Daddy’s Simple Lesson

It’s a stretch, but this post is inspired by the nature of some of the comments on the AMT gender post.

Growing up, my father, David, wasn’t a great father, or at least he wasn’t great for me. Our family split up when I was 2, and I saw Daddy1 only once or twice a week in the early days, and once-ish a week later on. Early memories were simple and happy, including whole-family outings, but later I felt Daddy to be judgmental and coldly intellectual. How much that was true, and how much it was the reasonable or unreasonable consequences of parental disagreement, or the result of sensible paternal concern for an overly shy kid, I’m not sure. Whatever the precise causes, I didn’t grow up close to Daddy.

That changed completely in early adult years, when I found my still-clumsy feet, and learned to appreciate how very, very smart Daddy was. We became very close. Daddy had his flaws, of course, as we all do: Daddy was arrogant and narcissistic, and judgmental, about anything and everything, including his five sons;2 I hadn’t entirely imagined that part.3 But, God he was smart. If he wasn’t a great father, Daddy was an incredible psychologist. He understood people as no one else I’ve ever met.

Daddy fell into psychology, fell out of it and then, by pure dumb luck, fell into it again. He attended a hilariously bad public school in Philadelphia and then studied psychology at night school. On the basis of that he was employed at Byberry, a notoriously bad asylum in an era of notoriously bad asylums. The full cuckoo’s nest stuff, lobotomies and all. That wasn’t him; psychologists in that era were the servants of the all-powerful psychiatrists, and Daddy’s work consisted mostly of psychological testing and group therapy. But he saw it all.

Daddy’s job at Byberry ended for crazy reasons, involving his psychologist boss and used cars. Then, with only dysfunctional families to leave behind, Daddy and Mommy, who was a psychiatric nurse at Byberry, headed West to Sacramento. Daddy became Just Another Public Servant.

As it happens, Daddy was eventually assigned to be the public servant part of a psychological research project conducted at Berkeley University. There were psychologists and a psychiatrist and a sociologist and a social worker, none of whom had any idea what to do with this public servant foisted upon them. Grasping at straws, they asked Daddy what he thought of some aspect of the project, to discover that the foisted public servant was a trained psychologist, and pretty damn smart. Daddy became a proper part of the team.4

Some years and a son later, Daddy and Mommy decided to move to Melbourne.5 Daddy became a psychologist at Larundel and Royal Park: more cuckoo’s nest, albeit not nearly as cuckoo. At that time, Melbourne had about five psychologists (and about three Italian restaurants). Eventually, Daddy became chief psychologist of Victoria.

Daddy was a strong critic of modern psychology, and of most psychologists and, particularly, most psychiatrists. He loathed the pseudo-sciencing of psychology and the medicalising of people’s psychological problems. He laughed about the cocky Clinical Psych masters students sending him their job applications, who knew plenty about behaviourism and rats but absolutely nothing about people. And he had really nasty things to say about psychiatrists; Daddy considered a good part of his work in asylums was protecting patients from the ignorance and arrogance of, and thus the misdiagnosing by, God Complex psychiatrists.

For Daddy, psychology was an art and he thought it absurd to pretend otherwise, to pretend that psychology is a science. Most of his fellow psychologists disliked testing, regarding it as low, lab technician activity, but Daddy really liked it. Not because the tests gave him scores, whatever they were, but because the tests consisted of well-composed questions; he could listen to the answers, and the way those answers were conveyed.

Daddy loved to talk about all this, he loved to tell horrible stories and hilarious stories. He loved to talk about the way he thought about it all. This was big-noting himself but there were big notes to note. One aspect of Daddy’s approach to psychology has really stuck with me. This aspect is, finally, the point of this post.

Through his years, Daddy saw some seriously disturbed people, of course. He dealt with schizophrenics and suicidally depressed people and the whole lot, who needed drugs or institutionalisation or something. But for Daddy, a lot of this was misleading or off the point, even for many within these institutions.

Lots of people are a mess, either generally or specifically at certain times or with certain issues. But for Daddy, most of this is not about mental conditions, much less mental “illness”, and the framing of the mess in terms of conditions and syndromes and drug therapies was simply cloaking the reality.

For Daddy, many of the “psychological problems” people had were simply the harsh difficulties of dealing with life. What was needed, then, was not drugs or deep evaluation but rather simple clarity and honesty. What was the essence of the problem? What were the person’s fears? Really. What were the person’s desires? Really. What are the possible and reasonable responses to the person’s problem, and how do these responses address the person’s fears and desires?

Daddy saw most of such life problems as simple. Meaning that they were simple to analyse, not that the possible resolutions were necessarily pleasing. If one has young kids in a loveless marriage, for example, facing up to the various bad choices is anything but fun. But the problem is, in essence, simple and nothing is to be gained by pathologising the problem, by pretending that the problem is more complicated than it is.

This, then, was Daddy’s lesson, the lesson that stuck with me and from which I have benefited no end: most problems are simple. And, when the problem is simple, nothing is to be gained by pretending otherwise.

AMT’s gender problem, for example, was simple.


1) Yeah, yeah. But nothing I can do about it: it was his name. Just as our mother was always Mommy, my brother Jeff and I always referred to our father as Daddy, until the day he died, until the day Jeff died. At some point, in letters to us, Daddy tried to change it to “Big Daddy”, but we simply made jokes of it and he gave up.

2) Three half-brothers.

3) Daddy’s main criticism of me was that I was too concerned to please other people. Funny that.

4) The conclusions of the research project appeared as a book, Schizophrenic Women, published in 1964 and reprinted in 2005.

5) Another story worth telling.

6 Replies to “Daddy’s Simple Lesson”

  1. It is a very good lesson.

    I learned it through experience, and much reflection.
    It will always be Daddy’s Lesson to me now. 🙂

    Every time I apply Daddy’s Lesson, when helping another person, they are invariably surprised that a) the analysis was so simple, and b) the (hard) actions suggested to alleviate the problem work.
    Often I have seen people relax the actions and back comes the problem. It seems that is basically because we often do not want to accept that we are what we are, that others are what they are and what needs to be done to keep the problems at bay.

    Thanks for writing this.

    1. Thanks, ST. Yes, it really is a simple lesson. But an astonishingly large number of people are unaware of it, or cannot enact it. And of course we can all forget the lesson when faced with some brutal reality. Which is also why the idea of a psychologist as cuddly, affirming friend is antipodally wrong.

  2. I am intrigued by another good story of yours.

    Have you considered putting your family story altogether in print? If yes…I must buy one and get your autograph.

    1. Thanks, G.

      It’s really two separate stories (at least), since my parents were only together for about eight years. My mother wrote her memoirs in 2004, which I got nicely bound for a few copies for the family; her story is very interesting to us, particularly her strength to escape from her white trash origins (and her luck in meeting my father), but hardly has wider appeal. My half-brother Ed recorded many conversations (mostly monologues) with my father in the late 90s, which Ed transcribed and printed out. These have (or should have) broader interest, since he discusses many aspects of his life as a psychologist, and we pondered putting together something about that, but it was too hard.

  3. Great post. Sounds like your father worked out a fundamental but often hidden truth- the vast bulk of psychological distress is caused by factors in the real world, not ‘repressed feelings’, upbringing etc etc.

    1. Thanks, harry, although I think it’s a little different from what you’re suggesting. Yes, my father was focussed on the real, tangible problems that people faced. But, why are some people unable to successfully analyse such problems, particularly when the problem is large? That can certainly be due to upbringing and repressed feelings and the like. But even if so, my father’s focus, as I remember it, was the problem at hand and the self-honesty required to address it, rather than a few years of psychotherapy or whatever.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The maximum upload file size: 128 MB. You can upload: image, audio, video, document, spreadsheet, interactive, text, archive, code, other. Links to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other services inserted in the comment text will be automatically embedded. Drop file here