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review: non-fiction

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl

Researchers have proved time and again that bad events pack a bigger psychological punch than good ones. People fear losing the $50 in their pockets more than they relish happening on another fifty. Being abandoned by a friend hurts more than the joy of making a new one. Living near someone makes it more likely that you will become his enemy than his friend, as psychologist Roy Baumeister has pointed out, while the longevity of a marriage hinges more on its negative interactions (sarcasm, criticism) than on its positive ones (affection, sex).

Depressing as this is, when it comes to what sticks in the human psyche, often the bad outweighs the good. Perhaps that's one reason why Elisabeth Young-Bruehl focused on two highly charged negative phenomena – child abuse and neglect – in Childism, her posthumous book on children, while giving all positive developments a pass.

Young-Bruehl's thesis is that there is systemic prejudice against children in the United States, and that this bias – long endemic – has gained momentum over the past 40 years. Adults use children to advance their own agendas, she asserts, and the worst offenders are baby boomers.

"This generation of parents – my own generation, the post-World War II baby boomers, now in their sixties – became in the 1970s deeply conflicted in relation to their children," she writes, "as well as to the future more generally, with progressive and regressive tendencies waging a constant battle." The result, Young-Bruehl asserts, is an anti-child prejudice that must be described before it can be addressed. This book is that manifesto.

But be warned, there are no Tiger Mothers, helicopter parents or svelte French mothers bringing up obedient bébés here. Instead, the book is peopled with iconic, mythic villains, such as the wicked "addicted, agitated and depressed" stepmother, who neglects to feed her three-year-old stepchild, Anna, and colludes with the child's stepbrother (and pediatrician!) to allow her to be repeatedly sexually abused.

Adult Anna eventually becomes Young-Bruehl's patient in psychoanalysis, and the author relates her lurid tale as a chapter-long object lesson: This is how an entire generation treats its children, if not in actions than in beliefs. "Anna's experience, and the experiences of other patients I was treating at the same time prompted me to think about how we deal with child abuse in the United States. Was childism something like internalized racism or sexism?"

The suggestion is that, like other prejudices, our anti-child biases may not be overt but are always there, lurking beneath the surface and malevolently skewing our actions. "Where should a line between poor parenting and intentional abuse be drawn?" she asks provocatively. "Is there a grey area?"

Young-Bruehl was born in 1946 in Maryland, a background that sheds some light on her lifelong interest in bigotry. Her doctorate in philosophy was supervised by Hannah Arendt, who coined the phrase "the banality of evil" to refer to the atrocities of the Holocaust.

As an academic, Young-Bruehl also wrote biographies, notably of Arendt and Anna Freud. In 1996, she published The Anatomy of Prejudices, which argues that different forms of prejudice, such as anti-Semitism and homophobia, have Freudian roots. In the 1980s, she trained as an psychoanalyst and subsequently opened a therapy practice in New York. Some of the cases from that practice have found their way into this book, as has her view that the psychosexual roots of ideology are the hidden drivers of behaviour. Young-Bruehl moved to Toronto in 2007 and died in December, 2011, just before this book was published.

In Childism, Young-Bruehl has trained her analytic eye on horrendous child-abuse cases, such as the now-debunked satanic-ritual abuse cases in 1980s preschools, and the idea that "commercial, institutionalized child sex slavery" is emblematic of American attitudes. The book features descriptions of parents who terrorize their children by starving them, breaking their bones, humiliating them with soul-destroying insults or forcing them to watch while the adults torture the family pets. "If you fancy yourself a member of the reality-based community, here is where you might start feeling twitchy," reviewer Jennifer McDonald recently wrote about a book ( The Lifespan of a Fact) that blurs fact and fiction, and "twitchy" is how I felt while reading many of these passages. Young-Bruehl's concern for children is very real, but the world she lived in is not the one I know. Outside a war zone, no mental-health professional – not even in the United States – faces such a steady diet of depravity.

Like Young-Bruehl, I have had a long-standing clinical practice, in my case with children. But, unlike her, I was more likely to trust parents than to suspect them of crimes. My assumption was that most parents – yes, even baby boomers – have their children's best interests in mind and want to protect them from pain and harm.

Still, unspeakable things can happen. A child or parent can become desperately ill and throw a family into chaos. Or a trusted figure – a hockey coach or a priest – can violate the child's and the parents' trust. But to point a finger at a generation with the claim that their unconscious biases have put their children at risk is both wrong-headed and, if you look at the numbers, just plain wrong.

In fact, physical and sexual abuse of American children has not increased since baby boomers became parents. It has plummeted, dropping by half in recent decades, according to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System. In some states, it has declined by as much as 60 per cent. Disciplining children by hurting them is no longer acceptable. Before the 1980s, it was common for parents and school principals to spank or strap a child, and U.S. surveys show that 90 per cent of the population approved of the practice. Now, if a school employee used a leather strap on a boomer's child, not only would she be fired, she would also probably face a lawsuit. Underpinning this progress is a mountain of legislation. I counted 27 U.S. child welfare and protection laws adopted since the early seventies.

Still, I agree with Young-Bruehl that it's not enough. In Canada, even one Shafia or Sheldon Kennedy case is one too many. And in the U.S., even if there's been huge progress since the seventies – surely a positive – when it comes to child well-being, it's still ranked near the bottom among countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. So come to think of it, that's actually a negative, as there's still such a long way to go.

Susan Pinker is a psychologist and Globe and Mail columnist whose last book, The Sexual Paradox, was on sex differences, especially in children. Her next book is on the hidden impact of social bonds.

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