By Carolyn See
Friday, August 27, 2010; C03
GROWING UP JUNG
Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks
by Micah Toub
Norton. 261 pp. $23.95
There's nothing more endearing than a family memoir in which the author is actually fond of his family. It's rare; it's close to miraculous. If a person wants to write about his youth and his parents, it's usually because he has scores to settle. Affection turns the whole thing into a miracle. Because parents -- God love them! -- have been put on Earth to embarrass us half to death.
Not that Micah Toub's mom and dad don't fit that bill. They're both Jungian psychologists, and while Jung seemed important and relevant back when Toub's parents were at the height of their respective careers, Toub gets pestered regularly these days by people who remind him that Jung is no longer taken very seriously as a rigorous thinker. (Just to refresh your memory: Jung was first a disciple, then a colleague and later a competitor of Sigmund Freud back in the first half of the 20th century.)
The key facts to remember while reading this book are that Jung theorized about the "collective unconscious," the importance of mythical archetypes that inhabit every mind; the "anima," most usually in reference to the feminine self that lurks inside every man; "synchronicity," which leaves sweethearts eternally marveling about what it was, exactly, in this Big World that allowed them to meet in the first place; and finally, "individuation," the process by which we separate from our parents and become our own independent selves.
The narrative begins in a Colorado suburb in the '8os with a family where the parent-therapists often work at home. That "meant that waves and waves of screwed-up, crazy, lunatic weirdoes were allowed to enter our altar of rational normalcy," Toub recalls. But home life was never all that rational or normal. What did pertain was a form of highly evolved psychological integrity, a commitment to trying to find out what was really going on in life in any particular moment. "Being the son of a psychologist . . . meant saying exactly what you were thinking and feeling -- it meant telling the truth," Toub writes.
The first chapter, "The Marginalized," is a perfect mini-masterpiece about how good intentions and the best belief systems just aren't going to work out if someone in the group isn't prepared to go along with the program. The young Micah has an older, half-black, half-sister, who, in the fashion of all rebellious teenagers, is totally disgusted with her parents and family and everything that goes along with that package. (She detests anything and everything that seems in the least New Agey.)
The situation has gotten so far out of hand that a family meeting is convened, in which Micah's dad feels called upon to speak in his "fluffy-edged psychologist voice," while his sister's (unstated) position is: "I don't want to talk about it and you can't make me." Her stepdad tries to get her to talk about the ceiling: "Why don't you describe what you see?" he asks. "Perhaps you see a figure or a story in the shape of the plaster that will help us to know what's happening with you?"
Toub's parents live in a land of stories, of living room floors dotted with meditation pillows, a strict macrobiotic diet (except for the family's monthly jaunt to a seafood restaurant), a belief in spirit guides and mandalas and what they signify -- and above all, a touching belief that something big is going on beyond the everyday world. The wonderful thing Toub does here is stay away from the cheap-and-easy shot (except, perhaps, when he mentions that his dad's second wife divorces him because, she says, "I just can't grow old with a man who owns a Tarot deck.") He tries his best to show the reader that, past any surface goofiness, Jung's theories provide us with useful tools to talk about the human condition.
In the second half of this memoir, Toub takes particular events in his life and describes them in terms of various psychological concepts: The shadow in his life turns out to be watching porn and gobbling sweets. A friend of his gets control of his anima by walking around like the cutest girl in town instead of just lusting after her. A romance with a promising girlfriend is jeopardized by a lively familial conversation about incest, and so on. And yes, it is true that Micah likes his mom a little more than might be generally acceptable, but hey, nobody's perfect! That's what psychology is for, isn't it?
I hated to see this book end. I loved every person in it, from the wistful dad with his "fluffy-edged" voice, to Toub's kind and darling mom, his tolerant and loving ex-wife, even that volcanic teenaged sister, who refused to tell stories about the ceiling. "Growing Up Jung" is a gem.
See reviews books regularly for The Post.Sunday in Outlook
-- Tiger, tiger, still burns bright.
-- The fountain of youth is just around the corner.
-- Dreamers, anarchists and secret agents.
-- My life as a Russian novel.
-- And the remarkable common cold.