Case Study: Theoretical Strips Tracy

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[. . .] She complains to her mother about his presence in the bathroom. She clearly does not want him in the same house.

But the main point made by social systems theory in analyzing this aspect of Tracy's behavior is to emphasize that there is no single answer to how it should be understood: the family system in this case should be understood as unique, with its own set of intertangled relationships with recognizable patterns, but also as a part of a larger social system. Indeed, Hardwicke's film is careful to contextualize the drug abuse of the older characters, Melanie and Brady in particular, as part of the larger social system of the recovery movement more generally. Melanie inadvertently offends Tracy when she is distracted from listening to the poem Tracy wrote for school, highly praised by her teacher, because Melanie needs to attend an A.A. meeting -- she also participates in A.A. rituals, referring to a birthday cake she baked for Mario (whom we never otherwise meet) who is having his twelve-year sobriety birthday at A.A. This is, of course, a very clearly defined system with its own rules and procedures, and the film does not need to do any more than allude to them in order to suggest an entire social macro-system (and way of thinking about drug use and addiction) that is entailed beyond the micro-system of this particular family, and its problems with drug abuse. But it is important also to recall that social systems, according to this theory, are adaptive. Melanie's entrance into A.A. was presumably an adaptation to her own alcoholism, which introduced her to a structured social support network. But at the same time, the individual members of her own family system, including Tracy, would be expected to adapt to the fact of her addiction and recovery. Indeed, it is the failure of Melanie to adapt to Brady's drug-related absence by holding herself together financially and emotionally that Tracy thinks is the best way of attacking her mother. It would be possible, therefore, to read Tracy's behavior in any number of ways, as seeking to transgress the limits of her family system so as to bring about a change -- the theory sees systems, including families, as goal oriented. So we could also use this theory to suggest that Tracy's transgressions, with drugs and otherwise, are more generally oriented in an attempt to bring her father back into the family system which he has otherwise abandoned, and now only plays a very remote and diminished role in (largely over the telephone). The fact is that Tracy's acting out does force Melanie into calling Travis, and asking him to take custody. He does not, but the fact that he appears to talk to Tracy in person may very well have been part of her own goal in pushing the limits to the system comprised by her immediate family.

Of course general systems theory is slightly vague, and offers no preconceptions about how to approach the question of Tracy's psychological motivation. But in this arena there are a number of competing theories to choose from -- this discussion will concentrate on the classically Freudian, and the contemporary versions of Freud's thought currently in use in social work. For Freud, the basic structure of the mind is divided into conscious and unconscious motivations, and behavior should be understood as the result of the interaction between the two. It is important to understand that Freud's unconscious is not the same as automatic (or Pavlovian) sorts of motivation. Freud (1963) himself is careful to distinguish it from instinct, stating "I am in fact of the opinion that the antithesis of conscious and unconscious is not applicable to instincts. An instinct can never become an object of consciousness -- only the idea that represents the instincts can. Even in the unconscious, more-over, an instinct cannot be represented otherwise than by an idea." (177). Rather than concentrate on chemical or behavioral aspects of addiction, for example, Freudian theory would look at Tracy and Melanie and ask why it is that Melanie finds it impossible to hide her cigarette smoking from Tracy (although she apparently tries), whereas Tracy finds it effortlessly easy at first to hide her smoking and drug use from Melanie. This is a question of psychology rather than chemical dependency, and Freud would note that Melanie is quite obviously involved with A.A. And refuses to drink, which means that she is consciously aware of issues of addiction. On the conscious level, Melanie is aware that smoking itself is an addiction (although one that A.A. does not address) -- but in her subconscious, Melanie's guilt over how her alcohol abuse might have affected her own children means that she has an unconscious desire to be discovered, confronted, stopped, or shamed by those children. As Gardner (1991) defines it, Freud's "dynamic unconscious is a source of motivation, specifically motivation that is actually or potentially a cause of mental conflict, and that it makes little or no positive contribution to cognition" (137). Therefore, Melanie goes through the conscious effort of trying to hide the cigarettes, but her unconscious gives away her own conflicted motivation.

Likewise, the Freudian interpretation of the systems theory analysis given earlier -- in which perhaps Tracy's drug use represents an attempt to get her father's attention -- would emphasize that this is an unconscious motivation on Tracy's part. Freud of course proposes a structure to the unconscious, dividing it into the id, the ego, and the super-ego: the id here is basically animal instinct, and the ego is basically immediate personal desire and awareness. But the superego corresponds to what we would normally term "conscience," or whatever factor it is that imposes upon self-gratification behavior by invoking a sense of restraint (whether due to guilt or fear of retribution or some other manifestation of conscience). Thurschwell (2000) defines the Freudian superego by noting "The fear of the father's power becomes the baby's super-ego, the internal voice which stops the child from doing things he shouldn't have done when he does do them." (48). In Tracy's conscious thirteen-year-old mind, the drug use is mostly associated with peer pressure and the immediacy of her relationship with Evie -- it is only unconsciously that Tracy would be participating in this behavior as part of a general campaign to get her mother's attention, and perhaps to necessitate a crisis that will bring her father back to the house (which, eventually, she does).

It might even be possible to associate that desire with unconscious sexual motivation. Certainly as Orbach (2009) notes: "An old-fashioned Freudian would be inclined to view a person who cuts her body as responding to unresolved sexual dilemmas. The phenomenon of cutting was not that widespread until twenty years ago, and an off-the-shelf Oedipal explanation was seen to suffice. But today, with the explosion of cutting behaviour, I think we need a more open approach. Yes, cutting oneself might be sexual in origin, but equally it could be a way of enacting a violence that the woman or girl has experienced." (148). Orbach is writing within the Freudian tradition, but offering a useful correction from the standpoint of later corrections and thus counts as a revisionary or contemporary use of Freudian theory. Contemporary Freudian theory in social work bears very little relation to the classic Freudian approach of psychoanalysis. Goldstein (1995) is a useful guide to how contemporary social work would use Freudian theory to come to an understanding of Tracy's case, by inquiring into sense of "ego identity" (94). This takes special notice of the fact that Tracy, at age thirteen, is in the midst of a "rapid growth spurt along with dramatic physiological changes that upset the balance that has been achieved and present new coping demands" (93). Because ego identity, in Freud's terms, "involves the integration of one's past, present and future; consequently it also entails the integration of past identifications with others into a whole that repreesnts one's unique self" (94). In other words, we are asked to consider Tracy's behavior in light of her ability to hold together a coherent sense of self in light of her uncertainty about the future, but also the need to make sense of traumas of the past, including her parents' divorce and her mother's collapse after the relationship with Brady hit rock-bottom.

The problem of role confusion is considerable when internal and external resources are not sufficient to help an individual consolidate his or her identity. The individual who comes into adolescence with little sense of competence and who faces keen competition in his or her academic or vocational life may experience severe frustration and reinforcement of low self-esteem… In this respect adolescents who suffer from role confusion often may adopt dysfunctional or antisocial behavior as a way of achieving some type of identity, even a negative one, that is, an identity considered undesirable by one's family or by society. (94)

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