Whom to Blame

Humans have a natural desire to answer the question of “why”, especially with diseases, disorders, and disabilities. Why does your child have cancer (or cerebral palsy or diabetes or Down Syndrome, etc.) while my child is healthy?

We want to identify the cause so that we can be sure the same misfortune doesn’t befall our child. In doing so, we often blame the sick child’s parents. My child won’t become sick since I don’t parent the way they do.

A prime example of this damaging scapegoating was the “refrigerator mother” hypothesis, which stated that autism was caused by a “genuine lack of maternal warmth” from the mothers of afflicted children. Leo Kanner, who proposed this theory in 1943, described mothers of autistic children in a 1960 Time Magazine interview as “just happening to defrost enough to produce a child.”[i] Fortunately, the medical community eventually repudiated this abhorrent theory, but not before scores of mothers were blamed for their children’s autism.

Similarly, a recent study on community beliefs about what causes childhood cancer found vastly different opinions between families impacted compared to the general public. Among 600 people impacted directly by childhood cancers, 70% felt that chance or bad luck caused the cancer. However, among 510 people in the general public, most thought that genetics (75%) and environmental factors (65%) were to blame.[ii] Essentially, those impacted understood that they were victims of bad luck, a view supported by science. The general public, however, erroneously blamed the parents for passing on defective genes or placing their child in a cancer-causing environment.

Now, there continues to be a general perception - sometimes backed up by experts - that Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) can be traced back to bad parenting. David M. Allen, M.D. went as far as determining in 2011 that all people with BPD obtained the disorder because of bad parenting. Writing in Psychology Today, he stated, “The basic problem in the ‘borderline’ family - to make a complicated and highly variable story tremendously oversimplified - is that the parents in such families see the role of being parents as the end all and be all of human existence, yet, at the same time, deep down they hate being parents and/or see their children as an impediment to their personal fulfillment.”[iii]

Other researchers don’t go as far as Dr. Allen but still lay some of the cause of BPD on the parents. Even Dr. Marsha Linehan believed that an “emotionally invalidating environment,” or an environment in which one’s emotional responses are consistently invalidated or punished, may interact with additional factors to cause BPD.[iv] She describes her “Biosocial Theory of BPD” this way, “Emotion dysregulation is known to have a strong biological component, probably including a genetic one. I came to the conclusion that borderline individuals have biologically based emotion dysregulation, and have been and often still are exposed to an invalidating environment.”[v]

Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, Ph.D. provides a nuanced interpretation of Dr. Linehan’s theory, “There is no way to know whether emotional invalidation is, in fact, a cause of BPD. This is because most of the research on this topic is retrospective (meaning that the researcher asks the person to report about experiences that happened earlier in their life; these reports can be subject to bias) and correlational (meaning it demonstrates a relationship between emotional invalidation and BPD but cannot conclude that emotional invalidation is a cause of BPD).”[vi]

In Taya’s case, she hadn’t experienced any of the environmental or social factors that were considered to be a cause of BPD such as disrupted family life, or sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. After she died, we searched our memories for any instances when she might have been sexually abused. When Taya was four years old, a seven-year-old neighborhood boy coerced her and Liam to show him their private parts. The kids told Jenny, who arranged for a sympathetic police officer to meet with Taya and file a report, empowering Taya while firmly reinforcing that it was not okay for anyone to do anything like this to her. As far as we know, there weren’t any similar incidents; Taya later told multiple therapists that she was never abused.

The reasons why someone develops a severe mental health disorder are complex, rarely fall into simple boxes, are hard to decipher, and often involve an element of chance. As uncomfortable as it is for the rest of the world to accept, sometimes people just contract an illness due to an unavoidable convergence of random, uncontrollable acts of nature. Sometimes lightning does strike twice. Sometimes there is an earthquake in Washington D.C. or a snowstorm in Atlanta. Sometimes the valedictorian is hit by a drunk driver. Sometimes the kindest person wakes up with terminal cancer. Sometimes the beautiful, brilliant, funny, and loving daughter develops a severe mental illness like BPD.

There is the element of luck in this journey; our task is to seek the truth, accept what the roulette wheel of life throws us, and refrain from creating a phantom to blame.

[i] https://www.autism-watch.org/causes/rm.shtml

[ii] https://med.unsw.edu.au/news/what-blame-childhood-cancer-we-often-misunderstand-reality

[iii] https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/matter-personality/201205/borderline-personality-disorder-meet-the-parents-part-i

[iv] https://www.verywellmind.com/emotional-invalidation-425156

[v] Linehan, Marsha, Building a Life Worth Living (Random House, 2020), 301

[vi] https://www.verywellmind.com/emotional-invalidation-425156