On a childhood…

April 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

The American neurologist Jonathan J. Pincus on Frank McCourt from the chapter “Hitler and Hatred” in his book “Base Instinct – What Makes Killers Kill” ISBN 0-393-32323-4 page 179- 180:

“Frank McCourt’s book Angela’s Ashes offer insight into how abuse might lead to bigotry.

The author movingly portrays the poverty into which his father’s alcoholism and his mother’s depression had thrust the family. His father would return home late at night, intoxicated, his paycheck gone.

He would awaken his starving children and have them stand in the kitchen and recite noble poems and sing patriotic songs that celebrate the Irish and condemn the English as the cause of the misery of the Irish and, in extension, of his family.

As a reward, the father gave each child a penny with which to purchase candy the following day.

Their father successfully displaced his own responsibility for the family’s poverty to the English. Fortunately for the author, his father and mother were not violent and abusive [physically!?], but what if they had been? Could deprivation and abuse be the origin of IRA terrorism in lower middle-class Belfast?

The dreadful sense of helplessness and humiliation that is engendered by child abuse, the victim’s sense of powerlessness and fear, and the rage which spring from it are crucially important motivators toward violence.

Depression in an abused person intensifies this dynamic. The brain damage and/or intoxication that can be superimposed interfere with the capacity of the abused individual to control the expression of his rage and hatred.

The paranoia and delusional thinking of individuals who have additionally inherited mental instability and mental illness exacerbate these dark feelings and abolish the capacity to love, to trust, and to enjoy life.

So fundamentally do these factors harm the psyche that the life’s work with such victims can be seen as an attempt to escape from their victimhood and sometimes ‘rise’ to the level of perpetrators.”

But from where comes brain damage and psychiatric problems?

McCourt also writes about severe abuse by teachers at school. Not least physical. But this kind of abuse is also combined with other sorts of disrespect for the child. The realization that you have a living human being in front of you, with own thoughts, feelings, emotions, and reactions.

Violence is more than “just” physical.

Alice Miller on Frank McCourt in her book “The Truth Will Set You Free – Overcoming Emotional Blindness and Finding Your True Self” ISBN 0-465-04585-5 pages 100-103:

“Protection and respect for the needs of a child – this is surely something we ought to be able to take for granted. But we live in a world full of people who have grown up deprived of their rights, deprived of respect /…/

Also, there is less of a tendency today to idealize and romanticize childhood; the misery frequently comes across in all its starkness.

But in most autobiographies I have read the authors still maintain an emotional distance from the suffering they went through as children. Little empathy and an astounding absence of rebellion are the rule.

There is no inquiry into the whys and wherefores behind the injustice, the emotional blindness and the resulting cruelty displayed by the adults, whether teachers or parents. Description is all.

On every page of the brilliant book Angela’s Ashes, for example, Frank McCourt describes such cruelties in gruesome detail.

But even as he recalls his childhood, he never rises up against his tormentors, attempting instead to remain living and tolerance and seeking salvation in humor. And it is for this humor that he has been celebrated by millions of readers the world over.

But how are we to stand up for children in our society and improve their situation if we laugh at and tolerate cruelty, arrogance, and dangerous stupidity? /…/

Humor saved Frank McCourt’s life and enabled him to write his book. His readers are grateful to him for it. Many of them have shared the same fate and they want nothing more dearly than to be able to laugh it off.

Laughter is good for you, so they say, and it certainly helps you survive. But laughter can also entice you to be blind. You may be able to laugh at the fact that someone has forbidden you to eat of the tree of knowledge, but that laughter will not really wake you up from the sleep.

You must learn to understand the difference between good and evil if you want to understand yourself and change anything in the world as it is.

Laughter is good for you, but only when there is reason to laugh. Laughing away one’s own suffering is a form of fending off, a response that can prevent us from seeing and tapping the sources of understanding around.

If biographers were better informed about the details and consequences of what some indifferently call as a normal strict upbringing, they could provide us with precious material for better understanding our world.

But there are not many who try to figure out how such upbringing was experienced by their subject as child.”

I discovered that McCourt died almost one year ago, just before he turned 79 in the after-effects of malign melanoma. Something that felt so sad when I now finally have started to read his book and in curiosity started to read more about him, and listen to him.


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