Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Fiction Weighs Nature Versus Nurture

Psychology, criminal justice, and science continue to investigate which holds the greater power over us: nature or nurture. Fiction also weighs those factors.

A delicate balance between Nature and Nurture
Showtime’s series, Shameless, just closed its fifth season with episodes that suggest nature cannot triumph over nurture. Each Gallagher child seems bound for sorrow, mayhem, and shame in spite of their best intentions to do otherwise, in spite of brief forays into the better natures of human beings.

Frank Gallagher, patriarch, lifelong drunk, and confidence man, has taken advantage of every person he’s ever met. From asking for a loan he has no intention of ever repaying to outright thievery, Frank uses and abuses. He’s stolen from his own children, from women he’s bedded just to take their money, and from charities. When he finally finds a woman to cherish, she breaks his heart and most likely, his resolve.

Monica Gallagher, matriarch, is bipolar and off her meds more than she is on them. She seeks someone who will care for her without requiring her to heed advice about medicines, therapies, or behavior. She has deserted her children as often as she’s visited them, and she has been away from them more often than she’s been near to care for them. She is nature burdened and nurture deprived.

In the season just concluded, Monica commits one of the worst crimes a mother can commit. She rescues her son, Ian, also diagnosed as bipolar, from military justice, only to abandon him to his own care when a younger man claims her time and attention. Ian hoped to have found someone who would not judge him, someone he would not overburden because she too is bipolar. Instead he finds that he is neither a priority nor a burden. He is an afterthought, ranking behind recreational drugs and young lovers--even possessive, dangerous meth-making ones.

Ian’s instincts were to serve his country but his illness got in the way. He wanted to care for his gay lover’s infant son, but his illness got in the way. In fact, every good impulse in Ian sparks chaos because of his Gallagher nature, the genes that shaped his bipolar, and the Gallagher nurture. Lacking any good parent and unstable, preoccupied siblings, Ian has few choices. Nurturing failed him, too.

Fiona Gallagher, oldest child until Sammi appears, was once able to mother all her younger siblings. Once she would have thrown herself upon the cross and asked to be sacrificed for any one of them, but nurture overwhelmed her. She detoured into addiction, nearly costing little Liam his future when he found her cocaine while she partied. She has also shown a propensity for casual and confused sex. She finds seduction and chemistry so much more compelling than relationships. At the end of season 5, she is more than ready to trade a man who treats her well for a fractured man with a history of addiction.

Debbie and Carl, the youngest children, are proving the power of nurture. They are willing to fight and break laws to get what they want. Both are sexually active at very young ages. Both have lied. Carl is now in prison, determined to establish his street credentials as a minion who can be counted on in the drug trade. Debbie is now trying to become pregnant so she can have someone to love. No one can turn the toxic tides carrying these two.

Only Lip seems to understand the destructive power of his home and the people he calls family. Brilliant and brave, he dares to become more in order to build a future that will provide for the family in need, but he also crosses moral and ethical lines easily after quick cost-benefit analyses. To raise money for tuition, he sells drugs. When a professor in an open marriage seduces him, he never questions how an affair could affect his grades, reputation, or purpose. He surrenders to a Faustian bargain. By pleasing his professor, he can live the life he could not have as a Gallagher. He attends parties in gentrified neighborhoods, the very one in which he grew, the one now being valued at prices out of the Gallaghers' reach.

Whenever Frank or Fiona or Lip show empathy or courage, they just as quickly show self-absorption and cowardice. Their better natures suffocate in the air of deprivation that nurture stirred.

Reading Challenge:

Read Shameless in light of the nature versus nurture debate. Which one seems to have the stronger hold on characters?

Writing Challenge:

Write a different ending for any choice faced by the Gallaghers in Season 5.

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach.