Warrior Child by Via Davis | Studio Psycherotica

Oh Mom & Dad

Planet Waves | September 2001

By Eric Francis

"Most people never get out of it," John Lennon observed in one of his last interviews. "Some people cannot see that their parents are still torturing them, even when they are in their forties and fifties. They still have that stranglehold over them, their thoughts and their minds. I never had that fear of, and adulation for, parents."

Excellent point. But is it adulation and fear that keeps the stranglehold? Or is it these things, plus something else, something much more insidious?

Most therapists will tell you, if you ask them, that most of what people deal with in their healing and growth processes is their parents. Their age does not make a difference, and neither does whether their parents are living or dead.

Relationships with lovers and, for that matter, with psychotic ex's, relate to our parents; money issues come back to our parents; whether we feel free has a lot to do with our parents; how creative we are able to be comes back to our parents; whether we can allow ourselves to feel fulfilled comes back to our parents. All of this holds true most of the time, and true enough that it's wise to investigate.

It's an especially good idea to investigate if you feel your life is going in circles or if you can't get your money situation together. There is a good chance that something you learned about yourself from your parents, something that was not true, is a big part of the problem.

I'm not claiming that healing your neurosis is about blaming your parents. I am saying that our parents exist at the root of who we are. Their influence on us reaches into the strange time when were pre-verbal, and long before. They gave us life, they gave us a name, they defined what we think of as reality and, till we get a grasp on who we are, they set the limits on our bliss.

I find it interesting how many people dismiss the influence of their parents when they're trying to figure out what's happening today. The most common excuses for doing so are "it was all in the past" or "it can't matter now."

In tracing the influence of parents, we must not only investigate with what they did to us, we must face what these people believed about themselves, and how that transferred onto what they believed about us. Often their beliefs are relics from different periods of time, and also relics from how they were treated by previous generations. It sounds basic, but many people are living in Great Depression-style scarcity because that's how their grandparents said showed them how to live.

Seemingly small events during childhood can mean a lot as well.

I'm still haunted by an event going back to when I was about 12. I wanted a banjo -- I always did. My father was an accomplished jazz rhythm guitarist; there are pictures of me standing in my crib, set up next to the amplifier, with a big smile on my face. And so one day about 10 years later, I put forth my enthusiasm and appealed to his value of music, and convinced him to buy me a banjo. We looked around in Manhattan and found a fine one that I loved, an S.S. Stuart.

When we got back to my mom's house with it that night, I discovered that it had a low fret, causing a buzz in one note of one string. He took it back to his place and returned it to the store, seemingly angry that it was an inferior product. He never brought back a replacement, or had the first one fixed.

Talking to some musicians years later, they basically said to me, "A low fret? He plays guitar? He should know that a low fret is no big deal." It's a minor adjustment. So, I am left wondering what was motivating him to make that decision for me. Could he have felt threatened by a 12-year-old plucking his first few notes on a banjo? People really do think this way (we all have, at times), so one wonders. His own memory is hazy on the event, but he says he was concerned that I had wanted to take it to summer camp (which sounds like something a kid might do, and lots of adults for that matter).

The way a kid thinks, the immediate impression is, "I don't deserve that banjo. I'm not good enough" or "Daddy is angry at me." It doesn't matter what the reality is. And these thoughts, which result from concrete experiences, make impressions that have effects on how we think of who we are, and can shape our ideas about who we are. And these things happen thousands of times in a childhood, depending on how conscious our parents were.

We can and often do remember these events, we can feel the pain, but the most important step is to figure out how they are operating in our minds today.

Now, here's a story from mom. When I was little, around nursery school age, my mother said that I could not sing; that I had no ability to carry a tune and never did. That is what she said. Perhaps I could not, but some of us now know you don't tell this to a kid, you just sing along. She was on her way to a professional musical or theatrical career when, as one version of the legend went, I was born and ruined everything. Or, she got married and I was born and she had to stay married.

With this statement, I not only had my permission to sing, a basic human need, revoked by a supposed expert and daunting authority figure; it was implied that I could never learn. But moreover, I somehow had to bear the responsibility for her not having musical opportunities, which is a big job for a little kid. While the notion that I am responsible for her not having musical opportunities may be a complete hallucination on her part, or on my part, or whether she said something once in anger, the thought is present in my mind to this day. And the total thought registers like this: I can't sing because you can't sing.

It turns out that I can actually sing, and if I put a little energy into my voice I can even carry a tune. And it works out further that all kinds of people have all kinds of careers with kids tugging at them. So, I have to be clear with myself that it's not my fault that she didn't get what she wanted out of her life -- if, that is, I want fulfillment in my own life. Because as long as I am carrying guilt for her "failure" I will be unlikely to allow myself to succeed. (She is now part of a choral ensemble that performs at Carnegie Hall, so she feels better.)

When we think of events like this, we do not typically think of them being responsible for the guilt we feel as an adult. We might think we feel hurt or remorseful or sad about this kind of losses. But I have noticed in myself and observed in many that guilt is an extremely potent influence, and that I have seen that it is largely these kinds of events that lead to its creation.

(Shame is another story; shame is intentionally being made wrong, or being dumped on, including being sexually abused. Its toxicity increases in families where there is addiction and sexual abuse. But I believe there also families without shame, and yet these same families may be teaching guilt.)

What I have related above, in these music stories, are experiences of having been pruned: trimmed back to more manageable size. This happens to all of us, since as kids we have awesome, seemingly limitless life force and spontaneity, and our parents, themselves having been pruned, clipped and shrunken down to size, tend to have somewhat less. So the usual solution is to prune the kids, which as kids we resent. It makes us angry and the anger festers. It has nowhere to go. We cannot meaningfully challenge our parents, or make much of an impact on the flow of events. And we have great motivation to hold them up as perfect people, since they control whether or not we eat, and hold a variety of other kinds of power. So, we direct that resentment inwardly, at ourselves.

We blame ourselves, in anger, for what happens to us, for events over which we have o control.

That inwardly-directed anger at having been cut back, trimmed and limited is called guilt. As a result, we can live with a guilty conscience much of our lives, feeling constantly like we're "doing something wrong" or "in the way," or with the sense that "the moment I am succeeding or having fun there will be a disaster." All of these are forms of guilt. Guilt is often installed in us by more powerful people (and assorted religions institutions) so they can control us easily.

As an illustration, I offer the invisible dog fence. This is an electronic fence that goes across the perimeter of a yard, and the dog wear a collar that shocks her when she gets to the edge. After a while it's no longer necessary to turn on the fence, because the dog is unlikely to go there. This is how we relate to many regions of ourselves, particularly sexual ones (sexual guilt is another story, related in this link).

One paradox of guilt (there are many) is that when we feel guilty, we presume we're wrong. I would propose that when we feel guilty we're on the road to freedom, if we cut through the illusion. Think about this carefully, and try it some time. If you are feeling guilty, presume for a moment that it's because you are doing what is right (for you) and was in the past (or perhaps the present) territory that was or is threatening to someone else; or that you are using someone else either as an excuse to not be as alive as you can be in that moment.

So, on the way to being free, we get to confront guilt. Confronting guilt means challenging our parents, which means breaking our deeply ingrained loyalty to them. In essence, to overcome guilt, we must betray our parents, who are usually at the root of the whole issue. We must betray them, for the most part, internally, that is, the parental voices we have internalized which tend to limit our movement, emotions, thoughts and ideas.

"Betray" also means "reveal." My dad called me up as I was writing this column late last night, and I had a revelation. He wanted to talk about guitars (this has never happened before). Earlier in the year, he fell and broke his left elbow. Surgeons fixed it, but he feared he'd never regain the necessary rotation to actually press the strings to the fretboard. I assured him otherwise, vehemently. "If your physical therapist doesn't think you'll recover the motion, get a new therapist." He persisted with the process and has regained a lot of motion.

The other day, he discovered a guitar called the Parker Fly, an ergonomically-designed instrument that looks like modern art. It's about two inches thick. He sat in the store and could play it for 15 minutes! But he was not sure he could afford it; he would have to sell one of his other guitars, or dip into savings. He was hesitant.

Could he possibly be feeling guilty about buying a guitar he could actually play? At sixty years old?

I flipped. "If I were there I would show up at your door with a whip, and we'd be at the store buying the thing."

"That's what your brother said."++