Postscript to RG as a Young Genius

January 19, 2009

When RG was an infant, she was healthy, but clearly unhappy much of the time. The mommies and RG lived next door in the duplex we owned, and I frequently took care of her. She was frequently crying, though there seemed to be nothing wrong with her physically. I remember mommies and Grandma saying, “If only she could talk, so she could tell what was bothering her.”

I said, “I have a feeling you won’t like what she has to say when she begins to talk.

As she became a toddler and pre-schooler and began to talk, she often seemed frustrated. She often struck me as trying to decipher a secret code that adults used to get their way. At the time, it struck me as a perfectly normal part of growing up. Adults direct and control little children all the time, quite certain they know what is best and necessary for the children.

I have a secret sympathy for little children; I am kind of a toddler libertarian.

I have become quite a fan of the cherry vile philosopher/anthropologist Ernst Becker. I first came across his work when I read a transcript of a talk Becker gave in British Columbia in memory of Gestalt psychotherapist, Fritz Perls. I was thunderstruck when Becker talked about how we control little children for their own good (or so we think).

I am going to quote from Becker’s talk at length here. The entire transcript is available on Wikipedia. (It occurs to me that the syndrome Becker talks about, when carried to a monstrous extreme, might shed some light on David’s experience that led to his DID. I don’t know. David will have to evaluate whether my extreme intuitive leap makes any sense.)


 “In order to come of age, in order to become an adult, the child has to distort his awareness of the world and become somewhat dishonest about himself. He becomes dispossessed of his own senses; he is fragmented within himself by the mechanisms of defense; he is cut off from reality; and he doesn’t see the real world as it is because he has a certain stake in seeing it in a somewhat distorted way. And apparently it all starts in childhood, where the child tries to exercise his own activity but comes up against two people in his environment who in some ways continually block his own movement and his own satisfaction. They block the child’s assimilation of experience. This has been known, of course, since Freud. The child is blocked by the adult in the pursuit of pleasure. I won’t say that he is blocked always for his harm; he is blocked a lot for his own good. If the child goes to walk into a fireplace, the adult has to stop him. If he tries to eat poison, it’s a good idea not to let him do so. If he tries to walk off a cliff, you try to grab him. So the child finds that he is blocked by the adult at certain times. A lot of times he is blocked and frustrated by adults so that he can learn self-control. There is a sense in which the child has to learn proper self-control. These things we admit. But the thrust of the modern theory of psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and all of Perls’s work, is that a lot of times the child is blocked in his experience because of the anxieties that are not his and because of threats that are not really there. These are the anxieties of the parents, the anxieties of the adult. His hands are dirty, and you make him wash before dinner because you are afraid of germs. He doesn’t know anything about germs, and anyway, how much chance would there be of his becoming ill?

“A lot of ways in which adults stop children occur because the adults themselves feel uncomfortable. He puts his feet on the sheets, you scream, “Get your feet off the sheets! I hate dirty feet!” Well, there’s nothing wrong with feet on the sheets, really. There are very few illnesses you could get from that. This is not Calcutta, after all. He fondles his ‘genitals; this makes the adult anxious because the adult has his own anxieties about sexuality. He breaks a glass, the adult becomes upset. He tracks dirt onto the floor; all of these simple things. I have a friend who went to beat his child for stepping into the roses. What are roses for except to be stepped on by children, in a manner of speaking? And yet, you can see where children have to take the burden of adult anxiety. The child internalizes anxieties that are foreign to him and artificial to his desires; unnecessary, we might say, to his own natural expansion into the world. The child needs the adults for one thing, really, more than anything else, and that is a feeling of value. He needs a feeling that he is loved, and a feeling that he is somebody of importance — what we call self-esteem. And the only way he can get self-esteem is by accepting what his parents say and do to him. He accepts the adults’ blocking of his actions because if he doesn’t they will threaten him with abandonment and withdrawal of love. So the child is really trapped. He has to accept what the adults are doing to him, and he accepts it willingly. This means that he develops a certain world view where he tries, by putting a brake on his own action and his own pleasure, not to displease them. So as he shapes himself, he shapes himself into an image that is pleasing to others. So right away, you see, you have here the fundamental dishonesty of the childhood situation. He takes pieces of the parents into himself — “You don’t do this”; he goes to touch something — “No! No!” “Bad! Bad!” “Good! Good.” And the first thing you know, he’s got a program, a conditioning, a superego. He comes to feel anxiety when he does “No” things, and he comes to feel pleasureful when he does “Yes” things. But these “Yes” things and these “No” things don’t come from his own organism, they come in to him from the environment. So the child is actually a creature, you see, of his training. There is a tremendous sobering radicalism in that idea, which I think is the real reason for the discomfort of Freud, still.

