Friday, March 27, 2015

Child Abuse and "Mental Illness": The State of Play

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes it isn't.
A recent leader in the venerable British Journal of Psychiatry (founded in 1853 as the Asylum Journal) summarizes the state of research on the relationship between childhood abuse and mental illness. It seems that on that score, things are moving fast. “At a staggering pace,” in the words of the article's authors.

You may recall that, back in the nineties, brain scans of schizophrenics showed abnormalities? And this was supposed to prove that schizophrenia, like everything back in the 90s, was genetic?

It turns out that scans of abused children show the same brain abnormalities. They more or less got cause and effect reversed.

Things have changed. “[R]esearchers have recently established that a broad range of adverse childhood events are significant risk factors for most mental health problems, including psychosis.” Childhood abuse has now been linked to adult depression, anxiety disorders, phobias, eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, personality disorders, dissociative disorders, substance abuse, and the psychoses (manic depression, schizophrenia). The most reasonable assumption based on the evidence so far is that childhood abuse is the primary cause of all “mental illness.” Another recent article in the BJP indeed concluded that “childhood adversities … were the strongest predictors of disorders.” Even the severity of childhood abuse can be directly correlated with the severity of psychiatric symptoms.

This fact has been hidden in plain sight since the very beginning of modern psychiatry. Freud himself found that virtually all of his patients reported being abused as children. He simply refused to accept this. As the BJP piece notes, “the public all over the world (including patients and their families)” have always placed most emphasis on adverse life events in accounting for schizophrenia. It has only been psychiatrists who have denied it, almost up to the present day. The authors of the BJP piece claim that an article on this subject, like theirs, would not have been published twenty years ago. Even now, the authors find it necessary to throw in a defense against the charge of “family blaming.” (What exactly is wrong with “family blaming,” if it is indeed the family's fault?) They claim in their defense that prior abuse of the parents, and general poverty, can be seen as the real culprits.

This is bollocks. Freud's original patients, of course, who consistently reported abuse, came from the upper echelons of Viennese society. Mental illness is notoriously no respecter of social class. Rather the reverse: it seems at least anecdotally more common in “great families.” It is just that the poor are more likely to get blamed for it.

And this is just the problem. This is why psychiatry as a whole has been for so long “in denial.” The “people of the lie,” the truly evil people of this world, those who would without conscience abuse their own children, are disproportionately likely to be socially prominent, as were the scribes and Pharisees of the New Testament. Evil people put self-interest first. It is not in anyone's self-interest to be either poor or criminal. Ego, the devil is likely to be a gentleman.

Accordingly, the instant Freud, or psychiatry in general, point the finger at the real problem, they are up against a very powerful opposition. Not only will the accused be prominent members of society, with lots of money and connections; they will also be prominent members of society who know no scruple in fighting for their own self-interest, and no concern for the truth. Freud no doubt saw clearly that his own career was at stake, and was no great lover of the truth, or his patients' wellbeing, himself. It was and remains far safer to blame the victim, scapegoat the child, or call it a disease and blame the imaginary chemistry of the brain.

It is all now coming unravelled. It only took psychiatry about a hundred years to discover what most people everywhere already knew.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Artists as Political Leaders

A painting by Winston Churchill. Not a painter: a writer.
The great Glenn Reynolds, of Instapundit, has recently suggested it may be a bad idea to put artists into positions of political power. He notes that Hitler (painting, architecture), Mao (poetry),

Saddam Hussein (novels) and Stalin (poetry) were all failed artists. He might have added Mussolini, who used to write short stories. Or Henry VIII, who reputedly dabbled in musical composition.

That may be so. But on the other hand, one can think of artists who have done rather well in the same position: Churchill (Nobel Prize for Literature), Disraeli (popular novelist), Vaclav Havel (playwright), Ronald Reagan (actor), Paderewski (pianist), Vajpayee (poet) and perhaps Frederick the Great of Prussia (besides wanting to be a musician when young, wrote the popular tract “Anti-Machiavel”). These, by contrast, surely did significantly well at statecraft.

Can we make a distinction between the first group and the second, as artists? I think we can. The first is a group of failed artists. The second is a group of artists with genuine accomplishments.

A painting by Adolph Hitler. Not a painter: a politician.
Bad guys, narcissists, egotists, are commonly going to want to be recognized as artists. Because, after all, they want to be the centre of attention in everything. They are generally not going to be able to pull it off. Indeed, I suspect that the gifts of the spirit needed to be a good artist are incompatible with true egotism. They may use their political power to try to change the perception of their art.

But in the latter group, we generally find people who made a name for themselves as artists before they came to power. More generally, I believe I have found, in my years of hobnobbing around the periphery of the art world, that there are two very distinct and different populations found there: the poseurs, and the real artists. These two are opposite types.

