How to Wash Brains 

2, 4, 6, 8, who can I indoctrinate?

Robert Hughes' son Danton committed suicide in 2002. The father is a world-famous art critic; the son was a sculptor. They'd been estranged for years. That's gotta hurt.

They say Danton was depressed. Gassing himself at age 33, he left behind a lover who was his parents' pal when Danton was born in swinging-'60s London, who babysat him, then fell for him when he was fifteen and she was 36. Reading Robert's memoir Things I Didn't Know (Knopf, $27.95), you can't help but wonder what Danton learned from growing up in a time and place where toddlers — in fact, Danton himself — were photographed with topless models for magazine covers, and by having "hypercharged and wolfishly immature" parents who were always rushing off to smuggle hashish out of Morocco, lounge in bars with Catalan separatists, and have sex with Jimi Hendrix. Robert's gorgeous groupie wife was unfamiliar with the beheaded French revolutionary whose name their baby bore: "A politician had to be black and armed with an AK-47, not a mere 18th-century whitey, to really engage her respectful interest." She gave Hughes the STD she caught from Hendrix. When she was nursing, "marriage became a prison whose tyrannous jailer was Danton." They hired a Sicilian au pair. Although Hughes devotes pages and pages of this sweeping, brooding book to floods, surgery, Etruscans, ex-BBC co-workers — even two to Tiny Tim — we learn virtually nothing of Danton, alive or dead, except that he smiled shortly after being born.

We brainwash our young. We show-and-tell them This is good or This is bad or You are brilliant or You suck at school, at home, from the pulpit, through microphones. From those they love and those they fear, kids learn their cues. Priding ourselves on not being fish or snakes, which abandon their eggs, we stamp our own values onto those pliable, Silly Putty souls.

Which stamp a child gets is more an accident of time and place than anyone wants to admit. Babies are not blank slates, but enough so that, had Danton Hughes been switched at birth with, say, Muhammad al-Hindi — whose story Anne Marie Oliver and Paul Steinberg tell in The Road to Martyrs' Square (Oxford, $26) — he might have died young a different way, telling a camera lens, "We request that the mourning ceremony be a wedding party so that there will be a celebration in Paradise" before striding off to explode a bus.

Hitler outlined a plan in 1938 whereby Aryan boys would "learn nothing else but to think as Germans and to act as Germans; they move from the Jungvolk to the Hitler Youth ... and they will not be free again for the rest of their lives." He ran mother-child centers such as the one near Nuremberg where toddlers told an interviewer about yearning to grow strong and "shoot Frenchmen," as Lynn Nicholas recounts in Cruel World: The Children of Europe in the Nazi Web (Vintage, $17.95).

Hughes blames his own years in a Jesuit boarding school for the repression that begat the rebellion that begat the wild marriage that begat Danton. "The time-fused bomb so deeply implanted in me by my upbringing made a faint subliminal buzzing sound and then went off with a roar," Hughes writes of his 1967 self. Priests had stamped him with dogma "that wouldn't take maybe for an answer," in whose aura "I was filled with guilt. Shame was the air I breathed. The unpredictability of this pink alien snake between my legs, which would rise up like some fakir's cobra in an Indian market when I was thinking about cricket ... suggested ... that I was, irrecoverably, damned." Despite the long-ago "leakage of faith" he experienced as "a teenager dragging his supposedly immortal soul around like an unwanted vermiform appendix," thrice-married Hughes still reels from a Catholic-school cocktail combining faith in miracles with suspicion and shame.

Modern tales of the "Disciple Generation" abound in Salon editor Lauren Sandler's Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement (Viking, $24.95) and in the new documentary Jesus Camp. Condemning clergy is like shooting fish in a barrel these days. Meanwhile, some kinds of indoctrination feel like ... liberation. A psychiatrist at a university health center somewhere in America has titled her book Unprotected (Sentinel, $23.95) and calls herself "Anonymous, MD" because she fears losing her job if she signed her real name to this assertion that the soaring number of students seeking counseling for sex-related misery "are casualties of the radical activism in my profession."

"From the classroom to the counseling center," she mourns, sex is mainstreamed — the once-private now public, the clinical casual, the personal either pimp-o-licious or political. Previous generations were diagnosed as sick for having lots of sex or certain kinds of it; Anonymous, MD claims that her clients feel like failures if they don't. A pro-promiscuity ethos electrifies lectures, syllabi, and sites such as, where faculty members offer advice on urine-drinking, sex with dogs, and washing blood off cats-o'-nine-tails. Warning students against smoking, campus docs downplay the statistical and emotional wrack potentially incurred by oodles of hookups and not getting tested for STDs. "Isn't that what youth is about — questioning, idealism, change? But for this to happen, we must tell the whole story, warts and all. ... Tell them twenty million people in our country have human papilloma virus, most of them women and minorities." But no, she insists: It's a coverup. Hired to teach and heal, her colleagues "have a vision for social change that you don't share," Anonymous, MD warns parents. "And one of their goals is to influence your child."

"Welcome to the bizarre world of politically correct medicine," she quips grimly. "My profession has been hijacked." And, sadly, "There is no condom for the heart."

It's love that indoctrinates Sarah Clark, who is fourteen when she takes up with her 38-year-old English teacher in Emily Maguire's novel Taming the Beast (Harper Perennial, $13.95). He hooks her with Hamlet, tells her how smart she is, then "for two hours each weekday, Sarah Clark ceased to exist. ... Fucking was poetry unbound." She lives unhappily ever after; seven years hence, a friend complains about still having to hear Sarah explain "how you're content to throw your life away for an ageing pedophile." Love and hegemony hooked Bettina Aptheker, whose memoir Intimate Politics (Seal, $16.96) recounts being "born red" — to two Communist Party icons, one of whom, she later remembered, repeatedly molested her while pretending to play choo-choo train. "How emotionally invested I had been in Marx from a young age," she recalls; "mastering him had been not simply an intellectual exercise but a matter of survival." Walking the party line straight through college and into academia, Aptheker (who will be at Black Oak on November 15) finally outraged some big cheeses who cast her out for "seeking to put Marxism and feminism into a unified theory of oppression and liberation."

That, too, has gotta hurt.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.

Latest in Books

Author Archives

Most Popular Stories

Special Reports

Taste, Fall 2016

Everything you need to know about dining in and out in the East Bay.

The Queer & Trans Issue 2016

Queer and trans coverage contributed by individuals who identify as queer or trans.

© 2016 East Bay Express    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation