It’s Not My Fault!

Political Correctness v Therapeutic Correctness

Magazine Issue
January/February 1992
It’s Not My Fault!

Frank IV, our 28-year-old, granola-fed, professional triathlete son, has moved back to Atlanta from an Ecologically-Correct life in Boulder, Colorado, and found Atlanta in need of a good cleaning. The other night, he went to the grocery store to drop off items for recycling and pick up some bluish skim milk, oat-bran bars and whole wheat pasta (in his all-cotton mesh bag). His mountain bicycle and his ankle had been crushed in a rock slide in Moab, Utah, so he actually took a car. He parked next to a ’79 Pontiac TransAm and noticed that the driver of the TransAm was dropping Burger King napkins out the window. Friendly and helpful to a fault, Frank commented, “Sir, you dropped something.” The driver of the TransAm grunted a profanity and dumped some Styrofoam. Frank suggested that if the items in question were no longer needed, he would be happy to assist him in taking them to the appropriate sorting receptacles. The man in the TransAm growled, “Don’t worry about it.” But Frank cleaned up the garbage and encouraged the man to “have a nice day and be kind to your planet.”

When Frank returned to his car, the TransAm was gone and his windshield wiper has been twisted into a bow knot. Frank hurried home and speculated with the family on the TransAm driver’s apparent displeasure with him, when he had only been Ecologically Correct.

I, carefully trained by a long line of southern gentlewomen to be Socially Correct, explained that it is rude to point out the rudeness of other. “Good manners dictate that we set a good example and operate above the bad manners of others.” Frank assure me that in Boulder, everyone is appreciative of tips on how to be ecologically sensitive. After all, we’re all on this planet together.

Betsy, his every practical mother, whose family had learned to survive the winds and waters of the rocky coast of Maine, is always Pragmatically Correct. She suggested a more practical operating principle: “It’s stupid to pick fights with strangers in parking lots. You’re lucky you didn’t get your head blown off.”

Ginger, his 24-year-old, ex-actress/ex-waitress sister, who had just returned from two years of survival training in the jungles of New York City, explained that in New York, people have transcended manners and try to forget they are on the same planet together. A New Yorker can walk past rapes, murders and even littering without skipping a beat. It would be dangerous to notice and unthinkable to comment.

But, as a budding therapist, Ginger was concerned about the man in the TransAm, who apparently had been unsettled by Frank’s condescension. Ginger explained to her brother, even more condescendingly, that certain people are victims of socioeconomic forces or bad genes or unhappy childhoods, and are therefore not responsible for what they do. She asked if the man were perhaps poor or black or learning disabled or the victim of drugs or alcohol or even the Adult Child of a Family With Bad Manners. If so, the man’s behavior was Not His Fault, and Frank’s expectation that the man behave considerately, lawfully, sanely or even nonviolently was Politically Incorrect: a denial of the man’s victimhood and an offensive assault on his dignity.

If some member of the family were Theologically Correct, Frank would have been advised to turn the other windshield. Nonetheless, we all recognized there are many ways to be Correct, and they are at times incompatible. No matter how hard we try to do the Correct thing, it will be Incorrect at times, according to somebody’s view of reality.

Is this postmodernism? Is this what happens when the world no longer can agree on what is real and what is correct? Even as we listed to Western Civilization gasping its last breaths, some of us still want to do the Correct thing, and we don’t know quite how. In the September/October ’91 issue of The Family Therapy Networker, and in his book, The Saturated Self, Kenneth Gergen tells us we should feel liberated by finding ourselves afloat in this cultural soup, since we can do or be whatever we like. But Walter Truett Anderson, in the same issue of the Networker, and in his book Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be, appreciates how unsettling this is for people who seek structure in a world with no absolutes. 

Ten years ago, at the inauguration of The Family Therapy Networker, which is being commemorated in this issue, the family therapy gurus were mostly straight, white, male psychiatrists. Nathan Ackerman and Don Jackson were dead, but Murray Bowen, Salvador Minuchin, Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, Carl Whitaker, Lyman Wynne, etc., were still there with their clear, guiding values, values that were so comfortably agreed on they didn’t even have to be spelled out. We believed in staying sane, in staying married, in raising children, in social responsibility. Therapy seemed a vehicle for instilling in people the secure, responsible, emotionally comfortable values of the family we wished we’d grown up in.

