No sex, but lots of tuck

28th July 2000 at 01:00
Psychologist Oliver James begins our summer series on the sticky subject of adolescence

DOES adolescence exist in the sense of the words of Marlon Brando in The Wild One? On being asked "What are you fighting for?" he replies "Whaddaya got?" - the sullen muddle of Adrian Mole mixed with the fanatical certainties of a John Lennon?

In the collectivist societies in most developing nations and several developed ones (such as Japan), this kind of adolescent is rarer. Identity is ascribed on the basis of gender, class and family and the child`s goal is to fit in and be like its parent.

By contrast, the individualist society of most developed nations bestows identity through education and profession. Here, the objective is to move away from parents, geographically, socially and psychologically. The child leaves for university and creates a new world based on work life rather than kin or birthplace.

If Professor Michael Rutter is to be believed (and suprisingly often, he should not be), the Kevins of Harry Enfield fame comprise only a minority of teenagers even in individualist nations. Surveys show the majority are liable to say their parent is their closest confidant and the person they are most likely to turn to.

But this does not disprove the psychoanalytic account of the adolescent as Brando: they can be rebels at times and depend on parents at others. Most interesting is the divide between psychoanalysts as to the dynamic in the individualist adolescent.

For Anna Freud the key problem was sex, brought on by puberty. According to her and her dad, the child successfully buries this sticky issue in its unconscious around the age of six. On entering puberty, sex rears its ugly head again, raising all those nasty repressed wishes to do unspeakable things with mummy or daddy or siblings. Instability and contrariness result from the struggle to master powerful instincts.

By contrast, Donald Winnicott regarded the main adolescent issue as being the search for Real rather than False solutions to life`s manifold challenges. For him, adolescence is "the struggle to feel real, the struggle to establish a personal identity, not to fit into an assigned role, bu to go through whatever has to be gone through".

Without wanting to be completely wet, I have to confess that there is truth in both accounts from my own case. Winnicott describes some of the false solutions as identification with parents' goals and escape from the bodily sensations into intellectualism and sporting activity.

These certainly applied to me. I was not happy in early teenage. I did very little work and divided as much of my time as possible at my public school between playing soccer and sitting at the tuck shop eating sausage sandwiches (bodily sensations) whilst reading comics (incipient intellectualism).

Things got better in my 16th year when I fell in with a bad set.

I took up smoking and drinking and discussing George Orwell and William Burroughs.

At the end of this year it was obvious I would only scrape six or seven O-levels with lousy grades and my dad came to the school to make what turned out to be a highly effective intervention. He offered me three options: leave school and get a job on the railways at Swindon; become a City Type; go to Cambridge (where he went).

The shock to the system was his suggestion of the City - in our family, this was a bit like saying "become an SS officer stationed at a concentration camp". It made me realise I must be going seriously wrong.

Swindon sounded like fun but I plumped for Cambridge. Within weeks I was completely transformed into a workaholic and doubtless, in Winnicott's terms, have been paying the price of this False Solution (identification with parents) ever since.

However, it should be said that my case is also consistent with Anna Freud's theory. For I was ludicrously unaware of my sexual desires at this age, at a single sex school, not losing my virginity until I was 21. My embarkation on a life of frenzied study was also a sublimation of my repressed and unmanageable desires.

Both theories apply, but like all psychology, for these factors to come into play there has to be a social context: in this case, an individualist rather than collectivist society.

Oliver James's new book 'They F*** You Up (Your Mum and Dad)' is published next year by Bloomsbury


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