Bad parents, not bad genes?

Below: Fadzi is intrigued by Oliver James’ theory….


Book Review: “Not in Your Genes” by Oliver James, Vermilion London. Reviewed by Warren Heggarty

The main thrust of psychologist Oliver James’ latest book is that little or nothing in our psychology is inherited genetically. When we show behaviours (or mental health issues) that are similar to our parents’, it is because of our upbringing, James claims. That it is nurture not nature which makes us who we are is precisely the same theme as his previous book, charmingly entitled They F*** You Up.

This time, however, he evokes the evidence of the Human Genome Project to back up his thesis. As before, James uses celebrity anecdotes to show how people develop psychological traits through interaction with their parents. He maintains that “illnesses” (his inverted commas) like schizophrenia run in families because of how the children are brought up. He says, for example that “many of the hallucinations of psychosis are simply versions of memories,” given that memories are reimagined and reinterpreted as time goes on.

He dismisses delusions like this: “The experience of extreme powerlessness may be dealt with by hallucinating oneself as a supremely powerful person, a much safer person to be, like Jesus Christ.”

I’m not sure how emulating a person who ended up being betrayed by his friends, mocked, flogged and crucified would give someone a feeling of safety, but I won’t quibble on this one point except to offer it as an example of James’ glibness.

On the plus side, he details (in the appendices, of all places) two very compelling pieces of evidence that genes don’t determine psychology. Firstly, the Human Genome Project has found a genetic basis for possibly one per cent, maybe five percent, of all traits. That is an abysmal result for the pro-gene school. Secondly, the evidence of “twin studies” are shown to be discredited.

But having thrown out two theories that are favoured by “Big Pharma” and the medical model of mental illness, he replaces them with the theory that it is pretty much all down to bad parenting. He then conflates bad parenting with abuse. And of course, abuse provides us with a convenient segue into sexual abuse of children, which he says makes it many times more likely that a person will develop delusions and hallucinations and earn a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

As keen as he is to emphasise that even good parents make dreadful mistakes (“abuse” in his language), he gives very little credit to human resilience. He gives the impression that he doesn’t think adversity or making errors can teach us much. He DOES acknowledge that some people do turn out OK. But that is due to their having parents with parenting styles of which he approves.

So Oliver James maintains that we can save the world from psychological problems by becoming better parents. He helpfully describes ways in which parents slip up and how they can lift their game. He expresses optimism that accepting this “Traumagenisis” hypothesis of psychological problems can lead us to a brighter future…a future which will still include clinical psychologists like himself who will have an expensive role in teaching parents how not to f**k us up, as the saying goes.


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