In Praise of Women Healers

In the spirit of Women’s History month, I would like to acknowledge all of the women academicians, therapists, and writers who have contributed to the body of knowledge from which we therapists have developed a deeper understanding and appreciation for female psychology.  We owe a debt to a long list of women throughout history whose contributions have been invaluable.

When I first got my license, thirty years ago now, awareness of the female experience was just beginning to be expanded to include the prevalence of child abuse, particularly child sexual abuse and incest, domestic violence, co-dependency, sexual harassment, and rape.  These were topics that generated tremendous shame as it had long been taboo to talk about them or to confront the familial dynamics or social enculturation and complicity within which they occurred.  Prior to this, when women attempted to voice these experiences and the feelings they engendered, they were often disbelieved, characterized as “too sensitive”, their symptoms dismissed as “all in (their) heads”, or  labeled as “crazy”, and too often outpatient treatment consisted of the palliative prescription of minor tranquilizers which, in turn, often led to addiction. Women hospitalized against their will before the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, passed in 1967 and which gave us the familiar 5150 terminology that limits the circumstances and amount of time one can be involuntarily hospitalized, were often subjected to ECT and lobotomies in the 1940’s and 1950’s for “involutional melancholia”.  Before this, women could even be committed to sanitariums by their husbands for indeterminate periods of time.

The writings of women such as Alice Miller (“The Drama of the Gifted Child”; “Prisoners of Childhood”; “For Your Own Good”), Carol Gilligan (“In a Different Voice”), Susan Forward (“Betrayal of Innocence”; “Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them”), Jean Baker Miller (“Toward a New Psychology of Women”) to name a few, were very instrumental in helping the therapeutic community better understand these issues and more effectively treat women clients. Though not necessarily with conscious intent, the field had previously been dominated by the male viewpoint and the female perspective had been widely misunderstood and systematically invalidated.

Alice Miller, from whom John Bradshaw’s work is informed, exposed the toxic effects of what she terms “poisonous pedagogy”, a form of child-rearing which utilized psychological and physical abuse to achieve breaking a child’s spirit in order to induce obedience at any price.  Jean Baker Miller examined the power differential between men and women when writing about domination of males and subordination of women. Susan Forward revealed the emotional devastation and psychological harm that follows the betrayal of trust inherent in sexual abuse and validated the high incidence of incest and misogyny, noting how women can participate in their own mistreatment. Carol Gilligan reframed women’s moral development as springing from a relational sensibility, equal to the detached application of “justice” characteristic of male development, previously viewed as the standard against which to be compared.

The work of these women in the field of psychology draws on important earlier writing by feminists in the women’s movement that broke new ground re-evaluating commonly-held assumptions regarding women’s roles, abilities, and rights.  Further, they have examined intimate relationships and how they reflect and affect the attitudes of the larger culture, pointing out how a domination ethic and power differential between men and women is played out in both normal and abusive relationships, and more adequately explaining the common motivation behind rape (to dominate), for example.  Women writers such as Carol Hanisch (“The Personal is Political”), Kate Millett (“Sexual Politics”), Betty Friedan (“The Feminine Mystique”), Gloria Steinem (“Feminist Family Values; Outrageous Acts & Everyday Rebellions”), Germaine Greer (“The Female Eunuch”), Susan Brownmiller (“Against Our Will:  Men, Women, and Rape”), Rosemary Radford Ruether (“Gaia & God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing”; “Goddesses & the Divine Feminine: A Western Religious History”), and Mary Daly (“The Church & the Second Sex”; “Beyond God the Father”) have examined and questioned how woman has been portrayed negatively culturally and religiously and the impact this has had on women, society, and even the concept of the divine.

In turn, the work of these iconoclastic feminist writers was made possible by early feminists such as Susan B. Anthony who made countless speeches on women’s rights, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (“The Woman’s Bible”), Lucretia Mott (“Discourse on Woman”), Mary Wollstonecraft (“A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”), as well as many others who make up our rich herstory, who have championed the rights of women and questioned the laws and mores established by the male hierarchy and authority of their time.

We as women have a proud legacy as healers of the human spirit; we are wise to explore and celebrate it both for our own healing, growth, enlightenment, and self-esteem as well as for that of our female clients.  Hopefully this brief synopsis can spark an interest in exploring this topic in more depth and I invite you to do so in celebration of March as Women’s History month!

On Michael Jackson: The Cost of Avoidance

On Michael Jackson:  The Cost of Avoidance

The life and death of Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, offers us cause for reflection on the tragic consequences of avoiding one’s core issues, and the high price a person pays when he or she tries to evade his or her personal history. Michael Jackson, in this therapist’s opinion, personifies, better than anyone, the dissonance between what John Bradshaw refers to as one’s false self, or persona, and one’s true self.

The media, though it reports on various information about Jackson’s life such as the accusations of abuse as a child, his obsession with constantly changing his physical appearance, his eccentric and reclusive behavior, and the allegations against him of child molestation, do not weave these disparate facts into a coherent, meaningful fabric, instead labeling him as “Wacko Jacko”. Many fans, oblivious to these issues, idealize him based on his musical performance skills as if this offered immunity from either being harmed or harming others; the truth, as usual, lies somewhere between these two extremes.

What we know about abuse is that it is cyclical and intergenerational, continuing from one generation to the next, kept in place by secrecy, denial, and pain.  Family members who have been abused tend to deny the abuse because of the overwhelming shame, consuming rage, and the emotional desolation and agony they experience when they attempt to unearth it; perpetrators and enablers (who have often been abused themselves when young) tend to deny the abuse because of their shame and guilt.

When one’s body integrity is violated by abuse at an early age, it causes severe emotional and psychological damage, self-esteem to be annihilated, the ability to attach appropriately and form meaningful relationships to be compromised, and body image and sexuality to become distorted.  The violation of one’s self and exploitation of one’s helplessness and dependency destroys one’s ability to trust and inextricably connects bonding and intimacy to being victimized, rendering one isolated and unsupported.

Those of us who have worked with abuse recognize a pattern of symptoms that often are present including: secrecy, denial, minimization, rationalization, sexual acting out, inability to bond and form close, lasting peer relationships, low self-esteem, isolation, distrust/being overly trusting, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, victimizing others, toxic shame, and self-loathing.

Given what we know about the effects of early trauma and the information the media has supplied about Michael Jackson, it seems clear that his life ended with wounds inflicted in childhood and the resultant split between his true self (the healthy intact self predating the abuse) and his false self (erected in an attempt to protect himself against further injury)  left unresolved; the accumulated shame, guilt, emotional pain and self-loathing generated by both the guarding of the family secret and its public exposure ultimately becoming too hard to bear.

It is a sad commentary that few people appreciate this real tragedy, rather than the loss of a popular icon, and that the legal system and his family, friends, and medical personnel appear to have colluded, intentionally or not, in the avoidance of Michael Jackson’s core issues.  But therapists can see this as confirmation of the tremendous importance of our work that can empower our clients to grapple with and resolve such hard, painful truth because in order to heal the true self, they must receive emotional support and validation of their emotional and psychological trauma.  In therapy clients can finally unburden painful secrets and heal the crippling shame that keep the abusive system in place, begin to practice awareness rather than denial, and gain the courage to confront the issues rather than avoid them.

Nadya Suleman, a Drama of Trauma

It is excruciating for therapists to watch the media circus and commentary on the case of the so-called Octo-Mom, knowing how painful is the internal life of someone so damaged and how empty and invisible a person has to feel to seek attention this avidly.   In misguidedly seeking the spotlight, she has been the recipient of derision and contempt from the onlookers, as the average person is unaware of the dynamics that underlie her actions and therefore are understandably repelled by the distortion and self-absorption she exposes.

This drama is testimony to how when one feels this insignificant and unloved, any kind of attention is better than no attention at all.  Children who bang their heads most vividly demonstrate how crucial attention is to survival, being willing to literally bash their skulls till they bleed in order to get that necessary and intensely-craved attention, of which they have otherwise been deprived.

The desire to have children for someone like Suleman is an attempt to fill her unmet need for love and attention, even though this makes no rational sense as children obviously need to have a parent who is capable of attending to them, not the reverse.  We see this parent-child role reversal all too frequently played out with many teenage girls who get pregnant, their longing for acceptance displaced onto the child.