Others have noted the same.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Who You Gonna Call?

The calling of Simon and Andrew.

Aside from the Beatitudes, there is a second way the New Testament typifies the good person—or rather, a third, for there is the obvious criterion of objectively moral acts. Look at whom Jesus selected as his special followers, his apostles.

Not the conventionally moral. He chooses Matthew, a tax collector—rather as if he had chosen a used car salesman today. Not well-educated, wealthy, upstanding citizens: carpenters and fishermen.

Matthew 4:18-22 New International Version (NIV): Jesus Calls His First Disciples:

18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.
21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

There are a few striking things here. First, note that in both cases, brothers are called as a group. This implies that there is something in their family situation, as siblings, that makes them suitable. Now note too that they abandon their family situation with alacrity. “At once.” In the case of James and John, they actually abandon their father sitting in the boat. If he was not absolutely furious about this, he must at least have wondered what was going on. But he gets no explanation. “They left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him” (Luke).

So leaving the family situation seems to involve specifically leaving the father, or the parents.

To drive the point home, a little later, a man approaches Jesus asking to become a disciple, as soon as he has buried his father. Jesus refuses him: “Leave the dead to bury their own dead.” When his own mother appears and asks him to come home, he responds “What have I to do with thee, woman?” And he tells others, “Call no man father but your father who is in heaven.” This is often taken as a rap against the Catholic Church, for calling priests “Father.” This misses the plain meaning of the phrase, which is far more radical. So much for family values.

Jesus discourages another potential follower with the cryptic observation “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” This seems to make leaving one's home the essential feature of Christian discipleship. Instructing his apostles for their evangelizing mission, he says “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death” (Matthew 10:21). “I have come,” he warns “to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:35-7). This is sometimes translated as “he who does not despise his father and mother is not worthy of me.”

The Twelve: Romanesque.

This is surely a consistent message. One can only go so far with it: the Old Testament does say “honour thy father and thy mother. And Jesus himself reaffirms the Old Testament commandment to “honour thy father and thy mother.” The apparent conflict can be explained, at least in part, by understanding the Old Testament commandment to refer specifically to an obligation to care financially for your parents in old age, as they provided for you in childhood. Even given this, however, surely it is too much to say that there is something wrong with families and parents as such. Like anything else in creation, they are an intrinsic good; but a good too easily transformed into an idolatry, preventing a greater good. It seems that the New Testament and Jesus hold that there is something terribly wrong with some families, and, specifically, with the families of those especially called to be Christians.

In other words, the sheep, the good people to whom Christianity is in the first place addressed, are those who are products of abusive and dysfunctional families.

The fact that those Jesus calls are ready to drop everything and leave their families at once to follow him—to run away-- is, to him, prima facie proof that they are indeed the ones he is seeking. They have been seeking an opportunity to escape.

Remember all those worries about religious cults in the sixties and seventies? Remember parents hiring “deprogrammers” to kidnap their own children? Early Christianity must have been like that. Kids from dysfunctional, overly controlling families, are naturally and properly called to a religious life.

It does seem as though there must be a large middle ground, between those who have suffered abuse from dysfunctional families, on the one hand, and the hypocrites and Pharisees on the other. Doesn't that leave a lot of people out?

Maybe not. Nothing in the New Testament promises salvation to the vast majority. Quite the reverse, in fact.

Narrow is the way ...

But it may also be that there is a reasonable distinction to be made between apostle and disciple. It may be that abuse conditions you for a position of leadership, of priesthood, like the apostles, while simply avoiding hypocrisy is sufficient for lay discipleship. The apostles, as the first priests and bishops, are given special charisms and a special mission: to heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead. Not your everyday “good deeds,” as the boy scouts understand it. They are, like the survivors of the Dymphna complex in literature, spiritual healers and spiritual heroes.

Not incidentally, we have an obvious solution here to the current shortage of priests in the Catholic church. God may be sending us the shortage to alert us that we have been looking for vocations in the wrong places. Perhaps we should leave our recruiting pamphlets in the psychiatrists; offices.

Second, this suggests that the depressed, and perhaps the mentally ill in general, are a valuable resource we have been simply squandering. Instead of being shunned and put in institutions or on welfare, they should be consulted by those who are ill, especially those who are “mentally ill.” They might well, as the traditions suggest, have the charism of healing.

I note that this is the common assumption in shamanic societies. Even in modern Korea, I discovered that those showing symptoms of mental illness, indeed psychosis, commonly go on to make a profession and a living for themselves as mudangs, shamans. Leading comfortable, “normal” lives. In our culture, some make a life for themselves as “artists,” using their special sensitivity to the spiritual. But due to a very small market for the arts, that can only be a small minority of the abused.

Which is a waste.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Beatitudes

The Sermon on the Mount: Tissot.

Recently I wrote about human evil, and pointed out that like it or not, the New Testament makes a radical distinction between “sheep,” the good people, and “goats.” We determined that the bad guys are the upstanding citizens who have embraced ego over the good, aka the scribes and Pharisees. But who are the good guys? Does the Bible say anything about that?

Of course. There are two main clues to answer this question: whom Jesus chose as apostles, and whom he describes as blessed in the Sermon on the Mount, his great call to the masses.

Let's look at that latter first, as it is the most obvious and direct statement. Here it is, from the Gospel of Matthew. There is a partial variant version in Luke, but Matthew is definitive.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Sheep to the left, goats to the right. Stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight! From God's perspective, the opposite. Fra Angelico.

“Blessed are those who mourn.” Isn't that, by itself, suggestive? Is he possibly talking about the “depressed”? What can this mean if it is not a symptom of something else behind it, an entire complex? For by itself, how can mere mourning be seen as a moral act, bringing blessing? Consolation, perhaps, but not blessing.

So, for comparison, let's look at the official symptomatology for what is called “major depression,” in DSM-IV, the manual used by psychiatrists in the US and Canada. (It has since been superseded by DSM-5. There is no significant change in the diagnostic criteria, and DSM-5 is wordier and less precise in its language. Hence, DSM-IV is more useful here.) See if you do not see, as I do, some significant similarities:

1. Depressed mood or irritable most of the day, nearly every day, as indicated by either subjective report (e.g., feels sad or empty) or observation made by others (e.g., appears tearful).

i.e., blessed are those who mourn. A straight match.

2. Decreased interest or pleasure in most activities, most of each day

This sounds to me, in turn, like the necessary meaning of “poor in spirit”--someone no longer interested in worldly pleasures and possessions.

“Vanity of vanities; all is vanity,” saith the preacher.

3. Significant weight change (5%) or change in appetite.

Of interest to an inveterate materialist, a physician, as modern psychiatrists are, but surely too trivial and tangential to mention in a spiritual context. In any case, in the first century, wealth would be a far stronger determinant of body weight than mood.

4. Change in sleep: Insomnia or hypersomnia
5. Change in activity: Psychomotor agitation or retardation
6. Fatigue or loss of energy

I suspect all of these are addressed in “blessed are the peacemakers,” understood as "those who seek peace.” Feeling tired and seeking calm is a natural response to stress, hence to PTSD. By contrast, according to the Bible, the wicked seek ceaseless activity: “The wicked will not rest” (Isaiah 57:20; aka “no rest for the wicked.” It does not mean the wicked are punished with busy-ness, but that they seek it). Later in the same sermon, Jesus counsels his listeners to try not to be anxious: “consider the lilies of the field...” Good advice for those experiencing PTSD.

7. Guilt/worthlessness: Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt

“Blessed are the meek”: i.e., as psychological jargon puts it, those with “low self-esteem,” those who habitually think of others before themselves. THis is what happens when you grow up in a family in which someone else demands they be the centre of attention. As it has been said of adult children of alcoholics: when they die, somebody else's life flashes before their eyes.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness” also applies here: to be wracked with guilt, including undeserved guilt, is necessarily to care deeply about right and wrong. Caring deeply about right and wrong, in turn, paints a target on your back for suitability as a scapegoat in an abusive relationship.

8. Concentration: diminished ability to think or concentrate, or mere indecisiveness

This does not appear plainly in the beatitudes; but it may in the later image of the good as “sheep.” That image does not radiate decisiveness. A lack of interest in power and in the exercise of the will may also come across as indecisiveness. This is the "dying to self"of which the mystics speak.

9. Suicidality: Thoughts of death or suicide, or has suicide plan

Not present here. But Jesus also says, elsewhere, of his true and rightful followers: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” He is presumably not speaking about literal death; but anyone who is not focused in their thoughts on death and the afterlife is obviously not one of his sheep. Moreover, some who are called to die to self may make the natural mistake of taking that call too literally, and contemplate actual suicide.

The final beatitude seems to speak of the ultimate cause of depression, an ending summary of the syndrome: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.” Depression and blessedness comes from being persecuted unjustly, that is, abused.

These are the people Jesus calls the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.” These are his sheep.

Note that the modern diagnosis of depression is fairly arbitrary. It is a set of symptoms without knowledge of correspondence to any underlying disease. If a disease, is it one disease, or many? It is as if any pain in the head, regardless of the cause, were simply diagnosed and treated as “a headache.”

