Archive for July 2009

Time Bombs in Families and How to Survive Them

10 July 2009

In 1999, Dr Averil Earnshaw published a book with the above title based on thirty years of research into what she terms “Inner Space” and “the dangerous collections of undigested experiences from our lives, which never disappear”. She explores and comments on parallel events (especially major life events) in the lives of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. She suggests, in particular, that some physical illnesses may be of psychosomatic origin, perhaps unconsciously ‘inherited’ from our parents.

In short, her theory is that our lives may be seriously affected by what she calls “age-linked life events” of other family members, in particular of our parents. She suggests that “we are particularly vulnerable in our lives at the very same ages at which our parents experienced major events in their lives.” She further suggests that if we are aware of these potential “time bombs”, we may be able to exert a personal influence on the outcomes.

As well as offering pertinent observations from her career in psychotherapy and speculative cause and effect arguments for her ideas, Earnshaw devotes many of the pages of this book to short practical analyses of the biographies of many famous individuals: writers, poets, writers, actors and artists, musicians and politicians. Among her special subjects are:
Darwin, Einstein, Freud, Picasso, Keats, Fleming (Alexander), Robert Oppenheimer, Jane Austen, Marie Curie and Bertrand Russell.
There is obviously further scope for self-analysis and biographical analyses by those who find Earnshaw’s hypotheses convincing.

Ten years on, people are finally beginning to pay more attention to this original thesis. To give an idea of the wide appeal of her research and speculations, I reproduce below two extracts, one on a poet, the other on an actress.

( C Copyright Averil Earnshaw)
Reproduced, with permission, from Time Bombs in Families and How to Survive Them, Part 3: Time Will Tell, pp 93-4.
ISBN 0958714517

JOHN KEATS (1795 – 1820)

“However it may be, O for a life of Sensations, rather than of Thoughts!”
(Keats, 1817, in his “Negative Capability” letter to his brothers)

John Keats was the first of his parents’ five children. He was born in1795, when his father was aged twenty-two; the next child, George, was born when father was twenty-three-and-a-half. John Keats’ miraculous poetic creativity began to dry up in 1819 when he was twenty-three-and-a-half. He was ill at twenty-four (his father’s age when Tom, the baby after George, was born), and he died aged twenty-five.

His biographer, Gittings, wrote of Keats as a young man:
The stress of his love, disease, money worry over George, all took their part in his sudden and tragic finale. Yet more than these are needed to account for the complete blotting out of poetry from his system”. (My italics)

[Dr Earnshaw’s 2 circular diagrams representing parallel life time charts of father and son are not reproduced here.]

His time of creativity was over. John Keats’ last poem was a long, comic poem which he called The Jealousies. It was never finished; it is quite alien to all his other works.

With reference to the age-linking, i.e. John’s illness and death at the ages his father was when George and then Tom were born, one can conjecture that both father and son felt sick and lost when Frances Keats was busy with her new babies.

When the eighteen-month-old John Keats reached his father’s age at George’s birth, twenty-three-and-a-half, the whole scenario was replayed. Death and the mid-life crisis? Yes, but it can also be seen as a replay of the occasions of births in the family – births which felt to little John like death blows to his existence. Keats’ ‘Negative Capability’ letter to his brothers takes on a new meaning in this context. Keats was not capable of surviving his inner agony, and of acknowledging his unspeakable terror.

Gittings (1968) wrote in his biography of Keats:
“… in any really essential matters of poetry, thought or human conduct, he behaved, until illness began to distort his judgment, with the ripeness of a man twice his age” (p 240).
Did he live his life in identification with his father? Or, did his father live again, in him, or both?

Gittings understood Keats’ limitation:
“His description of Apollo’s godhead is the final contradiction of his theory of Negative Capability.”
“It is Hyperion who remains in the seat of half-ignorance and half- knowledge which Keats had once seen as the creative state.”
“Apollo only becomes the god of poetry by complete and painful knowledge.”
“He could not yet face the pain of absolute knowledge, necessary for his continuance as a poet” (p 297).
(Reference: R Gittings, John Keats, London, Heinemann, 1968.)

(Averil Earnshaw, pages 102-103)

Vanessa REDGRAVE (1937 – ) Like Mother, like Daughter

In her frank and wonderfully detailed autobiography, Vanessa Redgrave records that her grandfather, actor Roy Redgrave, “died penniless, with only just enough to pay for a plain tombstone.” Her father Michael died with no savings in the bank, and “my mother at the age of eighty-one has to work as often as she can to pay the bills” (p 190). Like father, like son, she seems to imply.

Vanessa Redgrave was born in London on January 30, 1937, the first of her parents’ three children. All three children chose stage careers, and they are successful, as their parents were before them.

Rachel and Michael married in 1936, when Rachel was twenty-five and Michael was twenty-eight. Vanessa married Tony Richardson in 1962, when she was twenty-five and Tony was twenty-eight.

Rachel was aged twenty-six, twenty-eight and thirty-two when her three children Vanessa, Corin and Lyn were born. Vanessa was aged twenty-six, twenty-eight and thirty-two when her three children, Natasha, Joely and Carlo were born. In 1940 when Vanessa was three, London was being bombed. Her mother, aged twenty-nine, took her and baby Corin and their nanny to Herefordshire. They saw the fierce glow of the burning city of Coventry on the horizon. Michael was away on active service as an ordinary seaman on Atlantic convoys. Subsequently, Vanessa had nightmares for years, of fires engulfing their home.

In 1966, when she was twenty-nine and apart from her husband, Vanessa was playing the lead part in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Quite suddenly, she entered a phase of terror that she would not remember her lines. “In fact,” she writes, “I never did forget my lines, though for the rest of that run I felt that I was never more than one syllable away from a screaming, yawning abyss” (p 132).

Why then? A recurring nightmare? A repeat performance of the situation of 1940? Now Vanessa is the twenty-nine year old mother of a three-year-old child, Natasha, and her baby, Joely. Like mother. Like daughter?
(Reference: Vanessa Redgrave, An Autobiography, London, Arrow Books, 1991.)

(Anyone wishing to contact Dr Earnshaw may send an email to me for forwarding: