Autism spectrum/A few impertinent questions/Are psychoanalytic theories profound? Or just convoluted?
When I emerged from my agonizing self-examination, I began to seek opportunities for Tony to be with other children his age. I took him to a Sunday school. Marching energetically around the nursery with the three-ear-olds, singing Onward Christian Soldiers, I tried to make it look like fun. Tony remained unconvinced. He seemed more interested in opening the piano or finding out what was in the broom closet. He didn't appear frightened of the other children. He glanced curiously at them a couple of times, while they sang and recited verses, as though he wondered what they were doing - and why. Finally he got out of his little chair and lay down on the floor. The other children gathered around and asked what Tony was doing - and why.
I watched Tony constantly. He became suspicious and refused to do anything under my scrutiny. I coaxed him into repeating some words one afternoon, but when I tried again the next day, he took himself indignantly into his room and slammed the door. Some cooperation is required to teach anyone, I realized. One day I found him on top of some boxes stacked on a chair trying to knock a box of cookies off a shelf with a broom. Tony's reactions were fast, and his expression was bright-eyed and alert. Most of his mischief seemed to require imagination. He certainly didn't look or act mentally retarded, I decided. If he wasn't unhappy - didn't have an emotional problem - what else could be wrong with him?
When the day arrived for our appointment at the psychiatric clinic, my fear for Tony had faded somewhat. That pediatrician was not an authority on emotional problems, I told myself. On the other hand, a scientifically trained professional at a psychiatric clinic would quickly see Tony was not unhappy. Confident such scientific specialists understood human emotions and could fix any that were out of kilter, I finally spoke to a psychologist at Letterman Army Hospital Psychiatric Clinic in San Francisco. He was an agreeable young man who introduced himself as Dr. Berger. Tony, probably sensing that men in white coats upset Mommy, sat quietly on my lap and gravely watched the doctor, instead of looking for something to dismantle.
"What seems to be the trouble with your child?" the psychologist asked.
"I don't believe anything is wrong with him. He doesn't talk much and is still in diapers, but so was our other son until the age of three." That pediatrician had appeared to consider it significant that Tony took things apart, and I continued, "He takes the knobs off the TV, unscrews pieces off the sewing machine, and clocks seem to disintegrate faster than we can buy them."
"Not so fast!" he said, trying to write everything down.
"Tony has a temper. I've never discovered an effective way to deal with his tantrums, so I try to ignore them." The doctor nodded in seeming approval. "Someone once suggested throwing a glass of water at him. My two older children thought that sounded like fun, and I tried it. Tony grabbed the glass out of my hand and threw it back at me. Then he continued his tantrum."
The psychologist, still writing furiously, smiled understandingly.
"One morning Tony wanted outside and couldn't get the back door open. He got a hammer and smashed out the glass-panel. I could see by his puzzled expression that he didn't know why we were so upset."
We had all been shocked when Tony smashed the glass out of that door, but I had recently decided he at least showed intelligence by figuring out how to get through a locked door. Undoubtedly the psychologist, an authority on intelligence, would agree.
"Would you say reward and punishment are methods that work with this child?" he asked.
He grinned. "You sound as though you speak from experience." I nodded ruefully, and he continued, "Do you remember anything unusual about Tony as a baby?"
"No. He was a cute baby. He did get sick once. The doctors suspected asthma. He recovered when I stopped trying to force him to eat solid foods."
When my first child was born, the medical profession had decided tiny infants should be introduced to baby-food. My son Guy had resisted with an effective defense: he passed out at the feel of a spoon on his lips. My infant daughter was less defiant and ended up in the hospital with diarrhea. However I made an effort to obey doctors' orders and force food into Tony's mouth. When I suggested to my pediatrician that food might be causing Tony's asthmatic reaction, he suggested I experiment to discover which food. I felt guilty about disobeying a doctor, but I was reluctant to experiment. I decided that even babies sometimes sense what is best for them. I never gave Tony another bite until he became old enough to put food into his own mouth. Since then he'd been so healthy he'd rarely seen a doctor.
"Now," the doctor said, putting more paper on his clipboard, "Let's get some information about you."
"WHAT DO YOU WANT TO KNOW?" I shot back. It sounded louder than I intended. "I mean, oh well --"
I had been bracing myself for that question, and my defensive reaction was apparent. I took a deep breath, and struggling to sound calm and composed, I managed to regain control of myself. I inquired with a gracious smile and unconcerned serenity, "What would you like to know about me?"
The psychologist suppressed his own smile. Maybe he understood my aversion to these intrusive questions, and didn't seem to regard my reaction as pathological. “Just a little background material,” he said.
"I grew up in Ukiah, went to the university, went to Alaska, got married --"
"Wait a minute! Let's start over and go more slowly."
Then he asked a few questions which didn't feel at all like the pediatrician's menacing interrogation. Just as I sensed the pediatrician believed I was concealing something, I soon felt this psychologist had already reached the conclusion I was well adjusted and emotionally mature. His questions seemed for the purpose of verifying my emotional stability. Tony slid off my lap to close a cabinet drawer. Checking for open drawers was one of the first things he did when entering a room. Closing them seemed to be one of Tony's self-assigned duties.
"Were you and your husband getting along when Tony was born?"
"Well my husband and I have our disagreements, like all married people, but --"
"But you weren't about to split up, or anything?"
“Oh no!” My unplanned pregnancy had been a stressful time for us. Ike was drinking a little more at that time than I would have liked, stopping by the officer’s club after work. But Ike and I were very involved, we discussed everything, and we both appreciated the close understanding we had achieved. I knew the thought of separating had never occurred to either of us.
"You attended the University of California," he continued, looking over his notes. "Where did you live while you were in college?"
"I shared an apartment with three other girls."
"You had the same roommates all through college?"
"Yes. Twenty years later, we are still close friends." I recognized the point of his clever question. He must realize emotionally unstable people might have trouble maintaining long term relationships. Tony apparently decided this white-coat-clad man was not threatening Mommy. Losing interest in the psychologist, he was crawling under the desk.
"Did you graduate from Cal?"
"Oh? Why not?"
"I changed majors several times. When the war began, I went to work in the drafting department at the shipyards."
"Then you went to Alaska. Why did you go up there?"
I looked at him blankly. Travel was restricted during war-time, and at the time I'd had to make up a reason. I'd invented a fiancé and claimed I was going to Alaska to get married. However no one needed a reason to travel these days, did they?
"I don't know. I did it just for fun, I guess."
He appeared to find the answer acceptable and asked about Ike's rank in the army when we were married.
"He was a lieutenant..." I glanced around the office. I was looking for the psychologist's coat with some gold bars on it, so I could say, "that kind." I finally said, "Oh, that bottom kind. You know, that bottom kind."
It always confused me that one became a second lieutenant before becoming a first lieutenant, but dammit, why had I said something stupid like that? Dr. Berger was suppressing another smile and didn't appear to consider my lapse serious. As I talked to more psychologists during the next few years, I was always tense. I strove to sound normal and casual, never intending to make jokes. Yet I often heard myself utter something preposterous. Certainly becoming so relaxed I forgot my husband's rank was ridiculous.
"Let's find out something about your husband," the doctor said. "Did he go to college?"
"Oh? Do you know why not?"
"I'm not sure. I think he only wanted to work on a newspaper."
The psychologist asked about Ike's father, who was an eye surgeon. He seemed interested in Ike's grandfather and the book Ike's father wrote about him. "What about your father?" Dr. Berger asked.
I hesitated. I could mention Daddy's inventions. That would be in the spirit of all this interest in our superior intellects. Then I stopped myself. Depicting Daddy as a brilliant but unsuccessful inventor might be a bit of an exaggeration. "He was an automobile mechanic," I answered. Tony actually had relatives who were grade-school drop-outs. Subjecting children to years of education is a modern practice, and dropping out of school at an early age wasn't considered so unusual just a few generations ago. I sensed such antecedents were not what interested Dr. Berger though, and didn't mention them. The psychologist appeared to have run out of questions.
"Doesn't an emotional problem imply some unhappiness?" I asked.
"Not necessarily. Sometimes a child might feel guilty about something he doesn't understand, such as an automobile accident."
