Monday 18 February 2019

Bob Geldof blames himself for Peaches's death, but genes play a part in any tragedy

Peaches Geldof
Peaches Geldof
Bob Geldof. Photo: Barbara Lindberg.
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

It was brave and honest of Bob Geldof to ask himself - in a TV interview last week - if he was in some way responsible for the tragic death of his daughter Peaches. He constantly reflects on "what went wrong?" He repeatedly asks himself "what he could have done" to avert the pitiful circumstances of her death by heroin and other opiates. Did he fail as a father?

The standard agony-aunt reply is - no, it wasn't his fault, and he shouldn't blame himself. It is the standard response, also, by those experienced in the field of drug and alcohol counselling. Peaches was an adult, and made her own choices - this is a cornerstone of AA (Alcoholics' Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics' Anonymous) nostrums: if you pick up a drink today, or use an addictive drug, that is your choice, and the consequences are your responsibility.

And yet, what Bob Geldof asks is what every parent who has ever worried over a troubled offspring has asked: "is it my fault? What did I do wrong as a parent?"

It's a reasonable, soul-searching question because no parent is perfect, and everyone who has raised a son or daughter has made mistakes - sometimes agonising mistakes which are only perceived in retrospect.

I look back and think, quite often, what a lousy mother I was: I loved being a mother and I loved my children, but I was all over the place just the same. How differently I would do it all, if given the chance to revisit the past!

It seems to me a great error of nature that becoming a parent is rather like playing Shakespeare's Juliet (who was supposed to be 14): by the time you're mature enough to take on the role, you're too old to qualify for it.

How much more sensible it would be if we became parents in our fifties and sixties, when we have begun to get some sense, rather than in our fertile youth when we're still dizzy with sex-and-drugs-and-rock 'n' roll.

And yet what Bob Geldof does not emphasise is the other agency which plays such a strong part in all our lives: the power of genes. We all draw on a multitude of genes - four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on, ad infinitum.

Recessive genes can make an appearance after three or four generations - redheads can appear in a family which has not had a redhead for a hundred years. So can a gene which prompts a mental health issue, such as schizophrenia, or a tendency towards addiction.

We are accustomed to blaming "social conditioning" for all social or personal ills. We say that women are held back in their ambitions because of "social conditioning", or that men commit suicide more frequently because "society" has put too much pressure on them. But this is a shallow analysis which doesn't factor in the current research on biological science.

Social values or society's influences alone can never provide the full story. Many a parent has been hopeless, useless and feckless (examples of atrocious parenting often emerge in the obituaries of the British aristocracy), and yet produced an offspring who is diligent, hard-working and conscientious. Sometimes, a good nanny or carer has helped. But sometimes, the offspring who turns out perfectly well despite haphazard parenting has simply drawn a lucky ticket in the gene lottery.

The genes are like a pack of cards: you cut the cards and whatever card comes out on top is sheer chance.

Nature or nurture? The battle has raged for decades - perhaps for centuries, ever since the Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel, discovered genetic traits.

The progressive argument has usually been on the side of "nurture" - a good environment and a decent education being the main influences. The Jesuit saying - now sometimes disparaged as brain-washing - was originally about the importance of education and early formation: "Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man."

But in recent years, and especially since the publication of Richard Dawkins's 'The Selfish Gene', the influence of genes and inborn personality traits has expanded considerably.

That is, an addictive personality - such as may have been the case for Peaches Geldof - was at least to some extent the product of an unlucky throw of the genetic dice. This would absolve the influence of parenting attitudes, although the fact that Peaches lost her own mother young, and in similarly tragic circumstances, must have had some impact.

The jury remains unresolved on the question of nature versus nurture, though perhaps the most persuasive answer is "both" - it is the interplay of nature and nurture.

This has emerged with studies of people who have developed schizophrenia as a result of using cannabis. Cannabis undoubtedly can prompt schizophrenia, but only when there was a genetic tendency present in the first place. However, without the trigger of cannabis, the tendency might never have emerged.

Bob Geldof asked an agonising question that scorches the heart of any parent who has known the tragedy of a troubled daughter or son. It's a question that can never be answered fully, although there is comfort in understanding that there are some things we cannot change, and thus, some afflictions we just have to accept. @MaryKenny4

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss