The Transcendent Child: Tales of Triumph Over the Past by Lillian Rubin, Basic Books, $23.00, 1996, pp. 229

Reviewed by John A. Speyrer

The Transcendent Child is about children, who by succeeding in life, were able to transcend or overcome their deprived and traumatic childhoods. The author, who herself was a transcendent child, has always wondered why she was able to overcome severe obstacles, but her brother could not. She asks why some, who fall down seven times are able to get up eight times? I don't believe Rubin's book answers the questions she poses, but it does present eight interesting stories of people who have overcome unbelievable handicaps to eventually lead successful lives.

Lillian Rubin, a sociologist and psychotherapist, believes that one's genetic potential is a factor in determining one's ability to adjust to life's vicissitudes. She believes that an early life of abuse and neglect will not necessarily be reflected in one's adult life.

The author writes that transcendent children share certain characteristics. They possess determination which gets them through childhood relatively unscathed and this determination helps them succeed in later life. She says developmental psychologists view human potential as not necessarily subject to such simplistic determining factors as early trauma. Thus, she believes that a child who is abused does not have to become a child abuser. And even those who lived a seemingly perfect childhood can turn into unhappy and neurotic adults.

Another characteristic of these children is their ability to leave their families early, both physically and emotionally. This took them out of their pathological family environment early. In each of the case studies, the children had special interests or abilities. This might be the real reason why they came to the attention of the author. In any case, a strong decision not to be like their parents is another characteristic of these children. These "transcendents" also seem to be able to attract mentors later in life when needed. These helpers and advisors are able to assist the person at critical times since they remain open enough to receive the guidance and advice of others.

Often the children did not feel sorry for themselves and did not act out the life script of victimhood. Rubin believes that self-help groups sometimes fosters a feeling of victimhood by its participants. In any event, she believes that we have a choice of whether or not to fall in the trap of victimhood.

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I don't know how happy these former transcendent children are as adults, but they seemingly are professionally and financially successful. Alice Miller's concept of a "gifted child" is similar to the author's "transcendent child" since they both have solid defense systems which keep their neuroses at bay. An issue not discussed by the author, but one which those of us interested in the regressive therapies know is important is -- what kind of birth and infancy did these exceptional children have? Second line traumas are easier to work around and resolve than issues of birth and early infancy. In Imprints: The Lifelong Effects of the Birth Experience, Dr. Arthur Janov has written that ". . . a decent birth is at least half the job of child rearing and may be equal to years of positive experiences with parents. . . whereas an improper birth leaves one vulnerable to even the most benign events." So a closer examination of these seemingly well-adjusted persons might reveal psychopathology. And a look into earlier phases of their lives might solve this puzzle of the relative absence of neurosis.

So, after all, did these children escape the effects of horrendous environments including beatings, sexual abuse, and abandonment? I do not believe that they really escaped. In many of the stories, psychopathology in the adults is described. And being successful is not a standard for being well adjusted and happy. Equating mental health with good functioning and prosperity is an error. The invulnerables were really not so since one's neurosis and act-outs may be to succeed to matter what. Most of these transcendent children have had exemplary careers. In their cases successful careers equated to extraordinary natural abilities, strong successful defenses and perhaps great determination to show that they had not deserved the abuse they received.

If these children are judged solely by their behavior it would seem that they have transcended their traumas. But their repressed experiences are still present even though, as a child and as a professionally successful adult, they present a facade of being well adjusted by acting with social grace and charm. However, a defense does not eliminate repressed feelings.