Bowlby Phobia—UPDATE

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In this post I’d like to briefly update my post of August 30th, 2011, entitled Bowlby Phobia. After completing my Bowlby Phobia post, I began rereading the various appendices at the end of volume II of Bowlby’s trilogy on attachment theory. In appendix I of volume II, Bowlby reviews “six main approaches to the problem of separation anxiety” (quoting Bowlby on page 375). During his review of the literature on separation anxiety, Bowlby considers the work of the psycho-analysts, like Freud (of course), Ernest Jones, Melanie Klein, and Anna Freud. He also looks at the work of such researchers as Therese Benedek, Margaret Mahler, René Spitz, and Donald Winnicott. Bowlby calls this latter group “exponents of ego psychology.” Here I’d like to focus in on Bowlby’s comments concerning Klein’s work. I’d be remiss if I did not point out that Klein supervised Bowlby back in the late 1930s, and the two “enjoyed” a, how shall I say, “challenging” relationship.

Bowlby writes of Klein, “Anxiety, in her judgement, is to be understood in terms of the death instinct, to which Freud never referred in this connection, and therefore in terms of aggression.” Bowlby sees Klein viewing anxiety as arising from “the perpetual activity of the death instinct” (quoting Bowlby). Bowlby points out that, according to Klein, “the newborn infant is already burdened with persecutory anxiety” (my emphasis). In my opinion, Klein engages in teleology—a belief that there is a natural tendency toward a certain goal or end. But Klein seems to go beyond simple teleology and, in fact, anthropomorphizes the human infant. If we could listen in to what a Kleinian infant might say to him or herself during a separation event, it would be something like the following:

Yeow! My aggression is so powerful I have driven my mother away from me and we are now separated. For all intent and purpose, I have killed my mother. Yeow! If I kill my mother, then I kill myself because, lets face it, I’m a defenseless infant. Out in the animal kingdom, a defenseless infant would be eaten for sure. I had no idea my aggression could be so powerful, and, as a result, so destructive. I am totally bummed out that my aggression has brought death and destruction to not only my mother but to myself. Man, I better reel it in or I’m a goner!

Bowlby, quoting Klein now, states: “[The infant’s] phantasy is that his mother has been destroyed by his own hate or greed and altogether lost.” In appendix I of volume II, here’s how Bowlby sums up Klein’s position on anxiety:

When we look back on the early papers of Melanie Klein we remain impressed by her observation that anxiety and unconscious aggression often coexist, particularly when there is an unusually anxious and intense attachment of one person to another. In my judgement, however, she assumed too readily that aggression both precedes and causes anxiety so that, instead of recognizing conscious and unconscious aggression as a common response to separation and as constituting an important and frequent condition for the exacerbation of separation anxiety, she came to see aggression as the single source of anxiety….

Bowlby is being very kind here. What Bowlby is not mentioning is the following: By suggesting that destructive aggression causes anxiety, Klein is expressing a belief widely held by many Christians (one still in evidence today) that children are born sinners, essentially hateful and greedy, “of the devil” so-to-speak. “Separation anxiety,” writes Bowlby of Kleinian psychology, “in the older individual is to be understood always as a regression to infancy.” In other words, within a Kleinian approach to psychology, anxiety in adults over separation from attachment figures must be viewed as a regression to not only some sort of fantasy process (e.g., unreal and unfounded fear), but also to a sinful position filled with hate and greed.

I add the above to my Bowlby Phobia post mainly as a way of showing that there are manifold cultural biases against recognizing any fear-producing events or objects that are not held by the so-called real world. Potentially dangerous therapeutic modalities such as rebirthing, rage reduction, and holding are “designed” to drive out the devil in those children who “choose” to remain in a regressed, infantile, hateful, fantasy state. Carried to an extreme, these modalities can be lethal. For more on this theme, see the 2003 book Attachment Therapy on Trial—The Torture and Death of Candace Newmaker. You may also wish to read the article by Robert Marvin at our web site entitled “Rebirthing,” “Rage Reduction,” “Attachment Therapy,” or “Holding Therapy.”

So, as I talk about at length in my Bowlby Phobia post, Bowlby’s theory of attachment holds that it’s not the danger itself, it’s also the risk of danger that causes anxiety. Bowlby would have us believe that fear systems are comprised of real fear and, for lack of a better term, meta-fear or the risk of fear. But just because Bowlby develops a theory, accumulates data and research in support of that theory, and writes about both in a copious manner, entrenched biases against meta-fear will not simply go away on their own.

When I started work at a psychiatric hospital back in the late 1990s, there was a memo posted on the wall that read something like this:

As of today, this hospital will no longer condone the practice of rolling up young children in heavy blankets and leaving them propped up against a wall for long periods of time.

That’s a good thing! But it also points out that up until the late 1990s, it was a fairly typical practice to wrap kids in blankets at well-known psychiatric hospitals and label it “therapy.” Has the practice of wrapping kids in heavy blankets decreased? I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that the 2002 Law & Order TV episode entitled Born Again had something to do with bringing this insidious practice to the public’s attention. Here’s a synopsis of the Born Again episode from the MSN Entertainment web site:

Once again, a real-life tragedy proved to be grist for the Law & Order story mill. The detectives investigate the bizarre death of an 11-year-old girl. All clues lead to an unorthodox, and highly dangerous, “rebirthing” procedure recommended by a child therapist.

Has “blanket wrapping” really gone away … or has it just changed form. In his 2000 book Chemicals for the Mind, Ernest Keen suggests that the lobotomy scalpel has not gone away; it has transmogrified from surgical steel to psychopharmacological chemical (e.g., behavioral drugs). Are behavioral drugs the new wrapping blanket? The psychiatric hospital mentioned above did away with the wrapping blanket, but behavioral drugs flowed like water.

As cognitive linguist turned political commentator George Lakoff regularly tells his audiences, rationality alone will not change people’s minds: framing, selling, convincing, and public intellectualism will. If you believe that Bowlby’s approach to such topics as fear, fear systems, anxiety, attachment, bonding (both human and animal), and psychology in general, is more enlightened, more rational than vitalism and myth and reductionism, then you have to get out there and sell it.