When the past won't go away

OK, so your parents messed with your head, but you're grown-up now. Is it time to start looking forward? URSULA KENNY reports
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Elizabeth Taylor revealed last month that her father was a drunk who beat her. Aged 67, she'd never talked about her unhappy childhood before, which is quite astonishing when you think that she's spent much of her life in the compulsively confessional US. Think how many times in her topsy-turvy life she could have cited this abuse in her defence - "OK, so I get through marriages, but is it any wonder?"

It reveals a fortitude Monica St Aubyn would admire. When told that her sister, the novelist Angela Lambert (author of A Rather English Marriage), was going to write about their mother and father in a factual piece for the literary magazine Granta, her reaction was to say that "no one over the age of 35 can blame their parents for anything".

Harsh but true? The bigger picture is that blaming is often a way of coping with a dysfunctional childhood that can lead to letting go and moving on from a disturbed upbringing. The danger is when you get stuck in the blaming bit, but why does this happen to some siblings and not others?

By anyone's standards, Elaine, 69, had an unhappy childhood. One of four children, her violent and alcoholic father regularly beat her and her siblings. "We all grew up in a constant atmosphere of fear. We lived in poverty; my father didn't work and he drank most of my mother's money so we often went hungry," she says. "We lacked basic emotional nurture because my mother was so stressed."

Still, she is a fully functional adult. She has two children, a happy marriage and a successful career as a solicitor. She feels formed by what has happened to her but equally she feels that she is over it. She refuses to obsess about it and is infuriated by her older brother who does.

"It has affected both my brothers badly but my older brother is particularly damaged. He is over 40 but still full of anger and blame about what he sees as his `lack of proper parenting'. I don't deny that our upbringing was horrible, dreadful even, but it did happen a long time ago and he still talks of little else, ridiculously blaming my father for everything that goes wrong in his life. He doesn't own his own home. My father's fault. He opted out of school. My father's fault. I understand his hurt, but his attitude is that someone has got to pay, that he is owed big time. He doesn't seem to see that he's not hurting anyone but himself. I feel a mixture of exasperation and pity for him. Why can't he move on?"

Psychologist Dr Raj Persaud feels that it is possible to get over almost anything. "No single event, no matter how terrible, will guarantee life- long distress," he says. "Nothing is only ever about the event: it is also about personal attitude and vulnerability. Obsessing about a troubled upbringing isn't helpful. Although it's understandable to blame your childhood for how you are now, it isn't even necessarily logical when our brothers and sisters had the same experience and haven't got the same problems. To blame childhood denies responsibility; it's a nice way out, but it means you're stuck."

Anne is 33 and, like Elaine, sees her brother as stuck. "He still hasn't got over the fact that we had a strict father who split up with our mother when he was 10. He continues to blame our parents - mostly my mother - for his inability to make a success of his life. He's 37, but still lives at home and he hasn't had a proper job for five years. He carps constantly - mostly at my mother - and can be violent. He's had some counselling but he stopped half-way through. I've thought about it and I'm not sure where he'd be without his hurt. I think he hangs on to it because if he deals with his hang-ups there's no one to blame anymore; he'd be out there on his own."

Tom Fitzgerald is the author of Beyond Victimhood (published by Fair View Press in the US), a book he wrote as a reaction to his own upbringing. "I thought I had stuff to teach others about getting over your childhood before it's too late. My father was a drunk and a bully which was hard for me and my brothers, not least of all because we had no positive same- sex role model, but it is my brothers who have hung on to their pain and let it define their lives. The truth is that no two people experience events in the same way, even when they belong to the same family; some people who suffer childhood trauma can lapse into a constant state of victimhood, a constant state of pain, which is actually a sort of self- obsessed narcissism. It's about self-pity and waiting to be rescued. You're always looking to be rescued because what happened to you wasn't your fault, but you have to let the idea of `blame' go, otherwise it can control you."

Elaine says she finally let go at 30, when she gave birth to a child of her own. "I'd thought things through over the years and felt I'd come out the other end. But when Emma was born I suddenly saw myself as a child from an adult's perspective. I took in really and properly that my childhood had not been normal and I cried for myself all the time for a while, and then I stopped. Crass though it may sound, love is so redemptive and my love for my son got me through. I also met my partner when I was very young - 16 - and that has definitely helped. I think I'd be much more damaged without him."

Dr Elizabeth Bradley, a child psychiatrist at London's Tavistock Centre, feels that establishing a good relationship outside a dysfunctional family can be crucial to the healing process. "It can be a turning point and make the difference between getting over something or being stuck in it. Certainly there is a lot of evidence to show that what protects some siblings is contact with an adult outside the family, maybe a teacher or the parent of a friend. Or when you're older, a partner. There's a lot of luck involved but you need a formative relationship to alter perceptions. You need someone to help."

If you don't find a formative relationship, therapy is always an option as long as you don't get stuck in that. But therapy involves acknowledging that however unfair it is, you are the one who has a problem. "Therapy is useful," says Dr Persaud, "but it might be hard for some patients to accept that coming to terms with life involves personal change on their part. What some of my patients actually want is for me to change their parents, which obviously I can't do. A belief system that doesn't recognise that is unhelpful to say the least. We can't change our childhood; in fact we can only definitely change ourselves and if we don't recognise that we could feel powerless and stuck with our problems forever."

According to psychologist Beechy Colcough, some of his patients have a system, a version of their life, that they have modified and perfected over the years. "People have a practised self-defence which can involve whining and wallowing but it's much more complex than mere self-pity," he says. "It's a coping mechanism that's a roundabout way of holding on to the message they received when they were children and that they believe to this day, and go out of their way to accommodate and perpetuate because they're stuck. That message is `I'm worthless and I deserve to be rejected'. At the heart of these matters there is terrible pain and self-rejection."

Nevertheless, Elaine is often offended by the way she feels her brother uses his upbringing as an excuse. "He wears it like a badge of pride and uses it to gain sympathy. The first thing his girlfriends always say to me is, `I don't know if I can speak to your father because of what he has done to X'. I feel neither proud of my upbringing nor ashamed of it. I actually feel very detached from it nowadays; it's there but in the background. The way I look at it, I left home when I was 17 and have now lived away from my parents for longer than I lived with them. I will never forgive my father for what he did but I don't see that as a necessary part of the process. It happened. But I'm going to choose what happens next."