Homecoming: On the Fantasy and Reality of Family

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Most of us invest a lot in the idea of home. Even if we don’t think about it, home claims us. It is the place where some of our most intense experiences happened.

At its best, “There’s no place like home.” At its worst, there is no place as destructive. I’ll address both sides, in order.

Home is the site of firsts: the first place we lived, the first day of school; our first friends, first love, first victories and failures.

One of my best memories comes from a time before my brothers were born and therefore, from my first five years. My folks and I were leaving a “drive-in” (outdoor) theater.

I was small enough to lie across the back seat of the Chevrolet (no seat belts then). Sleepy after a long day of play, I half-listened to my parents’ conversation. The rhythm of the auto and the sense of safety that comes from the childhood illusion of parental omnipotence and perfect benevolence made me feel as good as I ever have. Of course, we were going to the refuge we called home.

There are probably as many songs about home as about love. Stories too.

Remember Homer’s Odyssey? Odysseus is side-tracked on his return from the Trojan War. He escapes the Cyclops, the Sirens, and other trials to get back to Ithaca, his kingdom. His wife Penelope, who waited 10 years for the war to end, waits another 10 for his return. In that time, she fends off suitors who want her (and the kingdom) for their own. His son, Telemachus, also hopes for his father’s overdue arrival. Upon reaching Ithaca, Odysseus battles the rivals encamped in his estate. He succeeds in defeating them with the help of his son.

Isn’t that what we all want? People who remember us and will always be there for us? People who have unending faith in us? People who love us and still exist, even with the passage of great spans of time, in a place called home?

Think of The Wizard of Oz. It’s pretty much the same story, with a young woman, Dorothy, as the heroine. Swept away from home by forces out of her control, she searches for allies who can help her in finding the “Wizard” and transportation back to Kansas. Like Odysseus’s various nemeses, she encounters an evil witch who makes her life miserable. Dorothy must survive many trials to return where she belongs.

Most of us might write an autobiography of our quest for something worthwhile and the hurdles we overcame to reach a happy ending. The average life can have a heroic quality.

In the end, Dorothy finds herself again on the family farm in Kansas; with Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and the people who love her. The movie ends with her words, “There’s no place like home.”

When comfortable, we often say we “feel at home.” In baseball, our goal is to score more runs than the opposition. How do we do this? By crossing “home plate” more often than they do. If done at one blow, it’s called a home run. Sports teams play better on their home field, supported by their loyal fans, stand-ins for family. And a part of our heart breaks when the stadiums of our youth — those substitutes for home — are razed.

We go to “homecoming” at high schools and colleges, and to class reunions to meet the old friendly faces who attach to us by the memory of home. Of course, these places age, but we still care about them.

Home is a place most people idealize. However wonderful, parents are rarely as good as we imagine them. The “good old days” tend to get better with age and distance.

Unfortunately, the home (and the family there residing), can become a concept that is (like patriotism) “the last refuge of scoundrels.” In corrupt families the idea of loyalty stands above morality and decency. One member of the home “covers” for another’s hateful, abusive, or illegal actions. Parental authority trumps fairness.

Denial reigns in this group of blood and bloodied relations. Pity the person who sees through the psychological mist to things as they are. Beware if you observe the knives behind the smiles. Voicing such knowledge risks becoming an outcast.

Home and family have sufficient claim on us that we wear metaphorical blinders, narrowing our vision and obscuring the dark side. The adults who are cruel or dishonest attempt to maintain the illusion of love for fear of being exposed. Equally, however, other members — usually children — are comforted by not acknowledging the painful truth. Nor do they wish to put themselves in the line of fire by looking behind the curtain. Unlike the Land of Oz, the person who would be unmasked is not as benign as the “Wizard.”

The loyalty, love, and attachment attributed to “family” are special only to the extent that the reality in which you live or to which you return approximates the fantasy.

Otherwise, home is worse than another four-letter word beginning with “h.”

Harold Pinter’s play, The Homecoming, lifts the veil on such a place.

Watch if you dare.

The photo by Kurt Nordstrom is called Celestial Tide and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“I’m Still So in Love:” Why We Must Give Up the Ghost

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Some patients haunt your memory.

I recall treating a teenager who had lost her father suddenly.  It had actually been many years since he died, but she remained cut-off from the world and her family.

Friends were kept at a distance, her mother was pushed away, and her stepfather was never permitted to come close to her, try us he might.

Never ever.

Her mother and mom’s second husband worried about her self-isolation, so they brought her in to see me.

As the treatment progressed, I discovered that this young woman thought about her father a lot.

