Chapter 3: Womantalk

So long ago it was your flesh and bone
That gave me life and warmed and nourished me.
So, as a child, it was from you alone
That faith and love and strength all came to be.
But do not think that you were parents then
And now I’ve grown to have a world apart;
For all your laughter and your dreams again
Took root and form to blossom in my heart.
(Dorothy Hoogterp, 1971)

Those words that my mother, Dorothy Hoogterp, wrote to her parents in 1971 seem exactly right for me to say to her. So much of what I am came from her. However, the words of her poem express only the beautiful aspect of having a mother. The dark side also exists.

I can remember loving my mother more than anything in the world – more than God even. I would fight with my younger brothers for the privilege of sitting next to her. I would beg for her to tell stories or recite her poems to me. I would enjoy being sick because she would take care of me. Sometimes I cried myself to sleep at night, afraid that she might die. But something happened, and by the time I was about ten years old, I hated her more than I’ve ever hated anyone before or since. I never could figure out what it was that had happened.

When I was very young, I loved everything about her, especially her poetry. One poem stands out, and it still describes her for me better than anything else. She wrote it in 1943, after the forth of her thirteen children was born. In it she expressed her dream of being a nurse in the war in which her younger brother was serving overseas.

O there are broken bodies there
And flaming earth and trees;
And hearts and flesh are aching sore;
My hands have skill for these.
Would I might nurse the scars of WAR:
My brother’s overseas!
……..Instead, I soothe my infant’s roar
And kiss skinned dirty knees.
O there are wanderers tonight
In each forsaken spot.
And blind kids stumble for the light
And souls and bodies rot;
They do not know. I have no RIGHT
To Thee Whom they have not.
I do not go to seek them.
No, indeed, I hardly pray.
……..I only wash and cook and sew
For these of mine each day.
In all the world’s wild crying
I hold no veil of Peace:
In all my brothers’ dying,
In starving refugees
In all my neighbor’s needing
My hands do not relieve;
Our Holy Father’s pleading:
I have no gold to give.
From all the winds of heaven
The words come back anew
“The Harvest, it is waiting
But the laborers are few.”
And O my God, I love Thee,
……..But what am I to do?
“Ginny, eat your spinach.”
and “Teresa, eat your soup.”
and “Annie, use your bread-crust
For a pusher, not a scoop!”
And “Francis, if you dare to
Throw that cookie on the floor,
You can darn well make your mind up
That you won’t get any more!”
It’s “Leave your fork and spoon alone
Until you’ve finished grace.”
And “For Heaven’s sake, you slowpoke,
Go back and wash your face.”
And “Never mind the milk you spilled,
It doesn’t really hurt.”
And “Hurry with your salad, child,
There’s berries for dessert.”
“Here, let mommy fix your napkin,”
“Come on, Donnie, eat your bread.”
And O my God, I love Thee:
“FEED MY LAMBS!” You said.

I was about two years old when my mother wrote that poem. Shortly after that, she had a “nervous breakdown” and spent six months in a state hospital. She was diagnosed “schizophrenic”, but that was the last time she was treated for it. She returned home to bear and raise nine more children.

The first three of her children were born at home (I was the third), the last four by Cesarean operation. She returned to work as a Registered Nurse after her eleventh child was born. In 1963, when her thirteenth child was three years old, her husband died of cancer. At that time, seven of her children were of high school age or younger.

My parent’s were “flower children” before their time. When I was five years old, they bought two acres of land in the country and built a garage-type building to live in until they could build a real house. We (five children by that time with the sixth on the way) moved in before the building was finished. At first, we used kerosene lamps, an outhouse, and got water from the pump in the cemetery across the street. As the years went by, we tried raising goats, chickens, rabbits, vegetables, a dog, and many cats.

None of our endeavors were very successful. For example, our rabbits repeatedly broke out of their coops, multiplied rapidly on the loose, and soon overran the neighborhood. Besides that, most of us were pretty soft-hearted and didn’t like to eat animals that we had known personally. So our two acres soon became overrun with animals, weeds, buildings-in-progress, things that had been useful or might be useful someday, and kids. In great contrast, all of the neighbors’ homes were well-built and well-groomed. Of course, the neighbors were not happy about the blight we brought to their neighborhood, and a few of them were outspoken about it.

Our status, however, was ambiguous. We lived only a block from the church and school, and my mother went to church and communion daily. She started a library and a study club at the school, and neighbors frequently consulted her on questions regarding medicine and nursing. From the start, my two older sisters were the smartest kids in their classes. Eventually, although social misfits, we became highly respected intellectually. I wanted it to be the other way around. I was glad when we moved, eight years later, farther out in the country to a place where we were less conspicuous.

