Wisconsin Street resident Margaret Keyes was born two months before the Great Depression engulfed the nation. Growing up in San Francisco’s Sunset District during those tough times, Keyes trained herself to become a keen observer of others starting at a young age. That salient skill spurred her into a long and fruitful career as a Jungian psychotherapist and writer. Inhabiting the home that she and her late husband, Vincent Keyes, purchased 45 years ago, Keyes reflected on her journey through the City’s changing character and what she’s learned from others along the way.
“It was a different world than this one. Potrero Hill was an artist’s district and there were many political radicals; not communists but strong socialists. The labor movement was powerful. Back then it was an easier life for working people,” Keyes said. “We used to have eye contact here on the Hill and in the City. Everybody kind of knew everybody. Now there isn’t quite that, but I know there are other things, like Facebook, that people are using now.”
Keyes had an active youth, growing up with two younger brothers, Frank and Jim Frings, in a City that felt like their playground. “We would go up to Nob Hill and swim in the Fairmont Hotel’s pool,” she reminisced. “We had horseback riding lessons in Golden Gate Park.”
Academically inclined, Keyes received a number of scholarships that allowed her to attend private schools, eventually graduating from the University of California, Berkeley. From there, she earned a master degree from Catholic University and a doctorate from the University of Chicago in psychiatric social work.
Back in San Francisco, Keyes received a fellowship to practice social work at Catholic Social Services, eventually serving as the agency’s director. She then worked as a clinical social worker at University of California Medical Center – now UC San Francisco – and was an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco.
“I was always a watcher and a looker,” Keyes stated. “I’m particularly interested in groups, so it naturally led to my career choice.” Based on her many years facilitating group therapies in healthcare settings, Keyes believes that it’s in talking with one another that different ideas emerge about possible causes and treatments of diseases, as well as coping strategies for patients.
“Things just kind of click, as life itself is teaching us through shared experiences of living with illness,” she observed. “I think that one of the things that’s needed in medicine is more group process. Patients have a very inclusive frame of mind that doctors aren’t necessarily a part of. There’s a lot of knowledge that can come out of patients’ groups, as there is a collective perspective and experience.” Keyes believes that the therapist’s main role in such groups is to show participants how to listen and acknowledge their own strengths, helping them along in their journey.
For many years Keyes conducted an intensive type of individual therapy, which involved clients staying at her Muir Beach retreat center for weeks, spending time on the beach by themselves, writing, painting, and creating family narrative sculptures with clay. Men’s therapy groups were also held there, offering an outlet to talk in ways they couldn’t normally.
Keyes treasures the Potrero Hill home she shared with her husband, who worked as a real estate attorney. It was built in 1904, before the great fire of 1906, and contains parts of an old ship, such as a banister that had led up to the captain’s office. The home was once owned by an artist, who added mosaics into the woodwork. Keyes spends much of her time maintaining it and her Muir Beach property.
Keyes belonged to many writers’ groups over the years, energized by collaborations that created a collective feeling of being on the edge of something monumental. She’s authored several books about therapy and the enneagram personality classification system, including a light-hearted allegorical one entitled, The Enneagram Cats of Muir Beach. Though writing has been one of Keyes’ great loves, most of it was never intended for publication. “The art of writing is – in its essence – a maturing process for the writer,” she commented. “It just makes us much more conscious. It deepens all the forces that are around us and in our personal lives.”
Molly’s Daughter, A Three Generation Story Exploring: What do Women Really Want?, published by Arseya in 2008, is a fictionalized autobiographical work by Keyes that chronicles her story through the character Lizby. Keyes wrote the novel in a colloquial style. She believes that it’s through everyday conversations that the most important life questions are posed, the grappling with which creates a greater understanding of the reality of existence. Arseya had pushed her for a hasty completion, but it was during multiple rewrites that Keyes obtained deep insights into her own greater reality as she solved the issues inside herself. “There are billions and billions of individuals and none of us are alike. We all have this absolutely unique reality. It’s fascinating. It takes us away from self-flattery because it can be anywhere; the human genius,” Keyes remarked.
Though she no longer conducts therapy sessions, Keyes is still very much an observer. The passage of time has honed the skill and provided an abundance of perspective from which she now views the world. “I’m really aware of how many critical things are in play right now,” Keyes stated. “This game mentality that has taken over the election process, where it’s like team sports, I’m concerned about that. There are a lot of things that concern me but I don’t want to judge it in terms of my own personal experience. We’re in an experimental phase that’s crackling with lots of different possibilities and I can be nervous but I’m not condemning and I’m not judging. It’s worth talking about. The more we push at it, the better the questions get.”
To Keyes, how to prompt people to consider the common good in their actions is a puzzle that involves everyone, as even the most basic interactions between two people influence the collective. She’s bothered by superficiality, though acknowledges that it’s always been a force in society. “We’re not always fully conscious all the time,” she admitted.
If circumstances had been different Keyes would’ve liked to have been a parent, and wishes there was more time to write. She feels that her life has been a valuable one largely by virtue of her affirming the skill of others.
Though there are many complex ways of looking at the collective, Keyes cites one simple one. “The only thing I really trust is to treat others as I would be treated. I think it is very important to appreciate.”