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Family Drama

“This Be the Verse,”

by Philip Larkin, 1971

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

I remember the day my first-born son gave his older sister a severe tongue-lashing, his patience with her finally running out. I was proud as can be of his amazing verbal acumen, but finally disturbed, not just with how hurtful a wicked tongue can be, but in recognizing my own dark side, in the capacity to be so vicious with words. Symbolic acts of speech may not break bones, but they certainly can do damage. I still jokingly suggest to this son that while I may be responsible for any of a number of his flaws, most of them are dysfunctions of autonomy, so he is, unfortunately, the only one who can fix them.

Much of human uniqueness is produced by an extended childhood (documented extensively by Konner 2010). This means that our emotional physiology requires several decades to be shaped and channeled by the close and interdependent relationships we have with others. In the dependency of children upon family, and pre-eminently within the power differential under stronger and more experienced adult parents, our basic emotional scripts are shaped. Many of our deepest beliefs and social practices are well established in our childhood years, much of it in pre-linguistic and mimetic patterns of interaction (Donald 2002), but certainly well before affirmations of belief, or other “coming of age” rituals in many traditions. Well in place by this age are a number of emotional scripts, resulting from extensive early experience and conditioning, which are below the level of awareness, difficult to counter-condition, and likely to underwrite our belief preferences and resonances with different world-views. I have written scholarly work which describes this as subdoxastic, as below the level of beliefs, but what is not articulated or even spoken likely shapes and provides the emotional framework for what is.

The basic affects emerge in a common developmental sequence, from newborn distress patterns, through the enjoyment of early attachment, the fear and sadness of separation, loss, and novelty, and finally with self-consciousness, the second order emotions of shame and guilt. Along with pride, these second order emotions constitute the contraction and expansion of self-boundaries (e.g. “swelling with pride”). According to Nathanson (1992) healthy pride is the triggering of the enjoyment upon achieving an interesting or exciting goal. The concomitant experiences of competence or efficacy become integrated into personal identity. We are built such that these experiences are infectious when shared socially, a process that can be encouraged or discouraged during socialization, the primary agents of which are within our familial domesticities, most particularly our “mum and dad.” Diverse world-views may vary in the degree to which competence or efficacy may be integrated with identity. Pride is affiliative, it makes us public. Shame, on the other hand, attenuates enjoyment, when a pattern-mismatch is detected during interest or enjoyment, and it includes withdrawal, gaze-avoidance, blushing, and incapacities for speech. Shame is alienating. Mutual positive affect powers sociality. Shame is the modulator; it is what draws boundaries between us, and between different world-views. Shame separates us, it isolates us and makes us private, but it is what gives us an interior. Shame molds character, from the shameless, to the cautious, to the paranoid. Diverse traditions mold character differently. Though all encourage the observation of particular boundaries, what the boundaries are and the consequences of violating them will vary widely.

Jerome Bruner (1990), distinguishes between the “paradigmatic” -- synchronic understanding of logical proof, empirical observation, theories and causality, and the “narrative” -- diachronic understanding of the “vicissitude of human intention” organized in time, of human actors striving to do things over time, which requires believable accounts (by virtue of their fit to available traditions of understanding) about motivational acts and meaningful ends. Theories of cognitive development, like that of Piaget, have focused lar

gely on the paradigmatic understanding of scientific reasoning, which emerges in early adolescence. Storytelling is learned earlier, and even children are aware that stories are about people-like characters trying to do things over time, and have a “how it’s going to turn out.” What makes something a story is narrative tension, a protagonist who could be defeated, or a conflict needing resolution, including the stories of our gods and heroes, and of human redemption or enlightenment. But these all have subdoxastic roots in the emotional expectations of our famies.

