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
Some of the best of Hillman: