August 11, 2004

Running Scared

Bush on the Couch by Justin Frank
is a Harrowing Journey Through the Mind of George W. Bush

At first glance Bush on the Couch sounds like the title of a humorous book, but upon reading it, it quickly becomes evident that it's deadly serious -- serious to the point of being grim. But also deeply absorbing.

The image of Bush on the Couch is funny because it's so clearly fantastic. Bush would never submit to any psychological examination, in fact the whole family scoffs at any reference to any psychological reality at all. It's part of what makes them so scary.

A family so enmired in secrecy is not about to welcome anyone into its personal psychological world. But beyond that, it seems to maintain a barrier even to its own recognition of any psychological realities more subtle than what is right on the surface.

But even though author Justin A. Frank M.D. could never in his wildest dreams get Bush to submit to any face-to-face analysis, his analysis has legs. The psychological profiling of people from a distance is an acknowledged practice, so much so that the government itself invests a great deal of money in what is called "applied psychoanalysis" of world leaders by the CIA.

The CIA is so interested in applied psychoanalysis it has a facility entirely devoted to it, the Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, which employs psychiatrists to review biographical material and develop psychological profiles on dozens of world leaders. The practice predates the CIA with the commissioning by the Office of Strategic Services in the 1940s for two profiles on Hitler.

Although applied psychoanalysis must be conducted without the benefit of a face-to-face encounter, there is a great deal of material that can be used in the case of someone like George W. Bush whose life has been under the spotlight to some extent since he was a young man.

What emerges from the study is a subtly drawn picture of someone with severe psychological problems, problems that would be of serious concern in any husband, father or jobholder, and carry particularly striking ramifications in the case of someone holding the position of president of the United States.

And once it has established that George W. Bush is a damaged human being, the book raises questions about what that means about the population that embraces him as its leader.

Drawing on a great deal of information, including statements from friends, observers, reporters and the family itself (much is drawn from Barbara Bush's autobiography), the picture emerges of the first born in a family in which the father is gone much of the time, leaving the mother to take care of nearly all of the parenting duties by herself. The mother is cold, harsh, "the enforcer" as she is called by herself and by her adult children.

George's earliest vivid memories are of his younger sister, who developed leukemia when George was six.

According to Frank, "George W. was never informed of the reason for the sudden absences; unaware that his sister was ill, he was simply told not to play with the girl, to whom he had grown quite close, on her occasional visits home. Robin died in New York in October 1953; her parents spent the next day golfing in Rye, attending a small memorial service the following day before flying back to Texas. George learned of his sister's illness only after her death, when his parents returned to Texas, where the family remained while the child's body was buried in a Connecticut family plot. There was no funeral."

Suddenly Robin is gone, and there is little acknowledgment by George's parents of the loss, little chance to work through the grieving process for any of the family, especially the young boy. Instead of working through the devastation, it is suppressed.

The mother goes into a depression, her hair turns white, the father continues his absences. When children ask young George to come out to play he says, I have to stay home and take care of my mother.

With little help from adults, the boy has no tools with which to work through his grief and it hampers his emotional and intellectual development. As Frank puts it, "Unintegrated anxiety ... complicates the development of healthy thought processes... Complex thinking cannot take place if the child is unable to regulate his feelings. The child consumed by negative feelings, or distracted by the enormous effort required to handle them with only primitive psychological tools, can't get beyond his desperate need to manage his unmanageable anxiety; thus overwhelmed, the child may experience any external input as excessive."

A great deal of evidence indicates that Bush developed learning disabilities. "If he were a youngster today, the childhood tendencies of young 'Bushtail' Bush would probably catch the attention of parents and teachers, who would test him to see if he had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)."

He has trouble reading and concentrating. His thoughts often become confused. He loses patience and becomes frustrated with extended, complex thoughts. His rage builds and he has no healthy way to channel it.

Bush's childhood friend Terry Throckmorton said he and George expressed their rage in unsettling ways. "We were terrible to animals," he said. When the frogs came out after a rain, the kids would get BB guns and shoot them, Throckmorton said, or worse. "We'd put firecrackers in the frogs and throw them and blow them up." (See the New York Times article archived at

The troubled boy develops defense mechanisms. He clowns a lot to distract from his inability to follow complex thoughts. He wins people over with his clowning and joking, and also uses it to gain power over people. He inherits his mother's sharp tongue and ability to hurl insults and ridicule people, and that helps him maintain an advantage in group situations.

Already struggling, he is sent to follow in his father's footsteps to a hoity toity prep school back east, Andover, and later to Yale. He is unable to live up to his father, who excelled academically and athletically. While his father was a big baseball star, George has to settle for being a cheerleader.

He's a big clown. But he has an uncanny memory of people's names. He is not dumb, but he is learning disabled. In a milieu such as that of Andover or of Yale, he experiences deep frustrations. He develops a vengeful anti-intellectualism. He begins to use alcohol to manage his frustrations and his explosive temper.

For 20 years he is a heavy drinker. Without ever working through the problems of his early childhood, he uses alcohol to drown his anxieties and his anger. His development continues to be stifled.

He is not subject to the limitations and the imperatives of most people. He doesn't have to earn a living. When he is stopped for drunk driving, he is almost always let off the hook when he says his name. He becomes used to never having to live by the same laws as others. He is the exception.

Having had to suppress his own grief as a child, he never learned empathy for the suffering of others. (See "Bush is High on Killing")

The effects of Bush's difficult formative years play out in his actions as president.

The book begins with these words: "If one of my patients frequently said one thing and did another, I would want to know why. If I found that he often used words that hid their true meaning and affected a persona that obscured the nature of his actions, I would grow more concerned. If he presented an inflexible worldview characterized by an oversimplified distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, allies and enemies, I would question his ability to grasp reality. And if his actions revealed an unacknowledged -- even sadistic -- indifference to human suffering, wrapped in pious claims of compassion, I would worry about the safety of the people whose lives he touched. For the past three years, I have observed with increasing alarm the inconsistencies and denials of such an individual. But he is not one of my patients. He is our president."

Though the Bushes will never have to comment on the book, their answer to such an analysis is readymade: The book is political. It can be explained away in one word, like any argument against them. And in a sense it is true, because the Bushes are nothing but political. If you eliminate the political there is nothing to talk about.

The statement that the book is politically motivated is true, as far as it goes. It's not a pro-Bush book. But beyond that, it gives a credible portrayal of Bush's life through the lens of psychoanalysis. And it's a harrowing journey.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone whose life is affected by Bush. And that's about everyone.

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