Can a Woman Really
Know Herself?—& Does She Want To?
Originally presented at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, NYC
In my first Aesthetic Realism consultation when I was 27 years old, I
told my consultants I felt "stuck." I was worried that I would lose the
man I loved and depended upon for my happiness. They asked:
As Mr. Cameron feels you like him very much, do you think he also feels
that you don't really know him? Could that make a man question in some
(Nancy Huntting nods)
Consultants. Do you think you can know Mr. Cameron just by himself?
Women make the big mistake of thinking they can know one person out of
the universe and not have to know anyone else deeply. Do you think we
could know you unless we wanted to know people as such?
I hadn't imagined that knowing other people had anything to do with
knowing Mr. Cameron, much less with knowing myself. I didn't like most
people and felt I was right not to. However, I also didn't like myself,
and I didn't know why.
This was about to change. That day I learned the most crucial thing
about myself, and I never felt stuck again: it freed me. I learned I
had two selves that were opposed to each other: one got pleasure having
contempt for things—feeling superior, managing people, dismissing
people; the other, my whole self, got pleasure through knowing and
being fair to the world outside of me. I came to see that our happiness
depends on knowing ourselves, our motives in everything we do,
well enough to choose what truly represents us!
"Aesthetic Realism says," wrote Mr. Siegel in his essay "Knowing
Oneself": "that the more we can truly like in this world, the more that
is not ourselves we can see as increasing what we are, the more we know
ourselves and are taking care of ourselves."
To show the truth of this I'll speak about what I learned, about a
character in a play by Eugene O'Neill, and about a woman studying in
Aesthetic Realism consultations which I'm honored to teach.
Mr. Siegel continues: "Everything in the world can be seen as telling
us something about ourselves. Therefore if we have contempt for
anything unjustly, we interfere with a chance of knowing ourselves."
1. The World &
Ourselves: Competitors or Friends?
Growing up in a small village called Glendale, 14 miles north of the
Ohio River, I felt I knew myself, simply because I was myself: that is,
highly intelligent, pretty, of the distinguished Connecticut Hunttings.
But—"ay, there's the rub"—despite my parents acting as if I was near
perfect, the quantity of E's (for excellent) I got in grade school and
A's in high school-why was I so socially uncomfortable, so unsure of
myself, that I wanted to disappear?
I wouldn't admit these feelings. I was, I told myself, shy and
sensitive. Strangers might hurt me with a look, a sneer, or by knowing
things I didn't. You don't reveal yourself to them. Friends were
persons who had already shown they liked and approved of me. I couldn't
imagine that I was anything but one of the best persons in this world
filled with all sorts of unsavory humanity. Mr. Siegel explained in his
essay on "Knowing Oneself":
There is a fear of
knowing oneself that is present in nearly every person....The
interference with knowing oneself is the desire a person has to praise
oneself or think well of oneself....There is the feeling in people that
if they know themselves, they'll come upon certain matters which will
not delight them.
I had this fear; I doubted I was as wonderful as I tried to convince
myself I was. I was 13 when my best friend, Marcy Cochran, moved away,
and I remember writing a letter to her that was an outpouring of the
feeling I was a failure. Why did I do that? Marcy had beautiful natural
blond hair, did arguably better in school than I did, and now had
achieved something I hadn't, something we'd dreamed of together: she'd
gotten a horse! I was crushed by her accomplishments and good fortune;
I later learned she was accepted at the Sorbonne, another blow.
I was competitive—something I would have denied at the time. Mr.
Siegel later asked me: "Have you wanted to be superior to every woman
Though my ego was shocked at the realization, yes, I did! And I'm
tremendously grateful he asked this question. It had me know myself
better. I was able to see the ugliness and harm and folly of being this
way, and be happier than I ever could have been.
As I studied Aesthetic Realism, I began to respect other people as
representatives of the world with interesting questions like my own. It
was then that my fear began to change; I felt a new relation to others
and no longer lonely. I had a new freedom in my own skin!
"When people know themselves," Mr. Siegel wrote in Self and World, "they truly can
approve of themselves because they know what they are. No self can
truly know itself and be ashamed."
How Can You Know When You're in Love?
Freddy Barton and I went steady on and off from 9th until 12th grade,
which along with its terrific moments, was anguish. I got his school
ring, wrapped it with fluffy black Angora yarn to make it fit, and a
few months later he wanted it back.
I cried like it was the end of the world each time we broke up. All I
thought about was being with him: everything else in the world seemed
Another fact about myself I needed to know, and would learn about
through knowing people as such, was that I was possessive. I equated
love with having a person—I didn't think I had to understand him; I
didn't think I had to do anything.
I thought love was someone appreciating me. While a man will cooperate
up to a point, no one really likes being a possession-we want our best
possibilities encouraged. Freddie felt trapped, as later other men I
was "devoted to" would feel.
In an Aesthetic Realism class I attended, Mr. Siegel, asked these
crucial questions to have me understand my motives, some years later,
with another man, Mr. Cameron:
ES: Have you
admitted to yourself clearly that you do want to own him? You should
admit it casually. Like other women, you're a charming holding company.
Is there any greater comfort than owning a person whom you desire?
ES: Do you really think so? Do you believe you conquer the world
by having Mr. Cameron need you? It's told about in Manon Lescaut, and The Letters of a Portuguese Nun, also Phaedra.
Mr. Siegel enabled people to have a good time knowing themselves. What
an understatement —he showed it's the greatest good time! Everything is
a means of your understanding humanity and reality and therefore
yourself: from a sink-stopper, which he wrote a poem about, to
Shakespeare's Hamlet; from your mother to a poem about a rose by the
classic French poet Pierre de Ronsard.
Learning that my personal torment was akin to what other women have
gone through and that literature arose from it which I could study, was
a tremendous thrill.
I began to see the significance to me of getting a man to act like I
was everything to him. We can't own someone—they will object, and we
object, because we're after something larger. Was there any greater
comfort? Yes, I came to see, it is having a purpose with a man that you
really like yourself for having, and that he can really like you for!
That purpose is good will, which begins with the desire to know. Mr.
Siegel's good will was the most beautiful thing I've ever met: he
wanted to understand people, see what interfered with a person's best
possibilities, which he encouraged with magnificent honesty, kindness,
Aesthetic Realism showed me that the world was in fact the other half
of myself. Love is defined by Aesthetic Realism as proud need. We are proud when our
need of someone is because we honestly like the whole world more
She Didn't Want to Know Herself
A play with a woman in it who acts as if she knows her mind and knows
who she loves, but does not know herself or want to, is Beyond the Horizon by Eugene
O'Neill. I recently saw a performance of it at the Irish Repertory
Theatre. It's O'Neill's first full-length play and in Eli Siegel's
great lecture on it, which has been presented in dramatic form by the Aesthetic Realism
Theatre Company, Mr. Siegel said it is likely O'Neill's best. Mr.
Siegel explained the central question being dealt with by O'Neill, and
it's about knowing:
The world on the one
hand is unknowable and on the other is a fetter. Trying to solve the
situation of the world as unknowable and also as too restrictive, has
been gone through by everyone....
The play is about two farming families—James and Kate Mayo and their
sons, Andy and Rob, and Mrs. Atkins, a widow, and her daughter Ruth—a
young woman who, because she doesn't want to know what she really
feels, including about love, makes choices that have a disastrous
As the play opens, Rob, age 23, tells his brother he's decided to leave
for a long trip on a boat, working for his uncle, a ship's captain.
Andy, age 27, tells Rob he understands there must be good opportunities
to be found in those foreign ports, but he wishes Rob appreciated the
farm more. Robert responds:
ROBERT- Supposing I
was to tell you that it's just Beauty that's calling me, the beauty of
the far off and unknown, the mystery and spell of the East, which lures
me in the books I've read, the need of the freedom of great wide
spaces,...in quest of the secret which is hidden just over there,
beyond the horizon? Suppose I told you that was the one and only reason
for my going?
should say you were nutty.
