Micah Toub faced quite a few psychological challenges when he was growing up. And two of his best guides through them – as well as the biggest causes of them – were his parents.
Part memoir, part introduction to famous and infamous psychological concepts past and present, Growing Up Jung tells the story of a boy raised by two psychologists. It's an extraordinary coming-of-age story, replete with more sexual confusion and domestic dysfunction than even the average adolescent has to endure. And through the telling of that story, Toub is able to discuss such topics as why Freud's obsession with Oedipus threatens our chances today of being close to our mothers; the methods a Jungian psychologist might use to help a young man overcome sexual anxiety; and why it is okay to sometimes let your inner-murderer out for the night.
Referencing the written works of the thinkers discussed, books that have been written about them, and relevant contemporary pop culture, Toub discusses and explains such topics as Synchronicity, Archetypes, and the Oedipus Complex, as well as lesser-known corners of the psyche, such as the Ally, the Dreambody, and what Jung called Active Imagination. And he is able to weave all this information seamlessly into his own story, because if there was a psychological problem going, it went Toub's way. Call it synchronicity. And if you don't know what synchronicity is, see chapter 5.
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MICAH TOUB grew up in Denver, Colorado. He attended McGill University and now resides in Toronto, where he writes on psychology and other topics, including a biweekly column on relationships from a male point of view for The Globe and Mail.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
(A Terrorist in the Family)
“Well, if you’re just going to stare at the ceiling instead of making eye contact with me and won’t tell me how you’re feeling, why don’t you describe what you see? Perhaps you see a figure or a story in the shapes of the plaster that will help us to know what’s happening with you?”
My father said this in the fluffy-edged psychologist voice that he would have used with all his clients that week. It’s marked by a soothing sound that begins far back in the throat and is followed by a series of slow, encouraging nods. I always knew that when he spoke like that to my sister things were not going well.
“I see a ceiling,” Andreya said. “And I don’t feel like talking about it.”
I later dubbed this event, which occurred in the downstairs family room of our house, the Toub Family Peace Conference of 1986. I was ten years old; my sister, fourteen. We lived in a tract housing suburb of Denver, Colorado, so our family room was identical to the thousands of other family rooms in the thousands of other houses that expanded outward from ours in a seemingly never-ending and symmetrical grid. I can’t help feeling, though, that what was happening that day, in our family room, was unique.
I viewed the proceedings from the kitchen, half a floor up, where I engaged my G.I. Joes in quiet battle on the linoleum floor. My father sat on one side of the long, red, velour couch and my sister leaned against the arm on the opposite side. My father wasn’t a huge man, but he always maintained an athletic physique due to his weekly racquetball matches. Compared to Andreya, he was the physically dominant one, but he always undercut his muscular stockiness with a gentle demeanor that seemed, in its affect, to equalize the two of them. Andreya, with her half-black skin and curly brown hair—hair that she spent hours straightening every day to look more like the girls on television and in her school—didn’t much resemble our father. Well, actually not at all. She is a child from our mother’s first marriage; my father adopted her when she was three. Leaning toward her chin-first, my father was attempting to make eye contact with Andreya through his square-framed glasses. She refused to capitulate, shielding herself with her scowling dark eyebrows and arms across her chest. My mother, an ally to both parties, sat on the rocking chair on the other side of the room, her small frame swallowed by its plaid pattern. She had been a tireless mediator over the years, but now she was letting the negotiations take place without her involvement, trying to say nothing. There was very little light coming into the room since it was halfway underground, lending the event an ominous air.
My father let out a great sigh and shook his head slowly, sadly. I eyed the ceiling above their heads. The white mass of ridged plaster was a scorched and hopeless landscape of dunes. A prisoner, ankles tied, was being marched across the desert to his execution while, alongside, his captors rode a camel. An unidentified flying object hovered above the scene, observing. I wished that my sister would see these things too, but she wasn’t even trying.
“Every family has a culture,” my mother told me a few years ago, “and as in all cultures, whether it’s a country or a company, there’s a mainstream way of doing things—the way most people do them—and then there’s a smaller group that doesn’t do things that way. That group is the marginalized faction.”
I nodded. We were discussing—and not for the first time—what had happened so that my father and sister were hardly speaking anymore and had had almost no relationship for fifteen years. We were analyzing the history of the struggle, trying to tease out the root causes and I could tell my mother was coming to a conclusion.
