Not In Your Genes
by Oliver James
Psychoanalyst and child psychologist Oliver James has subtitled his book “The Real Reasons Children Are Like Their Parents”. The nature versus nurture debate has been going on for centuries. According to James, nurture trumps nature every time. We behave the way we do because of the way we have been brought up – the more abuse suffered in childhood, the more damaged the adult.
There is much truth in this. James cites the statistics for adult mental illness, showing that in the great majority of cases it has been triggered by emotional damage when young. Yet perhaps the author is too dismissive of personality traits that we might also inherit from our parents? For instance, Charlie Chaplin came from a family of music hall artists and troupers. This inheritance, combined with severe childhood neglect and his own innate gifts, were the genesis of the Little Tramp.
Again, James would argue that “by believing its abilities are not fixed, a child can improve its academic performance”, which challenges the contention of Charles Murray, the American educationalist, who argues that intelligence has a largely inherited component.
Nonetheless, James offers hope to those who have been traumatised in childhood, suggesting that “the brain is much more plastic than used to be believed”. Change is possible in adulthood, albeit often hard-won.
As a practising psychologist, James believes that a sympathetic and supportive professional, by focusing on long-buried memories of emotional pain in childhood, can help a patient be freed from the wounds of the past. He is scathing of other forms of therapy, notably cognitive behavioural therapy, which he thinks does not produce lasting positive results.
His list of components that contribute to emotional health include “living in the present”, “insightfulness” and “authenticity”. He believes that in order to understand our behaviour and our compulsions we have to come to know who we are. Psychological insights can help in this process, but for Christians they cannot explain the whole mystery of personhood.
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