(xposted Wild/Precious)

You know what bugs the ever living hell out of me?

Pseudoscience. Pseudoscience bugs the ever living hell out of me. The fact that every single day my facebook feed is filled with stuff and nonsense for which no empirical evidence exists–vaccines cause autism! not eating gluten will cure depression! antioxidants will fix your cancer!–bugs the ever living hell out of me.

Barbara Enrenreich’s Bright-Sided, which I cannot believe it has taken me this long to read, is essentially a giant debunking of another kind of pseudoscience: the power of positive thinking.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, well, positive thinking HELPS US! It helps us to be healthier and strengthens our immune systems and that which does not kill us makes us stronger so slap a colored ribbon on your car and lets run a 5K!

God that bugs me.

Ehrenreich’s book, which I tore through in an afternoon, includes a fantastic exploration of the history of positive thinking, which rose, essentially, in objection to Calvinism–I agree constantly monitoring yourself for sin to see whether you are predestined to burn in hell seems a perfectly dreadful way to live. I am just not sure that replacing with the constant self-monitoring for negative thoughts is a whole lot better. A little better, but not a whole lot. And as Ehrenreich shows, there are a lot of parallels between Calvinist thinking that you ought to cast out the sinners from your life and the exertions of positive thinking gurus to stop associating with negative people–even if they happen to be, say, your spouse. There’s a lot of what she calls (heehee) “inescapable pseudoscientific flapadoodle” inherent in much of the guru-led nonsense, like The Secret and its ilk. Tell me “inescapable pseudoscientific flapadoodle” is not the exact phrase you have been searching for to explain your facebook feed!

I’m not even going to try to explain all of the ways in which Enrenreich disproves the various IPFs, but I will say that she provides some damn compelling evidence that America’s over-reliance on positive thinking–with its genuinely fascinating historical and religious roots–contributed significantly to the economic collapse. This is one of the more interesting chapters in a text where no chapter disappoints. For me, though, the highlight was the chapter on cancer. Enrenreich, who had breast cancer, talks about the pervasive belief that getting cancer was somehow a Good Thing: it was meant to happen! It would lead her to better things! She could get a pretty wig and a free makeover! She should look at cancer as an oppurtinity to find her true self!

Well, if you will pardon my French, bullfuckingshit. As Enrenreich discovered, this relentless focus on positivity actually meant that she, and other patients, didn’t have a chance to think critically about treatment options–which in the world of cancer, where chemo can hurt as much as heal, is pretty damn critical. It made it hard to pull out important information from malarky.

America has some weird strains running through it. One of these is our idea that if we just work hard enough we can all become President, or at least a ballerina. This is garbage and we should really stop saying it. Yes, you can achieve a lot of wonderful and amazing things with the right amount of determination–if a lot of other factors are also present. I can dream lots and lots of things. I can do very few of them. This is not a defeatist attitude. This is an attitude that reflects reality. This is part of why I think social programs can be so hard to get through politically–a strain of America believes that people don’t need the government to help them, because if they just worked hard enough, they wouldn’t need health care because they wouldn’t get sick, and they wouldn’t need federally funded early childhood education because they’d make enough money to send their kids to the 30K a year preschool down the road. Again, this entire notion is garbage. That’s not to say that having goals and sticking to them and working incredibly hard and paying your dues are not all important. They are tremendously important. It’s just that in addition we have this thing called reality, and the fact is that there are people for whom the deck is stacked right from the beginning, and for those people the traditional American dream requires more than hard work. It requires luck and help. This is true for everyone, actually, its just that its infinitely truer for some than for others.

So there’s that, and related to that I think is our idea that wishing can make it so. That if we just will ourselves to get better, or assume that we got sick or hurt or poor for a reason, we can Make Something Of It and Come Out Stronger and whatever other cliches you want to throw out there. This is nonsense. I can tell you right now that struggling with chronic depression does not make me a stronger or better person, or more in touch with reality. It makes it harder for me to do the things I want to do. That’s it. Having cancer did not make my father stronger or better or wiser. It meant that he had to go through a lot of pain. That’s it. Sometimes there is no deeper meaning.It is tantalizing to believe that there is.  I get that. I wish that having had depression brought me some sort of special powers of empathy or clarity or artistic talent. But sometimes shit just happens. Oftentimes that shit does not make us stronger or better or wiser. Suffering is part of the human condition, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get to be angry about that suffering. If you have cancer, if you are dirt poor, if your parents beat you, it is okay to wake up in the morning and curse the universe. The universe can take it. The universe is not going to turn into a spiteful third-grader and smite you for cursing it. Some things are not fair and some things never will be. Sometimes there is nothing the fuck up with that.

This isn’t to say that science knows everything. It doesn’t (scientists would be the first to admit that). There are not explanations for everything. There are lots and lots of things about the universe that we don’t know and probably never will. But science is and remains the best way we have to measure actual truth. Actual truth, in the way I am thinking of it, is different from your own truth; actual truth is, say, evolution, or gravity, or the way that the earth is round. You can have all sorts of truths of your own, things that you believe way into the fabric of your gut. You should have those things. It’s just that those things are beliefs. They are not fact. And there are all sorts of things we will discover that may well change the way we currently conceive of the world; chemicals that we think are safe now may prove not to be, for example. Actually I think we can all agree that’s going to happen. But we have to do the best that we can with the science and the facts and the medicine that we have now. I am not going to try to repeat the ways in which the book refutes various studies on happiness but if you are into science I suggest it.

Ehrenreich is not suggesting that we suddenly start looking at the world with mud-colored glasses–in fact, as she points out, depressed folks tend to do just that and it is certainly no healthier than unrealistic optimism. Rather, she is suggesting that perhaps we look at the world as it really is. That we use critical thinking skills–those of us that were lucky enough to learn them in school, and I am not being remotely snarky here–and reality testing and evidence based claims to decipher our world. As she says, “the alternative to both [overly pessimistic or optimistic thinking] is to try to get outside of ourselves and see things ‘as they are’ or as uncolored as possible by our own feelings and fantasies, to understand that the world is full of both danger and opportunity–the chance of great happiness as well as the certainty of death” (Ehrenreich p.196).

So if you are diagnosed with breast cancer and it makes you feel better and more able to face the day and make informed decisions about your own health care to fill your room with pink ribbons, go for it. Just don’t expect it to cure you. It will not.


April 2013 Reads

1. Six Years, Harlan Coben–I like Coben, though I think that we should stop pretending his books generally have Bigger Meanings. they are ripping good mysteries, and that is enough. The Boltair books are my fave though and this alas isn’t one.
2. Let the devil sleep, Verdon–I really like the hero of this series
3. People of pineapple place –a YA novel that I grabbed to read in the bath; one of my favorites as a kid and one of my favorites as a grown up.
4. Making thinking visible–a textbook about making thinking visible, duh. here is a prezi i made about it that explains the concepts better…
5. Childism –one of the most important books i’ve read. here is my annotation.

6. Dare Me–Megan Abbott-eh. I liked it OK, but I didnt love it.

7. Death at seaworld –fantastic. i wrote about it earlier.
8. The family man –elinor lipman, who is one of my all time favorite people. re-read. i love her books and i think this might be favorite. i could read her all day.
9. The burn palace –Stephen Dobyns–Dobyns wrote one of my favorite creepy books, Church of Dead Girls, and this is also excellent though not quite as good. Creepy and freaky in all the right ways.
10. Running out of time-Margaret peterson haddox–re-read of a YA book that I always liked. I often grab these to read in the bath if I am between adult books!
11. Insane city –Dave Barry-fun and funny.
12. Boy  in the water –Dobyns–an older book of his. Good, not as good.
13. Silenced (Ohlsson) –great mystery
14. The mysterious Benedict society –this and the below are both YA books that I really enjoyed
15. Perilous prisoner –see above-sequel
16. Monster of the month-YA in the bath AGAIN! sheesh
17. Silent to the bone –in honor of the author E.L. Koenigsberg, who died this month.
18. Don’t go–lisa scottoline–definitely not her best at all. I feel like she was trying to write a Serious War Novel and she should stick with her fairly lighthearted and funny legal thrillers.
19. Twisted –Kellerman–eh. fine.
20. Colleges that change lives–for the hell of it. its always interesting to see whats out there.
21. Monster (kellerman)–eh. fine. again.
22. Vengeance–Benjamin Black–I liked this one.
23. What happened to Sophie wilder–terrific. here is my review.
24. Island of the blue dolphins–Scott O’Dell. such a classic. i hadnt read it in a zillion years and I was glad to remember it!