At this point we learn that Ruth Atkins and her mother are coming to
dinner, and there's tension between Andy and Rob about Ruth; we don't
know why, they aren't able to speak about it. When Ruth first enters,
looking for Rob, O'Neill describes her as:
healthy, blond, out-of-door girl of twenty, with a graceful, slender
figure. Her face...is undeniably pretty.... Her small, regular features
are marked by a certain strength-an underlying, stubborn fixity of
purpose hidden in the...charm of her fresh youthfulness.
So Ruth is a fresh, "out-of-door girl," and also has a "stubborn fixity
of purpose." Many a woman has had a "fixity of purpose," has made up
her mind without wanting to know what she really feels—and we
see this in Ruth, as she asks very intensely: "Oh, Rob, why do you want
to go?" and Rob is surprised; he believes Ruth and Andy care for each
other. He tells Ruth a good deal about himself, about when he was a
child and often ill, how he would look out the window:
ROBERT. So gradually
came to believe that all the wonders of the world happened on the other
side of those hills....That's why I'm going now, I suppose....the
horizon is as far away and as luring as ever."(He turns to her—softly.) "Do you understand now, Ruth?"
RUTH. (Spellbound, in a whisper.) Yes.
answer isn't honest, as we'll soon see; in fact, Ruth does not understand. And Rob, who
also doesn't know himself, tells Ruth that when he decided to go away,
he realized he loved her:
ROBERT. I wasn't going to tell you, but I feel I have to. It can't
matter now that I'm going so far away, and for so long—perhaps
forever....I realize how impossible it all is--and I understand....I
saw Andy's love for you--and I knew that you must love him.
RUTH. (Breaking out stormily.) I don't! I don't love Andy! I don't!
(Robert stares at her in stupid astonishment. (Ruth weeps hysterically.) Whatever—put such a fool notion into—into
your head? (She suddenly throws her arms about his neck and hides her
head on his shoulder.)
ROBERT. (Mystified.) But you and Andy were always together!
RUTH. Because you never seemed to want to go any place with me.
You were always reading an old book, and not paying any attention to
me. I was too proud to let you see I cared because I thought the year
you had away to college had made you stuck-up, and you thought yourself
too educated to waste any time on me.
Like Ruth, I felt safe hiding any interest in a man until the man
showed interest in me first. And when he did show interest, I had a
victory, and thought less of him.
A woman can play with a man's feelings, and her own feelings, rather
than wanting to know them, and not see how cruel this is, and
hurtful to herself.
4. What Is Our Foundation?
A few minutes earlier Ruth said she understood Rob's feelings—why he
wants to travel to see new places and people. But now:
sudden fear.) You won't go away on the trip, will you, Rob? You'll tell
them you can't go on account of me, won't you? You can't go now! You
ROBERT. (Bewildered.) Perhaps—you can come too.
RUTH. Oh, Rob, don't be so foolish. You know I can't. Who'd take care
ROBERT. (Vaguely.) I could go—and then send for you both—when I'd
settled some place out there.
RUTH. Ma never could. She'd never leave the farm for anything.... And
oh, Rob, I wouldn't want to live in any of those outlandish places you
were going to. I couldn't stand it there, I know I couldn't—not knowing
anyone.... I've never been away from here, hardly and--I'm just a home
body, I'm afraid. (She clings to him imploringly.) Please don't go—not
Ruth is acting as if she knows herself and her mother. If she couldn't
stand those "outlandish places," how can she love a person who's just
told her how much they mean to him?
Mr. Siegel is explaining Ruth Atkins and ourselves when he says: "The
self can be as uncertain as thistledown and as insistent as steel."
That evening Rob and Ruth tell their families they're going to marry.
Andy finds this situation unbearable, and though he loves the farm,
decides to go on the boat instead. And Rob, who everyone knows was not
cut out to be a farmer, has to run the farm, and fails at it.