“So, the child, in order to maintain and build a sense of self-worth in what is fundamentally a tyrannical world, adopts these deceits. You see, the child has no power; if he doesn’t do what you say, you will correct him for it. So he’s living in a world of Stalins, really, and anything he does wrong he’s “corrected” for. He’s living in a world of giants; when you’re a child you live in a forest of knees. We forget that very easily; we were walking around bumping into people’s knees for a long time, and we have to watch out we don’t get stepped on — and sometimes we do. They say, “Oops! I’m sorry.” There are all these feet coming down on you. You don’t really see people’s faces for a long time. And in order to live in that kind of world, you more or less have to knuckle under to it.

“Now, in this viewpoint of human development, you can see that neurosis is inevitable; it’s impossible not to be neurotic. Each person is in some way off-centered; that is, his aegis over his own action has been delegated to someone else. Each person is in some way, as close as we can put it, off-centered. He’s not a responsible, spontaneous source of his own activity. Somehow that has been delegated to his environment. In some ways his awareness of the world has been blocked. If the parents don’t feel comfortable with the child’s genital area, he tends to not see it. He tends to think of it as a “no-no.” If his parents are afraid of germs, he tends to be hypersensitive to his hands. And so on. He has to see only what they see in order to protect himself.

“The neurotic style, then, and this is an idea that I think is becoming quite current now, is kind of a positive development since we all have it; we’re all neurotic. The only problem with people who are neurotic is that they think that they’re different. But everybody is neurotic, so we can all relax. Everybody feels guilty about sex, because sexuality means your body makes you guilty — not necessarily because of what the church taught you, but because the body is a hindrance to your own free subjectivity. The body is a standardization of yourself, the body is a physical thing. Your own free person inside of your body wants to be something more than merely a standard product of the species. So, as Rank pointed out, we all feel guilty with our body. We’re all neurotic.

“I say that deliberately because I think there’s a lot of bad propaganda going around about how not to be guilty, how not to be neurotic. As you’ll see as my talk develops, this is pretty nigh impossible. Neurosis is a kind of dishonest style that helps people, all of whom are more or less crippled, maintain their sense of self-worth. It makes them oblivious about their own dishonesty. Here’s an excellent example of this kind of obliviousness about one’s own dishonesty (what we call the unconscious): A friend of mine, and 1, and another person were coming out of a movie theater. The third person was a dependent type who didn’t have too much confidence in himself, but who was sensitive. I said, “How did you like the movie?” And he said, “Oh, it was a great movie, it’s one of the best movies I ever saw, tremendous! The leading role, the acting, the images, the directing, the real good camera work, and the plot especially was particularly well integrated; you had a real feeling of suspense. It was really a first-class movie.” And then I turned to the other guy, who was a very strong person with a lot of confidence but who was a little dull intellectually, and I said, “How did you like the movie?” He said, “Lousy!” Then the first person said, “Right, it wasn’t very good.” So he didn’t have the courage, you see, to maintain that position in the face of the stronger person who said it was bad. But the interesting thing about it: I asked him afterward, “Do you realize that in the space of about one-tenth of a second, you went from a positive, enthusiastic opinion to a totally negative one?” He said, “I did?” There’s an example of the unconscious as it works: the obliviousness of the person about what he’s even doing in order to maintain his sense of safety and security and self-worth. So the neuroses that we all have are a kind of stupidity — an inefficient and in some ways self-defeating self regulation. The person has given up awareness of himself and the world. He has given up authentic self-control and self-governing in order to have self-esteem and to somehow keep his action moving forward, even though his actions now reflect motives that are not his. but those of others.


