I don't know what "psychological malparenting" is, I don't have a three-part working definition of it and, so, I don't know whether or not Tom Hansen was a victim of it.
But I do know that the 24-year-old from Boulder, Colo., is suing his parents for that sort of malpractice, as if they'd been doctors all those years and he'd been an anesthetized patient. As if they had willfully bungled the case.
He's suing them on the assumption that every parent is a board-certified expert on childhood, and that their errors were the "intentional infliction of emotional distress."
Hansen, a kid living on Social Security and a little bit more, a kid who's been in and out of mental hospitals, wants his parents to pay for lousing up his life. He tallies the damages at $350,000.
As a legal case, Hansen's suit doesn't have a prayer. The courts avoid getting into family business unless it's absolutely crucial, and they're not about to try to decide the issue of whether Hansen's father subjected him to hard labor back in 1963 when he sent him into the yard to dig weeds.
But the case has grabbed out attention in the past month, and not just because it sets a legal precedent. We're fascinated because this grown-up child has done in public what so many others do in private. He has proclaimed his parents guilty for his own life.
Hansen told a reporter that he filed suit as an alternative to killing his own father. He chose, instead, character assassination.
But how different is he, really, from the others we've known who, at 24 or 50, still eloquently trace their present problems to the traumatic incidents they've filed away in their own mental legal briefs against Mom and Dad? How different is he from those who point a private finger at father's neglect and mother's smothering, at misunderstanding and . . . malparenting? Isn't it a favorite indoor game of the times?
From Philip Roth on, there are lists of those who analyze their childhoods, not to understand them but to wallow in them, not to change their present lives but to rationalize them. They wrap themselves in difficult memories like comfortable excuses. They declare themselves as "innocent as children" of their own actions, free of responsibilities for adulthood. They confess, saying: "My parents did it."
No one denies that kids are shaped - warped or well formed - in part by their parents. No one denies that some are subject to everything from murderous abuse to arbitrary authority to the unrelenting pressure to achieve. But it is also true that kids live a wider world, and they respond, to the same events, the same families, the same world, in unique and sometimes unpredictable ways.
The Hansen-case family story appears to be a tale of expectations upset, anger unchecked, an adolescence in the late 1960s that was as traumatic for the parents as for the child.
If Tom Hansen can sue his parents, then he could sue his peers, his teachers, his town, perhaps even the times in which he lived. Surely he could sue his grandparents and their parents, because parenting is a legacy from one generation to the next.
But it seems to me that there must be a statute of limitations on blame. At some point a child has to own his own life, or find himself hooked forever to an umbilical cord that also determines the future.
After all, the creepiest part of the Hansen story isn't the man-child's vengeance toward his past, but how committed he is to it. As his mother said: "This is his sole reason for existence, talking about all the things his father did to him."
Pathetically, he has finally found an occupation: to be the living proof of his parents' failure. Now, if his life improves, his case diminishes. If he is ever happy, he lets his parents off the hook.
Like now many others, his life is a monument to his parents. Even as a self-proclaimed failure, in this destructive way, Hansen can succeed in one goal: to remain Exhibit A in his own malparenting suit.