The Psychic Landscape of Social Class & My Cleft Habitus | Part 5: Abuse & Neglect; Embodying Negative Cultural Capital

In the previous article, I reflected on the meaning of this post in an exercise of reflexivity. In another post separate from this series, I went on to discuss the limits of reflexivity and begin to outline how my life experiences have changed me in such a way that it impedes the possibility for me to understand and interpret the subjectivity of certain social positions, due to my habitus not being of a similar position. Before developing that idea further by bringing in the idea of doxa, in this article I will continue to look at the development of my own habitus through experiences of childhood, family, and education.

Content warning: This article contains discussion of childhood neglect and abuse which some readers, especially fellow survivors, may find distressing and/or triggering.

Continuing from about where things were left, I was now attending the secondary school which my peers from primary school had gone to when I had gone to a different school initially, years later. I had drifted apart from the friends I’d had as a preteen but quickly made new friendships and managed to get on with most people. One of the social skills I developed out of necessity was my sense of humour, which sometimes acted as a disarming tool against potential bullies. Moving around, not just between schools, but due to the regular fortnightly stays with my father hours away from where I lived, to be discussed shortly, led to my interest in films and videogames. I was a shut-in so had to adapt new defenses against would-be bullies- humour probably being the most powerful aside from the general social skills I had developed simply by moving around so much and learning how to interact with a large variety of people.

Earlier in this series, I mentioned my memory difficulties and cannot because of them, pinpoint when the separation of my parents became permanent. Before this, and their eventual divorce, there were frequent periods of long separation when my father lived away from us, sometimes seeing other women. Throughout this period, I can’t recall much of my mother apart from her occasional emotional abusiveness such as screaming at me that I would “end up just like [my] father” when I misbehaved. The only real stability in my life then came from my maternal grandparents and school, the latter of which not exactly stable, as shown above.

Before continuing, I would like to point out that the aim of this self-analysis is not to diagnose, but show that sociological analysis and Bourdieusian concepts like habitus can also act as a useful framework to illustrate that psychiatric disorders can be largely social, as claimed by Reay in the article mentioned at the beginning of this series which it is titled after. “All too often in sociological research such psychic responses are individualized, pushed out of the wider social picture.” Reay focuses on social class in this claim and, so far, my experiences haven’t really been shown to have potential causal links with class, but I hope that the idea of my individual psychology as largely socially determined is effectively made clear.

One of the women my father dated was also a parent and for months, my younger sister and I had to visit on the mandatory fortnightly weekends. I became friends with her son who was about the same age as me and we would pass the time with unusual acts of juvenile delinquency that I was lucky not to ever be caught doing. One weekend came and we found they had broken up and that was those people out of my life forever with no goodbyes.

Another woman, whom my father remains with today, lived just across the border into North Wales. She and her family fit a few stereotypes of “the underclass” or “chavs” which I find it difficult to remain objective about, especially considering their use as a pejorative and my current disgust for the way they lived and anger about my lost childhood in their (lack of) care. As a child, I didn’t understand that what I went through then was tantamount to abuse, and still struggle with the idea, but certain aspects of those times in my life are to me now obviously unacceptable.

The house we stayed in was absolutely filthy and beyond description. It was so disgusting that I rarely used the toilet, which luckily wasn’t a problem very often considering we hardly ate while there. Most of my time there was divided between looking after my younger sister and much younger step-brother, and going on the computer to play videogames. I think my stepmother worked at a supermarket and when not at work was with my father in their bedroom, watching TV in the living room, or simply absent, until she and my father had their new children, the half-siblings I don’t know. My father was left alone because he had a temper not to be disturbed. I remember he would sit at a desk in the bedroom, chainsmoking and downloading torrents and making CDs and DVDs, possibly to sell at car boot sales.

These reflections are made extra difficult by my training as a social scientist, as I try to understand that these kinds of situations are often the results of cycles of abuse and poverty. Maybe I’m unaware of abuse these adults suffered in their lives and I somewhat understand the economic strain of feeding so many children without proper employment but I cannot yet forgive the lack of minimum care standards. We were left to our own devices, frequently hungry, and essentially without basic standards of sanitation. It is when reflecting on these times that the thoughts about reconnecting with my father, thoughts which have come about in the past few years, disappear in anger and resentment.

On the other side of things with my mother, I didn’t see her much. Partly because she worked but otherwise we were just dismissed. The relationship with my mother is harder to explain and for the most part, I manage to understand it simply by rationalising her behaviours as indicative of some sort of mental illness. Some episodes stick out more than others, like when a school peer I used to fight with at school came to my house with his brother, cousins, a family dog, and some friends, to confront me. I was indoors and the boy was greeted by my mother. This story sounds bizarre and perhaps it’s some sort of defense mechanism, but it’s almost funny to me, but this really happened: he told my mother he was there to fight me! My mother told him to wait and then threw me out the front door to fend for myself. The scuffle a few minutes later was probably pathetic and perhaps my rival felt sorry for me after seeing me kicked out to fight by my own mother, but the incident has always stuck with me.

Writing this has been emotionally tiring so I’m going to end it here but first reconnect this to the sociological perspective I am trying to look at myself with. This lack of consistency and abuse has led to maladaptive behaviours symptomatic of my mental health diagnosis, and in Bourdieusian terms, negative cultural capitals- especially in the way I failed to develop my independence or learned “learned helplessness”. The time spent basically wasted travelling to the new partners of my father meant I was unable to invest in cultural or social capital. Also, moving schools meant I was never able to invest in the social capital of more consistent friendships. Ironically, I was fortunate to learn the embodied social capital of being able to make new friendships quickly, but we should keep in mind that social capital is not really capital if it cannot be exchanged or converted to other forms successfully, as I have not. In the next article, I shall return to the concept of cleft habitus, connecting it to BPD and my experiences.

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