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A Presidential Candidate Is Being Beaten

October 4, 2011

I am an unabashed fanboy of the classic fin de siècle era of the Loveline radio show with Adam (Carolla) and Dr. Drew (Pinsky). Both host and doctor are problematic and controversial, but in combination for a decade they performed an incredible public service for their millions of stoned teenage listeners, rare trustworthy voices on subjects like abusive relationships, psychotropic medication, STDs, and the morning-after pill. Hell, I was a graduate student in my mid-20s when I started listening, and it is no exaggeration to say that introduction changed my life for the huge and undeniable better. It embarrasses me not at all to admit this.

OK, it maybe embarrasses me a little, even though Dr. Drew, unlike, say, Dr. Phil or Dr. Laura, is the real deal. He is an M.D. with decades of clinical experience treating drug addicts and alcoholics. He is on the faculty of USC’s Keck School of Medicine. He hosts Celebrity Rehab on VH1. You get the idea.

The great recurring Loveline trope, however, is the lifelong damage done by childhood trauma, sexual, physical, and emotional. Since at least Peter Kramer’s 1997 Listening To Prozac, our society has tremendously (although not completely) de-stigmatized mental illness. Particularly in the broad middle ground between “normal” and disabling, psychiatric medication is so widely used that it can be mentioned in the cocktail-party manner. This is a remarkable attitudinal transformation, and while accusations of overmedication live in that same mainstream space they are different in kind from, say, the devastation wrought to Thomas Eagleton’s political career by his seeking electro-convulsive treatment for intractable depression.

Childhood trauma, on the other hand, has undergone no such rehabilitation. As a society, we are loathe to admit that what happens to us at the beginning of our lives, particularly if it is bad, delimits and informs the potentialities of the adults we become. Such a recognition would impinge on our conception of freedom, itself one of our significant addictions, at least rhetorically, despite the widespread recognition of the medical community that childhood trauma changes the brain–the physical brain, not just behavioral manifestations–in ways analogous to indigenous mental illness.

A curious double-consciousness thus emerges. Hardly any figure commands more rapt attention than the child in danger, particularly when threatened by a parent, viz. Casey Anthony, if an example is even needed. As Freud noted, a child being beaten is a preoccupation of both the neurotic and the untroubled, and the phrase itself, in its disembodied passive, takes on an incantatory, nearly hallucinatory quality, as has also been noted. We wring our hands for the beaten child but pay little heed to the damaged adult s/he is likely to become. Consider the silence surrounding Rick Perry, who was beaten:

“If I misbehaved in class, Mom would find out about it before I got home,” Mr. Perry wrote, and his father would get the news on returning from the fields. “Dad believed in the pain principle. His leather belt was usually the delivery method of choice.”

This is textbook child abuse, and yet our political culture, which follows the minutiae of a yearlong campaign that has yet to cast its first vote in rapt breathless detail, can’t spare a single word on a dominant fact about one of its most prominent figures. In what purports to be a story about his origins, the Times passes right over Rick Perry qua trauma survivor. This silence is absolutely typical, and it does more than rob us of an understanding of the man who may be our next president. Close to 100% of contemporary social pathologies are rooted in the pervasive violence we do to children. From a public policy perspective, this is fighting with both hands tied behind our back.

The results of childhood abuse are now fairly well understood. Dr. Drew puts it this way in a July 2008 Playboy interview:

“When you experience the terror and helplessness that comes from [childhood] trauma, they shatter your brain’s ability to regulate. Normally we build our capacity for emotional regulation from other people, but if you’ve been traumatized, you exit that frame. … [Y]ou become an adult projecting your chaotic feelings onto the world and grounding yourself in strange, dangerous ways.”

In this context, Rick Perry’s more outrageous behaviors–threatening violence to Ben Bernanke if he comes to Texas, equanimity in the face of evidence that his enthusiasm for the death penalty put an innocent man to death, association with a religious movement that can only be described as totalitarian–make more sense. They aren’t the tough talk of a tough guy from a tough state in tough times; they are the projections of his chaotic feelings onto the world. If he is elected, they threaten to ground our country in strange and dangerous ways.

None of this is to say that the victims of childhood abuse are somehow ineligible for public service. Indeed, a properly treated trauma survivor may be uniquely suited to lead empathically, as a mood disorder may have uniquely suited Lincoln. But pretending that the abused child does not regularly become a damaged adult serves no one. Our collective acceptance of the silence measures how wide and deep such trauma runs. In breaking that silence, Loveline did inestimable good, but it did so mostly alone. Our politics are the least of the casualties that follow.

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