Do the Menendez Brothers Reside in Many of Us?
Human nature: Few children murder their parents with shotguns, but there are subtler ways of getting rid of people.
[Published in: The L.A. Times, December 24, 1993]
By Thomas Hersh
A patient in a nursing home (call her "Mrs. Kay") is an 85 year old schizophrenic whose illness is more or less in remission. I look forward to seeing her because of her interesting ideas. She sits alone all day, often with her door closed, and resists everyone who tries to get her involved in activities. When she comes out to eat her meals in the dining room, she makes nasty comments that keep other residents away. She has a reputation. A lady at the home told me that "Mrs. Kay gives me the creeps. She reminds me of one of the Addams family."
Mrs. Kay likes being alone. She looks out the window and thinks. Sometimes she watches TV. A few weeks ago, she told me that she finally figured out why the other women "talk, talk, talk." They remind her of hens who cluck all day. They cluck she said, because the rooster needs to know where they all are. He has them cluck all day so he can keep track of them.
A few days ago Mrs. Kay asked me what I thought of the Menendez trial. I was glad she wanted to talk about it, because I thought maybe I could get a fresh idea, uncontaminated by public opinion. I answered, "I don't know. What do you think? She said, "Well, I guess they wanted to be free to go out drinking at the bars like all their friends." She talks slowly and thoughtfully. Then she said, "You know, it's not really any different from what goes on all the time. Many children kill their parents, but they do it in more subtle ways."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
She motioned with her hand for me to look around at her nursing home room: "My children put me here, didn't they?
To compare her children with the Menendez boys is the type of exaggeration typical of paranoid thinking. On the other hand, her view is not ridiculous. Putting a parent in a nursing home is not shooting him or her with a shotgun, but is there a parallel? When Mrs. Kay said that people are brought to these places to die, she expressed what most nursing home residents know on some level. Many have trouble accepting that this "home" is the "last stop." These elderly parents express unending bitterness, resentment, anger and disillusionment. They cannot believe their grown children are refusing to take them home.
Years before Mrs. Kay, Freud proposed that, in the "primal horde," sons used to band together to kill their fathers.'Maybe many people really do want to get rid of their parents, at least from time to time. This psychological complex (of wanting to be rid of one's parents) is unconscious and is projected out and watched on television as the Menendez proceedings. Perhaps the Menendez brothers, in a more subtle form, live in many people. A frightening idea.
Few parents have humiliated or abused their children as much as Jose Menendez allegedly humiliated and abused his children, but there are subtler forms of humiliation and abuse. Few children have murdered their parents with shotguns, but there are subtler ways of getting rid of people. It appalls us to hear that the Eskimos left their old parents to die in the snow when they could no longer keep up with the migrating group. Are we appalled because we leave our parents in rest homes when they no longer can keep up?
The idea of raising this issue is not to.moan about the horrors of human nature. The hope (based on psychology) is that bringing something hidden in human nature to the light can help prevent future Menendez-type massacres. If something is hiding in the dark and we do not know it is there (let alone what it is), how can we know what, if anything, needs to be done about it?
Debating over whether the Menendez brothers are monsters or about what should be done to them does not help us understand our fascination with the case. Suggesting that the solution is stricter laws and morality or taking violence off TV keeps the problem out there. If we want a psychological understanding of our reactions to the trial, we can look into ourselves and face our own aggression and callousness. Then the Menendez murders seem to fade into the background. Instead of fascination with a frightfully uncontrollable, purely evil mythical event from another reality, we feel the pain of introspection, the pain of seeing motives and feelings in ourselves similarto (even if less extreme than) those in the strange brothers. Looking at this evil in the eye, next time it arises there is more chance of recognizing it, deciding how to handle it and finding it transforming itself into something positive. At least, so says psychology.
[Editor's addition: 'Maybe many people really do want to get rid of their parents, at least from time to time.']
Some schizophrenics see the dark side of human nature very clearly but are unable to handle this perception. They withdraw. During the next visit with Mrs. Kay, we will talk about the difference between nursing homes and shotguns. This conversation may be a bridge back into the social life of the home. In this violent age, psychologists have become sort of bridges between opposite types of people as well as windows into the opposites in the soul.
Turning from nursing homes and feelings toward parents, there seems to be a fear stimulated by the Menendez trial. If our country is experiencing the beginning of the Violence Revolution (having exited the Sexual Revolution), perhaps the Menendez murders set a precedent. Will vigilantism gain momentum? Will children bypass laws meant to protect them in order to figure out and execute their own justice? Must we fear our children? Even if we have not humiliated and abused them in the way Jose Menendez is said to have tormented his, it is almost certain that we have humiliated and abused ours in subtler ways, at least at times. Will our children feel anger at us and take courage from the Menendez brothers and see them as heroes and consciously contemplate doing away with us, even if not with shotguns?
Our fear of this street justice may lead to something good. Perhaps it will constrain us, more than any law, to think before we act and speak, to our children. Fear of our children might be the beginning of respect for them. And if we respect our children, perhaps they will respect us and treat us with dignity in our old age.
Thank you, Mrs. Kay!
Thomas R. Hersh is a psychologist practicing in Los Angeles