So it IS all my mother’s fault!

4 May

I knew it! It IS all my mother’s fault! Or so the psychologist Oliver James would have us believe. Vindication is mine. *Evil Cackle*

In his poem This Be The Verse Philip Larkin famously said:

   ‘They f**k you up, your mum and dad.

    They may not mean to, but they do …. But they were f**ked up in their turn

    By fools in old-style hats and coats,…’
A sentiment not lost on psychologist Oliver James, Indeed not only is it not lost on him he’s channelled Larkin’s observation into his books They **** You Up and Not in Your Genes – the real reasons children are like their parents.

Yes readers – we’re talking a rerun of that old nature V nurture debate. Oliver’s assertion is that our genes have little to do with anything – well physical characteristics aside – while our experiences and our upbringing have everything to with ‘it’ and that genetics is not all its cracked up to be.
All of which is a simplification but you get the idea. And it should be noted that James has his dissenters.
Interesting.
I think my daughter would support James’ argument. She’s now in her mid 30s and we’re close.  But when she was growing up we had … a few issues. In recent years she said to me: ‘Y’know mum, I got to an age when … I knew that you loved me because you always told me so. And I realized that you’d been the best mum you could be with the emotional tools you’d been given and the experiences you were having when I was growing up. And realizing that meant I could let it go. (If you can now hear that wretched song from Frozen I apologise). She’s a mum herself now and I know she’ll make a better job of it than I did because she’s learnt from my mistakes.
And that’s James’ argument and the essence of his talk last night summed up right there in my daughter’s reflections and realisations. As the blurb in the literature festival brochure says: ‘as adults, we can change. We can reclaim our fate from a notionally predetermined destiny. And as parents, we can radically alter the trajectory of our children’s lives. And as a society, we could largely eradicate criminality and poverty! Really?’
So listeners, it would be easy to call this write-up a wrap at this point being as how we’ve got a summary of the thrust of James’ talk. But it would also be reductive. I must give mention of the rather nifty device James used to support his argument which was to compare and contrast the lives of David Bowie (when he was still David Jones) and his half-brother Terry. So listeners I bring you: Oliver James and Ziggy Stardust.
I’m not writing reams about it because that would:
a) Take forever to write and forever to read
b) Be spoilers because Oliver James has written a book about it entitled ‘Upping your Ziggy’. #obvs
Bowie/Jones’ family did certainly appear to be what’d you’d call unlucky. Three of Bowie’s aunts and his half-brother Terry became psychotic. So it’s perhaps not surprising that Bowie’s grandmother declared the family cursed.
 It’s James’ suggestion that most mental illness derives from childhood adversity as does most exceptional achievement. With the divisions between the two being hazier than the horizon in a heat wave. James says: ‘Bowie’s brother Terry passed through the door marked “Madness”. Bowie himself opened it, took a good look around, and then passed through the adjoining one, marked “Artistic Self-Expression”.’
And why could Bowie do that where his brother could not? According to James, it’s down to the different lives they had. Terry was never made to feel wanted. Worse there was emotional abuse. When Terry went off to do his national service the dividing wall between his and Bowie’s room was knocked down. So Bowie had a bigger room and he had no room at all to return to. How emblematic of being unwanted is that?
Terry’s tragedy (he eventually killed himself) was Bowie’s route to fame, fortune and, crucially, emotional health.
James: ‘Through Ziggy, and other subsequent personae including Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke, he engaged in an internal dialogue played out on an international stage from which he emerged as the emotionally healthy man who died in January this year.’
 So the argument in ‘Upping your Ziggy’ is the therapeutic value of using personae to work through one’s demons.  In doing so, argues James, we can do some alchemy and ‘convert the lead of childhood adversity into the gold of emotional health through identifying the roots of our many selves and consciously choosing who we become.’
 Hmmm. Sounds jolly difficult to me. Altering entrenched habits is no mean feat. But if you don’t want to be a hostage to your past you’ve got to stop blaming it on your genes. Whatever ‘it’ might be.
Oliver James appeared at Swindon Arts Centre as part of Swindon Festival of Literature, 3 May 2017, with his book, Not in Your Genes – the real reasons children are like their parents.
Chronicle written by Angela Atkinson of Born Again Swindonian and AA Editorial Services
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