Thursday, 7 June 2007

Changes in the psychological environment

I've just reached the part in Dickens' Dombey and Son where the young Paul Dombey passes away. This revived a thought in me I've been pondering for some time. The improvement in the nation's health from the nineteenth to the twentieth century is largely attributed to improvements in nutrition and hygiene rather than to medical advances. Deaths from childhood illnesses such as measles were declining long before vaccinations were introduced. But, if we take the thesis of our book seriously, we should wonder whether changes in the psychological life of the child and adult were involved too.

If early death from heart disease could be staved off by familial and communal cohesion in Roseto, shouldn't we expect the kinds of psychological environment prevalent in Victorian England, at least as described by Dickens, to be positively damaging? Of course, Dickens is prone to caricature, but across all classes there's an abundance of lovelessness. Would the son have survived had Dombey senior known how to love him well as a father?


Biby Cletus said...

Cool blog, i just randomly surfed in, but it sure was worth my time, will be back

Deep Regards from the other side of the Moon

Biby Cletus

Theo said...

Have you read the work by Lloyd deMause? Some is available here.

david said...


No I hadn't. Interesting. We learn of American Presidents:

"Jimmy Carter was unusual in being able to draw upon his having had fairly loving parents, in particular a mother who encouraged his individuality and independence, a very unusual quality for a parent in the 1920s. It is no coincidence that when I once collected all the childhood photos I could find of American presidents I noticed that only those of Jimmy Carter and Dwight Eisenhower (another president who resisted being drawn into war) showed their mothers smiling.

Ronald Reagan's childhood, in contrast, was more like that of most presidents: a nightmare of neglect and abuse, in his case dominated by an obsessively religious mother and a violent, alcoholic father who, he said, used to "kick him with his boot" and "clobber" him and his brother.3 The result, as I have documented in my book, Reagan's America, was a childhood of phobias and fears "to the point of hysteria," buried feelings of rage and severe castration anxieties (the title of his autobiography was Where Is The Rest of Me?). As an adult, Reagan took to carrying a loaded pistol, and once considered suicide, only to be saved by the defensive maneuver of taking up politics and becoming an anti-communist warrior, crusading against imaginary "enemies" who were blamed for the feelings he denied in himself.

George Bush's childhood, though not as chaotic as Reagan's, was also full of fear and punishments. Psychohistorian Suzy Kane, interviewing George's brother, Prescott, Jr., discovered that Bush's father often beat him on the buttocks with a belt or a razor strap, the anticipation of which, Prescott, Jr. recalled, made them "quiver" with fear. "He took us over his knee and whopped us with his belt," Prescott said. "He had a strong arm, and boy, did we feel it." As he admitted to Kane, "We were all scared of him. We were scared to death of Dad when we were younger." "

Hmm. What's known about the current presidential contenders?

Perhaps, Aristotle was right that a political entity should only be of a size that one can know everyone and their family background.

david said...

I see there's considerable controversy surrounding deMause's position that

"The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken. The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, terrorised, and sexually abused."

See also this summary.