The Lottery Of Life

Second instalment

I’m sorry. We’re going on a detour. I did warn you that this kind of thing would happen. I’ll get back to a rational process of setting out arguments for my thesis, but I saw this article in the newspaper a month ago and I think it’s worth looking at.

Here’s a link to the article: Raised by addicts, abused, neglected, broke: how Katriona O’Sullivan escaped her fate | Poverty | The Guardian

In brief, the article consists of an interview between journalist Emine Saner and academic Katriona O’Sullivan, the latter having written a memoir entitled Poor, published by Penguin Books.

The relevance of the article, and of O’Sullivan’s life story, is that at first sight they appear to contradict the theory that life is a lottery; the argument that one’s situation in life is determined by factors beyond one’s control, the most powerful of those factors having exerted their effect before one so much as starts schooling.

To quote from the article:

O’Sullivan grew up in Hillfields, a deprived part of Coventry in the West Midlands, the second youngest of five children. Their parents, Tony and Tilly, were heroin addicts. . . He [her father] was jailed for selling drugs . . . and she or one of her siblings would be used to smuggle drugs into the prison. While he was inside, one of the men who hung around the family raped her. . . O’Sullivan often wet the bed and would come to school smelling of urine: she didn’t have soap, a towel or even a toothbrush at home . . . As a teenager, she was arrested for fighting and stealing . . . At 15, O’Sullivan had left school and was pregnant and homeless.

This seems the most unpromising of starts in life. This looks like the childhood of a girl who has been dealt a hand of low-value cards, not one of them a trump; a girl who has lost in the lottery of life. From these beginnings, we might expect a life of poverty, failure and unhappiness.

Instead, Dr O’Sullivan is married, with three children, has a PhD from Trinity College, Dublin, and a career as a lecturer in psychology. And, as mentioned above, her book Poor has just been published. This is an outcome that might be expected for someone from a background of privilege; one of the lucky few.

And it is an outcome that appears to question, at the very least, the idea that one’s luck determines one’s situation in life.

O’Sullivan herself, however, doubts that she has succeeded by her own efforts. From the article: it’s a myth that if you only work hard enough, you can achieve anything.

Instead, O’Sullivan points to factors that mitigated the effects of her upbringing: teachers who had time to help her, youth workers who had money to support troubled teenagers, education grants, an access programme that encouraged her, and state-funded childcare and counselling.

From this point on I admit to speculation, but I think it may be significant that O’Sullivan’s parents were heroin addicts. Now, I don’t have any personal knowledge of heroin addiction, but my understanding is that it’s expensive; that an addict becomes focussed on little except obtaining the drug; and that having obtained a fix an addict may be listless and uncommunicative, if not actually unconscious. It therefore seems to me that the deprivation and neglect that O’Sullivan suffered as a child might be attributable to her parents’ addiction.  But for the effects of diamorphine, Tony and Tilly might have been comfortably off, and caring parents. More to the point, their addiction tells us nothing about their native abilities, and therefore nothing about what abilities and aptitudes O’Sullivan inherited from them.

The Guardian article mentions two school teachers who recognised something in O’Sullivan worth nurturing. At primary school, a teacher who ‘changed my life,’ says O’Sullivan. ‘What she did for me lived on for ever. In a child who was really empty, she made me feel OK in myself and that was life-changing.’ At secondary school, a teacher who saw in O’Sullivan someone who was bright and loved reading (he brought her Jane Austen and John Steinbeck to read). ‘I really believe that when I was ready, and the supports were in place, the things that I’d experienced in secondary school from him, and in primary school, were part of the reason why I was able to participate in higher education in the way that I did.’

It seems to me that Katriona O’Sullivan from birth, from conception, had enough high cards in her hand to make her way to a doctorate and a lectureship. Despite appearances she was lucky. She was lucky in that she was bright – bright enough to be given special attention by some of her teachers. And that was enough to set her on her trajectory. She must also have been armed with remarkable resilience: a mind that remained stable and did not buckle or break under the stresses of her upbringing. This mental resilience too must have been the product of her genetic inheritance or, perhaps, to at least some extent, the result of having to survive in adverse conditions.

If she had not had that element of luck – the good fortune of being equipped by heredity and accident with a personality that coped with severe adversity and a brain that functioned particularly well – she would not have escaped the effects of her appalling upbringing.

I have no way of knowing whether Dr O’Sullivan would agree to any extent with my argument. It is I think significant that she has not fallen into the error of believing that her success is the result of her hard work.

However I don’t think I’m clutching at straws. You don’t get picked out at school for special attention unless the teachers see something special in you; you don’t get a PhD unless you’re clever, and if you’re clever as an adult you must have been clever since birth.

The conclusion I draw, therefore, is not that one can through hard work and determination overcome a deprived and abusive childhood; it is that if you’re one of the lucky ones, even a deprived and abusive childhood won’t hold you back.

I’ll do my best to return to an ordered scheme of arguments in the next instalment.  

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.