THERE IS AN unkindly-lit classroom on the first floor of Antioch University where I spent many dozens of hours over the last fifteen months. The antiseptic wash of the bulbs and the awkwardly arranged cut-rate AV equipment and the standardized academic furniture created a contrary environment for all that transpired there. Over the course of five quarters, a cohort of family therapy interns heaved into the rolling chairs and, guided by a lifelong therapist with an unlikely potty mouth, we “consulted.” But even that makes it sound academic. It wasn’t. Because nothing about actually doing therapy, especially with youth, is the least bit theoretical.
Our instructor “Truus,” a Dutch name that rings with appropriate associations, was capable of absorbing our frustrated raging, catastrophic incidents of countertransference, and unceasing crying jags with equanimity. As often as not, she’d poke us in the right place to the get mucus flowing. As often as not, when one of us was done presenting a case or venting about a horrific incident in our work week, she’d bring us back to what she believes to be the “core clinical issue” for most youth in mental health treatment: adults messing with their minds.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, personally and professionally. The return of the Santa conundrum is part of the reason. My wife and I discussed at length the pros and cons of performing that theater for our three-year old son. In the end we decided to do so, erring on the side of wonder and magic with a mandate not to overdo it—keep it simple: yeah, he’s a big fat man that brings the gifts if you’re good. I tacked on some utility: Pax, you know, if you don’t give away some toys to the kids that don’t have any, Santa might not bring you new ones (Pax is still trying to give away toys everyday, so I may have overshot). Still, it wasn’t an easy choice. My own mother decided to break the news after she overheard me telling a friend that I knew “Santa is real because my parents would never lie to me.” I was so outraged when she came clean that I forged a psychic hammer and swung it at my brother (four years my junior) by way of spilling the beans. He burst into tears and left the room. A few minutes later he ran back in, red-faced and shouted, “and I don’t even want to hear about the Easter Bunny!” My parents looked defeated and ready for a drink.
Holiday hoaxes aside, I realize that my relationship with my kid is rife with similar tripwires. Many times I have said, after he’s tumbled and bruised or scraped some part of himself and is crying, that “you’re ok.” It’s small, right, negligible maybe, but it’s sort of where it begins—he’s absolutely not ok and is showing me as much and I’m telling him he’s wrong; I’m invalidating his fucking reality. How many black winter mornings has he raged that he hates school and doesn’t want to go and I’ve groggily responded by saying, “no, you love school, buddy.”
Just yesterday I drew the short stick and had to take him for vaccines needed for an upcoming trip to Guatemala. Needless to say he was hysterical at the notion. Not only did I automatically tell him that it wouldn’t hurt bad, which turned out to be bullshit (his weeping eyes pleaded into mine as I pinned him down and an oversized nurse jabbed oversized needles into his thighs), but I also told him the owees meant that he wouldn’t get sick in Guatemala, a guarantee so specious it caused an immediate splash of self-disgust.
Maybe all of this is silly to over-analyze. Certainly part of being a loving parent and responsible adult is shielding children from many truths, and the line between necessary cloaking and convenient fibs is blurry. But I wonder about the slippery slope. I wonder if training ourselves in the capacity to bullshit our children sets us up to sort of glide/stumble onward without thinking twice.
To the point: When I was eleven-years-old, my parents had been divorced for five years, my father was remarried and my mom might as well have been. One wickedly blustery winter evening, dad was deep in his intermittent depression and curbed his sports car under a street light a block from home. Big maple leaves splatted on the windshield. He cut the engine and unloaded his grievances about how things went down between him and my mother, most especially her unaccountable verbal-emotional cruelty and the fact that she was already involved with her then-boyfriend before they separated. His vitriol percolated in me until the following week when I was able to hurl the accusations at her. I can still vaguely recall her dumbfounded grimace and the broken sound she made, as if holding back, before stating, very coldly, worse than any scream, “oh, that’s what he told you? Would you like to hear the real story?” Then came the cavalcade of details: the hookers and drugs and affairs and lies, which dad then partially denied. After a few weeks on the swinging arm of joint custody, literally keeping notes on my investigation of “the truth,” my parents fell silently into an armistice, both insisting that memory was a slippery and multifaceted thing. It would be an exaggeration to say I became a delinquent youth and a danger to myself and others as a direct result of this barbed wire puzzle planted in the middle of my chest; it would be correct to say it had a large if indirect influence upon the trajectory of my teenage years.
Of course, it’s not all inter-familial witchery that gets visited upon youth. Our society is awash in mindfuckery: at the age of 18 you may smoke (the most lethal choice available in terms of vice), you may vote (though you may have attended a school that failed to teach you the definition of democracy), and you may be sent against your will to kill and to die in some shitty scrap of the globe. But, if you should make it back from that trauma and gore swathed place, you may not have a beer while you reflect upon it. And we ply kids with brochures at every social service hub about the dangers of marijuana, printed on shitty stock with cheesy graphics and chock-full of lies—in an age in which we’re finally legalizing the shit because, unlike mass-murdering booze and tobacco, it’s never killed a single person. And a kid can flip her phone open and debunk it all faster than she can roll a spliff. And of course there’s the well-worn and deservingly decried hypocrisy of selling female sexuality in the form of apparel and makeup and accouterments to younger and younger girls and then slut-shaming them straight to the razor blade.
Back to the terrible luminescence and soul-saving consultation of that classroom at Antioch. I talked endlessly about a client, a tiny, Filipino-American boy who spent ten years of his life with a mother who forced him to watch her fuck myriad men, let those men amuse themselves by smacking him about or aiming guns at his head, and told him day in and out that he was the reason she was miserable, she had to suck cock to keep a roof over his head, and if she could only go back and abort him—or kill him now without recrimination—her life would improve dramatically. She kept him out of school and spread rumors that he was gay. She spent a decade on a painstaking and detailed campaign to make sure he knew what a vicious, sociopathic monster his father was—and then sent him to live with his father. Upon arriving my client was undernourished, long-haired, immobilized at moments by trauma symptomology and lacking in basic social skills. He had the great misfortune of landing in a military household where within days his hair was shorn off and he was being packed with calories between bouts on the weight bench to prepare him for his inevitable boxing career; within months his father and stepmother had decided he was “creepy, disturbed, psycho, dangerous” and would likely become a serial killer. They abused him some more for good measure and shunted him off into group homes where it dawned on him that despite the fact that he had never committed a crime in his life, had maintained a high GPA throughout his years, and was loved by his teachers and coaches, the only family he had believed him to be evil and the system he was now wedded to would treat him as such. And it has. And slowly but surely he’s showing signs of behavioral disturbance and a propensity toward violence.
I heard about a colleague’s client, a seventeen-year old unfairly beautiful six-foot tall redhead from a rich family in which another two sisters—at eighteen and twenty-one—were already streetwalking junkies and prostitutes. The parents drove seventy-thousand dollar cars and shopped at Burberry and had been very clear with the girl that her older sisters’ plights were her fault, that if she had not been so suggestive as a child, the twenty-one year old wouldn’t have molested her and her poor father wouldn’t have had to beat both of them for it. For a while she did it in fits and starts—now she is steadily, slowly starving herself to death. Her mother once sat down and looked my colleague in the eye and told her the only problem in her family was her daughter’s eating disorder. That her daughter has looked every ED specialist in the region in the eye and laughed at the notion that she has a problem—both before and after months-long inpatient “refeeding” programs and intensive psychotherapy—is not any longer surprising to me.
I’m not concerned that our family’s verdict on the Santa Claus myth is going to lead me into pathological cruelty toward my son (I still have to stop myself from intervening on the playground, sending bigger kids flying in the same way they send him). I don’t mean to suggest that dishonesty by adults alone is the only cause of suffering in youth—that would be to deny the impact of adult psychopathology, social stressors, individual traumas and a zillion other factors. I am not saying that only radical, pure honesty is fit for youth. In fact, when I look back at the psychic violence that my own parents inflicted on me, it was in the name of unveiling what they both believed was a truth I deserved to hear. What has kept the rotation of my mind going deep into these winter nights, though, is the fear that I’m finally putting down here: that innocuous or even healthful dishonesty that we employ whispers into the territory of self-service. And when it becomes normalized as such, without passing the review board of our conscience—or consciousness—perhaps we run the risk of devaluing our kids. Of putting our ease or preserving our self-image ahead of keeping our children safe. And ironically it all begins with the useful notion that we are doing our jobs—protecting them.
Maybe next Christmas I’ll come clean. At the very least I can allow my son’s tears to flow next time he falls—I can sit with the honest discomfort of that.
photo by DavidD, Flickr Creative Commons license.