A Different Freedom

A documentary film called “The Wolfpack” has received considerable attention as has the family on whom it is based.  The Angulo family of six brothers and a sister, were raised by their parents in a four room housing project apartment in the lower East Side of Manhattan.  The children and their mother literally were kept locked in the apartment by the father who believed he was protecting them from the corrupting influences of the outside world.

The story of these children has many interesting psychological aspects, particularly in light of the many theories about child development and the “right way” to raise children.  The parents were Hare Krishnas and the father wanted a tribe of children with long hair and names from Hindu Scriptures.  The children were taken outside only rarely at the whim of the father, one year not at all.

Although the father kept the only key to the apartment, it appears that the children obeyed his orders to remain inside primarily because of the fear that had been inculcated in them about the outside world.  The father says at one point, ”It is a piece of jail outside,” apparently not perceiving that they spent fourteen years in a jail of his making.

At the same time, the father made available to the children every movie imaginable, including those with violence and aggression that many contemporary parents would regard as inappropriate for children.  Those movies opened the very outside world from which their father thought he was protecting them.  And the movies, in fact liberated the children’s own internal world and creative expression.

Perhaps of equal or even greater importance was the home schooling they received from their mother, whose capacity for nurture shines through in the documentary.   The children refer to her as their hero – the love of the family who kept everything together.  A poignant moment in the film is the mother remembering her own childhood growing up in the mid –west, and her dream that she would raise her children with the same freedom to wander in the fields and explore the land around them.

The children were not given that kind of freedom but somehow they were given the freedom to use their minds and give expression to their creativity.  Much has been made of their having learned about the world through watching film.  What is striking is the use they made of this one avenue that was open to them.  They recreated the actual scripts by watching a movie over and over and then proceeded to recreate the film itself, making incredibly realistic costumes out of household items, such as cereal boxes.

Also striking is the way in which these reenactments seemed to provide an opportunity for emotional expression, particularly anger and aggression.  Just as young children in the park will find a stick or other objects for make believe gun play, these brothers had home made weapons with which to play out those kind of movie scenes.

Equally impressive, is the way in which the course of development asserts itself in even seemingly repressive environments.  One of the brothers, at fifteen year of age, defied the injunction of his father and ventured out of the apartment when his father was out buying food.  Feeling both daring and fearful, he wore a Halloween mask so as not to be recognized if his father should see him.  This led to an arrest by the police, and a brief hospitalization.

A course of events followed which ultimately led to many changes, but the triggering event was that of one brother venturing out on his own.  In effect, he sparked the liberation of his family, including his mother who then made contact with her own family after twenty years.  In many ways, despite the extraordinary circumstances, his was a familiar developmental step of an adolescent rebellion and wish to break free of family constraints.

While this type of child-rearing is not what anyone would recommend, it is a useful reminder that there are different kinds of freedom.  At this time, when there is so much pressure on children for academic achievement it is useful to think about their potential to develop their inner resources in other ways.  What is it that gives children freedom to use their imagination and creativity?