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Lola (Helena) was born into a well-to-do, German-speaking family of Jewish origin, which professed the Lutheran religion. The family environment, which was warm and intellectual, had a strong influence on her personal development. When she was 15, her family moved to Freiburg, in Breisgau (Germany) because her father, as a member of the movement led by Alexander Kerenski, was being persecuted by the Bolsheviks, who had occupied Latvia following the First World War.
Lola enrolled in the School of Medicine of Freiburg and remained there when her family decided to return to Riga. Her life changed dramatically, she joined a group of Baltic students, made new friends and devoted herself to her studies. At this time Freiburg was bristling with intellectual activity. Husserl and Heidegger were among the philosophers at University of Freiburg, as were Richard Wilhelm and Carl Gustav Jung. She went to their lectures without imagining that these same men would become so important in her life thirty years later.
Once she finished her thesis on the suprarenal glands of rats, she left Freiburg and moved to Berlin, where she became an assistant to Paul Trendelenburg, the main specialist in hormones. In Berlin she was exposed to the cultural upheaval of those years: she attended the premiere of The Rite of Spring of Stravinsky, The Threepenny Opera of Bertolt Brecht, and was drawn to Dadaism, the Bauhaus movement and the painter Kurt Schwitters.
While conducting research, she met a Chilean doctor, Franz Hoffmann, who was doing post-doctoral work there in Physiology. They worked together and fell in love. When it came time for Franz to return to Chile in 1931, they decided that she would accompany him.
In retrospect, this decision most likely saved her life and the lives of her immediate family—her parents and her brothers and sisters—who also came to Chile in 1934 with her. Had they remained in Germany, their fate might well have been one of detention and death in the Nazi concentration camps.
During her first year in Chile she dedicated herself to learning Spanish and to immersing herself in Chilean culture. She dedicated herself to becoming familiar with the geography and the people of Chile. Once she felt confident with the language, she set to work: first, at the Bacteriological Institute, and in 1938, as her husband's assistant at the newly founded Institute of Physiology of the University of Chile. They did research together, published papers together and traveled together. She worked in the Institute of Physiology from 1938 to 1951, but was never paid for her work. She explained that professors were not allowed to hire relatives, let alone wives, and in any case, it was quite strange to see a woman slicing up animals.
After more than 20 years of experimental work in physiology, at 46 years of age, Lola started losing enthusiasm for her work, eventually falling into depression. She relates that during this time she had a dream to which she gave great import and which little by little helped her to take account of her life and assess her needs.
In the dream she saw herself in the laboratory, cutting opening the sternum of a dog; she opened the thorax of the dog and observed the rhythmical beating of its heart and the inflating and deflating action of the lungs. Unexpectedly, from the interior of the dog the arms of a woman emerged, moving with desperation; then a head protruded and she could see the bloodstained face of her husband’s secretary, Margarita Engel. In her dream she thought she had killed Margarita, who was very dear friend of hers. She thought that she had become a murderer and she vowed not to kill any more animals.
Deeply depressed and having lost interest in everything, her husband proposed a trip to Europe. She accepted. While she was in Buenos Aires, Argentina, waiting for the departure of the ship, she was drawn to a book, The Psychology of C. G. Jung, by Jolande Jacoby. The title evoked those incomprehensible lectures she had attended in Berlin, and she noticed the coincidence of the surname of the author, Jacoby, with her maiden name. She bought the book and read it during the ocean voyage. That reading proved key in giving her some clues about what was happening with her.
She interpreted her dream as an analogy of what she was doing with her life: the murder of Margarita Engel was really her own murder. "Engel" in German means "angel"; she was killing her angel. After arriving in Zurich, she contacted the author of the book, Yolanda Jacoby. Their talks, along with other experiences, led her to make a decision to abandon physiology and become a psychiatrist.
When she returned to Chile she threw herself into achieving her goal of becoming a psychiatrist. At first she worked alone, annotating and analyzing her dreams. Then she started working at the Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Chile, where she told the Director, Ignacio Matte Blanco, of her interest in finding links between psychiatry and physiology. In her explorative studies she started practising “autogenic training,” a method of self-hypnosis developed by the German neurologist, Johannes Heinrich Schultz. This training consisted of a series of physiological exercises through which a person could achieve a state of consciousness similar to that obtained in exogenous hypnosis. Another neurologist that interested her was Ernst Kretschmer. Like Schultz, he had rediscovered the value of attaining prehypnotic states for psychiatric therapy.
After 5 years working in the Psychiatric Clinic, she felt the need for more in-depth study. She applied for a fellowship in the Psychiatric Clinic of Tübingen, Germany, where Ernst Kretschmer was the director and where Eugene Bleuler, while living in Zurich, was one of the guiding forces. She remained in Tübingen for one year and then moved to Zurich for another year, where she attended the last conferences given by an elderly Jung. The ideas she picked up during these conferences would be key to her later work as a psychoterapist.
