Not in Your Genes: The Real Reasons Children Are Like Their Parents, by Oliver James - book review

A convincing and worrying look at modern parenting

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Were Bob Geldof to read Oliver James's latest book, how would it make him feel? By the time I put it down, I'd begun to scrutinise my own childhood, my parenting style, identified patterns in myself and others close to me, and thanked my lucky stars that my children are grown up. For, right or wrong in his analyses, James writes with conviction. 

In his view, mental health problems – from minor behavioural issues to depression, addiction, sexual promiscuity, ADHD and even schizophrenia – are almost entirely the fault of parenting (with a nod to culture). Parents, unconsciously, impose aspects of their own upbringing on their offspring: “It is not genes that pass traits between generations. It is patterns of nurture”. The proof, James claims controversially, lies in the fact that the Human Genome Project has uncovered no “psychological” genes.

James – psychologist, TV producer and prolific author – synthesises a vast array of psychological literature to support his central mantra: “childhood maltreatment is a major cause of mental illness”. In a neatly coined phrase, he refers to the domestic environment as “benign nurture or intimate terrorism”. But when “maltreatment” can be leaving an infant to cry or snapping at a toddler, haven't all of us failed occasionally? Of course, James says, it's a question of degree, and it's serious emotional or physical abuse that has the direst consequences.

James has no scruples about foisting his interpretations – of family, anonymous patients and famous case studies – on readers. Despite a certain unease, I found myself irresistibly turning pages to establish why he believes Peaches Geldof was so like her mother, and how it led to her demise; or the effects of favouritism on Sigmund Freud's grandsons – painter Lucian, foodie Clement, and retiring big brother, Stephen.

Many of James's ideas are classic developmental psychology: the importance of love and attention; family dynamics; the impact of roles assigned to us. An optimistic and egalitarian outlook underpins them: if your traits are not inherited, you can change them; with insight and therapy, bad parenting patterns that damaged you can be modified so your own children don't suffer. 

Is he right? It is early days in the hunt for the finer intricacies of genetic functioning and who knows what lies yet to be discovered. What is sure, as many successful adults attest, is that it's possible to convert the drive that can result from childhood “maltreatment” from the “lead of despair and fear into the gold of creativity and insight”.

Vermilion £20. Order for £18 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030