In the marvelous book Childism, Elisabeth Young-Bruel makes an exceptionally persuasive case that not only does prejudice against children exist but that it is extremely prevalent. She begins by explaining three types of child abusers, using what are basically psychoanalytic characterological classifications–narcissistic, hysterical and obsessional. She then explains the concept of projection–that is, that an abusing adult is projecting something onto the victimized child, whether it is a wish to eliminate the child/competition, a need to punish what the adult finds bad in himself, or a desire born of narcissism. She then presents a case study of Anna,  a young woman undergoing psychoanalysis who was the victim of horrific sexual abuse and neglect. Using Anna in part as a template, Young-Bruel goes on to discuss many important ideas about prejudice against children.

I grew up in the late 80s and 90s and so missed a great deal of the important events discussed by the author. I’ve always been aware, for example, of mandatory reporting laws. I had never stopped to wonder how those laws came into existence. As Young-Bruel explains, it was a long process; in the 1960s it occurred to doctors that when very young children were brought into emergency rooms with serious physical injury they ought to consider abuse. Before then, she explains, if doctors were looking at an x-ray of a preverbal child whose arm showed a great deal of damage they would be thinking “bone disease” not “bone disease, or has someone broken this child’s arm multiple times?” This realization was first published in a peer reviewed journal in the late 60s by Dr. Kempe, who had embarked upon a study that aimed to discover just how many young children were being abused. Over the course of his work, Kempe identified several types of abusers and helped bring forward mandatory reporting laws. His work was extremely important. It was also limited: as Young-Bruel points out, it addressed only physical abuse–not neglect, which was added to reporting laws later, or sexual abuse, which was added later still–and it did not offer much in the way of suggestions for helping children or parents. Over the course of the next couple of decades, progress would be made agonizingly slowly–and very often in the manner of one step forward, two steps back.

As the Baby Boomers began raising children, Young-Bruel explained, they were up against the great Culture Wars surrounding Vietnam. This, of course, is when youth activism began to flower in this country: young people protested the war, took over college campuses, staged civil rights sit-ins, and in the case of the Panthers and the Weathermen declared that the time for talking was over and they would now be taking action. Childism posits that it was partially the fear that older adults felt at this youth uprising and partially the response of Republican administrations–Nixon and Reagan– which passed laws, such as social security, that placed a burden on younger generations, that inspired much of this anti-child culture. It wasn’t just social security laws. Although some politicians, especially Walter Mondale, attempted to pass sweeping legislation that would allow for treatment of victims and abusers as well as better funded daycares and opportunities for parents to interact more with their children–basically following the prevention model that had worked for medical issues–it was impossible to get a big bill through Nixon’s Congress. Instead, Nixon and later Reagan announced that any bill that encouraged daycare and government funded parental involvement and support was “anti family.” One remarkable treatise partly quoted in Childism states outright that an attempt by the U.S. government to provide high-quality daycare and parental support is tantamount to the Nazis recruiting in Hitler’s Youth. The implication, in some cases stated baldly, is that any bill that aims to protect children is really the liberal government’s underhanded, sneaky way of taking your children and indoctrinating them against your values. Ironically, the bill that did get passed allowed for the creation of the famous Child Protective Services (CPS) which, with its ability to launch investigations and even remove children forcibly from their parents, is arguably far more government involvement than optional daycare and education. Of course, various other laws and budgets throughout the years have made CPS overburdened, undertrained and basically toothless, but you still won’t find many Republicans arguing against having such a organization–even though some will still target anti-child abuse programs as examples of overspending.

So that, Young-Bruel explains, is how we arrived at our current way of looking at physical abuse. Sexual abuse is a whole different story. As she explains, our understanding of sexual abuse has evolved alongside our larger cultural ability to even say the words. For far too many decades, even psychologists followed Freud’s idea that reported sexual abuse–and of course abuse, like all sex crimes, is almost certainly massively underreported–was merely imagination, or some Oedipal complex coming to play. It took the general public years to believe that women weren’t just making this up wholesale. Then, in the 1980s, a mass hysteria spread, and suddenly everyone was calling the police to report that their child’s preschool was the site of a Satanic cult, that the children were being abused and raped in all sorts of horrible ways, made to drink blood and slaughter animals, often in tunnels under preschools. In one of the more famous cases, an unlicensed psychologist was brought in and essentially suggested to the children how they ought to answer her questions; all charges were eventually dropped, after a multi-year trial. The concept of repressed memory therapy (now almost entirely debunked) caught on, and women everywhere went to see therapists who, either intentionally or not, basically planted memories of abuse that had not actually happened. Today, most Americans no longer believe that Satanic cults involving ritual sexual abuse swept the nation, but it was a compelling narrative.

