The Vogue of Childhood Misery

by Nicholas Lemann

RONALD AND Nancy Reagan both grew up in what would now be called dysfunctional families. The former President’s father was an alcoholic who bounced from job to job and from town to town. The former First Lady’s parents split up just after she was born, and she spent much of her childhood living with an aunt and uncle while her mother worked as a traveling actress. In terms of their attitude toward their upbringings, the Reagans are both, to revert to the psychologically aware jargon of the day, in denial.
In Where’s the Rest of Me? (1965), the first of his two autobiographies, President Reagan describes coming upon his father passed out on the front porch of the family’s house, and then muses:
But someplace along the line to each of us, I suppose, must come that first moment of accepting responsibility. If we don’t accept it (and some don’t), then we must just grow older without quite growing up. . . . I could feel no resentment against him.
Nancy Reagan, in her autobiography, My Turn (1989), takes a similar position, though in a characteristically more irascible tone than her husband’s:
I’ve always been annoyed at the armchair psychologists who claim that I was “abandoned” by my mother. . . . Maybe our six-year separation is one reason I appreciated her so much, and why we never went through a period of estrangement.
In contrast, A House of Secrets (Birch Lane Press, $18.95), the latest novel by their daughter Patti Davis, is about a woman in her thirties whose life is dominated by memories of the emotional hurts she suffered while growing up in an affluent, secure, two-parent household. It isn’t a bad book, but it is, perhaps inevitably, more interesting as a social document than as a work of art; it is part of a vast new body of work about unhappy childhood in middleclass America. The senior Reagans’ views of their tough childhoods are fairly characteristic not just of their generation but of the whole run of Americana up through the mid-twentieth century. Huckleberry Finn, for example, doesn’t seem especially obtuse when, after recounting that his alcoholic, oft-jailed father abducted him, took his money, removed him from school, beat him, and kept him under lock and key in a remote log hut, he reports that
it warn’t long after that till I was used to being where I was, and liked it, all but the cowhide part. It was kind of lazy and jolly, laying off comfortable all day, smoking and fishing, and no books nor study.
Right now, though, Patti Davis, much more than her parents, exemplifies the state of American culture. Accusations of child abuse—directed particularly at divorced fathers and at the staffs of day-care centers—are much more widespread than they have ever before been. It has become a convention for celebrities (whose private lives have always been presented in selective detail, in accordance with what the public wants them to be) to discuss the misery of their early lives.
Leafing through the cover stories of a few months’ worth of People magazine from last spring and summer, I learned that Michael Landon was “the classic unhappy child”; that the young rock star Matthew Nelson says he comes “from the granddaddy of dysfunctional families”; that Sally Field, “the bubbly little girl who was the very embodiment of American apple-pie cuteness as TV’s irrepressible Gidget,” was in fact “filled with self-loathing about her body image”; and that at the age of nine another former Gidget, Sandra Dee, “in a desperate attempt to gain a measure of control over her life . . . became defiantly anorexic, a condition that more than once nearly killed her.” Last fall Roseanne Arnold announced —in another People cover story—that she had been sexually abused as a child by both her parents. Barbra Streisand, in interviews publicizing her new movie, The Prince of Tides, which turns on the unhappy childhood memories of the main character, several times discussed her own childhood misery.
The “recovery” movement, an offshoot of the American selfhelp tradition, has blossomed during the past decade, over which time it has shifted its main focus from recovering from alcoholism to recovering from growing up in a dysfunctional family. The movement’s roots are in Alcoholics Anonymous and its companion organization, Al-Anon, for those close to alcoholics, but its real founding text is a 1983 book by Janet Geringer Woititz called Adult Children of Alcoholics. Millions of Americans now consider themselves to be “adult children” or “adult survivors”—of alcoholism, incest, and many other forms of long-ago trauma (a famous recovery-movement claim is that 96 percent of us had dysfunctional childhoods). The leading recovery guru, John Bradshaw, teaches people to heal their “wounded inner child.” The poet Robert Bly, like Bradshaw the son of an alcoholic father, is the guru of the “men’s movement,” which is also built around the idea of unhappy childhood.
