Scott Brown and the Personal Political Memoir

Do voters need to know about Scott Brown's history of child abuse? Do they need to know that Deval Patrick considered resigning shortly after being elected to his first gubernatorial term because his wife was struggling with depression and the stress of living under a public spotlight? Probably not. But personal stories about overcoming crises and obstacles are now political staples. By exposing a politician's trials and vulnerabilities, they imply his capacity for empathy and compassion; chronicling his success in spite of physical, economic, or emotional hardships, they offer assurances of strength and reliability. Besides, personal stories are naturally more engaging than discussions of policies or ideas, which is why the Boston Globe led with them in reporting on new autobiographies by Patrick and Brown -- and Lyric Winik, who "help(ed) put (Brown's) story into words." (I hope she gets a cut of the royalties.)
But if these stories aren't or shouldn't be relevant politically, the act of telling them and the reactions they evoke are interesting cultural markers. Twenty years ago, during the 1992 presidential campaign, when Bill Clinton talked about his drunken abusive stepfather and Al Gore testified to the trauma of his son's near-fatal car crash, a George Bush spokeswoman famously responded, "Real men don't get on the couch." Today it seems they do, or at least they may, even if they're Republicans; they may even cry and patronize tanning salons. Boehner's tears and Brown's discussion of childhood abuse haven't generated complaints about the feminization of America, which used to issue fairly regularly from the right. We might consider this progress, if only female politicians enjoyed equal rights to cry and discuss their traumas. Instead, the pop political model for women today is the Mama Grizzly.


Courtesy of Harper

But there is, perhaps, an encouraging cultural lesson to be drawn from Scott Brown's saga (putting aside the political benefits he'll likely derive from it.) Twenty years ago, when the recovery movement was ascendent, child abuse, especially abuse involving sexual molestation, was considered a life sentence, an always-present trauma that could never be relegated to the past: At best, victims of abuse might be "in recovery," but they could never be fully "recovered." And engaging successfully in the lifelong process of recovery required talking about your abuse. You couldn't begin to address the trauma of it until you acknowledged and talked, talked, talked about it. If you declined to talk about it, you were relegated to the toxic state of denial and destined to perpetuate the abuse, devolving from victim to victimizer.

I don't mean to denigrate talking therapies (although I have always been highly critical of the recovery movement and its valorizing of victimhood.) I simply want to point out that Scott Brown says he did not talk about being sexually abused, yet he does seem to have recovered from it, personally and professionally. He appears to enjoy the stable family life that codependency experts insisted was unavailable to abuse victims who exercised their rights to remain silent, outside the community of recovering codependents. Of course, Brown is one person with one story; different people deal with childhood trauma differently, according to their temperaments and external resources. Some are defeated by it, and others have remarkable resilience. That, indeed, is the point, which self-appointed recovery and codependency experts once disputed.

Twenty years ago, the "experts" would have found Brown's story implausible and deemed him in denial. They might have questioned the likelihood that he kept quiet about his abuse and stayed out of "recovery"; or they would have assumed that he was, in some way, an abusive father and spouse who was passing on the disease of codependency to his children. Twenty years ago, when I talked briefly about my father's successful emergence from an abusive childhood without any form of therapy (in I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional), I was accused by recovery experts and acolytes of lying and hiding (or unconsciously repressing) the abuse they assumed my father directed at me. They did not believe me when I said that what my father derived from his childhood with a violent, alcoholic father (against whom he eventually, successfully fought back) was a strong mistrust of authority, heightened sensitivity to abuses of power and protectiveness toward it victims, and an instinct for liberty. I do wish I could say the same about Scott Brown, but the personal is not predictably political.