The therapist’s job back then was first to understand and accept all the emotions of all the pain that was paralyzing people, and then to help them figure out what they could do about it. Therapists in those days were people with the sanity to think rationally in the epicenter of other people’s crises, the wisdom to know what sensible people would do under those circumstances, and the patience to realize that people wouldn’t do sensible things until they had gone through whatever emotional or logical processes they needed to go through (i.e. resistance) in order to feel safe with change. We hoped people would absorb the therapist’s sanity, accept the therapist’s comfort with expressed emotion, and begin to take the frightening new actions that might fix their lives.  

We therapists used to take clients who felt they were at the mercy of their emotions and force them to know themselves, get control and behave properly. We thought it was okay to do this because we believed we could be neutral observers, and that we all basically understood how people ought to behave. But we’re not so sure anymore, and doubt seems to have paralyzed us as therapists.

The world now questions the belief that rational thought and dispassionate action will solve all problems. We no longer anticipate society moving toward some utopian destination. Sometimes we don’t even believe that one way of doing things is better than another. We’re left without direction, hope and values. At our worst moments, we’re like Lilliputians, running frantically around the sleeping giant Gulliver, chanting “We’re doomed, we’re done for.”

For the world to move into postmodernism involves a value shift of disconcerting magnitude. All gods are now to be worshipped equally: The only postmodern sin is intolerance. All views of reality become equally real—or unreal—as the case may be. Reality has become a matter of opinion. I’m reminded of the postmodern hippie in the movie Atlantic City who refused to wear a seat belt on an airplane because she didn’t believe in gravity. I understand those who seek sureness in rigid fundamentalism. 

Postmodernism entered family therapy in the form of constructivism, espousing that reality is in the eye of the beholder and that it doesn’t matter what people do, only what story they tell about it. What a breakthrough! People don’t have to change what they do! The can just use different words instead! Constructivism is fun, intellectual masturbation, until we notice that the world that constructivism is defining away is a cruel, unsafe, unfair place that hurts real people. Constructivists can seem like Republicans, defining away poverty, AIDS, homelessness, inequality.

I’ve never bought into constructivism but it was all the rage briefly, until it was countered by feminism, which insisted that the sociopolitical world was shamefully real. Feminism was a personal challenge: I could not understand myself as a man until I first understood patriarchy and the implications of gender. But the impact of feminism went far beyond issues of male and female. Feminism gave family therapy a third dimension: It made us aware that we were not all alike; we each were operating under a different set of roles and rules, and we were being influenced by forces from the culture.

But some excruciatingly Politically Correct Feminists confused statistics with people, confused each man with “all” men, each woman with “all” women. For them, feminism meant that women were victims and men were villains—all of them. They wanted to protect all women from all men, as if each man had personally invented patriarchy. Some men got testy; we didn’t like being seen as villains all the time. So we joined the men’s movement and went out into the woods to beat drums and cry about our fathers and our ex-wives, none of whom loved us as much as our mothers had.

These Politically Correct Feminists ferret out patriarchal attitudes—men thinking “just like men.” These earnest but enraged P.C. people have developed their personal sensitivity to such a level that they can detect in you the barest internal rumblings of uncorrected attitudes, and may be so pained by it that they writhe in agony in front of you and make you feel terrible guilty.

In Northampton, Massachusetts, a couple of years ago, I was talking about infidelity, and was explaining about male philanderers who were so frightened of female control that they could not have sex with the woman they were supposed to screw, but could only screw the woman who was dangerous or forbidden. As an example, I used James Bond, who rejects the “wifely” object, Miss Moneypenny, and risks his life to bed Pussy Galore, the fascist, lesbian assassin sent to kill him. At the break, a quivering soul slipped me a note saying, “All fascist lesbians are not assassins. I am offended and cannot stay here any longer.”