They have a little girl, Mary, but Ruth is burdened by her daily tasks
and blames her husband, the man who she insisted stay for her, the man
who she prevented from following his heart's desire. She's not the
least critical of herself, and she changes in a terrible way, deciding
it was really Andy she loved all along. Ruth and Rob have a huge fight;
she says things that show the harm to ourselves and cruelty to others
of not wanting to know ourselves:
RUTH. Oh, if
known! If I hadn't been such a fool to listen to your cheap, silly,
poetry talk that you learned out of
books! If I could have seen how you
were in your true self-like you are now—I'd have killed myself before
I'd have married you! I was sorry for it before we'd been together a
month. I knew what you were really like—when it was too late....You
were saying you'd go out on the road if it wasn't for me. Well, you can
go, and the sooner
the better!...Go and be a tramp like you've always
wanted. It's all you're good for.
Mr. Siegel explains that the
play, along with being "a tragedy in a new
style....the tragedy of confusion," is also:
an attack on a woman
that rings true. The attack can be put simply: do not act as if you
have made up your mind when you haven't. It may
not sound as scathing as some other attacks on women, but it does make
for tragedy.... Ruth is really a tragic figure because she is so
collapsible. She does not have a foundation....Her not being able to
put the possibilities of fondness together causes her to be a trouble
maker, a tragedy evoker, and a tragedy bringer-about.
Knowing Ourselves in Love
What would it mean to have a foundation, knowledge of who we are
enabling us to be the person we want to be? This happened to me, and
now I have the privilege of teaching other women what I learned. One of
them is Caroline Zimmerman, age 26, attending graduate school while
working at an import-export firm. She had keen eyes and a statuesque
figure; she appeared confident, with an earnest quality as she spoke,
but also a stiffness or guardedness. As an only child, she told us,
both parents doted on her, and this made her feel special.
We asked Ms. Zimmerman this central question: "Do you see the world as
essentially friendly, or unfriendly?" "Not friendly," she said. She
remembered her father saying, "It's a cut-throat world out there." And
she saw coldness and intense fights between her parents.
It was our job, we told her, to have her see that the world was her
friend; that she and the world had the same aesthetic structure: the
oneness of opposites—such as rest and motion, severity and generosity,
known and unknown, coolness and warmth. Through knowing the world she
could understand herself and other people.
In one consultation she told us that it troubled her that she was still
unmarried; she blamed peer pressure and articles women's magazines. She
was surprised when we asked:
Do you believe that men and women can bring out good things in each
other? Are you proud or ashamed of how you see marriage and men?
Because if you really liked the idea of marriage, you'd feel more at
ease not being married.
Caroline Zimmerman: Wow! That's surprising. But...I think you're
right...I don't feel proud, I feel ashamed of how I see men.
We asked if there was a particular man she was thinking about at this
time, and she told us about two at her job: Jim Maxwell, who she went
out with twice, and then declined a third invitation. Then she had
several conversations with Del Catalon, but when she suggested they
could have lunch together sometime, he never took her up on it.
Consultants: Did you
Zimmerman: I felt it a little, yes.
Do you think the feeling you had is related to the feeling Mr. Maxwell
had when you declined his invitation: "Is there something about me that
makes women feel they don't want to be in my company? Is there
something about me that makes a man not follow through when I make it
clear I would be glad if he did? What is it about me—what's wrong?" But did you gain
anything from the brief acquaintance with Mr. Catalon?
I've learned about the world in many interesting ways from people.
Have you wanted to be an active force in having a man meet his own
A man would like to have someone who believed enough in the best in him
to encourage him to be better; and a woman would, too. There has to be
an active hope for respect, an active purpose for respect.
We asked Ms. Zimmerman if she'd come to a wrong notion of love early.
Was the feeling of being "special," of being aloof and adored, also as
to other things: that is, you keep yourself apart, and nothing should
have you entirely?
Zimmerman: Yes, I recognize what you're describing.
Consultants: So this doesn't just have to do with men, this
has to do with how you see the whole world. If you have closely to do
with a man, he's going to change you. You won't want that to happen
unless you see the world as good enough to change you. Love doesn't
begin with a person, it begins with a way of seeing the world.
There's no greater news for people living today than what Ms. Zimmerman
was learning: we can proudly know ourselves through the study of