My Dad and Me, Part 8

Judith Rich Harris, R.I.P.

The vast experience of human existence teaches us that the environment of a child doesn’t really matter very much when it comes to healthy outcomes. Genetics, in fact, do. This indisputable fact overturned the world of developmental psychology (both the Freud and B.F. Skinner schools), the problem becoming especially acute when Judith Rich Harris published her challenge to the college textbook industry with “Where Is the Child’s Environment? A Group Socialization Theory of Development” (Psychological Review 102, 1995).

The kerfuffle which followed has produced a healthy body of literature, in which the facts bore out the challenge: parents aren’t that important when it comes to healthy outcomes of their children. Genetics, in fact, are. Behavioral genetics grew as a discipline and now holds the field in developmental psychology. It seems rather apparent, then, that genetics determines the relationship my dad had with me. Genetics was the determining factor in my grandfather’s response to his experiences in Cullman, in World War I, at SMU, in Memphis, in Tupelo, back in Cullman, and down on the farm above the bluffs, where he clutched a jug of Wildcat Whiskey and fathered as many children as he could, seeding the world with himself.

Except that’s not quite how Judith Rich Harris argues.

(It’s true: I’ve set up a bit of a straw man. Let’s knock it down together.)

Genetics is important in the development of a child, very important. Parents are important, though less so than genetics. But what Harris discovered, or uncovered, is that same-sex peer groups are the most important factor in the health of the development of the child. Hence “Group Socialization.” Healthy peer groups (defined) during childhood produce healthy adults (defined). Qualifiers, caveats, and cautions abound in the vast body of literature (not that I claim any expertise in it), but that’s about it.

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In this part (Part 8) of the exploration of Family Systems Theory through the relationship my dad had with me, my remarks will be wandering around the concept of determination.

My dad was perpetually trying to escape, but he found himself within the same kind of emotional network throughout his life. Indeed, it seemed whenever he might actually escape into a realm of contentment, he moved back into a predicament not unlike the old homeplace in Alabama. Was he genetically determined to do so? More to the point: am I?

For a thought exercise, I try to take the morphine addiction away from my grandfather, leaving in place all his experiences leading up to that trauma, which includes the actual physical wound, an emotional trauma itself, as well as the morbid nightmare of having been ambushed and being buried under a pile of his comrades’ bodies. Wouldn’t his life essentially play out the same? Same loss of faith (which itself questions Harris and Behavioral Genetics), same divorce, same post-traumatic stress, same accident in Memphis, same accident in Tupelo, same self-medication, the old brown jug.

I’ve had occasion to review certain traumatic events in my life, both from my childhood and from more recently, and I come to a conclusion, that, even if I knew then what I know now, I would respond and react similarly. I notice, however, that I keep mentioning circumstances. Genetics have nothing to do with circumstances, so I wonder (by leap of logic) what the limits of Behavioral Genetics are.

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Bowdlerized, for example, Behavioral Genetics says, “Shucks, about 60% of personality is bound to genetics. Ten percent is bound to parental guidance in the home environment, which leaves about 30% for same-sex peer groups.” Now, the bogeyman of Behavioral Genetics is Freud the Fraud, and then again, by extension, the pseudo-discipline which creates helicopter parents and destroys fun playgrounds, so all the energy of the literature is dissipated in that direction. Read another way, however, genetics shapes only 60% of behavior and personality. The idea that parents can influence behavior and personality as much as 10% is astounding, considering the nature of the rest of the world, whose numbers must be nearly 100% genetics. Further, that nature left 30% up to peer groups: thirty percent! Well, enough said, don’t you think?

The apple does not fall far from the tree until it is picked up and thrown.

It is interesting, is it not, that my grandfather came back home, after it all, and my dad never did.

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It is true: in many ways my dad was determined to bring the old homeplace wherever he was. On one rainy day we were driving along through Appalachia, looking for graveyards, and my dad, wistful, pointed to a pasture. “See all those weeds? My father would have had a fit, a fit, son, if any neighbor of his had let his pasture come to that.” I looked to where he was pointing. I saw a perfectly ordinary pasture, resting under a rocky mountain, where cattle were grazing in a light rain, a perfectly idyllic scene. Dad continued, “When we were kids, on rainy days like this Daddy would make us go out into the pasture to pull up all the thistles and milkweed, so that the pasture would be nothing but grass.”

Imagine his obsession with weeds in the garden or in the lawn. My, the anxiety!

My mom, who was raised in post-war Germany, was nothing short of a domestic perfectionist herself. Early in their marriage (and also my childhood), she used to harangue my dad about hanging his pants over various pieces of furniture throughout the house. Finally, he looked up at her from where he was sitting, put the newspaper down, and said, “How about I just put a nail in the wall and hang my pants there?”

Yes, a strange bundle of perfectionistic contradictions, my dad. The same was true, however, of Christmas (described in Part 6, “Eruptions of Joy“), so one must work to sift determination to discern what might be good from what might be bad, and also what might just be so.

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When I’d get mad at Deb about something or other, I had a habit of saying, to get my way, “It’s the principle of the thing. The principle is bound to the universal.” Complete poppycock, and I knew it, but I was trying to win, and it was a pretty good move for a while, until Deb said, after the thing argued about crumbled into utter ruin after I’d gotten my way, “Well, it was the principle of the thing, after all…”

The principle of the thing was in no way bound to the universal (it might have been, but that wasn’t the point); it was bound to my father’s loins, carried from his father’s, and probably from his father’s, until the point immemorial when the behavior first expressed itself genetically, perhaps when my ancestor Charles fought against the British in the American War for Independence, not for the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, but because George III was not his king; he was a usurper to the throne, a Protestant (spits), so Charles Duke fought under the French flag, winning property for his ancestors which stretches all down the eastern slopes of southern Appalachia.

It was the principle of the thing, along with the circumstances of the American War for Independence.

My ancestors pressed on southward and westward, using the mountains as a shield, until the American Civil War ended their hegemony, my immediate ancestors being forced out of Georgia and into Alabama and points west by Sherman’s conflagrations. Yet it was in their genetics to move, adopting the pioneer spirit to found something commercial or academic, and so they did keep moving and founding. My grandfather, under possession of the demon drink, returned home, against his nature. My dad, under possession of the nightmares of my grandfather, left home, but never really left. And here I am, in Tonawanda, raising four boys, saying to them, out of envy, “Stay here. Stay in Buffalo. Let’s take care of each other, shall we? Let’s put down roots.”

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My wife once encouraged me to put my office in the main part of the house so that I could study and correspond in the midst of the family, being a fatherly presence throughout the day. There was a moment of crisis. “Your filing system is just stacks on your desk,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “If it’s not out, I forget about it. So I stack things in separate piles, working through each pile.”

About three weeks later, she moved me back into my hovel downstairs in the basement.

Did I mention in Part 7? Our 23rd Anniversary is in May 2019.

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My Dad and Me, Part 7

Anxiety

Just about any endeavor to define clinically something which exists solely in the emotional world results in not-a-definition, jargon from nether regions of psychology and sociology creating a thin, unsatisfying soup. It’s an irony, to me, since anxiety is the most common thing in the world, akin to the elixir of the gods, the most common element of the heart in the same sense water is the most common element in the natural world, and just as versatile, whose function covers every range of good and evil, both in motivation and in outcome. Anxiety is what makes the world go ’round.

Defining By Narrative

1. My best friend, Chris Thoma, when he was a senior in college, and I was a junior, said, “If you don’t ask her out, I will.” The lady in question was a freshman named Deb. A pretty, late-blooming, innocent-eyed dove from from the Upper Midwest, she had just broken up with her first boyfriend. The mass of campus males stirred at the news. I thought I had been the only one stalking her. We all shared the same problem: timing. How long should we wait before the rebound period would be over? Is the rebound boyfriend in a position of advantage or disadvantage? Does one risk the prejudicial rejection because of premature…discourse? Or does one risk the prejudicial rejection because the early bird was in advance and got the worm?

“If you don’t ask her out, then I will.” I hastily left his dorm room, where we were playing guitar and watching Beavis and Butthead together, went to the bathroom, threw up, went to my dorm room, panicked, picked up the phone, dialed the number, and asked for Barb.

“There’s no Barb here,” Deb said.

“Barb Jee-oh?” I asked, dying inside, a flop sweat making the phone slippery.

“G-I-O-E is pronounced ‘Joy,'” she said. “And my name is Deb.”

Over the summer she sent me chocolate chip cookies. In November I asked her to marry me. We have four boys and a house in Tonawanda, almost twenty-three years blissfully married.

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May 2017

2. A fictionalized true story:

Blake, a middle-aged veteran of the first war in Iraq, found himself limping twenty years later from a wound he received in the war. Veterans Affairs took their time assigning him proper care, during which time his wound grew worse, which triggered a little bit of that ubiquitous post-traumatic stress, which, in turn, triggered some bad habits with alcohol and marijuana.

Marie, his middle-aged wife of many long-suffering years, was watching herself grow old in the mirror he held up to her in his eyes day-by-day, as he sat in front of the television, disabled and on disability. When he spoke, he spoke only of the pain or of those associated with the pain. In other words, he whined. The pilot light, all that was left of their passion for each other, went out.

Her maidenhood was distant in the past, but she was not willing to let it expire completely in Blake’s lap as he was unable to stand erect out of his rickety reclining easy chair. Therefore, she got herself a job in a stockroom, where she got herself a boyfriend, with whom she enjoyed life in the backseat of a car, in clandestine meetings at his apartment while his old lady was out, and at perfectly awful motels. After a time of it, she told Blake.

Blake rose from his rickety reclining easy chair, picked up a hammer, and drove to the other man’s house.

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3. When I was four years old, my dad had squeezed blood from rocks and founded a Lutheran congregation in southwestern Louisiana. It was a true miracle, and (if I remember correctly) when the brick building was dedicated, there was much rejoicing. The first Christmas there would prove to be an event of which the angels themselves would sing as though Christ himself had found this place worthy instead of the stable in Bethlehem. The thing was going off with resplendent beauty which was increasing throughout every practice, in which I dutifully practiced singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” over the manger for weeks on end. Christmas Eve was at hand.

While still at home on that fateful Eve, I felt the anxiety rise—these forty-one years later I recall the feeling perfectly—and I expressed quite plainly that I did not desire to attend that evening’s festivities. I was convinced by the responses to my pleas that I was unheard. The pastor, you see, was preoccupied with the Big Event. And who can blame him?

In the car I began to cry, mostly to myself, being reassured by my mother that my favorite Sunday School teacher would be sure to bring me through whatever troubles may come. It was kind of my dear mother, but she had not addressed the actual problem, that is, I would be singing in front of multitudes of hordes, and with a spotlight on me!

At the door (it was dark out), I fell to the ground, whereupon my dad yanked me up by the wrist with one hand, and in a single motion with the other hand, unbuckled and slid off his belt, proceeding to belt me with it in front of the church door, God, and all the parishioners who were arriving. Thus I was cured of my anxiety.

When the time came, I stood silently with my two coeval angels and beloved Sunday School teacher, and I did not sing. My mother was delighted and told me the story for years.

This one is tricky, with anxiety all over the place. One quickly forgives my dad, a thirtysomething leader of a brand-new community born of his own sweat, especially when one remembers a) this is 1977 and b) this is the deepest Deep South there is.

He still shouldn’t have done it, but he was impelled.

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Now, I use the word “impel” an awful lot to describe anxiety, the causation aspect of anxiety, and I think I’ve created an idiosyncratic use of the word. It’s a choice out of negation, to be sure: I want to avoid the idea of compulsion, which is associated with anxiety, and is also a causing-force from within, but I think compulsion brings to mind lack of control, lack of insight, lack of thought or forethought; I also mean to avoid the idea of complete externality, in which the experience of anxiety is entirely reactive to outside forces. Impel, on the other hand, with impulsion and impulsive capture the whole experience. Impulses are forces from within, yet certainly concerned with externalities, both in the reactionary sense and also proactivity.

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4. My oldest son shot out of the womb with an aggressive interest in electrical engineering. By the time he was four, he knew the function of every switch, knob, lever, pull-chain, rheostat, outlet, socket, and receptacle in the house. He had a habit of waking up at odd hours to delight himself unplugging all our appliances and lamps. He continually reset the water filter timer in our refrigerator. He was a menace to everything which gave light or motion. The point finally arrived where we stopped hovering over him, resigning ourselves to his inevitable electrocution, watching him with one eye while we went about something resembling a normal daily life. He did not cease plugging, unplugging, and flipping switches.

Our neighbor invited us over for a little Christmas cheer, and within minutes, the boy had grown comfortable with the new environment, and while Deb and I continued chatting amicably, keeping one eye on our li’l engineer, he unplugged a minor appliance. Our neighbor leaped from his seat. “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” he cried out. With a gallant effort he plucked the boy from his place near the outlet and delivered him over to Deb’s lap. “I’m not one to handle someone’s child,” he said apologetically, “but I really didn’t want him to get himself hurt.”

Deb and I smiled and explained. We all had a good laugh, but our neighbor kept a wary eye on our son.

With this irrepressible curiosity about things electrical came also some behavioral…concerns (shall we say), and we thought it would be a good idea to see a family counselor and therapist. I must admit I found the tall, heavy, darkly bearded, Jewish figure of a man rather imposing, so I blurted out, “Our son is possessed by anxiety.” I told him the story of our neighbor’s house.

“Sounds like he doesn’t have enough anxiety,” he responded. Thus began a wonderful decade with a wonderful counselor.

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That kid, circa 2007, aged 4 years, will rewire your house, whether you want it or not.

5. I saw this one just today: I assumed my place in line at JoAnn Fabrics (I needed a length of tan muslin) behind a tall man of African descent in his late 20s. In front of him was an equally tall, pleasantly pretty Caucasian woman in her late 30s. In his hand was what I would describe as fabric for traditional sub-Saharan African clothing or decoration. In her basket was a wide variety of fabric. I sensed the tall man looking at my muslin. I was looking at my phone, pretending not to be observing anything, just checking my fantasy lineup for the evening.

He looked at her basket. A minute passed. Another minute passed. The line was not moving and I had to use the bathroom. The tall man cleared his throat quite gently, saying to the tall woman in a very low voice, “Excuse me, but what caused you to start sewing?” His accent was foreign, perhaps African, perhaps Caribbean. His voice drew my attention, and I looked up just in time to see her face change from morbid boredom to a broad, beautiful smile which lifted her entire countenance. That entire corner of the store suddenly brightened a bit, as if a little sunshine has escaped from his evening cradle and was lost in our midst.

“I made a New Year Resolution—I am a runner, you see, and I hurt myself, so I took up sewing my own clothes to keep myself occupied—I made a New Year Resolution to sew all my clothes this year.”

The tall man was entranced, and he asked many questions which revealed that he was about to make his first attempt at sewing his own clothing.

“Ball,” she said, at the last. “The author’s name is Ball. I checked out her sewing book from the library so many times I finally bought it.”

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That should do it for a definition of anxiety.