Brave of comedian Dom Joly to speak to The Guardian, about being a boarding school survivor. Not that he actually said those words: he was simply being interviewed for a column called My Family Values. He got it in pretty early, though and – of course – made a joke about it. But the sadness came through anyway, Dom, as I guess you meant it to. All this means that you are indeed a boarding school survivor. Welcome to the club!
DJ began: “I was born in Lebanon and my childhood was pretty idyllic, apart from the war. When I was seven I was sent to boarding school in Oxford. I’d spend term time talking to people about pony club and then I’d go back to the war zone. But I much preferred the war zone. I hated boarding school. It was just a horrible place; everyone was bullying everyone. My dad hated school and yet he sent me to the same sort of place. I never quite understood why.”
You are not alone, Dom. One of the most puzzling things for many boarding school survivors is how a parent may admit to having hated his time at school but will nevertheless send his own children away. The father knows very well how he suffered; but any empathy to the child inside him is still dangerous in case it awakens his own vulnerable side, so his survival personality has made it taboo. Like all boarders, the father has had to survive by means of dissociation or splitting.
The boarder’s self-protective personality relies on the defence mechanism of dissociation as its foundation stone. Dissociation begins as a self-saving mental trick that any of us may instinctively perform when we are ashamed or embarrassed to make something known, to accept or integrate something. We put it to one side, think of something else; we use forgetting, not referring to, compartmentalising or denial in order to assist us in maintaining our internal composure.
The father cannot afford too much empathy for the actual child about to be sent away to school, his son, otherwise he could have his own history triggered. This would make the splitting fail and the whole house of cards would come down: all that investment in surviving will then have been wasted. So he disowns the problem and passes it down the generation line. The son is forced to pick this up too, along with his own need to survive. It’s a tradition in Britain.
As rule-bound institution and the psychology of the strategic boarder collide, the preoccupation with rules and the imperative to not be wrong now create a further and mind-numbingly perfect but poisonous twist inside the boarder’s mind. Here’s how it works: it’s as plain as milk that not everyone can make it. Someone has to be ‘The Stupid Child’ who gets it wrong; someone has to be ‘The One Who Gets Into Trouble.’ The boarder knows this in his bones. “It had better not be me!” runs the inevitable internal logic. Hence the boarder, who learns to live a solitary life in a 24/7 ‘total institution’ with zero privacy, psycho-dynamically needs others around him to embody the roles that he wants to avoid.
Dissociation is the original ‘divide and rule’ strategy in its individual and pre-political form. Joly’s story is an example of how it can divide a family. Dissociation operates at increasing degrees of severity. There can be a conscious and deliberate use of dissociation in order to emphasise a required context and detract from anther, and here we may employ the mental tactics of deletion, false blame, abrogation and wilful blindness. Technically, dissociation’s function is to protect the individual from realities too difficult to identify with or to integrate, and thereby avoid the problem of a kind of a meltdown in the brain known as cognitive dissonance. Here is the very readable Stephen Grosz in The Examined Life, giving an elegant explanation of splitting, a therapist’s everyday name for dissociation:
“Splitting is an unconscious strategy that aims to keep us ignorant of feelings in ourselves that we’re unable to tolerate. Typically, we want to see ourselves as good, and put those aspects of ourselves that we find shameful into another person or group. Splitting is one way we have of getting rid of self-knowledge.”
Psychoanalytic scholars regard dissociation as a primitive defence mechanism, and their bible, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), classifies it as an indicator of pathology. But in its most basic form it simply involves withdrawing attention from a mental process or object. It is said that South Sea Islanders were unable to see the white man’s sailing vessels when they first appeared, and this may be why: they had no known category for mentally storing the image, so they deleted it in order to keep functioning as before. We now know that dissociation involves highly compartmentalised mental processes depending on the activities of the left hemisphere of the brain in its function of inhibiting the right hemisphere, which has a greater aptitude for larger contexts and relational realities.
Where dissociation becomes habitual, as when it is used to maintain identity and combat perceived threats of annihilation, such as when a child has to fend for itself over long periods without protecting parents, it can become a chronic mental state. This extreme degree is unconscious dissociation, which employs the psychological mechanisms of disowning and projection. Splitting as a defence of the fragile or invaded self is well known in psychoanalysis. The most severe cases involve people whose consciousness seems to be utterly detached from their bodies and in extremis results in cases of multiple personality disorder. Much less is known about dissociation in better functioning individuals, since the focus has been on what has been considered pathological, and, as we saw above, ex-boarders put on a good show of conforming to the national character ideal.
When a child, needing to survive long periods without love, touch or parental guidance, is encouraged to cut off from his primary emotions and bodily reality and taught instead a form of emotional un-intelligence (to paraphrase Daniel Stern’s famous term), he will need to employ dissociation extensively. The resulting adult cannot avoid being in deep psychic trouble, for he will have developed a defensively organised psyche built on disowning and projection. This means his stance in the world will be quite rigid and precarious, despite what it looks like from the outside. He will have difficulties distinguishing between friend or foe and therefore in maintaining authentic relationships. Remaining sexually immature and severely challenged by the demands of emotional intimacy and parenting, he will be eternally on guard.
In the context of an elitist education, the awareness of privilege instils an additional and rather unique problem: an unrealistic and unconscious dose of either entitlement or shame, and sometimes a combination of the two. Entitlement inflates the brittle veneer of confidence that functions as a smokescreen to such an adult’s pathology, and a society that values hyper-rational competition over authenticity colludes. Alternatively, where shame is primary, it may sabotage an individual from ever assuming genuine authority.