Analysis of Sherlock's parents and why their normality is vital in explaining how Sherlock became the man he is.
The moment I saw them I had the sinking feeling that Mr and Mrs Holmes are irreparably wrong.
Then I realise that this was only my own narcissism getting in the way of logical analysis because if one looks at them from an impartial perspective Sherlock’s parents are surprisingly right, in every sense of the word.
- Why the Holmes Parents fit perfectly into Sherlock and Mycroft’s background. They had to be ordinary in order to explain why Sherlock and Mycroft are extraordinary.
- How normal loving parents can produce such eccentrically maladjusted offspring
- What we can tell about the Holmes Brothers' childhood from their parents.
Hot House Flowers
The Holmes parents’ apparently banality appears to have spoilt many deeply held fan beliefs regarding “Mummy”. The truth is I also fell into the horrific logical trap of assuming that just because Sherlock has arrested emotional development – his parents must be utterly eccentric, over medicated, psychologically unstable, adulterers who evidently neglected him something terrible.
What we all lacked was a sarcastic voice of reason to interject with a perfectly time “really?” and an elegantly raised eyebrow.
The age old belief that parents pass their problems onto their children is definitely true but the way these problems manifest in children can be surprising and counter-initiative.
For a doctor who has been surprised too many times to actually be surprised – I really should have seen the Holmes parents’ coming because actually they fit perfectly into Sherlock and Mycroft’s background.
Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.
Intelligence has a strong genetic component – but this does not mean it is directly inherited in the way eyes or hair colour are (Sherlock, IQ and the Concept of Genius). If the Holmes parents are not as outwardly eccentrically intelligent as the Holmes Brothers, it does not mean that the parents have to be disowned.
Strange things do happen – take Albert Einstein, he did not come from a family of geniuses – his parents were comfortably middle class and there was no indication that anyone else in his family had his unique talent. It is entirely plausible that Mycroft and Sherlock were both gifted by a quirk of nature their intelligence and observation powers. More importantly, Sherlock and Mycroft have worked very hard to hone their skills and sharpen their intelligence to end up where they are today. They have a wonderful symbiotic relationship where their interactions only serve to further train and enhance their intelligence.
To say that people with ordinary intelligence cannot have extraordinary children is an insult to all the parents of past and future Nobel Prize Winners and to all the great geniuses out there who work damn hard and didn’t just rely on their genes to get where they are today.
Making Sherlock’s parents normal in terms of intelligence is a brilliant move that I fully support.
The Holmes parents’ reminds us all that no matter who our parents happen to be, we are unique beings with our own paths through life. As much as we love our parents, we are not destined to trudge the same track they did. We do not need Nobel Prize Winners for parents to become the next Einstein or Curie.
There is whole world out there and we should embrace all our talents (and our faults) to make the most of life. What matter is not where you came from but where you are going.
The Counter Intuitive Equation
I had a firmly held belief that Sherlock’s emotional dysfunction cannot have come from a childhood with normal loving parents, but fate (and other psychiatrists) have made me eat my words.
Maladjusted parents do not have to produce maladjusted children or vice versa. That is just a long held folly.
I will know reiterate what I have been saying for the past three years: there is nothing psychiatrically wrong with the Holmes Brothers.
There are unfortunately hundred of children in my case lists who have been neglected, abused and exposed to parents with mental illness. From a psychiatric point of view Sherlock and Mycroft really do not resemble adults who have gone through that kind of deprivation in their childhood.
Emotional dysfunction of the kind seen in the Holmes brothers is both very common, and relatively harmless. It is because of the brothers' exceptionally high intelligence that they seem particularly distant and eccentric.
Their emotional coping strategies are not unhealthy, but they would be a lot happier and easy to live with if they had more balanced/mature ways of dealing with emotion.
The Good Parenting Guide for Geniuses…
It is important to remember that the home environment does not need to be actively harmful to produce dysfunctional emotional responses in children.
All that is needed is misunderstanding, and you can be sure there was a huge amount of misunderstanding in the Holmes family.
Mr and Mrs Holmes did not know they were going to produce two geniuses and even if they did, how do you prepare for that? Raising one exceptionally gifted child is extremely difficult, raising two in closed off and isolate environment is certain to create massive problems.
Sherlock states in “The Sign of Three”:
“You can talk to my mother but she understands very little”
We can see immediately that there has never been true communication established between mother and son. The entire conversation he has with his parents in The Empty Hearse is a classic example of two sets of people completely entrenched in their own emotional coping strategies, trying to communicate but failing miserably.
It is not that Mrs Holmes is stupid, she appears as possessed of her senses as any sweet elderly pensioner I have had the pleasure to treat. Mrs Holmes just doesn’t understand Sherlock’s emotional needs and Sherlock has clearly never been able to get through to her, which is unsurprising given his innate tactic of dealing with emotion is to turn them into a melodramatic pantomime.
I often see very well meaning, competent parents make an absolute mess of raising gifted children. A significant proportion of OCD, depression, anorexia, self harm cases that I see are in children with outlier IQ scores. All of them get social services assessments and the majority of them come from homes where there are no safe guarding issues. Their psychiatric problems are not the result of deliberate parental abuse; the parents simply do not know how to relate to the child on an intellectual or emotional level.