Another subset of the recovery movement is represented by books with titles like Forgiving Your Parents, Toxic Parents, and Divorcing a Parent, which, again, focus on the pain of early life. Of these, the most remarkable is Divorcing a Parent, by Beverly Engel, a book that seems to a reader from outside the movement roughly what the Nation of Islam seemed to the white news media when they discovered its existence in the late 1950s: incomprehensibly angry and bitter. Engel’s idea is that adult children may be so severely locked in to destructive relationships with their aging parents that formally breaking off all contact is prerequisite to their getting on with life. She describes one of her patients effecting the divorce through a letter that begins, “Dear Mr. Carter: Although you are still legally my father, from this day on I no longer consider you my father, nor do I consider myself your daughter.”Even if the parent is dead, it isn’t too late for a divorce: “Some of my clients . . . have conducted grave-side divorce rituals by reading a divorce decree or divorce letter aloud at a parent’s grave.”
At the heart of the parent-child relationship in these cases, according to Engel, is something terrible that happened years ago, but in the present the parent’s continuation of the same abusive behavior (or insistence that the child only imagined it) causes the child’s life to revolve completely around the bad memories and the sense of shame they generate. (One of the recovery movement’s big events of last year was a four-day conference on shame, held in Las Vegas.) There is a feeling of being trapped in the worst time of one’s life. As Engel describes her own condition before she divorced her mother, who is her only family, “Even though I was an adult with a successful career, loving friends, and a good relationship, inside I was still a little girl trying to please my mother. . . .” The divorce, like any other recoverymovement activity, necessarily entails some “inner child work”; Engel suggests conversing with the inner child or writing it a letter, saying, for example, “Dear Inner Child: First of all, I want you to know that I love you very much. I also want you to know that I am working very hard on being a good mommy to you, the kind of mommy you need.”
RECOVERY BOOKS already form a substantial genre. Judging by A House of Secrets, a subgenre is now emerging: recovery fiction. If Patti Davis is not part of the recovery movement herself, then it is remarkable that she has stumbled independently onto all its essential themes. Her broad subject is, to quote from the book jacket, “the emotional and psychological abuse that can occur within the ‘best of families.’” The family she describes is the Lawtons: Clifford, the genial, absurdly optimistic father (who, despite an extremely relaxed work schedule, becomes one of the richest men in America); Rachel, his brittle, overprotective wife; and their two daughters, dutiful Lily and rebellious Carla. Rachel’s goal is to maintain a front of perfect normality regarding the life of the family. Clifford and Lily function as her allies in this quest, but Carla wants to expose the not-so-pretty truth.
Much is made by Davis of the idea that the Lawtons’ lives are built around the harboring of terrible secrets. In the context of commercial fiction, though, the secrets turn out to be pretty mundane—they sound quite a lot like the secrets that many families have in real life. Lily attempted suicide once as a girl. Rachel had an abortion early in her marriage, but she tells her daughters that she had a perfect child who died in infancy. The everyday life of the household is dominated by Rachel’s fanatical neatness and need for control. Rachel and Carla fight constantly, and Rachel subjects Carla to what the recovery movement calls “boundary violations,” such as forcing her to eat, confiscating her early attempts at writing, and insisting on watching when she goes to the bathroom.
In her early twenties Carla, obsessed with the fear that she will become an abusive mother like Rachel, has herself sterilized. During the novel’s present it is ten years later, and she is living in a beach house in Malibu, writing fiction, and having an affair with a well-known writer. Because she has decided to write about her family, her mind drifts back over the course of her life and she dredges up all her buried painful memories. During this process she lengthily berates Rachel, who is now mute and wheelchair-bound because of a stroke (the need for a “confrontation” with the abusive parent is, again, a central tenet of the recovery movement). Finally, having completed the review of her unhappy childhood, she undergoes surgery to have the sterilization reversed. She knows it is probably not possible for her to have a child.
But I’m not sure it matters anymore.
There is another child with me now. I let her run between shadows and light—wherever she feels more comfortable. I hold her hand when she needs that, and forgive her for her fears. . . .
She still cries inside my eyes sometimes, still runs to the blackest corners of night, still searches through pools of moonlight for magic lost long ago.
But she has words now, and stories that don’t need to hide.
That sounds to me like the inner child.
LAST YEAR two books attacking the recovery movement were published: The Codependency Conspiracy, by Dr. Stan J. Katz and Aimee E. Liu, and The Truth About Addiction and Recovery, by Stanton Peele and Archie Brodsky, with Mary Arnold. Both make the point that there is a big difference between being “in recovery” and having actually recovered; the movement’s real goal, they say, is to draw people permanently into a subculture of support groups composed of fellow sufferers. A.A. is supposed to be a lifelong involvement, and no member is allowed to call himself a former (as opposed to recovering) alcoholic; Al-Anon and its new generation of spinoffs try to apply similar rules.
A House of Secrets does not lay this argument to rest. Carla’s life is so much based on her bad memories about her mother that it’s hard to picture its being based on anything else in the future. As the novel ends, Carla has broken off her romantic relationship. Her nuclear family seems likely to consist forever of just her and her inner child. Although she has a career, her vision of la vie intellectuelle is that it begins and ends with mining the memory banks for lodes of pain. While she was writing about her mother, her lover was working on a novel based on terrible repressed events from his past. When a publisher accepts her first book (not the one she’s working on in A House of Secrets but one about, she says sarcastically, “my idyllic childhood”), the thought that comes to her mind is this: “I imagined my mother seeing [copies of the book] in some bookstore, pictured her face turning to fury.” Carla’s literary success hardly qualifies as evidence of her ability to put her problems behind her. She is an “adult child” literally: the subject of every aspect of her adult life is her childhood.
Also, although A House of Secrets is written on the assumption that Carla has a high degree of psychological selfawareness (as well as honesty and courage), her understanding of her war with her mother seems incomplete. Rather than shrinking from unpleasant scenes with her mother, Carla creates them with provocative remarks or behavior she knows will set Rachel off; the relationship has an unmistakable aspect of competition as well as oppression. Several times Carla mentions with great pleasure having scored a “victory” over her mother. Usually these victories involve sex. Carla believes that her mother is threatened by Carla’s womanhood, in addition to being prudish. During sexual encounters she imagines that her mother is standing in the room, watching in horror; that a man is making love to Carla, and that she is enjoying it, constitutes defeating Rachel. Another victory comes when Rachel walks in on a rare private conversation between Carla and her father, who is usually Rachel’s exclusive property emotionally. Psychologically unaware as Nancy Reagan may be, she seems to be on to something that her daughter has missed when she writes, “I now believe that Patti’s anger toward me stems from her unresolved feelings about her father.”
IT is IMPOSSIBLE to immerse oneself in recovery literature without being persuaded that the pain the movement’s members feel is real. Still, the question that comes to mind is, Why now? What is it about the United States at the very end of the twentieth century that has made it the place where the age-old depredations visited upon children have finally come to occupy the center of a society’s consciousness?
The answer from the movement itself is that we have undergone a worldhistorical awakening about child abuse. A good comparison (though I haven’t seen it made in recovery literature) would be to slavery, which went on for many centuries without being considered wrong, and then society advanced to the point where its immorality became obvious and it was abolished. Beverly Engel writes,
For generations, parents have been abusing their children, and these abused children in turn often grow up to abuse their own children. Because of our increased knowledge about abusive and dysfunctional families, we are the first generation to be able to break this cycle and ensure that we do not pass on this legacy of abuse.
