Paula McClave had been seeing therapists on and off for almost 25 years when someone suggested she try C. Jane Estelle, whom everyone knew as Jane.
It took her a year to call and make an appointment, she said, “but it was the best thing I ever did.”
“I had seen a lot of therapists, and I had given up,” she said. “But I walked into her office and I said, ‘Oh, my God, I have met my soulmate.’”
Another client, who asked to be identified only as Ruth, had a similar experience. Ruth was selling advertising 20 years ago and walked into Estelle’s office to talk to her office manager.
When Estelle came out to talk to the same person, Ruth said, “I was immediately overwhelmed with a sense of place. … I knew that I belonged there.” She went to her car, intending to drive away, but instead she went back to Estelle’s office and made her first appointment.
Maggie McBride, when she met Estelle, was mostly looking for someone to have stimulating conversations with, someone who shared her love of learning and exploration. She called Estelle and left a message, and Estelle later called back and left her own.
“Her voice on my answering machine was enough,” McBride said. “I knew right away.” What was it she heard in Estelle’s voice? It was “warm, genuine, really inviting.”
Before long, McBride said, “she was a therapist, a mentor, a friend, a teacher. She was my life.”
Since Estelle’s sudden death on July 23, her husband, Jim Jensen, has been flooded with calls and emails echoing those sentiments. Many therapists are important in the lives of their clients, but there is something unusual about the depth of attachment and even of love that Estelle’s clients have testified to.
“I’m starting to get emails from former clients who said, one after another, ‘She saved our lives.’ … It’s just extraordinary the impact she had on people,” Jensen said.
Estelle, who had been in practice in Billings for 28 years, the last 24 in private practice, died of complications of pneumonia. She was 64. A celebration of her life is planned for 4 to 7 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 9, at the Yellowstone Art Museum.
Estelle had a master’s degree in art therapy from the Pratt Institute in New York and for more than a decade was the only board-certified art therapist in the Northern Rocky Mountain region. Ten years ago, she earned a Ph.D. in mythological studies from the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Jensen said her appetite for learning was enormous.
“She read every day,” he said. “She’d read at noon. She’d read when she came home at night. She was always curious. She always wanted to know more about herself, more about her clients, more about psychology.”
Jensen described her as the epitome of the “wounded healer,” someone who had suffered many wounds, but had healed enough to use her experiences to help others.
She was also the “go-to psychiatrist for other psychiatrists and for medical doctors,” and she was proud of that, Jensen said.
Terry Smith, a longtime therapist now practicing at Billings Clinic, said he first went to Estelle at the beginning of her career, when he was going through a divorce. He didn’t know what to do with his two young boys, so Estelle sat them all down and gave them paper and crayons.
“We would all be around the table and she would have us color,” he said. “She would help put words to what my kids were drawing so that I could understand.”
To this day, when he and his sons have important things to talk about, they first sit and color together, Smith said.
Jensen, who is also a therapist, said art therapy is particularly useful in helping people deal with trauma they experienced in a pre-verbal state. Children might draw a house with no windows, or bars on the windows. They might draw something floating on the page, or people with no feet—people who are literally groundless.
With training, such images could be used as the basis of a diagnosis. It used to be that 80 percent of her clients were children under 10, Jensen said, but in recent years more of her clients were women, middle-age and older.
Ruth was one of those clients. She grew up in a very violent household and was sexually abused as a child. She didn’t draw pictures for Estelle, but she wrote obsessively and shared her writings with her, and only with her. They used her own words to unlock her past and to begin to deal with it, and they talked a lot about fairy tales and myths.
The tale of Snow White became a kind of touchstone.
“In most tales and mythology, you don’t come to life until you’re older, especially if you’re a woman,” Ruth said. “It’s easier to come alive in your 40s, and it’s not necessarily Prince Charming; it’s the birds.” Ruth said she still takes great comfort in nature as a result of working through that particular fairy tale.
Another client, Cora H., saw Estelle regularly from 1991 to 2001. During those “very intense” 10 years of treatment, she said, she made hundreds and hundreds of drawings. She had had some “talk therapy” in the past and had done a little art therapy with an untrained counselor, and she was skeptical at first.
But she soon found that art therapy, properly used, allowed her to take the most difficult parts of her life out of herself and put them on a piece of paper. “Basically, she saved my life,” she said.
And though she will miss Estelle tremendously, she said, “I’m healthy enough not to be in therapy, which I did not think would ever happen in my whole life.”
Dr. James Hollis, director of the Washington (D.C.) Jung Society and the author of 14 books, worked with Estelle on her Ph.D. dissertation. He said he was “impressed not only with her intelligence, but with her capacity to access dialogue with the unconscious.”
He said Estelle practiced “depth psychology,” which is “an effort to deal with the whole person. … The unconscious is not only the repository of our history, but also a cauldron fermenting conflicting emotions, drives, and values. How can we live conscious, reflective lives if we do not trouble even to discern what is going on within us? Jane worked in this most difficult modality, and I suspect her clients were much the better for it.”
McBride, the woman who made such a quick connection with Estelle’s voice, is a math professor at Montana State University Billings. She said she wasn’t sure how to describe her relationship with Estelle, since she didn’t really consider herself as “in therapy.”
She went to Estelle because she had three female friends in Bozeman who were all therapists, and she wanted to have stimulating talks with someone like them in Billings. She and Estelle would read the same books and talk about them, and apply what they had read to their own lives.
Though she wasn’t technically in therapy, she said, Estelle helped her rethink her life, to understand it and make her aware of who she was. The one or two hours a week she spent with Estelle “meant more to me than most of my time with other people,” she said.
McClave said it was uncanny how close she felt to Estelle, to the point that they used to joke about having come from the same womb.
“For me, it’s like losing a sister,” she said. “She was able to bring me out of my depths of depression. She was just there.”
Not too long ago, she said, she told Estelle she didn’t know what she would do without her. “And she said, ‘You don’t have to. You have me for eternity.’”