Family therapy, American style

Eric Garland Culture Trends Leave a Comment

America, about to enter a long-overdue therapy, sits outside the psychologist’s office, swaying nervously. It flips through the year-old copies of National Geographic and Sports Illustrated, trying to keep from looking uncomfortable, knowing that some difficult conversations await this next threshold.

One of my best friends is a rather terrific therapist and social worker, and she recently described to me the process of family dynamics – the systems of function and dysfunction which take generations to create. When it comes to dysfunction, someone creates a story – true or illusory – and then that story is often played out by different individuals for years to come. It might be “Mom’s always a problem,” or “we’re never there for each other when it counts.” Once a story is enacted, it takes painful insight and determined effort to change. Otherwise, people simply sleepwalk through those old patterns, often in defiance of logic and even self-interest. They passionately defend this script, the pages of which are lodged so deep in their minds they do not even know they exist.

As America is forced to look at more and more evidence of malfeasance in the system of justice, its reactions seem curiously like a family acting out old patterns to do honor to long-dead relatives. In the case of Rekia Boyd, a woman shot to death by an off-duty cop who thought her friends were too loud, any rational person would say, “My God, that’s horrible. That’s not law enforcement, it’s murder. Surely, the villain, policeman or no, will face the full weight of justice. Obviously, we cannot have police just wandering around killing citizens.”

Then we watch in bewilderment as a judge sets that police officer free on a technicality with no sense of shame about perverting justice around a case that is not some mere bureaucratic matter, but a mortal sin proscribed in the Ten Commandments, as well as every major religion on Earth.

The only explanation I have for this kind of action is the presence of an unconscious script. This judge must do honor to the past narrative of justifying violence against African-Americans, lest he be forced to look clearly at the horror of injustice which began in these lands in 1620, when the Dutch brought the very first stolen Africans to produce riches for European empires. And because they too are part of the story, average Americans read the headlines, realize the details of the tragedy, and then somehow manage not to react in horror. Instead of calling their Senators immediately to demand justice, or at least to warn their own local judges that they better not follow suit, they seek to normalize the situation. After all, especially in the South, Americans who were not natively cruel or evil were forced as children to walk by plantations and pretend that everything was normal. Their parents told them not to worry, that the natural order of things was unfolding, and that surely no great crime or travesty was on display. And so that child learned to normalize a story that, on its face, ought to provoke shame and reproach.

When each of these crimes against justice are unfolded I notice a pattern: when the actions of a given police department, prosecutor, or judge are finally so indefensible as to provoke a much-needed reckoning, commenters will come out in force – live and on social media – to repeat their lines. “But hey, they were criminals,” they say in cases where the deceased was not a criminal. “But you know they resisted arrest,” they say, pretending not to know that the function of police is not supposed to be a roving capital punishment squad. “But they are protecting us from the tsunami of lunatic criminals, and they themselves face potential annihilation every moment,” they say, not recognizing that violent crime is down 50% since 1990, or that police officers are 40% less likely to die at work than bartenders and half as likely as farmers. The only reason not to see the current actions of the police as aberrant is so that one can repeat one’s line from the script, dutifully, doing honor to the past generations who have relied on that narrative to salve their conscience.

Very few families head to therapy on Christmas morning; a crisis must come to head. The old story must finally be untenable, no matter how tightly we grip it. The old story must do us more damage than it’s worth. Ever optimistic, I believe that America can throw away these pages, to say these lines no more, and to enact a new story. We can simply admit the horrors of the past and the dysfunctions of the present and move forward. Justice will not come from new laws; we have laws on the books, and you see what happens when they are enforced by those acting out an old story. To quote Daniel Quinn, it will not be from old minds and new programs, but from new minds and no programs.

We can get there.

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