I was born into a sinister world that is the opposite of the one Dr. Dacher Keltner seems to be considering as the REAL world in his book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.  I was born into one of those infant-child abusing homes that forced me to grow and develop in a universe that was “upside-down, backwards and inside-out from safe, secure and normal.”

As I explained in yesterday’s post, I don’t believe Keltner.  If people are “born to be good” as Keltner suggests, how is it possible that so many people can turn out to be so bad, including my mother and all severely abusive infant-child caregivers?

I suggest in contrary to Keltner’s beliefs that humans are born with all their human abilities to choose between “being good” and “being bad” intact.  I then still further believe that even when infant-childhood is ‘good enough’ some people still prefer to choose to do bad.  I also believe that some people, like my mother, suffer from enough deprivation, trauma and harm during their earliest brain growth and developmental stages that the ability to consciously choose between doing bad and doing good is removed from them.

In a very literal sense I can agree with Keltner that my mother was BORN to BE good.  She had that capacity within her at the moment she was born.  But it’s a far cry and a very long shot to believe that she KEPT this ability.  I do not believe that she did.

So next I have to consider that I believe DOING good and BEING good are two entirely different things.  Can a person still be innately GOOD even though they actual DO very bad things?  Was Hitler innately good?  Was my mother?

I am not equipped to consider what are probably spiritual questions like the innate goodness or badness of people.  I believe enough in the supremacy of God to say that this level of judgment does not belong to human beings.  I do not believe that humans can ever have enough of the right kind of information to assess the innate worthiness of anyone.

And because this is true, I cannot judge Hitler any more than I can judge my mother or anyone else.  I can, however, keep my eyes and my mind completely open in my thinking about the goodness or the badness of human activities.  Keltner’s premise that humans are “born to be good” tells me nothing useful about the real world we all have to live in.  It is either a philosophical assertion or a spiritual topic to consider the innate ‘beingness’ of humans.

I therefore have to revise my own thinking as I read the words Keltner wrote in the second half of his chapter on teasing because I see this fundamental difference between “born to be good” versus “born with the capacity to choose to do good or bad.”  If something happens during infant-child development that changes this ‘capacity to choose to do good or bad’, the stage is set for all hell to break loose.  I know this as a FACT, as do all severe infant-child abuse survivors.  There is nothing in Keltner’s book that would suggest to me that he is one of these survivors.

It seems to me that his not being a severe infant-child abuse survivor lets him think about the good actions of humans as if they are a given.  I know the opposite to be true.  Anything good my mother accomplished in her life seemed to be as much of an unconscious accident as was all the bad she seemed able to do without conscience.

The true value of Keltner’s writings to me is that here I am for the first time beginning to define the goodness that was missing in my mother’s life, and therefore was also missing in the childhood she provided for her children.  I am beginning to see, as I have written in my previous posts about Keltner’s book, that the goodness that was missing in my childhood was equally as harmful to me as was the presence of the badness.

I will also say here that I have an additional piece of important information about Keltner’s book that my blog readers don’t.  I see that his chapter after the topic of teasing is about touch.  Oh, I can assure you, knowing that touch is the next topic Keltner presents has given me pause in my reading.  If I don’t let myself become completely clear now in this current topic of teasing, as it relates to my own version of reality from 18 long, long years of all kinds of severe abuse from my mother, I am in for big trouble when it is time for me to think about what I know about the perils of touch.

At the same time I expect to uncover all kinds of information about the goodness of human touch in Keltner’s next chapter, I have no confidence that my own reality is going to be discussed in his words.  Now that I see that Keltner is describing a fairy tale world where only human goodness is possible, I can see that he is simply ignoring the perils that exist right along side of the goodness he is presenting as the ONLY reality.

If Keltner cannot begin to think about how terribly BAD what he calls ‘teasing’ can actually become, if he cannot even mention how the aspects of teasing that involve words can actually HURT people, how can I have any confidence that he will be even the least bit sensitive to the realities of people who have survived not only the horrors of severe verbal abuse as well as the horrors of the physical abuses related to touch?

