A memoir about breaking from a dysfunctional family sparks associations.
Posted May 13, 2019
Have you heard about or read Educated, a memoir by Tara Westover? Published last year, it’s been on various best-seller lists ever since. And with good reason: It’s well-written, engaging, does the triumph of Good over Evil thing, has a touch of Great Britain. But that’s not why I’m writing this blog.
What truly captivated me was Westover’s accurate rendering of the fierce internal struggle that people undergo when they need/decide/choose to change their reality from the accepted truth to one that they personally know is accurate.
There’s the currently popular term for deliberately, subtly getting a person to doubt their reality: gaslighting (from the 1944 movie, Gaslight). The people in Westover’s memoir, though, are not subtle. An older brother is the most vividly, malevolently cruel, yet his actions are also in the context of a family drawn together by the father’s extreme survivalist beliefs that morph further into paranoia. He also regularly, thoughtlessly endangers other family members.
As the youngest of seven (home birthed—no birth certificate; not immunized; “home schooled” with the Bible and the Book of Mormon), there was no space for Westover to reconcile what she was experiencing with the denial of abuse, injury to her and others, and the smooth family surface.
The book is engaging, if not exactly a fun read (unless you’re addicted to the kind of “she survived what?!” that our so-called reality world has perhaps inured us to). One can learn not only her story but the astounding determination that ultimately got Westover a very thorough-going formal education (starting at age 17 and resulting in a Ph.D. from Cambridge University).
But it’s her vivid description of the stops and starts, on the way to some acceptance of the vast difference between her family story and, if you will, real reality, that was most engaging to me.
By association (since this is presumably a blog about performance psychology), I began to think about the ways in which, to a (hopefully) less dramatic extent, there are situations in some aspects of our daily performance life that replicate the tremendous pull and tug of “what is real?”
I thought of R.D. Laing, of cognitive dissonance and double binds. Or Jennifer Freyd, Ph.D. and DARVO, whether at a family, community, or institutional level. The #MeToo movement and the on-going, seemingly daily examples of abuses of one kind or another in popular life/culture also seems utterly relevant. The current poster boy for me: Larry Nasser.
R.D. Laing was a Scottish psychiatrist whose books of poetry captured the convoluted interaction that he called “knots” but also saw as being labeled “tangles, fankles, impasses, disjunctions, whirligogs, binds.” Here’s an example:
Jack thinks Jill is stupid.
Jack does not think Jill is stupid,
But cannot see why
Jill thinks Jack thinks Jill is,
When Jack does not.
Nor can Jill, except that Jack is lying.
This term came out of research and practice in working with disturbed families, and again illustrates the pretzel of cognitive dissonance (another relevant term) over a period of time.
Wikipedia succinctly describes double binds as:
“A double bind is an emotionally distressing dilemma in communication in which an individual (or group) receives two or more conflicting messages, with one negating the other. This creates a situation in which a successful response to one message results in a failed response to the other (and vice versa) so that the person will automatically be wrong regardless of response. The double bind occurs when the person cannot confront the inherent dilemma, and therefore can neither resolve it nor opt out of the situation.”
A not well-enough recognized true hero, who has triumphed over adversity and changed our perceptions around abuse, Dr. Jennifer Freyd is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. To my mind, a bit of back story is relevant: As a young adult, Freyd spoke with her parents about the sexual abuse perpetrated by her father during her adolescence. (Note: She did not go public.) Her parents not only denied that her memories were accurate, but they also went on to a very public outing of their sense of outrage that she could even contemplate that anything like that could have happened. They formed the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (a “syndrome” with no medical or psychological basis), which became influential in the 1980s wave against accusations of incest. Freyd meanwhile has written extensively, from a theory-building and research perspective. Her current term for what happens in the double bind is a simple (but useful) acronym:
“DARVO refers to a reaction perpetrators of wrong doing, particularly sexual offenders, may display in response to being held accountable for their behavior. DARVO stands for "Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender." The perpetrator or offender may Deny the behavior, Attack the individual doing the confronting, and Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender such that the perpetrator assumes the victim role and turns the true victim -- or the whistle blower -- into an alleged offender.”
What did it take for Dr. Larry Nasser, renowned physician in charge of the health of female athletes both at Michigan State University and with USA Gymnastics, to perpetrate sexual abuse on many of them over a number of years? First and foremost, of course, his actions. But as testimony also revealed, various aspects of DARVO were at play as well, along with the cognitive dissonance experienced by parents, coaches, administrators….
Taking all of this into account, what should we conclude?
Taking all of this into account, what should we conclude? I’ve only skimmed the surface of some of the theories—and perpetrators—that I think of in relation to Westover’s experience. I assume you may well think of others. And in particular, what makes it so challenging to confront, let alone change, situations where there is a power differential and where there are positive as well as negative aspects to the relationship. (Chalk that characterization up to yet another theory: traumatic bonding).
- Be persistent. Understand the ways in which families—and our larger society—veer strongly toward the status quo. As social beings, we want to maintain “homeostasis.” ”Homeostasis is the state of steady internal physical and chemical conditions maintained by living systems. This dynamic state of equilibrium is the condition of optimal functioning for the organism.” While this is a necessary aspect of our biology, the problem with homeostasis within a family, organization, or society is that there is always going to be a drive to return the situation to the way things were/are accepted. Westover’s sister at one point was ready to confront the family. Tara herself wasn’t there yet. When she was, her sister had folded back into the family story. As she comments, “When I lost my sister, I lost my family.” Understanding the strength of that directional pull can serve as a support, in its own way, to staying with one’s own knowledge—being persistent.
- Become educated. Westover describes this literally. Education includes understanding the dynamics that I’ve been describing. It also involves understanding that there is a broader world, not just that of the person in power.
- Even in minor form, we all experience a disjuncture between our own experience and that of others at various points in our lives. A setting in which there’s a fair amount of separation or isolation from some aspects of the larger world can reinforce the bewilderment and futile attempts at making sense of what is actually occurring.
- Having a “champion,” someone who will stay with you in the midst of the pain and confusion of trying to make sense of what is going on, is critical. (Westover’s mother says, sadly, at one point: “You were my child. I should have protected you.” But she didn’t.)
Yes, it can be hard work—as Westover makes abundantly clear. It is also worthwhile and at times, mind- and life-saving.