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Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Reflections on Hillman's critique of 'family systems' and the myths of both mother and father

How many of us are, have been and perhaps always will be enmeshed in the notion that our parenting is primarily responsible for our ‘fate’?

For a long time, and especially in my teens, I thought/perceived/believed that two parents were encapsulated in two historic models: hitler and chamberlaine. While stark and obviously black and white, to an adolescent mind, the conversation with my father that unearthed this comparison, authored by my father, has been a prevalent image for decades. Assigning responsibility for various traits which seemed inexplicable seemed to be easily and readily attached to one or other of those parents. Passive-aggressive behaviour on my part, seemed to have its root in the father, while bursts of anger, impatience and unpredictability seemed more easily and coherently the legacy of mother. And then, the images began to become fuzzy, and the ascribing of source/blame/responsibility for specific behaviours, attitudes, beliefs, perceptions seemed much less clearly rooted in one or other parent.

In the ‘outside world,’ however, there were cultural, social, political, and even what appeared to be epistemological and metaphysical ‘winds’ that tended either to underline the binary picture of inherited parental traits, whether psychological or biological or both, or to refute its claim. Embedded in the mid-twentieth-century public square of conventional ‘wisdom,’ along with Dr. Spock, was the concept of parental bonding. Closeness, warmth, affection, acceptance, and bonding with the very young and developing child was considered to be the prime requisite for highly effective, ethical, and responsible parenting. Another of those prominent winds, perhaps a precipitate left at the bottom of the social and cultural test tube (weren’t and aren’t we all examples and imitators of some kind of social, cultural, historical, political, religious experiment?) was the adage, “spare the rod, spoil the child” as a legacy of Puritanism, premised on the conviction that man was basically evil and that such evil proclivity had to be curtailed, if not actually erased. In the 1950’s, the second world war was over and peace brought a renewal of optimism, hope, prosperity and the rise of the middle class in North America. Baby bonus cheques from Ottawa were designed and delivered to encourage and support the growth of families. National Health Care was introduced in Ontario in 1961, and government bursaries for aspiring university applicants were another of feature of the bounty to which our generation was gifted.

The church as a highly influential institution on families and especially on youth, a superficial yet ubiquitous psychology from a pediatrician ‘guru’ whose book was in many homes, and post-war prosperity and opportunity were among the more influential, predictable, and thereby trust-worthy influences (influencers?) in an adolescent’s life. There was however, as it more clearly “seen” from decades later, a kind of tension between what passed as “good and proper” as opposed to authentic attitudes, behaviours as king of cultural pastiche. Religiosity as opposed to ‘a faith’ offered social standing; strict discipline as opposed to nurture, substituted for healthy parenting; fathers were bread-winners, mothers home-gardeners; a new car was a symbol of respectability, if not wealth; a profession (medicine, law, engineering, accounting, clergy) was the epitome of achievement, accomplishment and also trust. Entertainment, whether in the new invention of television or Hollywood movies, depicted moral dramas of predictable plots, with characters clearly visible as ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys.’ Sex, religion and politics, among friends and neighbours, was never mentioned, given the ‘respect’ of the other, the ‘fear’ of disagreement, and the ‘privacy’ of each family’s secrets. Adolescent pregnancies were shameful, and the young women who became pregnant were moved out of town to homes for unwed mothers, to carry and deliver their children. It is as if ‘stick or line’ drawings comprised the social, cultural, ethical, moral and political canvas, on which the colours of the lines were almost exclusively in pastels. A rare occurrence, a suicide, a major fire, or a doctor driving his navy Mercury into the carcass of a cow on a backroad, compromised what today we would call, water-cooler chatter. Also on the list of public chatter were the scores of the local hockey team, the Shamrocks, the latest hole in one at the golf course, and the return of local young men and women from their first year at college or university, symbols of the pride of the whole community.

This ‘sketch’ is a highly reductionistic rendering, from the perspective of several decades later. So much has been unearthed, (re-discovered, researched, probed and anatomized about various instrumental intellectual, cultural, organizational, and religious and scientific affairs, in the intervening decades, including the generation of the atom and the hydrogen bomb, nuclear medicine, pharmaceutical compounds and interventions, the impact of ‘discharge’ of various kinds,  human and material, of a physical, political, ethical, communication, education and cultural green-housing impact) that we can barely remember or recognize those early days.