Narrative tension is what I believe to be central to a narrative self, including our moral progression. Phenomena like infantile amnesia (the difficulty of accessing pre-linguistic memory), the difficulty of remembering dreams that are not put into storied form, and the memorability of a good illustrative story, suggest that we encode events into a story form in order to remember them. Indeed, given the evidence of the role of long-term potentiation in the hippocampus (an important part of our mammalian emotional system), the reactivation of such memories during sleep, the relationship of arousal to memory, and the experiences of rehearsals and retellings of stories over time (Loftus 1979), it may well be that there are crucial dependencies of human episodic memory upon narrative form. The difficulty of remembering dreams, unattended disjoint events, and even traumatic ones, may be in their absence of narrative structure. This is particularly due to the arousal-producing qualities of narrative tension, conflict, and resolution, of which the stories by which we are acculturated to a particular tradition are full. We all share traditions of acculturation, and the familial emotional patterns out of which stories are built, even if the emotional particulars of those patterns, and the contents of the stories may vary widely.

Our personal dramas are based on the scenes and scripts produced by regular patterns of emotions, and their recall, which will depend heavily upon the domestic dynamics within a particular tradition. Despite the innateness of the basic affective equipment, our early emotional patterning is likely to shape our extremely plastic and immature nervous systems in ways that may be irrevocable or difficult to change, and are also formed well before any consciously articulated choices, and thus subdoxastic. Some of this begins as early as prenatal experience in the womb. Mothers functioning under higher levels of anxiety or stress may tune their infants to respond to similar anticipated environments. Stressful environments produce quicker startle responses, which make sense in more dangerous or threatening circumstances. This may play out over the entire life-course. People with more rapid startle responses are also more likely to differ politically, supporting stricter immigration policies, stronger militaries, and the sacrifice of individual rights for greater security. Those gestated in safer environments have less rapid startle responses, and more “liberal” political attitudes. Early fear learning, which may be tied to moral and religious strictures of greater severity, to greater anticipated punishment and smaller rewards, is also very difficult to counter-condition. Children who develop more secure attachments to caregivers learn more basic trust in the world, and may eventually become those whose “cups runneth over,” and have a greater capacity to provide emotional support for others. Parents who more strictly shape their children’s lives produce adolescents and young adults with “foreclosed” identity patterns. The kind who say “I always wanted to be or do x” may fail to recognize that they are living out someone else’s dreams for them. No one “always” even knew their own name, and foreclosed life choices are often ones made early by familial expectation. Even gender variations in the Oedipal crisis may be more about differences in power -- castration anxiety being the fear of more metaphorical than literal emasculation, penis envy really just the envy of those born by their gender to greater power and privilege. No wonder that more feminist psychoanalysts like Karen Horney see “womb envy” in men, the envy of the ability to grow and nurture life with one’s own body, as the more significant, if still subdoxastic, emotional drive.

One doesn’t have to be a Freudian to appreciate the messages of Oedipus Rex. We might remember that much of the drama of Sophocles' play is in the conversation between Oedipus and the seer Tiresias, who continues to warn Oedipus that he may not really want to know the answers to the questions he keeps asking (why Freud’s response to seeing the play was “ach, it is psychoanalysis”). But after all, the course of Oedipus’s life begins with his own father, King Laius, leaving him out on a hillside to die. Evolutionarily speaking, despite the advantages of sending half of one’s genetic complement into the next generation, it may be in a parent’s interest to sacrifice one child for the opportunity to bring others into being. So as much as we love our children, and are willing to sacrifice much if not all of our lives for them, our genetic interests are not without conflict. Classical mythology is full of unhappy accounts of such conflict. One of the most powerful paintings I have ever seen is Goya’s Saturn Devouring One of His Children, one of his “black paintings” in El Prado. From a five-foot tall painting mounted on the wall, Saturn looks down on us in

the horror of his own act. But then we remember that this is the same titan whose severing of his father’s genitals and hurling them into the sea is the rather darker back-story of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, the “aphros” in “Aphrodite” (the Greek Venus) meaning “foam.” Family systems therapists must have a heyday with this one. Tantalus doesn’t eat his son, but fails to fool the gods in serving a stew made with the flesh of his son Pelops.

