Susan Schwartz Senstad, author of the acclaimed novels Milk and Venom and Music for the Third Ear, has lived her personal and professional life as a quest: to span the gaps between the experience and the narrative of being alive – of being a person.
Born in New York in 1945, Susan was raised in Chicago, where, from puberty and on, writing offered a private refuge. She received her BA in Education in 1967. By 1969, she’d been swept into Chicago’s world of political conflict, the battles for racial equality, and ‘Second Wave Feminism’ through joining the newborn ‘Chicago Women’s Liberation Union.’ Her CWLU chapter’s polemic militancy soon drove her off. But she gratefully took with her a life-long, evolving commitment to humane feminism, one that empowers women while encouraging men to dare to inhabit more flexible roles in society and at home.
I go by touching where I have to go.— Erik Barker
I part the darkness, and I follow slow.
Expanding the Mind…
In the early 1970s, Susan moved to the wild cliffs and redwood forests of Big Sur, California, where she dove into epoch-changing, ‘mind-expanding’ Esalen Institute. Those hippie years were the dawn of a cultural revolution. As affirmed by Bob Dylan, one of the moment’s prophets, “The times they are a changin’.”
Big Sur still pulsed with the spirit of Henry Miller and the old Bohemians and Beat poets. Now, their successors explored altered states of consciousness – meditation, magic mushrooms, mescaline, LSD, amphetamines, hashish, marijuana cut with LSD…The distilled spirit of the sixties and early seventies — art, nakedness, and ‘enlightenment’ — was being lived out under the unobstructed Milky Way.
You can trip off to places so wild and so wiggy that you don’t know where you are until you get back. And sometimes not even know you tripped off at all because you never got back to know that you’ve left.— Ken Kesey
The Big Bang of Alternative Psychology
As Susan tells it, “When I arrived at Esalen, the founding father of Gestalt Therapy, Fritz Perls, had just died. But his ethos, after his years at Esalen, still attracted the pioneers of the revolutionary Human Potential Movement, and of the transcendent and spiritual awakenings of the times — as well as the occasional psycho-spiritual con-artist and charlatan.
These post-Freudian rebels initiated me into the art of psychology. Before them, psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis were often known — deservedly — for being rigid and authoritarian, not to mention patriarchal and demeaning. I spent my years at Esalen absorbing up the brilliant, quirky ruminations and cutting edge ideas of those ‘mind/body’ pathfinders. From them, I learned how, when, and with whom, to open myself emotionally, and I also learned, fortunately, how to spot the whackos, those from whom it is best to protect yourself by staying closed, or simply by leaving.
Losing the Mind…
After the extraordinary experiences of Esalen, Susan switched to Esalen’s antithesis – a darker world. Armed now with her first MA, this one in clinical psychology, and a California Family Therapist license, she worked for two sobering years as Section Leader at Cambia Way Residential Treatment Center, a mental hospital near Berkeley, California.
The founders of Cambia hoped to apply the discoveries of Humanistic Psychology to the mentally ill. This well-intentioned transfer of treatment innovations rarely succeeded, however.
As Susan put it, “I saw enacted before me the profound difference between ‘expanding one’s mind’ and ‘losing one’s mind. Self-evident as that might sound now, it provided a crucial post-Esalen reality check.”
Of course, it is unethical for a therapist to expropriate her patients’ stories. But the deep encounters Susan had at Cambia with minds both unlike her own and yet deeply familiar, proved later to be a valuable resource for creating fictional characters.
Europe / The United States & the Psychology of Selves
In the late 1970s, Susan was invited by Dr. Alberto Zucconi to work in Rome, Italy, eventually in Italian. Besides her psychology practice there, Susan began to work internationally. In Italy, the United States, and Norway she taught an eclectic and innovative mind/body approach to Humanistic Psychology.
Back in Northern California in the early 80s, Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone trained Susan in their model and method, the “Psychology of Selves,” also called “Voice Dialogue.” For Susan, their theories and ways of working reduced the tensions between alternative and mainstream psychology by making structured room for the full repertoire of our inner possibilities. In the 70s, the accessing of one’s emotions was championed. Here, ways to integrate them were added, learning how and when to put them aside. Embracing vulnerability, safe boundaries, and the entire continuum in between, the Stones term ‘Aware Ego’ describes the dynamic place to stand in our pursuit of both psychological freedom and security.