The central thesis of Political Correctness seems to be that those who feel relatively dispossessed are the victims of whoever seems more fortunate, and the seemingly privileged must be the villains. Only those seen as enfranchised need take responsibility for their lives, and they also must take responsibility for the lives of everybody else. I feel duly helpless when I realize that everybody’s pain is my fault because I am a straight, white male. I would fix it if I could; I have the will, just not the power.

Years ago, at a national meeting, I interviewed a black family with overwhelming problems. The audience wanted to talk about racism, but after a while I interrupted with, “Racism is society’s problem, and we may not solve it in time to help these people, and they don’t have the luxury to postpone their lives until we do. These people are black in a racist society, and they can’t afford to treat that as a social problem. For them, it is an individual problem, and we have to help them on that basis.” While the family appreciated what I was saying, it set off a furor in the audience, which was P.C. and believed it was unfair to let the disenfranchised solve their problems, since that took society and the enfranchised off the hook.

I worry about how Political Correctness affects the practice of family therapy. In Utah, it used to be against the law for a therapist to try to change the religion of a patient. The Utah legislature understood perfectly the political nature of therapy. We therapists encourage, maybe even require, people to rethink their sense of themselves and of the universe. By every word we say or don’t say, by every movement we make or don’t make, we are transmitting our values and our worldview, and, if therapy is working well, we transfer our sanity, or our lack of it, o the patients. We can’t risk doing therapy unless we regularly rethink our views about gender, class, race and ethnicity and religion, because our prejudices will affect everything we do and everyone we see. But is Political Correctness therapeutic?

There are aspects of Politically Correct thinking that I believe are utterly incompatible with Therapeutically Correct thinking, i.e. certain stereotyped attitudes and ideologies about power, about victimhood, about blamelessness and about character. These antitherapeutic ideas come from a culture that is disenchanted and in pain; they affect our patients and sometimes they affect us.

Take the issue of power. As therapists and as human beings we know that power is relative, and we see the ways in which kids use their relatively powerless positions to disrupt whole families. If people don’t have legitimate access to power, they may fall back on illegitimate tools, such as manipulation, violence or dishonesty. When people do that, we know they must feel relatively powerless. When people don’t have the power to get what they want, they can develop the power to keep others from getting what they want.

People who feel powerless can drive everyone around them crazy. I saw a man who couldn’t decide what to do with the rest of his life, so he stopped the car and pondered his powerlessness. Unfortunately, he stopped in the middle of Five Points, a major Atlanta intersection, and was blocking traffic from 10 directions. Everyone was honking and carrying on, but he didn’t think he was causing it, since he felt so powerless.

Power comes from a lot of things besides gender. But P.C. thinking treats power differentials as if they were absolute, as if relationships consist of the defenseless persecuted and the omnipotent persecutor. When I read those parts of the feminist literature aimed at arousing people into political action, I see how some women see men, but I don’t find myself and my own experience in such nightmares of power-mad men. At an inflammatory American Family Therapy Association plenary on violence in 1991, one speaker determined that “physically and sexually assaultive men are the norm!” Am I abnormal?

I read descriptions, often accurate, of what men do, but without understanding what the man feels or thinks as he does what he does. I know men can do terrible things when they feel powerless, but when men do feel powerful, they’re more likely to become philanthropists and name things after themselves to impress the other boys, than to go around scaring women with mighty muscles and dirty words.

Men vary, but I’m accustomed to men who will do whatever they think will get themselves loved and laid by women, as long as it doesn’t make them look foolish in the eyes of their primary audience—the other guys. Sadly, many men are so frightened and baffled by women that they avoid talking to them. As a result, they get their notions about what women want from the other men. I saw one man who kept ordering his preppy lawyer wife crotchless underwear from an ad in Playboy that advertised that these underpants would turn any woman on. They turned his wife off bigtime, and he brought her to me to have her femininity fixed, since she hadn’t liked what Playboy had assured him all “women” liked.

I told him that wise men for millennia had believed that men since Adam had one less rib than women. Until recently, no one bothered to look at women and count their ribs—or ask their opinions. Men who don’t go to women to find out what women want get badly confused. And without conversations with a man, women may not know what it feels like to be a man. Women are not likely to understand men from reflecting on how men make them feel. They’d do better to count men’s ribs. 