If we think of the parent – child relationship as a dance: the parent is trying to teach the child the steps through life. Parents on instinct teach the same dance to their children as they themselves learnt, which can work out very well if the child is similar to the parent and they can both adapt. However in the cases of exceptionally gifted children: the child is dancing to a completely different suite of music from the very beginning and thus this throws the entire dance out of sync as almost soon as it begins.
If the discord is consciously recognized and accepted, the parent can rejoin the dance and guide that child through their own unique suite of music with astounding success.
Of course, it is very difficult to understand the mind of a genius, let alone a child genius but problems arise when the parents refuse acknowledge that they are not connecting with their child and simply escalate the same patterns of behaviour without questioning why it is not working. This creates a vicious downward circle where the distance between parent and children becomes irreparable. Often parents don’t become aware of this until it is too late.
What we see in Sherlock and Mycroft is the net result of two loving ordinary parents who set out to raise normal children and simply didn’t realise where they had gone wrong.
The crucial reason they never changed or adapted their “dance routine” is because Mycroft was born first. Mycroft is a classic “Thinker” (The Holmes Brothers a Psychoanalysis). He suppresses his own emotional needs to facilitate the emotional expression of others. This means that even though his parents failed to connect with him, Mycroft was far too considerate to make this known to them. Superficially he appeared to be a successful product of the Holmes’ parenting skills. The problem with people is when they find something that works, they prefer to stick to it rather than explore new and better paths. Thus when Sherlock came along and made it very clear that he wasn't connecting with his parents, the Holmes simply escalated the same pattern of behaviour they had “perfected” with Mycroft because it worked once so why wouldn’t it work again? All they had to do was try harder.
Unfortunately for Sherlock is was the worst thing that could possibly happen because instead of bonding with and learning emotional coping strategies from two mature adults, his only true source of emotional connection and teaching came from Mycroft who was a child himself and had yet to develop a balanced emotional coping strategy. Thus it is not surprising that both brothers ended up with dysfunctional approaches to managing their emotions.
A Very British Expression of Love
I have discussed previously in “The Holmes Brother a Psychoanalysis” that Sherlock and Mycroft are at two extreme examples of dysfunction emotional coping strategies.
Many people have interpreted this to mean that the brothers had a neglected or unhappy home life.
However, the fact that these two boys were given the emotional space to develop extremely different coping strategies shows that the Holmes parents were too tolerant and supportive of Mycroft’s introversion and Sherlock’s histrionics. They did not set boundaries firmly enough to prevent the two boys from journeying to their extremes but encouraged their unique brands of emotional coping too much.
We know that Sherlock and Mycroft care deeply about their “Mummy” and refuse to accept responsibility for upsetting her. Even in The Empty Hearse, whilst Sherlock is rudely shepherding his parents out his flat, he looks into his mother's eyes and promises to ring her more often.
This is not a wonderful, open and happy relationship filled with mutual understanding but there is love and plenty of it.
Unfortunately the British have never been terribly good at expressing such sentiments. Instead we talk about anything other than our own emotions and the stronger the emotion, the more it is treated like a giant elephant in the room. This is the reason why we are experts on discussing the weather and making other inconsequential small talk. It means we don’t actually have to say anything meaningful because that could be embarrassing. The entire conversation between Sherlock and his parents is absolutely typical of this phenomenon. We see that Sherlock does care about his parents because he takes the time to ask if they have found the lottery ticket, even if it is in a grudging tone.
It is only when Sherlock forces them to leave, that Mrs Holmes finally says what she's been wanting to say for the entire conversation. She misses her son, and she worries about him. I love the final moment when Sherlock looks into her eyes and lets go of his embarrassment to promise her (in a very quiet voice) that he will phone her more often.
If people were expecting some sort of rabid American display of affection, why are you even surprised it did not happen?
Despite love on both sides there is a yawning chasm in their relationship that simply screams: well meaning parents who just could not cope with these two gifted boys.
Now if the Holmes parents had been every bit as intelligent as Mycroft and Sherlock – it might explain their deduction skills but it would not explain their emotional dysfunction, which is a centre piece of this show. It is vitally important that the Holmes Parents were ordinary people or the entire scenario just doesn’t fit.
Diving Into The Goldfish Bowl
My theory for why Sherlock and Mycroft were isolated during their childhood has nothing to due with their parents being utterly eccentric underneath all that sensible clothing.
Mr and Mrs Holmes would never have purposefully isolated their children during such a critical time period in their lives. I have pointed out before that there is nowhere in Britain that is so remote that there are no educational services available and the Holmes Brothers had no chance to meet other children.
It is more probable that one of the parents had to work abroad in either developing countries without adequate educational services, or dangerous political hot-spots. The most likely profession is a post in the diplomatic service, a close second is probably oil/gas company employee.
It is very interesting that the parents did not want to split up the family despite the risks of moving them to certain countries. It shows that no matter how little they understood their exceptional sons, the Holmes parents never wanted to leave them.
Unfortunately Mycroft and Sherlock became incredibly isolated. They probably spent their life living behind the high walls of international enclaves, not able to socialise with native children. They really did only just have themselves, so how would Sherlock know he wasn’t stupid? He really had Mycroft as a benchmark.