As I presented through links in my post +THE ‘TERROR-ABLE’ CONSEQUENCES OF INFANT-CHILDHOOD VERBAL ABUSE, spoken words along with all the sounds that accompany them, can reach out and touch even the fundamental construction and operation of the human brain (and body) and change it –permanently.  The people who have to live for the rest of their lives with one of these changed brains will know things about the bad side of humans that Keltner does not seem able to even begin to imagine.

I have found that reading his words at face value would only be possible if I deny my own reality.  I had to wait until the force of my own doubt within me became so powerful, loud and obvious that I could no longer pretend that I agreed wholeheartedly with Keltner that humans are “born to be good.”  I have a second filter in place as I read his words on teasing that Keltner does not have.  He filters teasing through what is good about humans.  I also add the filter of reading his words knowing what is bad about humans.

Whether or not everyone takes their first newborn breath in a state of ‘being good’ or not is outside the range of my concern here.  I believe newborns are born with the capacities of doing good and of doing bad, both extremes existing on a continuum of human’s possible behaviors.  If, as Keltner asserts the capacity to smile, laugh and tease is hardwired into our human body as a part of our species’ genetic makeup, his logic falls short by the time he gets to his description of teasing.


Research has confirmed that both genuine smiles and genuine laughter involve brain regions in specific ways so that these actions cannot be faked.  If they cannot be faked, they are therefore immune from being tampered with.  Teasing appears to be a much more advanced activity; one that Keltner mentions is not fully operational in humans until we reach about ten-and-a-half years of age.

So many body-brain-mind-self critical developmental stages of been reached and passed through already by the time we reach this ‘age of teasing’ that we cannot possibly exempt teasing abilities from the influence that all the experiences a child has already had prior to this age from the end result – how this pre-formed child operates in the social environment.

As I have already written, by the time my mother reached this age of ten-and-a-half, I believe something was already so changed about her that there was no hope that the full-blown expression of her brain-mind-self changes was not going to erupt in terrible tragedy down the road of her life.  I can see and sense these changes being present in the stories I have that she wrote at this age.

By the time my mother was ten years old she was already an accident waiting to happen.  The fuse of her explosive potential had already been lit.  As I read what Keltner next says about the topic of teasing, I can see all the places within this context where the potential of humans to harm others resides.  Teasing is at best a risky business, even though Keltner seems intent on ignoring this fact.


The entire framework that Keltner uses to describe teasing rests on the assumption that the ability to participate in sincere, coherent verbal thinking and communication has developed within a normally-formed brain-mind.  Keltner states:  “What gives the tease the playful genius of the jester’s satire are systematic violations of Grice’s maxims.”  (page 153)

GRICE'S MAXIMS OF COMMUNICATION, page 152 of Keltner's "Born to Be Good" book
(remember these are the same maxims used to assess secure and insecure adult attachment) -- page 152 from Keltner's "Born to Be Good" book


What Keltner does not say is that having the ability to ‘systematically violate’ these rules of speech rests on a person’s ability to use them systematically in the first place.  There will be corresponding changes in a person’s ability to even think ‘systematically’, let alone communicate with others systematically in accordance with the degrees of developmental brain changes that have happened in a person’s early infant-child traumatic environment.

Keltner does not address how traumas in the early brain developmental stages can plant the seeds of badness within some infant-child abuse survivors.  He does not talk about how these seeds can sprout and turn into twisted, distorted patterns of social interaction.  I can see the fertile soil in the field of teasing behaviors and motivations that create the dangerous conditions that can lead to abuse.

Keltner is using two powerful examples of human interactions in his description of teasing:  play and war.  He writes about “the art of the tease” without considering the harmful extremes that are the opposite of what he chooses to describe here.

The art of the tease lies on the spectrum Keltner refers to as ‘playful genius’ that operates according to identifiable principles that are systematic violations of Grice’s maxims – exaggeration, repetition, and rule of manner (directness and clarity).

