children of psychiatrists and other psychotherapists

After my dad was a drill sergeant in the Army, he was a clinical social worker. Mostly when I was too young to remember, his job had something to do with drug and alcohol abuse. From the time I’m old enough to remember in any detail, he was a Family Advocacy Representative:

Further, petty officers are responsible to report all alleged cases of abuse or neglect to the family advocacy representative (FAR). As a representative of the military community, the FAR will coordinate case management and report to appropriate agencies.

It’s a cliché that therapists fuck up their children, and there’s a great book about why that often happens: Children of Psychiatrists and Other Psychotherapists. The author had a clinical social worker for a mother and a psychiatrist/psychoanalyst for a father, back in the heyday of psychoanalysis. I didn’t get warped by psychoanalysis until I started reading about it on my own, but I recognized a lot of what was described in the book. In a lot of ways, it resembles Shoes Outside the Door, a book about self-delusion and dysfunction among Zen practitioners.

Children of Psychiatrists is a book about a group of “narcissistically impaired” people who become therapists and use their training to parent badly. It’s also impossible for the children not to pick up psychobabble from an early age. Together, these things narcissistically impair the next generation, who’ll become therapists themselves. I’m a more severe case, so I tried to work in “translational psychiatry,” meaning I worried about the emotions of rats instead of people. I’ve learned to see people as large, confabulating rats. We really do things for simplistic mechanical reasons while telling ourselves that we’re deep. What I’m saying is that the amygdala, hypothalamus, and a few other things are the id, the prefrontal-parietal working memory system is the ego, and the anterior cingulate is the super-ego. Neural circuit diagrams look a lot like the graph of desire and serve a similar defensive function, when you think about it:


In olden times, analyst’s kids would hear creepy things about sex from a young age. For me, I passively learned a lot about child molestation, emotional abuse, and the frustration of battered spouses taking their abusers back after you went through the trouble of getting a restraining order. Once I saw a neglected kid’s shoes that were falling apart. There was the story about the girl sexually abusing her brother in some way after seeing her dad’s porn. I even got practice with patient confidentiality, because I secretly knew that a middle school math teacher vanished in the middle of the year to escape her abusive husband. I picked up on the feeling that people in charge were shielding abusers.

Domestic violence in the military is a really bad problem. It’s a taboo subject, because soldiers are supposed to be venerated and not child molesters. Growing up, I couldn’t help but know that an apparently large number of adult men are scary, creepy weirdos. The local toy store shut down because the owner was found to be in possession of child pornography.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses have a child molestation problem like the Catholic Church’s. I never encountered anything like that personally, but I could intuitively feel that the “Kingdom Hall Elders” were creepy. In parallel, they were teaching me that Jehovah will inflict Armageddon on the sinners for their wickedness any day now. It was totally obvious that adults lived in denial all the time about everything and couldn’t be trusted.

Part of being a Jehovah’s Witness is also not teaching your kids about Santa Claus because it’s a lie. Almost all the other kids are gullible dumbasses, and their parents are a bunch of liars! I couldn’t convince them Santa wasn’t real, because they didn’t WANT to believe that their parents would make fools of them. No amount of logical reasoning could talk my mom out of her religion. In life it just doesn’t matter if you’re right.

An interesting comparison is made between the children of therapists and the children of preachers. In principle, every active Jehovah’s Witness is a “publisher” and attends “Theocratic Ministry School” once a week.

The burden of goodness can be unbearable for the minister’s children, and may create insoluble problems. They must sing in the choir, participate in church functions, and generally conduct themselves like little adults. Disobedience is a more potent assault on the father than it would be in other families. Meanwhile, though the children are obliged to show much public respect for their fathers and the church, in private they may know that the minister kicks the dog or drinks too much, that he despises certain congregants, or does not believe or practice what he preaches…

In Pennsylvania steel towns [a future Episcopalian minister] was the intellectual pansy who played the violin; on Philadelphia’s wealthy Main Line he was on a cultural par with the local kids, but poverty-stricken in comparison.

Later, it’s implied that preacher’s kids have it slightly worse:

Preacher’s kids grow up in a household where the ideal is to exercise control over one’s base emotions and passions, to sacrifice oneself for the good of others, to be self-effacing and self-denying, to rise above petty temptations and desires–in short, to act like an adult, not like a child. Or rather, to act like some hypothetical version of an adult, and to do so at a time when one is really and most emphatically still a child. Such children have repressed their impulses, they have not honestly come to grips with them and gotten them under real control.

PsyKs [“psychotherapist’s kids] fall prey to a similar syndrome, though in a less conspicuous way. Their lives are not publicly on display in a church, their parents do not represent such a rigid and possibly artificial way of living, their values are not so overtly at odds with those of their peers. PsyKs are not told what they should do–far from it: nondirectiveness is common–rather they are told how to do it, which is responsibly and with full awareness of their motivations and of the consequences of their acts.

I had one parent of each style, which gave me existential angst problems to the max. Most people hate freedom because it’s hard. Duh!

