Reflections on the 'Moral Monsters' Dominating the News

Robert Berezin, MD


February 01, 2018

Depravity's Roots Run Deep

I've been thinking about the so-called "torture parents," David and Louise Turpin, and their 13 children, and Larry Nassar, the pedophile doctor who preyed on hundreds of innocent girls. As a psychiatrist, I have heard many such horrific stories of child abuse from my patients, each one worse than the last. When I think I have reached the very bottom, a new, more depraved story comes to light.

I have seen the damaging consequences that innocent children experience from sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, from emotional deprivation. Recovery requires years of psychotherapy, and even when successful, traumatic experiences always leave scars. I know firsthand the depth of pain, self-loathing, shame, and shattered esteem with which my patients deal. I know the hard work it takes to find one's way to self-worth and love, to re-establish a loving trust when one dares to be emotionally open again.

Raising our children well is of utmost importance not just to parents, but for the well-being of society at large. We want our children to grow up to be loving, responsible, self-reliant, and to raise their own children well. Child-rearing is a wonderful, trying, and difficult commitment whose basic principles are boundaries and love. No one can be perfect; we just have to be good enough.

This holds true all the way from infancy to adulthood. Love and respect begets love and respect. When sufficient love is not available and abuse takes its place, people fill the emptiness and attach by virtue of sadomasochistic relating. This is infused in the limbic mapping of emotional experience. It is the source of all psychiatric symptoms. Likewise, it is this substitute foundation that creates human evil.

No one can be perfect; we just have to be good enough.

I don't know anything about the formative years of Larry Nassar and the elder Turpins, or what traumas they may have entailed. But I do know that their characters were founded in sadomasochism. They represent the extremes of moral monsters. The harm they have done to children is unconscionable. They have passed it on to these children ("the sins of the father").

The Role of Parents and Psychiatry

What about the rest of us who are not monsters? We need to look to ourselves to provide the best loving environment for our children. It's a tall order. Under the best of circumstances, being a loving couple who looks out for their children is extremely difficult. We have so many broken families, unhappy marriages, divorces, single parents, parents lost to premature death, children having children, etc. It's a difficult world out there.

In my view, adolescents need their parents more than ever. We need to deal with them, protect them, oversee them, and, yes, fight and disagree with them. It all comes with the package. (See "Who Is Responsible for Your Teenager's Behavior? Good Enough Boundaries and Love Are the Most Important Guides")

Why is this the most important (and difficult) time for parents? A teenager needs to try out experiences for himself. He needs to go out into the world on his own. When he goes too far and loses his way, he needs to come back to the security of his home, regroup in the loving arms of his parents, and go back out there again. This is when boundaries are most important.

In my view, adolescents need their parents more than ever. We need to deal with them, protect them, oversee them, and, yes, fight and disagree with them. It all comes with the package.

Any child worth his salt needs to rebel. He needs firm and fair limits to push against. He needs to reject the mores of his childhood and discover the ways of the world for himself. He needs to test the temptations of life—sex, drugs, and rock and roll. When he inevitably goes too far and puts himself in jeopardy, he relies on two things to right the ship. On the inside, with the authentic being of a well-enough-raised child, he says to himself, "What are you doing? You need to stop being so reckless." And on the outside, he needs his parents' love and limits. The last thing to myelinate in an adolescent brain are his frontal lobes, the seat of judgment. Before this happens, he lacks judgment. It is through these experiences, as myelination takes place, that he learns adult judgment.

Parents should be very cautious to entrust their children to any institution—private boarding schools, ballet schools, Olympic training facilities away from home—for gymnasts, swimmers, skaters, and the like. Parents who aspire to the Olympics for their children need to be extra careful. I am certainly not blaming them for the monster Larry Nassar. We are all best off raising our adolescents subject to our oversight, rather than entrusting them to others.

Many times the special aspirations may well originate in the parents, not the child. I have seen the real consequences of so many of these situations away from home in the service of special goals, or the promise of a great education. It's not so pretty. No one will love and protect their kids from exploitation like a parent. Kids need us to be there. The whole person needs to develop in a balanced way, not just one skill: social relations, sexual experimentation, intellectual learning, athletics, music, etc.

Finally, we need to address the responsibility of the helping professions. Psychiatry has lost its way and has become a distribution center for psychiatric drugs. It needs to face that psychiatric problems and symptoms are human problems, no more and no less, derived from the formation of our characters as we adapt to our emotional environment. Real psychotherapy addresses what ails us, not psychiatric drugs.

In forthcoming columns, I will be addressing this subject. I am not calling for a return to the old, failed theories of psychotherapy. Instead, we need to look ahead to a new understanding of the psychotherapy of character, which addresses the art and the science of psychotherapy, encompasses a responsiveness to the human spirit, and is consonant with a biological understanding of the brain.


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