The past as explanation?

An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

History perhaps inevitably does simplify and distort – it alters the complexity and muddle of things and imposes logic or order that, whilst not exactly wrong, is derived from the benefit of hindsight. This is familiar territory amongst historians and it therefore jars with me to see the kind of historical journalism that characterises so much TV history, in which modesty in the face of the past’s mysteries and complexity has to be replaced by the dramatic stardom of the presenter’s personality. But the same tendency to distort by imposing a kind of dramatic simplicity is obviously present when trying to understand someone’s personal history. In a medium such as a two page social inquiry report, this sentimental oversimplification is a constant threat and when crudely handled, leads to cynicism and disbelief in the reader.

The usual form for this cynical disbelief is the scorn reserved for explanations of current offending through some kind of childhood trauma. Freud of course, and his psycho-analytic followers has attracted just this scorn, magnified because of the discomfort and fear that surrounds sexuality. So the laughter when someone says that an offender committed the crime because he was suckled on the wrong breast!

The seduction and the scorn belong together, each feeding the other. The seduction is powerful. It is such common sense to believe that the roots, the history cause the present. How could we argue otherwise? We instinctively want to look for explanations of major events or dramatic individual behaviours in the past.

Most people, if asked why they have certain characteristics will immediately start to reflect on their past whether a genetic past or environmentally impacting one. What I came to see quite early on in my working life however was that the detective story approach to the troubles people face, in which a search for clues in the person’s past life would be instigated, would not do.

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