The Betrayal of the Self

Reviewed Publisher: 
Grove Press, New York, $16.95, 1988
Reviewed Title: 
The Betrayal of the Self
Reviewed Author: 

In his psychoanalytical study of human behavior, Arno Gruen demonstrates how a child is forced into destruction of the true self in a quest for power by being deprived of basic love and security in the mother-child relationship. He rejects the accepted idea of autonomy as "the freedom of constantly having to prove to ourselves and others how strong and superior we are" but defines it as "having access to lifeaffirming emotions, to feelings of joy, sorrow, pain-in short, to a sense of being truly alive."

Gruen sees parents projecting their own learned hostility and aggression onto their children, mistaking their distressed behaviors, which are really symptoms of unmet needs, for defiance and ill-humor. Instead of responding to their child's feelings of helplessness with empathy and comfort, parents use their physical strength or moral power to control the child. From this experience the child learns that helplessness is contemptuous and power is the only escape from the painful feelings of the vulnerability and self-contempt. That child spends a lifetime fleeing a world full of emotions, fearing the experience of inadequacy, pain, despair, fear of failure, and rage. Blocked then are the feelings of joy, ecstasy, courage, and grief. By repressing their spontaneous reactions, which are too threatening to parents who are afraid of their pain, vulnerability and self-contempt, children adapt to living with such parents by denying their own suffering and suppressing their inner voice.

Dr. Gruen believes our culture mistakenly overvalues intelligence at the expense of passion, enthusiasm, and openness. "Performanceoriented child-rearing precludes the type of maternal care that makes it possible for a child to develop in an emotionally integrated way." Instead of true independence or autonomy, this creates a pseudoindependence which "blocks off children's emotional life-joy, sorrow, high spirits, and despair" and creates an unfeeling intellectuality that in the extreme case leads to sadism and evil.

Gruen believes that men are more severely affected by our power culture than women. Men are required to denounce all vulnerability as weakness. Women, in affirming a man's power, put him in a bind: he is loved for proving himself, not for what he is as a human being. Then in the case of not fulfilling this bargain, rage in both partners results. If instead, feeling vulnerable were permissible, the result might be a recognition of the limits of one's influence and the ability to accept interdependence-with men and women and children on an equal plane. He argues that women are in a better position to escape the power trap through the creative possibility of childbirth and childrearing. He points out that many women are receptive to their child's helplessness, integrating it with their own vitality. Because they are not threatened by their child's vulnerability, neither is the child. Maternal empathy furthers the child's development through dependable and appropriate response to his needs. This happy interaction reinforces the mother's own feelings of adequacy, strength and happiness.

Gruen does not further develop the outcome of such a healthy mother-child interaction. I infer that he assumes even such a good start in life may be subjugated to the power struggle of the parents and later to the realities of a power-based society. He believes that the child grows up choosing between rebellion or "adjustment" by identification with power holders. Many people mistakenly equate freedom with disobedience; others equate it with rising to power and thus further perpetuating the destructive uses of that power. He describes an increasingly barren society with fewer inner resources, a greater tendency to sadistic and even evil behavior, a loss of a sense of humor, but most importantly a loss of sense of self. He suggests love and empathy (and a change in attitude) as the antidote.

We might read into Gruen's formulation that a child develops good cognitive skills in response to the pressures of a power-based societal structure at the expense of an autonomous self. But must we choose one or the other outcome? When a child is allowed the expression of his full range of feelings and when his needs are well met, he develops superior cognitive abilities and develops them earlier than we imagined possible. Not only are his cognitive skills superior but they are well-integrated with his emotions. Therefore they are truly at his disposal for creative management of his world whether it is a deranged power-hungry world or a more benign world. In other words parents fears of raising a "soft" child unable to compete in a harsh world are unfounded. A child in touch with his true self has all his assets available to him. Not only can he maneuver through a hostile environment, he can fulfill his potential, his dreams, and enjoy the journey as well. Gruen says rebellion in a power-based society is a necessary reaction for maintaining an autonomous self. But children allowed an autonomous self throughout their development, as Gruen so fervently desires, are so attuned to their inner voice that rebellion is unnecessary.

When mother-child attachment is strong throughout the child's development, both the child's and the mother's sense of a true self emerges from the safety of the continuing mutual embrace in which feelings are fully expressed and processed and accepted. Then instead of feeling helpless the child is able to experience all emotions in the context of a truly intimate and gratifying connection with his mother which later extends to others. He is able to integrate all his feelings into a masterful sense of a self capable of fulfilling his highest potential unfettered by the destructive drive to overcome his pain by inflicting it on others. The child has the fortitude and connection to be true to himself and the skills available to function in any world.

The example Gruen gives of the concentration camp victims who survived only because they maintained their humanity is a good illustration of the ideal he is seeking. When a child has been raised with love and security as the response to his feelings of helplessness, he develops a deep empathy for people that precludes sadistic and evil behavior.

This book is an outstanding contribution to an understanding of the derailment of human development. It is also a plea to our society to exchange destructive parent-child relationships for constructive, enriching patterns of parenting.

Publication Date: 
12/1989