psychology


bravery

‘You’re brave’, the dog walkers call out, seeing me swimming in the river on winter mornings.  I smile and wave.  It is difficult having a conversation with somebody on the bank from the middle of a cold river, but if I could catch my breath, I would say, ‘this is not brave; it’s cold, invigorating even, but not brave.  Besides, I want to do it.  It makes me feel good and able to face another day’s writing. It’s a means to an end, but brave; no, I don’t think so.  

Bravery is a moral quality.  Psychotherapist Dr Coline Covington, who spoke at a meeting of Sheffield’s Hallam Institute of Psychotherapy last weekend, said it was more about standing out from the crowd and doing something you may fear but you know is right.  

The day before Armistice Day was an appropriate time to be thinking about bravery.  The guns fell silent on the western front a hundred years ago.  Many of us have been remembering relatives who lost their lives in 20th century wars and saying how brave they were.  Millions of men volunteered to fight for their country, not just because it was a great adventure, but because it was their duty.  My father flew Hurricanes for the RAF.  A man, who, like the Prince of Wales, raised self deprecation to an art form, he nevertheless told me that when he and his friends were training to be pilots, they were informed that only 1 in 9 would survive.  None of them pulled out. 

Dr Covington talked about bravery as being true to oneself.  But how do we know what being true to oneself means?   Most of us get our moral compass from our parents.  Through instruction and example they show us how to be, or perhaps more appropriately how not to be.   ‘No’ is the most important word we ever hear.  So being true to ourselves means being true to the values inculcated in us by our parents early in life, which we subsequently identified with as our own.  A parent with strong moral principles will instil those into us. These then become the standards we endeavour to live up to, but inevitably fall short.  When my father had crashed his aircraft in Scotland and was fighting for his life, his father sent this telegram, ‘Chin up as always, Bummer!’   

My father and millions of other men, who signed up to fight in first and second world wars, were undoubtedly brave.  They did what they felt was their duty, they helped to defend their families and country in a time of adversity and were true to the principles they had internalised from proud and patriotic parents. 

This was the moral code I inherited from my father, who was a hero despite crashing on a training flight in Orkney and never engaging in conflict.  The same ethos was reinforced by being sent to a ‘good public school’, where like other similarly idealistic school friends, I joined the Combined Cadet Force, Britain’s last hope.  I learnt a little of what it was like to be a soldier: the endless drill, the polishing of brass buckles and badges, how to get a shine on your toe caps you could see your face in. I also learnt how to strip down the engine of a three ton truck, maintain my ex WW1 .303 calibre Lee Enfield rifle using a pull through and a piece of 4 by 2.  I fired a rocket launcher and sped across Salisbury plain in a Churchill tank.  I went on route marches, which as platoon commander I subverted to nature rambles through the Derbyshire countryside.  I led mock commando nocturnal assaults on ‘enemy positions’ in remote woodlands.  But all of that was just playing at soldiers.  It wasn’t the real thing. 

I needed that frisson of danger.  So I took up rock climbing in North Wales, was terrified, even fell off on a VS climb with the forbidding name of Ivy Sepulchre, but forced myself to climb it again.  I applied for and was awarded an RAF flying scholarship.  In my first cross country solo flight, I got lost in low cloud over Dartmoor and only found my way back by flying 200 feet above the main road to Exeter.  On another occasion, I practiced stalling the aircraft but put it into a spin – the fields rotating in front of me as I dived towards them, but I remembered just in time how to apply full opposite rudder and restore level flight.  Knowing what to do saved me from panic and disaster.  Was all of this brave or was it just doing what was expected of me, proving myself to be worthy of my father’s bravery?  Even when their marriage was coming apart, my mother conceded, ‘your father was a brave man’.  

No doubt all this boy’s own adventure stuff required a kind of courage, a drive to test myself and risk disaster, but it is not the moral courage that Covington was describing.  The soldiers, who obeyed orders and walked through No Mans Land while being raked by machine guns, were incredibly brave but must have felt they had no choice.  It was their duty.  Besides all their mates were doing the same thing; they could not be seen to be cowards.  But the conscientious objectors were also brave; they also stood up for what they believed was right and faced almost certain death by firing squad. The difference lay in the values they embodied: ‘thou shalt defend thy country’ or ‘thou should not kill’.  I remember hearing an interview in which Tony Benn, who resigned his hereditary peerage to campaign for social justice, said how his father instructed him to ‘dare to be a Jonah, dare to stand alone’. Identification with the principles, instilled in us by our parents or teachers, gives us the moral compass that determines our character.

So should we stick to what we believe to be right even when it means betraying one’s friends, society or country?  This challenges our notion of selfhood.  For most people, their notion of ‘who they are’ is constructed with reference to friends, family, community and society at large. So, when faced with a moral dilemma, their duty or need to belong may be stronger than their own convictions.  Covington told the story of a young woman, who was part of a partisan group fleeing the enemy in the forests.  Her baby, just a few weeks old, started crying.  She didn’t hesitate, she took it to the stream and held its head under the water until it was dead.  Was her action brave or an act of cowardice or did she have no choice?  In extremis, people do what they feel they have to do.  

Courage can be an act of moral self defence.  The anorexic defends their independence at the risk of physical survival – she or he is on hunger strike.  Similarly, the freedom fighter risks their life for a cause.  To abandon what we know is right because we are frightened of disapproval, loss or physical danger, or because it is best for our family, may leave us feeling we have let ourselves down. If we do the right thing, we might lose social support for a while or we may even risk our livelihood, but if we don’t do it, the shame and the guilt may haunt us for the rest of our lives.  The problem with being brought up with strong moral principles is that the challenges to live up to them can seem more conflicted and extreme and the burden of shame or guilt after the inevitable moral failure deeper.  It’s not so much what we did that continues to afflict us, it’s what we didn’t do. Soldiers, who survived when their comrades were killed, or holocaust survivors often express a deep sense of guilt.  

Our sense of morality is determined by the ethos of society and it changes with time. I wonder, therefore, whether the concept of bravery still has the same resonance.  One hundred years after ‘the war to end all wars’, do young people still embody the kind of death or glory courage of their great-grandparent’s generation.  Or is contemporary bravery more about being prepared to campaign for social justice, protection of the environment, demilitarisation or liberal principles?  Is it about expressing opinions that may not gain the approval of their Facebook friends?  As ever, their moral compass, as set at least initially by their parents, may encompass ideas of work, financial integrity and self actuation, all of which serve the individual rather than society.  Young people are too aware of the futility of foreign wars to volunteer as they did a hundred years ago.   No less brave when it matters, but more realistic.  

But those of us brought up in the shadow of war may still require some a gesture of valiance.  No – swimming in cold rivers is not bravery, but the ritual morning survival may feel a bit like it …. until the next time.       

apocalypse-snow-end-of-the-world-is-nigh-as-snow-on-italian-beach-fulfils-prophecy-by-italys-nostradamus-136413594068803901-170112133733

Sea levels will continue to rise, Homes will be flooded. Weather will be more extreme with droughts, floods and hurricanes.  There will be shortages of food and widespread famine. There will be epidemics of disease, mass migration, civil unrest, war. People will suffer a loss of livelihood and liberty. There will be a complete breakdown of civilisation. Predictions of the effects of climate change are apocalyptic.  It seems that ‘the end of the world is nigh’, but is calamity that imminent or are our media outlets too short of money and too high on catastrophe and ‘fake news’.     

It does not seem to me so long ago that our then prime minister, The Right Honorable Mr Harold MacMillan, The Westminster Walrus, told us that we had never had it so good.  He was right.  The sixties were a time of optimism and freedom when everything seemed possible and few were aware of a warming planet.  Public optimism has been going downhill ever since.   

50 years on, we may have not quite have reached the point when governments must step in with radical solutions, but we have perhaps reached a critical stage of awareness.  If patterns of extreme weather continue and begin to impact on our way of life, we will all be spending more of our income on essentials like housing and food and less on holidays and entertainment. Cheap flights will disappear.  We may have to give up our car and get a bike.  Many of our individual freedoms will be curtailed or become very expensive. Our diet will become less diverse as imported food will cost more.  The attempts we may all have to make to avert or mitigate the most catastrophic losses, will threaten our aspiration, culture and identity and involve the loss of our accustomed lifestyle.

Nevertheless, many will respond to such doom-laden predictions with indifference, apathy or cynicism.  Increased awareness of climate change has not yet translated into appropriate concern and action.  How can we think about it without either going into denial or sinking into depression and inertia?  At a recent meeting of The Sheffield Psychoanalytical Journal Club, my friend and fellow therapist Stephanie Howlett presented for discussion a paper on ‘Loss and Climate Change’ by psychoanalytical psychotherapist, Rosemary Randall, director of Cambridge Carbon Footprint. 

Climate change is like getting old or facing a terminal illness; it’s a loss that is bound to happen. Life, of course, is a terminal illness, but we only become aware of that when we approach the end and can experience the symptoms of decline.  So we might gain some insight into how to cope with climate change by thinking about how elderly people cope with their impending demise.  But climate change is not just something that’s facing the elderly, it is something that affects the young as well.  And the elderly among us may never experience the changes that will affect our children or grandchildren; the major effects of climate change on food supply and population dynamics may not occur for another 20 years.  So is the fear of climate change something that affects the young more because they will experience the worst effects or does it predominantly affect the old because they are already aware of the end of their own lives?  Young people often regard themselves as immortal; death only happens to their grandparents.    

So how are people dealing with the reality of climate change?   Some, like Donald Trump, deny it is happening.  They regard it as fake news, exaggerated by a sensationalist media, but isn’t that itself an assault on truth?  More acknowledge the reality of climate change, but disavow its seriousness. Disavowal means you don’t have to face the anxiety; it is happening elsewhere.  The present continues to feel safe but fear is split off and projected into the future; on the one hand,  false comfort; on the other, nightmare.  If we can manage to stop catastrophising the future and wrapping the present in cotton wool, we may diminish both extremes and make loss manageable for our children and grandchildren.  

Others may accept the reality of climate change, but blame others; the Americans or the Chinese or those with expensive cars and life styles, all the while maintaining their own way of life. It’s the same with Brexit: the government are hopeless and the EU vindictive.  Ministers downplay the seriousness of the situation and affect an attitude of control; they have to, otherwise they would never be re-elected.  In psychoanalytical terms, both are examples of collective splitting and projection.

Even if we full acknowledge climate change, we all have to find our own way of dealing with that reality if we are to avoid sinking into hopelessness and depression.  Some may adopt a manic defence.  ‘I’m alright Jack: I can have a good life in New Zealand or Scandinavia. I am not going to let it affect me’. Or ‘ok I know it’s going to happen, but I will make the most of the time left to me’.  The broadcaster, Clive James, has been dying for years but in the meantime has managed to write some of his best poetry.  In The Story of San Michele, the Swedish doctor, Axel Munthe observed that during the devastating cholera epidemic in Naples, people took to making love, often with complete strangers – on park benches, in fountains, anywhere – as if in a frantic bid to find life in the midst of death. 

Although we may wish to accept what is happening and engage with it in a positive sense, most of us will probably protect ourselves by banishing it from our minds and not thinking about it until something forces us to. Death is going to happen but not yet.  Continual fretting about the impending loss can only lead to depression and inertia – the less you can do, the more loss you suffer. But when loss remains unspoken, then change and adjustment cannot follow.  A better understanding of the nature of the loss might allow it to be brought back into public discourse and for people to feel a sense of agency.  God-fearing members of religious communities may regard death a necessary sacrifice to assure everlasting life in Paradise.  Our current secular society does not have such comforting delusions.  

But is climate change something we can engage with?  Or is it, like a terminal illness, an overwhelming inevitability.  Engagement means facing up to our own destructiveness.  Mother Earth is both our breast and our toilet and we are destroying both by compromising food supply and polluting the planet.  Can we ever assuage our personal sense of guilt by getting a bike, not going on long haul flights and installing solar panels?  Maybe not, but by engaging, it may feel good to be part of a solution, however futile.

Loss, even anticipated loss, involves a gradual withdrawal of energy from the loved object. Grief is a process of adjustment and acceptance, always in progress, two steps forward, one step back, never complete.  When a loved one dies, life can never be the same again, but meaning can be restored and it may even become possible to flourish.  With climate change, it’s our world that must end. How can we ever get our minds around that?  Denial and disavowal may be part of an ongoing process that may allow that painful reality to be assimilated. Many of us may accept the idea of climate change intellectually but moving from there to the reality of a lived emotional experience and acceptance of its irreversibility may not be possible. 

Perhaps we should all join the Green Party and campaign for radical solutions?  Collective action can make people feel so much better when they are in the jaws of calamity. Sharing the enormity of the problem might paradoxically garner enough  support to make life tolerable if not enjoyable. During the dark days of 1940, Winston Churchill did not attempt to hide the stark reality of Britain’s situation and was able to appeal to a spirit of resilience in the British people.  Hope, however futile, can always stave off feelings of despair and the ensuing inertia.  But does the same communal sense of purpose still exist in our current narcissistic society, where every man and every woman are for themselves and posting it all on Facebook. It is likely that most will only engage when endgame is upon them, but that will only be to turn to religion. 

ball-tampering

Bowler Cameron Bancroft and captain Stevie Smith at their news conference in Cape Town.

It took but a moment. During the lunch break, several senior players hatched a plan. The fall guy was their new fast bowler, Cameron Bancroft. They persuaded him to smuggle a piece of sticky tape onto the pitch and apply it to one side of the ball so that it would pick up dirt and make it swing more in the air. The problem was that the sticky tape was bright yellow and his actions were witnessed on screens all round the world via a host of television cameras. According to the rules of cricket, a player is not allowed to tamper with the ball to gain an unfair advantage. This includes abrading one side with a fingernail or dirt in the pocket or rubbing it on the ground, through strangely spitting on the ball to dampen one side and buffing up the the other side of the ball on the trousers is allowed. It all seems a bit arbitrary. But in cricket as in life, players must play by the rules.

Cricket Australia reacted swiftly. With one test match left to play in South Africa, they recalled Smith, the captain, Warner, the vice captain, and the bowler, Cameron Bancroft.  It was only after they returned that they realised the enormity of their crime. Smith broke down in tears in front of the world’s media; he had let himself, his father and everybody else down. Australia lost the last match by 322 runs.

Bill Shankly, the manager of Liverpool FC during their glory days, once said, ‘Football is not life and death; it’s more important than that’. He was right. The identity of thousands of fans are invested in their team and its players, but for Australia, cricket carries the identity of the whole nation. Cricket is the national game. More respect is afforded to the players than to the Prime Minister and members of his government. We all know that politicians can cheat and lie; it is part of the job, but cricket is an honourable pursuit. Even the poms can criticise the Australian government, but heaven help them if they slag off the Australian cricket team. Australians are very proud of their team; not just because they are such dedicated and skilful players, but because the Australian team, unlike other nations, are thought to play the game fairly according to the rules.

So, by cheating, the players have not only shamed themselves, they have shamed a whole nation. Australia is no longer that pure, uncorrupted, sunlit island in the southern hemisphere; they are cheats, like everybody else. No wonder there has been such a storm of anger in the Australian media.

Sport is a metaphor for society. And society has to be run according to rules. If those are flouted, then the society collapses into meaningless anarchy. Although cricket is ‘only a game’, it means so much to so many people that the players have to play fair. If they don’t, what is the point of playing? Not only Australian Cricket, but the whole game worldwide becomes meaningless. Millions of fans who believe in the integrity of cricket no longer have any anchorage of identity. Yes, indeed, cricket is more important than life or death, it is about meaning and identity.

The psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein, wrote that at about the age of 2 or 3, children reach what she called ‘the depressive position’, when they first realise they are not the centre of their own universe; there are others to consider and they can’t do just what they want. This might also be called ‘the stage of disillusion’. She added that we may continue to encounter the depressive position many times throughout life, especially when we are encouraged by our achievements and the admiration of others to feel that sense of hubris or false pride. But pride always comes before a fall.

Australia’s cricketers are folk heroes with almost god like status. Worshipped by a whole nation, they may come to believe they can do no wrong, as long as they keep on winning. No doubt Smith and Warner felt that with a crucial test series against South Africa in the balance, winning was so important that the risk of cheating was worth taking. Maybe their hubris was such that they thought they were beyond reproach. How wrong they were. The higher our heroes climb, the harder they fall. Smith and Warner have gone from hero to zero in less than a day and only Bancroft may be excused because he was younger and in thrall of his seniors.

Is this just a sign of the time? Are we living in a time of such scepticism, when a reality television host and self confessed sexual opportunist can become President of the United States, while here in the UK, we read every day about the incompetence of our leaders, the corruptness of the police and judiciary, the mistakes of the health service, the irrelevance of the royal family, and only a minority of people believe in God.

There is more outrage over the latest incident of ball tampering than there was in 1994 when that icon of the game, the English captain, Michael Atherton, was observed to be rubbing dirt from his pocket on one side of the ball. He was fined £2000 but was allowed to continue as captain. I am not sure Smith will be as fortunate. Perhaps we need our heroes too much these days. If they cheat, then it means that we no longer trust the integrity of the players and will have to rely increasingly on technology. Freed from the obligations of honour, players will be forced to find ever more inventive ways to break the rules. And that my friends, will not be cricket.

Caravaggio,+Narcissus

Narcissus by Caravaggio. 

 

‘He constantly goes on about his own stuff and never listens to anybody else’

‘She is so fond of the sound of her own voice’; I can never get a word in sideways’

‘Their children are so wonderful, I can’t quite believe it’.

‘He just needs an audience. It is so boring.’

 

When I was growing up, there was nothing worse than to be big headed. It echoed the other big taboo: being spoilt. We all recognised it; the boy who told us how wonderful he was, who insisted on having his own way and was not interested in anybody else except himself; the girl who was constantly preening herself, going on about all the friends she had, all the boys who lusted after her. It was Sigmund Freud, who first called this ‘narcissism’, after the myth of Narcissus, who spent so much of his time gazing at his own reflection in a pool in the forest.

The prince who fell to earth.

Everything came so easily to Jake; he never needed to try. He had achieved top grades at school and won a scholarship to Harvard, where he obtained a first class degree in economics. He was, it seemed, guaranteed a brilliant career. If Jake is given a target to aim at, he would excel, but he finds it difficult to motivate himself; he plays computer games, surfs the internet; anything except working.  At weekends, he goes to parties and gets high on drugs. Despite his natural brilliance, his life is going nowhere. He tells me that he is working on a project that could net him millions but he never seems to get on with it

An their only child, his parents had viewed him as the embodiment of their own frustrated ambitions. His father had a job on the railways, his mother in a shop. They worked hard and saved their money in order to give Jake the best education they could afford. Although he realises how much he owes his parents, he blames them for controlling his life and not letting him find his own way.  Jake still lives at his parents’ home. He has the best bedroom, converted the garage into his personal gym and uses the living room as his office, but he continues to persecute his parents for not giving him the ‘space’ to work.

Jake contacted me to help him get some direction in his life. At his first visit, he was  agitated and never stopped talking.  He listed his numerous achievements, not only in the academic world, but also as a skier, mountaineer and competitive motor cyclist. It seemed there was nothing he could not do, except get on with other people. He finds most people boring and either escapes into his computer games, obsessive work or gets high on drugs. He has a girl friend but finds her boring and only good for sex. He seems lost and lonely.

The essence of narcissism.

The essence of narcissism is self-centredness. People with a narcissistic personality tend to exhibit a grandiose sense of self-importance, exaggerating their achievements and talents and expecting to be recognized as superior. This may not always be without reason. Some, like Jake, have achieved a great deal.

Driven by fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love, their personal standards often seem unreasonably high. They are ‘the chosen ones’, entitled to be the focus of attention, attracting special treatment and only associating with high-status people or institutions.

Since their focus is on themselves, people with a narcissistic personality show little empathy with the feelings and needs of others, whose achievements are often derided. Nevertheless they are often oversensitive to being ignored or criticised.

The bigger the front, the bigger the back: a narcissistic personality often conceals a profound emotional fragility; their boastfulness compensates for a severe lack of self confidence; their fragile personality is over-dependent on the approval of others but does not trust it.  Self aggrandisement can oscillate with self deprecation and self denigration. If things are going well and people respond to their extravagant and impulsive behaviour, they feel confident and happy, but if others fail to respond or are critical, they may easily become depressed.  So people with severe narcissism may oscillate between ‘exuberance and depression’ as they try to navigate their way through the world.

In their narcissistic world, everything that happens is perceived with reference to themselves; they not only feel specially privileged when things go right but also unfairly treated when things go wrong. They lack the empathy to see things from the others viewpoint and understand, forgive and forget. This may cause them to slip into paranoia.

Personal relationships are largely superficial and serve to enhance their own self importance rather than any genuine care or interest in another’s personality or opinions. Men may chose trophy girl friends or wives; women – successful husbands. The lack of any emotional connection between narcissistic partners inevitably leads to disagreement and disappointment and may culminate in hatred and rejection.

What is the origin of narcissism?

Narcissism depends on consciousness of the self and that only arises with the development of episodic memory somewhere between the ages of two and three. It is then that the growing infant realises that they are not the same person as their mother and cannot do exactly as they wish. ‘No’, is the most important word, any of us ever hear; it launches us into a life of increasing separation and independence. We are not the only pebble on the beach; there are others to be accommodated; not just mum and dad, but brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunties and uncles, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Self awareness might be said to mark the beginnings of socialisation.

Narcissism can be thought of as a failure of socialisation. If children are overly praised and incompletely sanctioned, they can grew up thinking they are the most important person in their world. Perhaps they were too much desired; conceived to enhance their parents lives or fulfil their ambitions.

Too preoccupied with their own needs, narcissistic parents may never allow their children to develop their own separate identities, but keep them close in order to enhance their own self regard. Parents who sacrifice themselves to educate their children, may rear children who are programmed to succeed in order to obtain love, but feeling they don’t exist if they fail. Unable to be loved for themselves or even to know themselves, they may come to feel there is no real meaning or purpose in life. This may explain why Jake not only attacks his parents but also tries to annihilate the person they had produced by dangerous activities and self destructive behaviour.

So are narcissists the children who have never grown up? Is their whole purpose in life to fulfil their parents ambitions and succeed? Do they tend to attract similarly narcissistic partners who see themselves reflected in the regard of their attractive and talented partner?  ‘What is falling in love but the mutual expression of narcissism?’

Can we all be narcissistic?

The American Psychiatric Association estimates that Narcissistic Personality Disorder is present in 6% of people living in America. This figure might seem unrealistically low, but it only represents those people who have such persistent narcissistic behaviour that it is a dominant feature of their personalities.

Narcissistic behaviour is pervasive throughout our society. We all have acquaintances who are so ‘full of themselves’ they never listen to anybody else. We are all familiar with the daily exhibitions of self aggrandisement on social media sites. We all know people, who are constantly obsessed whether somebody likes them or not, or those who continue to carry a sense of personal grievance for years. These are all aspects of narcissism.

It can seem we are living in a narcissistic world, where so many people tend to talk at each other and compete rather than engage, where all of their stuff is put out on ‘Facebook’, which serves as a poster board rather than as a vehicle for communication, and where everybody aspires to be a celebrity. Is this the result of increasing cultural insecurity, greater opportunity and reward for self advertisement, the prolongation of a state of childhood, or a combination of all three?

We can all exhibit narcissistic behaviour at times. Who among us cannot recall a time they were so carried away with their own exuberance after some particular achievement that they felt ashamed? Who has not been in situations where feelings of inadequacy has led them to overcompensate? Who has not felt ostracised because of something they might have said or done? Narcissistic behaviour depends on what happens, especially how other people behave. Promotion, reward or praise may release the brakes on self publication. Conversely, feeling ignored or treated unfairly may consolidate a sense of grievance or paranoia.

Self-centredness should not always be seen as a negative quality. When we are threatened and in danger, it can ensure our survival and the survival of our dependents. And, off course, we all need a degree of self belief if we are going to manage in the world; we cannot always expect to be looked after. The aim of socialisation might be expressed as the ability ‘to be ourselves in the company of others’, which implies sufficient self awareness and belief to survive in society. Like everything else, narcissism is a matter of degree and balance.

There are of course certain occupations where narcissism is encouraged and rewarded. Actors, politicians, sportsmen, performers of any sort, captains of industry, military commanders, all need to express a strong sense of self belief, which they do not always feel.  We respect and admire their narcissism and even wish we were not held back by conscience and could be like them. My friend and fellow university lecturer, David Rumsey, understood this, when, on the occasion of my appointment as Professor, he said, ‘we are all delighted that Nick has got a shiny new chair, because when he sits down, we shall get the reflected glory.’  We all need friends who can contain our narcissism with gentle humour.

Not only promotion, recognition and achievement, but in particular falling in love can be seen as an expression of narcissism. There can be nothing as intoxicating as perceiving your reflection in the eyes of your beloved; it beats staring into a forest pond.

The occasion flush of narcissism is quite normal and can feel wonderful but needs to be managed in order to remain healthy and survive in the society of others. Too much of it can lead to unreality and therein lies a form of madness. This may explain why so many celebrities find it difficult to survive failures and reversals without self doubt, extreme depression and escape into addictions. I used to encourage my more ambitious research students to dream with their head in the clouds, but always to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground.

Managing narcissistic behaviour.

Extreme narcissistic behaviour is like drug addiction; it perpetuates itself. If narcissistic people are getting attention they crave, why would they want to change? And if they get it wrong and are ignored and disapproved of, all they want is to do is to make themselves feel confident again. Unless they crash, there is no incentive to correct their behaviour. But narcissistic personalities crash all too commonly; marriages fail, children are damaged, the career that was so brilliant, can collapse because of the one hasty decision  that didn’t work out.

Time and life experience can provide the opportunity to reflect on life’s reversals, understand others’ points of view, appreciate the consequences of their behaviour and change. But patterns of behaviour consolidated over a lifetime rarely change unless they get help. Psychotherapy can help people gain that sense of perspective and control over their own behaviour by creating the mental space to reflect with a therapist on what has happened.  A combination of mentalisation to promote understanding and empathy and cognitive behavioural strategies to modify responses, may correct patterns of socialisation and normalise mood and behaviour.

The British psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein, coined the term ‘the depressive position’ to describe the developmental phase, when an infant realises his own limitations. He (or she) can’t do just what s/he wants to do and has instead to conform to the mores of family and society. This leads to feelings of depression, which nevertheless encourage thought, course correction and learning. People with narcissistic personality disorder may never resolve ‘the depressive position’ early in life and are most likely destined to repeat it later, often many times.

 

They said this thing just couldn’t be done.
With a smile, he said, he knew it.
But he tackled this thing that just couldn’t be done
and he couldn’t do it.

st_augustine_hippo_24

When I was much younger, I worked for a few months at The Villa Maria Mission Hospital near Masaka on the western shores of Lake Victoria. Every evening, I had dinner in the refectory with ‘the white fathers’, who ran the mission. Sustained by delicious African food and the local beer, we shared views on life and the state of the world. One evening, the conversation switched to sex. I tried to justify the fact that I was still in an early ‘experimental’ stage of sexual relations with young ladies and not inclined to ‘go steady’.  I explained that, although not a catholic, part of me felt drawn to a contemplative, monastic existence. My companion turned to me and somewhat ruefully commented, ‘You remind me of Saint Augustine; you want to be good but not yet.’

That made me curious. Who was this kindred spirit and why was he a saint? I thought little more about it until this week’s episode of In Our Time on Radio 4 when Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Augustine’s ‘Confessions’.

Augustine was brought up in the Roman province of Numidia in what is now Algeria in the 4th century AD. His was a typical Roman colonial family of freed slaves. His father was a merchant; his mother a Berber, but deeply religious and fiercely ambitious for her son. He had a good education, studying Latin, rhetoric, grammar and logic. He learnt how to deliver speeches and wrote a good many letters. ‘I lie for a profession’, he once declared.

‘Confessions’ was perhaps his most famous work, in which he acknowledged not only the hedonism of his youth but also his long term relationship with a concubine, who bore him a son. This was a different world: at that time young Roman men were expected to gratify their sexual desires with slaves, who were often willing partners since they derived benefits from the relationship. Although Augustine explains that the relationship started with an act of lust, he became devoted to his mistress.  He nevertheless abandoned her in order to marry and obtain a dowry that would allow him to advance in his career and perhaps obtain a provincial governorship.  His designated fiancé was just ten years old and Augustine had to wait until she was 12 before they could marry. Although he satisfied his lust with another concubine, his heart was no longer in it and he gave up all three women for a life of chastity and devotion to God.

In what now might seem an intellectual defence, born of guilt, Augustine wrote of how the the divine spark, the purity of a relationship with God, is corrupted by the appetites and desires of the body. This led to his notion of original sin; the notion that man is born fallible, but can be redeemed, not necessarily by repentance and discipline, but by the grace of God, the arbitrary nature of which was beyond man’s understanding.

At the time, Christians expected that Jesus would return; after all, hadn’t he promised he would? The fact that he didn’t suggested they were irredeemably bad, which coincided  with the notion of original sin, but Augustine suggested that there was no real evil in the world, only human weakness; a rupture of the will.  Sexual desire was part of human nature, which was inevitably flawed. People were all too ready to submit to their own desires and turn their back on God. Augustine confessed his human weakness, but was never certain he had received the grace of God.

Augustine’s Confessions included a detailed discussion of how he stole pears from an orchard when he was a very young boy, explaining how he was not hungry, nor did he particularly like pears; in fact he threw them to the pigs.  No, he just wanted to experience the thrill of transgression – being naughty, but he recognised that if he could steal pears, he could also steal land or countries; there was no moral difference.  Adam and Eve lost paradise because they disobeyed God, followed their own will and stole the apple. The trivial act of stealing fruit was a metaphor for something much more important.

Augustine’s conversion to Catholicism occurred after he met Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, Ambrose introduced Augustine to the philosophy of The Neoplatonists and he begin to contemplate on the inner world rather than the outer world. He concluded that God was real but immaterial all at the same. The same might apply to the concept of the mind. He also preached that the Bible was not meant to be taken literally. It was a series of allegories; lessons on human nature.

I wonder how Augustine’s philosophy would have been received by our current secular society.  It seems that the extended metaphor of the Bible would have included the deity; the; the immaterial human mind transposed for God. Existential concepts such as sin, guilt and shame have been encultured in us by upbringing.  Childhood and adolescence may be seen as a process of increasing socialisation, a time when we adopt the mores of the culture. Transgression does not offend against God, it offends against our own nature and is punished by feelings of unworthiness and depression.

But how might we equate sexual freedom with fidelity? Augustine’s prayer, ‘grant me chastity and continence but not yet’, seems a pragmatic solution, that identifies him as a human being, with all the virtues and faults that entails. We might all identify with that. As long we can behave in a way that does not undermine cultural values by exploiting or harming others, we may accept and live with ourselves without conflict and guilt.  After all, Augustine has been there before us and survived.

Donald-Crowhurst-on-board-001

In 1968, Donald Crowhurst, an electronic engineer and inventor in his mid thirties, living in Teignmouth with his wife and young family, decided to take part in the Daily Mail Golden Globe challenge: to sail round the world single handed without stopping. He had even mortgaged his house and business up as security on a loan to pursue his dream and collect the prize. The problem was that Crowhurst, a weekend sailor, had only ever sailed as far as Falmouth before. Nevertheless, he managed to convince his sponsors that his trimaran design would be faster than other boats. Moreover his bid would publicise his inventions: The Navicator, a hand held navigation device, and a unique buoyancy aid for trimarans consisting of a self inflating balloon fitted at the top of the mast that uprighted the boat if it capsized.

Starting nearly three months after the other eight competitors, Crowhurst had decided to finish off the refitting of his boat while at sea. Just a week out, he encountered a fierce Atlantic storm and realised that he and his vessel, the Teignmouth Electron would never survive the seas he would encounter in the southern ocean. The gaskets leaked and the hulls were filling with water, the buoyancy device had come apart and the plywood construction could not withstand the buffeting of the waves. But with the hopes of the people of Teignmouth, not to mention the support of his sponsors and the enormous publicity he had attracted as a plucky amateur, he carried on down the Atlantic through the horse latitudes, much too slowly to have any chance of winning.

50 years ago, we didn’t have global positioning satellites; the only way people knew the speed and position of The Teignmouth Electron were the reports he sent back by radio telephone. At some stage, Crowhurst must have decided that, in order to maintain the interest of the public and potential sponsorship, he would need to fabricate his position, making out that he had speeded up, even breaking the record for the greatest number of miles sailed by a single handed yacht during a single day. But somewhere in the South Atlantic, he punctured one of the hulls and had to put into the coast of South America for repairs. He could not face the reality of failure, so he went out of radio contact, leaving others to assume he was now in the southern ocean, but in fact he was drifting around somewhere off Argentina. Seven weeks later, about the time a fast boat would have made it round Cape Horn and back into the Atlantic, he came back in radio contact. There was great excitement. There were only two other yachts in the race. Robin Knox Johnston was already home and claimed the prize for the first back. There seemed a good chance Crowhurst would overhaul Nigel Tetley and win the prize for the fastest circumnavigation, but that would mean his records would be inspected and found to be false, so he mooched along slowly in the Sargasso Sea waiting for Tetley to get back. Coming in a plucky third after eight months by himself at sea would still mean he would get a lot of publicity. Then disaster struck: 1000 miles from home, Tetley pushed his boat so hard to stay ahead of Crowhurst that his boat broke up and sank and he had to be rescued. Crowhurst just had to return to win the prize, but if he did that, his deception would have been discovered and he would be branded a cheat.

He went out of radio contact again for the last time. The Teignmouth Electron was discovered by the RMS Picardy drifting in mid Atlantic like the Marie Celeste. Crowhurst had gone; his body was never found. Had he committed suicide? Had he just fallen overboard? Or had he lost his mind because of the months of loneliness and intolerable stress? Examination of the boat showed that he had thrown his navigation gear and cut the trail line that he might have grabbed hold of if he went overboard. His log books revealed a confusion of philosophical ramblings on Einstein’s theory of Relativity, and a last enigmatic entry: ‘It is finished, it is finished; it is the mercy.’

His family were devastated and were only saved from total destitution by the winner and sole remaining competitor, Robin Knox Johnston, who donated his prize money to Crowhurst’s widow. Clare Crowhurst did not marry again and is still alive in her eighties. She has never believed that her husband had committed suicide.

So was Donald Crowhurst a fantasist, carried away by a dream of adventure and glory? Was he so lacking in self esteem that he needed to do something that he and his family could feel proud of? Did he feel stuck in the rut of his life? Probably all of those are correct, but his decisions were all about Donald; he never seemed to consider the impact of his actions on his young wife and family. He put his personal shame of concealment and loss of face above the devastation of his family. Yes, he was courageous to set out on such an adventure, but the braver thing to do would have been to admit he couldn’t do it after just surviving that first storm, or perhaps put the challenge off until the next year when he might have been ready, but that was clearly not an option. He was already in too deep water to pull out.

From a psychotherapist’s perspective, Crowhurst showed quite driven narcissistic behaviour; he put his own self aggrandisement and idealisation above any empathy for his family and friends and could not face up to the reality of his situation.  There are some indications from Donald’s early life that offer insight into possible mental instability. After he was born in India in 1932, his mother had so desperately wanted a girl that she dressed Donald in girl’s clothes for the first seven years of his life. Perhaps he never felt he could be loved for the boy he was. His father worked for the Indian railways, but when India gained independence, the family returned to England, leaving their savings invested in an Indian sporting goods factory, which burned down in the riots. Crowhurst’s father never settled back in England and died of a heart attack the following year. Donald was forced to leave school early and started a five-year apprenticeship at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. In 1953 he received a Royal Air Force commission as a pilot, but was asked to leave in 1954 for reasons that remain unclear. He was subsequently commissioned in to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in 1956. but he left the same year owing to a disciplinary incident. All of this suggests some confusion of identity when he was very young, and some degree of impulsive behaviour as a young man. So perhaps Donald always had a tendency to get into deep water, which might have contributed to feelings of inadequacy and an intense need to prove himself even if it meant taking extreme risks and hiding the truth.

A new film about Donald Crowhurst, ‘The Mercy’ starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz, has just been released. I enjoyed it.

Donald TrumpThis was the book, Donald Trump tried to ban, but failed. Michael Wolff was given unique access to the west wing as a fly on the wall journalist for the first nine months of the Trump presidency. If his host knew what he would produce, he would have been swatted. The result is an appalling indictment of the president and his administration.

Trump had never expected to win the election; he had banked on losing and then making a lot of money in television. He wanted to become the most famous man in the world and he probably is, but not for the reasons he would have liked. Donald Trump is undoubtedly the least qualified and capable president, America has ever known. He had never worked in government before; never studied law or politics; he had a degree in economics and estate management from a minor university. He was a businessman, joining his father’s business as soon as he graduated. All he knew of politics was gleaned from the television news.

Not only that but the personality of the man seems totally at variance with the role of a president. Wolff paints a picture of a man, who is impulsive, mercurial, emotional, paranoid and totally uncontained and unpredictable. Despite his macho persona, Trump is a man who cannot make decisions. He may seem to make up his mind very quickly, largely on the basis of how he feels about the last person who came to see him, but he changes it just as rapidly. On difficult decisions, he prefers to procrastinate and let them make themselves or hand over the brief to someone else and then forget about it. If it succeeds, he takes the credit, if it fails, then they have screwed up and are fired. According to Wolff, Trump cannot see the bigger picture, and therefore tends to make rash, polarised judgements about situations. He has a very low attention span and never listens to advice. He gets bored with people who present him with the information he needs to know, he never reads briefings, he doesn’t even follow his own script when he has to give a speech and is likely to go off on a rant and repeat himself. This all implies a limited capacity to think.

Trump reacts to personalities rather than issues, either loading them with fulsome praise or dismissing them completely. He creates dramas; he wants to be the centre of attention, even when it is bad news, he has little empathy and can be ruthless and cruel when he doesn’t get his own way. Were it about any other person, Wolff’s book might be dismissed as media hype or dysphoria; fake news – to quote a Trumpism, but it seems to confirms what most of us already know already; the man is quite unsuited to be the de facto leader of the western world. What seems so shocking about Fire and Fury is just how damningly, the man and his administration are portrayed.

Wolff reports that Trump is universally derided by members of his staff, who variously describe him as a child, a clown, a moron, an idiot and stupid. But is he so cognitively challenged? After all, he was a very successful businessman and in his words, very very smart. Isn’t it more that he is emotionally unstable. Donald Trump would appear to be a text book case of a narcissistic personality disorder.

Donald was fourth in a family of five children, which might suggest he had to fight to get his parents’ attention.  Trump’s father, Fred, was a belligerent, uncompromising, ruthless man; he created a son, who was driven to achieve his father’s approval.  Donald’s relationship with his father was ambivalent; he both resented his control but was at the same time devoted to him and determined to become a much more successful businessman. Donald must have been difficult teenager for his father to send him away to a military academy, where he subsequently excelled. I could not find any information about Donald’s relationship with his mother, but I would guess from his subsequent behaviour around women, he needed his mother’s love, but didn’t always get it. Mary- Ann Macleod Trump, who emigrated to new York from Stornaway in the Outer Hebrides,   was more reserved with her children than her husband and somewhat vain.  She had a curious orange hair style rather like her son’s.

Although he quickly became a billionaire from his real estate business, the world of Manhattan and in particular the media, regarded him as a joke, a lightweight, a wannabe. Donald Trump hates to feel humiliated and will always seek revenge.  His emotional insecurity was soothed by a sense of entitlement; he always had the money and power to get his own way.

You would think that for a man who prides himself in being a good judge of people, Trump would appoint a top team to run the country.  Not so: Trump needs to be in control; he is too insecure and sensitive to criticism to let others be seen to run the country. The people Trump has chosen to help him are either his own family, hustlers who believe they can manipulate him to get their own agendas met, or ‘yes men’ who try to manage him by letting him think he is in charge, while they get on with the business of government.

Steve Bannon was the White House Chief Strategist for the first eight months before he too was fired. Crude and as uncontained as his boss, he could speak the language, Trump liked to hear. They would have dinner together every night. But Bannon had his own ultra right wing agenda. It was Bannon who was behind the isolationism of Trumpian politics, who wanted to limit immigration, repeal Obamacare, build a wall along the Mexican border, withdraw America from the Paris Climate accord, but all of this was music to Trump’s ears. Bannon was like Thomas Cromwell was to the King, but Trump never had the guile of Henry VIII. The danger was that even if Trump disliked Bannon, he owed him a debt. It was Bannon, who was largely responsible for Trump winning the election with his ultra right populist politics. The two men were said to be closer than a marriage. Their recent divorce could still produce a lot of fall out.

Trump has now been in office for over a year and apart from a reform in the tax system, very little has been achieved. His first year has been a constant firefight. And if there wasn’t a crisis, Donald Trump with his not stop sequence of tweets and turns would make sure there was one. Members of his staff rarely have lasted more than a few months with the exception of his daughter and son in law. The investigation into the Russian influence in the 2016 election; the social media campaign against crooked Hilary, is coming ever closer and could result in impeachment. Bannon lurks under a rock at Brietbart News Headquarters biding his time, awaiting the fall. He has been reported as saying that the chances of Trump’s impeachment are 33%, resignation 33% and hanging on for the rest of his term 33%, dismissing entirely any change of a second term, at least not while there is a chance of a take-over by President Bannon.

If we can take Wolff’s observations and opinions at face value, the worrying question for the rest of the world is how the Americans could have elected somebody, who is so inept, to be their president? And why does he remain so popular? Michael Wolff may criticise the man, but perhaps we should question the society and the system that elected him? Has America got the president it deserved? Does a narcissistic society get a narcissistic president? Is it a dysfunctional news media that controls public opinion and politics these days? Whatever else Trump is, he is compelling news.

Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes

Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think finally, the only real question.

Most of us have only one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one matter, only one finally worth telling.

But if this is your only story, then it’s the one that you have most often told and retold, even if – as is the case here – mainly to yourself. The question then is: do all these retellings bring you closer to the truth what happened, or move you further away? I’m not sure . One test might be whether, as the years pass, you come out better from your own story, or worse.

This is the start of Julian Barnes’ latest book, ‘The Only Story’, which Joan gave me on Valentine’s Day. I was touched: romance is clearly not dead, but then I read further ……

Paul was only nineteen when he met Susan. She was forty five and had two teenage daughters. They were drawn to partner each other in the mixed doubles tournament at the tennis club in the Surrey village where they both lived. Although they were not the most successful tennis partnership, they made each other laugh. Paul had a car and would take her home after tennis. Their unlikely relationship developed. The found time to meet other than at tennis, they spent weekends away together and Paul would even make love to her in her bedroom at home while her husband, whom she derided as ‘Mr Elephant Pants’, snored in another room. They were both smitten, though it was such a high risk affair.

They put money into an escape fund and ran away together, renting a flat in south east London. At first things went well. They were happy. Paul got into law school and studied to be a solicitor. He felt very responsible and grown up. But then, he began to notice that Susan was drinking rather a lot. She said that she needed it to relax, promised to give up, but after a while made no attempt to hide it from him; she was more obviously drunk when he came home and more irritable. Then Paul found that she was deceiving him by going back to see her husband when he was away at Uni. The drinking became worse and along with it, her mental state, but they were both too dependant on each other to end the relationship.

Eventually after several episodes when the police were called and Susan was admitted to a psychiatric institution for a time, Paul realised that his mental health was also deteriorating. He had to get away. He took a sequence of posts abroad, but not before he wrote to her daughter to ask if she would look after her mother. But he always kept in touch with Susan, coming back to see her whenever he was in London. Susan never stopped drinking, never got better and died prematurely of liver failure. Paul never married. Their’s was his only story.

Julian Barnes never seems to tell a happy story. His plot lines are full of convoluted and tortured relationships that explore the nature of the human condition. ‘The Only Story’ tackles several monumental themes: intergenerational sexual relationships, addictive attachment, and self annihilation.

Separation from one’s parents is a vital rite of passage for a young person. Although Susan is not his real mother and her husband is ignored and emasculated, not murdered, Paul’s relationship with Susan, conducted while he is still living in the parental home, is what Freud would have described as oedipal and does not allow him to develop his own identity. Instead, he forms an intense attachment with Susan, which lasts all his life. Susan, despite bearing two children and established in the community, is also naive, but too anxious to manage alone without the help of alcohol. They are both like children who have never grown up.

Inevitably, their relationship fails. Perhaps it was too intense, too needy; it didn’t allow any personal space But as Susan’s love deteriorates into a tiresome habit and then into a kind of hatred, the alcohol addiction that comes to replace it disintegrates from a prop to become a means of self destruction. To survive, it seems, relationships must be a balance of independence and togetherness. The secret of life, as the child psychiatrist, Donald Winnicott once said, is ‘to be alone in the company of others’, but that requires a degree of self reliance and responsibility. We can end up hating a partner either because they are too needy or because we need them too much. The sad thing is that, having risked all for their love, Susan and Paul had to make it work. They had made a trap for themselves.

Why do human beings tend to have this inclination to do the very thing that is likely to damage them the most? Is it that they fear not being able to do the thing they want to do so they pretend they never wanted to do it anyway? Or is it more than that? Do they just want to destroy the whole idea of self control and responsibility? Would they rather live for whatever gives them excitement or pleasure, even if that turns out to be the route to meaninglessness and self hatred?

FreudFor many years, scientists thought that consciousness was a peculiarly human phenomenon that resided in the cerebral cortex, that deeply fissured cap of fatty substance that overlies the more primitive ‘brain stem’ that we share with other mammalian species. The things that we didn’t ‘know’, our ‘unconscious’ mind, that raison d’être of psychoanalysts that controls our instincts and drives, was thought to be hidden down in the brain stem adjacent to those centres that control basic functions like respiration, temperature control, sleep and eating. Under certain circumstances, however, this ‘dark matter’ in the unconscious was thought to surface and influence our feelings, thoughts and behaviour, but it may be accessed through the psychoanalytical interpretation of dreams, symptoms, free association and behaviour. Freud called the conscious mind, ‘the ego’, representing the self or ‘I’, while the ‘unconscious’ was the ‘id’ or ‘it’. The purpose of psychoanalysis, he asserted, was to make the unconscious conscious, so that our reason for our drives and behaviour could be understood and changed.

Once an idea has been accepted, scientists try to fit their observations to that theory, but in Science, there is never any absolute certainly, there are just ideas that seem to fit our observations better than others.

In the beginning was the feeling.

Earlier this month, at a conference venue overlooking the Regent’s Canal just before it disappears into the tunnel that burrows under the London Borough of Islington, the South African neuropsychoanalyst, Professor Mark Solms claimed that Freud got it the wrong way round. The great man confused the content of consciousness, all the associations stored in the cortex, with its function. In 1923, he wrote that the ‘conscious’ ego is derived from the environment as discerned by our major sense organs. The ‘unconscious’ id, on the other hand, detects certain changes within the body as fluctuations in the tension of instinctual needs (or drives), which are perceived as feelings. So how, declared Solms, can the ‘id’ be unconscious? Consciousness emanates from the brain stem as feelings that include include desire, joy, hunger, care, curiosity, play, fear, disgust, sadness, loss, pain and are related to certain basic physiological functions. After all, we can all feel happy or sad without the mental capacity to recognise we are happy or sad, let alone reflect on what caused the feeling.

So, in direct contrast to Freud, Solms asserted that the id, representing our feelings or needs, is conscious, while the ego – all the stuff stored in our cortex – aspires to be unconscious. After all, we can only hold a very limited range of content in our conscious mind at any one time. The vast majority, 99.999%, is sequestered away unregarded until required. Similarly, most of our actions are automatic. Think of the way we use a keyboard, drive a car, play tennis. If we tried to think about what we are doing, we would instantly make mistakes.

So do our feelings about what happens make us aware of content tagged with the same emotional salience stored in the cortex? Is consciousness rather like a librarian searching the stacks with a torch for relevant content? Are we only conscious of particular associations, stored in the cortical stacks, when those are triggered by feelings? This would seem unrealistic, since the range of feelings even allowing for every minor nuance would only run in the hundreds if that while database of memories in the cortex, even allowing for complex associations probably amounts to hundreds of thousands. So is it more that what happens accesses memories and that their emotional tag causes us to react in much the same way as the immune system reacts to bacterial antigens displayed on the surface of macrophages? After all, the way we think about things can certainly affect our feelings just as our feelings influence the way we think. In science as in life, things are rarely either/or, but both.

It seems likely current awareness is a feeling state that creates associations with stored memories and tags them with a particular emotional salience, transforming drives and feelings into object and verbal representations so they can be worked through and then restored to long term memory. We can sense the way this works when we recall our dreams. Dreaming is widely thought to be the way the brain consolidates experience. Dreams have a certain content, often related to what happened the day before, relevant, albeit somewhat abstracted, associations and a theme that is related to feeling. If it were not for the feeling, conscious perceiving and thinking would either not exist or would decay away. A mind unmotivated by feelings would be a hapless zombie, incapable of managing the basic tasks of life.

If we ever doubted the role of the brain stem in creating consciousness, consider those children born with hydranencephaly, who have no cortical development whatsoever; just a fluid filled space where the cortex should be. They not only wake up and go to sleep at appropriate times, but they also demonstrate the whole gamut of emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, love/care as well as what may regarded as pre-emotions such as hunger, thirst, discomfort. On the other hand, people with very discrete lesions in the brain stem, can go into a deep coma even though the cortex is completely intact.

Even cows can get the blues

Other mammals have the same brain stem structures as we do and, as any pet owner will testify, demonstrate the same range of emotions. It is a fallacy to say that animals have no feelings; they might not be able to reflect on those feelings but they feel everything and respond appropriately to a whole range of stimuli. It is their ability to think through situations, delay gratification and develop strategy, that seems limited compared with ours; though within their own environment, chimpanzees, dogs, dolphins and many other species, show remarkable cognitive capability. One of the books, I received last Christmas was ‘The Secret Life of Cows’. It described a whole range of caring, exploratory, aggressive, contented behaviours in animals which we often dismiss as stupid. James Rebanks described much the same in his Herdwick sheep in his book, The Shepherd’s Life. Even whales express a range of emotional behaviour. Perhaps we don’t wish to think that the animals we slaughter and eat have feelings too.

 

the secretIris had known there was something different and rather strange about her since she was very small, but she could never quite put her finger on what it was.  Her mother, Elizabeth, was everything to her; she not only clothed her, fed her and cared for her as most mothers would, there was something deeper, stranger. Her mother knew her so well she seemed to be able to regulate the way she felt. This feeling of difference intensified when she went to school. Her mother had wanted to educate her at home, but was persuaded by the social worker that this would not be in Iris’ best interest. At school, the children seemed to know she was different, a bit weird but not in any obvious way. After all, she looked like a normal little girl, and she was bright and interested in things. Maybe it was the way she didn’t seem to want to join in with the other girls; it was like her mother was enough for her. As she grew older, her isolation intensified; she never hung out with the other girls. Her somewhat detached air of self containment irritated them and she was picked on and bullied, but her mother knew her so well and was always there to calm her and make her feel secure.

She began to ask questions. Why didn’t she have a father? Why were there no aunts or uncles; no grandparents? Why did her mother have no close friends? It was like she and her mother were everything each of them needed. As Iris developed into a young woman, they even looked identical: same height and shape, same colour hair, same way of walking, same choice in clothes. People did a double take when they saw them both together. It was weird. This feeling of strangeness grew in Iris; she wanted to know who she was and where she came from. Elizabeth was evasive, telling her that she was not old enough to know yet; she couldn’t handle it, but that only intensified Iris’ curiosity. Once, Janey, Elizabeth’s sister, came to Chicago. She kept looking at Iris and seemed almost frightened of her. It was all very odd.

Iris had to find out what was going on. When her mother went out, she began to search through her papers. In the cellar, she found an old filing cabinet. It was like a treasure chest. There were all sorts of things in there from way back: Elizabeth’s old school reports and certificates, letters from boy friends, a whole stash of letters from her mother, sad, poignant letters that indicated a big rift in the family, but there was no mention of Iris’ father. Then she found it; tucked away at the back of the bottom drawer  was her birth certificate. She hardly dare read it.  Next to the heading: father, the registrar had written ‘none’, and under that by way of explanation: ‘clone’.

So there it was. Iris was a clone of her mother. She was not a separate person, she was just a copy.  Suddenly, everything was explained: the unnatural closeness to Elizabeth, the sense of strangeness, the estrangement from family, the absence of a father – everything!  But it was devastating!  Was she some kind a monster; a freak of nature? Did she even exist outside her mother? What was the point of carrying on if she was just a copy of her mother?  What future did she have if it was already determined?  Could she ever have her own identity? She had to get away.

They had a violent argument. Iris got her fingers round her mother’s neck and almost throttled her. They could both no longer exist in the same space. Then, some days later, in the middle of the night when Elizabeth was asleep, she left. She flew to New York.  It was where her mother’s family had lived.  She needed to fill in the gaps.  Perhaps if she knew more about her mother, she could begin to know herself.  She stayed in the Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan, was picked up by a man in the bar, had sex with him more out of sense of curiosity than desire. She even went to the clinic where she was made and met the scientist who had produced her, but this just intensified her sense of alienation. With the help of Piotr, a strange geeky young man, she lived with for a time, she hacked into her aunt’s computer and found where her grandparents lived. She flew to Palm Beach and surprised them. Whether it was the shock of seeing Iris, meeting a facsimile of Elizabeth as she was when they had last seen her or just ‘natural causes’, her grandmother, who had not been well, collapsed while they were walking back from the beach.  Within a few days, she was dead, but not before Iris, as Elizabeth, was able to forgive her ‘mother’ for putting pressure on her to have a baby.  Her grandfather died a few weeks later.

Returning to Manhattan, Iris lived with Janey, enrolled in university to study molecular science, and went into therapy, though the psychoanalytical interpretations seemed too rigid and not entirely relevant to her situation. Then she met Robert first on an on-line chat room that allowed her to reveal who or what she was.  Robert recognised her own unique self, and they fell in love.  It was the final act of separation. She was no longer her mother. In a strange, dream like sequence, Iris and her mother see each other again while walking in France. They both stop, turn and walk the other way.

 

Eva Hoffman’s intriguing novel uses ‘the clone’ as an extended metaphor to explore the notion of separation. It is something that we all face. In the beginning we are part of our mother and then gradually we grow apart and establish a sense of our own identity. Childhood is a protracted process of separation until we leave home and live our own lives. Sometimes our mothers are reluctant to let us go and fail to give us the freedom to explore our own personality. Then we may struggle to separate or, needing ‘the other’ to survive, we may dive straight into a merger with somebody else, who then becomes our new soul mate.  Or we may never really separate; there are still mother and daughter dyads who claim to be ‘best friends’.

Elizabeth did not only try to prevent Iris from developing an independent life, in perhaps the ultimate narcissism, she  created her as a copy of herself.  Iris was Elizabeth, except that she wasn’t, in the same way that identical twins are not the same person. They may share an identical genetic template, but this becomes overlain with differences in experience so that with time they become different people. It raises the whole nature/nurture discussion. Genes can only provide a blueprint, a tendency to behave in a certain way; the rest is the epigenetic and psychological influence of environment and experience. The notion of self is a creation, not a given.

Iris may have looked like a young Elizabeth, but the influences on their lives were very different. Elizabeth never had such an incestuous relationship with her own mother; she had an extended family, a sibling, grandparents, friends. Iris had own known the intensity of her relationship with her mother and some difficult times at school and with friends as a consequence of that relationship; she was a different being, but, because of her unusual situation, somewhat flawed and autistic.  Her psychological development was much the same as many others, whose relationship with a parent is too close.  This was why, if she was going to find ‘herself’, she would need to ‘kill off the mother in her’.

Iris escapes and spends the next few years trying to discover who the is, first by archaeology through contact with the doctor who made her and her own extended family, and then by accreting layers of her own experience and finally by realising her own independent self in Robert’s recognition and acceptance. How she was created is no longer relevant. It is who Iris has become that matters. She is her own person.  But this is not a boy-meets-girl, happy-ever-after romantic tale. Robert and Iris didn’t get married. Perhaps, having struggled so hard to find her own identity, Iris was not willing to subsume it into a merger with another person.

 

The Secret by Eva Hoffman was published in 2001. Born in Cracow, Poland, to Jewish parents who had escaped the holocaust by hiding in the forest in Ukraine, Eva was brought up in Vancouver, went to University in Texas and now lives for part of the time in Hampstead. The Secret is undoubtedly informed by considerations of her own identity.

 

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