Where I Come From

The literal answer to the question, “Where do you come from, Nancy?” is that I’ve lived in Minnesota for the last 30 years. But that represents a stability that I didn’t experience during the first 30 years of my life. Home base for my family has always been north east Texas (in the Congressional District that is currently represented by Louie Gohmert – if that gives you some idea of the culture). But beyond that, I’ve lived in Peru, South America, Oregon, Florida, Colorado and Southern California – with a year in England during college.

But the more figurative answer to the question that might help you understand my writing and view of politics has to do with two of the major developments in my life. I graduated from college with a degree in teaching. But early on that trajectory was altered and I began my career working with troubled youth. That led me to get a Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy in the early 1980’s when the principles the “hard sciences” had discovered about the systemic nature of the ecosphere were being applied to human behavior. After spending five years as a family therapist in a shelter for runaway youth, I went on to apply that systemic thinking to the broader community in my role as the executive director of a nonprofit organization whose mission was to keep young people out of the juvenile justice system.

My fascination with politics is simply another manifestation of my interest in human behavior, especially the social nature of how we interact with one another. The study of politics, like therapy, is an effort to understand how we handle challenges and how we change – sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Much as I approached my understanding of therapy from a systemic viewpoint, I bring those same assumptions to my understanding of politics. Here is a description of how general systems theory changes the nature of inquiry:

General systems theory was originally proposed by biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy in 1928. Since Descartes, the “scientific method” had progressed under two related assumptions. A system could be broken down into its individual components so that each component could be analyzed as an independent entity, and the components could be added in a linear fashion to describe the totality of the system. Von Bertalanffy proposed that both assumptions were wrong. On the contrary, a system is characterized by the interactions of its components and the nonlinearity of those interactions.

Family systems theory got away from the idea of identifying and treating individual pathology and instead looked at how dysfunction was actually embedded in the family system. It also took heed of the notion that any individual change would disrupt the system, sometimes in ways that created further dysfunction. That is the “big picture” look that I bring to an understanding of our political system.

The other major development in my life that explains where I come from is that I was raised in a very conservative fundamentalist Christian family and community. In early adulthood I began a journey to examine what I had been taught because it conflicted so strongly with my own experience in the world. Back in 2006 Sara Robinson wrote a powerful series of essays about people leaving authoritarian systems. She captured my experience far better than I could.

We must never, ever underestimate what it costs these people to let go of the beliefs that have sustained them. Leaving the safety of the authoritarian belief system is a three-to-five year process. Externally, it always means the loss of your community; and often the loss of jobs, homes, marriages, and blood relatives as well. Internally, it requires sifting through every assumption you’ve ever made about how the world works, and your place within it; and demands that you finally take the very emotional and intellectual risks that the entire edifice was designed to protect you from. You have to learn, maybe for the first time, to face down fear and live with ambiguity.

I often joke about being a slow learner. That process of “sifting through every assumption you’ve ever made about how the world works, and your place within it” actually took me over 20 years. Along the way I learned to embrace cognitive dissonance as the prelude to questions that deserve to be asked. I grew uncomfortable with conventional wisdom and people who embraced the kind of certitude I heard from ideologues. But most of all, I learned to trust the process I went through and what I tapped into along the way. Anyone who has taken such a journey, no matter why it was launched, discovers a great treasure.

There in this place, where your arms unfold
Here at last, you see your ancient face
Now you know. Now you know.

So…that’s where I come from. But enough about me. I am very excited to get on with this new adventure here at Political Animal. And I’m grateful to all of you for giving me this opportunity!

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.