The interesting thing, you see, is that when we are trained as children, we are too young to know what is really happening to us. When you look at your children, you feel this particularly poignantly. They’re running! They just run! They’re moving; they move in that door and out that door. And you stop them on the way through and say, “Hey!” And they run by. And they’re through again and then Bye. And you say, “Hey, where are you going?” and they say, “Hungry.” “Okay, here, eat.” “Yum-yum. Play, play!” And meanwhile, certain things are happening to them, and they don’t know what’s going on. In the first place, they don’t have symbols; they don’t have language for a couple of years, in order to understand what’s happening. But they’re getting a lot of messages from the environment: a lot of prohibition, a lot of patting on the head, and a lot of various things are being filtered into their neural system. And they don’t have symbols in order to cope with this. And they keep running. Gradually, when you go over this process for about five years, it turns out that they can only keep running straight if they do a lot of things while they’re coming through the door, which they don’t know they’re doing, in order to please you. So the result of the process is that when you grow up you’re running, but you don’t know why, and you don’t have any idea of what happened to you while you were running. This, if I may say, is the tragedy of man: that he is that kind of an adult who runs without knowing that he is running, which is another way of defining stupidity. Our best theories of mental illness now, even the most extreme psychotic dimensions, are theories of stupidity: people who don’t know what they’re doing, because they don’t know what happened to them.

“In a way, of course, this has to speak for every one of us. None of us was born with language, scrutinizing his parents with a critical eye. I can’t imagine such a monster. It would be a nice trick to play on the parents, when they look over and say, ‘Naughty, naughty! You wet the bed!’ And the baby says, ‘Oh, it’s only excrement, you know that’s not bad, a baby’s excrement.’ What if he could say that back to you, huh? And you say, ‘Look, but you did it on the floor!’ And he says, ‘The floor is a foreign substance which is easily washable. I will feel no anxiety about that.’ But, of course, the child can’t do that, which is what his problem is. He can’t make a simple objective clarification of factual experiences, and say to his parents, ‘Call reality, as they say, the way it is.’


 The idea of children’s instincts and authenticity being suppressed by adults was not original with Fritz Perls, of course. It probably originates with the French writer and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

 Fritz Perls was probably one of the greatest psychotherapists of the 20th Century, but the therapy he practiced was as much a form of entertainment as a helping process. (I saw him perform in public once.) In a way, he was an enfant terrible, an idiot savant, an intuitive genius who could decipher a person’s personality from watching their body language and listening to their voice.

However, he was also probably an amoral person with serious personality disorders. He practiced public therapy sessions, using them as much for entertainment as for therapy. He slept with many of his patients. He treated his wife and children very badly.

Becker was not an amoral person. However, in the discussion of authenticity I quoted, he does not discuss ethics. Because as soon as human beings interact with each other, we encounter the problem of how we are to behave toward each other. I am not a profound philosopher of ethics. The best I can come up with is that we should treat each other decently. It seems fairly obvious to many of us: don’t murder each other; don’t torture each other; don’t steal from each other; help other people when we detect them in dire need.

Sounds pretty easy, but we are always tangled in painful messes in how we interact with each other.

I don’t really know if my granddaughter is a genius or not. It is clear to me, however, that she is studying how people behave with great attention. “Buy me a stuffed animal,” she told me at the zoo. “You still have money in your wallet,” she pointed out. “What about the smallest, least expensive stuffed animal in the zoo store?” she wheedled.

“If you buy me a stuffed animal, I will take a nap,” she tried to bribe me.

As we drove home and cars ahead of her irritated her, she envisioned calling them on my cell phone and warning them, “Get out of the way! I am on the way to put out a fire!” she warned, putting on her fire chief hat and abusing her authority as a budding, four-year-old fire chief.

She is almost five and I am almost 65. I can still outwit her, but only barely. By the time she is five, I will probably be signing the deed to my house over to her. She will probably have her kindergarten classmates signed up for a Ponzi scheme.

I am a fairly obedient grandfather and I am willing to leave RG’s main child-rearing and moral guidance to her mommies, who seem to be doing a good job and who seem to be on compatible pages with my wife and me, though their style is different.

The main things I would say to RG are #1: be yourself and not what others want you to be and #2: treat other people decently. If #2 conflicts with #1, #2 takes precedence.

When young, my brother showed signs of being a sociopath. As he went into his twenties, he grew out of it. As far as I can tell, he is now a decent father, husband, and business owner; so people can sometimes grow out of dangerous directions.

RG seems to have the tools to manipulate people with great skill. She may grow into a charismatic and inspiring  leader; she may grow into a person who stays independent and does as she pleases without letting other people control her and without controlling other people in unethical ways; she may turn into a little monster.

It’s our job as parents and grandparents to help her be the best RG she can be; best in developing her capabilities; best in being a good person.

I plan to put all my RG posts on a flash drive and give it to her mommies with instructions to let her read them when she is 15 years old.

So, RG, if you are reading this now, and you are tempted to abuse your intelligence and your gifts, this is your grandfather speaking from the grave. Cut it out, now.

On the other hand, if you are turning into a wonderful person, you go, girl!

4 Responses to “Postscript to RG as a Young Genius”

  1. truce Says:

    Firstly, I feel sure that RG will not turn out badly. So, I will echo that future “You go, girl!”

    Secondly, I find it interesting that parents are usually ‘blamed’ for a person’s neuroses – the assumption being that all the causes must be in childhood. I’m fairly certain I picked up several of mine during my early adulthood from friends and boyfriends.

    Also, I don’t care what anyone else says, excrement on the sheets or floor is unpleasant and should be avoided. David, I know, will agree with me!

  2. Yeah, just from a sanitary standpoint, I think excrement is a good thing to contain. But I also think that scolding a child while it is learning to contain its excrement is a bad idea. It’s not like the poor things have any idea what’s up.

    Regarding the neurosis thing … I think part of the theory is that had we not been primed by our parents, we’d be less likely in later life to pick up neuroses from other people. I really do think there’s something do this, esp. observing the college-age daughter of one of my friends, who made some parenting mistakes as everyone does, but she and her husband have always gone to great lengths to cherish and support this child’s sense of self, while also providing appropriate boundaries. She has very little trouble casting off other people’s unreasonable or unfair expectations … in contrast, I think, to those of us who were parented by people who did not accept or cherish us particularly (and unfortunately, if the combination is one good parent and one bad parent, the good parent cannot override the effect of the bad parent, which is why that old saw about keeping a bad marriage together for the sake of the children is total delusional crap unless the bad partner happens to be a good parent, which is seldom if ever the case).

    Mr. Random, to answer your speculative question — yes, DID is a creative solution to surviving extreme degrees of alienation from the self, required by circumstance or environment.

  3. modestypress Says:

    Truce and David, thank you for your comments, which I find very pertinent and perceptive. Both my wife and I come from fairly damaged families. We did not plan to have children. We are not particularly suited to each other. Just as I was getting ready to leave for work this morning, my wife and I started snarling at each other over something trivial. By the time I left, however, we made up and kissed goodbye.

    Just as hanging sometimes concentrates the mind, having a child may have that effect. Having a child when one’s marriage is shaky is generally not a good recommendation for putting it on firmer ground, but it may have helped our marriage last.

    I am not involved in the day-to-day upbringing of Random Granddaughter, though I get to mess with her a couple of times a month. I have a more relaxed, dispassionate attitude now that I am not the front line responder.

    Just as David’s cats sometimes speak to you, RG will probably take over this blog and tell all my readers where to get off.

  4. spectrum2 Says:

    “Toddler libertarian”- I love it.

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