A new must-read book is out. It’s a complete lucid delight in every way and on every page. Jennifer Harman and Zeynep Biringen, the book’s authors, are social psychologists in Colorado. There’s a quick way to get the most innovative bits right away – Jennifer’s TED talk (14 mins).
Most remarkably, at every turn, they tame all those monstrous gender traps that usually destroy any who dare to tread where angels fear to.
The book is based on a big survey with interviews. Jennifer has personal experience of being Alienated that inspired her. Zeynep’s special connection is her established work on attachment and Emotional Availability.
A book for everyone
Their book ticks every box . Everyone will ‘get it’:
- It is a high-class comprehensive textbook for the specialist field. You’ll recognise your clients’ diverse predicaments more specifically. 250 pages crystallises what 1500 might fail to.
- The legal and financial professions will see how dependent families are on them, but how flawed, unfair and sometimes criminally unfit for purpose they are.
- It is a great general introduction for all non-specialist helping professionals and other policy-makers and academics who need to know – that’s everybody really!
- It is an easy one-or-two-sittings read for the general public.
- It will be especially welcome by those affected by PA – you’ll find your predicament described here. Puzzling personal bits and frustrating wider system bits will fall into place before your eyes.
- Even those loyal to feminism, patriarchy and ‘junk science’ – as ways to dismiss PA – will find their familiar ideas given their place – but then separated out from the dismissing that usually follows.
So Jennifer and Zeynep have given us a bridge across previously unbridgeable chasms. One is the gender chasm. Another chasm is between those experts through unchosen experience of PA – they get dumped in the deep end – and the rest of the unaffected world who pass by, blind, deaf, clueless, prejudiced or dismissive.
A complex systemic problem like PA does not have simple solutions. But the first step is to have a good description or map in your hands. This one opens lots of ways to talk about PA and lots of ways forward. For example, Jennifer’s TED talk shows how the mistakes we make through gender stereotyping of parents might be reduced by making more equally shared-care in separated families as standard – in the absence of substantiated reasons not to.
The short and long of it
The book has a short name Parents Acting Badly. This invites the same parents to ‘act well’. The long title tells you of the wider scope: How institutions and societies promote the alienation of children from their loving families.
We wanted to build on this [description of cases] knowledge and reframe how we think about it – it is a social and cultural problem, not just a private one. We decided to start from scratch. Abandon all we knew. Talk to people [from a wide variety of sources] … Our hope was to … uncover new social and cultural factors that contribute to the problem and have not been explored or clearly articulated yet. …
… The lack of understanding around parental alienation [is like it was with] domestic violence – it used to be seen as a private problem between two people. But once domestic violence was proved to be a systemic issue that impacts society and causes devastation in families that’s when people started to take it seriously.
The book delivers
The book delivers a major, freshly researched, wide-angle, deeply-thought-through picture. The authors range easily from the broadest social, legal, financial, professional system functions and challenging debates, down to the practical experience of specific cases with plenty of anecdotes that make it all really clear.
They confirm afresh much of what we already know. There are new statistics that answer questions we have not had information about before. There are new ideas to explain the puzzle of millions of people who suffer PA while billions of other people just cannot believe it happens. Full referencing underpins what they say throughout.
Their great achievement is the way they show Parental Alienation (PA) as something that affects society as a whole, not just individuals, couples and families – that we all have some work to do to make things change.
They show how we all carry deeply engrained gender stereotypes that lead to mistakes when it comes to separated and high conflict families. Stereotypes are engrained generalisations that we impose and assume where we shouldn’t. This idea overlaps with the ‘categorical error’ described in this overview of Child Alienation (p 16) and here, as well as with the long list of counter-intuitives in PA that have to be set aside to understand and help PA.
Bridging the gender chasm too
Some will take exception when Jennifer and Zeynep declare themselves feminist and imply they might not go along with the typical mens-and-fathers-rights criticism of general feminist arguments. If it mattered here, though I am also a feminist, I would argue that that argument is not just the realm of disgruntled men fighting back …
For example, Christina Hoff-Sommers, ‘the factual feminist’, has careful reasons to question common assertions e.g. in 5 Feminist Myths That Will Not Die and Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man? Or see this balanced and fun Norwegian documentary on the equality paradox (with subtitles).
The greatest joy of Jennifer and Zeynep’s book is that this ideological gender debate / war just doesn’t matter here. In fact, I celebrate and warmly welcome their book precisely because it bridges such typically estranged opposites. It’s a bit like Stanley finding Livingstone, who had been lost for years, in the middle of Africa. It is wonderful that Jennifer and Zeynep show how the swathing dismissal of PA does not follow from a feminist-patriarchy starting point.
The hardest but essential step is for each side to hold their hands up to some truth in the other side’s allegation. So, as they say in their book, yes, sometimes abusive fathers use the cover of ‘Parental Alienation’ to continue their access for abuse. But just because some do it doesn’t mean all of them do it. And some abusive mothers might do that too. From the other side, yes, some men do awful abuse to women and children but that doesn’t mean that all men do it, nor that only men do it.
At some point even the most ideologically driven person may find they’re struck down by something they didn’t previously believe in. With the intelligence to think and research outside their box, they will be in the best position to tell everyone about it. My own professional box – that kept me dismissing PA for years – was to be against diagnoses and labels for ‘problems of living’ and family relationships. Coming out of that box has also been a great motive and help in seeing the light. Maybe that’s what has made this book so enlightening.
Jennifer’s TED talk
Slaloming down the mountain
Their project is based in Colorado State University whose webpages give a good description of the project and the book. The book is published on Amazon so it’s easiest to just get the Kindle version of it for peanuts. On Amazon, for free, you can look inside it for the introduction plus a chapter or two.
Reading about PA is usually like trudging step by painful step up a big mountain. Climbing the mountain has been my own experience of trying to understand, think through and write clearly about it all. But swooshing down the same mountain – missing none of the trickiest twists and turns that make the climb so arduous for us slow-coaches – two top-notch slalom skiers swish by and show the way to handle the mountain with seemingly effortless skill!
I’m not sure they know quite what they’ve achieved here. And if others think I’m wrong to praise them this much, please comment below. The field of Parental Alienation and high conflict families has been given a great boost with this work. I think we will be using it a lot from now on. Referencing Harman & Biringen (2016) will certainly curtail some of my most uphill efforts!
And there’s going to be a lot more to come. Help crowd-fund their bigger USA survey.
Nick Child, Edinburgh
Harman, J. J. & Biringen, Z. (2016) Parents Acting Badly: How institutions and societies promote the alienation of children from their loving families. Amazon.