The Parental Fallacy | By James Hillman | Issue 267 | The Sun Magazine

The Parental Fallacy

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I admire James Hillman’s critique of modern psychology and psychotherapy, and I relish the way he tweaks fundamentalists, be they Christian, Freudian, or Jungian. But I find his theory of the “daimon” disturbingly regressive. It seems little more than another essentialist explanation of human behavior.

For instance, Hillman uses the daimon to justify the traditional male inability to maintain substantive interpersonal relationships. In his discussion of “male absence,” Hillman theorizes that men’s daimons call them away from hearth and home, and that to deny men the freedom to roam is to condemn them to a lifetime of aimless frustration. But I find suspect any theory that purports to explain what people do based on inherent, gender-specific traits. If that’s not sexism, I don’t know what is.

“Fathers have been far away for centuries,” Hillman says, and he infers from this state of affairs that men are called to roam and women are not. The jet-setting women of today’s world disprove this notion, but before modern technology leveled the playing field, it wasn’t so easy for mothers to travel. They couldn’t ride a horse while giving birth, or swing a sword in battle while nursing a baby. Men capitalized upon this by constructing social norms that viewed male freedom and female servitude as natural and necessary. But fathers have roamed more than mothers only because they’ve been more able to, both physiologically and socially. Hillman’s explanation for why the father has roamed more than the mother — “His job is elsewhere” — is not qualitatively different from the usual essentialist explanations for gender inequities, such as “Men are just more aggressive.”

Even when they’re not physically absent, many men still withhold their emotions from their relationships, which is the most pervasive and most damaging form of male absence. We poke fun at Dad because we’re not allowed to enter into mutually satisfying, loving relationships with him. The fatherly rage of the past has become the fatherly befuddlement of today, but both are equally unsuited to genuine relationship. Of course, Hillman might explain this by saying it would be contradictory to the male daimon to have mutually satisfactory loving relationships. That’s the convenient thing about any essentialist theory: you can designate any character trait as essential and therefore beyond reproach.

I know the daimon is a myth and therefore not meant to be apprehended in strict, critical ways. Still, I just can’t buy into it, especially when racism, sexism, and homophobia have already demonstrated the ample harm essentialist myths can do.

Brent Winter Atlanta, Georgia

James Hillman’s “The Parental Fallacy” and “From Little Acorns” [both March 1998] made me want to scream. Psychotherapy “makes every problem a subjective, inner problem,” he says, “and that’s not where the big problems come from. They also come from the environment, the cities, the economy, the racism.” And who pollutes the environment, designs the cities, forms economic policies, and creates racism? Individuals! Are we still arguing over which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Our society is troubled because individuals are afraid to take responsibility for their behavior, to look closely at themselves, to feel the pain inside them, and to let it go. This process has relieved the symptoms and dysfunctional patterns of many of my therapy clients. I agree with Hillman that “too many people have been analyzing their pasts, their childhoods, their memories, their parents, and realizing . . . that it doesn’t do enough.” That’s because we still live too much inside our heads, and aren’t open to what’s in our hearts. It took a painful marriage to awaken me to the hurt I’d buried as a child, and that awakening, I know, has contributed significantly to my daughter’s development. The patterns are obvious, if one dares to notice them. It’s now apparent to me that I have caused much pain in my children’s lives. Although my children function “well” in society, they have more subtle relationship problems and avoid true intimacy.

I am not sure how much power I’ve had over my destiny, but I know that, if my spirit did choose my parents, this does not absolve them of responsibility for how they raised me. I do not blame my parents for who I am, but I do place on them the major responsibility for both the good and the bad. (There is a big difference.) Because I have chosen to feel old childhood pain, I am becoming more compassionate toward my parents, and other living beings.

We must look closely at how we affect our children, who are incredibly dependent on us for love and survival. If we do not experience love and safety in childhood, it is hard to imagine that, as Hillman says, “there is something else in life, some purpose that has come with [us] into the world.”

Dianea Kohl-Riise Ithaca, New York

James Hillman’s acorn theory, which claims that unborn children choose their parents before conception, explains a lot of unlikely couplings and apparent mistakes. But how would it explain a couple being unable to conceive? Are they simply not selected as parents? What about those who choose to be childless? What would Hillman say about adoptive parents? About court-appointed guardians? About abandoned children?

W. F. Bloxom Seattle, Washington

Thank you for reprinting James Hillman’s “The Parental Fallacy” in your March 1998 issue. I first got wind of this brilliant thinker in A Blue Fire (Harper Perennial), an anthology of Hillman’s writings, edited by Thomas Moore. Moore’s accessible style has since lifted his Care of the Soul to the number-one slot on the bestseller list, while Hillman’s more difficult books enjoy a smaller readership. But thanks in part to magazines like The Sun, Hillman still finds an audience of readers who are willing to do the necessary emotional or intellectual work to read his luminous words. Every sentence gleamed with power.

Genie Zeiger Shelburne, Massachusetts
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