“We call that marginalized role in the group the terrorist. And Andreya,” my mother said very gravely, “was the terrorist of our family.”
The theory, she went on to explain, was something she learned from one of her first mentors, post-Jungian Arnold Mindell. At the time, she wasn’t in contact with him much, but when I was growing up, she and my father were members of his inner circle and his psychological theories and practices had been a constant presence in our house. Back then, he was always just referred to as “Arny,” but nowadays I like to refer to him as my parents’ “former guru.”
In my head, I created the movie: a family sitting around the dinner table—a Thanksgiving spread with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, the works. They’re all wearing knit sweaters and smiles. But if you peer beyond the table, into the darkness of the family room below, you can just make out a trench dug in the carpet, a teenager peeking above, her face smudged with dirt so as to be camouflaged with the brown shag. Her arm is cocked back, ready to pitch a grenade and take out the whole placid lot of them.
It sounds like an exaggerated illustration, but my mother would say that my scene is exactly what she’s talking about. In fact, my mother never exaggerates, though she is prone to the use of metaphors. The scene, she would say, represents what is really happening.
The terrorist, she explained to me, acts in opposition to a family’s prescribed way of being. The terrorist is the one who refuses to be involved in family rituals and doesn’t laugh at the family jokes.
He is the black sheep, the one people are referring to when they say, “They’re such a nice family, but that Joey, well, he’s different, isn’t he?”
In a wealthy, social-climbing family, this person might sell all his belongings and head off to Africa. If one’s parents are artists, instead of being creative, eccentric, and persistently broke, the terrorist might become a clock-punching accountant with a spouse, two kids, and a dog. Like a family’s signature odor, a family’s culture may not always be something that’s considered positive by the world outside the boundaries of that family’s walls: “C’mon, Jimmy, have another beer. It’s not going to kill you. Since when did my son become such a wuss?”
Sometimes, the marginalized member of the family actually appears to be in the mainstream by most people’s standards. Alex P. Keaton, the Ronald Reagan–loving, money-grubbing son of two bleeding-heart liberals in Family Ties, was the terrorist of his television sitcom family.
However, even if the grenade-wielding daughter at Thanksgiving is an accurate picture of what’s really happening emotionally, I figured that when Arny used the same term given to suicide bombers for a member of one’s family, he meant only to hammer home his point. But, as I found out after stealing some of his books off my parents’ shelves, this is not exactly the case.
As it turns out, Arny has worked not just with groups of hippies, but has also been a mediator in international conflicts that involved the kind of disputes and violence we normally associate with the term terrorism. In his book Sitting in the Fire, Arny suggests that alienation and anger, whether on the world scale, in companies, or in families and relationships, are in some ways parallel in their dynamics. The book is mostly written about working with political groups, but Arny writes that like these bigger groups, small groups like families also include members who are marginalized as a result of possessing qualities or attitudes that the mainstream system has shut out. In fact, he says the very existence of the terrorist comes about because certain qualities are repressed from the mainstream. The main thrust of Arny’s book is that conflict arises in groups—between the terrorist and the mainstream, for example—from a need to shift the culture in a direction that is more inclusive and whole. Both the country and the family need to figure out how to integrate the terrorist’s qualities and attitudes into the mainstream culture to make the terrorist role unnecessary. Therefore, one could consider his wayward sister akin to a suicide bomber and, at the same time, a suicide bomber could be viewed as a sister—a sister in a family in which she doesn’t quite fit in, and who has taken up an unwelcome viewpoint simply because no one else did.
Our family culture was a particularly calm and encouraging one. “That’s good that I died in your dream, Micah,” my father once told me. “That means you’re integrating your inner father and becoming more independent.”
We talked about our problems, and we understood that our issues with each other were often just issues within ourselves. “I am angry with you right now because the part of me represented by you is not being allowed to emerge into consciousness,” we might say. “It’s not you, it’s me.”
Self-reflection—or taking the metaview—was a highly valued trait and, even now, the fact that I’m writing this, stepping back to consider the concept of a family culture and applying it to my own family, is a direct result of that. And the fact that I just wrote that sentence raises me to an even higher plane—the meta-metaview. Reflecting on life in double-meta land is perhaps a bit, I don’t know, self-indulgent, but in my family, it is a great achievement. Little practicalities like trimming the weeds in the backyard or buying a new kitchen table when the old one is falling...
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