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On Forgiveness

Harvard Diary

By Robert Coles | March 1987

Once, during an afternoon’s conversation with Anna Freud (who founded the field of child psychoanalysis and who, during her long life, was ever attentive to her father’s ideas and works) I was surprised to hear her bring up the subject of forgiveness. We had been talking about an elderly woman’s long and troubled psychological history. Her son was a chronic schizophrenic of the catatonic kind — spells of serious mental deterioration, during which he was confused and given to incoherent thinking, talking, writing. This most serious of mental illnesses had begun in the son’s adolescence, and had, in effect, crippled him for life. In his early 50s he was living a marginal life socially and economically — no matter the good education he had received as a youth, and the family’s solid situation in society. The woman’s husband had also developed a serious psychiatric illness: a depression took control of his life during his 60s, and never really relinquished its hold on him. (He died in his early 70s.) This man had been a psychologically solid and sensible person; he came from a family with no history of psychiatric troubles. A businessman, then educator, he had always been a decent, thoughtful, affable, conscientious, and quite even-tempered person; but in his last years he became sullen, moody, increasingly remote and morose.

Meanwhile, the mother of that son, the wife of that man, spent her time pursuing all sorts of interests and activities connected, always, to the cultivation of herself — her mind, her hobbies, her “relationships.” She was, alas, an extremely self-centered person, a case-history illustration for Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. She was ever ready to connect anything and everything to her own thoughts and wishes. She was, in a way, a living caricature of the well-to-do, aged dilettante. She took yoga lessons. She took recorder lessons. She experimented with acupuncture. She drank a lot in secret. She collected gossip, and spread it in one flurry of letters after another. She attended funerals, and delighted in passing word of them to others. Most of all, she read psychology books, took psychology courses — and of course, went to a succession of “therapists” in the course of a long and rather earnest and persistent search for what she kept calling “insight.” Unfortunately, she used her psychological interests — her scattershot and often naïve, if not pitifully inadequate acquaintance with various theorists of “personality development” — in an especially destructive manner. She was always Mrs. Know It All — ready to explain someone’s words, actions, interests, aspirations, invoking at every moment the authority of psychology and psychiatry. She was for many of her supposed friends a somewhat pathetic figure — a person whose son’s illness and husband’s illness had clearly marked her for life in a peculiarly modern manner: the parlor psychologist who deflected any possible thought in anyone’s mind that she might be the most troubled person in her entire family by a constant readiness to interpret the other person’s behavior or statements. Behind her back even those closest to her mocked her habits and recognized the craziness of her manner.

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