There are, of course, lessons that cut closer to home than the curse on the House of Atreus. One need only remember the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his grown son Isaac. I have heard at least one interpretation in which God only intervenes to stop him because Abraham had failed the test of love in his attempting something so brutally homicidal. But then, from what bitter cup of God’s Will must his Son drink in becoming the Christ. This Son is sacrificed to atone for the sin original to our species, his Father knowing full well, in his omniscience, what the Adam he created would do, though any parent telling a child what not to do wouldn’t have been surprised. So we drink of his blood - "take, eat of my body in remembrance of me." Hoc est corpus meum.

Siblings are hardly spared similar conflicts, often due to their own competition for limited parental resources. As a first born myself, I do not need to turn to Cain and Abel to understand the murderous impulses that can arise between brothers, particularly when the resources initially monopolized by a first-born are suddenly usurped by the birth of another child, in its innocence and dependency now receiving the greater share of parental attention. It is a psychological truism that first borns spend the rest of their lives trying to recover the lost attention, hence the greater than statistical likelihood of first borns becoming entertainers, preachers, and college professors. Oh my god, so I get a PhD and suddenly a generation of students will carefully listen, write down what I say, and then study it to be tested, also by me. Try having twin brothers born when you are two years old, one brought home from an incubator a month later: “Oh, no, mommy, not another one!” Yeah, and this is the one whose left collar bone I remember snapping under my right fist, not wanting to smash him in the heart or bloody his face. Of course I would’ve told him that I’d kill him if he told Mom, and that he just fell on the radiator. But he has no recollection whatever of such an event, so maybe I only made it up, in my murderous guilt, or because his womb-mate suggested it.

None of this is to suggest I don’t love my brother dearly. Indeed, my wife and I just returned from the Zulu wedding, in South Africa, of his eldest daughter. Everyone got blankets, including my wife, and I have to say that I share the Zulu celebration of mothers-in-law (the groom’s father wore a t-shirt depicting his), as my own lovingly watched our two-year old son for the weeks we were across two hemispheres - and between two oceans. The Zulu warriors dance to demonstrate their willingness to fight for the favors of a female, yelling and pushing each other down, kicking a leg high in the air and then falling on their backs. And not to be outdone, both were celebrating their marriages on the same day. We are family. And we now have Zulu family in South Africa, and feel tremendously privileged. I’ve been reading a book on some family history, one of the major events of the Zulu nation, when King Shaka was assassinated by his half-brother Dingane.

On safari one learns how deeply into the animal kingdom such family drama may reach, with stories of crocodiles cannibalizing offspring, new alpha male hippos killing the offspring of their defeated rivals, or the 25% of hyenas killed by siblings before they reach maturity. I can’t help but think of Achilles saying “We are lions” to Hector, before killing him and then desecrating his body. Unlike a cheetah, who will take down an impala, eat his share of the good meat and then flee from other predators, a lion will eat from a kill and then nap next to it. Then I remember an image of two adolescent male lions padding down the road, the triumphant first brother leading his bloodied sibling back to the den, like Mufasa and Scar from The Lion King. Then we return home, to the best feeling in the world, holding my own toddler Simba in my arms. But I am still wary, like my older son, once excused from hurting a cat because he loved it so much he squeezed it too hard, who confessed in tears “but I did want to hurt him.”

So I must remember again Stephen Mitchell’s argument in Can Love Last: The Fate of Romance Over Time, that long-standing love is full of aggression, and “the intensity of the homicidal fantasies I harbor toward those I live with and love most deeply. And the effectiveness and danger of aggression is directly proportional to how much one knows about its target." To the extent that love generates hope, longing, and dependency, it always risks humiliation. So love is necessarily dangerous. Aggression is love’s shadow. Love is not degraded by aggression, but by being unable to sustain the needed tension between them,