I know it’s hard to believe, but I’ve been accused of over-intellectualization and a lack of spontaneity. I work in computer security, where I worry about “shared secrets” and “information leakage.” That said:

More than one psychoanalyst’s child has told me that he felt his spontaneous emotions to be stunted by a tendency to intellectualize. The child who passed his early years being understood and interpreted by his parents may end up partly splintered himself [i.e., dissociation], so that while the acting self tries to carry on its life, it is followed about by another ratiocinating self who draws attention to every fault, betrays the hidden greed behind an act of altruism or bravery, reveals the faulty decisions that led to a praiseworthy result, and torments the actor with the knowledge that he is just that, an actor, and not a very good one, either, since to a trained eye, he supposes, all his flaws and doubts and dirty little secrets betray themselves in every gesture, each innocuous turn of phrase, and in every self-conscious expression that crosses his face. The psychoanalyst’s child may feel hunted down by an examining, evaluating eye that is ubiquitous and omniscient.

I was worried about the NSA recording the entire internet WAY before that was cool, back when it was evidence of paranoid ideation, poor reality testing, and reading the news like an adult, unlike most putative adults. I’ve been an adult since childhood, and they can, too! Anyway, parental intrusiveness and feeding children interpretations before their selves have even formed are recurring themes.

You can grow up with so much introspection that you turn into a drug addict:

That was part of the attraction of drugs when I began experimenting with them, there was a great relief of finding that there was such a thing as intoxication, where you weren’t standing looking over your own shoulder all the time and writing stage directions for yourself and then correcting the handwriting that you’d written the stage directions in. It got to be pretty crazy, but I don’t regret it. I think that kind of introspection gives you certain advantages over people who are just downright sloppy in the way they lead their lives. But it is also a nuisance. You are always standing back. Any number of women have observed that about me and have been very frustrated by it.

A previous post mentioned “emotional abuse” as a cause of depersonalization, and the connection is that type chronic self-consciousness.

There’s some material in the book about the history of childhood, and how it’s a recent byproduct of “increasing wealth and leisure.” The notion that children are fragile innocents isn’t typical of most of human history. Under normal conditions, it seems inconceivable that it would be normal for children to contribute nothing to the group’s survival until their early 20s.

32 isn’t very old, but it looks like childhood has had a lot of disruptive innovations in the mean time. I just used Google Maps to determine that I used to walk or ride my bike to school unsupervised by 3rd or 4th grade, over a distance of .7 miles. It involved crossing 40 mph road without any crossing lights or guards or anything. It was cool, because it was downhill in the morning and uphill on the way home. I got real exercise pedaling uphill with a backpack on every day, and it was fun. I was riding my bike in the street without a helmet, if you can imagine. When I was visiting my grandmother in Germany, I could basically go all over town and the surrounding countryside without supervision, and it was fine. On the airports to and from Germany, it was normal to see other kids my age traveling internationally by themselves. They just had a special sign around their neck and Lufthansa people helped them out. My shins were so bruised from skateboarding that my mom worried the school would suspect I was abused. Playing with your friends meant leaving your house and having adventures in the neighborhood, as long as you were home by dark. There weren’t even cellphones with GPS for your parents to track you!

I was allowed to skateboard all Motta in 5th or 6th grade. I was loitering with high schoolers, who I could relate to better than people my own age, because of Little Adult issues. In high school, I regularly stayed out all night, hiking through the woods with my friends using flashlights. I learned that the local park with woods and beaches was a cruising spot because I was approached by creeps in the woods by myself when I was under-age. It kind of ruined that park for me, but that’s about all the damage it did. The point is that I could just borrow the car and disappear for hours (before cell phones).

Nowadays, people literally have problems with the police for these kinds of things.  Susan Sontag was absolutely right about the public being infantilized:

The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word “cowardly” is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.

Our leaders are bent on convincing us that everything is O.K. America is not afraid. Our spirit is unbroken, although this was a day that will live in infamy and America is now at war. But everything is not O.K. And this was not Pearl Harbor. We have a robotic President who assures us that America still stands tall. A wide spectrum of public figures, in and out of office, who are strongly opposed to the policies being pursued abroad by this Administration apparently feel free to say nothing more than that they stand united behind President Bush. A lot of thinking needs to be done, and perhaps is being done in Washington and elsewhere, about the ineptitude of American intelligence and counter-intelligence, about options available to American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and about what constitutes a smart program of military defense. But the public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality. The unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress seemed contemptible. The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.

Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy—which entails disagreement, which promotes candor—has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. “Our country is strong,” we are told again and again. I for one don’t find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.

I knew I was somehow very different when she was demonized by so many people for saying such obvious things.  Normals don’t know how painful self-examination works, I guess?  My childhood prepared me for the reality that the truth is irrelevant, as I said.

It’s the kind of book you know is good because it makes you feel deeply uncomfortable. It would fix the world if people read it and admitted the stuff applied to them. Of course that’s why it’s obscure and out of print.