By the time of my father’s death, we had moved back to the city, and my mother was working as an RN in pediatrics and obstetrics. A few years after my father’s death, she went to work for the community health department and became very involved in the Community Action Program. After that, she worked in the psychiatric ward of the state prison, driving an hour and a half there and back each day. She retired from that grueling job (and drive) at the age of 62.

After retirement, she worked out of her home doing respite care for severely developmentally disabled teenagers, some of whom could not walk or eat by themselves and were not toilet trained. She continued to write and began to give seminars on issues of aging, feminism, and lesbianism. When she had no more children living at home, she sold her house in Grand Rapids and moved to Lansing to live with and care for a dear friend who was confined for the most part to a wheel chair because of multiple sclerosis. They lived together for several years until the friend’s illness reached the point where my mother could no longer care for her.

She then got a tiny apartment in Grand Rapids and also lived part time in a cabin in the Upper Peninsula. As soon as she could, she used her savings to have built a year-around log cabin on her UP property, moving there full time in 1996 at the age of 80. Money was tight after that, so she took a part time job at a nursing home. Soon she was working three nights a week. She assured her children that she liked it because it helped her meet local people and because it made her feel worthwhile. “I always feel like I haven’t done enough” she said.

When the nursing home shut down, she retired from that job and spent her time writing, working on her house and garden, attending workshops, volunteering, swimming in Lake Michigan (weather permitting), visiting her children, grand children, etc. In 1999, she had emergency open-heart surgery, after which she suffered a cardiac arrest in the recovery room and was without oxygen for five minutes. The surgeon was able to repair the leaking valve, but my mother was in a coma for several weeks after that. Finally she recovered, but after a year it became clear that she could no longer drive or live alone safely. So she moved to a retirement home in Grand Rapids, nearer to most of her children. There, she spent time with her family, read a lot, took enrichment classes whenever she could, went to her cabin in the UP whenever she could, traveled when she had the chance. And she still got frustrated because she “wasn’t doing anything useful.” She died in 2007 at the age of 90.

Like I said, I don’t understand why I hated her so much. Part of it was that I had loved her so much I wanted to have more of her for myself. I didn’t like it if she preferred anyone else to me. I also didn’t like her yelling or nagging. I didn’t like the mess or the clutter or the chaos of a poor little house with many people living in it. I didn’t like people telling me how lucky I was to have such a wonderful mother and that I should be very helpful to her. I didn’t like being different and being the object of “charity.” Most of all, I didn’t like it that she tried to control me.

To all appearances, she wasn’t particularly good at controlling any person or any thing. She was very tolerant of noise, pain, dirt, weeds, shouting, and of people and places outside of the “establishment”. She always preferred weeds and wildflowers to a groomed lawn. She allowed her cabin yard to be mowed only where she wanted her garden or where people played volley ball or other games. When I was very young she tolerated nearly everything I did, so of course I had no complaints at that time. It’s only in looking back that I see how much I was molded according to her beliefs.

When I was very young, I loved seeing the world – including myself – through her eyes. She told wonderful stories, made adventures of everyday events, and knew the answer to everything. As I said before, to me she was more important than God. Because of that, however, she became for me the ultimate judge and the ultimate good. To bask in her approval and acceptance was bliss, to be outside of it was anguish. Her way of thinking was “right”, “true”, and “good”; other ways of thinking were “wrong” and “bad”. Of course, there came a point when I started to see the world – including myself – through my own eyes and to think in my own words. It seemed to me, though, that she still wanted to tell me how to see the world — especially myself. At that point I was faced with the dilemma of which of us was right and good and which of us was wrong and bad. I’m glad that I refused to choose, but that choice resulted in years of confusion.

As a young adult, I no longer hated my mother, but interaction was very painful. Eventually we learned to avoid sensitive subjects and to be friendly and polite to each other. However, a void remained for me where I wanted my mother to be. I wanted to be able to talk to her about things that were important to us, but attempts to do so were unsatisfactory. I usually ended up being dissatisfied with her or dissatisfied with myself — that is, until I learned a radical behavioral way of thinking about it.

Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior has important implications for thinking about “good”, “bad”, “true”, “right”, and “wrong”. Verbal behavior, like other behavior, is functional, and depends on context for its value or efficiency. For Skinner, language (verbal behavior) is “‘true’ to the extent that with its help the listener responds effectively to the situation it describes.” (Skinner, 1974, p. 151). In order for verbal behavior to be effective, or true, it is necessary that speakers and listeners respond verbally in similar ways. However, because many of the controlling variables are private, a statement (verbal response) cannot be judged “true” in the sense of “in accordance with fact or reality” or “conformable to an essential reality” (Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary).

