In my last blog I talked about two clients--though not mine-- whose childhood experiences created massive emotional deficits which undermined their ability to find love and approval as adults. But I didn't discuss the emotional lives of their parents which might have given the impression that they were simply ogres who abused their children out of the sheer evil delight of doing so. Although I offer no defence for actions which appear to have been deliberately cruel, I think the emotional lives of such parents need to be considered in order to understand the emotional lives of their damaged children. Indeed, I fear much of the popular literature on child abuse tends towards the gothic and favours stereotyped tales of violated innocence. This might satisfy a popular taste for victims and villains, but it tells us little about how children develop their self understanding though their relationships with their parents. Instead, it is assumed that abuse has a simple, predetermined cause and effect relationship to mental illness. No doubt bad parents can and do make their children mad by inflicting terrible and senseless punishments on them. But I think there is another version of this pat formula which is rather more complicated. Parents drive their children mad by demanding that they share in the madness that they themselves suffer.
All of this was suggested by a conversation I had recently with a friend who has battled severe mental illness for most of his adult life. This appears to be a result of having to manage the mental illnesses of both his parents from a very young age. His mother suffered from bouts of deep depression and his father was a paranoid schizophrenic. Nearly everyone, including my friend, believes that these circumstances offer compelling evidence for his strong, perhaps even fatal genetic predisposition towards mental illness. According to a widely believed theory, my friend must have inherited his mental illness much as he has inherited his hair and eye colour. I would reserve judgement on such a claim, though I concede that it merits thorough investigation. I will say more about this later, but one undesirable consequence of adopting a position of genetic determinism is that it inclines us to overlook the force of personal experience in shaping any personality, but particularly for profoundly disturbed personalities who suffer mental illness. Consider, for example, a regular childhood experience that my friend was forced to endure.
My friend was only four on the first occasion in which he was made to participate in one of his father's psychotic episodes which featured terrifying visual hallucinations. His dad had already begun to rely on my friend for almost everything so he was not reluctant to make a bizarre request. "Get rid of it! It's on the walls! Wipe it off!", his father screamed. Not quite certain of what his father was seeing, he followed his instructions in order to placate him and wiped the walls with his hand as if polishing glass with a cloth. He knew that there was no actual danger. But he also knew that his father's madness was a reality that he would always have to live with. "After a while it just became normal," he recalls. In fact, wiping hallucinations became an ordinary occurrence over the next four years. Not that his father found sanity when my friend turned eight. It was just that his terrible visions gave way to other symptoms of madness for which other strategies of compliance had to be devised.
In spite of regarding it as normal as a child, my friend now believes his relationship with his father was actually abusive. He is certainly entitled to feel that way. The burden of providing emotional security for a psychologically disturbed adult should never fall on a young child whose emotional development depends largely on the stability that only a responsible and caring adult can provide. Yet his father was not intentionally abusive, either. My friend never suffered physical violence or sexual exploitation and even the verbal aggression that he heard was seldom directed at him. There was only his father's crushing dependency on my friend which deprived him of emotionally stability. Having had to act as the steward in his father's terrifying voyages into madness as a child, it is little wonder that he still struggles to find stability and direction as an adult.
His dreadful childhood experiences do not, however, rule out the possibility of a strong genetic component in my friend's mental illness. But if genes preordained the emotional dispositions of my friend and his parents, then the agony that he continues to suffer today must have commenced at his conception. The lurid scenes of despair that he was forced to witness as a child almost had to follow from his genetic inheritance. This would seem to lend scientific weight to his occasional, but deeply depressing conviction that he should never have been born at all. Here, though, we should retain some scepticism about genetic determinism and keep in mind that there is no proven causal link between genes and any mental illness. At best, there might be some interaction between genes and environment that would increase the likelihood of someone developing a mental illness. But as Raymond Tallis observes, it is remarkable how little genes tell us about being human. Indeed, it tells us nothing about the experience, that is the felt sense and conscious appreciation, of being human, at all.
This doesn't mean that genes are irrelevant to human experience. Clearly, they provide an essential foundation for it, at least inasmuch as our physicality contributes the embodied form for all our experiences. Yet the formulation "interaction of genes and environment" suggests how limited a genetic perspective actually is. For a human environment is not merely an environment like a pond is for a frog. It is an open, indeterminate field of experience from which an infinite number of unpredictable potential experiences can and do arise. Denying the possibility that experience--the adventitious , unpredictable, perhaps ultimately unknowable possibilities inherent in being human-- could make us what we are seems to be the prevailing consensus these days. Yet appreciating the particularity of what human experience is for each of us may be the only true way to understand each other---even those trapped in the terrifying vortex of madness.