Keltner:  “A first principle is exaggeration, which marks the playfulness of the tease by deviating from Grice’s maxim of quality.  Teasing can involve copious detail, excessive profanity, or an exaggerated characterization….  We tease with dramatic and exaggerated shifts in our pitch – we mock the plaintiveness of another with high-pitched imitations, and the momentary obtuseness of another with slow-moving, low-pitched utterances….  We tease by imitating, in exaggerated form, the mannerisms of others….”  (pages 153-154

I read in this paragraph a description of the potential for harm contained in verbal abuse.  What words would we use to describe the opposite of ‘the art of the tease’?  What is the opposite of ‘playful genius’?  I know what the opposite sounds like.  I know what it feels like.  The opposite end of this artful, playful genius of ‘good’ teasing is the use of these characteristics of exaggeration in verbal abuse.

I think of my mother’s abuse litany, of the verbal record of her distorted remembrances of the so-called crimes I had committed from the time I was born that she wielded against me while she beat me over the years of my childhood.  Her verbalizations about me were always extremely distorted exaggerations.  To say my mother was dramatic would be a terrible understatement.  To say that she mocked me would also be a massive understatement.

Keltner continues about the first deviation of Grice’s maxims used in teasing:  “Repetition is a classic element of the tease, and violates the rule of quanitity.  If a friend says you are a really good neck rubber, you blush with pride.  If she says you are a really, really, really, really outrageously fantastic neck rubber, you are likely to bristle a bit, recall questionable massage techniques – the use of your elbows and your nose – you’ve experimented with, wonder what her point is, and rise to defend yourself.”  (pages 154-155)

Here, in his own words, Keltner is making reference to the potential for danger and harm that exists on the teasing spectrum.  It doesn’t take much effort to imagine what turning up the volume on making someone “bristle a bit” or “recall questionable” or “wonder what her point is” or “rise and defend yourself” would feel like to a victim of verbal abuse.

Those of us who have been victimized by verbal abuse know what this repetitive distortion of Grice’s maxim on quantity sounds like.  If the verbal abuse was coupled with physical attacks, which it most frequently is, we know what it sounds and feels like when the rhythm of the words is matched to blows.  “I HATE you, I HATE you, I HATE YOU, you horrible, HORRIBLE, HORRIBLE child!”   Up goes the volume, up goes the pitch – or down into a threatening animal growl as every word resounds with a violent blow of attack.

Keltner continues about the second deviation of Grice’s maxims used in teasing:  “Repetitive formulaic expressions rhythmically placed within social routines signal teasing.  These linguistic acts are a reliable part of the quotidian [occurring] life of healthy families. Parents have been known to short-circuit their children’s mutinous reactions to their dinner with repetitive, formulaic expressions (“here’s your dog food”) to make light of, and preempt, their prickly objections.”  (page 155)

OK, And I would ask Keltner, “And how do these “repetitive formulaic expressions rhythmically placed within social routines” operate in unhealthy families?”  What happens when ‘making light’ turns into a distorted, sinister ‘making dark’?  Do we still call this teasing?  Those of us with verbal abuse experience know these devious patterns do actually exist.  Does Keltner know this fact?

Keltner continues about the third deviation of Grice’s maxims used in teasing:  “We violate the rule of manner, or directness and clarity, in innumerable ways to tease.  Idiomatic expressions – quirky nicknames and relationship-specific phrases – are a common element of teasing, zeroing in on idiosyncrasies and potentially problematic characteristics of the target.  We violate the rules of manner with several vocal cues, including sing-song voice, loud, rapid delivery, dramatized sighs, and utterances that are either louder or quieter than preceding utterances.  And of course there is the wink, the very emblem of off-record indirectness.  The wink violates the sincere and truthful orientation of direct, straightforward gaze, and recognizes an audience to the side, thus signaling that all is not what it appears to be.”  (page 155)

My mother had ‘an audience to the side’, a whole family of terrorized witnesses to her terrible attacks of rage against me.  But I can assure you, I don’t believe my mother had the capacity to wink.  ‘Quirky nicknames’ used in verbal abuse attacks might replicate the patterns of benign teasing techniques, but there is nothing ‘quirky’ about them.  They are devastating indictments against the very core of the self of the victim.  Again, read the above paragraph with verbal abuse in mind, and there will be no possible way to doubt that verbal abuse does not make use of these exact patterns of teasing activity that Keltner is describing here.

Keltner next puts these three characteristics of teasing together:  “With exaggeration, repetition, and idiomatic phrases, with elongated vowels and shifts in the speed and pitch of our delivery, with tongue protrusions, well-timed laughs, and expressive caricature of others, we violate the maxims of sincere communication, all in the service of teasing.  We provoke, on the one had, but artfully signal that nonliteral interpretations of the provocation are possible.  We signal that we do not necessarily mean what we say, that our actions are to be taken in the spirit of play.”  (page 155)

My, oh my, whose version of play is Keltner describing here?  The first image that comes into my mind is of a cat at ‘play’ with its prey.  What is the experience of this so-called play from the mouse’s point of view?

This again brings to my mind the absurdity of Keltner’s proposal that humans are ‘born to be good’.  He is denying one of the fundamental aspects of our species:  We are predatory mammals!  Under what circumstances might a cat’s ‘play’ with a mouse not end with the mouse being D-E-A-D?  One, if the cat is a completely inept hunter, or two, if the cat is not one single bit hungry.

My mother operated fully from her predatory nature.  She was an adept hunter of powerless me, and insatiably hungry.  She violated these ‘maxims of sincere communication’ all right, but she was absolutely sincere in her violations.  To any objective bystander, my mother must have looked all the world like an ‘expressive caricature’ of a rage-o-maniac (a very convincing one!).  She provoked the powerless, and was an extremely skilled signaler of ‘nonliteral interpretations’ that she unfortunately literally believed herself.  And she expertly signaled that she DID mean what she said, and that her actions were to be taken in the ‘spirit of play’ that any predatory animal would demonstrate with its soon-to-be-shredded into unrecognizable dinner and devoured prey.

Keltner ignores this entire destructive end of the teasing behavior spectrum as if it does not exist.  I am left stepping out into thin air when I read his next paragraph.  Nowhere does he present any platform to stand on for those of us who personally know how terror-able the ‘bad’ end of the ‘good’ teasing continuum can be.

Keltner continues:  “When we tease…we frame the interaction as one that occurs in a playful, nonserious realm of social exchange.  When done with a light touch and style, teasing is a game, a dramatic performance, one filled with shared laughter that transforms conflicts – between rivals in a hierarchy, romantic partners, siblings finding separate spaces – into playful negotiations.  It is in artful teasing that we lightheartedly provoke, to discern one another’s commitments.  It is with artful teasing that we convert many problems in social living to opportunities for higher jen ratios.”  (page 155)

If I had not already carefully constructed my own platform from which to read this paragraph of Keltner’s, I would at this point be completely lost in my attempt to connect what he is saying to my own experience.  At the same time I can intellectually understand what he is saying, I also know that there is nothing about his description of teasing in this paragraph that was remotely a part of the 18 years’ experience I had living with my mother.

Keltner has set up the stage in this paragraph upon which only dramatic performances of GOOD teasing, as he defines it, can be enacted.  In Keltner’s pretend fairy tale Disney World vision of what good teasing is, he has completely obliterated from his view the reality that bad teasing exits.  Because he is ‘the expert’, am I supposed to believe him?

As Chi Chi Rodriguez, played by John Leguizamo so eloquently put it in the movie, To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995),  “I don’t THEENK so!”  What am I REALLY supposed to understand about Keltner’s description of teasing?  He is not making the distinction here between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ teasing.  Is he saying ‘bad’ teasing does not exist?  What can I make of this?

When we tease…we frame the interaction as one that occurs in a playful, nonserious realm of social exchange.  When done with a light touch and style, teasing is a game, a dramatic performance, one filled with shared laughter that transforms conflicts – between rivals in a hierarchy, romantic partners, siblings finding separate spaces – into playful negotiations.  It is in artful teasing that we lightheartedly provoke, to discern one another’s commitments.  It is with artful teasing that we convert many problems in social living to opportunities…

My interactions with my mother occurred in an extremely hurtful, deadly serious ‘social realm’ that did not include exchange – unless my terror and pain in response to her can be considered what I ‘gave back’ to her.  Hers was the opposite of ‘a light touch’.  Her actions were the opposite of ‘style’.  Hers was a predator-caught-the-prey ‘game’, and it was certainly a trauma-drama performance.  There was never shared laughter and correspondingly, no transformation of conflicts into playful negotiations.  Nobody ever had any opportunity to negotiate anything with my mother.  There was no lightheartedness in my mother’s home.  Lightheartedness happens in safe and secure attachment relationships.  My mother provoked responses of terror.  Her entire being enacted her unconscious commitment to resolve her inner torment she did not even know she had.

Therefore, according to Keltner’s definition of teasing, my mother was not teasing.  This could seem confusing to me because what she did to me followed a distorted pathway through the same Grice’s maxims alterations that Keltner states allow teasing to happen in the first place.  If Keltner could at least admit that BAD teasing is as real as GOOD teasing is, I could make better sense out of his chapter.  As it is, I feel I have to read his words backwards in a mirror as I seek to understand what I KNOW is true:  Bad teasing in the form of verbal abuse uses the same processes that benevolent, benign good teasing does – only uses these patterns in malevolent ways.  I have suffered too much to pretend this fact is not true.


I assure you I would not be putting this much time and effort into trying to understand Keltner’s writings if I didn’t believe there is some important information here that can help those of us who have suffered greatly from severe verbal abuse understand something we need to know about this crime.  I am determined to get through the remainder of Keltner’s chapter on teasing in this post, no matter how long it takes me to do it.

I have progressed to the point where I understand that the real truth is that all the human brain-mind processes that go into making the tease happen are the same for both good teasing as they are for bad teasing (verbal abuse).  I think of this now as a teasing factory.  Teasing comes out of the same factory: The different versions of teasing are the different versions of the product this factory produces most clearly related to connection between people and community.  What Keltner says next is about this factory.

Keltner continues:  “The philosopher Bertrand Russell argued, “The fundamental concept in social science is power, in the same sense that Energy is the fundamental concept in physics.”  Power is a basic force in human relationships.

“Power hierarchies have many benefits.  Hierarchies help organize the collective actions necessary to gathering resources, raising offspring, defense, and mating.  They provide heuristic [educational], quick-decision rules about the allocation of resources and the division of labor (often favoring those in power).  They provide protection for those involved (and peril to those outside the hierarchy).

“Alongside their benefits, hierarchies are costly to negotiate.  Conflicts over rank and status are very often a deadly affair….  Given the enormous costs of negotiating rank, many species have shifted to ritualized battles.  Displays of strength are exchanged in symbolic, dramatized form, and rank is negotiated through signaling rather than costly physical engagement…..which is a much better alternative than direct combat, injury, and an increased probability of death.”  (pages 156-157)

These words are important enough that the deserve a second reading.  My mother’s self was disorganized as a direct consequence of having been mis-formed in an unsafe and insecure early attachment environment.  Her disorganized self was then not organized adequately within the larger social context.  Her Theory of Mind did not form normally, meaning that her ability to understand these ‘rules about the allocation of resources’ that Keltner is describing did not operate normally.

My mother could not take a normal place in the human power and resource hierarchy from the time she was a very tiny child.  Her ability to mentalize and to think in representational, symbolic terms was not formed correctly.

Keltner continues:  “In humans, teasing can be thought of as…a ritualized, symbolic means by which group members negotiate rank.  Teasing is a dramatized performance clearly preferable to the obvious alternative – violent confrontations over rank and honor….  Teasing [is] a ritualized status contest.”  (pages 157-158)

Artful teasing is, according to Keltner, “a battle plan for the merry war.”  (page 166)  My mother never knew a ‘merry war’.  Hers was a literal one.

Keltner returns again to the difference as he sees it between teasing and bullying:  “…the heart of bullying has nothing to do with teasing.  What bullies largely do is act violently – they torment, hit, pin down, steal, and vandalize.  This has little to do with teasing.”  (page 167)

Keltner is contradicting himself here.  There’s a big difference between his statement “the heart of bullying has nothing to do with teasing” and “This has little to do with teasing.”  “Nothing” is not the same thing as “little.”  Keltner next writes – finally — that indeed there are ‘lighter’ and ‘darker’ versions of teasing as he talks about “artful teasing” versus “teasing that goes awry” (all bolding in type below is mine):

The more subtle matter we confronted is the paradox of the playground.  Scan a playground of any grammar school for fifteen minutes and you’ll see the full spectrum of teasing, its lighter, playful side as well as its darker versions.  Children have an instinct for teasing.  It emerges early (one British psychologist observed a cheeky nine-month-old mocking her grandmother’s snoring with a delightful imitation).  As with adults, teasing can instigate and mark deep friendship.  At the same time, teasing can go horribly awry.  The teasing of children with obesity problems, for example, has been found to have lasting pernicious [exceedingly harmful] effects upon the target’s self-esteem.

What separates the productive tease from the damaging one?  Data from our studies yielded four lessons about when teasing goes awry, lessons that can be put to use on the playground or in the office.  A first is the nature of the provocation in the tease.  Harmful teasing is physically painful and zeroes in on vulnerable [sic] aspects of the individual’s identity….  Playful teasing is less hurtful physically, and thoughtfully targets less critical facets of the target’s identity….  The literature on bullies bears this out:  Their pokes in the ribs, noogies, and skin twisters hurt, and they tease others about taboo subjects.  Not so for the artful teaser, whose teasing is lighter and less hurtful, and can even find ways to flatter in the provocation.

A second lesson pertains to the presence of the off-record markers – the exaggeration, repetition, shifts in vocalization patterns, funny facial displays.  In studies of teasing we have found that the same provocation delivered with the wonderful arabesques of our nonliteral language, the off-record markers, produced little anger, and elevated love, amusement, and mirth.  The same provocation delivered without these markers mainly produced anger and affront.  To sort out the effective tease for the hostile act, look and listen for off-record markers, those tickets to the realm of pretense and play.

A third lesson is one of social context.  The same action – a personal joke, a critical comment, an unusually long gaze, a touch to the space between the shoulder and neck – can take on radically different meanings when coming from foe or friend, whether they occur in a formal or informal setting, alone in a room or surrounded by friends.  Critical to the meaning of the tease is power.  Power asymmetries [lack of proportion] – and in particular, when targets are unable through coercion or context to respond in kind – produce pernicious [destructive] teasing.  When I coded the facial displays of the twenty-second bursts of teasing in the fraternity study, amid the laughter and hilarity I found that over 50 percent of low-power members showed fleeting facial signs of fear, consistent with the tendency for low power to trigger a threat system – anxiety, amygdala hyperreactivity, the stress hormone cortisol – which can lead to health problems, disease, and shortened lives when chronically activated.  Bullies are known for teasing in domineering ways that prevent the target from reciprocating.  Teasing in romantic bonds defined by power asymmetries takes the shape of bullying.  The art of the tease is to enable reciprocity and back-and-forth exchange.  An effective teaser invites being teased.  [my note:  This paragraph has obvious implications in regard to the context between parent and infant-child where abuse takes place, as well.]

