REVENGE OF THE INNOCENTS: Bad parenting, ants, psychotherapy and rock´n roll
I'm on my way, sitting on the train to Copenhagen´s International Airport, from where I will fly to my family in Rome. Looking out of the window thinking that an external trip is also an internal one. I am mentally preparing myself for the arrival. My thoughts have already reached the goal and revolve around what the coming weeks will be like. More or less forgotten experiences show up, all circumscribed by who I am, what I've become and where I am. Like so many times before, I have ended up within a transitional stage.
As the fish in the lake, or a lion on the savannah, each and every one of us live in a specific environment, thinking and acting in relation to it. Maybe we are like the rest of the animals ‒ limited by our instincts, though our human brain enables us to adapt to any new environment and even as I am now doing, moving from one habitat to another.
Within each house that the train rushes past there is a habitat. People live in the house I just travelled past and the persons living there are intimately familiar with that particular spot; they know the grove with oak trees, the lake nearby and the road that runs in front of their house. But it is not only human beings´ place on Earth; it is shared between a wealth of other creatures. As Birk Borkason tells Ronia in Astrid Lindgren's fairy tale Ronia, the Robber´s Daughter: "Your fox cubs! Your forest! The foxes are their own, you understand that? And they live in the forest of foxes. Which is also the wolves´ and bears´ and moose and the wild horses´ forest."
In the grove, that just disappeared from view live ants. They are almost everywhere. Like humans, ants thrive in most ecosystems and are said to comprise 15 to 25 percent of the terrestrial animal biomass. In their intriguing book about ants, Hölldobler and Wilson write that the combined weight the Earth´s roughly 10 000 trillion individual ants is about as much as that of all humans. Each individual ant has, just as we, its own little world, its habitat, which in her mind, seems to be quite different from how we would perceive it. An ant has apparently also a quite an impressive brain power. In relation to the size of its host animal an ant brain is larger and more compact than the human brain. She has a pretty big head compared to her body and if we would be equal in size to an ant, we would discover that her head was bigger than ours.
I write "her" since I read that male ants are in a vast minority in ant colonies and generally have smaller brains than females. However, even male ants have a given role within their community and like those of the females their brains are connected to what Hölldobler and Wilson calls the ant society´s “super-brain”. Every single ant brain has been developed in harmony with those of other ants and designed to handle very specific functions within an ant colony, which in its turn acts as the sum of the capacity of all the individual brains of the members of each anthill. This means that some ants have sophisticated brains adapted for providing food, among other functions that the ant always has to know where she finds herself, so she can get back to her anthill and her designated place within it. Ants also have to be able to collaborate with their conspecifics, recognize the difference between friend and foe, who is a colleague of yours, who is a fiend and who you may ignore. All this while other ants day in and day out are busy with monotonous routine work, something that their brains have adapted them to.
The ants thus differ from us humans since each and every one of us has to be quick-witted, resourceful, able to read and adapt to our environment, even if it happens that we also, just like an ant, sometimes have to engage ourselves with more or less "brain dead" activities. Like ants we are also social beings, who relate and adapt to other individuals living their lives in our anthill, our habitat. Something that can be very difficult to handle and we may sometime need to seek support and assistance from experts, who may help us to clean up our messy existence.
When I lived in New York some busses displayed boards declaring: “If you live in New York you definitely need a shrink!". Now I do not recall if it was an endorsement for some psychiatrist, or simply an ad for a movie or TV series. Nevertheless, I lived in New York and like many of my neighbors and acquaintances I felt I could be in need of some counseling. Accordingly, I ended up in Dr. Herbert E. Thomas studio on Park Avenue. The room was as I imagined it would be like at the place of a renowned psychiatrist. The walls were covered by cluttered bookshelves and we talked to one another sitting in two large, comfortable leather armchairs. Dr. Thomas did not use a writing pad, but listened patiently, before he came up with thoughtful interpretations, thoughts and advice. He was Canadian by birth and spoke both French and English. He was interested in literature, art and religion, and I remember how he could start a line of thoughts with a remark like:
- Yes Jan, coming up with thoughts about religion to a historian of religions like you, would probably be like taking coals to Newcastle, but what you just said made me think of something I read regarding the Talmud ...
I was impressed by Dr. Thomas confident and natural way of speaking. He seemed to be very self-assured and I assumed that the display of such a quality was part of his technique. When I asked him if he considered himself to be a self-reliant person, he replied:
- I am aware of the fact that it may certainly seem to be the case, but frankly, as a young professional I was a very anxious person and to overcome my fears and shortcomings, I applied to activities that scared me. I have for nearly twenty years been working with inmates at Pittsburgh's Maximum Security Prison. I have met several murderers who have been executed after I got to know them.
It was back in 1994 I was talking to Dr. Thomas and it was not until 1999 that the last prisoner from that particular prison was executed by poison injections and I still do not know if the state of Pennsylvania has repealed the death penalty.
- What I have learned in there has made me realize the supreme importance of the good things in life. We must learn to pay better attention to kindness, our own and others, it is dangerous to underestimate is importance. As a matter of fact, most of us are not as aggressive and misguided as we suspect we are. If a condemned prisoner asks me: "What would you do if you came home and found your wife in bed with a lover? Would not you have killed both the bitch and the one who fucked her?" Frankly, I do not think I would have done it, though such awareness does not hinder me from imagining how the killer thought and from understanding why he acted as he did. Often it is about a damaged childhood, something that is extremely difficult to amend; some even think it is impossible to do so.
- I have always assumed that you psychoanalysts are obsessed with childhood trauma. Is it not what you all are looking for?
Dr. Thomas smiled indulgently:
- Sure, you're right; usually it is like that, though I know those who fared quite excellent even after a miserable childhood. Nevertheless, I would argue that a battered, unloved child is likely to suffer during the rest of his life. It is a question of habitat. The family is the child's habitat, like a fish in the lake it cannot get out of the water; it is a victim of parental whims.
- Honestly, I do not remember any abuse from my parents' side.
Dr. Thomas nodded:
- I am convinced that your parents were loving people. I dare say that it shows on you that you were an appreciated child. This does of course not mean that you are a perfectly harmonious human being. Who is it? However, the kindness your parents bestowed upon you will not disappear, though others who we meet in or daily lives have been exposed to parents' bad and thoughtless behavior. They are victims of despotism or chilly ignorance. Their parents may have been well intentioned, but confused about themselves and their child. Many are more or less indifferent to children; others are simply crazy people, some outright evil. Worst is probably capriciousness.
- In what way?
- In the mind of a child, parents tend to be like incomprehensible deities, though the bitter truth is that they are far from perfect. Far too often parents let their kids suffer for frustrations related to their own shortcomings. Power provides security, but children have no power over their parents. They are looking for love and appreciation, and if they cannot obtain that, all they may ask for is at least some attention. A child wants to be seen, as demonstrated by the words of the Lord's blessing: "The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace."
Doctor Thomas often talked about religion and that was one reason why I was fascinated by him, that and the quiet confidence he exuded. Surely he probably exposed some errors in his indisputable statements and judgments, though I don´t know for sure. His personality was such that that almost everything he said sounded true and authoritative and in all its obviousness - profound.
‒By demonstrating how obedient and clever we are we ask for our parents´ kind attention, or in the worst case we may even consciously misbehave only to have our existence confirmed. What happens when a beaten, or neglected, child grows up? Such children may find that a good way to protect themselves from ignorance and arbitrariness is to exercise power over others. Were they unable master their parents, they may as strong and authoritative adults force others into submission. The easiest way to accomplish that is to dominate your victims within an enclosed habitat; an office, a shop, a school, a prison, or a family. Within such cages, you may discipline your underlings, but instead of whips there is another arsenal at your disposal; love, irony, penalties, humiliation, or appeals for pity. Power People protect themselves by using authority as a weapon and shield and with its support they are able mobilize their minions´ attention, respect, care and love.
Dr. Thomas looked at me with a kind smile:
- For all the affection he receives a powerful man does not give much in return. Some favours are handed out, but generally not as expressions of gratitude or love, because he regards such feelings as signs of weakness. The bestowed favours may be more accurately considered as means to attach a person to you. Gratitude is a strong bond. What a powerful person gives away does not mean a great loss; a bigger office, a car that facilitates work efficiency, maybe a higher salary or allowance, or access to services performed by his minions. Worst is when a powerful person's failures or misgivings are staring him in the face, then he is likely to project his shortcomings on those who are dependent on him. By applying his mistakes to other human beings a powerful man may imagine that if he disciplines the person he has chosen as his substitute, he also corrects his own errorss. A wounded child who has become a powerful person may do anything to protect himself at the expense of others.
It happened that Dr. Thomas gave away books. He gave my daughters a couple of Asterix albums in French. I received a copy of Alice Miller´s The Drama of the Gifted Child, an interesting and well-written book. Reading it I recognized several of Dr. Thomas's views. Nevertheless, no one is perfect. Alice Miller's son Martin, also a psychotherapist, has written about his traumatic childhood. How when he was a six years old bed-wetter, with a newborn sister with Down syndrome, was sent away to an orphanage 30 miles from home, where his parents never came to visit. When he a year after returned home his parents did not follow him for his first day at a new school. Martin Miller´s parents were absorbed by their own careers and status, neglecting the emotional needs of their children. Martin felt like a stranger in his own home, where the parents spoke Polish among themselves, a language he and his sister never learned. The father beat his son and forced him to strange washing rituals, which he perceived as sexual abuse. As soon as a nanny came to be trusted by the kids, their mother conceived her as a rival and dismissed her immediately. When he was seventeen years old Martin finally left home for a strict Catholic boarding school, which he perceived as a profound relief from his "parental madhouse".
Martin Miller's showdown with his mother makes me think about how common it is for sons and daughters to accuse successful parents of their miserable childhoods. Such allegations have emerged as a literary genre. Recently I have read several Scandinavian authors´ relentless attacks on their fathers of which only Karl Ove Knausgårds comprehensive 6 volumes My Struggle has been translated into English. One volume was enough for me.
It is often writers who are particularly affected by their children's anathema. Being an author generally means that you use your own person and those around you as raw material for your writings. Contemplation and exploitation of your environment create a kind of alienation that may be aggravated by the fact that writing is a solitary occupation. If the author additionally has an adoring readership this may increase a feeling of distance from others and worsen the self-absorption. It may also happen that writers who have failed to reach an audience blame their shortcomings on their immediate surroundings. The crazed murderer in Stephen King's mesmerizing The Shining is a failed writer suffering from a severe writer´s block.
The daughters of great authors like William Faulkner and William Styron tell about how their fathers made them suffer and so have children, among others, of John Cheever, Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow, the latter harboring an implacable hatred to both his father and his work, this while the others seem to forgive their fathers' behavior in the name of their brilliance as authors. It is strange to learn how some great writers have been unable to apply their insights to their own family life after managing to effectively display similar conflicts in their novels. Saul Bellow has for example written a masterpiece about a son's wounded relationship with his father – Seize the Day.
Several of the authors mentioned above had sever drinking problems, something that seems to be common among US writers, it could be enough to mention Nobel Prize winners like O´Neill, Sinclair Lewis, Steinbeck and Hemingway. That literary circles often are fuelled by alcohol makes me think of Olof Lagercrantz diaries, he was an author and editor in chief of Sweden's largest newspaper and was thus surrounded by a large circle of famous writers. In his diaries almost all of them appear as part of a pathetic bunch of ruthless, backstabbing, favor-seeking and self-overestimating narcissists, who in a macabre dance moves around the influential newspaper man. For example, in the revealing diaries my favorite poet Gunnar Ekelöf turns out to be a moody and violent person: "Gunnar generally started drinking moderately round midday. First came a period of joy, dance, erotic jokes and gestures. This stage could turn into bitterness when Gunnar showed a diabolical talent for hurting those present. Then began the madness, the real drunkenness when more drinks were ordered or brought in from somewhere, when friends were called up, then letters were written terminating acquaintances, when crazy things happened."
Unfortunately Ekelöf´s nasty behavior seems to have been more rule than exception. Lagercrantz himself could apparently also be extremely mean, the Academician Lars Gyllensten described him as a cuddly, purring cat that in unexpected moments could scratch you as badly as possible and with pleasure direct his sharp claws towards the victim's unprotected eyes.
Authors hang out with authors and all over the world they seem to behave in a special and often outrageous manner. Of course, there are great friendships in their circles, but also nasty attacks, notorious infidelity and self-aggrandizement strategies, maybe they are like most people, but reading their biographies sometimes make me doubt. At least they often seem to cling to one another. I read Salman Rushdie's depiction of his life under the fatwa, Joseph Anton. The death threat meant an almost crippling isolation. Yet, Rushdie could after a while be in touch with a variety of writing colleagues, they wrote about and to him, while several of them turned up with both support and betrayal. The writing world seem to be Rushdie's unique habitat, it is almost exclusively authors we read about in his memoirs.
Several authors´ habitats appear more like a living hell, than a privileged world. For example, the Parisian drug and smoke impregnated existentialist sphere, where people drank, fought and mingled in confusing erotic formations. Considering this form of mad existence, I understand what Arthur Koestler meant when he wrote that "to want to meet an author because you like his books is as ridiculous as wanting to meet the goose because you like pate de foie gras." The chain-smoking, drug addicted, unhealthy and unfortunately ugly Sartre devoted himself occasionally to seducing young women, often provided by his affectionate devotee, the feminist icon Simon Beauvoir, who in a letter to her lover Nelson Algren described an evening out in the company of Sartre, Koestler and Camus: "As a joke Sartre was making love to Mamaine [Koestler's wife] but so outrageously no one could scarcely have said he was indiscreet, we were all far too drunk for it to be offensive. Suddenly Koestler threw a glass at Sartre's head and it smashed against the wall. [...] Koestler didn´t want to go home and then he found that he´d lost his wallet and had to stay behind in the club; Sartre was staggering about on the sidewalk and laughing helplessly when Koestler finally decided to climb back up the stairway on all fours. He wanted to continue his quarrel with Sartre. 'Come now, let's go home,' said Camus laying a friendly hand on his shoulder; Koestler shrugged the hand off and hit Camus, who then tried to hurl himself on his aggressor, we kept them apart. Leaving Koestler in his wife´s hands, we all got into Camus´s car; he too was suitable soused in vodka and champagne, and his eyes began to fill with tears: 'He was my friend! And he hit me!' He kept collapsing onto the steering wheel and sending the car into the most terrifying swerves and we would try to hold him up, completely sobered by our fear.”
We encounter a similar reckless behavior and basically miserable existence while reading about the movie- and fashion industry, far from the glamorous world that the uninitiated may imagine it to be. And of course, we meet similar infernos within commercialized rock´n roll circuits, where young talents are destroyed in ruthless meat grinders of drug- and sex abuse. One of my close friends told me how she had ended up backstage and shocked had witnessed the mad and filthy behavior of a world-famous rock group, whose members, high as houses, while drinking incessantly hurled themselves on defenseless groupies or peed on the walls. However, in the midst of this mayhem she struck up conversation with the member of another world-famous band who wanted to distance himself from the maniacs around him, telling her that he was missing his wife and family, that he had to wash his clothes because on tour the short stop-over did not allow for contacting any laundry facilities. He told my friend how nice it was to finally be able to talk to a "normal" person, claiming that the people contracting the bands even supplied their artists with “booze, whores and drugs”, all part of the "celebrity culture." Not long ago I read Mick Wall's book about Led Zeppelin, When Giants Walked the Earth and John Szwed´s biography about the master musician Miles Davis miserable existence, So What, enforcing my impression that my friend´s story is an apt description of what goes on behind the scenes of quite a lot of concert tours.
In-depth descriptions of a ruthless, self-consuming way of life seem to be one of the main ingredients in musician biographies. What makes me uneasy is that several writers specialized in describing the popular music scene, though not in particular Wall or Szwed, describe these circuits of hell in an easygoing, entertaining manner. As if rock, sex and drugs is a pleasant and desirable combination - an exciting rock´n and rolling hell that the common man may dream about while he is slaving away at his dreary work and sleep off his weekends.
Some Swedish celebrity writers do with obvious pride describe themselves as belonging to the cultural establishment, while maintaining good contacts with criminal circles. I know nothing about those spheres, though I got a quick glance into the world of crime while I as a student worked extra as a waiter on the trains between Malmö and Stockholm. Sometimes I worked in what was called a "big car" as part of a team with head waiter, chef, waitresses and a dishwasher, sometimes I was on my own in a “coffee shop car”. In one of those I once had a conversation with a well-known, professional criminal. In those days it happened that the police put criminals on board a train, after having notified the train crew about their presence. If they did not deviate during the trip, the criminals were retrieved at their final destination.
The offender who had ended up together with me in the coffee shop car was thirsty and drank in quick succession the 37-ounce bottles of wine I had for sale. Since we were alone and he was craving for a chat, he asked me to sit down by his table, something I agreed to do if he promised not to smoke anymore, smoking in the restaurant cars was already in those days strictly forbidden. From his satchel he took out an elegant hardcover scrapbook and proudly showed me one article after another.
- You should know that I'm not any small fry crook. In crimes I am great. I am knowledgeable about crime, I´m professional. Look here "Wanted criminal live luxury life on the Riviera", then I had a Maserati, a luxury apartment and was dating a top model. And here, look ... at that time I was a real big shot. I am still a national celebrity. Do you now understand that I am not anyone? In my field I am the best and I know guys that would make you lose your chin if I mentioned their names. It goes up and it goes down, you see.
He presented me with one clipping after the other. I wondered:
- Now if you are as great and important you must obviously have been involved in serious crime ... drugs, armed robbery, assault and stuff like that.
His gaze darkened, but he smiled nonetheless:
- You name it. I'm not a little angel child. My life has often been crappy, a living hell. I'm a pretty nasty bastard. I am immune to punishment, I cannot be any worse. I have spent more time in prisons than on the outside. I'm behind bars right now. But do not think I've bungled my time, neither inside nor outside. I read everything. Everything! I have graduated in law. Have read the Bible several times and know a whole bunch of hymns by heart. I can make a fool out of anyone. Sure, I have hurt many persons, my family, or families I might say, everyone who has been involved with me have had a hell of a time, in every sense, both good and bad.
- Are you proud of yourself? Don´t you feel any guilt or remorse?
He banged the table:
‒ Of course I do! I'm not a little fart like you. Not a regular Joe born with silver spoon in mouth. I had a crappy childhood, stepfathers, wicked devils that boozed up and beat me up for nothing. Foster homes, shitty schooling. I knowing nothing else but crime, but that is something I'm good at. In that field, I am respected. Don´t you think that I have not tried to end up like a common guy, a grey, insignificant law-abiding citizen. During a year or so I worked as an ordinary, damned welder with shitty wages and a shitty life. I was a nobody, but as a criminal I'm great. It is only within crime I can be respected. It´s hopeless, but what can I say? It´s life for me. The only life I have.
The criminal train café visitor was thus, as so many of us, stuck in his habitat. I have ended up in many contexts, been a worker and a drone - within the school system, universities, the development set, family life and several other worlds. At each place I have ended up, I assume I have discovered a similar set of people; both autocratic or supportive managers, manipulators, extremely knowledgeable peers, kind people, stupid people, stingy and generous, those who hide away themselves and without scruples let others do their jobs, only to receive their salary and honors, some you never learn to understand what they are doing, others who are always there, who never say no. It does not matter where you find yourself, at prestigious levels, or among low paid, hardworking people engaged in dreadful occupations, even there you find a similar stratification of people, the good and the mean, the smart and the not so smart.
Somewhere I read about a Japanese study of different ant societies. After having carefully examined life within a large number of anthills the entomologists had found that about 20 percent of the worker ants did not accomplished much, while the other 80 percent worked extremely hard. The scientists wondered about what those twenty percent actually did, since the ant society is supposed to be like some kind of super brain those apparent drones ought to have some undiscovered kind of task or function. Maybe they are the ants´ thinkers and artists, who knows? As Oscar Wilde said: "We all live in the gutter, but some of us look upon the stars."
Lindgren, Astrid (1985), Ronia, the Robber´s Daughter. London: Puffin Books. Hölldobler, Bert and Wilson Edward O., The Ants. Belknap: Harvard University Press. Miller, Alice (1981), The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self. New York: Basic Books. Martin Miller´s autobiography is not translated into English: Miller. Martin (2013) Das wahre Drama des begabten Kindes: Die Tragödie Alice Millers ‒ wie verdrängte Kriegstraumata in der Familie werken. Freiburg: Kreuz-Verlag. Knausgaard, Karl Ove (2012), My Struggle: Book 1. New York: Archipelago Books. Aronson, Ronald (2004) Camus and Sartre: A Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Rowley, Hazel (2005), Tête-à-Tête: Simon de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre. New York: Harper Collins. Bellow, Greg (2013), Saul Bellow’s Heart: a Son’s Memoir. London: Bloomsbury, Cheever, Susan (1999). Home Before Dark. New York: Washington Square Press, Malamud Smith, Janna (2006), My Father Is a Book: A Memoir of Bernard Malamud. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Styron, Alexandra (2011), Reading My Father: A memoir. New York: Scribner. Jill Faulkner tells about her relationsship with her father i Bezzerides, Albert Isaac (1980), William Faulkner, a life on paper: A transcription from the film. Oxford: University Press of Mississippi.