Guilty? I tried to imagine Tony feeling guilty! I dearly wished I could instill some guilt in the little rascal. I struggled to persuade him to feel remorse about things he did, such as throwing the cat out the window or smashing holes in the walls. Before we nailed screens over them, Tony once threw all his clothes, bedding and toys out his third-floor, bedroom window. Later, as I discovered his belongings scattered all over the ground below and began collecting them, some of the neighbors commented with amusement that they had watched that stuff flying out of our window all afternoon. But Tony seemed impervious to scolding. I'd been unable to evoke the least sign of compunction for anything he did, and I couldn't imagine him suffering guilt over something for which he wasn't even responsible. (Tony is now in his fifties, and I'm not sure he has ever yet experienced feelings of guilt.)
"Do you have any more questions?" Dr. Berger asked.
"Just one, and I suppose you won't answer it: Do you think anything is wrong with Tony?"
"No, I can't answer that now," he replied as he sat watching Tony dismantle a mechanical pencil he'd found under the desk. "We don't th -- I mean we hope nothing is wrong with your son. But we'll have to wait for an evaluation." I nodded, and the psychologist added optimistically, "In any case, it might be interesting to see exactly what kind of a child you have here!"
His tone was cheerful, almost excited, and it was another hint at some mysterious diagnosis involving high intelligence. At that time many psychologists apparently believed autistic children - despite their retarded level of functioning - were actually extremely intelligent. Although I had yet to hear of autism, this psychologist acted as though he suspected our family of being awfully smart. He hadn't asked if we graduated from college; he asked why we didn't. Remembering the horror of thinking something might be wrong with me, I tried to resist another attack of "genius psychosis". Nevertheless by the time I left, I'd had a relapse. This time my genius psychosis wasn't painful; it was a heady, lofty feeling. I felt confidently qualified to offer my opinion on any subject. Perhaps I should make another effort to understand relativity, I mused - or maybe even quantum mechanics?
Dr. Berger suggested we walk down to the end of the hall to allow Tony to become familiar with the playroom, where the evaluation would take place. I'm sure poor little Tony believed something frightening and terrible was about to happen to him. Mommy seemed convinced of it lately. He took one look at that room full of children's equipment and decided this might be where it would occur. He charged into me and knocked me out of the room. Then he got behind and pushed me down the long hall, through the waiting room full of people and out of the building. Most of my attention was focused on coping with Tony. Nevertheless I left with an impression of the psychologist watching with an amused look on his face. Surely no one would regard the tragedy of an abnormal child with such amusement! The psychologist would look much more somber if he thought Tony was retarded. Wouldn't he??
The psychiatric clinic had a long waiting list, and our appointment for Tony's evaluation was not for several months. Determined to learn something about psychology, I began reading books from the library. Psychology seemed to consist of defining "normal" as average, and thinking of reasons why some of us deviated. In one psychology book I read that Navy frogmen fear women and find in the sea the security of their mother's womb. In another old psychology book I found a description of a “withdrawn” child whose symptoms might have resembled Tony's. The psychologist who “cured” him discovered the child was in the care of a baby-sitter, a woman with a low IQ who talked too much. The psychologist felt the child, who had a high IQ, withdrew because of aversion to so much low-brow chatter. Here was another “withdrawn” child who had turned out to be exceptionally intelligent. This must be the diagnosis Dr. Berger suspected for Tony. Dr. Berger must be aware these children didn't “withdraw”. Psychologists must have finally realized late development was natural for some highly intelligent children. I also read that Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, blamed most male emotional problems on an Oedipus complex, a suppressed, guilt-laden wish to murder father and ravish mother. Freud claimed little girls are obsessed by envy of their father’s penis and feel castrated. (Some men sure have an exaggerated view of the aesthetic qualities of that piece of anatomy!)
Wilhelm Fleiss was an ear-nose-and-throat doctor and a close friend of Freud's. Fleiss and Freud believed there was a direct connection between a woman's nose and her womb. They made this scientific discovery when they learned they could treat menstrual cramps by applying cocaine to a woman's nose. Fleiss operated upon the nose of one of Freud's patients, Emma Eckstein, as a treatment for hysteria, an illness that was thought to take place in the womb. Fleiss removed the woman's turbinate bone in a horrifically botched procedure that left the patient permanently disfigured, with the left side of her face caved in. Nevertheless, Emma remained friends with Freud, adopted his theories (one of which was that the prolonged hemorrhaging in her nose was the result of repressed longings for Freud), and became a psychoanalyst herself. In 1912 Freud and his disciples in Vienna organized an international committee to be on guard against heresies and keep “the movement” pure. Freud insisted that the committee be kept secret; knowledge of its existence might support the unsavory image many people already had of psychoanalysis. For the next ten years they were vigilant in stamping out deviant ideas about Freud‘s theories, and many of his worst blunders were kept from the public. Finally Freudian analysis was imposed upon Western society as science (most effectively in the United States), and the committee could be publicly acknowledged.
No one could say anything more scathing about psychoanalysis than what psychoanalysts said about each other. Whole big, thick books have been written describing the disagreements between Freud and Carl Jung. Freud disagreed with Jung's obsession with the occult and the paranormal. Jung quite frankly viewed psychoanalysis as a religion, “seeking deification by a spiritual awakening”. Jung, who was definitely not a materialist, believed that our thoughts, which don’t take up space, constitute a “collective consciousness”, to which we each add a small, but real, contribution. Jung disagreed with Freud's obsession about the harm done to a psyche by just thinking about sex. In fact, Jung advocated polygamy.
Apparently some people feel tortured by suppressed, guilty thoughts about sex - namely Freud and most people who become Freudian analysts. For those people, psychoanalysis might be helpful. However lack of inhibitions is not necessarily an abnormality, and some people are obviously more inhibited than others. I realize that psychoanalysis could also be a tool for teaching self-expression, and of all the treatments devised for mental illness, psychoanalysis surely does the least harm. It might even help people deal with minor deficiencies. I hated whatever therapy I experienced. Nevertheless I now regard that as a stimulating episode of my life. All of us are isolated in our own heads to some extent. Learning to express one’s thoughts and feelings could be a liberating experience for anyone, including the neurotic and mentally ill. Psychoanalysis might be an especially useful exercise for enabling people called “autistic” to develop social skills. Certainly writing about my experiences, and learning to express my thoughts and feelings on paper has been therapeutic for me. When struggling to put thoughts into words, I've discovered thoughts of which I wasn't consciously unaware. However psychotherapy usually limits the topic of psychoanalytic discussions to sex, damaged psyches and traumatic childhoods. And guilt! I've committed hurtful acts during my life, but they were due to unintentional ignorance, and like Tony, I don't really understand guilt. We are free to reject or accept any thought that pops into our heads. We might feel guilty about things we do, but surely not about what we think!
In any case there must be more interesting subjects to expound upon besides sex and guilt! I personally would have trouble articulating about any of those recondite, multi-vocal structures of circumlocutory, obscure, macabre and tangled esoteric, elliptic, hyperbolic hypotheses and postulates which seem to constitute psychoanalytic theories. I have a simple, straight-forward, uncomplicated mind. I suspect the same is also true of many autistic people. We were born that way, and I don't see why we should have to apologize for it. Perhaps “neuro-typicals” (the term high-functioning autistic people sometimes use to describe non-autistic people) really do have more complex minds than ours. On the other hand, maybe neuro-typicals are just attracted to concepts too convoluted for human understanding. Nevertheless, considering all that emotional unhappiness suffered by people involved in psychoanalysis, if I had any choice, I'd sure choose simple over complex any day. And I can't resist the humor I see in some psychoanalytic theories. For instance, after his first ride on an airplane, Carl Jung's profound observation was: “People shouldn't fly. It's too fast, and they leave part of their psyche behind.”
I continued to read psychology books, and as the months passed I worried less about Tony. My other two children didn't seem concerned. Sherry boosted my confidence with some of her own distinctive brand of logic.
"Really, Mother," she said. "I know why Tony didn't grow up. You never let him have his birthdays!"
She was about to become seven and knew it couldn't possibly be accomplished without a party. Ike arrived home from Greenland, worried, but reassured to see Tony looking bright eyed and healthy as ever. Tony was still unpredictable. He got up early one morning to fix his own breakfast, breaking a dozen eggs all over the living room rug. Once when Ike took him to town, Tony laid down on his stomach and drank out of the gutter.
"Drinking out of the gutter might be unsanitary," I assured Ike, "but perhaps it shows more intelligence than standing and crying that he's thirsty." We resumed the busy life of a suburban family with small children. I awaited Tony's evaluation, rather smugly expecting to be informed we were the parents of a "gifted child".
- The original images may be found on this pdf copy of the book.
Current page: Are psychoanalytic theories profound? Or just convoluted?
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- Current page: Are psychoanalytic theories profound? Or just convoluted?