I’ve been dipping once more into RD Laing’s book of essays The Politics of the Family. Laing, a Scottish psychiatrist (1927-1989), is known for his views that it’s not just the patient who presents symptoms, when he or she comes to a shrink, but the whole family.
Maybe you have dwelt, as I have, on the roles that children are assigned in the family. In my large Catholic family — seven kids, spanning some 20 years — my parents expressed a desire, from early in their marriage, for many children. When they came along — 1, 2, 3 … then, after eight years, 4, 5, 6, and 7 — however, they were not so sure what to do with them.
I’ve always thought that the fate of the two black sheep in the family — my younger brother, who died of alcoholism almost 20 years ago, and a younger sister, who has lived with two adult sons, like a “three-headed monster,” a friend suggests, for many years — was a kind of emotional abandonment. Vis-a-vis me and my youngest sister, the black sheep were simply abandoned on the mountain top of parental neglect.
But Laing has a subtler, and more powerful, view. When a patient “presents,” Laing suggests, he presents not only himself and his symptoms but the whole neurotic / psychotic ball of wax that the family is. He puts the dilemma of the child singled out for treatment in terms of hypnosis. “How much of who we are,” he asks, “is who we have been hypnotized to be?”
It’s not that our parents say, Do this or do that! Laing contends. Rather, they say, be this or be that! Or, more powerfully still, you are who we suggest you are!
You are a bad boy, or a sluttish girl! There’s no escaping your fate! After all, they might say, if they had but the insight to realize it, we too, in our turn, were hypnotized by our parents to do what we have done and be who we are — martinet parents, dour fatalists, familial fascists.
So, if I hypnotize you, I do not say, ‘I order you to feel cold’. I indicate it is cold. You immediately feel cold. I think many children begin in a state like this.
We indicate to them how it is: they take up their positions in the space defined. …