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Incarcerated, But Not Imprisoned: Joseph Campbell’s Hero Myth


When I was invited by Dr. Mary Watkins, director of Pacifica Graduate Institute’s Liberation Psychology program, to volunteer to teach a correspondence course with inmates from a California state prison, I responded to her request with a course on personal mythology using Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Now, some 18 months later, I am so grateful that I did not refuse her call.

In their respective essays, I discovered that one shared experience the inmates wrote about is that Campbell’s mythic narratives as well as his own reflections in Hero gave them a story in which they could place their woundedness within a larger frame. One student was attracted to Campbell before we began working together through the Bill Moyers’ series, The Power of Myth. My course offering, he said, created an opportunity to explore Campbell further with guidance from the course structure and my writing meditations. But more importantly, many wrote that what they sought was a purpose in prison that the Hero, as well as other courses, encouraged and helped shape within them. 

Resentment, hostility, a sustained anger and feeling out of control—all emotions that initially placed some of my students in prison—yielded to a search for meaning through rekindling a spiritual life they had left behind, or exploring the practice of Buddhism, or attending programs on addiction. In their essays they expressed how Campbell’s stages in the hero’s journey illuminated their own histories wherein they either refused an earlier calling or had accepted their calling within the confines of prison life. Readings in the Hero volume validated many of their choices. 

One student in particular wrote of how his inability to forgive himself and others who misled him in life resulted in his imprisonment. He used the metaphor of being turned into a monster by his unforgiving attitude. Reading Campbell, he saw his life’s path with increased clarity and realized that he could re-author the plot of his own story by using the stages of the hero’s journey. This template tempered his behavior and moderated his outbursts in prison.

Most dramatically, however, was that several inmates acknowledged Campbell’s authentic and compassionate prose had softened them and taught them to speak more deeply about their own self-annihilation and recovery. They also found meaningful parallels between 12-Step programs of recovery and Campbell’s stages of the hero’s journey. One student phrased it this way: “Working with the 12-Step program and Buddhist teachings, along with Campbell’s insights, helped me understand myself better and to live in a peaceful, healthy direction.” 

On one assignment I asked, “Where in your own life have you found yourself following the pattern Campbell lays out in ‘Departure, Initiation, Return?’” (Hero 23-31) Their profound, insightful and authentic responses to this mythical pattern opened each of them to their own personal myth. In a word that Campbell uses often in his writing, they discovered “correspondences” with their own story.

I in turn realized more fully how myths can be aspirational by offering students a mythic narrative that they grasp as universal, and yet live out with great personal particularity. Two of them wrote that initially they reluctantly attended an AA meeting. Now, they host them. One discovered that he had talents as an artist; he sent me one of his paintings to share this newly-found form of personal expression. I should also mention that they found Campbell’s writing accessible, and filled with vitality and encouragement.

From this rich set of experiences, assisted directly by Campbell’s classic work, I became more aware of the power of myth to incite explorations into their own adventure. I have also noticed that, yes, they are incarcerated—some for life—but they are no longer imprisoned. By this I mean that imprisonment feeds the victim archetype, but by understanding themselves as incarcerated they locate a level of freedom that sustains them. Incarceration is physical, while imprisonment is psychological and mythic. Through reading and writing on sections of the Hero image, they envisioned their own narratives in a different, more complex light. Some remarked that in prison they have found a level of freedom never experienced before, in part because they felt they had reclaimed parts of themselves heretofore buried. The act of reclamation and self-affirmation is exactly the psychological move Campbell describes in The Masks of God, Vol. 3: Occidental Mythology: “The virtue of heroism must lie, therefore… not in the will to reform, but in the courage to affirm, the nature of the universe.” (319)

While meditating on their personal myth, prompted by Campbell’s insights, they expressed how they discovered their basic goodness: that the mistakes they made, often accompanied by substance abuse, no longer defined them. They ceased conflating their identity with their crime.  Several admitted that assisting others in prison has gifted their lives with joy and a more generous orientation to life. The Hero’s journey affirmed and further supported their own life’s direction, a greater self-awareness, and the value of being in service to others.

Incarcerated, they nonetheless stepped out of their angry, resentful cocoon of self-imprisonment. One student admitted that he began once more to love who he is and to connect with others in similar compassionate ways. This latter may be the most valuable consequence of their development and the various faces of the hero played an instrumental part in achieving such self-acceptance.


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