Finally, we must remember that teasing, like so many things, gets better with age.  Starting at around age ten or eleven, children become much more sophisticated in their abilities to endorse contradictory propositions about objects in the world – they move from Manichean, either/or, black-or-white reasoning to a more ironic, complex understanding of the world.  [my note:  remember the Borderline difficulties with dichotomous thinking and with ambiguity]  As a result…they add irony and sarcasm to their social repertoire.  One sees, at this age, a precipitous twofold drop in the reported incidences of bullying.  And this shift in the ability to understand and communicate irony and sarcasm should shift the tenor of teasing in reliable fashion.  [my note:  Or not, as in the case of my mother.]”  (pages 167-168)


Interestingly, Keltner concludes his chapter on teasing with a reference to the lack of teasing abilities among children with the autism-spectrum disorder of Asperger’s Syndrome.  I saw myself more clearly described in this part of the chapter than I did in any other part of it.  While I don’t have Asperger’s, I do seem to share some of the typical emotional-social brain characteristics of this ‘disorder’ thanks to the brain changes I experienced as a direct consequence of my mother’s abuse of me during my early developmental stages.

Keltner refers to “the disinterested disregard for others” that is part of the “unusual social style” of Asperger’s:

What proves to be difficult for Asperger’s children are the tools of social connection….eye contact, gentle touch, the understanding of others’ minds, embarrassment or love, imaginative play with others, greeting smiles with smiles, antiphonal laughter.  And teasing, as revealed in a study I conducted with my friend and colleague Lisa Capps.  If teasing is a dramatic performance, one that requires nonliteral language, where affections, conflicts, commitments, and identities are playfully negotiated, this should be particularly difficult for Asperger’s children.  They have difficulties in imaginative play, pretense, taking others’ perspectives, and the elements of the tease, in particular nonliteral communication.

In our study we visited the homes of Asperger’s children and their mothers, as well as the homes of comparison children and their mothers.  We then had them tease each other with the nickname paradigm.  Our children were 10.8 years old, on average – the very age that children’s capacities for multiple representations and irony come on line and teasing transforms into a pleasurable social drama.  Our comparison children described experiences of teasing that had many positive flavors, in which they navigated the connections and moral notions of preteen life.  The Asperger’s children, in contrast, recounted experiences that were largely negative, and made little reference to connection and community.  When we coded the brief teasing exchanges between parents and child, we found out why.  Asperger’s children were just as hostile in their teasing of their mothers as comparison children, but they showed none of the nonliteral gems of an artful tease – exaggeration, repetition, prosodic [rhythm and tone] shifts, funny facial expressions, imitations, iconic [symbolic] gestures, metaphor.  These difficulties with the tease, we also found, could be attributed to the child’s difficulties with taking others’ perspectives.”  (pages 171-172)

Right here, from my point of view, is an intergenerational consequence of trauma passed through infant-child neglect, abuse and maltreatment to children that do not have Asperger’s but who still end up without an adequate Theory of Mind:  We have “difficulties with taking others’ perspectives” that Keltner describes here.  These abilities originate in the foundational emotional-social limbic brain that is formed differently in both autism and in severe infant-child abuse survivors.

As a result, both my brain and my mother’s share in common some of the experience of this Asperger’s child that Keltner refers to in the last sentences of his chapter on teasing:

“As one of our young Asperger’s children said:  “There are some things I don’t know so much about….  Teasing is one of them.”  Absent teasing, the Asperger’s child misses out on a layer of social life, of dramatic performances where affections are realized, rules are defined, conflicts are hashed out, all in the lighthearted rhetoric of nonliteral language.  They miss out on what teasing gives us:  shared laughter, playful touch, ritualized reconciliation, the perspective of others – a life beyond parallel play.”  (page 172)


It is this stage of parallel play that I don’t believe my mother ever passed out of as a young child.  My mother never learned the difference between her world of pretend and the bigger world of reality that included real other people.  Parallel play is the developmental stage between ages 2 – 6 that happens before cooperation and negotiation with others can take place.  My mother missed this empathic developmental stage because something went terribly wrong in her development through abuse and neglect well before the age of two.