In 1985, Susan moved to the Oslo area, plunging into the culture and language of Norway. Besides establishing a therapy practice, she introduced the Stone’s approach, training selected groups of psychology professionals and consultants to integrate the Stone’s method and model into their own work. She also offered leadership training through her consultancy firm, Spektrumgruppen. She and a colleague, Erik Koritzinsky, ran groups for the leaders of various Norwegian organizations and bureaucracies. One aim was to help them restructure their priorities so that women entering previously male-dominated areas wouldn’t have to do all the adapting; men and women could and did learn to adopt some of each others’ qualities as their own. Those courses were chosen as Norway’s contribution to a pan-Scandinavian project to integrate so-called “women’s issues” into all official tasks and projects.
During this period, Susan began to have articles published, including in the Norwegian press, about psychology, politics, travel — and even a few stories.
It became ever clearer to Susan during the late 1980s that the forms of individual therapy she’d learned did not serve all her patients. She sought clinical supervision in ‘psychoanalytically oriented intensive psychotherapy’. Much fell into place as she explored the understanding of Character Disorders, Narcissism, and Borderline Conditions that had been elaborated during the years since she’d completed her training.
“Salvaging certain potent ‘Freudian’ tools that my innovating psychology professors had thrown out — such as a focus on ‘transference’ and ‘counter-transference’ — helped usher otherwise inaccessible vulnerabilities and patterns into the light, where they could be tended to, and/or changed. I felt I became a better therapist. Such techniques also helped me see myself more clearly — including various eccentricities, which, apparently, my closest people had already caught on to!”
As collateral payoff, the fictional characters whom Susan had been creating (although it seemed to her as if she were following them) grew more complex — and quirkier
The Launch of the Second Art – the Writer
Susan continued to read and to write. Discovering that her Norwegian writer friends could offer only limited feedback about her English-language fiction, she enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts for Writers degree program (MFA) in Montpelier, Vermont.
… When Rabbit said, “Honey or condensed milk with your bread?” [Pooh] was so excited that he said, “Both.”— A.A. Milne
In 2000, Susan completed and Doubleday published Music for the Third Ear — a novel that confronts the personal impact of wars, both past and present. Written in English and translated into German, Dutch and Norwegian, the book received excellent reviews.
The BBC also commissioned Olivia Hetreed to write and direct a radio adaptation of the Music for the Third Ear, entitled Zero, which was broadcast in the UK and internationally as a prestigious “Radio 4 Friday Play.”
The Bosnian war themes of Music for the Third Ear attracted the interest of Dr. Beverly Allen, whose 1996 book, Rape Warfare had helped change international law so that war rape is now prosecutable as a “crime against humanity.” Funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs [Utenriksdepartementet] and the Foundation for Freedom of Expression [Fritt Ord], Beverly and Susan traveled through Bosnia-Herzegovina along with AP photographer Jerome Delay. They based the report they co-authored, Daring to Trust: Life Lessons from Women in Bosnia Today, on the interviews they conducted there.
Two Arts Merge
Meanwhile, Susan fused her two arts of psychology and writing. In Norway, she offered freelance editorial consultation to foreign writers whose work was to be published in English. For Susan-the-writer, “This process of honing seminal academic ideas into complex yet elegant and clear English sentences is a language-glutton’s delight!”
This led to a pivotal assignment: She polished the language of physician Anna Luise Kirkengen’s philosophical and biomedical PhD dissertation-cum-treatise, later published as, Inscribed Bodies: Health Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse. The opening salvo in Kirkengen’s campaign to change the direction of the field of medicine, the work has entered medical school teaching curricula around the world.
For Susan as a therapist, this on-going consulting work with Kirkengen, her colleagues and the medical doctor PhD candidates they supervised, allows her to wield the written word to advance the very body/mind paradigm that had underpinned Susan’s years of therapeutic practice — that our Lived Body and our Life World are indivisible.
This collaboration didn’t only ease the poignancy of closing her therapy practice to focus full-time on writing. It also helped inspire and inform her fiction writing. Milk and Venom, Susan’s second novel, was published in 2018 by Austin Macauley, in the UK and US. The story follows two adult sisters, who had been emotionally abused by their disturbed mother, as they struggle – body and mind – to heal and to love.
My life? Like a bloodhound in the wilderness, nose to the fragrant trail. Once I finally lifted my head to look around, I realized that the path itself had been the point all along. Accidental Zen!— Susan S. Senstad