Every day.

She would review the memories that she still retained of his kindness and warmth.

Of course, I’d never met him, but I got the sense that she had idealized him — fashioned her memory so as to make him a vision of perfection that no flesh and blood mortal can hope to achieve.

And the recollected reproduction of her father, almost like a ghost, remained the most intimate connection of her life.

Not just historically, but even while I was treating her.

In fact, sometimes she would talk to him; one way, naturally, since she was not psychotic. And that provided her with a kind of closeness that was the best she could do to recreate the comfort that her dad had provided when this young woman was little.

As the protagonist states in Robert Anderson’s play I Never Sang For My Father, sometimes “death ends a life, but not a relationship.”

The people — the real people who reached out to my patient — found her unresponsive. They could not compare — could not compete — with the vanished flawlessness of her dad; an excellence that, after all, probably never existed in the first place, however dedicated and fine a man he might have been.

Moreover, her “relationship” with her father was safe: the dead cannot die on you; or reject you; or move away. They are utterly reliable and totally benign, unlike the rest of us.

As most of us do, my patient had been trying to protect herself from the injuries that life delivers from without, but left unguarded those equally tender places that are open to the wounds that come from within.

When a child loses a parent early on, she often loses the surviving parent, as well.

No, not to death, but to grief. Having lost a spouse, the surviving despondent parent (more often than not) is unavailable to aid the children. She is too bereft herself to be able to be the life-giving, supportive, attentive, omnipresent presence that children sometimes need a parent to be.

Worst of all, it is precisely at this time of loss that the child needs the surviving parent most desperately. And, it is at precisely this time that the remaining parent is least available and least capable of giving what he or she might wish to give, if only he or she could.

The result is a double-loss: one dead parent and another who is, for a time at least, a dead man walking, the half-alive state that we all know from the shock and privation and emptiness of a broken heart; a heart that one cannot imagine will ever heal.

It is no one’s fault, certainly not that of the grieving adult. Rather, this is just one of those dreadful ironies of the human condition: in the moment of loss and for some time after, the now-single parent has no capacity to do what must be done.

But the child needs that impossible thing, all the same.

Once I came to understand that my patient was still in a relationship with her father, her therapeutic needs became clear.

She needed to grieve the loss of her father to a satisfactory conclusion — a grieving that had been prevented by her fear of bringing up her own loss with her mother as much as her mother’s inability to console her child.

She needed to realize that she had put her life on hold by clinging to a ghost who, of course, could only provide so much warmth.

She needed to open herself to a stepfather who longed to engage her, even if he could not be the plaster saint her father had become; and the peers who were ready to provide their own rewards, even if they could not replace her dad.

The therapy worked out well.

My patient did not so much lose her relationship to her deceased father as let him go to a different place in her memory and in her heart.

It helped for her to answer the question, “What would your father want for you if only he could tell you?” Because the only answer he would have given (and she knew this) was that the beloved father of her dreams would want the best for her; and for her to reattach to life and to the people who could give her something that he could not.

After all, he was dead.

And so, she said goodbye to him. At last, she let him die.

So that, finally, she could live.

The photo above is of ectoplasmic mist at Union Cemetary, CT on 10/29/2004 by 2112guy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Of Fathers and Children and Stories of Old Ball Games

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Dreams, like spider webs and hard-hit softballs, are difficult to hold on to.

But sometimes those dreams and the stories of those hard-hit balls connect us to both our past and to our posterity.

In my case, to my father and my children.

Let me tell you a story…

On a recent morning I awoke in the midst and the mist of a just-ended dream, thinking about something that happened a long time ago. An event of no particular importance, but just about the most intense moment of my life.

I was playing right field in a game of 16″ softball at James Park in Evanston, Illinois. The team was called the Psyclones, a pun on the fact that most of us were graduate students in the “Psyc” department at Northwestern University. A pretty good team for a bunch of educated guys, one that won more often than it lost.

Sixteen-inch softball is a game played almost exclusively in the Chicago area. Everywhere else a softball is 12″ in circumference and caught with a gloved hand. But “real men,” as Chicago males fancy themselves, favor a game with a bigger ball caught bare-handed, one that is rock hard at the contest’s beginning and softened, but never really soft even after it has taken a pounding from wooden and metal bats.

In truth, the ball is your enemy. Sixteen-inch softball — Chicago-style softball — is a game that leaves you with broken or dislocated or jammed fingers if you play it for any length of time.

On the day in question the Psyclones were playing the best team in our league, the outfit that had won the first round of a two round championship season. But as the second round drew to a close these two teams were tied. If only we could beat the other guys, we would win the second round and face the same team once more in a single contest to decide the league championship.

As the final inning began, our team was ahead 3-2. We were three outs away from victory.

Their first batter took a ball. Then, on the second pitch, he hit a low line-drive like a laser headed for the right-center field gap. It was clearly mine to catch if it was to be caught, but I didn’t know if I could get to it in time to prevent it from going for a home run and tying the score.

An outfielder learns to gauge the flight of a batted ball — the speed, the distance between himself and the ball, the effect of gravity, and his own movement — so as to intercept it just before its return to earth. You do this instinctively. It is all reaction, no part thought, entirely based on experience, all the while running, straining, and preparing for the intersection of your body and the “Clincher,” as those softballs were called.

I was not prepared for this particular line-drive, however. No one had informed the ball that gravity was supposed to get the best of it. And as I neared the spot where I might have a small chance to catch it, the nervy Clincher had the audacity to proceed in the most irresponsible way.

The ball was actually rising. It had been hit so hard that it had not yet arced.

My path had taken me to my right, but also away from home plate. In order to intercept the spheroid I had to twist my body back to my left (so that I could more nearly get in front of the ball), turning and leaping and reaching simultaneously.

Wham!

The ball hit my hands as my body faced left field, even as I was moving in the air toward deep right center field.

The Clincher started to bounce free, but I grabbed it a second time, then hit the ground and staggered, running fast, tilting toward the turf, aiming to take a header.

But instead of eating dirt and watching the ball bounce away, I kept my balance.

In another moment I was finally stationary.

And amazed.

I was still on my feet with the ball in my hands.

Shouts of congratulations and encouragement sounded out across the field from my teammates. Other than a few friends and those of the opposition, the grandstand could not have held more than a couple of dozen onlookers, but a few voices called out from there, as well.

Simultaneously, a chemical charge ran through my body, a wonderful exhilaration, a tingling flush of adrenalin. And with it, a tremendous split-second, unrealized urge to cry that took me by surprise.

And almost as quickly, in the time it took for the next batter to come to the plate, all that was gone and the game continued.

The following hitter walked, but then we retired the side and the game was ours.

It wasn’t the very best performance of my exceedingly modest athletic career. I’d played games in which I’d hit two home runs and even a basketball contest where I scored 2/3 of my team’s points on 10 consecutive jump shots. I’d also made “circus” catches before — other successful leaping-diving-acrobatic maneuvers, sometimes to save the game.

But nothing in my life ever came close to the super-charged voltage of “the catch,” the flood of emotion to the point of tears, not as experienced in sadness or joy, but for the need of a kind of fluid outlet for all that high-octane chemical “juice.”

If you’ve played sports with any significant level of committment, then you know how the game becomes more than a game — sometimes becomes a thing that feels like life or death. But realistically, in the big picture, or even a pretty small picture, this game meant nothing. Winning the championship (we didn’t) meant nothing.

All of it was part of a “pastime,” something we do to enjoy ourselves and test ourselves, both at once; something to show what we can do and exorcise all the demons inside of us that are waiting to be purged; a play we act out just because we are human and we need the outlet and the (hoped for) mastery of a physical and psychological challenge.

Why did I think of it just now? Why the dream?

I can’t say for sure, but maybe (in part) it’s because my youngest daughter recently sent me and my wife an outline for a video and oral history that she proposes to do soon with each of us separately. And, of course, she wants to know about all the important moments in our lives. Which would necessarily include this particular athletic episode, an instant of no objective importance other than the feeling it produced; something of value because of the sensation alone. It didn’t mean anything, but it felt meaningful.

Carly, the aforementioned young woman, has watched the same kind of video I produced of my dad that she hopes to create with me; something I did about 25 years ago.

I am touched that she wants this, since I remember very well why I wanted to do it with my father. To bond with him, to receive whatever very personal things he would share in the course of it, to understand him and therefore myself more fully. And most importantly, to create something that would outlive him, leaving some part of him that I might catch hold of and keep hold of, like the 16″ softball. Something that would, like that catch, be over in a short time but last a long time — in the video, in his words, in his feelings, and in my memory.

A thing, like “the catch,” that would be unimportant but all important. And only to me.

My dad was at the game I mentioned, the game where I made “the catch.” I remember him congratulating me, commenting on how extraordinary it was. Extraordinary to me for reasons I have mentioned. Extraordinary to him, I suppose, because I was his son. For others, not so much. No, you can probably watch its equal or better regularly on your TV during baseball season.

When I was a little boy I remember my dad telling me of his own athletic exploits as a young man and being fascinated. Some time later we found ourselves at the site of one of those events. It was a relatively small school yard enclosed by a fence, with a tall flag pole attached to that boundary in deepest, but not very deep center field.

From home plate it was easy to see that one could hit the ball over the fence without too much difficulty, so the ad hoc rules of the game required that any ball hit out of the park in fair territory would be considered an “out.”

The players had to tailor their hitting strokes to the restricted conditions. Only safely hit line-drives and ground balls could be of any help to your team. And money was on the line, so said my dad as he told the story of his game, since the two sides had made a bet on the contest.

The young man who was to become my old man came to bat with a runner on first base late in the battle, with the score tied 1-1. He tried to place-hit the ball into right center field, and normally was quite adept at such a task. But, on that day his efforts to keep the ball in bounds appeared to have failed him. Too much of the 16″ ball struck too much of the wooden bat and the former took off in a long, high arc toward the not-so-distant reaches of the ball yard, sure to clear the center field barrier.

But, to his surprise, not to mention the delight of his mates, the center field flag pole got in the way, and with a dull metallic twang sent the shot back on to the field, by which time Milt Stein was standing on second base, and the baserunner had crossed home plate with the winning run.

Dad was a good story-teller and he had a good audience in his little boy, even when that boy was no longer very little.

What is it about baseball, softball, and the bond between parents and children?

Much has been written about sharing a game of catch, being introduced by your parent to a sport that he loves and you will come to love, watching together in the great ball parks of our country in the sunshine and under the arc lights, cheering together for the home team. It is one of those things many dads are good at, something that doesn’t require very many words.

But, I think there is another feature to this act of bonding.

It is the story of the game itself. The thrills, the disappointments, the surprises — the mutually experienced emotions.

The sharing, in other words, of a story.

And when the story of the game is told (especially if your father was in the game) — your father to you, you to your children — the child “sees” the tale through the lens of your memory and his own imagination. He learns what matters to you, how you shape the words, remembers how your eyes light up, drinks in the moral lessons about effort and courage and winning and losing.

The child roots for and admires the parent, even though the drama may be ancient, unchangeable history. The telling is personal, almost like a secret message, something that can only be decoded by the heart of the little boy or girl who loves the story-teller who is already his hero, with or without the “heroism” depicted in the tale.

Later, the child will take the parent role with his own children, relating the narratives of his father along with his own, tying him to and keeping faith with his hero, now aged or departed; and keeping the chain-letter of attachment alive as he brings the youth and grace and speed and strength of his parent alive once more, along with his own youth, when he first heard the tale told.

It is a sweet and tender and irreplaceable thing, this telling of stories to your children.

Nothing better in the winter for a baseball fan or an ex-softball player who is, more importantly, a father.

Time to start the camera, Carly.

The image above is Baseball Softball Love Festival by THOR, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Long Road to Becoming Rich

Most of us are raised to believe the path to happiness is a simple one: get a good education, obtain a high status and well-paying  job, find the love of your life, have children, stay healthy, and do good in the world.

But what if you have done all these things and you are still not happy?

My friend “Rock” has given me permission to tell you his story. And his tale sheds some light on what can prevent life satisfaction and how you can find it after all.

Rock was a charming, active, and extraordinarily bright and curious little boy, the second of his parents’ two children. Both mom and dad had to work at a time when most middle class American families did well enough on a father’s salary alone, well enough to permit the mother a life at home raising the kids and keeping house. As a consequence, Rock was a “latch-key” child before the expression had been invented, coming back from school to an empty home, passing the lonely time until the after-work arrival of his parents.

The modesty of the family’s material life was no small annoyance to Rock’s mom, who was disappointed in her husband’s limited capacity as a bread-winner. Unfortunately, “Al” Adelstein had no defense against his wife’s repeated verbal assaults. He could do no better with his limited education than work in a hat factory. Purchasing a home was out of the question given the family’s finances, so Mrs. Adelstein faced the further disappointment of living in an apartment when most of her peers owned homes.

The spillover of her episodic avalanche of unhappiness and anger sometimes fell on little Rock.

Not only did he witness his mother’s tirades at his dad, but he discovered she had enough discontent left over to criticize and disapprove of him. Cruel pranks were not out of the question either, as on the day mom and son were waiting for a baby sitter. But, Mrs. A unexpectedly disappeared before the sitter arrived, driving the small boy to a near-panic state, believing he had been abandoned. At last, his mother emerged from her hiding place, laughing at the “joke” she played on her terrified child.

Nonetheless, our boy did surpassingly well at school.

After skipping a full year in grade school, he was to be the only National Merit Scholar in the group of nearly 600 unusually bright, motivated, and accomplished students who comprised the Mather High School class of 1964.  He placed second in both the City of Chicago and Illinois State Science Fairs, and went on to acquire degrees from three different Ivy League universities, the last of which produced a combined Ph.D/J.D., that is, simultaneous doctorates in Economics and Law.

In high school, he would sometimes say to me he hoped to achieve something great in his life.

But life is funny about such things, and our friend didn’t become famous.

Instead he went on to be a full professor and (for a time) Chairman in his Department of Economics at Wesleyan University, wrote scholarly papers (about 30 or so of these), gave talks nationally and internationally, and taught with passion and intensity, winning the first ever teaching award given by a school founded in 1831.

And just  to give you a sense of the scale of his achievement, he spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, a place associated with names like Einstein and Oppenheimer.

But still, on some days he thought back to his high school wish to do something great and wondered if the really great thing would ever happen. Because, you see, nothing in the accomplishments I’ve mentioned — accomplishments that seemed so impressive to everyone else — was very satisfying to Rock. And the feeling of discontent he carried with him from childhood into the life of a university professor never left him. This, despite the good education, the high status and well-paying  job, the love of his wife Sandy, two adoring children, and the excellent health of all concerned.

He was, perhaps, a bit like Virginia Woolf’s Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse; like him, an academic; like him, unhappy. A man who had:

…a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is arranged in 26 letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q… But after Q? What comes next? After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance.

For Rock, like Mr. Ramsay, there was always one more letter just out of reach.

…because, in effect, he had not done the thing he might have done.

It wasn’t something Rock talked about much, even to his closest friends. For him, like most men of our generation and before, the “athlete’s creed” is honored: don’t complain, don’t look back, just rub some dirt on your “injury” and keep playing the game — mind over matter, and the heart (and the hurt) be damned.

In the summer of 1998, my buddy and I took a long road trip from his home in Connecticut to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. It was the fulfillment of a childhood wish of two middle-aged baseball fans who were also two life-long friends.

And, it was a time to be together and talk.

Really talk.

When I’m alone with someone for a while, I often ask, “If you could have dinner with anyone in the history of the world, living or dead, who would it be?” You get some interesting answers. Jesus is mentioned a lot. Great writers and musicians are named along with other famous people of various kinds. But, Rock’s answer was a little bit different.

“Well, if I could really have dinner with anyone, I’d like to have dinner with my mother — I’d like to think she would believe I’d turned out pretty well in life.”

You see, Rock’s mother died just after he graduated from college, so she never knew about some of the items on his long list of achievements, although his Science Fair and National Merit Scholarship awards, not to mention his admission to M.I.T., all happened well before her death.

Our conversation didn’t stop with that question and, as our time passed on the road, I got to know more about Rock’s home life — the turmoil I related earlier.

One story in particular stands out.

In order to get to the University of Illinois campus at Champaign/Urbana, where the State of Illinois Science Fair was held, Rock had to carry his science project and take public transportation. While it was a bit of a chore, the return trip was sweet. Imagine, at age 16, you have placed second among all the potentially eligible students in the State!

And so it was that he walked in the door of his parents’ apartment, feeling pretty full of himself, beaming at the thought of his triumph; feeling what you feel when you are young and the sun is out and the day is glorious and your adrenaline is flowing and you are on top of the world.

His mother greeted him.

“How did you do?” she asked.

“I finished second in the State of Illinois!” he enthusiastically answered.

“Why not first?”

Before Rock and I reached the Hall of Fame, it was clear to both of us, I think, that the “great thing” he hoped to achieve would never be great enough to make him feel whole. And the roots of his unhappiness were to be found in the circumstances of his early life with his parents. Not even a Nobel Prize or a plaque in the very Hall of Fame we were to visit could have cured the sense of being insufficient to win the approval of his folks.

As the therapist he saw soon after would say to him, “The heart has no clock on it.” Meaning the injuries of childhood wait for us to attend to them. The wound is sometimes as fresh as the day it happened, even if 30 years have passed. And so, at last, the “athlete’s creed” was set aside through the hard work of therapy, and he was able to feel good about an adult life that, all along, had been good objectively.

My friend is one of the Zeolites, a small group of high school buddies — all members of the same park district softball team of years past — who created a college scholarship for the disadvantaged kids at our old school. And Rock has donated more money to it than just about anybody, as well as traveling from Connecticut to Chicago nearly every year to be with us and to be present at the scholarship ceremony, as many of the out-of-state Zeolites are.

He is a smart, funny, and decent man, a man of enormous emotional generosity, warmth, and good will.

Best of all, Rock’s story has a happy ending. Because, in fact, in the aftermath of therapy, his wife Sandy helped him realize the “great thing” was something he’d actually achieved long before.

Not the kind of greatness he expected to lead to fortune and fame, but the kind that sends generations of young people into the world who are somehow different and better because of his influence, and who even today frequently return to Middletown, Connecticut to let him know he was the teacher, the one teacher, who made a difference in their lives.

In 2007 we honored him at the annual dinner of the Mather Class of 1964/65 for the difference he made in the lives of the Zeolites and our class’s effort to make a difference in the lives of a few of Mather’s recent graduates. In addition, he received an engraved paperweight as a token of our affection and esteem.

Although he has given the scholarship an awful lot  of money, he is not wealthy in any conventional sense.

Rather, he is rich in the hearts of all those students whose lives he has touched.

He is rich in the love he has for his family and friends.

And he is rich in the love and respect his family and friends have for him.

It should be no wonder then, the inscription on the paperweight with which he was presented reads:

Rich Adelstein

…the noblest Zeolite of them all…

From the Mather Class of 1964 and 1965

And the Zeolites

May 4, 2007

The photo above is of Rich and Sandy Adelstein.

Guilt about Betraying Parents: “They Did the Best They Could”

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Young children are not the only ones who believe that their own mom and dad are the best in the world.

You know the sort of thing I mean: “My dad is stronger than your dad” and the like.

Adults do this too. Or, at least, try very hard not to think the worst of them.

Any therapist with experience has heard many heartbreaking stories about children who have been abused, deceived, lied to, cruelly and unfairly criticized, used, mistreated, and neglected. He has heard from the adult children what their parents did do and didn’t do — about folks who perpetrated the abuse directly and others who looked away or simply told the son or daughter to “try not to upset dad” rather than protecting him or her from dad.

The now-adult children will make up lots of excuses about such things: “They did the best they could” or “They didn’t know any better” or “Lots of parents were that way when I was growing up” or “How can you expect anything better when my folks had even worse childhoods themselves” or “They were having so many of their own problems at the time” or “Other people had it worse than I did” or “They’re old people now and I wouldn’t want to hurt them (by bringing this up)” or “It happened a long time ago; what is the point of talking about it now.”

Or simply, “It feels wrong to talk negatively about them.”

Most of the patients about whom I am speaking come to therapy with some sense of personal inadequacy, low self-esteem, and unhappiness, if not depression. Some have these feelings despite a considerable set of personal achievements. They may be captains of industry, millionaires, doctors, lawyers, college professors, and professional athletes. Many of them have a good and loving spouse and adoring children. But, no matter what has been accomplished or how good their current life is in an objective sense, it doesn’t seem to be enough.

Others try to fill themselves up with acquisitions: a new car, a new house, a new spouse, a new watch or appliance or piece of clothing; and, for a brief period — an hour, a day, a month — this might even boost their mood. But then, things return to the steady-state of emptiness as the shopping-therapy fails.

For these people, the ones who seem to “have everything” but remain unhappy, the Marilyn Monroes of the world, the solution usually requires that long-standing internalized negative self-attributions (critical thoughts or beliefs about oneself) be reviewed and challenged. Sometimes cognitive behavior therapy is able to achieve this.

But there are other instances when the negative verdict of a difficult childhood is so indelibly stamped on the soul of the patient, that he must look back at the original painful source of his injury, grieve his losses, and reevaluate who his guardians were and what they did, or didn’t do.

In cases such as this, the set of excuses I mentioned earlier becomes a problem. Words like “They did the best they could” stand between the patient and his ability to look frankly at his early life without feeling that he is betraying his parents in so doing.

Here is what I frequently say to those of my patients in this predicament:

First, you will do no harm to them in talking to a therapist. There is no rule that says they must be told what you are relaying to a counselor. Indeed, if your parents are dead (as is sometimes the case), then they cannot be told and are safe from any injury that you believe you might do to them.

You need not concentrate only on what they did that might have hurt you. It is equally important to look at what they did that might have helped, and at the complications in their own lives that made good parenting a challenge.

But, even if they showed you some consideration and kindness from time to time, if it really wasn’t so bad, why are you careful to raise your child differently than you were brought up?

