On Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio, I’ll answer a question on how a disabled person can overcome a toxic childhood. The question that I’ll read on the show is pretty lengthy, but the questioner provided even more details in an email that she’s graciously allowed me to repost here. I have much to say about this, so be sure to join us on Sunday morning for the live show — or listen to the podcast later.
What insights does Objectivism provide on the best way for to overcome the consequences of improper, toxic rearing, and to gain — or, if possible, retain from the beginning– a proper sense of life despite it all?
I am a fifty-one-year-old woman with several neurological disabilities, and I would have liked to have been reared as a human being. Instead, I was frequently informed (usually by my mother) that I was a “retarded, subhuman spectacle” — a “vegetable,” a “handicapped monstrosity,” a “travesty of a human being.” It was daily made plain to me that I was being reared purely out of my parents’ sense of duty, so as not to burden other people with my existence. It was likewise continually made clear to me that, whenever anyone played with me or tried to become acquainted with me, they did this purely out of an imposed sense of a duty to do so: for instance, because they were following a parent’s or teacher’s commands in order to avoid being punished for avoiding me,
My disabilities (dyspraxia, dysgraphia, and severe Asperger’s among some others) are not physically visible. However, their effects on my behavior led to my being perceived as retarded despite a tested IQ above 150. (This tested overall IQ, in turn, was although scores on three of the subtests were in the 80-90 range.) By that standard, at least — the objective standard of lacking some reasoning power — I am a handicapped human being. As you know, Ayn Rand points out that no child ought to be exposed to “the tragic spectacle of a handicapped human being.” How should this principle have been carried out with regard to me, as a child? Further, how best can I undo the damage that has been done to my sense of life by my situation itself (being a handicapped human being, and recognizing this) and by how I was reared (which was at least partly a consequence of what I was and am)?
A complicating factor in my childhood — and contributory to much of the abuse I received — was that my parents had decided to send me to a school whose philosophy (insofar as they bothered to inform themselves about it) was one that they themselves deeply opposed and would not tolerate even having discussed in our house. Specifically: my parents, and for the most part my grandparents, were what is known as “non-religious Jews” — even, in most regards, anti-religious Jews — who nonetheless decided to send me to a religious Jewish private school. At home, though, my parents forbade even mentioning religion or anything that had to do with it — which meant that I could be, and was, punished and told I was a bad girl whenever I fully and truthfully answered my mother’s or father’s question: “What did you learn in school today?” (This question was asked of me whenever I came home from school. Silence, incomplete answers, and answered suspected of being incomplete, were punished equally with answers which gave the details for whose existence and mention I’d be punished and told I was lying “because nobody could believe anything so absurd was taught or practiced by anyone.”
Although my parents did at times break their own rules about what never to discuss, their exceptions to their own rules were so unpredictable and unstable that I could never discover what principle governed them. There may well have been no principle, just simple caprice, because my mother was very angry that I should ever want to find an explanation or a principle, let alone even have to look for an explanatory principle when — as she never tired of telling me — other people could simply absorb from the environment, subconsciously and automatically, whatever they needed to know about each other. She thought it was wrong and vicious and unnatural of me to need and want a way to make sense of things, and to have to seek this out, instead of just understanding naturally and automatically and wordlessly exactly when, and in what ever-changing context, when a family rule either could be broken, or must be broken, or might be broken by the adults although it remained binding on the children. For example, it was all right for my mother or father to ask me to describe a particular belief or practice that I was being taught at school, but it was all wrong for me to answer the question, or to answer it partially (because that was talking about a forbidden subject), or to not answer (because that was disobedience).
My parents had chosen this school because the local public school was well known to encourage violence and other damage against anyone who was either smarter or duller than the average … and, as explained above, I am simultaneously BOTH. Further, the administrators of the available private schools had made known that they did not believe their schools to be the right places for children with problems.
In any case, they sent me to a religious school (the only school left) without fully understanding that this WAS a religious school, because they were only incompletely aware that Judaism is, well, a RELIGION (among other things). They had assumed, given their own upbringing and acquaintanceships, that the “religion side” of Judaism must be pretty well extinct by now, and that it had left behind only a handful of “harmless cultural stuff” that they themselves knew a very little about: thinking that the “cultural stuff” was all there was.
So they were very angry at me for answering — correctly — their inquiries on what I had learned in school that day. They swore I was making it all up. So when I persisted in my “lies and idiocies” (as they called my description of what I was being taught) instead of falsely agreeing under pressure that I had “obviously concocted all this craziness” on my own, they sent me to a therapist (the first of many) who had never heard of any of this stuff either.
His job was to cure me of believing that I was being taught such things, although indeed I was being taught them — as I tried to document for him and for my parents, from my schoolbooks and other class materials, which they flatly refused to look at. For instance, my homework assignments in first grade included such tasks as persuading my parents to study and follow the rules of Judaism. (I was five-and-a-half at the time. I wasn’t good at getting my parents to change their way of life just because my teacher said so. For this failure, my teachers and classmates abused me, just as severely as my parents abused me for the mere attempt. This was in addition to my getting a low grade on such assignments, and then being punished at home for the crime of getting less than an “A” grade in anything.)
So after two years, my parents took me from that school and enrolled me in one which had been set up for gifted children, and which was (at least in theory) willing to ignore psychological or other problems if the child scored sufficiently high on the IQ test required for admission.
The guiding principle of THIS private school, though — insofar as it can be called a “principle” — was that nothing is to be considered definitely right or definitely wrong, or definite in any way, ever. (And they were quite definite on that! They were certainly definite on the “fact” that I was a “problem behavior case” for pointing out that contradiction!)
This school (where I was until the end of the ninth grade) was also a place where physical assaults on the persons and property of children were actively encouraged by the teachers, just as long as the attacker was considered (by the teacher or by a majority of classmates) to be a more welcome, likeable, or socially adept person than the target. When fights broke out in the classroom, the teacher would give the attacker some helpful tips on how to win, and the target would be punished far worse than the attacker: punished for fleeing, and also punished for defending him-or herself, and also for being suspected of having wanted to.
I was, in every class I attended at both of these schools, the designated target or one of a few designated targets — as if it were an official title. In the second school, and to some extent in the previous school, the teacherly justifications for accepting and encouraging this included assertions that I was ideally fitted to be a target and to thereby raise the self-esteem and leadership motivation of my schoolmates: that I should be happy to provide this service to the majority, and that I was being inconsiderate if I disliked or tried to evade my opportunities to do so.
For instance: When, very rarely, I managed to do something RIGHT in gym class, there was disappointment all around — because nobody had planned for this, and because it was called “unkind” of me to put the others in a position where they might have to go through the bother of finding and establishing a new target when the old one had been performing that function so very well already. That was the school where I stayed the longest, and it was also the worst school — so there is no particular reason to discuss the others.
The consequences for me, of growing up in this way, can be imagined by anyone with a shred of intelligence. They include an immense fear of other people, and a feeling (which I have been unable to change or vanquish) that I am indeed subhuman and should be rejected by anyone I admire, anyone worth dealing with. This feeling persists despite what I rationally consider to be productive adult achievement in the personal and professional realms. (For instance, although I was unable to write legibly by hand until age 24 when I was in graduate school, at that age I designed and pursued a course of self-remediation which allowed my handwriting to become very legible and rapid — soon thereafter, I founded a handwriting instruction/remediation business which has clients worldwide. Yet, with all that, I have been unable to revise or extinguish the feelings that I felt as a schoolgirl when my mother shouted that I was a disgusting specimen of botched humanity, and when my teachers informed the class that I must be cheating instead of actually trying to learn, because “nobody who writes like that could really have the least spark of” the intelligence or motivation” that I “merely seemed to show” in other ways. (The teacher decided that I must have somehow cheated during the class spelling bee, because nobody who “scribbles like an ape in human form” could possibly have been smart enough to remember how to spell any of the words given, let alone all of them. Therefore, at the suggestion of several of the better-liked children who’d done almost as well, the points I had earned by winning the bee — one point per word — were removed from my record and distributed among those “better-performing” children who’d made the suggestion and had come in second, third, and fourth.)
I am certain that events like this — the mindless hell of my childhood — have irremediably excised or stunted a great many of my own potential capacities (such as they are, or ever were). However, I hope I can be proven wrong.
And therefore I wonder — and here again, I hope I can be proven wrong — whether indeed, as a result of surviving all this, I have thereby become a mental and emotional monstrosity despite my best efforts to grow into anything else.
Have the mental and emotional circumstances described above — the conditions of my existence, when I was growing up — been indeed enough to make me truly what my mother so often called me falsely in her anger: a blot on humankind? A missing link? A failed, degraded not-quite-human?
If I was none of those things when I was treated as being all of them — have I unwittingly become those things, against the best of my will and effort, because of such treatment? I was, after all, incompetent to vanquish or prevent such treatment and its consequences — that is likely to say something about me.
A better, stronger person could have come out of this better.
If I had been more intelligent and otherwise competent, I would simply have succeeded with one or more of my childhood attempts to sneak out of a damaging home or school and locate and enter a non-toxic environment on my own — sneaking into it, and taking whatever consequences came my way.
Or, if indeed no better home or school could be found and entered, it is nobody’s fault but my own that I lacked whatever intelligence and other competence would have been adequate to at least persuading my parents, teachers, and other people to treat me at least somewhat more rationally.
Since I could not even manage that, if I were indeed an intelligent and adequate human the very least that I should have managed — if not then, then certainly now in adulthood after literally decades of trying — would have been to get my emotions in line with what I know to be true. Since I have signally failed to get my feelings (of intrinsic inferiority, inadequacy, being subhuman, and so forth) into line with the factual data and reasoning which demonstrate that (and how) such feelings are based on errors — that failure itself is adequate proof of my inadequacy. An adequate, competent, intelligent person WOULD have succeeded by now: not merely in refusing to act on feelings which the facts contradict (which is all I have managed so far), but in correcting the erroneous feelings themselves.
So — How can I “undamage” myself? And what should I have done (as a child) to prevent being damaged by the actions and events described above?
One addendum: “When you do blog it, please make sure to include the statement that Mom has renounced her earlier beliefs about me — but this was just a few years ago, so it does not magically undo what she did on the basis of those beliefs. Even her sincerely held commitment to do better — which she is doing her best to act on — does not remove the effects of her past actions.”