Some P.C. feminists see marriage as a male plot to dominate women. In a widely cited Family Process article, one prominent member of that company writes, “As long as patriarch prevails, love will be tainted by domination, subordination will be eroticized to make it tolerable.” I assume any woman Politically Incorrect enough to fall in love with a man is supposed to sit on it until patriarch is completely eradicated and he world has been sanitized of any lingering taints of it.

Many family therapists—not just the P.C. feminists—seem to see divorce as a universal solution to life’s crises and even its ennui. Some have overlooked the pain, disruption and tragedy of divorce and have declared it a normal phase of development. It became national news at the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy last year when a plenary speaker defended marriage and expressed concern about the effect of our divorce epidemic on both adults and children. She was criticized for being Politically Incorrect. Researchers who report data on the destructiveness of divorce are treated as if they were using guilt to send women back into oppressive marriages where their entire lives will be sacrificed on the altar of male power and privilege.

Those of us who are battling for gender egalitarianism find ourselves bumping into another P.C. sensitivity. We’re supposed to be respectful of everybody’s ethnicity. I never know whether I’m being ethnically sensitive by helping Armenians become more Armenian or less Armenian. (But at least we know that all Yugoslav families are not alike.) there is inevitable conflict between gender equality and ethnic traditions: the ethnic traditions are generally about keeping people in their place.

For instance, I once saw a family that had immigrated from Iran during a revolution. Abdul was a physician who had worked his way up from humble origins. Fatima was an aristocrat. Abdul practiced in Chattanooga, an hour and a half away, where he was licensed. Fatima stayed in Atlanta where she had relatives—she would not live around Westerners. The couple had two daughters, both physicians, and Abdul wanted them to join him in his practice. But the daughter couldn’t move to Chattanooga because unmarried women should not live apart from their mothers. And they couldn’t commute, since they would have to drive a car, and Fatima did not believe it was Theologically Correct for women to drive. She had a pothead young, male cousin in Atlanta. This stoned, 15-year-old boy drove the two physician daughters around, though Abdul ranted and raved to no avail. The daughters rebelled and demanded family therapy.

Therapy was directed toward Fatima’s sense of powerlessness in the face of this overwhelming new culture. Fatima was hard to empower because she insisted she should be powerless, as befitted a Moslem woman. She refused to acknowledge having any power of her own, except to interpret dictates of her religion. In her family, she was powerless but she had a direct line to Allah and spoke for him nonetheless.

In therapy, it was a struggle to keep the daughters from rejecting their mother as they freed themselves from the powerful bonds of her powerlessness. I wonder whether it was P.C. of me to impose my egalitarian values on these people from an incompatible culture. When gender and culture collide, I have no idea how to do the Correct thing and still solve the problem.

Terrible things happen to people. Victims are people who have been physically crippled by emotional trauma. Victimhood is like the traumatic neurosis of war, in which people get stuck and keep reliving the bad time. In the 1978 film Heaven Can Wait, Dyan Cannon thinks she has murdered her husband, Warren Beatty, but she walks into the room and finds him alive. She screams and falls into the arms of her lover, Charles Grodin. Beatty says, “What’s wrong?” Grodin replies, “She saw a mouse.” Beatty asks, “Here? Now?” Grodin explains, “No, earlier, but she relives it.” When people are in current crisis, they often resurrect fears from their past—sometimes it’s mice, sometimes lions and tigers and bears. Sometimes they are mauled by a lion, sometimes merely startled by a mouse, but it’s a distraction. Victims are people who escape the crisis of the day by screaming about the critters from the past.

There are no qualifying exams for victims, not even any standards—victimhood is a self-designation. You get to be a victim just by announcing it to People magazine, a therapist or a stranger on a bus. Anyone can qualify and get the cherished badge that says, “I‘m a victim; I don’t have to do my share. And it’s your fault, not mine.” The percentage of self-ordained victims has been alarmingly high these days now that we no longer distinguish between disaster and inconvenience, between tragedy and unpleasantness.

The Adult Child movement, by declaring practically everyone to be a victim of imperfect parenting and therefore eligible for lifelong, self-absorbed irresponsibility, has trivialized real suffering and made psychic invalids of those who once had a bad day. If you announce that your parents weren’t perfect, then you are granted the right to run out on parenting or mess up the lives of your own children. And you are the one who is considered a victim, you are the one to whom psychic reparations are owed.

A successful young surgeon walked out on his practice, his wife and his children after taking part in an intervention on his alcoholic father. After learning the effects of being the Adult Child of an Alcoholic, he announced that he realized that his previously responsible behavior was pathological and his father’s fault, and he was a victim of emotional deprivation and was too damaged to continue life. He declared himself a victim and collapsed. His therapist, a professional victimologist concerned with the overfunctioning of ACOAs, encouraged the collapse.

When everyone is an adult child, who’s going to raise the outer children? People who spend their lives identifying themselves as victims are no longer leading their real lives: these were taken away from them by the incident that traumatized them. Their real lives of emotional perfection (how they would have lived if the bad things hadn’t happened) are taking place in fantasy somewhere. Their actual lives are a cruel joke, too shabby to take seriously.

Woody Allen, in September, told us, “Some people are survivors, and others are annihilated by life’s tragedies, and that is just one of the cruelties of living.” We all have unpleasant experiences—life is an obstacle course. Some people are made stronger by adversity, others are made weaker. But whether we become victims or survivors may depend less on the intensity of the trauma than on how we define it. (Is that constructivist of me?) Therapists help victims become survivors, i.e. realize they have survived whatever happened and that life is worth living anyway.

Vicky—30 and unemployed—is in a therapy group. Her life hasn’t been going well for a long time. But a few weeks ago, she was sexually assaulted and beaten by a 200-pound black man who jumped out of the bushes in front of her apartment. Vicky had had a similar experience 10 years before and had planned what she would do if it ever happened again. This time, when she couldn’t escape, she fell down and screamed until several people came. The rapist insisted, “She’s my girlfriend,” (as if that would excuse his behavior!) and ran away.

Vicky has a painful history. When she was 16, her rigid, accountant father, a man who could tolerate no one else’s pain, could not live with her depressed mother any longer and left her at the advice of their therapist, whom he soon married. Vicky tried to take care of her mother, and watched helplessly as she sank into deeper despair and committed suicide.

Vicky was raped for the first time soon after her mother’s suicide. Her father wouldn’t listen to the story, and still blames her for it. Vicky was a lesbian, and went through several relationships with depressed, demanding, sometimes even violent women, which she insisted on discussing with her prudish father. Vicky could get jobs, but couldn’t keep them, and she remained dependent on her father. What’s worse, her stepmother was always helpful and understanding with her.

I finally got her father to come into a few sessions with Vicky. He tearfully confessed his awful guilt and shame over his marriage, his affair and his failure as a father. Vicky decided to try to make peace with him, and soon afterward decided to start dating men. She hooked up with an accountant much like her father. She began to identify herself in terms of her skills and accomplishments, introducing herself to the new group members as “I’m Vicky. I’m a poet and runner,” rather than as “I’m Vicky. I’m a battered lesbian and an Adult Child of Infidelity and Suicide.” Others in the therapy group were inspired by her survival skills and her ability to laugh at the hurdles she’d crossed. She was still a burden in some ways, needing other members to drive her to and from the group. But she paid for her rides by bringing either poems or brownies (her most appreciated skills) to the group.

Then came the sexual assault. Vicky called me as soon as the police left. I expressed horror and also admiration for how well she had handles it. I urged her to call both her father and her current boyfriend to give them a chance to respond.  The boyfriend said there was nothing he could do about the rape—it was over. The father, though, came right over and comforted Vicky until her roommate got off work, and offered to stay the night. We decided she needed to restore her trust in men and in black people, so she lined up male friends and black friends to stay with her for a week or two until she became comfortable. We talked daily. On the fifth day, she seemed slightly bored with reliving the episode, and I decided it was time to push her to get a job. She got a job as a clerk in a bookstore, and threw over the accountant who had let her down the night of the assault, and started dating a new man she met at work—a man who appreciated her poetry. She felt in control. Of the many crises in Vicky’s stressful life, she liked the way she handled this one best. She finally saw herself as a survivor rather than a victim.