As with the cycle of child abuse, emotional neglect experienced early repeats itself unendingly from one generation to the next unless there is intervention and treatment, and unfortunately for Nadya Suleman and her 14 children, this did not happen at any point in her life. Instead, she has been enabled by her fertility doctor and the exploitative media to continue to avoid her core issues and re-enact her own deprivation, creating more victims.

Emotional neglect, like abuse, can come in many forms.  It might be the lack of quality attention or loving support, the child may be subjected to unpredictable periods of emotional withdrawal by the parent or to lack of empathy by a parent who is narcissitic and self-absorbed,or it could be the opposite:  a smothering, overindulgent parent who doesn’t set appropriate limits and allows the child to run the household, giving in to her whims and tantrums.  Either of these situations is a form of emotional abandonment in which children do not get their needs met, and can lead to low self-esteem, difficulty with boundaries, and self-defeating behavior.

We therapists understand, however, that with the proper treatment she could have received the validation and support she so desperately needs, her early trauma could have been healed, and this tragic situation and its accompanying theatrics could likely have been prevented.

How to Train Your Child to be the Next Unibomber

I recently saw a movie entitled, “Flower and Garnet,” which could have just as easily been labeled “How to Train Your Child to be the Next Unibomber”.  It is the story of a child, Garnet, whose mother dies delivering him and who grows up in an environment where he gets only the most minimal attention and nurturance by his clearly depressed father and his only sister Flower, six years older.  He stays in the hospital after this traumatic birth longer than necessary because Dad doesn’t even want to pick him up to take him home.  Dad’s sister finally takes him to stay with her, from where the baby’s older sister, Flower, goes to get Garnet herself and bring him home, carrying him several blocks in her arms. Left with no emotional sustenance or support other than the unreliably inadequate–how could it be otherwise?–attention of his older sister, he flounders around on his own, left to attend to all but his most basic physical needs.

When Garnet is around eight years old, he is making his own meals–for how long it is anyone’s guess–because no one prepares meals; each family member just forages for something and eats alone.  He sits alone unattended while his father has his friends over and they play cards and drink, oblivious to his presence.  When Dad is at work and his sister is occupied with having sex with her boyfriend, he is left to roam around the yard and neighborhood at will, entertaining himself in a very unstimulating environment.  When the boy asks if what his father and girlfriend “do at night”–in the bedroom–“hurts” (after observing his father and girlfriend in bed and after finding his sister’s blood-spotted underwear) Dad tells him that they don’t do anything, that the girlfriend doesn’t even stay over. When Garnet asks for help, which is very seldom, he is ignored or treated like he is a bother.

When Dad gives him a beebe gun for his birthday, he doesn’t talk to him about any possible danger, dad merely shows him the basics of how to use it.  When the boy begins to kill animals, no one notices because no one checks on him or is the least bit aware of what he does.  When he uses his father’s gun to threaten the housekeeper, his father doesn’t consider the option of referring him to see a professional therapist, he just tells him that he can “just talk to him (Dad) and his sister (Flower) about anything” when this has never been the case, and Dad puts the gun back in an accessible place.

When Flower is about to give birth—because, of course, she got pregnant, and, of course, she wants to keep it in order to have her “own” child–having expressed her resentment over having to raise her brother, Garnet is just left to agonize in silence and feel overwhelmed by the anxiety that he is not only possibly going to lose the only “mother” he has ever had–the same way he lost his actual mother–but also by the knowledge that he is being replaced by his sister’s baby and so losing the only surrogate “mother” he has had.  When he again finds his Dad’s gun and runs away to where his sister has been staying since her argument with Dad over her pregnancy, he lays in his sister’s infant’s crib where his father eventually finds him and finally tells him that his mother’s death was “not his fault” and that his sister “wants to see him”. All well and good but way too little, way too late.  The story ends with Garnet being taken to the hospital to see his sister after her delivery, who luckily survived the birth of her child, and his asking to hold the baby, which his sister allows him to do.

One hopefully need not be a psychological professional to see how even though this small beginning in repairing this very damaged family, the family is a long way from being actually functional.  If the dad had received the therapy he needed for his depression following the loss of his wife, he could have had the strength to be a father to both his children and had the sister received therapeutic support for the loss of her mother (and had her father been acting as a parent to her) she wouldn’t have felt compelled to be her brother’s parent or become another unprepared teen mother.  In addition, the harm done to the boy from all the neglect would not need undoing.

In order to ensure that your child becomes very emotionally disturbed, alienated, and not only capable of harming others but prepared to do so:

  1. Make sure that he has no emotional support.  This ensures that he feels isolated and alone and teaches him that his feelings and fears are unimportant and meaningless.
  2. Make sure that you lie to him or her, deny reality, and that you invalidate her or his perceptions.  This teaches the lesson that lying is ok and that you are not trustworthy, planting the belief that no one should be trusted and that reality is arbitrary.  When his or her perceptions are invalidated, it teaches the child to doubt his or her reality and begin to feel crazy and anxious.  It also models and encourages secretiveness and emotional distancing and he or she will begin to share less and be more deceitful.
  3. Make sure that you neglect your child’s needs and give her no direction. This telegraphs her unimportance and teaches her that no one cares, that she is on her own and can’t expect any assistance, encouraging distrust of others.  When a child is left to figure out things on her own when unprepared and inexperienced, it makes her feel overwhelmed, stupid, and helpless.
  4. Make sure you don’t talk about anything important with your child or ask him how he is doing.  This ensures that your child learns that interaction is supposed to be superficial and detached, that it doesn’t matter what she is feeling or experiencing because no one cares, leaving her feeling abandoned and unloved.
  5. Delegate raising of your child to an older sibling.  This lets you off the hook and puts undue pressure on the child’s older sister or brother, allowing him or her carte blanche to act out his or her frustration onto the younger sibling.  This is how many children get abused emotionally, physically, and sexually; even if the older child is well-meaning, it sets both children up for conflict and the abuse of power.
  6. Attend to your own needs at the expense of your child’s.  This way your child gets the message that when you’re an adult (translate older and bigger) you can do as you please and not consider anyone else’s needs or feelings.  It is a perfect way to build resentment and disrespect for adults and to set the child up for very poor relationships with others.
  7. Put your child in the position of raising herself or himself; leave your child alone and unsupervised.  This is perfect preparation for learning to be a loner because the child feels abandoned and meaningless, that nothing he or she does matters to anyone else.  Therefore, he or she learns to ultimately disrespect and defy authority, to possess a sense of entitlement to make his or her own decisions, decide what is right or wrong without any tempering influence from others, and to later view attempts to correct him or her as intolerable interference.
  8. When your child asks for help or feedback, ignore, or worse yet, shame him.  This teaches the child that it is smart to hide his fears and inadequacies, that it is dangerous and painful to open up to others.
  9. Give the child dangerous toys without proper instruction or supervision.  This allows him or her to start misusing power on a serious level, prepares her or him for doing real damage, and to expect no limits or consequences.
  10. Ignore serious danger signs until they are at a catastrophic level. This allows the child to graduate from being a victim to a perpetrator and begin acting out by displacing his rage onto others.

On the other hand, if you would prefer to raise a healthy child, I would recommend that you not adhere to this list.  In fact, it would be a good idea to basically do the opposite:  give the child a lot of good, quality attention and support so he can bond with you and build healthy self-esteem; be honest and open in your communication so she can trust you; be receptive to your child so that she can come to you and express herself freely; encourage honest owning of his emotions and mistakes by modeling this yourself so that he develops openness and truthfulness; spend time with your child and make sure her feelings are addressed so that she feels valued and loved for who she is; never assign parenting to older siblings—this is a recipe for disaster—shoulder the parenting yourself; take care of yourself and your child but don’t put your needs ahead of his—this makes him feel devalued; give the child appropriate supervision so you can monitor her activities and redirect when necessary; pay attention when your child is showing signs of distress and act responsibly to protect your child and your family!

Do these things and your child will be emotionally intact and connected to other human beings in a meaningful way, rather than possess the psychological characteristics of a future unibomber:  alienation, shame, isolation, inadequacy, resentment, emotional detachment, secretiveness, disconnection from his feelings and other people, and problems with authority. Don’t do these things and we all need to worry about the result:  a destructive and violent sequel to the Flower and Garnet story.