Important to an understanding of this, is the way Skinner accounts for what we call the “self” or the”individual”. In About Behaviorism, Skinner describes a person as “a locus, a point at which many genetic and environmental conditions come together in a joint effect.” (p.185). Particularly important in accounting for what we call the “self” is the behavior of “seeing-that-we-are-seeing” (Skinner, 1984, p. 619). Regarding such behavior, one not only sees (or hears, feels, or anything else one does with regard to the world) but also “sees” that one is seeing (or hearing, etc.). Skinner contends that there are no natural contingencies for such behavior; rather, we learn to “see-that-we-are-seeing” only because the social/verbal community arranges contingencies that reinforce such behavior. In other words, we learn to observe and verbally respond to our own private behavior because other humans ask questions of us and reward or punish the response.

Steve Hayes (1984, 1992 ) extended Skinner’s explanation by calling such behavior “seeing-seeing from a perspective”. He argues that the verbal community not only wants to know that one sees one’s own “seeing”, but that one sees it from a consistent point-of-view. “You” or “I” are names given to the “content-less” behavior (created by the verbal community) of “seeing seeing from a perspective.”

Recognizing words as behavior rather than as representative of reality, by itself improved my relationship with my mother. I no longer had to take my own angry or judgmental thoughts so seriously. I could accept my thoughts as learned responses to particular situations rather than as examples of the right or wrongness of myself or of reality. Likewise, I could accept my mother’s critical words as learned responses rather than as facts to be judged right or wrong, true or false.

Defining “self” as “seeing seeing from a perspective” added to the improvement. If we disagreed, it no longer seemed to be a case of me being right and my mother being wrong or vice versa. Rather, we each were responding in ways that made sense from our own perspective, so in that sense we both were right. Besides that, talking about the radical behavioral perspective make it possible for me to show more clearly my respect for her point of view.

Nevertheless, the improvement wasn’t enough to create the relationship I hoped for. I remained very cautious when speaking with my mother. Particularly, I avoided any talk about myself. Eventually I realized that I still feared being controlled by her; I did not want to be defined or interpreted by her or to see the world as she expected me to see it. To find a basis for creating the impact I desired, I had to look more deeply into radical behaviorism

Traditionally, humans (in Western civilization anyway) have talked about language as a system of symbols or gestures that refers to a world of ideas — that is, to a mental world. In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Skinner argues that this “mentalistic” explanation is no longer adequate. It is inadequate because it leads to a dead-end with respect to control of behavior. In a mentalistic explanation, ideas and other mental structures (ego, personalities, id, etc.) are seen as causes of behavior. Therefore, mankind has attempted to control behavior by trying to change the “mental causes”, but the attempts have not been successful — as evidenced by the lack of progress in the social sciences since the time of the Greek civilization (i.e., no decline in the incidence of war, poverty, aggressive acts, “mental illness”, etc.)

Instead, what has been controlled is the verbal behavior of individuals, including verbal responses to private events. Instead of controlling “mental causes” of problematic behavior, society instead is controlling each person’s verbal responses to the environment — including responses to one’s private environment. In effect, by controlling the language for private events (feelings, beliefs, values, etc.), society controls a person’s thinking — i.e. how a person sees the world. However, society has little control over what the “control” consists of, except that it conditions the individual to accept thoughts and feelings as originating in one’s own “mind” and, therefore, to believe that the individual is in control of his/her own thoughts. As a result, control of behavior, by oneself or by society, verbal or otherwise, remains inadequate and poorly understood.

Skinner contends that humans have attempted to change “minds” in an effort to avoid more aversive forms of control (such as physical coercion). However, the control exerted is still control, and it is problematic because it isn’t seen as such. Instead, we are able to believe that our behavior is not controlled, that it is “free”. A functional analysis of the variables that control verbal behavior is important because it offers a new approach to the problems of human behavioral control. It suggests new possibilities for thinking and acting, both on the part of individuals and of society.

My mother was a very verbal and a person-centered person. She loved words, and she loved to help people and to make people happy. I think that she used her facility with language to act on behalf of her other avocations. Anything that she had found helpful or pleasant, she liked to give to others; and she had learned that “giving” it meant saying it in words. However, I believe that she had a very “mentalistic” outlook regarding language and that she very much believed in a “world of ideas.”