That being so, the fact that the supposed symptoms of “depression” correspond as well as they do with the Beatitudes is, I think, striking. If all “depressives” are not good Christians, it does seem that all who are here called to be Christians are subject to a diagnosis of “depression.”

The implications for depression's successful treatment seem obvious. The proper treatment, if you are a believing Christian, is to follow the call of Jesus, which in its earliest days was simply called by devotees “the Way.”

The mentally ill at La Salpetriere: Gautier.
Psychiatrists and psychologists instead resolutely try to force sufferers away from some of the things here called blessed, to push them back into the world of the senses, to turn them back from the call they may be hearing. No wonder depression (and mental illness generally), with this treatment, commonly becomes a lifelong condition.

Surely nobody wants this suffering. Probably nobody chooses it. But it would be worth a lot to the mentally ill even just to understand that they are undergoing a real spiritual call, instead of a meaningless “disease.”

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Okay, Make That the Dymphna Complex

Psyche being led to the mountainside, where she will be exposed to her demon lover.
I have written of the “Damon Complex.” Perhaps, in the end, it is better to call it the “Dymphna complex”; for Saint Dymphna is the protagonist of the tale, and is far better known than her father. Now let me try to break it down into its essential elements. I believe it may tell us something important, as a superior substitute for the Oedipus Complex, about the true origins of much or all mental illness.

A: a parent (or other operating in loco parentis) wishes to or tries to do a child harm. The common fairy tale motif of the “wicked step parent” may be introduced to soften the blow, or perhaps to convey the concept of a discrepancy between presumed love and actual hate: what is apparent is not real. The apparent parent is not a true parent.

In the Dymphna story, her father King Damon beheads her. That is, shall we say, pretty clear-cut. In the Oedipus story, his father tries to kill him twice, once by exposure as an infant, once at the crossroads. Oedipus's lack of knowledge of his own parents serves the same purpose as the “wicked step-parent” motif, inverting it: the apparent parents are not the real parents. That is, they do not act as parents are supposed to act.

B: a parent (or other operating in loco parentis) wishes to or tries to own a child completely, denying them an independent life—the Rapunzel Complex. Theoretically, we should not expect to see this happening along with A in the same story, because the two are generally incompatible. But they are symptoms and products of the same root cause, a selfish parent who does not see the child as an independent soul with his or her own rights.

In the Dymphna story, her father King Damon demands marriage, then tracks her down when she flees—the ultimate helicopter parent.

In the Oedipus story, both mother and father seek to kill Oedipus; it is Jocasta who actually hands him over to be exposed. And it is Jocasta who mates with him. One might, fairly, argue that at least this latter is unintentional. On the other hand, Oedipus bears the scars of his laming by his parents. While he would know nothing about this, it is reasonable to expect Jocasta, seeing this scar, to at least have suspicions about his true identity. The Oedipus story manages the trick of having the same parent both seek to kill and seek to totally possess the same child.

The Judgement of Solomon: Rubens.
There is another obvious example of this in the Bible. In context, it is presented as the Bible's definition of bad parenting. This is the story of the two women who come to Solomon to determine who is the mother of a child. One of the two had smothered her own child in sleep—a perfect image of an overweening, possessive parent, combining in the one action both elements A and B. Then she was happy to have the child killed as a resolution of the conflicting claims,so that she could possess the half—both A and B again. The good, “true” parent, as Solomon judged the matter, was the one who was prepared to give up all claims to the child for the child's best interests. A perfect summary.

C: the child is exceptional in some way: surpassingly beautiful, strong, or intelligent. In a sense, this goes without saying: to make a story worth telling, the hero or heroine is commonly represented as someone special. On the other hand, in many versions of the story—as in Snow White--the motive of jealousy is important to the plot. And this is psychologically important: a child who seems destined to surpass the parent in some way is the sort of child most likely to upset a narcissistic parent who considers him or herself the rightful centre of the universe. Freud too noticed that “the neurosis rides the strongest horse in the stable”--that is, a neurotic is likely to be the most impressive of his or her siblings—even though his own theory could not account for this. Ours can.

Dymphna is understood to be exceptionally beautiful. This figures in the desire of Damon to completely own and control his child. She is also exceptionally moral, as her sainthood attests. Oedipus, as his solution of the Sphinx's riddle illustrates, is exceptionally intelligent. He is also exceptionally dutiful, and relentless in his commitment to knowing the truth.

D: the child leaves the parent and the family situation. Either he or she flees, or, alternatively, the child is forced or driven out. This can be combined with A—abandoning a child to die.

Dymphna flees by sea to Belgium. Oedipus is abandoned on the mountainside, and then again chooses to leave his foster family in Corinth in order to prevent the oracle from being fulfilled.

This is the obvious solution to being in a dysfunctional, abusive situation, and so surely must be dealt with in the story.

