Playing the Indian Card

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Dymphna Complex: A Summary

A friend of mine has told me he cannot really make head nor tail of what I am going on about with my recent postings on depression and the Dymphna Complex. He says it is all at "too high a level."

I do not mean to be obscure.

Perhaps it will help to summarize.

1. What we call depression is usually if not always PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder): it is the lasting result of some significant experience of stress. It is shell shock.

The symptoms are the same. The same treatments work on both. The matter seems obvious.

2. In most cases, this significant experience of stress will be in childhood. It can happen otherwise, obviously, as in war, but war is a fairly rare experience. Aside from war, childhood is the most likely place for such trauma to be experienced. A child is uniquely vulnerable.

Yeats once observed that it was wrong to imagine that most children’s childhood was idyllic. For some, perhaps, but not for others. Lacking prior experience, the child does not comprehend that all things change. If things are good, he supposes they will be good forever. That is the childhood idyll. But if, on the other hand, things are bad, he supposes this too will go on forever. The child’s psyche is especially vulnerable to developing a fixed attitude of fear or despair.

3. The most likely cause of such stress or trauma in childhood is abuse by parents.

The parent is, by the nature of that relationship, all-powerful. For a number of vital years, he or she is the source and ground of being for the child. It is expecting a lot of human nature to suppose that all human adults are prepared to use this overwhelming power responsibly and in the best interest of the child. It is only too probable that some will come home to “kick” the kid, just as in cartoons a man who has had a bad day might come home and kick the dog. An individual who does not see others as fully human is going to use their children badly as a matter of course—seeing them as their possessions.

This can be so even if the child is superficially favoured. Toys can be favoured too. Are they favoured for themselves, or seen as an extension of the parent?

This explains the rapid growth in depression in the postwar era. It naturally comes with the loss of the extended, and then even the nuclear, family. When the extended family is intact, no one self-centred parent can bully or possess the child completely. There are checks and balances. When we are down to just the nuclear family, the odds for kids are worse. It is only too likely that a natural bully will have married a doormat. And they are worse again in a one-parent family, as is increasingly the norm. A lot of kids are getting used like rag dolls. A lot are dying emotionally in these trenches.

4. Such abuse can be physical, sexual, or emotional. The most damaging is emotional.

We think we are aware of the problem of child abuse. But there is deliberate or accidental misdirection here. To begin with, we automatically suppose this comes from someone outside the family. Statistically, we know, this is not the case. To make it worse, there is a common lunkheaded insistence that only physical harm counts. If you don't see cigarette burns, there's nothing there. Everybody worries about spanking and about sexual abuse. 

This is rather trivial. Obviously, the psyche cares more about psychic things; which is to say, emotional blows. Messages that they are unloved, unlovable, worthless; that their position is insecure. That they do not matter. That whatever they do is wrong. 

This lack of awareness of the risks again tends to allow abusive parents carte blanche to abuse.

5. This fact, that depression is caused by abusive and selfish parenting, was clear in antiquity; we find it, for example, in all the myths. We find it in almost every fairy tale.

It has always been pretty obvious.

6. It was obvious to Freud as well, in his clinical practice, when he began to listen to depressed patients. He pointed to sexual abuse as the invariable cause of depression in his early work.

It remains, then, pretty obvious.

7. Later, Freud suppressed this theory and proposed instead the “Oedipus Complex,” which just about reversed everything. It relied on the basic premise that patients always lie. Instead of the parent abusing the child, neurosis was all about the child wanting to kill the parent.

But Freud does not really give his reasons for this reversal. The reasons he gave in private correspondence do not justify it.

This is the real mystery: why is this blindingly obvious thing being suppressed? And not just by Freud or the Freudians, either. Although the evidence has obviously been plain since antiquity, as we see in the hero legends, we have also always had widespread denial. For millennia, we had the old doctrine of the four humours. Like the psychiatry of the nineties, it wanted to insist it was all a matter of “chemical imbalance.” Depression was caused by too much "black bile" in the system.

Why has everyone been ducking the obvious explanation?

In the natural course of things, children are weak; adults are stronger. Adults will tend to stick together for their interests against children. Don't believe me? Witness the current attitude towards abortion. 

On top of that, the sort of person who is chronically selfish and out for themselves is the sort of person who will abuse their children, and see them as possessions. Exactly the same sort of person is likely to achieve power over others in the wider world, because it is what they want, and because they will be ruthless to obtain it. Therefore, calling out child abusers within the family, and calling out the parents of the depressed, is going to involve making implicit accusations against some powerful forces. 

There is a reason why Satan is called "the prince of this world."

For n additional reason, it is congenitally difficult for the emotionally abused child to directly blame and condemn the guilty parent. He or she has been raised in the foundational belief that the parent is wonderful, that what they think is all important, and that all failings are their own. That is a hard cycle to break. It is a leap into the void.

Therefore, just possibly, the issue of child abuse and of depression is the fundamental issue of all psychology, and at the same time the fundamental issue for sociology. 

It is also, I suspect, the key to the story of Jesus of Nazareth. He called to himself the children, and he called to himself those who mourn. Go through the Beatitudes; they read like a diagnostic manual for depression. And he placed the blame, pretty directly: check out his parallel condemnations of the Pharisees.

Interestingly, the Buddha too said his message was fundamentally for those who mourn. The first Noble Truth was that all existence is “dukkha.” “Dukkha,” sometimes rendered “ill-being,” or “suffering,” translates fairly well as “depression.” It is those who experience it as so who are ready to enter on the path.

Which brings us to the most important point. Fixing blame for depression is one thing, and it is an important thing. It is an important part of the cure, surely, for depressives to see through what their parents have done. It is the tragedy of Oedipus that he cannot.

But the Buddha and Jesus point to it, as do many artists.

Broadly, this is escape into the life of the mind. Contemplation of the true reality of things, far from the madding crowd.

It is the life of the monk, the nun, the philosopher, the (true) scholar, the (true) artist.

This is the door through which the fairy godmother appears: God knows his own, and they know him.

There is an additional factor that should be mentioned here: given a selfish parent, it is the exceptionally talented child, the strong, the smart, the beautiful, who will be most abused. They are the greatest threat to the parent (and, not incidentally, to any other egotistic people they may encounter later on in life). Hence the striking association of depression with both genius and, as Aristotle pointed out, heroes. And, in every fairy tale, with girls of great beauty.

And the Jews. 

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