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Meers, D.R. (1970). Contributions of a Ghetto Culture to Symptom Formation—Psychoanalytic Studies of Ego Anomalies in Childhood. Psychoanal. St. Child, 25:209-230.

(1970). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 25:209-230

Contributions of a Ghetto Culture to Symptom Formation—Psychoanalytic Studies of Ego Anomalies in Childhood

Dale R. Meers


Our pilot efforts at systematizing psychoanalytic research permit only limited generalization at this time, viz., (1) psychoanalytic study provides data of depth and richness that are simply unobtainable in observational study; (2) such intensive and longitudinal psychoanalytic explorations provide options for definitive documentation of those ego functions which contribute to intellectual function/dysfunction; and (3) as the sample size extends to permit generalization, the analytic indexing of such data offers an empirical, if arduous, potentiality for differentiating between cultural and psychological determinants of varied behaviors.

While the observational study is most limited as a basis for generalization, one may conjecture, however tentatively, on a number of socially significant issues. I concur with Bloom et al. (1964) that if educational remedies are to be effective, even with the "nondisturbed" child, they must necessarily be academically revolutionary, i.e., with extensions of teaching methods that veridically relate to the experiential and motivational needs of this population. Ghetto children and their problems appear anything but homogeneous, and I suspect that one of the fundamental errors of remedial programs

is to function as if they were (Borowitz and Hirsch, 1968). Our experience, like Pavenstedt's (1965) in Boston, suggests that social indifference colludes with professional ignorance of "cultural deviance" to obscure a broad range of psychopathology, including severe psychotic, atypical, and psychoneurotic disorders that are not irrelevant to ego impairments and ego dysfunctions.

However bad our ghetto schools are, and some are miserable, a high percentage of children arrive at kindergarten and first grade less than prepared emotionally and intellectually to enjoy the materials and processes of formal education. Few ghetto parents contribute, in the realities of their own experience and interest, models for identification with these educational ideals which the parents nominally share with the general culture. Contemporary ghetto life compounds academic problems since daily experience is fraught with instinctual trauma, not least of these being the realities of terrifying, real danger and interminable discontinuities of residence and caretakers.

Consultative work with teachers suggests that ghetto families are replete with undiagnosed, untreated psychopathology—of which our first samples may prove more representative than we prefer to believe. Yet ghetto children accommodate without the overt evidence of phobic, hysteric or obsessive symptom formations more readily observable in the middle class. Deaths, beatings, separations, etc., go unreported to teachers, and such traumas seem effectively encapsulated without symptom formation being discernible to the external observer. Apathetic and depressive behavior in the "retarded" children appears to provide one form of psychological accommodation. Whether such adaptations are necessarily psychopathological, viewed structurally, or whether retardation is a "symptom" that is causally related to such traumas remains the focus of our continuing research efforts.

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