The end results of my mother’s changed brain-mind development included her inability to participate in the prosocial realm of productive, artful teasing that Keltner describes.  My mother grew in the opposite direction.  The months and years of my mother’s childhood that she spent in solitary play in a room full of dolls did not prepare her brain-mind for human social interactions.  I don’t believe she had been given what she needed before she ever entered that room, and as a result, she could never really leave it.  Everything she ever did to me, including her verbal abuse of me, was a consequence of this fact.


This post should give rise to some very serious thought for those who seek to alter the course of abusive parenting practices.  For the truly early-childhood-damaged parent, simply applying ‘rules of good parenting’ in the form of helpful parenting techniques and related information probably amounts to adding a cute band-aid to the wound created when a limb is amputed.  Parents who came out of their infant-childhoods being as wounded as my mother was are nearly without hope of ever being adequate parents.  We have to know there are circumstances where this fact has to be accepted.





  1. i googled “teasing as verbal abuse” because i wanted to read something exactly like this. i think you are so very correct. it is a monstrous difficulty that some of those in the forefront of behavioral studies can’t seem to see that abuse is not just blind violence. it is strategic. even if the person doesn’t know why they really abuse. it seeks to destroy those who have what the abuser truly wants. it seeks to implant its own hatreds and shortcomings into others so as to have “an advantage” over them. i was in a relationship where every so often, i would get really upset over what this girl would say to me in front of my friends. she noted that teasing was how her family showed affection. her father was an abusive alcoholic and, upon attending family gatherings, i realized that all of the “teasing” somehow stemmed from his bad behavior. her family had a way of controlling his abuse with teasing and bullying in return. i however, would be engaging in innocent affection, such as putting my arm around her in public (something she had affirmed sometimes made her uncomfortable, but not something she had drawn a clear boundary for) when my girlfriend would unleash humiliating and degrading “jokes” about me. first off, they weren’t funny because she’s not funny and the comments weren’t based on anything except “defense”. and this defensiveness seemed, to me, either totally malevolent or due to some boundary transgression she had failed to communicate in a kind manner. when i got defensive in return, she would play the victim and mark it up to erratic behavior and oversensitivity, on my part. true, i have a low tolerance for teasing, but she trapped me in a corner (i.e. made it impossible for me to retaliate) because she knew i wasn’t a teaser and every time i would get upset at her and tell her about it later on, she just told me i was acting like her father. a low blow, indeed. and a good way to stop me from expressing my hurt and anger.

    anyways, kudos. great article.

    • Thank you.

      What a story – a truly tragic story. I can’t help but say that the most important five words in your writing are these: “i was in a relationship ”

      Good for you! I don’t see any way to look at these kinds of experiences except in the light of ‘trauma drama’ that happens when unresolved traumas topple on down the generations in primarily nonverbal ways. Even when ‘words’ seem to be present, as they are in all forms of verbal abuse, the words themselves say nothing. They are empty, used as weapons, and have no meaning except as parts of a much bigger whole picture of dramas reenacting themselves blindly over and over again — because nobody has — can — or does hear the TRUE meaning of what the drama is about. Nobody is learning anything. What they are doing is suffering, and sometimes extricating ourselves from the drama and removing ourselves from the stage is all that we can do on our own behalf.

      I firmly believe that not participating in ANYONE’S trauma drama is the kindest action we can take. Again, thank you for reading and for your comment. Linda – alchemynow

  2. We are born to be. Good and bad are imposed definitions. What is good? What is bad? These vary according to social norms and personal experiences. Most of us are good/bad, depending upon the situation and the definitions of those involved and observing.

    Your mother was not teasing; she was bullying. Theoretically, bullies are expressing their deep anxiety about their own worth in projecting against others whom they sense to be vulnerable — striking out against their own internalized self-hate for weakness. This is not about “good”/”bad” but about confusion over both identity and boundaries. Yes, the behavior is quite bad; the intent to punish is bad, but perceived as good because deserved.

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