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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Steve Jobs and That Primal Wound

Once a myth gets into circulation, it’s awfully hard to get it out again. What “everybody knows” comes to be regarded as just common sense, even though it’s actually common nonsense. A case in point: the recent discussion of Steve Jobs’ difficult personality and its attribution to his having been adopted.

Maureen Dowd’s op-ed column in the New York Times on October 26, entitled “Limits of Magical Thinking”, did not claim that Jobs’ conduct was caused by his adoption history, but did quote two other people who thought so. The mother of his more-or-less-abandoned oldest child stated that being adopted had left Jobs “full of broken glass”. His friend Andy Hertzfeld said that Jobs’ cruel behavior toward others “goes back to being abandoned at birth”. Although they did not use those words, both these people seem to be believers in the Primal Wound idea-- that separation from the birth mother, even in the early days of life, causes long-term misery, rage, and grief.

Given the Primal Wound concept, it’s easy to focus on a single possible factor and neglect to consider the thousands of other events that shape a personality. It’s particularly easy to confine oneself to looking at early childhood and to forget that the circumstances of adulthood also contribute to mood and behavior. It’s easy, too, to neglect to consider the Zeitgeist—the spirit of the times-- and the extent to which reprehensible behavior was excused or even admired.

Let’s have a look at the interpersonal behavior of some non-adopted people in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and even more recent times:

1. The famous Newt Gingrich hospital visit to tell his very sick wife he was divorcing her

2. The Roman Polanski drug ‘em and leave ‘em approach to a girl in her early teens

3. Woody Allen-- need I say more?

4. John Edwards and his out of-wedlock child

5. Jesse Jackson and his ditto

Without naming names, I can also mention personal acquaintances from the time when Jobs did his child-abandoning-- non-adopted, non-celebrity people who were enraged at the idea of child support, who insisted that a handicapped adopted child be “given back” as “too much trouble”, or who proposed that a handicapped 18-month-old alternate 6 months with the father and with a mentally-ill mother in another state.

There are a couple of important issues here. One is that there are plenty of non-adopted people who—whether or not they are “full of broken glass” (or any other substance)-- excel at making the world full of broken glass for those who are dependent on them. If Jobs’ sins are to be blamed on his adoption, what do we blame those people’s bad behavior on? Do both adoption and non-adoption create the same outcomes? If so, it’s hardly worth discussing the matter.

A second point is that fame and fortune provide opportunities for bad behavior that may not be available to those who are just soldiering on in ordinary life. Those who sport entourages can count on those entourages to cover their tracks. Those who live outside the rules of employment and family life can leave for distant spots and make sure their paths do not cross with those boring and annoying “exes” and children.

And a third point: there have been periods of time when “going with the flow” and “following your bliss” were widely-accepted goals. The ‘70s and ‘80s were periods when irresponsible behavior of men toward women and children was to some extent admired in the United States. Having shifted toward a greater emphasis on fathers’ responsibilities (for example, couples who say, with social if not biological accuracy, “we’re pregnant”), we find it shocking to look back at a not-so-distant period when that was not the situation. In considering Steve Jobs’ life, it’s easy to forget that he would have been influenced by the prevailing attitudes of the time, in addition to multiple other factors, not omitting his life with his adoptive family. The attitudes that prevailed during his youth may have helped shape his personality development in ways that conflict with today’s popular value system.

Children adopted in the early weeks or months of life have been shown to have no more and no fewer emotional problems than non-adopted children, by extensive research on large populations of children. It would be foolish to expect that no adopted child would behave badly, exhibit mood disturbances, or even have serious psychopathology. Non-adopted children have these problems too, and in about the same proportions as those adopted early in their lives. The two groups share these characteristics, so it makes no sense to say that in one group the problems are caused by adoption and in the other they are not. (Such an argument would require us to claim that the group of adopted children is genetically superior to the group of non-adopted children, and the adoptive parents are better parents than the non-adoptive parents, so that the only remaining cause of problems is the adoption itself. )

No doubt proponents of the Primal Wound myth will add Steve Jobs’ story to their repertoire of evidence that adoption is in itself harmful. Those who think through the facts of early development and of research on adopted children will reject that viewpoint, and will realize that Jobs’ behavior was comparable to that of many other famous, but non-adopted, people, as well as to actions of the less famous.

Incidentally, Nancy Verrier, the author who has drawn attention to the Primal Wound concept, has never answered the questions in my open letter of some time ago.


  1. I've only heard Walter Isaacson interviewed about Steve Jobs, but it seems the Jobs names several sources that largely influenced his life: the Beatles, some guru in India, his wife, and his step-parents, with whom he maintained a good relationship to the end.

    My off-the-cuff theory is that some of Jobs' long-term, unhealthy and boring dietary regimens, as mentioned in the press, might have influenced his personality. (The all-carrot diet would make me plenty cranky, besides turning me orange.)

    Also Jobs' New Age magical thinking might have had a number of vexing run-ins with reality, e.g. that sex is not just spiritual, that acupuncture does nothing to shrink tumors.

    Not that any of this was an actual influence, but to say that life is complex and one-answer-fits-all explanations like primal wounding are especially unlikely.

    Yes, where is Nancy Verrier? I'd like to ask her about her notion that attachment starts *before* conception.

  2. although maybe his actions are are a reflection of his earlier experiences. Why not? You don't make a compelling case that his behavior is not related to the meaning he ascribed to his earlier experiences and adoption.

  3. From what I've read, Jobs delayed science-based treatments for nine months, but regretted that, and later said he wouldn't do that again.

  4. Anonymous, you're quite right, but then I didn't attempt to make a case that his behavior is not related to the meaning he ascribed to his experiences. My case is that adoption in and of itself cannot be claimed to cause disturbed mood and distressing behavior.
    Jobs' child's mother and his friend attributed his personality directly to "abandonment" and adoption. They didn't say, for example, that because of genetic tendencies to a particular emotional pattern, he built an interpretation of his history that he found congruent with bad behavior toward other people-- a possible view that is quite different from saying that adoption created his personality.

    The perspective offered by those two people, as well as that espoused by Primal Wound proponents, is that the behavior was not "related" to the adoption, it was caused by the adoption. That's the argument I reject, and there is a compelling case against it.

    It would be interesting to know whether Jobs was susceptible to unsubstantiated psychological concepts like the Primal Wound; as Theorclair points out, he was attracted by non-evidence-based medical efforts.

  5. Jean, your previous comment captures something that keeps getting missed. One thing for people to ascribe meaning to their experiences (everybody does that) and quite another to say separation of mother and infant causes trauma and lifelong problems. I noticed on a first mother forum, someone characterized Job's problems in the way that you just decribed. In coming to awareness of being adopted, he "interpreted" (your word, and I like it) his mother's actions as abandonment. If that's the primal wound, then fine. Who knows how many have it? But that is not what Verrier claims and the distinction is an important one. By claiming that the event occurs at birth, she makes her theory about science. She also says her position provides "clarity" around the subject, which I take to mean definitiveness. Too bad she won't defend herself.

  6. Imagine what they'd say about La Donald if he were adopted.