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Mother Knows Best?

July 12, 2007 By:
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Haunted by Parents. What an extraordinary title -- for no one has ever gone unscathed by the people who've reared them. In fact, according to Leonard Shengold, M.D., who chose this unforgettable title for his most recent book, published by Yale University Press, even some of the most accomplished individuals in various fields of endeavor have displayed the deleterious effects of their upbringings in the way they lived their lives and the professions they chose to pursue.

Shengold, who has focused most of his authorial attention on childhood trauma, wrote an earlier classic on the subject called Soul Murder (another splendid title); and his new book is an extension of these previous investigations.

The new title, according to the author, "relates to what I have been writing about the continuing importance of early parenting as a source of health and of pathology -- a subject of little theoretical controversy for those engaged in psychological therapy. It is a given, but I feel that it is not so familiar to the general public. There has not been enough emphasis on holding on to the mental ties to early parents as one powerful motivating force for resistance to change in life as well as in psychiatric treatment. We are all haunted by parents, but with different intensities and each in our way. I am dealing here with those in whom the results of the haunting are profound."

Some of the more famous individuals whom Shengold considers here include baby expert and anti-war protester Dr. Benjamin Spock, poets William Wordsworth and Edna St. Vincent Millay, and writers Leonard Woolf and Henrik Ibsen.

Interspersed between the biographical sketches of these famous artists are chapters devoted to some of Shengold's psychological sessions with his patients that also illustrate his overriding theme.

His chapter on Spock, the first in the book, is particularly compelling; he calls it a "literary example of haunting." The pediatrician was born in 1903, the oldest of six children who survived (the first son, William, died shortly after he was born). Spock insisted that he had few early memories but that, by the age of 3, he "had taken on a wistful, mildly anxious look that I ascribe to my sensitivity to the frequent warnings and scoldings of my moralistic, controlling mother. She loved her babies extravagantly but was alarmed when in their second year each of her children showed signs of wishes and wills of their own. Two of her four daughters became determinedly independent, but her two sons were to a rare degree submissive to her will." (All emphases, here and elsewhere in the review, were added by Shengold.)

One of Spock's numerous biographers also noted that Mildred "believed in and enforced rigid practices, rules [and] high moral standards. She told Ben and her other children what to wear, what to eat and even when to sleep. For example, unless it was a school day, each child took a nap every day, including holidays. Spock's mother believed in the benefits of fresh air for children, and made her offspring sleep in an open sleeping porch, even on the coldest nights. Spock told another of his biographers that 'You didn't rebel against fresh air because fresh air was just as sacred as morality.' "

Shengold describes Mildred as a "severely compulsive, impatient woman who resisted the separation and individuation of her children and insisted on their unwavering obedience. She did not allow any of her children to go to public school until they were 7 years old. There was little flexibility in her will of iron."

Shengold also states that Spock's mother could be alarmingly contradictory. Where she may have filled the house with good books, still, her son said, "if she found me reading, she would immediately find something for me to do -- clean up my room, mow the lawn, rake the leaves. So I would find a secret place to read."

According to Shengold, any physical closeness -- kissing or hugging among family members -- was discouraged. And Mildred was hostile to any manifestation of sexuality. "She taught us that sex was wrong and harmful in all aspects, except when intended to conceive babies. She dearly loved babies. ... She taught us that sinful thoughts were as harmful as deeds, and to touch ourselves 'down there' was not just sinful but might cause birth defects in our children."

Shengold says that Spock believed his mother was a mind reader who always knew what he was thinking, divining immediately when he'd done something wrong. " 'Only later did I realize that she had implanted such a strong sense of guilt in me that when I occasionally did something slightly naughty, my hang-dog expression was a dead give-away.' Spock adds, with the child's frankness and honesty that remained part of his character as an adult, that it never occurred to him to try to deceive her."

As for his father, Spock remembered him as being absent most of the time and emotionally distant when he was present. And the elder Spock never interfered with his wife's "household dominance." His father was a serious man, and Spock had no happy memories related to him. He was afraid of him, even when at times he seemed willing to be friendly. Ironically, Spock's sons eventually reproached him for never hugging or kissing them when they were young. "He told them that he had never been hugged or kissed by his father. (And Ben never saw his parents hugging and kissing.)"

'An Absence of Joy'

According to Shengold, there is "an absence of joy" in Spock's depiction of his childhood and adolescence which suggests "soul murder." When he was young, he was always the good boy. But according to his sister Hiddy, neither of the Spock boys received any affection or encouragement from their father. He "poured his affection" on his daughters. The girls called him "a darling," which Ben could never understand.

Spock wrote at age 82, summoning up his childhood, "that his 'mother was certainly the person who most influenced my life and my attitudes.' But he also felt 'Mother was too controlling, too strict, too moralistic. Though I never doubted her love, I was intimidated by her. She controlled her children with a firm and iron hand and complete self-assurance -- no hesitation, no permissiveness. She never doubted that she was right in any judgment and never softened a punishment, no matter how piteously the child pleaded. She almost never used physical punishment but relied on deprivation and severe moral disapproval. Her scorn could be withering. We all grew up with consciences that were more severe than was necessary or wise ... .' It is a withering portrait of a parent who seems like a character out of Dickens, a bad mother whose nurture and character cast a shadow over her son's life -- like one of Dicken's one-dimensional bad mothers who hated joy (for example, Arthur Clennam's mother in Little Dorrit)."

But for all the family unhappiness that Shengold portrays in his new book, his point is that life is a mixed bag, a mixed blessing, especially when it comes to the highly accomplished people he deals with here. Spock, for example, would never have written his caring, loving parental guide, the endlessly popular Baby and Child Care, without his awareness that his mother's ways were detrimental. But also, if it hadn't been for his mother's love of babies, her love of books and certain of her encouragements, especially when it came to her favorite son, Ben, the world would not have benefited from his work.

Shengold sincerely believes that for those engaged in active therapy, as well as for those who have no use for psychoanalysis, a deeper awareness of the past -- both the good and the evil in child-rearing practices -- is a tool for change and growth. He ends with a cliché, as he himself admits: Knowledge is power.

Readers should, however, be forewarned. For all of Shengold's marvelous insights into life and literature, his book, which is brief, can sometimes seem clogged with far too much technical language. But you can either slog through it or skip over it until you find the next passage that resonates. It comes soon enough, and it is all of remarkable usefulness.

Another Yale book worth checking out -- and one that alternately suffers from the same odd mix of technical terminology and unmistakable brilliance -- is Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge by Gerald M. Edelman, M.D., Ph.D. I learned as much if not more from it as I did from Haunted by Parents. I'm not certain, however, that I could reduce Edelman's astonishing erudition into prose that would be comprehensible to a general audience. But I will say that, for those looking for a reading adventure, this brief foray into how we know what we know is a journey like no other -- except for the many other books Edelman has seen fit to grace the world with.

 

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