On a recent Wednesday morning, Fran Rachel woke up crying. She'd had a dream about her son Michael. It was decades ago, back when he was just a baby, and in the dream he was complaining about neck pain. He couldn't turn his head to the left or right. In the dream, Fran extended her hand and asked if he was all right. But before he could respond, her sister appeared and told Michael to go upstairs with the other children. "So I told my sister, 'Maybe it would be better if we were all on the same floor?'" Fran recalled later that day. "And my sister said, in a very firm but authoritative way, 'I'll think about it.'"
"This wasn't one of my usual jolly dreams," she added.
Fran, 87, recalled the scenario during the weekly "Dream Group" meeting that she attends in the classroom of Berkeley's Elephant Pharmacy. Four other people sat in small plastic chairs and listened in: Neill and Grace, a middle-aged Berkeley couple (Neill had brought an ergonomic seat cushion); Brent Persons, a skull-cap-wearing young dude who'd gotten off early from his job at Target and just happened to be thumbing through a book when the group session began; and group moderator David Jenkins.
The brand of dream analysis favored by Jenkins, who has been hosting the meetings in Oakland and Berkeley for four years, is no ordinary soundboard session. Instead of decoding what our dreams are trying to tell us about our daily life -- a common mistake, Jenkins believes -- he is attempting to help people simply become "better dreamers" that very night. He says his group technique, which he provisionally calls "Dream Play," is unique because instead of benefiting the "Waking Person," it is meant to benefit only "The Dreamer."
"The Dreamer is the person who lives your dream life for you, not the Waking Person," Jenkins says. "You can't communicate with the Dreamer in your dreams. You can't tell him, 'Don't go into that haunted house!' You can't pass along that information to the person who lives your dreams. So what we do here is teach ourselves how to make the Dreamer a smarter person."
To do that, Jenkins has one member share his or her dream, and then assigns another to retell it with some artistic license. Other group members are assigned the roles of characters in the dream. In Fran's case, after she was done recounting her dream, Neill retold it as best he heard it, and Grace and Brent alternated the speaking parts of Fran's controlling sister and injured son. Fran listened patiently as others tweaked the narrative of her subconscious. When they were done, Jenkins asked Fran questions such as, "If your Dreamer visits the same home tomorrow, what will she tell your sister?"
Jenkins, who sports a goatee and tweed coat with patches on the elbows, likes to say with enthusiasm, "I've been following my dreams for 25 years." In other words, he has dedicated his life to studying dreams. A clinical psychologist by trade -- though he insists his dream group is not therapy -- Jenkins completed his dissertation on Emanuel Swedenborg, the 18th-century Swedish theologian and scientist. For eighteen months beginning in 1743, Swedenborg documented each of his dreams. Jenkins surveyed the journals and concluded that by memorializing his dream life, Swedenborg had, in effect, altered his waking life. Swedenborg had, Jenkins said, worked out his anger toward women. "It taught him how to behave and grow up," he said. "And at the time, he didn't even know it."
Jenkins, for his part, said he had documented his own dreams each morning for five years, but avoided offering specifics on what he'd found. "At the time, I was very into Jungian philosophy," he says. "I was looking for all the usual archetypes and shadows, primarily."
With "Dream Play," Jenkins is trying to remove the connect-the-dots Jungian analysis from his work. But it's a difficult task. Even though he says his mission is only to assist a Dreamer for that night, the stream of analysis can't be avoided entirely.
"I've had women who argued with their exes every night [in their dreams]," he says. "It's pretty obvious that if you're still arguing with your ex in your dreams, you're not ready for a mature relationship when you're awake. But over the course of time, you can teach your Dreamer not to fight with that ex, to deal with that situation and move on, have more pleasant interactions. ... Your waking life will be ready to move on."
Fran has been coming to the Berkeley group for nearly a year. She keeps a dream book, and says she's learned to cope with her difficult dreams as a result. "You see a lot of people come into the group looking sad, but then afterward, after we've shared our dreams, there's a lot of laughter, and we leave feeling better," she said. "That's what I get out of it."
On the same day that Fran shared her story about her son, Neill's nocturnal visions served as the rib-tickler.
In his dream, a 45-year-old Audrey Hepburn appeared on a desolate country road. She was wearing baby clothes. "It was Audrey," he said, "but the mouth was all wrong." He grimaced and spoke as if his face was stretched behind Saran Wrap. "It was too wide and the lips were thin. ... Her mouth wasn't full."
Fran put her hand on her chest and sighed nostalgically. "Audrey Hepburn. Gorgeous. ... In baby clothes, huh?"
Grace looked over at her partner and seemed to be thinking -- Well, this is new.
Brent laughed, too. "And I don't even know who Audrey Hepburn is."
That turned out to be the day's only laugh. When Fran had told her dream to the group, the members remained serious. Fran said that in waking life she and her son are estranged. The distance is painful. In the dream she wanted to help him, but couldn't. It struck a nerve.
"A grown man," Fran said to the group while she looked down at her hands, "and he won't even talk to his own mother."
Jenkins sat back in his chair and twisted the chin hair of his beard. "What would you say to Michael?" he finally asked, although it was unclear if the comment was directed toward Michael in the dream or in waking life.
"I would want Michael to know that I love him," Fran said, still looking down, "that I want to talk to him ... that I'm not trying to take over ..." She looked up. "But that's a very hard thing for me to do. I want to talk to Michael. But he won't talk to me."
She'd have the night to dream about it.
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