The Clare Spark Blog

January 17, 2013

Bondage and the family

familymealMost of this website is preoccupied with the myth of the perfectly happy family. Soothing images of family solidarity are the most potent weapon in the arsenal of psychological warfare, and our worst villains are those that call into question the ever benign nature of the “family.” [This blog should be read along with]

Reconstructed families are everywhere: even when there are inner tensions or mayhem on television dramas, the bad, criminal, murderous, deranged family is finally exposed, and the good family (usually in the form of government teams) rescues the viewers from those who would call many “nuclear” families themselves as the locus of malaise and even more painful and dangerous problems.

Currently, there is a national battle raging over ownership of guns in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre of December 13, 2012, two weeks before Christmas, and several weeks after Thanksgiving: holidays that bring onto center stage the idealized family, where there is not only abundant food, but where a halt is usually called to addressing or acting out the troubled relationships between generations and between siblings. Did enforced family harmony bring out murderous impulses in Adam Lanza or Nehemiah Griego? We can’t know, and no one is asking the question anyway. Better to blame guns, movies, and videogames, although I have seen one report that Griego was sheltered from video games and “the culture of violence.”

I had originally intended to write something today about the academic preoccupation with the history of slavery. Although there are few academic jobs available today in the humanities, “African-American Studies” remain comparatively short-handed, and much work has been done in the field since I studied for my doctoral field exams in the early 1980s. But even then, the existence or non-existence of slave families was the subject of hot debate, and Richard Slotkin’s first major book, Regeneration Through Violence, condemned Uncle Tom’s Cabin for using the appeal to family solidarity as its primary argument for the abolition of slavery. On the other side of the issue, leftist historian Herbert Gutman wrote a rosy book on the persistence of families, even under the condition of slavery.

I had not thought about the focus on slavery in U.S. history and in American Studies as having anything to do with the idealized family, or families in general, but then I thought about the general appeal of bondage and sadomasochism that could be motivating an obsession with an institution that no longer exists in this country.

While researching the teaching of the humanities in 20th century America, I saw quickly that 1. Marx was much less controversial than Freud; and 2. What made Melville so controversial and the “Melville” revival so fraught with conflict was Melville’s exposure of the crazy-making family, especially in his novel of 1852, Pierre, or the Ambiguities. Some of the Melville critics even read Protestant Melville as a Jew, in my view because he shattered the myth of the perfectly happy family that academics were bound to promote. After all, were they not in academe, its departments based on the premise of solidarity with each other as seekers after truth, and never given to nasty rivalries and forms of professional mayhem?

Both Left and Right appeal to families today: the Left wants to bolster collectivist entities against the notion of the “narcissistic” individual of the “laissez-faire” anti-statist Right; while their opponents tout the father-headed reconstructed family (done in by welfare policies and feminism) as the solution to poverty and crime.

Neither side is willing to sponsor mental health services that are anti-authoritarian and that do not depend on some form of behavior modification, antidepressants, antipsychotics, and other sedatives.

What would be a sane alternative approach to the family? How about a more realistic approach to all the causes of inter-family conflict? How about a rehabilitation of Freud’s basic ideas?

How about teaching parenting and the managing of sex and aggression in middle schools, where puberty begins the long process of separating from the family of origin and forging ties with peers that are as problematic as ties with parents? How about insurance companies paying for family therapy, instead of focusing solely upon the individual snatched from the primary institution that contributes to her or his agitation/depression? How about enlarging that analysis, moving from the family to ever larger entities that exacerbate mental illness through psychological warfare and the urge to “compromise”, to conform to crazy-making policies, or to be silent?

Kim Novak Of Human Bondage

Kim Novak Of Human Bondage

Or, as Ishmael queried to the reader of Moby-Dick, after reporting his acquiescence to a cruel Captain, “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.” [No disrespect meant to the unique awfulness of chattel slavery before the American Civil War.] For a preceding blog that also addresses family issues, particularly “undoing” the onslaught of trauma see

March 18, 2012

History as trauma (2), Rosebud version

In response to my hint on Facebook that Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who recently went on a rampage killing 16 Afghanistani civilians,  might be suffering from a mental disorder, X wrote: “The only thing new here is the growth of a professional class of social leeches who use all human discomfort as a niche for some absurdly over-credentialed “helping” professional as a “grief counselor” or PTSD expert, all of whom are in full retreat from American values that have stood us in good stead for 240 years and pushing us towards some kind of Euro Social Justice oblivion. The “Say a Prayer for Peace” commercials make me want to hurl as the vet is coached to say he would have committed suicide without the counseling of some leech or other we should send money to support.

[“X” cont.] If I was in command of a military force today, and a Sgt Bale popped up, I’d make sure some “tragedy” or other took place before he got in the hands of the touchy, feely, lawyered up creeps who are infesting our nation and preserving and supporting the lives of now millions of marginal people who could actually be making a contribution to a better America.”[end X message.]

[Clare:] Clearly, much more needs to be said about the current state of medicine with respect to PTSD and other forms of disabling responses to traumas. This blog will comment further on the material introduced here: I have finished reading Robert Scaer MD’s book, The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma, Dissociation, and Disease (Routledge, 2007), and now can argue for its importance, especially in the light of Obamacare and primary care medicine in general.

Who won’t like this book? Government officials invested in the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies, trial lawyers, many feminists, and those who, out of life experience or conviction, disregard any type of medicine that relies solely upon a materialist (empirical) study of the brain, the endocrine system, and the mind-body continuum.  For what Scaer’s book delivers is a comprehensive survey of the field of neurophysiology and the pathologies that stem from trauma, especially those that result from a failure of mother-child attunement and bonding, though he does mention the many traumas that his patients have experienced, including natural disasters, automobile accidents, military combat, assaults, child abuse, incest, rape (including date rape) and more. But when mothers experience post-partum depression, for instance, Scaer considers such a calamity to be a form of child abuse that damages the child for life, including the proclivity for violent crime or any other antisocial activity. He returns to the infant and pain so frequently that one wonders if this frequently reiterated factor is not a part of his personal biography. (Examples: fetuses feel pain, circumcision must be accompanied by anesthetic, new born baby should be put on the mother’s breast immediately.)

I am convinced that Scaer’s work and that of other neurologists who have produced work since the last half of the 20th century are correct in refining the field of neurology and psychiatry, especially in overthrowing the Cartesian dualism of Mind as separate from Body, and in defending the idea of the unconscious, even though it is not Freud’s unconscious. Moreover, many practitioners, including students of healing in other cultures, have developed treatments that release the original frozen trauma, so that the patient does not experience subsequent physical and mental disorders such as fibromyalgia and panic attacks. These are all listed by Scaer, and evaluated by him as a scientist. His rather tentative and humble book is not about selling a fast track to cure; nor is he in agreement with DSM-IV in their limited understanding of trauma.

This is why I consider Scaer’s book to be a revolution in patient care, but one that makes recommendations that are not yet capable of being broadly realized, for HMO’s do not support long term mental health services, nor do primary care physicians have the time to take lengthy family histories. I have written elsewhere about panic attacks, in which it is suggested that each of us make a list of those terrifying, helpless-making moments in our past that could have contributed to the separation anxiety that is called panic or other names. See If there is something amiss with mother-infant bonding, the patient must resort to inferences about the relations between mother and child, for mother’s mood after birth cannot be directly recalled, although mother’s intent on escaping domesticity offers hints.

Even to read Scaer’s book may be a form of preventive medicine. Return to the Affordable Care Act. For those who wrote the legislation, preventive medicine entails screening for cancer, such as mammograms and colonoscopies.  They do not mention lifestyle choices and/or mental health services that can be shown either to lead to optimum functioning or, conversely, to unnecessary and persistent pain and suffering, not to speak of early death.

Poster Coming Home

Why do I, as feminist and mother of one son and two daughters and grandmother to two grandsons and five granddaughters, dwell on the mother-infant attachment? I am convinced that many men are determined to control women because of earlier experience with mothers who were either (subtly?) rejecting or clinging to their sons, to the exclusion of other mature attachments (e.g. the Orson Welles-directed film of 1942 The Magnificent Ambersons). The first version of Nancy Dowd’s movie (Buffalo Ghosts) that was eventually released as Coming Home, featured a souvenir store on an army base in the Dakotas that emphasized the soon-to-be deployed Viet Nam soldier’s tie solely to Mother, not to wives or other love objects. Such sappy mementos as embroidered mommy pillows, for sale to officers and enlisted men alike, may have been too hot to handle.

Nancy Dowd, screenwriter

Scaer is the first author I have found who mentions the switch from happy face to angry face that causes baby to feel shame and guilt, literally turning his face away from the scary mom. For these men, women are always dangerously unpredictable and fit the archetype of Gorgon or Medusa. See Moreover, women, especially modern women, may signify the onset of a terrifying modernity that will only make mother more overpowering and omnipresent. Rosebud!

Here is what I find most instructive about Scaer’s work. He deals with the highly variable individual case history, yet government bureaucrats, not to speak of other professionals, deal with large populations, for whom one size fits all—the latest DSM manual for psychiatrists, the state-imposed school curriculum, the rules set up by Medicare and insurance companies. If childhood trauma is as frequent as Scaer’s stats suggest, then we are not educating youngsters where they need it most. For the lesson of trauma is this: every child needs a safe place with clear boundaries in order to explore the real world that s/he must master to survive and thrive. Distant bureaucrats or entirely cerebral teachers, or  hurried, un-empathic, physicians, hemmed in by the fear of litigation, or simply untrained in the latest discoveries in neurology and endocrinology, cannot treat the traumatized patient or student, and as Scaer argues, that includes a huge proportion of their clientele.

Finally, can children in isolated rural areas, dominated perhaps by religious fundamentalists, ever feel safe? Can kids in urban ghettoes, or anyone who is a member of a stigmatized group ever feel safe in public schools or anywhere else? And how do we know if we feel safe or not; we may be stoic or too polite to admit even to ourselves how we feel as we face the great questions of the day. There are private questions that often arouse shame when discussed publicly. I do not expect that my readers will divulge intimacies either here or in social media in general, nor, I suppose, should they.

August 20, 2009

“Shakin’ The Blues Away”: primitivism, rock ‘n roll and mental health

   Everyone is excited now about the proposed initiatives to reform mental health care, and though there are numerous references to “mental health services” in H.R. 3200, I have seen little or no discussion about the debates within the fields, for instance, who exactly is qualified to mess with our brains and endocrine systems by treating everything from marital spats to incipient schizophrenia, OCD, or the numerous “personality disorders” covered in DSM IV (soon to be DSM V: I can’t wait). According to the House bill under consideration, mental health services are to be reimbursed as long as the provider has either a doctorate or a master’s degree (i.e., is a clinical psychologist or a social worker), has had two years of supervision in treating clients, and is licensed by the state. I have already asked one psychiatrist friend to comment on how M.D.s are viewing these proposals, and know from personal experience and study in both older practices and more recent cultural history treatments of “madness” (heavily influenced by Michel Foucault) that there is zero agreement among “counselors” (as H.R. 32oo calls these providers) as to what causes mental illness, let alone how to treat, manage, or cure it/them. Meanwhile the Foucauldians instruct the hip young at the better universities that madness is a social construction invented by the bourgeoisie who want to control everyone else. And the writing of history itself is under suspicion: it is a narrative “written by the plebs” to punish geniuses like himself.

    Readers of my prior blogs will notice that all of them deal either directly or tangentially with how we feel and act/don’t act in the world, and how we identify the source of evil or account for our own unhappiness or failure, often blaming “the Jews” or modern women (these are conflated in the idea of the femme fatale). Like Freud, I take instruction from the arts, for the major literary figures of the last several centuries were all concerned with what passes for sanity, adjustment, or vigorous, righteous resistance to arbitrary authority, and one recurring theme is the incarceration by conservative families of their dissident young)–a major theme in early nineteenth-century literature.. In this one, short I hope, I want to comment on  what I learned from reading passages from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1922), particularly in one of the debates between “Naphta” a Jew turned authoritarian Jesuit, and Settembrini, an optimistic bourgeois humanist who believes in amelioration, health, and progress. (Mann is obviously arguing with himself, trying to reconcile or at least examine the warring parts of his own personality: read Dr. Faustus as another case study of Mann’s preoccupation with this theme, as was Herman Melville before him.) Here is an excerpt from Magic Mountain:

 [Hans Castorp thinks that “disease was unhuman”:] “On the contrary, Naphta hastened to say. Disease was very human indeed. For to be man was to be ailing. Man was essentially ailing, his state of unhealthiness was what made him man. There were those who wanted to make him “healthy,” to to make him “go back to nature,” when, the truth was, he never had been “natural.” All the propaganda carried on today by the prophets of nature, the experiments in regeneration, the uncooked food, fresh-air cures, sun-bathing, and so on, the whole Rousseauian paraphernalia, had as its goal nothing but the dehumanization, the animalizing of man. They talked of “humanity,” of nobility—but it was the spirit alone that distinguished man, as a creature largely divorced from nature, largely opposed to her in feeling, from all other forms of organic life. In man’s spirit, then, resided his true nobility and his merit—in his state of disease, as it were; in a word, the more ailing he was, by so much was he the more man. The genius of disease was more human than the genius of health. How, then, could one who posed as the friend of man shut his eyes to these fundamental truths concerning man’s humanity? Herr Settembrini had progress ever on his lips: was he aware that all progress, is so far as there was such a thing, was due to illness, and to illness alone? In other words, to genius, which was the same thing? Had not the normal, since time was, lived on the achievements of the abnormal? Men consciously and voluntarily descended into disease and madness, in search of knowledge which, acquired by fanaticism, would lead back to health; after the possession and use of it had ceased to be conditioned by that heroic and abnormal act of sacrifice. That was the true death on the cross, the true Atonement.” [Knopf, 1968 edition, pp. 465-66]

     I was astonished to read this paragraph, for it gave me a new clue as to why Melville had written to Hawthorne shortly after he completed Moby-Dick, “I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as the lamb.” And does not “crazy” Ahab carry “a crucifixion in his face”? As writer, Melville’s primitivist descent into madness (into the world controlled by the Devil?) accomplished several things for him: 1. as in Typee, he could safely criticize his conservative family and certain missionaries from a distance; but 2. as romantic artist he took the risk of destroying religion, and religion was the route to social cohesion and conservative notions of “order.” And it must be said here that “Naphta” and his predecessors (Nietzsche) knew very little about real “madness” and its multiple causation in genetic inheritance, belief systems that distort reality (and somewhat described in prior blogs here), overwhelming stress, and other factors that physicians have studied and continue to explore with emphasis on the physiology of the brain.

    And remember R. D. Laing and the 1960s-70s vogue for his romantic views of madness as a source of connection with the real world? I was reminded too of Diderot’s primitivism in his Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville (centuries before Laing’s ravings), a fantasy of life in Tahiti where there are no sexual prohibitions whatsoever. Which takes me to the 60s counter-culture/New Left appropriation of primitivism in their astonishing and still existing devotion to rock ‘n roll and/or hip-hop culture as a form of rebellion and self-assertion against the hypocritical dowdy and classical-music, old-standard loving prior generations–the generation they blamed for the Viet Nam war and the election of Richard Nixon.

    It is my view that primitivism is no solution to racism, but rather a ratification of the old stereotype conveyed by Diderot: that (perpetual?) adolescents  can escape “surplus repression” (Marcuse), or the Performance Principle (Freud) by going native. But in the elevation of black criminal elements (e.g. the Panthers or the Afrocentric pseudo-historians, one of whom repeatedly produced the viciously anti-Western and antisemitic “Afrikan Mental Liberation Weekend” for KPFK in Los Angeles), they are maintaining the stereotype of the black person as savage yet entertaining minstrel, a minstrel supposedly ragging on the upper classes. So sensible black intellectuals who identify with a supposedly (jewified) puritanical and genteel middle-class and the American Dream are seen as uncool killjoys and can be safely ignored.

   The primitivist strategy, like pornography, is controversial. For its defenders, though appearing crazy,  primitivism is a harmless catharsis for anti-social impulses. I suppose one would have to study individuals and their ideological leanings, including the ability to form and maintain enduring attachments, or conversely, to change their minds as they travel along the road to “objectivity” to make inroads on this judgment. (See Lippmann’s writing on this beneficent transformation, emphasized in my last blog.) More later as I survey existing debates within the field of mental health. Surely the narratives that are constructed for us by our families and teachers relating to our own biographies, to the national biography, and to America’s relations to other groups or societies, are of concern for all workers striving to enhance what is all too loosely described as mental health.

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