Snow White being rescued by ... OMG, isn't that Keith Richards in the foreground?!
God help you, Snow White!

E: this obvious solution, of getting away from the abusive situation, although it may be necessary, seems never to finally resolve the situation. This could be measnt to identify the nature of mental illness as what we now call PTSD—the residual effects of abuse. As with PTSD, this sort of permanently disabling stress can occur in situations other than one's family upbringing. It is just especially powerful in that context. Although the abuse itself may have stopped, it is internalized as the “mental illness.”

Dymphna is tracked down by her father in Belgium. The idea that Oedipus cannot, despite his best efforts, avoid returning to his family and his fate, is the crucial concept driving the action of Sophocles's play

F: as a result of the experience, the child becomes a healer of others, a spiritual celebrity, a spiritual hero.

Dymphna founds a hospice. Posthumously, she becomes a Christian saint and is understood to have special healing powers for the “mentally ill.” Oedipus's death at Colonus is understood to be a blessing for Athens. His grave becomes a shrine.

Together, I take these six to be the crucial elements of the Dymphna story. We see that they also fit the Oedipus story very well. Now let’s see how commonly they pop up elsewhere in the world's literary and spiritual inheritance. In theory, if it speaks of some near-universal experience, and an experience so deeply consequential, it should show up all over the place—as Freud’s Oedipus complex really does not.

We should, I think, especially expect to find them in fairy tales, creation stories, and hero legends. Fairy tales are, I suggest, designed as advice primarly for young girls, and so advise of the perils of childhood. Hero legends perform the same function for young boys; like super-hero comics did when I was young. Creation myths, because they speak of the origins of things, also probably often speak of our psychic origins in early childhood.

Cinderella: Burne-Jones.

The story of Cinderella has (A) the wicked stepmother, who also (B) does not allow her out, even though in theory this would be a way to get rid of her. Cinderella nevertheless manages to escape to the ball (D), disguised so that her sisters cannot recognize her. The escape is only temporary; she is obliged to return each night by the stroke of midnight (E). Cinderella is both entrancingly beautiful and exceptionally patient and even-tempered (C).

The story of Snow White: (A), her wicked stepmother has a huntsman take the child out to the woods to cut out her lungs and liver. Snow White escapes the huntsman by promising to “run into the forest and never come back” (D). The huntsman substitutes the lungs and liver of a boar, which the queen then cooks and devours (an image of B, devouring love?). This does not work, however, because the queen has a magic mirror that informs her of Snow White's continued existence (E). She then tries to suffocate her with a bodice given as a gift (another image of B, smothering love?), then gives her the gift of a poisoned comb, then the poisoned apple. All Snow White's troubles are caused by her great beauty, which provoke the wicked queen’s envy (C). At her apparent death, the seven dwarfs put her in a glass coffin, like a saint's shrine (F); although they believe her dead, this presumes that her body will be incorruptible, like those of some saints.

The British legend of King Lear, most famous from Shakespeare, and a traditional image of a family gone wrong, reads like a muted version of the Dymphna story. Cordelia is more beautiful, more moral, and more dutiful than her two sisters (C). King Lear demands that each of his children pay him homage beyond what is due to a father; this may be a toned-down version of Damon's demand for sexual favours (B). When Cordelia, out of moral scruple, refuses, she is disinherited (A). She flees to France (D). Later, when her two sisters prove as dishonest as their father should have expected, she returns to defend him, but is killed in the battle (E). In Geoffrey of Monmouth's version, she survives to overthrow her sisters, but later, as one might expect of a chronic depressive, commits suicide. In either version, however, her death restores Lear to the kingship and the kingdom to rightful order (F).

Psyche and What's-his-name.
We might also expect to find the motif in the tale of Cupid and Psyche, both because it is considered the world's oldest written fairy tale (oral traditions are probably much older), and because the name of its protagonist seems to suggest a psychological meaning: literally, this is the story of Soul. It is also the story of Eros—the Greek for “Cupid.” Since Freud held that Eros was the root of mental illness, here in particular his Oedipus complex ought to appear.

Psyche is exceptionally beautiful—so beautiful that she provokes the envy of Aphrodite (C). Her parents expose her as a young woman on a mountainside, understanding that she is being given as a bride to some monster (A, D). The “monster” turns out to be Cupid (Eros), the son of Aphrodite. He has indeed been sent to make her fall in love with some monster, Aphrodite's revenge, but instead falls in love with her himself. They couple, but he remains disguised. When she discovers his true identity, she is banished (D). To recover the relationship, she is obliged to put herself under Aphrodite's control, to be abused (E), like Cinderella. She is given a series of impossible labours she must perform—the sort of double-binds typical, as R D Lang points out, of a dysfunctional family situation. As a result, she shows all the signs of what we would call depression: twice she tries to kill herself. Nevertheless, eventually, having accomplished her labours with supernatural aid, she is reunited with Cupid. Her influence over her new husband, it is said, ensures that he will no longer torment married men and women with urges to infidelity (F).

Guan Yin, Chinese, eleventh century.
For comparison, consider the Chinese story of Guan Yin, known by various names throughout East Asia as the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion. She was born as the daughter of a cruel king who demanded that she marry a man of his choice whom she despised (an element of control, surely; a faint B). She flees to a temple convent (D). Her father's control follows her, however (E); he orders the nuns to give her the hardest work, and to allow her no rest, like Cinderella (A). Nevertheless, her goodness is so great that the animals help her with her chores (C ). Her father then tries to burn down the temple (A), and orders her to be put to death (A). She descends to the underworld, but her influence releases those already there from their suffering (F). Her father then falls ill, and can only be cured by a medicine made from the arm and eye of someone without anger. Guan Yin, hearing this, volunteers her own arm and eye for his benefit (F). She becomes the model of the helper figure, one who has vowed to never rest until she has ended all suffering in the universe.

The story of Gaia, Uranus, and Kronos, the Greek creation myth: Gaia creates Uranus “to cover her on every side,” then mates with him (B). Uranus then seeks to prevent his children with Gaia from being born (A). Kronos is the cleverest and strongest of Gaia’s and Uranus’s children (C). He castrates Uranus with a sickle in order to escape (D).

Kronos himself then devours each of his children as they emerge from the womb (A). Zeus, later the king of the gods (C) is spirited away to a distant cave by his mother and grandmother (D), and a stone is substituted to trick the father.

The Babylonian creation story, told in the Enuma Elish: Apsu and Tiamat, the primordial couple, mate and produce children, who are trapped in Tiamat’s womb. Apsu wants to kill them (A). Tiamat warns Ea, the most powerful of her children (C). Ea kills Apsu and becomes king of the gods. Tiamat then takes her son Kingu as her new mate (B). Together they raise an army of monsters to destroy her other children (A), but are defeated by her grandson, Marduk.

Brahma and daughter-consort Saraswati. Don't try this at home.
The Hindu creator, Brahma, chooses his own daughter, Saraswati, as consort, against her will (B). This transgression is why Brahma is not generally worshipped in India. Saraswati is so beautiful that Brahma sprouts four heads to ensure that she is constantly visible to him (C ). Saraswati flees him, first disguised as a cow, then as a mare, then as a succession of different creatures (D). Nevertheless, Brahma always remains in pursuit (E). Trying to rescue Saraswati, Siva is driven mad by Brahma; but Saraswati is able to heal him with a touch (F). She assumes a position in Indian culture similar to that of the Muses in Greece: she is the patroness of the arts and of all knowledge (F).

The story of Heracles (Hercules), the classic Greek hero myth: Heracles is the illegitimate son of Zeus, making Hera, as his name implies, his step-mother. She, however, hates him as living evidence of her husband's infidelity (A). She first tries to prevent his birth (A), then his birth mother exposes him (A). Like Oedipus, however, or Moses, Heracles is rescued and inadvertently adopted and nursed by Hera, not aware of his identity (A). This parentage leaves him with superhuman strength (C). Later, Hera sends snakes to kill him in his cradle (A).

Psyche's second labour.

As an adult, driven mad by Hera, Heracles kills his own children (A). It is to expiate this deed that he is forced to undergo his famous twelve labours. These require him to go to the very end of the earth, to collect the apples of the Hesperides (D). He is also one of the Argonauts who reach the opposite end of the Greek world, Colchis (D). This, however, is not the end of his troubles; Hera is still able to make him go mad (E), so that he kills his best friend. Ultimately, Heracles is credited with freeing Prometheus from his long torment on the Caucasus mountains, and Theseus from Hades (F). His death is an apotheosis, and he is worshipped as an Olympian.

The Theseus story has the same basic elements. Theseus, the strongest of men (C), is raised apart from his father, the king Aegeus. When he arrives, a young man, in Athens, his father's new wife is Medea, who has already killed all of her own children with Jason (A). She feels similarly toward Theseus, and tries repeatedly to off him (A), first by making him capture the Marathonian Bull, then by giving him poison. Theseus then volunteers to be one of the young sent as tribute each nine years to Crete to be fed to the Minotaur (A, D). He falls in love with Ariadne, princess of Crete, who helps him kill the Minotaur. However, Athena forces him to leave Ariadne behind, a loss they both suffer from for the rest of their days (E). The ship with which he returned to Athens is preserved from that time on by the Athenians as a sacred shrine (F).

