Battle Hymn of the Teddy Bear Psychiatrist

The Teddy Bear Psychiatrist takes on Tiger Mother Amy Chua!

Posted Jun 20, 2011

One of my patients, a giggly, shy young woman, once said I reminded her of a Teddy Bear. Not only do I have brown skin, but I guess she thought I was huggable too.  Now that's a positive transference

Amy Chua, on the other hand, threatened to burn her daughter's stuffed animals if she didn't produce piano perfection!  Well, Amy, this Teddy Bear has claws too!  I've been busy the last few months (well, Facebook and doodles), but I decided that your book was worth an afternoon.  Well, bears can be wrong, too.  But if Time Magazine can call you one of the "100 Most Influential" based on the "Asian" version of the Alec Baldwin rant, I suppose I should do you justice as well.

Chua's excerpted rant lit up the internet and airwaves right after it went online at the Wall Street Journal in January:

She described her harsh, demanding, critical approach to parenting and proclaimed that this was why "Chinese mothers are superior" and produce superior offspring.  The backlash was swift and unequivocal.  Chua was "the reason why Asian Americans like me are in therapy" wrote one blogger  Another woman shared the results of Chua-style parenting in her own family:  her overachieving sister committed suicide after hiding her depression for years .

Chua heard the critiques, and walked back the samoyed, so to speak (her samoyeds feature prominently, and oddly, in her book.  "I'm nice to dogs, don't hate me," I guess.  "I'm not as bad as the dog-eaters," she almost wrote.)  She said her book was not a parenting manual, it was a memoir.  Moreover, there were many approaches to parenting, and she didn't have the only answers.  She said the key difference was that Asian parents held to high expectations, and they "assumed strength, not fragility" in their children.  Who could argue with high expectations?  Who can argue with looking for the best possibilities and strengths in your children?  But calling your kids garbage and pressuring them to tears, resentment, and repeated angry outbursts, all for (possibly) your own ambition - well, that's a different matter.

I found the book occasionally humorous - Chua could definitely do stand-up (Amy, you've got a fifth career!), and I think/hope that somewhere deep inside she knows that she's hardly a model or ideal parent.  Or as her daughter once said, "you're a freak!"  Kudos to Amy for accurate reporting, and for showcasing her daughters as strong-willed women-to-be, just as strong-willed as she is.  Mostly, though, I found her parenting methods irritating (or even obscene and hurtful), and her writing shallow.  I had to wonder why she wrote the book. 

At best, she reinforces stereotypes about Asian parenting like crazy.  She gives Asian parents a bad name.  She even gives tigers a bad name.  Have you ever seen a real tiger mom with her kids - totally indulgent.  Lots of licks.  Brings home the dinner.  Teaches them to hunt.  Protects them from danger.  Doesn't come close to chewing them out.  Or chewing them up, for that matter.

Chua's previous book was on how globalization has fueled ethnic tensions.  I haven't read that book.  I don't need to now, because I have a case example.  Chua must have been aware that in this era of East-West confluence marked by rivalry mixed with admiration and envy, a book branded as comparing supposed "Chinese" and "American" parenting styles would hit a sensitive (and money-making) point. 

She does say the idea for the book was born after a particularly powerful flame-out with her youngest daughter that ended with Chua running in tears across Red Square.  Maybe she was hoping that the embalmed Lenin would have some advice for putting down the teenage rebellion.  Apparently, Lenin told her to write a book.  (Using capitalism and marketing - read, propaganda ­- to overcome the insurrection.  Those Russians are clever.  Battle Hymn of the Moscow Momma, anyone?) 

I want to give Chua the benefit of the doubt.  That she was in some kind of crisis, doubting her methods and her daughter's love for the first time.  That she then thought she had to write a book to really "get it out", understand the Tiger within her.  That, mixed with a need to justify herself, now for the whole world.  I wish I could have found that kind of sensitive introspection here, a true "humbling" by a thirteen-year old as the book jacket proclaims.  But even as she looses the lease, the old habits keep creeping back in.  Her daughter has fun playing tennis, for example, and Amy starts to push competition into that, too.  Again, I want to give Chua the benefit of the doubt. 

There's that old Sufi story about Nasrudin who takes his donkey to the market and leads him around.  Everyone asks him if he's for sale, but Nasrudin just shakes his head, wearily, and says "No.  I just want everyone to see what I have to deal with."  Amy's leading herself around, just this way. 

Moreover, she's had to deal with her sister's grave illness.  I wish that had softened her up more.  She reports her sister telling her to ease up, she's too hard on her daughter.  But it doesn't go much deeper than that.

As a psychologically-minded, but not particularly "musical" (her favorite adjective) person, the most poignant moment of the book came early, on page 19, when Chua says she sometimes still feels like an outsider in America.  "But for me, that is less a burden than a privilege."  I wanted to hear more about the burden, but that's not in Amy's word count capabilities.  For me, the book ended up not being about the best of Asian parenting - which you might consider universal.  Or at least Jewish.  An emphasis on education, hard work, and loving attention to your children.  Rather it was about its horrible shadow - controlling, manipulative, demeaning discipline meant to rule your children in the belief that you know "what's best for them."  I saw absolutely no evidence that she values public service, or social justice.  It all seems to be about wealth, and status.  Attainment and possessions are the measure of self-worth.  If you can play that Beethoven, then you're somebody.  If you go to Juilliard, or Harvard, then you have value.  Because those people are the only ones who have anything to contribute to the world.  And what's worse, all they have to contribute is between their ears, and not in their hearts.  Not even in the simple fact that they live and we live with them.  This Tiger just can't hunt.

I hope Amy writes a sequel someday.  Because I really do want the best for her and her loved ones.  I'm sure she's trying to provide that the best way she knows how.  I hope she is able to explore the burdens, and the wounds, she carries.  As I write in my book-in-progress,

"A wound is a womb.  An injury, but also a starting point.  A wound is a matrix of our experience and self-discovery.  It crystallizes us.  Indeed, we end our time in the womb with an injury - the pain of separation, the cutting of the umbilical cord, the thrusting into a strange new world.  It's a necessary wound.  Without birth, there would be no life. Our first injury is our first possibility, rising.  And from utter dependence, we coo, crawl and walk our way to an independence which becomes interdependence.  We grow with each other, still needing each other, and we learn we need to give to each other as well. 

(continued on page 2)

And in all those ways we are connected to and nurture one another, we also wound each other.  The wounds, even the necessary wounds, don't stop with childbirth.  Sometimes the wounds come from within, through nobody's fault.  The world is imperfect and flawed, and we are made in it.  Worlds, wombs, and wounds, all of them giving birth.  I don't know that the wounds are unavoidable, but they are present.  How we carry them, deal with them or don't deal with them, is a big part of who we are.  In the book written at the end of our days, there must be some words, some paragraphs, at least, to tell of the wounds and what we did with them.  For some of us, it will be the whole book - plot, chapters, and endnotes - the wound in the world or the wound in us.  Not that these are different from each other, or separable.  The wound in the world is the wound in us, and vice versa.  The world makes our minds, and with our minds, we make our worlds.

The wound forms us, and then we have to transcend it, incorporate it, be born from it.  It tells us what threatens us, what we fear, where we've been disappointed, where we've been hurt.  Then it's the task of our lifetimes to repair, heal and protect.  Our wounds are like fallow earth, seemingly barren, yet simply awaiting seeds, sunlight and water. From the dark night of the soul, from many, repeated dark nights, we are born again to light and life. 

Or we grow, twisted and forlorn as a Joshua tree in the high desert.  Because wounds sometimes consume, contain and distort us.  They can limit and define us and our possibilities.  A womb can be a tomb, an ending instead of a beginning.  That's an ending I resist with every fiber of my being.  I wouldn't wish it for anyone.  But the beginning, the wombing and the wounding, makes our stories possible.  Without the wound, there's no reason for a journey.

It's the crack in everything that lets the light in."

A recent photo

May we all heal our wounds in this world.

©  Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.  

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