Friday, December 12, 2014

Book Review: Ghost of My Father by Scott Berkun

Half of all profits from this edition of Mr. Berkun's book, Ghost of Our Fathers (Berkum Media, 2014) will be donated to Big Brother Big Sisters of America

Our parents, or our primary caretakers when we were growing up, have a profound effect on us for our entire lives. They have this effect whether they like or not, and whether we like it or not. Attachment research has shown that their interactions with us help shape our mental models of both the world and how relationships are supposed to operate under various environmental contingencies (schemas).

The part of the brain called the amygdala, central to our fight/flight/freeze reactions to fearful stimuli, has specific cells that respond only to the face our mothers (or primary female attachment figures) - and nothing else. It also contains cells that respond only to our fathers/male attachment figures - and nothing else.

Even those who have managed to become more self-actualized or differentiated from our families of origin - who can follow our own muse and live according to our own independently formed beliefs - still hear or feel those old tapes of our parents' admonitions whenever we do things of which our parents routinely disapproved. I know I do, and my parents have been gone for decades. We can choose to ignore these tapes, but there is often a nagging doubt that arises in our minds whenever we do.

In his new book, Scott Berkum describes a feeling of being haunted by the past as well as by the ongoing behavior of his father, and does so eloquently using the words of a poet. I'll mention some examples of his beautifully-worded descriptions of some of the phenomena discussed previously this blog shortly.

Most of what I have written about dysfunctional family interactions on this blog as well as my blog on the Psychology Today website concerns what happens when parents give us contradictory or mixed messages about what is important to them, as well as what they expect from us. But what happens when they seem to give us almost no signals at all? When the parent is a big cipher? This is what happened to the author in his relationship with his father, and I suspect, though to a much lesser extent, with his mother.

His father was gone much of the time during his childhood, spending most of it working or at the racetrack gambling. He completely abandonned the family and the patient's mother twice in order to have extended affairs - once when the patient was eight years old, and once when the patient was in his forties. And yet when he returned each time, the mother would want him back, take him in, and take care of his needs.

He seemed to have little interest in what was important to the author. Much of the time he seemed to barely acknowledge his son's presence. The only sustained interactions they had seemed to occur at the dinner table, when the author, his siblings, and his father  would debate political and social issues. Father would seem to purposely take up a provocative position on the issue, and then stick with it no matter what arguments the author came up with.  Dad would never concede a point.

The author was plagued thoughout his life with a feeling that he was unworthy of his father's attention, and that nothing he did mattered to his Dad.

The author tried on numerous times to do what I recommend to my patients in therapy: attempt to empathically confront Dad to try to find out what made him tick and what he was really thinking (metacommunication). Unfortunately, each time he tried he ran up against a brick wall that would never come down. His father seemed to be incapable of discussing feelings. If the author pressed forward anyway, the conversation would devolve into a shouting match.

The book does not describe what was said during these explosions. With my patients in therapy, I try to obtain a blow-by-blow description of exactly what was said,  in chronological order, as best the patient can remember. This often gives hidden clues about the emotional processes that are taking place in both participants during the battle, as well as to why they are reacting the way they are.  In turn, this can suggest ways to have conversations that do not go in the usual direction and do not become fighting matches.

Interestingly, Dad did apologize for his behavior on one rare occasion and even expressed his love, but both the apology and the expression seemed to ring hollow with the author, who more or less rejected them.

Of course, when the author rejected them, he may not have realized that this let his father off the hook as far as further elaborating on the problem at hand- which was likely the father's goal all along. Saying what a family member wants to hear in a seemingly insincere way and/or when it is least expected often leads to such a rejection of the expressed sentiment. The person who does this then walks away thinking, "Just as I thought - he didn't really want to hear that, but at least I tried." This is an example of the game without end.

The author does discuss some genogram information, although whatever therapists he saw may not have not called it that nor known exactly how that information might best be used to design more productive family interactions in the present. The information about his father's upbringing was rather telling, and seemed to explain one statement the father made in the middle of one of the author's attempts to metacommunicate: "Your problem is you remember too much."

The author's paternal grandfather was described as "the quietest man I ever met." The author adds that he "...was always watching professional wrestling when we visited. He'd stare into the television as if he and it were the only thing left on the planet. His social skills, even with his own grandchildren, were non existent...I don't remember him ever saying a word to me."

No doubt Dad's father had done to him pretty much what he did to his own son. 

Clearly this was Dad's unfortunate role model for being a father. Clearly there was a family rule against fathers and sons communicating meaningfully. The author also admits that he shared some traits with his father - at times more than he cared to admit even to himself - demonstrating the intergenerational transfer of dysfunctional traits. The father must have tried to handle his own feelings by trying to "forget" what had happened.

A clue as to the origin of the family rules is that the father's paternal great grandfather  fled to the US from Ukraine in 1902 to avoid being drafted into the army, leaving his brothers behind. Undoubtedly there was a lot more to that story, especially since the brothers died in the Holocaust many years later. Was there some resulting hidden guilt and shame that had to be kept out of mind and never discussed?

The book is supposed to be primarily about the author's relationship with his father, so Mr. Berkum gives limited attention to his relationship with his mother. While he described them as close, it sounds as though certain subjects were off limits with her as well - like why she remained involved with such a distant man, and why she would take him back after a second betrayal.

The only person in the family who seemed to be able to express anger was the author's sister Tracy, who of course went overboard in doing so. Interestingly, the parents seem to keep her around almost as a pet - she lived with them or next door to them even after she married and had kids - until she, like the author himself did as a rather young man, finally moved away to escape. 

No doubt the parents needed Tracy's expressiveness to release some of their own pent-up rage.

Some concepts from the blog that the author describes poetically:
Distancing: "He mastered wounding us just enough that we'd leave the conversation as quickly as we could." (p. 11).

Existential groundlessness: "...we forget when we become adults that the armor made to survive our youth no longer serves us...yet removing it is puts us at odds with our family and friends, as tribes prefer to stay with patterns of the past. Most people convince themselves that removing their armor is something they don't need to do. And their families, complicit in the same denial, reward the defense of the status quo, ensuring the...same armor, and the same ghosts, will be passed on to the next generation..." (p. 17).

The power of family ties"It is curious, perhaps even strange, that the choices of my father would impact me so profoundly at forty years old." (p. 22).

"I didn't realize that just because you're done with the past doesn't mean the past is done with you."

Mutual role function support: "Each person needs the other badly, in the way an alcoholic needs another drink. When one takes a drink of the feels good. It covers certain holes, allowing them, in moments, to be forgotten, but does not fill them. My mother and father love each other for that feeling, and hate each other  for the same reason." (p. 114).

On the feeling of not counting for his father, after a brief encounter after he returned late from the racetrack:  "It was the bottom of the barrel of his day..." (p. 150).

I could go on. This book is a brutally honest memoir, well worth reading.


  1. The '40s, for the reviewed author and myself, seem the age when the wires behind the walls are stripped back.

  2. When a parent does not acknowledge the existence of the child;
    it is the child who is the ghost.
    Not the parent.

    My father was similar - an enigmatic male. I think he got an idea in his head, when a gangly adolescent, that females were attracted to silent mystery men.

    I adored him as a child. Now I think he was just life support for genitalia.

  3. There is a psychology podcast, Mental Illness Happy Hour, wherein the guest of an episode related how his mother hated him, and only him from among his siblings, much like the author Scott Berkun. She never had a kind word for him and when the guest reached his teenage years, he asserted himself and ended his abuse. Compare this with parents who say they love you one second and tell you you're a bloodsucking leach the next. I wonder what makes for a more messed up adult? My guess is the latter.