Realize that good child rearing is not simply the sum total of all the positives and negatives of your parents’ approach to you, such that the former will always balance out the latter. Imagine that your parent gave you a million dollars and put it in your right hand; and then said, “Now in return, you must allow me to disable your left hand.” Would this be an example of good parenting? Would the provision of a million dollars compensate you for the lost use of your left hand? Not to just anyone, but due to the behavior of your parent?

Yes, it is likely true that some others had it worse than you did. But does that mean you are free of injury? Imagine that you are walking down the street. You pass a man in a wheel chair. He is moving the vehicle by use of his two arms and you think to yourself, “Poor man.” But, a few blocks down, you now encounter another wheel chair-bound individual. Unlike the former person, this man’s arms are incapacitated.

If you are to measure the physical state of these two men against one another, you are likely to evaluate the second man as worse off than the first. But, just because the first person is better off, one must admit that he still is unable to walk.

As I said, there is almost always someone worse. But that doesn’t mean that your injury counts for little or nothing.

Finally, the look back is intended not to keep you focused there, but to liberate you so that you can live more fully in the present; it isn’t to be angry with your parents or to harm them (although anger might be involved in the grieving process). Rather it is to free you from the weight of a childhood that you still carry, the sense of your own falling-short that you can’t otherwise shake, to leave you lighter and less burdened by the long reach of your youth.

Wouldn’t loving parents want this — for their child to be happy and free from any hurt they might have caused? What would you want for your child?

You see, the heart has no clock built into it. Even though you may think very little about the time elapsed, the heart still keeps a living record of the damage, as fresh as the day it was inflicted. You’ve tried ignoring it; you may have tried other types of therapy. Perhaps it is time.

You needn’t feel guilty. You needn’t feel disloyal. Your heart waits patiently for its cure. The therapy is not intended to place blame or to harm your parents, but to heal you.

Looking back may be able to help with that.

The image above is Parent with Child Statue, Hrobákova street, Petržalka, Bratislava by Kelovy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Betrayal

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While betrayal comes in many forms, certainly among the very worst is the betrayal of a child by a parent. As a therapist, one hears perhaps too many of these stories for comfort. There are generic ones, where parents steal money or credit cards from their offspring; use up the college fund that a grandparent left the child; and perpetrate (or allow) verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. Then there are the very particular and peculiar ones that require some amount of invention, but still break the heart.

A few stories then, followed by an attempt to answer the question “Why?”

Take a set of parents who invested themselves in “surface” things — how they looked to others. They needed the right car, the right house in the right neighborhood, the right clothes, and the right friends. And so, when one of their children had a less than attractive nose, they required this youngster to have a “nose job.” The youth was OK with the nose that nature had delivered, but this wasn’t satisfactory to the parents.

You might say that the surgery benefited the youngster, but only on the surface. It delivered the message that the child’s opinion (the desire not to have the surgery) didn’t matter, that a frightening and unnecessary operation would be inflicted, and that the offspring was not good enough without a cosmetic overhaul. All of this negated whatever benefit accrued to looking more pleasing to the eye.

Another example. Two sisters. The younger was very bright, but not particularly attractive. The older one was gorgeous, but not so bright. What did the parents do? They referred to them in public as “the smart one” and “the pretty one.” Both compliments, it’s true, but so ingeniously fashioned and used that the real message to the younger one was “You are ugly” and to the older one “You are stupid.” Devastating.

Or the parents whose oldest child committed suicide by using a handgun that had been given him by his father. After the funeral the father gave the gun to the brother next-in-line. Next-in-line for what? What was the unspoken message here?

How about the young man, a college student, disliked by his abusive father? This was back in the days before the voluntary army, back in the time of Vietnam and the draft. The father knew that his son needed to manage a full-time course load in order to keep his student deferment.

So what did the father do?

He required that his offspring pay rent to stay in the family home knowing that his kid couldn’t afford it, even though the money wasn’t essential to the upkeep of the residence. Ultimately the young man couldn’t manage his studies because of the job. He had to quit school and was drafted, then sent to S.E. Asia. His father never wrote him letters in those days before email and, in fact, sold all the son’s possessions including his car while he was overseas.

What was the message from father to son? I don’t want you to succeed? I don’t want you home? I don’t expect you to survive? I don’t want you to survive? Or all of the above?

Why do they do it? The parents, I mean. First off, we know that if you have been abused by your parents, you are more likely to abuse your children than those people who have not had this awful experience. In effect, you are at risk of becoming the thing that you hate, perhaps even rationalizing the brutal behavior of your dad or mom. “They did the best they could” is a common theme that adult children use as they reflect back on their parents’ approach to child rearing and try to minimize and normalize the mistreatment they received. Similarly, the words spoken by the abusive parent, “I’m only doing this for your own good,” often serve as a “cover” for less than benign intentions.