Young-Breul explains that this rash of mass hysteria came about in part because it allowed people to bend reality to suit their own purposes. As the 80s drew to a close and the last decade of the century dawned, researchers began looking at other traits which might prove important in the discovery and treatment of abused children. One of the ways in which clinicians directed their focus was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD, which had been known previously as gulf war syndrome, gained popular attention in the years after the Vietnam War, when many soldiers–my father among them–returned from Asia bearing lasting psychological scars. Research began to show that trauma need not be a one-time event, e.g. a war, bombing, or rape, but can be the ongoing stress of living in an abusive household. Therefore, clinicians suggested, abused children all suffer from PTSD. As it happens, not all abused children meet the clinical criteria for the disorder, but it nonetheless provides a useful framework for thinking about the lasting effects of abuse; if we look at abuse as something that causes long-term damage as the result of trauma it may open up new avenues for treatment.

Despite all of this focus on children who been hit, starved, raped, molested, malnourished, neglected, shamed, belittled, beaten or ignored, Young-Breul’s book is not an examination of the many facets of child abuse. Indeed, part of her thesis is the important idea that we look at helping and protecting children from far too narrow a lens. We are focused solely on protecting children from abuse, whatever that word may mean in the current cultural context (for example, the book related the story of two boys paddled so severely in school that they required emergency medical care; the Supreme Court decided that they were not guaranteed protection). This is far too narrow a definition. For one thing, what we think counts as abuse serious enough to warrant intervention may well be beyond an acceptable moral threshold. But more importantly, it ignores a variety of other, equally important tasks. We should be protecting children. We should also, though, be providing their parents with education, with tools. And we should  stop tacitly accepting the idea that children are a nuisance to be controlled, or something that, like a misguided view of a wild horse, must be broken. Children are not here to be neither seen nor heard.

Young-Breul’s most persuasive account of doing things differently comes from Sweden, where researchers listened to children and eventually were able to put forth a bill–which then passed into law–that made corporal punishment, including the spankings that Americans remain so disgustingly fond of, illegal. But Sweden did not just say “ok, no more hitting your children!” Instead, extensive, government funded programs were put into place, free for families. These programs educate parents and even offer free therapy for those who struggle not to hit their children. This is in addition to all of the other family friendly features enjoyed by many other countries, such as extensive parental leave, universal health care, and free high quality daycare. These things are not, theoretically, out of reach for Americans either.

What child advocates have come up against, time and time again, is that particular strain of individualism in American culture. Much of the progress put force by advocates has been stymied by those who claim that regulations and laws impose upon parental rights. This is the same strain of individualism that proclaims that we don’t need affirmative action, or Medicare, or Head Start, because in America if you just work hard enough you can always succeed. This is, of course, patently false; a great bedtime story but utterly without merit. There are people powerless enough that no matter how hard they work they will never rise; the system has been created to oppress them. Unfortunately, many children belong to that group. America has a long tradition of ignoring the voices of oppressed people, privileging the powerful, and then claiming that the oppressed group is to blame. As Young-Breul points out, this can be seen clearly enough in the language that we use: in much the same way that we talk about rape as a “women’s issue” we talk about child abuse as an issue with the child. In fact, of course, the issue and problem lies with the abuser. And as the book discusses, surprisingly little research has been done on what motivates abusers of all stripes. Further, the voices of children themselves are absent the conversation. No one is suggesting that we allow eight-year-olds to drink and vote, but a movement must always include the voices of those who need that movement.

In this annotation, I have managed to scrape the surface of this masterful work. A full reading is necessary for any educator, however, who seeks to understand the myriad of ways in which children are disenfranchised and tremendously damaged by the rampant strains of childism that run through American society. Our national commitment to children’s rights must begin soon. We might start by signing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child; we and Somalia are the only countries that have not signed.

As educators, our tasks are many. We must teach writing, reading, math, science, history, social studies. We must also teach manners, good behavior, test-taking, critical thinking, friendship, kindness and creativity. And we must be willing to confront what prejudice expert Elisabeth Young-Breul has named Childism, the prejudice against children.

We must  be brave advocates for the children in our care, and by extension children everywhere. We must be willing to say that children have certain inalienable rights, and that among these are developmentally appropriate care, secure attachments, freedom from violence, and to exist in a world where they are seen, heard and believed. And we must work to make it so. That is our job.


Young-Breul, Elisabeth. (2012).  Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children. New Haven: Yale University Press.