Friday, 19 September 2014

This Time it's Personal ~ part 19

So - nearly done here. I've been mulling over this entry because I want to tie up all the loose ends as much as possible - not have to slink back and add things later.

The first thing that has to arise is the question - why me? Lots of people experience less than great parenting and manage to hold down a job, a social life and generally function in the world. Most teenagers rebel. Most people try to be different to their parents in some way. Many people are pissed off at the world. What makes me different?

First up, as I said at the beginning, I certainly don't think I'm unique, and my situation might actually be far more common than anyone imagines. Mostly though, we just don't talk about it. Why? Well that's a topic for the final instalment.

I think the explanation is around the idea that my upbringing was unusually consistent and uncompromising. It had no dilution, counterbalance or contradiction.  There was just this one pure message from my family. I got used to being isolated as a small child and when the opportunity to stretch out and meet other people came (at five) I didn't know what to do with it. So I carried on being isolated because it was what I knew, and it is still the state I feel most comfortable with (though not most happy).

What was that consistent and uncompromising message? Initially I think it must have been simply that I was smaller, weaker, more ignorant than other people because I was a child among adults and I had no idea there was any other way to be. On top of that, I was a problem because I was unplanned and came along at a time when life was already difficult for my parents and my mum in particular. At that time also adults did not go out of their way to let a child know it was cherished and very often they were treated as a bit of a nuisance. That's how it was - and I knew no different.
Later when I went to school and our friends and relatives began to procreate, other children seemed amoral, unpredictable and spiteful. I was told my cousins were spoilt, and I didn't fit in with them either.

I think above all my parents had a deep fear of children getting out of hand. I'm not sure where that comes from but I've had it myself (when I tried to train as a teacher most obviously. What a stupid idea!) There was this idea that if children sense they have the upper hand at all they will become uncontrollable and just take over everything in an amoral unreasoning self-centred rampage. (Dad cited Lord of the Flies). For them children must always be kept in their place. Anything that smacks even remotely of cheekiness must be quashed, and certainly absolutely no argument or criticism can be tolerated. The parents authority is paramount (even when what they say is plainly wrong) and has to be maintained all the time. There was a 'zero tolerance' attitude to anything that even implied that children and their parents were on any sort of level. A child could not have its say about what happened. It's views if they were at all different to the adults were ignored. My opinions and ideas were dismissed. You could ask nicely but not argue. The things I liked to do and the interests I had were trivialised. Self-confidence was seen as cockiness and bound for a fall. Wanting to do things your own way was like my dad said - like deciding one day to drive down the wrong side of the road - stupid, dangerous and ultimately pointless. Wanting to do things differently is simply incomprehensible. My mother's catch phrase was 'I just don't understand you' but I don't ever remember her asking for clarification. She didn't want to know - possibly for fear of what she might find out. Dad simply didn't listen. Things my mum has said recently (concerning the TV programme Outnumbered) tell me that she still sees children's insubordination as a threat, a humiliation and a potential disgrace. Also - not only must a child's impertinence be crushed, but its achievements must be passed over for fear it will become big-headed. They've actually told me this was what they believed. Everything therefore - all that is left - is to fit in, know your place, do as you're told.
At the same time there was a powerful urge to inculcate the child into the ways of the world as the adult saw them - to prepare the child for what the adult expected - a normal man's life in my case, with a normal job, marriage etc etc and normal concerns and worries. Nothing else was admissible (or was put away as childish things). If I'd had other inputs - friends and their families and a wider world of experiences no doubt this rigidity would have simply been one influence among many. By the time I was old enough to begin asserting myself in the world I had no idea how to do it. My way of being was completely unlike anyone else we knew and my family added contempt and shame to the situation.

The fact that I never experienced anything like affection, warmth or understanding is not a surprise then. Nobody listened, or only so they could put me right. Nobody took an interest, except for a kind of baffled amazement at all the pointless things I was 'mad on'. When I started to fuck up nobody asked or listened to what I thought in a genuine attempt to understand what was going on in my life - no teacher, no relative, no family friend. I say this not in a mood of self-pity but as a simple statement of fact (and I don't think this was unusual back then). Life was about worry, and the only way to motivate a person who wasn't doing as they should was to go on at them, to tut, shrug and roll the eyes. The only explanation for my failings had to be laziness or deliberate contrariness. He just can't be bothered.

As time went I went from simple obliviousness to self-consciousness, over sensitivity (no matter that they couldn't take anything approaching criticism), defensiveness, and finally absence. Attempting to join in simply meant defeat and humiliation. I was a bad loser because defeat was not just a moment of self deprecation among friends but yet another public confirmation of how generally useless I was. Nobody was on my side. Nobody thought the best of me. Nobody believed in me. Nobody trusted me. Nobody liked me. I can't emphasise this enough - living a life with people who don't like you, or who at least, are continuously wishing you were different is a miserable existence. It's bad enough having a job where you don't fit in and can't easily leave. People who don't like you don't necessarily bully or victimise you. They may even be polite to your face, but they don't spend any more time with you that they have to. They find fault with you. They are impatient with you. They won't try to explain to you. What attention they do give you is dutiful and as brief as possible. And if something does start to go wrong they will not give you the benefit of the doubt. They give you 'the silent treatment' and hope you get the idea. My suspicion is that parents not liking their children is actually quite common and I can't help feeling that unless the child has other, warmer, more understanding people to go to it has to be hugely damaging. Nobody will admit this of course. We all love our children, don't we? But do you like them? Aye, there's the rub.

As time has gone on I have had to get through life assuming that people don't really want me around and that the way I go about things, if not necessarily wrong, is certainly not really acceptable. I remember in my mid thirties having a conversation with a house mate, Danuta, about all the things she'd done - all the places she'd travelled and I remember the look of contempt on her face when I asked her, astonished, how she'd managed to do all these things. I heard Chrissie Hynde on the radio the other day talking about how she didn't feel she had any particular talent, musically, but how she "came from a background where people just got on with it", as if it's as simple as that - no excuses - just do it. This is just something they take for granted - not just the powerful urge to do things, which I'd say I have in bucket loads. If getting on in life was just about doing the thing I'd be as accomplished as anyone. But I lack the simple mundane ability to hold down a job to raise the funds, or to get on well enough with people to make things feasible. It feels like a cruel trick - this thing that everybody else seems to take for granted - Right as much as Left wing, conformist or radical, whether it be about setting up a business or some sort of collective activity, that I don't seem to be able to do - that I don't even really understand. Again, I'm sure I'm far from alone in this but most people won't talk about it.


Finally I want to talk again about evidence - what makes this account more than just a story?
People's accounts of their lives have been said by many thinkers to be nothing but a convenient fiction - a more or less coherent narrative come up with post hoc. My feeling is that this has to be at least partly true, and what's worse, there is almost no independent corroboration that does not have its own agenda.
The fact that we can't know the whole objective truth though doesn't mean we can't know anything, or even that we can't know much. The really big question here is how honest am I with myself? We can all point to people who seem completely deluded about themselves, but even then, it may be that they are simply not conforming to what we happen to think is realistic. I don't want to get into a whole long philosophical debate right now - I just want to say that I do think it is possible for people to have a truer image of what's happened if a) they have made an effort to understand the problems involved in knowing anything and b) they believe that accepting half truths will not make things genuinely better (and they really want things to be better) and I think I fit these criteria as well as anyone. I don't want to take up space here defending either of these positions - I'm just going to assume them until I am proved wrong.
A couple of other things - I freely admit that I remember few individual incidents directly that could constitute evidence, but then, I don't think it was like that. It was a slow, heavy atmosphere rather than a series of clearly discernible events. It was never brutal or relentless. Indeed, most of my early life was uneventful and benign. The atmosphere at home was mostly neutral, but unpredictable and I was always on edge - atmospheres and silences - pent up fear - waiting to be found out, only balanced by solitude. Represented like the read-out on an oscilloscope my early life is mostly a flat line with an increasing number troughs as I enter adolescence, but there are never any peaks. The trouble is, even on the flat, the fear of going into a trough is always there at any time and is never balanced by a peak. My adolescence and early twenties were just one long worry.

The other piece of evidence is the mere fact that I experience so many of these terrible feelings - both of the Parent and the Child - derision and contempt, humiliation and shame and dismissal and all the furious and hurtful verbal abuse that goes with them - when I am dealing with myself when things don't go according to plan and also when I used to have to deal with O. These feelings, as I have said over and over again here, must have come from somewhere. The simple fact of their power over me, I think, makes them a powerful kind of evidence. They came from somewhere, or someone. Someone did that to me. 
Nor is this, I think, a far-fetched hypothesis. It is a simple, plausible and parsimonious explanation. It conforms to the known facts (however few), and does not call into play any unknown factors.
The other alternative - that this is just a random confluence of chaotic events that happen to have expressed themselves in this way, without being anybody's doing in particular, explains nothing, and I can't help suspecting that it has more to do with a need to asset the Parents' authority again, even if that means dismissing out of hand the Child's misery. Whatever else happens, the Parent cannot admit to being at fault to the Child, and unlike everyone else the Parent encounters in life, the Child can never be due an apology, because where would it all end?

But then I would say that, wouldn't I...

The next and final part(s) will be about some of the answers and remedies I have come up with over the years.

No comments: