Born to Be Wild

updated 12/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

EVERYTHING, FOR CLARISSA PINKOLA Estés, comes down to storytelling. She chooses to live in her tree-lined Denver neighborhood because she sees it as a "fairy-tale village where stories happen every day." As a psychoanalyst who treats mostly artists and people with AIDS, she believes that stories are "the most powerful of medicines." And her first book, Women Who Run with the Wolves (Ballantine), has become a surprise success story all its own.

The 520-page work gleans folktales from around the globe to teach essential lessons about female behavior. Using Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Match Girl," about a waif who freezes to death after trying to keep herself warm with matches, Estés argues that women have lost touch with their creative instincts; the tale of Bluebeard, the serial uxorcide whose final wife confronts him, reveals female fighting spirit; and in the Mexican myth of La Loba, a woman collects the bones of wolves and sings diem bark to life. Each story, Estés says, can help readers reclaim the "robust, intuitive, fierce" selves that she believes society has shamed them into abandoning. Eager to walk on their wild side, women buyers have kept Wolves, which has sold over 200,000 copies, on bestseller lists for five months, and the audiotape is outselling Robert Bly's Iron John 10 to 1.

A serene woman of Hispanic descent who grew up with adoptive parents in Michiana, Ill., Estés, 49, has two daughters from an early marriage and a stepdaughter with second husband Chuck Kubin, an Air Force master sergeant. In 1981, after her divorce and a year spent on welfare, she earned a Ph.D. through the Union Institute in Cincinnati and became a Jungian analyst. From 1987 to 1990, she was also executive director of Colorado's C.G. Jung Psychoanalytic Institute.

How to explain the book's appeal? "For women, spirituality has always been more underground, more a fringe interest," says Hilary Sio, manager of Three Lives & Co. bookstore in Manhattan. "Estés' book brings it into the mainstream." It's likely good word of mouth will continue to spread, particularly if readers follow one of the author's Wolf Rules for Life: Howl often.

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