Who hasn’t felt enchanted by The Wizard of Oz? It’s been casting its spell of charm over children and adults since 1939 and is regarded as one of the most beloved films of all time. There’s something about this tale that resonates deeply within our hearts and minds. Many can recite its meandering plot from countless viewings, but fewer are able to explain what it’s actually about. Its ambiguity provides a Rorschach onto which we can project our own meanings—meanings that perhaps reflect more about ourselves than the story itself. As a fan of Oz for the last 50 years, and a clinical psychologist for 30, what my own mind projects onto Oz has finally become clear. To me, it now seems obvious that The Wizard of Oz is all about healing.
Healing is the process of making whole something which has broken into pieces or been disrupted by foreign toxins. Both types of healing can be found in the misadventures of Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. At the beginning of their journey together, each feels they are missing something vital—a home, a brain, a heart, some courage. None of them feels complete, and each dreams of fulfillment at the end of their odyssey.
The characters and dramas of Oz offer a superb depiction of what exists and takes place in the subconscious mind. Our minds are all made up of a large family of subpersonalities engaged in complex struggles with one another. Freud identified the subpersonalities of the id, ego, and superego, describing a fierce intrapsychic conflict between the primitive id and the harshly controlling superego. Somehow the reasonable ego is supposed to referee the two.
Today’s psychodynamic therapists rely on more current models of subpersonalities, such as Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems (IFS).
Non-therapists might be more familiar with the subpersonalities portrayed in the Pixar movie Inside Out, in which the crisis of an 11-year-old girl, Riley, is played out among a cast of her internal characters: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. Our subpersonalities can go by many different names, but their essential dramas remain the same.
An easy way to understand many forms of psychological distress is to compare them to the dynamics of a dysfunctional family in which the family relationships are riddled with judgement and conflict. When the mind’s subpersonalities do the same thing, the mind experiences stress, confusion, anxiety, guilt, shame, anger, and other miseries. Dis-ease is what causes disease.
Family therapy is the way to go to heal conflicted families. To heal a family of subpersonalities, there is internal family therapy. For both, healing requires eliminating toxic judgements that cause division and disease and then rebuilding broken relationships with the love of empathy and compassion. This is a lens through which the drama of Dorothy’s family and friends can be viewed.
Dorothy’s troubles begin when she is in conflict with her family and then the life of her precious dog, Toto, is threatened by the bitter Mrs. Gulch. Together they run away, dreaming of some place over the rainbow where troubles melt like lemon drops and dreams of love come true. On their way they make friends with others seeking solutions to their own troubles. The characters’ alliance emboldens them to confront a Wicked Witch and then demand that the great and powerful Wizard fulfill his promises and grant their wishes.
To recognize the healing occuring in Oz requires a deeper look into the characters’ story. What the characters have in common is that they each believe they are incomplete in some way, leaving them feeling alone and vulnerable in the world. As they face their challenges together, the bonds
among them grow strong—until they become like a loving family, able to face hard times together. United, they are able to face their fears and break free from the judgemental illusions (spells) that made them feel inadequate. In the end, they are once again a lovingly united family back on their Kansas farm, cherishing their bonds more than ever.
How can this allegory give meaning to your own quest for healing? What do you share in common with Riley and Dorothy? Each of us has conflicting subpersonalities within us. The determinant of whether we enjoy a life of peace or distress rests on the nature of the relationships between our different parts. If the ego can’t help the id and superego get along, there will be neurosis instead of a peaceful mind. As antiquated as Freud’s concept of subpersonalities seems 140 years later, his theory of internal relationship conflicts remains valid. If the families within us don’t know how to coexist lovingly, we will suffer the distresses of a divided mind, contaminated by the toxins of judgement, guilt, anxiety, shame, anger, and hate.
To heal real families and subconscious families requires the same experiences. Judgements need to be replaced by understandings. Hostilities need to be replaced by empathy and compassion. And, ultimately, conflicts need to be transformed into collaborations. These are the elements that restore us to a state of wholeness—where troubles melt like lemon drops and where a true sense of home is not somewhere over the rainbow, but at the end of a journey through adversity and back. Indeed, there is no place like home when the family members within it love one another.