One tenet of Political Correctness is that the victimhood of victims must be respected, perhaps even revered. If the political aim is to make society feel guilty, then no victim must be permitted to recover.
The forces of political correctness routinely establish that people’s lives are not the fault of the people themselves, but of society. (It’s as if defense lawyers were running the world by trying to prove that their client was innocent and the jury was guilty.) People with lung cancer are victims of cigarette companies, addicts who trash the world and kill people are victims of crack, people who murder mayors have been victims of junk food, therapists who seduce their patients are victims of sex addiction. Mike Tyson is a victim of seductive beauty contestants and Donald Trump is a victim of success addiction.

The forces of political correctness routinely establish that people’s lives are not the fault of the people themselves, but of society. (It’s as if defense lawyers were running the world by trying to prove that their client was innocent and the jury was guilty.) People with lung cancer are victims of cigarette companies, addicts who trash the world and kill people are victims of crack, people who murder mayors have been victims of junk food, therapists who seduce their patients are victims of sex addiction, Mike Tyson is a victim of seductive beauty contestants and Donald Trump is a victim of success addiction.

The concept of “not my fault” is an announcement of blamelessness that is akin to helplessness, since it implies that the blameless one not only did not cause the problem in question, but can’t do anything about it. There are people who base their lives on the concept of “not my fault.” This prevents them from taking responsibility for their actions and from changing, and makes them a nightmare for therapists. It seems to me that therapists are supposed to help both irresponsible and overresponsible people see more clearly what is their fault and what is not. A useful, albeit simplistic, guideline is that what I do is my fault and what you do is your fault. Postmodern therapists see therapy as an exercise in the quest for blamelessness, and help people blame their lives on forces outside themselves. That’s popular, but it is not therapeutic.

For instance, the disease concept of alcoholism holds that people drink because they have a disease that make them do it. It’s in their genes and just happens to them. This rather shaky concept has become widely accepted. Years ago, W.C. Fields quipped to an audience, “I apologize for my tardy arrival, but on my way here, I was taken unexpectedly drunk.” Back when W.C. Fields said that, it was a joke. 

There are efforts afoot to blame all of human behavior on some biological factor outside of our control, even one’s choice of sexual partners. Homosexuality has always struck me as a perfectly normal capacity of the human animal, something anybody could do and many people have done, as adolescents know. Because of the very real horrors of homophobic persecution, there has been a frantic search for some biological explanation for this normal activity. From time to time a researcher will come up with a finding that might hint that homosexual males are biologically different from heterosexual males. The latest discovery is that some gay men lack some cells straight men have in their hypothalamus, an area that is connected with sexual aggressiveness. However flimsy the evidence, biological theories make heterosexual males feel safely “normal” and certifiably different from homosexual men, who can in turn feel safely “not at fault” for doing what feels normal.

Theories of biological determinism may be P.C. and may relieve adults who have already declared their sexual preference for life, but these either/or theories create therapeutic problems for young people who discover their normal and universal homosexual capacity before they have gotten comfortable with their normal and universal heterosexual capacity. They may panic, thinking that have no option but to lead a gay life, when they might prefer a straight one. I find people often switch back and forth between gay and straight or both, and homosexuality is a common if not routine, phase of growing up. It is not P.C. to mention this because it makes sexual preference seem a controllable choice.

Heterosexuals, too, say their sexual behavior is beyond their control—in the stars, or a matter of chemistry. Rapists claim their victims wore provocative clothes. Adulterers say their wives were surly or gained weight. In Dangerous Liaisons, John Malkovich won his wager with Glenn Close by betraying and destroying the woman he loved, Michelle Pfeiffer. He just kept telling Pfeiffer that what he was doing was “beyond (his) control.” The same reasoning leads Arabs to keep their women veiled, since any woman who reveals her hair or skin to a man would cause him to rape her. It would be beyond their control.

