Shine: a dad more devastating than Mengele

To contextualise this series about psychiatry, see: here. Below, an edited translation (I’ve now added a couple of triple brackets) of a chapter of one of my books that I wrote before my awakening on the JQ:

Mental illness in the biological sense is a myth. Yet, it is obvious that madness is not. Madness exists, but it is merely a psychological catastrophe.

Millions have seen this phenomenon on the big screen. The movie Shine is about the life of David Helfgott, who became famous after Geoffrey Rush interpreted his tragic and won an Oscar for best actor. I will sketch his life so flatly that the story’s pathos will be missed.

(((David Helfgott))), a sensible and talented boy for the piano, wasn’t only the eldest son of Peter, but his spiritual heir as well: the unlimited love of Peter insufflated his great music vocation. David, who used to run on the street to embrace his dad when he came back from work, corresponds to such love by consecrating his pianist career to his dad. But Peter did something wicked. He felt humiliated by other Jews in the community and displaced all of his impotence toward his favourite son. The assault to the ego of the boy lasted years. David became a disturbed young man, a ‘schizophrenic’.

This is a case of real life. At the writing of these lines [1999] David Helfgott still lives in Australia and continues to play the piano. However, David is under the care of his wife Gillian since he could never recover. In her biography Love You To Bits and Pieces, the result of years of maternal care of her husband, Gillian testifies that ‘David always believed’ that his father ‘caused his illness’. [1]

In essence, this is what the proponents of the trauma model of madness, Lidz, Laing and Arieti, have been trying to say. They studied parents like Peter instead of treating the brain of the victims of such parents, which is what bioreductionist psychiatrists do.

I would like to mention another case in real life, the boy (((Yakoff Skurnik))). Relying on Yakoff’s testimony, Gene Church wrote 80629: a Mengele experiment.[2]

Yakoff Skurnik survived Birkenau and Auschwitz, where he claims that all his family died and that he became a guinea pig of Josef Mengele. Immobilized by the staff and in Mengele’s presence, a doctor named Doering castrated Yakoff without the proper spinal anaesthesia. Apparently his castrated genitals were photographed by the Russians, but after liberation Yakoff and others were capable to thrive in life.

Yakoff didn’t become mad in a Nazi camp but David did before his abusive dad. How was that possible? Following the Sullivan-Modrow model, in some way the Nazis ran across more difficulties to reach Yakoff’s inner self and injure it than Peter with his son. A passage by Arieti sheds light on these two different cases:

First of all we have to repeat here what we already mentioned […], that conditions of obvious external danger, as in the case of wars, disasters, or other adversities that affect the collectivity [my italics], do not produce the type of anxiety that hurts the inner self and do not themselves favor [insanity]. Even extreme poverty, physical illness, or personal tragedies do not necessarily lead to [insanity] unless they have psychological ramifications that hurt the sense of self. Even homes broken by death, divorce, or desertion may be less destructive than homes where both parents are alive, live together, and always undermine the child’s conception of himself. [3]

Since the victims of a concentration camp are a collectivity, the self of Skurnik or his inmates was not necessarily assaulted; hence they had better chances to survive psychologically than the sole victim of parental abuse, such as Helfgott. Arieti’s passage answers also one of the favourite arguments of bioreductionist psychiatrists in their attempts to refute the trauma model of insanity. For instance, in a critique to his colleagues who believe in the model of trauma, August Piper argues that:

The logic of the claim that childhood trauma causes [insanity] demonstrates a serious final flaw. If the claim were true, the abuse of millions of children over the years should have caused many cases of [insanity]. A case in point: children who endured unspeakable maltreatment in the ghettoes, boxcars, and concentration camps of Nazi Germany. However, no evidence exists that any [become insane] (Bower 1994; Des Pres 1976; Eitinger 1980; Krystal 1991; Sofsky 1997) or that any dissociated or repressed their traumatic memories (Eisen 1988; Wagenaar and Growneweg 1990). Similarly, the same results hold in studies of children who saw a parent murdered (Eth y Pynoos 1994; Malmquist 1986); studies of kidnapped children (Terr 1979; Terr 1983); studies of children known to have been abused (Gold et al. 1994); and in several other investigations (Chudoff 1963; Pynoos y Nader 1989; Strom et al. 1962). Victims neither repressed their traumatic events, forgot about them, nor [become insane]. [4]

The case of Yakoff and his inmates, neither of whom became mad, exemplifies what Piper wanted to say in the above quotation. However, it is clear that Piper has not studied with attention the investigators he criticises. I know personally one of them, Colin Ross, whom I visited on 4 March 1997 in his Ross Institute for Psychological Trauma, a mental institution at the north of Dallas. I had written Ross after reading one of his books and he admitted me as a visiting researcher. Ross’ clinic of traumatised people is the only mental institution I have ever stepped in, and although I visited it for only nine hours, in the therapeutic sessions I saw many devastated women by domestic abuse.

Below I quote a passage from the text they give to the newcomer patients:

The problem of attachment to the perpetrator is a term invented by Dr. Ross. It provides a way of understanding the basic conflict in survivors of physical and sexual abuse by parents, relatives, and caretakers. The conflict exists in all of us to some degree, since we all had imperfect parents, but is much more intense and painful in abuse survivors. Ambivalent attachment may not be such a core problem when the perpetrator was not a family member or an important attachment figure [my italics].

The basic driver of [insanity] is simply the kind of people mom and dad were, and what it was like day in and day out in that family.

The focus of therapy is not on the content of memories, processing of memories as such, or any particular thing that happened. This is because the deepest pain and conflict does not come from any one specific event […].

Because children are mammals, they are biologically constructed to attach to their parents […]. There is no decision to make about attachment. Your biology decides for you and it happens automatically. In a halfway normal, regular family this all works out relatively well with the usual neurotic conflicts. The problem faced by many patients is that they did not grow up in a reasonably healthy, normal family. They grew up in an inconsistent, abusive, and traumatic family.

This is the cardinal distinction that biological psychiatrists do not want to acknowledge in their clinical practice: dysfunctional families are very different from schizophrenogenic families.

The very people to whom the child had to attach for survival, were also abuse perpetrators and hurt him or her badly […]. One way to cope with the abuse would be to withdraw, shut down one’s attachment system, and go into a cocoon. This would be psychological suicide, and would cause failure to thrive. Your biology will not let you make this decision—the drive to attachment overrides the withdrawal reflex. You must keep your attachment system up and running in order to survive […].

The basic conflict, the deepest pain, and the deepest source of symptoms, is the fact that mom and dad’s behavior hurts, did not fit together, and did not make sense. It was crazy and abusive. [5]

What Ross says complements what Arieti said: the only person before whom we are really vulnerable is the one with whom we are bonded since children. If the quotation of Piper refers to someone like Yakoff Skurnik, the latter refers to someone like David Helfgott. Ross talks of the abusive relationship of a minor with someone who represents something very special for him or her. The abuses that Piper recounts are not of the kind that Modrow suffered, the sensation of the betrayal of the universe. They are a completely different set of psychological phenomena.

This is one of the problems not only of psychiatry, but also of psychology in general. They want to study ‘objectively’ a subject without realising the existence of an entire universe inside him. It’s not possible to study a mind from the outside as behaviourists do: we need the individual testimonies, the survivors’ autobiographies. Independently of the scholarship of Piper (his paper contains a hundred references), his cases have little to do with a Modrow or a David Helfgott.

The Helfgott case also answers another favourite argument I have heard from other bioreductionist psychiatrists: ‘The question is why one becomes sick and not the other siblings’. If there is something common in the literature of victims, it is that the behaviour of schizophrenogenic parents is directed almost exclusively toward one child, not toward all of his brothers and sisters, just as Peter’s behaviour targeted David, not his other children, and the same can be read in Modrow’s autobiography.

In my comparison between the Jews David and Yakoff, one victimized by his father, the other in a concentration camp, there is something else. The Nazi dynamics toward Yakoff did not constitute a mixture of cruelty and love as was Peter’s attitude toward David—the ‘short circuit’ caused by ‘Jekyll-Hyde’ fluctuations about which I have written, that results in the ambivalent attachment to the perpetrator according to Ross. There is a big difference between being a victim of camp guards, who appeared in Yakoff’s mind as aliens, and being a victim of he who, with all of his love, formed the universe of the child David. In the words of David himself to his wife:

It’s all daddy’s fault. It’s all daddy’s fault […]. ’Cause father had a sort of a devil in him, and an angel in him, and all my life was like that. Dad always had a devil and an angel all his life. It’s a sort of a dichotomy, a split of scale. [6]

‘Father’ doesn’t seem to be the same ‘dad’ in David’s disturbed mind. That this dichotomy produces split personalities was precisely what I observed in the Dallas female patients (in the Ross Institute for Psychological Trauma almost all inmates for multiple personalities were women).

Resiliency is the capability of a strained object to recover its size and shape after stress. In elastics for instance the capability of resilience has a limit: if the elastic is extended beyond its breaking point it will break and won’t recover its original form. Using this analogy I would say that the Nazi abuses Yakoff was subjected lied within the ‘resiliency’ limit of his mind. It was not so with David’s Jewish daddy. The abuses he was subjected went beyond the breaking point and he suffered a permanent psychotic breakdown.

To sum up, the criterion to measure the level of trauma should be the breakdown that the abuse causes, not the abuse itself. A father who loves his Jewish son can break him better than a Nazi who does not like the Jewish prisoners. The breakdown of David’s mind occurred because relatively Peter’s atrocity was greater than that of the Nazi who castrated Yakoff. It came from the one on earth whom the abuse should never have come from: the one who formed his soul.


[1] Love you to bits and pieces (Penguin Books, 1996), p. 268.

[2] Gene Church, 80629: a Mengele experiment (Route 66 Publishing, 1996).

[3] Interpretation of schizophrenia (op. cit.), p. 197. I substituted the word ‘schizophrenia’ for ‘insanity’ in the brackets—see the next note.

[4] August Piper Jr., ‘Multiple personality disorder: witchcraft survives in the twentieth century’ in Skeptical Inquirer (May/June 1998). Piper’s critique doesn’t refer to general madness but to so-called ‘multiple personality’. Yet, the substitution of psychiatric terms I have done in these quotations is pertinent. Ross himself told me that it is very common that psychiatrists become confused and diagnose as ‘schizophrenics’ those with ‘multiple personality’ and vice versa. The point is that, since I don’t believe in a formal system of categories (as is the DSM), I’m not obliged to make these distinctions. I prefer to include all psychoses within the vernacular word ‘insanity’ as I did with my brackets instead of the textual ‘MPD’ (multiple personality disorder).

John Modrow’s words are conclusive in this respect: ‘Since no clear-cut distinctions can be drawn between schizophrenia and a number of other psychiatric syndromes, such labels as schizophrenia, paranoia, manic-depression, and so forth, are mere artificial abstractions obscuring the unitary nature of madness. Indeed, I would go even further than that: the madness-sanity dichotomy is itself a mere artificial convention obscuring the fundamental unity of the human mind’ (How to become a schizophrenic, op. cit.), p. 238.

[5] Dissociative disorders program: patient information packet (Ross Institute for Psychological Trauma, undated).

[6] The two passages separated by the bracket come from Love you to bits and pieces (op. cit.), pp. 42 & 104.

______ 卐 ______

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  1. pls help me w/ this — so that i don’t have to by the book love you to bits and pieces: how, exactly, did Peter damage his son David. what was Peter’s chronic jekll & hyde misbehavior that drove his son to madness?

    the reason i ask? i’m an omega personality. i deeply hate alpha males. i generally don’t like alpha females, though being in their presence does not precipitate the operational disabling transference that alpa males trigger. so that i’m a schizoid personality. i avoid developing all relationships. though operationally, i try to mostly be kind and gentle in daily acknowledging fellow tennants of our co-op i meet in the halls and outside, coming and going. and i use the “go along to get along” meme to avoid conflict. the co-op stockholders meetings are always very unpleasant experiences, taking days for the dust of stirred up emotions to settle, with the conflict traumas of each meeting adding yet more shitty emotional memories to my molecules of emotion — to cop candace pert’s book title.

    i don’t trust anyone. why? the “most feasible alternatives” on issues i deem important in individual and group discussions are more often than not — > 90 % it seems — tossed aside by the others. i.e., i’m on a different frequencey. fuk ’em. fuk life.

    • I would not recommend the book, only the film.

      If you want to read an autobiographical narrative on how abusive parents drive their child mad, read the first part of John Modrow’s book.

  2. Schizophrenia is genetic. Jews are genetically insane.


    • Obviously, you have not read my most important article on schizo.

      • In a nutshell, the bio-psychiatrist claim, “If it runs in families it must be genetic” is a logical fallacy, as that observation can also be made for inter-generational dysfunctional families (Peter’s Helfgott’s own dad, a rabbi, had abused Peter in real life; who in turn became abusive with his son David, etc).

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