After returning to Chile in 1959, she returned to the Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Chile, where she joined one of the first trials of group therapy and a controlled group experimentation with LSD and marijuana.
Her new career necessarily meant that she spent more and more time away from her husband., widening her circle of friends and colleagues. The Chilean sculptor and poet, Totila Albert, helped Lola during her transition, as she made the dramatic break with her former scientific world of physiology and moved into the world of psychiatry. They became close friends and lovers for 17 years, until his death in 1967.
However, Lola did not break off her marriage. She still considered Franz to be her lifemate, but she had become convinced that exclusive pair relationships were a hypocritical custom imposed upon society. She thought that parallel relationships contributed to the proper growth of the couple.
She and Franz continued living together on the same family property on North Pedro de Valdivia Street, but with each one occupying their own house, while staying in constant communication and sharing many meals. Franz also began to explore new worlds—studying anthropology and taking up painting. He, too, had several relationships with other women, but he never really had a stable, long-lasting companion.
Lola advocated the dismantling of the patriarchal system that dominated society. She felt this was necessary to do in order for men and women to become fulfilled human beings. Totila Albert had influenced in this regard, and she felt indebted to him for this perspective on male-female relationships. She was convinced that the patriarchal system prevented free and fully rewarding relationships.
Totila Albert died in 1967 and a few months later her husband, Franz Hoffman, suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on the right side. Later he became totally paralyzed, and Lola took care of him for the rest of his life, until his death 13 years later in 1981.
Life goes on
At 60 years of age, Lola became increasingly involved in Eastern meditation techniques and philosophy. She began practicing Hatha yoga, t'ai chi and psychodance. Although she had attended conferences given by Richard Wilhelm when she was 20 years old, she had not grasped the full significance of his work. But while studying the Jung's Synchronicity Principle, she became increasingly drawn to Wilhelm's ideas. She was enthralled by his German translation of the classic Chinese text, I Ching, the Book of Changes, and she decided to do a Spanish translation of the I Ching. She spent several years on this project, finally finishing in 1971.
Over time she became a well-known and well-loved figure in Chile. Her reputation continued to grow until her death. More than just a therapist, she was considered a master of personal development and realization. She contributed to the formation of a generation of young psychiatrists, many of whom considered themselves her disciples. During the last 14 years of her life, she organized study and experimentation groups that worked with dreams, the I Ching, and symbols.
The Planetary Initiative
Although Lola believed in individual change, most of her life she avoided political action. However, she decided to join the Planetary Initiative for the World We Choose when it came to Chile in 1983. In fact, she was the main speaker at the first session held in Chile. During the final years of her life, she participated in several collective actions and she became a founding member of La Casa de la Paz in 1985.
Encounter with God
When she was 60 years old she began to suffer from glaucoma. After many operations, her right eye had to be removed. Later glaucoma also developed in her healthy eye, and soon she was almost blind, although she continued to read by using a magnifying glass.
Her last four years were spent in Peñalolén, a suburb of Santiago, on land belonging to her daughter, renowned botanist Adriana Hoffmann. There they build a near exact replica of her house, placing her books on the same shelves as before. All of her possessions—her photos, sculptures and artifacts—were located exactly as they had been in her old house.
Some five years before she died, in 1983, she became gravely ill. She did not recognize anyone; she was delirious; she fought with everyone; she thought she was living with her Russian parents in another time.
She tells the story that one night she was awoken by a hard blow to her body. The pain ran down her spinal column and she bent backwards in an arch. She felt an immense, warm caress massaging her entire body. She went back to sleep, but then experienced a second, even stronger, blow. She felt as if her heart had stopped, then she felt as if she was flying above the planet. She could see herself lying on a bed and she felt the presence of something at her side emanating an ever-increasing, overwhelming love. She asked herself if this intense presence could be God. During the course of her life she had questioned the existence of God on many occasions. Suddenly she heard herself asking God, “Do you forgive me?” Then, from deep inside her, all the most important events of her life passed before her, as if they were pearls strung together side by side on a necklace. She understood the meaning of these events and how they had changed her life. She felt complete bliss. When this experience finished, she got up from her bed as if she had never been ill. She was “reborn”.
In her final years she frequently experienced altered states of consciousness. The last months of her life she was very weak, but continued seeing her patients, students and friends, up until a week before she died. Upon getting up one night, she fell and broke her hip. A few days later, at 84 years of age, she died, leaving behind her many disciples.
- Malú Sierra: Sueños, un camino al despertar, Editorial Puerta Abierta, Santiago, Chile, 1988.
- Delia Vergara: Encuentros con Lola Hoffmann, Editorial Puerta Abierta, Santiago, Chile, 1989.
- Leonora Calderón: Mi abuela Lola Hoffmann, Cuatro Vientos Editorial, Santiago, Chile, 1994.
- Murra, John V. and M. López-Baralt (editors.): Las cartas de Arguedas. Lima: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú Fondo Editorial, 1996 (consists of the letters of the writer José María Arguedas to Lola Hoffmann).