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76 MAY 2005
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from the soapbox

“We’re not in this work by accident” – Stories from childhood, ours and others

Karen vanderVen

I say to students over and over again. “If you have chosen a career in working with children, youth and families, you’re not here by accident. The origins of your choice are rooted in your own childhood experiences”. I may continue to say that there was something in that experience that sensitized them to other children, and generated both curiosity and concern about childhood. Ultimately the process emerges in a career choice – and not necessarily the first or only one, as we will soon see.

I’ve always said as well (in my Soapboxy way) that insights about the developmental process are “everywhere” – in the newspapers, on television, and in non-professional books, among other sources, and that we can continually gain new insights by keeping our eyes open to such opportunities. Certainly autobiographies are an ideal source where we can find accounts of childhood experiences and how they shaped the adult writer. So let me share the results of some very interesting reading I’ve done recently. For me, to select these autobiographies of women about my age is not surprising since I’m certainly interested in how others in my age cohort have experienced their lives. But that’s not the point. What is the point is some amazing parallels in these accounts and in my opinion, their implications for us in child and youth work.

Let’s take a brief look at them: In the Shadow of Fame by Sue Erikson Bloland, the daughter of Erik Erikson, the psychoanalyst whose conceptions of human development have influenced all of us; My Life by the famous actress Jane Fonda. More so than we could ever learn from textbooks describing the results of empirical research studies, do these works offer us breathtakingly honest portraits of childhood experiences, the family and societal dynamics that created them and how they shaped for years their life experiences, choices, and the meaning they made of them. Let me hasten to add that my comments by necessity will be painfully reductionist. To fully appreciate the meaning and subtle textures of the authors' accounts of their lives, they must actually be read.

Sue Erikson describes how painful and almost depersonalizing it was to be the daughter of such prominent parents as both Erik Erikson and Joan Erikson, his wife, who, for deep personal and childhood-related reasons of their own, needed to pursue prominence and fame, which made it difficult for them always to be sensitive parents to their own daughter. As a result, Sue, despite having obvious abilities, chose not to have a career – for many, many years. We are of course warmed by the fact that she becomes closer to her famous parents as she finally takes action and develops her own sense of self. At the end she offers an analysis of the meaning of her experience.. This passage is one of the most powerful and penetrating writings in our field (and I would like to consider this in our field) that I have ever read, anywhere. I have always loved anything “Eriksonian”, still do more than ever, and happily draw the circle of appreciation for understanding of the human condition and compassion to include Sue Erikson Bloland.

From Jane Fonda’s book we learn about a childhood with a somewhat indifferent and critical father, and loss of her mother. To me, perhaps most stunning, is her startlingly honest description of the eating disorders she developed as a young teenager and continued for some years, out of feeling that her body was unacceptable to others close to her and hence to herself. I have never read anything, anywhere, that helped me truly understand what must go on in the self-concept of a young girl to encourage the development of an eating disorder.

What is incredible about both of these autobographies , in addition to superb writing and detail so exquisitely described that readers can acutely feel the sting of hurt at a rejection, is the outcome.

Towards the end of In the Shadow of Fame we learn how Sue Erikson Bloland takes the courageous step of choosing and preparing for a career. She earned a degree in Social Work, a credential in psychoanalysis, and began her own psychoanalytic therapy practice. Reading this, I had a sense of Sue Erikson Bloland as having “come home” to what she was meant to be, all along. In between the tears, I was saying, “Yess!” Indeed, it’s never too late to come into one’s own.

Towards the end of My Life , Jane Fonda writes that she has discovered a calling: the gender issues that have repressed girls world wide, propelling them into early and sometimes abusive sexual relationships, early childbirth, and decreasing their ability to be productive citizens themselves. To respond to this calling, she has founded from her current hometown of Atlanta, the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (G-CAPP). This helps girls to discover who they are as people, mothers to learn about the importance of warm nurturing practices, and sexual abuse victims to get treatment within a framework of building resilience.

Seems as if Jane Fonda is now a child and youth worker.

Having read these two books, I can say that never have I felt so strongly what it must feel like to have a sense of not belonging in one’s own family, or to somehow be continually found wanting in some way and thus not be truly accepted, and how this self-definition colors all life choices – work and relationships – to come. From these two one gains a sense of the complexity of development, and influences on it, that occur in childhood that can lead to some very interesting and gratifying results in adulthood – especially later adulthood. Undoubtedly this core plot has been experienced in infinite variety by those children, youth and families with whom we work, and possibly by ourselves as individuals. If so, accounts such as these help us sharply to recognize the dynamics at work and give us better understanding of both ourselves and others, a crucial aspect of the ongoing reflective process that makes us continually growing professionals.

So what’s the message of this Soapbox (which is not meant to be a book review)? First of all it is just to remind us again that we’re not here by accident; to recognize the power of childhood for its life-long, often unconscious, shaping of our choices (true, we probably don’t need it). Secondly, it is to acknowledge the wellspring of understanding that we can glean from autobiographies. What are the implications? Certainly we can reflect on our own childhoods, and sharpen our understanding of the relationship between what we experienced then, our career choice, and in what style and focus we are carrying it out. We have a lifetime to discover new potentialities in ourselves. We can then use these insights and discoveries in our work to enable those with whom we work to come into their own, in whatever way that might be.

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