As a child, I learned to live with her in the “world of ideas.” I saw the world as she saw it, described it as she described it. That world was beautiful, secure, and predictable, to such an extent that I can think of it still with intense physical sensations of relaxation and pleasure. It was not the same thing as the physical world, however, and sometimes I could escape to it if the physical world became too annoying. I believed in that world wholeheartedly.

Unfortunately, if one believes that thoughts, ideas, etc. exist in a “mental” world, then one is susceptible to having one’s thoughts controlled by another. If one sees thoughts not as learned verbal responses to stimuli but rather as ideas in a mental world, then the language teachers in the social/verbal community in effect control the “ideas”. Furthermore, if one sees thoughts as “ideas” in a “mental world” there is little one can to change one’s thinking because we have little technology for manipulating the “mental world”. On the other hand, if one sees thoughts as verbal behavior, one can become aware of the stimuli that control the behavior. One can then manipulate those stimuli in order to change the response, or one can ignore the thoughts because they are just behavior, not causative agents

With respect to much verbal behavior, one’s belief about “ideas” doesn’t make too much difference, because the physical world (stimuli) exerts much the same control over the verbal behavior of each individual. However, regarding verbal behavior that is a response to private events, control by another (that is, an “other” determining what is the correct way of talking) is inefficient, inaccurate, confusing, and sometimes disastrous. Verbal behavior that is a response to elements of human relationships is particularly vulnerable to such inaccurate control; evaluation of human characteristics and descriptions of human “personality” frequently are determined by an “other”. Yet, such instances of evaluation and description (for example: “love/hate”, “shameful/praiseworthy”, “selfish/kind”) are widely considered to be important “ideas” for understanding human beings (including oneself). If the “ideas” are controlled by an “other”, understanding becomes very difficult.

My mother’s stories and teachings almost always involved elements of human relationship, evaluations of human characteristics, and descriptions of human “personality”. It was with her “ideas” that I learned to evaluate myself and others. That didn’t matter much to me as long as I was seeing the world through her eyes; but when I began to see things for myself, neither the “ideas” nor the verbal behavior allowed me to communicate with her. It felt like she was controlling me and like I had to fight to keep on seeing the world through my own eyes.

As an adult, I tried to do things differently than my mother did. I didn’t want my children to suffer as I had. I adopted a different emotional style, a different evaluative style, a different political style. I taught them to think in a different (and more valuable, I believed) way than I had been taught. Yet, when my children became young adults (especially my daughter), they suffered much of the same personal pain as I had known. Their experiences of success/failure were much different than mine so I wondered at the time how I had taught them to be so much like me. Now I realize that, although I taught them to think different thoughts than my mother taught me, like my mother, I tried to teach them what thoughts to think. Like my mother, I believed that it was the role of a parent or caretaker to teach the right “ideas” that a person should have in his/her “mental” world.

What was being controlled was verbal behavior, but we thought we were teaching ideas which a person then “had” for him/herself. We believed that “ideas”, as part of the mental world, could not be controlled except by brain-washing, hypnosis, or other extreme measures. What we didn’t recognize is that there is no way that parents can avoid controlling the verbal behavior, and therefore the thinking, of their children. If we had been aware of the way that the control functions, we could have used it more effectively. It would have been possible to support the behavior of “seeing seeing from a perspective” and of seeing the world through one’s own eyes at the same time that we were teaching socially acceptable verbal responses to environmental stimuli.

Not every child ends up affected by verbal behavior in the way that was common in my family. Many parents support “self-knowledge” by encouraging their children to see things in their own way and to express what they see in their own words. Also, some parents are able to teach the verbal behavior (including social rules) that is most valued and effective within a particular social group. In that case, if a child is strongly reinforced by acceptance in the group, it is unlikely that his/her verbal behavior (“ideas”, “thoughts”) will seem problematic. With respect to raising children, it often doesn’t appear to matter whether people have a “mentalistic” outlook or not.

For me, what has been important, is the recognition that the “mentalistic” outlook exists and that it differs greatly from the “verbal behavior” outlook. Of course, I still appreciate mentalistic language. I can’t imagine that human life would be as rich and varied without it, but it’s helpful to remember that mentalistic words are only loosely tied to actual stimuli in the world we all share. Miscommunication and other problems are to be expected.

With respect to my mother, my recognition of the distinction between “mentalistic” language and verbal behavior diffused my feelings of being controlled. Instead, I became able to attend to trying to understand what she was responding to rather than whether she was “right”. I became able to listen to and appreciate her words without responding to them emotionally in ways that I had learned long ago.