Amateur therapists sometimes try to use therapy as an opportunity to help their patients evade guilt, by blaming parents or marriage partners. P.C. therapists don’t stop at the family; they blame the whole society or entire genders of people. Needless to say, people who feel powerless like to feel blameless, too; the result is they don’t have to do anything at all except suffer. I believe it is Therapeutically Correct to encourage appropriate guilt. I see many cases of infidelity after other therapists have encouraged the infidel to blame his or her infidelity on the marriage or the mate. I’m likely to tell a man, “You can’t blame her; she wasn’t even there. You have to take the blame. You should not have done it; it’s not a good way to solve problems in your marriage. It was a betrayal of your own values, of your marriage and of your children. Let’s figure out why you thought this was a sensible thing to do, and then let’s look for better techniques for solving the problems in your marriage and in your life.”

As Bob Beavers said, in Successful Marriage, “Guilt is good for you if it lasts no longer than five minutes and leads to a change in behavior.” Therapists who protect people from guilt may save them five minutes of discomfort, but they may thereby be preventing the necessary changes that would lead to a lifesaving change in behavior.

Good therapy is about the development of character. Character is the sum of one’s mental and moral qualities, the measure of one’s virtues and strengths. Character may seem like an old-fashioned concept, in that it has the elitist quality of assuming that there is an agreed-upon system of values, and that people have the freedom, power and luxury to behave ideally according to those values. But, in this imperfect world, it is character that enables people to survive, to endure and to transcend their misfortunes. 

Few people these days believe that the gods visit rewards or punishments on people in response to their virtues—we notice that bad things happen to good people, and, with even more chagrin, we notice that good things happen to bad people. Character involves not only virtue, but also the ability to survive injustice and disappointment. No one knowns his or her character until he or she has been sexually tempted by the fantasy of one’s dreams, until he or she has been broke or until he or she has lived with an adolescent. Am I being P.C. when I suggest that the truest mark of one’s character is the refusal to see oneself as a victim?

My nephew’s wife got a great new job in another state, so my nephew quit his job and moved with her. Unable to find a job comparable to the one he had left, he felt depressed and saw a therapist. The therapist tried to blame his wife for “castrating” him in the move. My nephew wisely walked out, as he realized that this therapist was trying to make him feel like a victim, and that accepting such a definition of the problem would damage both his character and his marriage.

The stability of our lives and our society depends upon our character. It is character, not passion, that keeps marriages together long enough to do their work of raising children and adults into mature, responsible, productive citizens. Family relationships are not instantly gratifying. I feel discouraged when people have been in a postmodern therapy that has freed them from the demands of character and responsibility so they can pursue their narcissism unencumbered. One young man spent a few years in such therapy and emerged smiling one day. “Married with children just isn’t me,” he announced serenely as he walked out on his family.

I have a hang-up about men who run out on their children. I think fathers are necessary for people to grow up normal. Boys without fathers won’t know how to be fathers and may run away from their children too. I look at the fatherless disaster zones in the black community and think a father has to be pretty bad (and some are) to be worse than no father at all.

I am concerned about the effect of all this Political Correctness on the practitioners themselves. Taking offense at so many things, all the time, must wither the soul and do terrible things to the sense of humor. I keep thinking of a tombstone I saw in Dorchester Abbey near London. The rather romantic tombstone of Sarah Fletcher, who departed this life at the age of 29 in 1799, read:

“Reader! If thou hast a heart famed for tenderness and pity, contemplate this spot in which are deposited the remains of a young lady whose artless beauty, innocence of mind and gentle manners once obtained her the love and esteem of all who knew her. But when nerves were too delicately spun to bear the rude shakes and jostlings which we meet with in this transitory world, Nature gave way. She sunk and died a martyr to excessive sensibility.”

We are losing our belief in our power to change ourselves and the world around us. I’m afraid to do without it. We can incorporate gender, ethnicity, economics, neurochemistry or whatever other categories of information we need, but we’ve got to hold on to our old-fashioned optimism about change. Without it, therapy can become just P.C. massage, soothing people without changing them.


This article originally appeared in the January/February 1992 issue of Psychotherapy Networker.

Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.