Later, Theseus's wife Phaedra falls in love with his son Hippolytus (B). Phaedra falsely accuses Hippolytus of raping her (A) before hanging herself. Theseus then, misled, depending on the version, either kills Hippolytus with his own hands, or curses him, causing his death. Hippolytus becomes the object of a cult, in which young girls about to be married offer up at his grave locks of their hair (F).

Perseus and Andromeda: Burne-Jones.

Then there is Perseus. His father, unable to prevent his birth (A), casts him into the sea in a wooden chest (A, D). He is found and raised by a fisherman. The fisherman's brother falls in love with Perseus's mother Danae, and takes a hate to his prospective step-son (A, E). He sends Perseus off to kill Medusa, an impossible task, a double-bind. The lad nevertheless succeeds, and on his return, comes across Andromeda, left out by her parents a a human sacrifice (A). Perseus is supernaturally strong; Andromeda has provoked the envy of the goddesses with her beauty (C).

In fairness, it should be noted that both Theseus and Perseus can be said in a sense to have killed their fathers, as Freud would expect. Theseus, distracted by grief, forgets to raise a white sail on his returning ship. His father Aegeus, seeing this sign of a failed mission, kills himself in grief before he can learn the truth. And Acrisius, Perseus's birth father, steps into the trajectory of a quoit thrown by his son in a demonstration of the sport, and dies. But both these acts, like those of Oedipus himself, are unintentional on the part of the son, and the fault of the parent, if anyone's. The point, I presume, of the motif is that children really do “kill” their parents in a symbolic sense: they will survive their parents, and their existence is a reminder and a proof that the parent is not immortal. The main point the myths seem to want to make in mentioning this is that the children are completely innocent and cannot be blamed for this. Nor can the parent escape this truth by harming the child.

Let's compare the great Indian hero tale, the Ramayana. Rama, being an incarnation of Vishnu, excels in all branches of learning and all the martial arts; he is “the perfect man” (C). Although he is the oldest son of King Dasharatha, his stepmother Kaikeyi connives to have him cut from the succession and banished for fourteen years (A, D). During this exile, the demon king Ravana abducts his wife, Sita; he is obliged to travel the length of India, to Sri Lanka, in order to defeat the demon and rescue her. He then returns to his home, Ayodhya, and becomes a king who rules in perfect justice, presiding over a golden age (F). His reign is not happy for him personally, however: the population suspects the purity of Sita, his queen, because of her abduction, and so he is obliged to live apart from her for the remainder of their lives (E). A sad ending to a love story.

The infant Krishna being carried to safety across the swollen Yamuna River.
Krishna, the other great Indian hero, is persecuted by his uncle, King Kansa (A), who had killed all his older brothers as they emerged from the womb. To protect the infant, Krishna is smuggled away and given to a family of cowherds to be raised (D). Kansa sends a succession of demons to kill him (A, E), but he defeats them all, demonstrating his superhuman powers (C). He goes on to become the counsellor of Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, stilling his doubts over participation in a fratricidal war (F). The Bhagavad Gita is also considered the essential stsatement of Hindu faith.

What do you think? Have I made my point? I could go on …

At a minimum, the motif of the bad parent seeking the total control or destruction of his or her children is everywhere in world mythology. I am inclined to believe that this is a conscious and intentional thing, that mythology and fairy tale was and is psychology. It was created and preserved as medicine for souls. But, at a minimum, there is obviously a motif here that has resonated with readers and audiences everywhere and at all times, suggesting a common and deeply affecting experience.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Why Pearl Harbor Never Happened

December 7, Hawaii: a nip in the air.

I have more than once heard the complaint made against Japan that they have never taken responsibility for their aggression in World War II. Instead, bizarrely, it is said, they see themselves as a victim.

They are never going to take responsibility. This is because, by their own rules, they really were the victim.

Newcomers to Korea are commonly warned by old hands of what they must do if they ever get into a fight. The rules are not what a European or a North American would expect. If there is any kind of altercation, and the police are called, they are not interested in who started it. That is not relevant. The victim is whoever is most bloodied, and whoever gets out of the fight in better shape will be convicted as the aggressor, as a matter of course.

This makes good sense. It is often impossible to determine who really "started it." Is it the person who took the first blow? But then, what if they were provoked verbally? What if they were seeking revenge for their brother's beating a year ago? Why is there any special significance to the first physical blow? It is a very difficult thing to justly decide.

On the other hand, nobody gets into a fight in order to get beaten up.

Demonstrably, this works pretty well to prevent fights in the street: you cannot win in such a fight. There is a reason why the overal level of violence in Far Eastern societies is low.

So, as a point of Far Eastern law and common moral perception, whoever wins a fight is the guilty party, their guilt increasing with the decisiveness with which they win.

