Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's final work, Childism, was published soon after her untimely passing in December of 2011. In the book, Young-Bruehl, a long time psychoanalyst and child advocate, focuses on the pervasive prejudice she feels overshadows many children in our society. Be it abuse, or the modern day phenomenon of helicopter-parenting, she felt these injustices served to demarcate children, marking them as less worthy than adults. The resulting consequences result in unhealthy and damaging parent-children relationships.
Arendt Center intern, Anastasia Blank, is reading Childism and providing us with a chapter by chapter review, highlighting some of the most interesting and compelling insights and arguments. Her first post provided us with an overview of the book and its themes, and her second post last week, looked at the first chapter. Today, she shares her thoughts and impressions of Chapter 2. We hope you are inspired to read along. You can purchase the book here.
In the second chapter of Childism we are introduced to one of Young-Bruehl’s own patients, “Anna”, a victim of severe abuse throughout her childhood and adolescence. While at first this chapter appears as a gruesome telling of years of neglect and abuse—at points difficult to read—it raises two major questions.
First, how could this happen to a child?
Second, why did this happen to a child?
After reading this chapter I realized that I was not just reading Anna’s story, I was reading the reality that thousands of children are facing every day. So, I suggest, when you read this story, remember it is not just a retelling of one person’s life. It is a testimony for the developmental destruction that is taking place in the lives’ of too many children each day.
The haunting aspect of this chapter is not only the negativity and hurt that is inflicted upon Anna, but the normal appearance of the family that is presented. To any onlooker, Anna’s life would seem perfectly normal. She is a good student, her father is a doctor, and she is surrounded by siblings. What reason does one have to believe that Anna is not the child of a loving family? It appears that there was no such reason to believe anything to the contrary. If the image the family portrayed was so standard, then why was the reality so brutal?
Young-Bruehl argues that the perpetrators of childism in Anna's house are in a pursuit of lasting domination. One example is Anna’s father who refused to acknowledge the sexual abuse her stepbrother was inflicting on Anna. According to Young-Bruehl's account, this is because he wanted Anna to play the role of the “whore” he could control. "When he rescued Anna with support for her education, for example, his unconscious design was for her not to grow up, she would have to remain under his direction." Anna’s father was certainly privy to her being abused, but he would not interfere, because doing so could mean he would lose her as an exploitable object. In allowing the abuse to go on, Anna would always need to be rescued. While he provided her with a home and a stellar education, he never helped her in the way she needed most; he reaped the benefit of her abuse.
This chapter provides an inside view into a home of abuse, and also reveals the inner-workings of a therapy that aims to heal the effects of the harm Anna suffered during her development. It is harrowing and yet fascinating to read about Anna’s father, mother, stepbrother, and stepmother and the individual motivations of each character that contributed to their childist tendencies. It is also thrilling to follow Young-Bruehl's efforts to find answers to what underlies and perpetuates such abuse.
When Anna meets Young-Bruehl, she is an adult, however her persona is much like that of a child. Anna is insecure, anxious, resentful, and speculative of those who show her affection. By telling Anna’s story as an adolescent, it becomes clear that many of the destructive themes throughout her childhood have stunted her development into a happy and confident adult. I would like to return to a question asked at the beginning of this post, “Why did this happen to a child?” and now ask, “Why is this happening to an adult?” The lack of conscience in the grown-ups in Anna’s life resulted in a hideous upbringing that Anna has never been able to shed. Here we begin to see what consequences childism breeds.
I wonder what type of parent Anna will become, or would have become had she not sought treatment. Can Anna be expected to love her children when she does not know what this love looks like? It seems tricky to expect warmth and care from an adult who lacked such experiences during development and continues to struggle to manifest such relationships as an adult. Anna embodies both the victim and a perpetrator, for she endured abuse and is unable to move forward. Childism does not end when the child grows up, it persists.
What Young-Bruehl shows us is that children need love and support, but simply wanting to provide these things is not the same as actually demonstrating them. I do not doubt that most parents love their children, but many adults have disturbing matters in their life that need to be counterbalanced. A person needs to feel greater affection than abhorrence towards themselves and the world before they can take proper care of a child. Otherwise, the child’s life will be filled with more fear than love and that is not the proper balance.
Please feel free to respond to the questions asked in this post and join me for a reading of chapter three in the upcoming week.