A Granddad Cameo: Dandelion Tears
It's been a month since Bruce picked up their two children. No great surprise; he didn't visit his daughter by his first wife until he remarried Cassie. Their marriage had weeks of relative calm during which Bruce left her lists of checks to write, things to buy, people to call. He checked her work and corrected her. The quiet times were followed by arguments, usually associated with his drinking beer and shots and her withdrawing from him. Bruce never hit her but he got physically close instead, his large frame hunched up over her small one against a wall, while he threatened and squeezed her arms just as her alcoholic father had done to her mother.
She's restless one Saturday morning; she and the kids clean out the tropical fish tank, leaving the filter to dry on the walk Little Bruce, age 3, puts his fingers in everything she does. Eventually she sends him up to his room to calm both her and him. A few minutes pass and he runs out to play with the neighbor's kids. There's a suspicious "crunch and crack." Cassie runs outside and finds Little Bruce standing in the cracked filter. She moans and rolls her eyes toward the sky. Little Bruce quickly picks a dandelion and gives it to her with "I'm sorry." Only then she cries; he's bewildered 1, 2).
1) All names have been changed. The story is not unusual. One standard interpretation, based on self-selected data, is that each generation "learns" from the prior one. Popular references are made to "breaking the cycle of abuse" such that removing a generation should eliminate propagation of the behavior. Unfortunately, adopted children tend to resemble more their natural, rather than their adopted, parents for a number of childhood disorders (Mash & Barkley, 1996).
2) It's difficult to put aside conflicting reactions to this incident. The feelings in marital discord have extraordinary power. Cassie eventually took Bruce back into the house despite her financial independence, her rearing, her aversion to some of his traits, and awareness of his past. It could be her thoughts that "my son needs his father" and her search for "high paternal investment" overrode her fears. Their early courtship possibly included Bruce's promises that he would never be intimidating because that's the "way my mother/father was." Unfortunately, two forces may erode those promises. First, the elated mania (Beck, 1988) involved with courtship usually evaporates and both partners regress to less energetic styles. Second, there is some tendency for people as they get older to be more, not less, like their parents (Rutter & Rutter, 1993).
Not only does Cassie have a problem with Bruce and shared by her mother; the identical problem may loom with her 3 year old. Cassie's a scared mother, visited by Christmas Past, Present, and Future simultaneously and in the person of her younger son who reminds her in action and looks of herself, her husband, and their parents.
If we are willing to roam past the usual environmentalist hypotheses for what is described, the "linkage disequilibrium" (Dawkins,1987) concept may be considered. An underlying assumption is that male traits are driven by female mating preferences. Dawkins' example is that a male bird with a long tail indicates that he carries genes both to produce a long tail and genes to be attracted to other birds with a long tail, given that his mother was attracted to his father who had a long tail. He is likely to mate with a female who also prefers long tails. The phenomenon could account for rapid and extreme increases in some physical or behavioral traits in some species. Linkage disequilibrium should lead creatures who carry genes for an exaggerated feature to mate preferentially with other creatures who display that same exaggeration.
The model suggests that Cassie may be attracted to large, controlling males because her mother genetically was attracted to large, controlling males. Because her father was large and controlling, Cassie may also have the potential to produce large, controlling children, any of whom may be attracted to their opposite number. Her potential would be added to that already supplied by Bruce. The concept is similar to "assortative mating" in which physically and temperamentally similar creatures mate with one another; however, in linkage disequilibrium a behavioral "attraction" is carried by both parents and linked with a physical trait in one of them.
Linkage disequilibrium is subtle, hypnotic and frightening. For an individual parent, it could produce a hopeless sense of acting out "Sisyphus" but across generations. "Oh my God, it's my turn with the rock!" It's fascinating because it could be so difficult to prove at the human level even if it were true. And, it may also be one contribution to the recent increases in various mental health and social crises in our society. A positive feedback loop may be operating and not considered because of our alternative explanations based on social class, education or financial resources. Most positive feedback loops have destructive outcomes in nature; this one may as well, if it exists.
Beck, A. (1988) Love is never enough. New York: Harper, p 39.
Dawkins, R. (1987) The blind watchmaker. New York: Norton, p. 203.
Mash, E. & Barkley, R. (1996) Child psychopathology. New York: Guilford.
Rutter, M & Rutter, M., 1993, Developing Minds, New York: Basic Books.