Hillman, but it’s a privilege to get a glimpse of him through your eyes.

  • To lose a someone who is important to us, who is loved – for any reason – is a pain that we all recognise and can empathise with.

    I feel sorry for you today.

    The great thing about people like that is that they leave a tremendous legacy. That gift he gave you which is so personal, can carry on and live and grow, something to nurture and treasure and to pass down, like Hillman did, to those who come after looking for some of the same things that you have. Not only can he continue to help you in those old ways but in new ways too.

    That’s worth smiling about.

    Take care,
    Al.

  • Can I send you to two wee poems that I think will strike a chord, originally written in praise of another great mind. One helped me when I lost that father figure too……

    http://crivensjingsandhelpmaboab.blogspot.com/2011/02/sunday-post_20.html

    http://crivensjingsandhelpmaboab.blogspot.com/2011/05/sunday-post.html

  • If there is any way you can somehow charm your way into speaking at a Hillman memorial, I think this post would be a perfect thing to read.
    Love. Hearts. All that stuff.

  • SO sorry, Tracey. I know how meaningful this man has been to you.

  • Beautifully written post, my friend. Yet again, you have inspired me. As a tribute, I just bought a copy of “The Soul’s Code”. Take care.

  • What a beautifully written tribute. I’m so sorry Tracey.

  • Oh I am so sorry…

  • You’re so sweet, and so brave, to call it love — to admit to flat-out loving a man who didn’t exactly invite us to respond to him personally or emotionally. He was always deflecting the astonishment and gratitude for ideas away from his person. And indeed the ideas live on. Maybe he was really shy, and humble, and embarrassed to be honored as the source of so much that was life-changing. Thank you for doing it anyway.

    I knew him slightly, reviewed A Blue Fire, corresponded with him a bit — a correspondence mostly in short, cranky notes that I have kept and treasured. In this post on my old blog, if you can stick with it, there is a description of my own uncanny connection to Jim.

    He always wrote about death as the completion of the form of life and as something the soul did not fear. He still lives in his writings, in which we can now go deeper since there won’t be more. And I agree, right now that is no great consolation.

  • I totally understand how that interaction with him could empower you. I don’t know any of the psychology of it, of course, but I know from experience that having an exchange with a hero in which said hero takes us seriously and treats us as an adult is a strong confidence-builder. I know we shouldn’t rely on others for approval, but a tiny morsel of affirmation from someone we see on a pedestal is a gift that keeps on giving.

  • This is my story on how I was introduced to Hillman’s work. The introduction came from the psyche itself. I was meditating and a voice, (no, not a voice one could literally hear, but a thought so clear it was like a voice) said go to such and such psychology building on the university campus and look on the bulletin board. It was so clear and precise that I followed through on it. As I looked around I could find nothing that interested me except an announcement that James Hillman would be speaking on a certain date at a town fifty miles away. I had heard of James Hillman, I think I even had a book or two of his, but I hadn’t read them. I told my husband and we decided to go to the lecture.

    As we sat in the lecture hall listening to Hillman speak, a lot of things he said really pissed me off. But at the same time that he was upsetting me I could see his genuis and so I took it and when I arrived home I started reading his books.

    Sometimes I wish I would of had the courage to speak to him that day, because I never saw him in the flesh again, but maybe it is a good thing I didn’t because he would of probably made me feel like an idiot and then I might not have read his books. Well, I’ll give myself a little credit and say, maybe it would of taken me longer to get around to reading his books. As it turns out, I really needed to read his books because in a few months I would be taking a tour of the Underworld, Hades–soulland, so Hillman saved my life by helping me to understand what was going on.

    A light has gone out of the world with his passing. A light that reveals “the poem at the heart of things.” I will think of James Hillman when I march in my local Occupy protest. I made my protest sign thinking of James Hillman. It says:

    “Corruption is ugly. I demand Beauty and Justice.”

    Char

  • Thank you for sharing your Hillman story. I regret that I never got to see him speak.

  • I am sorry, lovely. I saw the obituary this morning in my time zone, and wanted to send a note right away, but held off because I wanted you not to know for as long as possible — I wanted you to keep living in the world with him in it in every way (he’s still in the world, just not in one very important way).

    I am glad you have this amazing memory, and this powerful sense of how he changed your life (and you changed his, too — that crush comment!). He changed mine, through you. We blog-met when I quoted a passage of Hillman on hope that you had posted.

    Much consolation and affection. D.

  • I’m so very sorry to hear this. Always so sad when lights get extinguished.

    Hugs.

  • Ditto coffeeaddict. Tracey, that was a beautiful eulogy to the testament of how we as humans can care for others without even “knowing” them well. It is not unlike how your readers feel about you or other bloggers that we may consider to be an integral part of our day to day lives. You are wonderful! :) xoxo Country Mouse

  • I loved him too! You’re post almost could have been mine, except I never did ask him anything. Reading Hillman’s works and finding a great Analyst saved my life. I did get his autograph and had the face to face. That moment will live in me forever. Thanks for writing about him and making me feel not quite so silly :) …and hey, we probably sat near each other at his conferences. Here is my tribute to Jim: http://ptero9.wordpress.com/2011/10/29/born-at-the-right-time/

  • This is so beautiful, it made me cry. Like someone else has said, i love how you were not afraid to be ‘in love’ with him and how open you were about having a crush on so formidable a man.

    He was my lifeline at a very dark point in my life (i survived with the help of his works) and i can relate to the ‘father energy’ you speak of. That strength, clarity, simplicity, sparseness, no-nonsenseness. A great and beautiful being.

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About Me

My name is Tracey, aka La Belette Rouge. I am a psychotherapist and the author of Freudian Sip @ Psychology Today. I blog about psychology, my therapy, dreams, writing, meaning making, home, longing, loss, infertility and other things that delight or inspire me. I try to make deep and elusive psychodynamic concepts accessible and funny. For more information, click here .
These blog posts are informational only and not meant to replace individual psychotherapy, counseling or medical advice. If you are in need of help, reaching out to a professional may help you decide how to proceed or how to find the care you need. For a referral, contact

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