Mrs Robinson - you are the weakest link

'Alas, a mother's best is rarely enough," writes Anne Robinson in Memoirs of an Unfit Mother. And of her own mother's failings, she leaves no doubt. "Her best intentions were constantly thwarted by unintentional abuse. She loathed bullies while being a disgraceful bully herself."

Robinson is emphatic about the consequences of this early care. She married a man who was like her mother, and followed her into alcoholism. "She [her mother] was part bully, part magic," she says. "I have felt comfortable in the company of bullies, monsters and madness ever since."

But apart from the shed-loads of cash and publicity that Robinson has gained from these revelations, where will it get her? Does it actually help to blame your parents? Of course not. Blame gets you nowhere. But insight can get you everywhere.

Those who forget the past are truly condemned to repeat it. Gaining a realistic appraisal of how the way that your parents related to you in early childhood is being relived in your minute-to-minute, here-and-now experience, is invaluable.

Blame fails for two reasons. Most parents do their best for their children within their limits. Philip Larkin's poem This be the Verse famously begins: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad." "But," the second verse points out, "they were fucked up in their turn." Given that your parents could not help what they did, blame is completely inappropriate.

The second reason is that, if you are blaming, you may have understanding but be lacking insight. Blame means you are still feeling rage, prevented from controlling it through self-awareness: what your parents did to you is not digested; you are simply continuing to experience them as, even now, mistreating you. They live on inside you.

Insight is very different. It is the alchemy whereby you can transform the lead of your pathology into the gold of emotional maturity. For this, you need to carry out an emotional audit of yourself and your childhood. This applies to us all. While most did not have an alcoholic workaholic for a mother and become one ourselves, like Anne Robinson, there is no one who did not suffer to some degree at the hands of their parents. If anyone tells you they had a perfect childhood, you can be certain they are in denial.

Studies using a procedure known as the Adult Attachment Interview prove that tales of a childhood idyll are self-deception. People who make this claim cannot recall specific memories from early life. They pay a heavy price for blanking out the bad stuff, tending to be insecure in relationships and more prone to all manner of mental ills. The difficulty about facing the truth of how your parents really cared for you and the role you occupied in your family - whether the "stupid", "clever" or "greedy" one - is that most of us feel very protective of them. We love as well as hate them - the parents and the role.

Furthermore, if we rubbish them, we often feel we are rubbishing ourselves, because feeling critical of them feels the same as rubbishing. Instead, we say: "What's the point? What's done is done." Yes, a small minority of people use parents as an excuse for their own failings, but most feel safer thinking well of them.

"Not to take one's suffering seriously, to make light of it or even to laugh at it is considered good manners in our culture," observes the psychoanalyst Alice Miller, "...many people (at one time including myself) are proud of their lack of sensitivity to their own fate and, above all, to their own childhood."

The achievement of adult volition means realising that you are acting in a play scripted by your parents, without rubbishing the playwright. Recent research has proved that we are constantly inventing the people we meet as figures from our original family. Freud has been comprehensively proved right by scientific evidence in that we have an unconscious and that we use it as a dustbin for uncomfortable realities. That much is unconscious may mean you will need the help of a shrink to carry out this "emotional audit". But contrary to common perception, it needn't take a decade of Woody Allen-like whingeing on the couch.

Robinson reports that, for all her travails as both child and parent, she now has a good relationship with her own daughter. Which just goes to show that we do not necessarily have to take Larkin's closing advice:

"Get out as early as you can,

And don't have any kids yourself."

• Oliver James's new book, They F*** You Up, Your Mum and Dad, will be published by Bloomsbury next year.

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