From the perspective of human psychology, (Dear reader, you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), there are some insights, perceptions, attitudes and even convictions that now confront many of the previously ‘sacred’ cows, especially pertaining to the relationship of the culture to its children (focused on America, with clear spill-overs in Canada) in our shared culture with views designed to help to release us from many of the previously infallible factors that seemed to ‘govern’ us.  

James Hillman in The Soul’s Code (1997), references Peter and Ginger Breggin’s “The War Against Children.” Hillman writes:

 (The book) threatens American children with an epidemic of troubles caused by the methods that would cure them of their troubles. (Hillman writes): The familiar evils of other ages reappear in the guise of helping programs, pharmaceutical prevention, and apartheid segregations. It’s all back again—eugenics, white racism, sterilization, forced removal, banishment to beggary punishment and starvation. As in colonial days, drugs to ease the coolies’ pain and increase their indifference, will be provided by those who cause the pain. Children have become the sacrificial victims of “Saturn-Moloch (God of Money) as in the ancient Mediterranean. They are also the scapegoats for scientistic fears of the anomalous, of the excessive, and of the paradigm-shifting movements of imagination that first appear as new—that is, in the young. What is already taking place in our ‘mental health facilities,’ where drugs are dispensed with less shame than condoms, would have benumbed during their childhoods probably every one of the extraordinary people told about in this book. The vicious inadequacy of treatment is not intended by practitioners, who mean well. It results willy-nilly from the inadequacy, or viciousness, of theory. So long as the statistics of normalizing developmental psychology determine the standards against which the extraordinary complexities of a life are judged, deviations become deviant. Diagnosis coupled with statistics is the disease; yet diagnosis coupled with statistics is the very name -Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (or DSM)—of the universally accepted guide produced by the American Psychiatric Association and used by the profession. The health care providers, and the insurance payers. Yet the whole of that thick, heavy and lightweight book provides accounts of the various ways the daimons affect human fate and how sadly and strangely they often appear in our civilization. This book prefers to connect pathology with exceptionality, exchanging the term ‘abnormal’ for ‘extraordinary’ and letting the extraordinary be the vision against which our ordinary lives are examined. Rather than case history, a psychologist would read human history; rather than biology, biography; rather than applying the epistemology of Western understanding to the alien, the tribal, and non-technological cultures, we would let their anthropology (their stories of human nature) be applied to ours. …The extraordinary reveals the ordinary in an enlarged and intensified image. The study of the extraordinary for the sake of instruction has a long trail, from biographies of classical greats by Varro, Plutarch, and Suetonius, through later exemplars like the Church father and Vasari’s lives of Renaissance artists, and across the Atlantic to Emerson’s Representative Men. This tradition is accompanied all along by the moral lessons to be drawn form the stories of biblical types such as Abraham, Ruth, Ester, and David, and from the lives of the saints—all heightened examples of character. (Op Cit. p.30-31)

It is difficult to imagine such words, thoughts, criticisms, especially the incisive thrust against the idolatry to Moloch, being part of the conversation over the dinner table in a Canadian or American family in the 1950’s. Given the food shortages, the stamps for butter and other provisions, and the desperation that hung over the people, still a residual cloud on the horizon in that decade, the prospect, vision, and aspiration of rising ‘boats’ through prosperity in peacetime, was embodied in the popular music, and the highly celebrated movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and High Society. The rise of mega-corporations, dedicated exclusively to the ‘bottom line’ of both profit and shareholder dividends, had not yet abandoned all pretense to providing good jobs for the middle class, as they were to do over the next four decades plus. Working for a large meat-packing company, the Canada Packers of 1961, for example, I learned that as a sales representative faced with a customer complaint about a defective or damaged product (meats, lard, margarines) it was  very important to balance the interests of both the customer and the company. Good business, then, required a diligent and careful balance, not tilted in favour of  the company, as it seems to be sixty years later.

There were, however, basic assumptions with respect to parenting and relationships between parents and their children that Hillman sees through, in his chapter entitled, The Parental Fallacy, in The Soul’s Code. He writes:

If any fantasy holds our contemporary civilization in an unyielding grip, it is rthat we are our parents’ children and that the primary instrument of our fate is the behavior of your mother and father. As their chromosomes are ours, so are their mess-ups and attitudes. Their joint unconscious psyche—the rages they suppress, the longings they cannot fulfill, the images they dream at night---basically form our souls, and we can never, ever work through and be free of this determinism. The individual’s soul continues to be imagined as a biological offspring of the family tree. We grow psychologically out of their minds as our flesh grows biologically out of their bodies…..(T)he idea of parenting and parents is more hardened then ever in the minds of moral reformers and psychotherapists. The shibboleth ‘family values,’ expressed by catch phases like ‘bad mothering’ and ‘absent fathering,’ trickles down into ‘family systems therapy,’ which has become the single most important set of ideas determining the theory of societal dysfunction and the practice of mental health. Yet all along a little elf whispers another tale: ‘You are different; you’re not like anyone in the family; you don’t really belong.’ There is an unbeliever in the heart. It calls the family a fantasy, a fallacy. (p.63-4)

And debunking the way the culture ‘sees’ and considers the family, Hillman continues:

The myth of Mother in our culture carries the higher dignity and force of theory, and we are a nation of Mother-lovers in the support we give her by adhering to the theory. ….As nuclear one-on-one motherhood wanes, the myth hangs in there, clutching at the archetypal breast. We still believe in Mom even as we watch everything change: day-care centers, spread-out families, daddies doing diapers, homeless kids caring for younger siblings, teenage mother of two or three kids, forty-five-year-old mothers of their first….Nonetheless, the myth of the mother as the dominant in everyone’s life remains constant. For behind each birth-giver and care-provider sits the universal Great Mother, upholding the universe of that belief system I am calling the parental fallacy, which keeps us bonded to her. She appears shaped by the style of your personal mother, and she is as bad as she is good. Smothering, nourishing, punishing, devouring, every-giving, obsessive, hysterical, morose, loyal easygoing—whatever her character, she doo as a daimon, but her fate is not yours. (p.67-8)

And later, in a section entitled, “Absent the Father,” Hillman also writes:

Maybe Dad’s true task is not knowing about coffee, bleach, and mouthwash or how to resolve pubescent dating dilemmas and maybe his dumbness shows that this is truly not his world. His world is not shown in these sets, for it’s offstage, elsewhere and invisible. He must keep one foot in another space, one ear cocked for other messages. He must not lose his calling or forget obligations to the heart’s desire and the image that he embodies….Fathers have been far away for centuries: on military campaigns; as sailors on distant seas for years at a time; as cattle drivers, travelers, trappers, prospectors, messengers, prisoners, jobbers, peddlers, slavers, pirates, missionaries, migrant workers. The work week was once seventy-two hours. The construct’ fatherhood’ shows widely different faces in different countries, classes, occupations, and historical times. Only today is absence so shaming and declared a criminal, even criminal-producing, behavior. As a social evil, the absent father is one of the bogeys of the remedial age, this historical period of therapy, recovery, and social programs that try to fix what we do not understand. The conventional father-image, of a man at his job, comping home at dusk to his family, earning, sharing, and caring, with quality time for his kids, is another fantasy of the parental fallacy. This image is way off its statistical base…..Rather than blaming fathers for their absenteeism and the concomitant unfairness of loading extra burdens onto mothers, mentors, the schools, the police, and taxpayers, we need to ask where Dad might be when he’s ‘not at home.’ When he is absent, to what else might he be present? What calls him away? Rilke has an answer:

             Sometimes a man stands up during supper

             And walks outdoors, and keeps on walking

             Because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

              And his children say blessings on him as if her were dead.


              And another man who remains inside this own house,

              Dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,

              So that his children have to go far out into the world

              Toward that same church, which he forgot.

Rilke accounts for the father’s absence. What about the quality of his presence—that anger, that hatred? Why is father such an abusive, brutal family destroyer? What is this rage? Is it his wife he hates, his children he wants to beat, because no one does what he says and they cost so much? Or might there be another factor, less personal and more demonic, that has him and doesn’t let up?

I have come to be convinced that the parental fallacy itself has harnessed Father’s spirit to a false image, and his daimon turns demonic in kicking against the traces. He is trapped in a construct of called American fatherhood, a moral commandment to be the kind of good guy who likes Disneyland, and kid’s food, gadgets, opinions and wisecracks. This bland model betrays his necessary angel, that image of whatever else he carries in his heart, glimpsed from childhood into the present day…The man who has lost his angel become demonic; and the absence, the anger, and the paralysis on the couch are all symptoms of the soul in search of a lost call to something other and beyond. Father’s oscillations between rage and apathy, like his children’s allergies and behavior disorders and his wife’s depressions and bitter resentments, form part of a pattern they all share—not the ‘family system,’ but the system of rip-off economics that promotes their communal senselessness by substituting ‘more’ for ‘beyond’. (p.81-2)

Perhaps, Hillman has a significant point about how we have been enmeshed in a ‘fixing’ system that fails to take in to account the radioactive energy of the worship of Moloch. 

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