Repeating Our Parents’ Mistakes

Originally Posted: November 3, 2010

Some readers are finding themselves angry and frustrated with my narrator, and rightly so: she certainly doesn’t behave very well! She allows herself to be drawn into an adulterous situation that could have devastating consequences, even though she herself suffered through similar consequences as a child.  What’s up with this chick?

I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding out there about the effect of childhood trauma on adult behavior. People often assume (understandably) that if you go through difficult circumstances as a child, you will obviously avoid those circumstances as an adult, right?  It only makes sense. If Sylvia’s mother led a secret life that led to tragedy for the family, wouldn’t it stand to reason that she would do everything in her power to avoid making similar mistakes? And if she finds herself blundering down the same sorry path, how can we possibly sympathize with her?

in his New Lectures, Freud talked about the compulsion to repeat the past as a powerful force driving human behavior–an instinct that he described as “enormously developed” in all living creatures, responsible for the spawning migrations of fishes, the migratory flights of birds… Charcot, Janet and Jung also explored this instinctual tendency toward re-enactment, noting that traumatized people tended to expose themselves to situations reminiscent of their original trauma. We’ve probably all recognized this in some form or another: the war veteran who enlists as a mercenary, the childhood sexual abuse victim who is raped as an adult: the abandoned daughter who finds herself drawn to an unavailable partner..

Not to say that we are solely creatures of instinct, our past alone dictating our future.  We do have some say! Sylvia does, after all, end up making a different choice than her mother, though in order to reach that decision, she must take a rather painful and destructive path.

The first step in breaking away from old patterns is transparency: one must see, recognize and understand the pattern before one can disassemble it.  In the case of my narrator, who has shoved her history under the proverbial rug for 30 years, the awakening requires walking right to the edge of ruin…

Posted by: Dori

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