Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Intractable Woman

I forgot to include this in last night's post. From Kate Millett's Flying (Knopf, 1974); while Millett was in London, her friend and host the filmmaker Nell O'Rourke told her (312):
"They have taken our anger from us, it's the biggest crime perpetrated against women. Got in touch with mine through that group therapy business. Men and women behave differently in group therapy, you know. Men discover their fear. Women their hostility. Paul was physically attacked in the first group we joined. Look, learn to get angry, stop being humble and calling yourself queer. There are dead people shouting inside you. You have got to shut up your mother. There she is, quivering away inside you, screeching at you." I hear her voice on the phone, hear her voice at thirteen. "The family is a dead area inside our skulls," O'Rourke resumes. "Drop your endless capacity for punishment. Let yourself. Do. They cannot punish you, the voices inside. Stifle them."
I hadn't looked at this passage in a long time, probably more than twenty years. What I remembered was what O'Rourke said about anger, but when I first read it I was struck just as much by what she said about the punitive "voices ... "screeching at you" inside your head. These are not (necessarily) the kind of voices that go along with schizophrenia; I took them metaphorically as the echoes of everyone -- not just adults: peers too -- who do the job of keeping us within bounds. You can't think that. You can't say that. You can't do that. You can't dress like that. Boys don't cry. Nice girls don't do that. What are you, a fag? What are you, a slut? What are you, a nigger-lover? What are you, a commie?

Especially after having read Staub's book, I now detect echoes of Laingian antipsychiatry in O'Rourke's speech. At my age I'm less inclined to want to blame my family, or anyone else, for my inhibitions and guilt. Maybe I should read Laing, because I'd like to know if he took into account the fact that human beings are a social species; our vulnerability to our families comes from our prolonged infancy and childhood. We can't survive without the support and input, but also constraint, of other human beings. Those "voices" hold us up as well as crush us. From Staub's account of the antipsychiatrists, I gather they overlooked this.

I credit Dorothy Dinnerstein for at least implying this in her The Mermaid and the Minotaur (Harper, 1976), a flawed but still powerful book that had a big influence on me. She pointed out that infants and young children want everything, and with the best will in the world the most nurturing mother couldn't give them everything they want; they're too young to understand why they can't stay in the toy store forever, or run out into the street as they see grownups doing, or take home the things they see and want. This means to me that if growing up healthy means never being frustrated, no one could grow up healthy. And, of course, our parents also have their own wounds, and their own needs, they're the products of their own upbringing, so if I'm not to blame for my problems, neither are they.

Taking all this into account, O'Rourke's advice still looks good to me. For one thing, we selected the voices that screech at us from inside our heads. (Parents are often shocked to learn what their children remembered, as well as what they forgot.) This passage was a voice I kept in my head, and it helped me along through my later twenties and into my thirties. We also need to learn to ignore them, stifle them, outgrow them. Accept our anger, accept our fear, learn not to be stopped by them.

But this is also the problem with "mental illness," whether it refers to mild discomfort or major dysfunction, let alone dissenting opinions or personal styles that people too easily call "crazy." At the same time, though, becoming irrational and allowing oneself to rant and call for pitchforks and torches is considered proper behavior all through our society, provided we pick the right occasion and target for our craziness. (Staub discusses the way that mainstream commentators indulged in facile armchair psychoanalysis of student and other political dissenters in the 1960s, though most empirical studies showed student radicals to be well adjusted [for what that evaluation is worth]). Whether you view mental illness as a medical reality or a social construct -- which, again, are not mutually exclusive categories -- its boundaries are highly subjective, as are the possible remedies.

Which reminds me, here's a fine example that shows that the overreaching of scientists on social issues is still with us, and still good for news coverage. More about it later, if I get around to it, but for now, those researchers are obviously too dumb to be taken seriously; trust me on this, I'm an intellectual.