Children who are being abused have little recourse but to put a good face on their parents’ behavior. To realize that one’s parents are vicious or frankly deranged leaves a child desperate and hopeless. If, on the other hand, the young one can find some reason to continue to admire the parent, he may find his home life at least slightly less terrifying.

Kids in this situation are desperate to find any signal of hope about the future. If they see their predicament for what it is, hope is dead. They are stuck and there is no place to go. It is therefore (in some sense) more comforting to believe that the reason for the mistreatment is their own fault, than to think that their elders are simply evil. If mom and dad are believed to be crazy or vicious, the child can only despair. On the other hand, if the young one believes that his behavior is somehow deserved, then by working to change himself he can at least imagine that he will win better treatment from his folks.

With no alternative family to which to compare his situation, the child has no model of parenting that is different, no clear standard that tells him that his parents are corrupt, at least until many years into the abuse at a time when he is older. If, in his effort to normalize the situation, the child does find something admirable about the parent, and perhaps even something good about that person’s behavior, he is more likely to emulate it later. Furthermore, in trying to obtain a sense of mastery over his life, kids will often experiment with the very behavior that has been perpetrated on them. That is, they may obtain satisfaction (as well as an outlet for their anger) by being brutal with others, who might be their siblings or their school mates.

One could go on about this subject for quite some time, but if you’d like a place to start exploring it, you might want to read For Your Own Good by Alice Miller. Miller looks at case histories of abuse, including some very controversial speculation about Adolph Hitler and what childhood experiences might have contributed to his sociopathy.

It is definitely worth your time and attention.

The image comes from the MGM movie, Julius Caesar. Casca, about to stab Caesar, is played by Edmond O’Brien and Caesar by Louis Calhern. The movie features Marlon Brando as Marc Antony and James Mason as Brutus.

The Price of Humility

Humility is generally thought to be a positive characteristic. Let’s consider this a little more carefully.

From the centuries-old teachings of the Catholic Church, one reads that there are “seven deadly sins:” wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. Even without such a list, however, young people are often taught to be humble and not boastful.

They are instructed not to call too much attention to themselves, not to be full of themselves or too proud. Arrogance, excessive self-love (narcissism), hubris — all are viewed negatively and point to the notion that you are not as good as you think you are and therefore should not become “too big for your britches.” In effect, the message is, be modest and you will be fine.

But.

Yes, I know, there is always a but.

An example illustrates why I am a hesitant endorser of humility in all things. My seventh grade Chicago Public School home room teacher gave us an interesting assignment. In one of the marking periods (there were four per semester) each of us was to write down the grades that we believed we should receive for the term — what marks we felt we deserved. Up until that time I was something of a humility addict. Whether from home or elsewhere, I’d learned not to toot my own horn, not to draw attention to myself, and certainly not to overstate my accomplishments.

The strategy had worked pretty well up to that time. But, I did not see that it created the potential for trouble ahead.

I dutifully delivered the grades, having understated most, if not all of them. What difference did it make, I thought? The teacher would assign the bona-fide grades, of course, based on the work we had completed, our test scores, and so forth.

Some time later, we received our real marks. And, wouldn’t you know it, my instructor had given me exactly the evaluation I assigned to myself. Since I was enormously invested in my school performance, I was crushed. I seem to recall that each kid had a mini-conference with her up at her front desk. I don’t remember what she said to me, but the grades stood, at least until the next marking period, when she would not be influenced by any external opinions. Nevertheless, I’m sure that I was mad at myself for having understated my worth.

As miserable as she made me feel, this woman did me a great favor. In fact, there probably was no better way to deliver the message: don’t diminish yourself, don’t minimize your accomplishments, don’t be self-effacing. If you cannot be your own best advocate, why should you expect anyone else to advocate for you? While you needn’t trumpet your attainments to the farthest reaches of the earth, neither should you hide them under a rock.

There is a price to excess humility, just as there is a price to the extreme of any human characteristic, not just the seven deadly sins: too much confidence or too little, too much risk-taking or not enough, a naive excess of trust or a cynical absence of confidence and faith in others, and so forth.

My teacher is almost certainly deceased. But, if I could, I would thank her for her instruction in the price of a surfeit of humility.

Ironically enough, her name was Miss Price — my seventh grade teacher at Jamieson School.

The image above is Kandinsky’s Composition V.