The Magical Act of a Desperate Person
Adam Phillips on tantrums
No one recovers from the sadomasochism of their childhood. We may not want to think of the relations between parents and children as power relations: indeed it may sound like a perversion of parenting to do so. And we don’t want to think of parents and children being in any way sexually gratified by their status in relation to each other. But, to put it as cutely as possible, feeling big always depends on someone else being made to feel small. When your child zooms round the house saying he’s a superhero you can either remind him that he’s actually a little boy, or you can indicate one way or another that you’re impressed. When your child falls over you can get cross with her for not looking where she’s going, or you can comfort her in an affectionate way.
These aren’t pictures of the bad and good parent so much as responses – or states of mind – that every parent is capable of. In identifying with the child, in imagining his strength and vulnerability, we join him in something; in disidentifying we separate him out. If you feel for your child when she falls over you feel it in your body; if you scold her you are exempt. One is a sadomasochistic solution – the pleasure, the excitement is in correcting the child – and one is not. One response assumes a likeness between you and the child, the other asserts a difference, an innate superiority; one has to do with solidarity, the other is punishing. It is the difference between wanting to be right – wanting to win an argument – and wanting to be kind. Or between two types of authority. One is in essence humiliating and breeds resentment, one is reassuring and makes a bond. Is there a solution, a way to stop people wanting to humiliate each other?
We know that some people’s psychic survival – everybody’s psychic survival some of the time – depends on their capacity to humiliate others, to make others experience what they have suffered, as a way to reassure themselves that they are now the humiliators rather than the humiliated, to ‘convert trauma into triumph’ (in the psychoanalyst Robert Stoller’s terms), to transform the trauma of vulnerability into the triumph of omnipotent control, the trauma of being a child into the false triumph of being an adult. The child as abject supplicant becomes the adult as arrogant sadist. In other words we have to start from the position that the wish to humiliate is part of everyone’s survival kit: our (often preferred) self-cure for the inevitable frustrations of our own childhood.
There is something intrinsically and unavoidably humiliating about being a child. Every child has felt humiliated by his dependence on his parents – by his relative powerlessness in relation to the people he needs – and everyone has been left feeling vengeful by this ineluctable diminishment. The question is how much the parents have exploited the child’s dependence on them, whether they have made it feel more humiliating than it already is, whether they have used the child’s smallness to make themselves seem big. In so far as they do this – and all parents do it some of the time – it is not because they are bad people, but more often than not because they are re-enacting remembered or unremembered experiences from their own childhood. To punish child abusers is to punish them for the punishments they have suffered.