Is Jared Loughner a lone isolated individual suffering from schizophrenia, or another severe psychiatric disorder? Is there a correct and superior way to be a mother, whether it be Chinese or otherwise? While the Jared Loughner’s presumed killings and Amy Chua’s publicity piece in the WSJ have nothing in common, many of the discussions about Loughner’s mental illness and Chua’s mothering derive from a belief that how one becomes a person, any kind of person, is separate from both the physical and relational environment.
Anthropological and psychological data support the opposite notion. Humans are embedded in the spaces and places known as home. The forces involved in mental illness involve an interaction between neurobiology, relationships and environments. Mothering involves teaching children how to navigate that interaction. Loughner’s neurobiological stress organized itself through the symbols of the culture to which he was exposed. And there is no one way to be a good mother because the variables differ across landscapes. Here are some examples: A schizophrenic woman with whom I once worked believed that her parents worked for the FBI and spied on her, feeding her secrets to the government. “I’m always being watched, “ she complained. “People are out to get me.” Her delusion of course arose from some type of altered neurological specificity. Yet, its shape mirrored real-life relational structures. Her parents kept their eye on her, always worried about the outbreak of more florid symptoms. Since 2001 the city has become more security conscience. Almost any public space now required bag checks, and sometimes the passage through metal detectors. And, the city streets are crowded and aggressive. Who hasn’t been the target of a hurried pedestrian taking issue when you walk four abreast with your out- of- town relatives? This woman’s psychotic process contained features of her real world physical spaces. Mental illness is always a complex hybrid of neurology and environment.
Regarding mothering, I know of a chronically depressed mother whose mood and affect could have been devastating for some children. Yet her sensitivity and low toleration for stimulation enabled her to be a very good parent to her autistic child. She eventually moved to a rural community because she couldn’t handle the city, a move that proved ideal for her child who thrives in a setting with open spaces and plenty of down time. I also know a mother who was relentlessly hard on her child, never allowing him to go out, always pushing him scholastically, and forever controlling. She was a domestic worker and insisted that her child watch TV until she returned from work. They lived in a inner city apartment amidst a neighborhood of drug dealers, with a crack house next door. The apartment buildings were crammed together on tight city blocks. Danger loomed right next store, not 75 feet away. Her strictness kept him safe and enabled him to grow and develop safely, ending with his acceptance to a prestigious northeast liberal arts college. Good mothering entails figuring out the best way to raise a child given the physical and cultural realities present in a child’s life.
When Amy Chua announced to the world that she doesn’t allow playdates and admonishes a grade less than a “B”, she was struggling with a heritage that fought all kinds of hardship in a very competitive environmental milieu and succeeded through discipline. Jared Loughner likely grew up plagued by a brain no one else could understand, picking bits and pieces from the world around him to guide him. People grow, develop, and change through relationships to people and the geographic places where they live. Humanity is dialectically embedded in its contexts.