The movement can be historically placed in a much less grand way, too. Recovery literature is in part a revisionist history of the Baby Boom years, written by the former babies; it gets much of its oomph from the idea that the heavily propagandized family life of the 1950s was actually often nightmarish. People who were intensely conscious while they were growing up of the idea that they were the most fortunate children in the history of the world, and who generally came to maturity with very high expectations about every aspect of life, and who are raising their own children in a time of very different social mores, are looking for a way to explain the disappointment and foreboding that they feel. The period of their childhood makes a natural target. That’s why the literature so often takes the form of toppling the icons of 1950s and early 1960s normalcy, such as Gidget, Ozzie and Harriet, Bonanza, Miss America (Marilyn Van Derbur, Miss America 1958, recently went public as a childhood incest victim)—and the Reagans.
Both books attacking the recovery movement say that its growth is tied to the deterioration of extended families and communities in American life. People now look to love, marriage, and the nuclear family to meet all their needs, and when that doesn’t work, they have nothing to fall back on except support groups. The part of the movement that traffics in the concepts of adult children and “codependency” (a tendency to get into caretaking relationships with troubled people) reinforces this pattern by urging members to sever troubling family ties. Peele and Brodsky write, “The Children of Alcoholics movement may express a shift in cultural attitudes about how willing we are to sacrifice our own interests for other people, including our family members.”
These are good points as far as they go, but they don’t fully explain why the deterioration of the social fabric should necessarily have led to a turning of our attention backward to unhappy childhood. It’s noteworthy, first of all, that we all now agree with the fairly new idea that an unhappy childhood can ruin an entire life. Philippe Ariès, the influential French social historian, has argued that before the seventeenth century, society had no concept of childhood at all—people were thought to proceed directly from infancy (which was defined as the period of total dependence on the mother) to adulthood. Adults did not make pictures of their children, and did not elaborately mourn children who died; there were no specialized children’s clothes or games. The idea of childhood is an appurtenance of modern society. (Neil Postman, an American social critic, in his 1982 book The Disappearance of Childhood, ties the emergence of childhood specifically to the invention of the printing press, which made it necessary for people to be kept in a preadult state for years so that they could be taught to read.)
Gradually over the centuries, the child, particularly in the middle and upper classes, assumed a central role in the life of the family. At the same time, the notion of childhood as a time of innocence (especially sexual innocence) strengthened its hold, until, by the Victorian age, the industrial West saw childhood as a magical time, practically the peak of life. This century’s darkened picture of childhood as a time when a lot can go wrong is substantially a result of the influence of Freud. Nonetheless, he is no hero to the recovery movement, owing to his view that adults’ memories of childhood abuse shouldn’t automatically be treated as fact. The movement’s idea of what childhood should be has a nonFreudian exaggerated simplicity. In Adult Children of Alcoholics, Janet Geringer Woititz wrote,
A child is very much like a puppy . . . offering and receiving love freely and easily, scampering, somewhat mischievous, playful, doing work for approval or a reward, but doing as little as possible. Most important, being carefree. If a child is like a puppy, you were not a child.
Lloyd deMause, in “The Evolution of Childhood,” an essay that has made him a scholarly godparent of the recovery movement by presenting the history of childhood as a bleak procession of torture, neglect, rape, and other horrors, offers a similar dream of the perfect childhood, in which the assumption is that “the child knows better than the parent,” and “there is no attempt at all to discipline or form ‘habits.’”
To DeMause, this form of child-rearing would represent the adult’s having moved beyond the old custom of using the child “as a vehicle for projection of the contents of his own unconscious”— but I wonder. The recovery movement’s “inner child,” to some extent, is the adult’s unconscious, and the movement’s vision of the ideal childhood, so much less rich and turbulent than childhood really is, seems like a projection of its members’ need as adults for total, secure, approving love—in the movement’s jargon, “affirmation.” It is very difficult for adults to conjure up any all-encompassing notion of the state of childhood which isn’t really an encoded comment on the state of their own lives and of society generally. It’s no accident that confident, expansive societies, like Victorian England and the United States during the twenty years after the Second World War, tend to see childhood as happy. That we now appear to see it as unhappy, or at the very least fragile and imperiled, may reveal something about the condition we think the country is in, as well as about the lives of our children. □