This of course runs counter to the Calvinist, and to some extent the Christian, assumptions on which the West and the US operate, which hold that, God intervening on the side of right, the good guys will normally win any fight.

Remove that assumption, and it is easy to see it all through Oriental eyes.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Damon Complex

A statue of Saint Dymphna in the Netherlands. Note the chained demon at her feet.

In the seventh century, in what is now County Tyrone, Ireland, a small kingdom named Oriel was ruled by a king named Damon. Himself a pagan, Damon had a beautiful Christian wife, and together they had an equally beautiful daughter, the princess Dymphna.

When she was only fourteen, Dymphna’s mother died. King Damon decided that he would take his daughter as his new wife. Dymphna, horrified, fled with her confessor Father Gerebernus, two servants, and the court jester. They ended up in the town of Gheel, near Antwerp in Belgium. There, having taken with them a fair amount of the king’s treasure, Dymphna and Gerebernus set up a local hospice and developed a reputation for their devoutnesss and charity. Unfortunately, however, their spending left a trail of distinctive Irish gold coins that Dymphna’s father was eventually able to follow. He showed up one day with his military retinue, again demanded marriage, and was again refused. So he beheaded his daughter on the spot, as well as the venerable Gerebernus. She was fifteen years old.

Over the many years since, Saint Dymphna has been widely venerated as the undisputed patron saint of the mentally ill. She is known and honoured not just in the Catholic West, but even in the Orthodox countries.

A Saint Dymphna medal.

Why? It is not immediately obvious that Dymphna’s story, whether historical or legendary, has anything in particular to do with mental illness. Certainly, there is no hint anywhere that Dymphna herself experienced anything we would identify as mental illness. Other popular saints have—one thinks immediately, for example, of Saint Christina the Astonishing.

Often, the association is explained by suggesting that her father was mentally ill—so that she was a victim of mental illness.

But this—like the similar suggestion that Hitler was mad--is nonsense. In the real world, people do not follow a leader for very long once they believe he has gone mad. There are, it is true, stories of early Roman emperors who behaved bizarrely yet retained the throne for short periods; but these are quite likely coloured by later propagandists. In times for which we have good sources, going mad on the throne immediately ends one’s authority. All government depends to some extent on the consent of the governed to at least that extent. When George III of England went mad, a regent was appointed. When Charles VI of France went mad, effective power passed to two princes of the blood. When King Ludwig II of Bavaria went mad, he was deposed. 

A Medieval image of Dypmhna's martyrdom. Note the chained demon again.

King Damon remained king. Indeed, the story makes clear that he needed to doggedly pursue his purportedly mad plan for some time, and enlist many agents, in order to make it succeed. This demonstrates plainly that his contemporaries did not think he was insane. Evil, yes; mad, no. Moreover, it is a cruel slander against the insane to suppose that the two are similar.

Strikingly, however, the story of Saint Dymphna repeats all the essential features of the real Sophoclean legend of Oedipus. Dymphna is Oedipus. Damon seeks to kill her just as Laius and Jocasta seek to kill their son. Damon seeks to mate with her just as Jocasta mates with Oedipus.

Whether the Dymphna story is historical or invented to fit, it surely shows some ancient wisdom that an experience comparable to this is the standard source of “mental illness.” Having experienced an abusive childhood to the logical extreme of incest and murder, Dymphna was perfectly situated to identify with and help the mentally ill.

It shows how close Freud really was with the Oedipus complex—if only he had not reversed the motives, parent to child.

To be clear, Damon, like Laius, was a type of the abusive parent. This abuse can go two ways, and the Dymphna story shows both: it can seek to harm the child, to scapegoat him or her; or it can seek to assimilate the child, to see him or her as a mere possession, a trophy child. The physical expression or objective correlative of the former is murder; the physical expression or objective correlative of the latter is incest.

A votive card showing Dymphna with the sword that beheaded her.

Freud, being hopelessly literal minded, rejected the true significance of the Oedipus legend because he could not accept that so many children were really being sexually molested. They probably weren’t, and aren’t. But he did not understand that incest and murder in dreams or childhood memories could be symbols for a spiritual and emotional rather than a physical experience.

For our part, we would do better, and matters would be clearer, if we understood mental illness as most commonly developing not from an Oedipus complex, nor even from a Laius complex, but from a Damon complex—the story of Saint Dymphna should be our guide.

And, in that respect, the two companions who helped her escape from her father are worth notice: the old priest, Saint Gerebernus, and the court jester. Assuming this detail is fictional, these may show the two great refuges of those in abusive situations, proposed cures for “mental illness”: religion, and art.

Saint Dymphna on a Belgian stamp.