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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

What Some Childhoods Don’t Allow You to Think

A measure of a childhood lies in how many thoughts it allows us to have. The more difficult it is, the fewer thoughts one can entertain about it without the risk of despair, and the more of its reality is therefore forced – by a need for self-protection – into a zone of unawareness.

William Merritt Chase, Hide and Seek, 1888

There are childhoods where one cannot, for example, ever think that one’s father is monstrous and damaged and so one thinks instead – more consolingly and liveably – that one must have done something very wrong, that one deserves the punishment he metes out every night and that the beatings are in their way quite fair and the shoutings legitimate. There are childhoods where one cannot think that everything is as chaotic and dangerous as it is and one thinks instead that one is getting far, far too fat and must control every calorie entering one’s mouth. Or there are childhoods where one cannot think that it’s obscene that one’s parents seem so obviously to prefer a sibling and so one thinks instead that one should have a nose exactly like she does and slides into body dysmorphia instead. Or there are cases where one cannot think that mummy might be very ill – and so one thinks instead about how the skyscrapers in the city might fall down at any time. Or, most tragically of all, there are situations where one cannot think that an uncle has seduced one and so one worries a lot instead that one may somehow have seduced him, or else that it is – as he keeps stressing – all just a game.

The thoughts one cannot haveThe thoughts one has instead
I am furiousI am bad
This family doesn’t protect meI am too fat and must control what I eat
I have been grossly overlooked in favour of my siblingThere’s something wrong with my nose
My mother might diethe buildings in this city are unstable
An uncle has seduced meWe’re just playing a special game

There are circumstances in which we cannot think the truth because the truth would break our minds. These minds are then clever enough to divert reality into something more bearable that, while not in any way accurate, at least allows us to hold on and evolve to the next stage of life. We sometimes need a few lies to make it through; certain thoughts may simply have to be parked for the sake of life.

This gives us one definition of what adulthood should involve: a chance to go back and unpick the evasions we long ago – rather skilfully – devised in the name of psychic survival; to allow ourselves, finally, to entertain in full daylight the awful thoughts that are our due, in order that the future can  feel as calm, sane and hopeful as it should always have been.

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