Some Thoughts On Trauma

I came across a discussion about trauma yesterday. About a year ago, I had a 6 yr old molar tooth pulled. The dentist even gave me 6 mos to get used to the idea. 6 mos after that yanking out of my tooth, in a follow-up with my dentist, I admitted that it traumatized me. I quickly added that I knew he was a sensitive and caring person and that there was nothing he could have done to prevent my feeling traumatized. I said, since I have been learning about adoption related trauma as I have learned more about both of my parents as adoptees, I think I was just more aware of it.

I knew nothing about Doris Brothers at the time nor did I know about ACE scores. What I learned about her is that Doris Brothers urges a return to a trauma-centered psychoanalysis. Making use of relational systems theory, she shows that experiences of uncertainty are continually transformed by the regulatory processes of everyday life such as feeling, knowing, forming categories, making decisions, using language, creating narratives, sensing time, remembering, forgetting, and fantasizing. Insofar as trauma destroys the certainties that organize psychological life, it plunges our relational systems into chaos and sets the stage for the emergence of rigid, life-constricting relational patterns. These trauma-generated patterns, which often involve denial of sameness and difference, the creation of complexity-reducing dualities, and the transformation of certainty into certitude, figure prominently in virtually all of the complaints for which patients seek analytic treatment.

Below this is what I read yesterday, that struck me as relevant, though the discussion was not about adoption.

“Yesterday I read an interesting article by Doris Brothers about traumatic attachment, dissociation, and the intergenerational transmission of trauma. Part of what she conveyed was the idea that in a traumatized system dissociation operates to reduce complexity, which serves a salutary function insofar as it functions to eliminate from consciousness that which interferes with the reestablishment of order and predictability in needed relationships.”

“Dissociation may be understood, in part, as a means of simplifying experience through a radical reduction of experiential complexity. . . . To experience such complexity might well heighten what is already a level of uncertainty about psychological survival that is close to unbearable. As complexity is dissociatively reduced, a traumatized person’s relational world comes to be ruled by simple, rigid SECs [systemically emergent certainties] [a concept similar to organizing principles] that are clung to with desperate ferocity.”

“In the absence of trauma, SECs are subject to change according to the shifting needs of the constituents of the systems in which they arise; they are, in other words, context sensitive. Trauma-generated SECs are strikingly different. Emerging within systems dominated by the desperate need to halt the spread of chaos and tormenting uncertainty, they tend to be impervious to the changing environment.”

Moreover, Brothers observes that “traumatic attachments tend to be rigid, constricted and highly resistant to change,” and that “the more trauma, the more risk of inflexibility.”

Brothers also observes that “attachment patterns that form in the context of unbearable experiences of existential uncertainty in one generation may influence the attachment patterns that emerge in the next,” and that “dualities and dichotomies” often characterize traumatized systems.

~ Doris Brothers Ph.D. (2014) Traumatic Attachments: Intergenerational Trauma, Dissociation, and the Analytic Relationship, International Journal of Psychoanalytic Self Psychology, 9:1, 3-15.

From the person raising the discussion – “All of which got me to thinking about those who promote dichotomous ideologies and Manichean worldviews. Ordinarily, I pull no punches when thinking or talking about these people (especially when they are jockeying for political positions that could affect my life and the lives of people I care about). But if I withdraw for a moment from the impulse to ridicule, I reflect that these may be people whose lives, whose organizing principles, are the product of trauma, maybe even trauma that didn’t happen to them directly, but to their parents. Seen in this light, the impoverished either/or thinking, the insufferably reductive and punitive moralities take on a different hue, that of involuntary affliction, sequelae of a prior generation’s trauma, and those saddled with such worldviews suddenly appear more understandable and less blameworthy.”

Manichaeism was a major religion founded in the 3rd century AD by the Parthian prophet Mani, in the Sasanian Empire. Manichaeism taught an elaborate dualistic cosmology describing the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness. Clearly, humanity has not progressed very much in reality.

Many adoptees tell stories of a variety of degrees of abuse. An ACE score is a tally of different types of abuse, neglect, and other hallmarks of a rough childhood. According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, the rougher your childhood, the higher your score is likely to be and the higher your risk for later health problems.

Mommie Dearest

Christina Crawford

Just the words, “Mommie Dearest” makes me want to cringe. I was aware that Crawford had adopted her children from Georgia Tann. Actually, I had come across the story of the younger siblings, twin girls, while doing my research about Georgia Tann. They have a more positive perception of Crawford. However, I know that one child may be a problem for the parents, while another child won’t be. There are defiant and compliant children and certainly, the complaint ones are easier to parent. Not that I am judging Christina as a problem child but it is clear that she had problems with her mother.

I don’t doubt that she suffered abuse. I’ve read the accounts of too many adoptees in my all things adoption group to doubt anyone’s claim. My first reminder of Christina’s memoir was an article in which the writer describes going to see the film version (about 40 years after its release) and it being found hilarious by many in the audience, that it had become a bit “camp”. Since I really didn’t know the definition, I googled it. Camp is an aesthetic style and sensibility that regards something as appealing because of its bad taste and ironic value. Somehow a movie about child abuse just doesn’t seem like the same kind of cult classic as The Rocky Horror Picture Show from my own perspective.

Christina was 80 years old last year. Her memoir came out in 1978 but she had written a musical based on it around the time of her latest birthday. It had a run at Birdland, the renowned New York jazz venue. She was happy about it. “It sold out, it was fabulous,” she says, looking glamorous and spry, before issuing what has become a standard warning: “The musical had absolutely nothing to do with the movie. I want to put that in big capital letters.”

The movie she is referring to (and the one I mentioned above) is the 1981 adaptation of Christina’s memoir that starred Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford, Christina’s adoptive mother, whose abuses, soberly detailed in the book, were turned by the movie into high camp. As chronicled in Mommie Dearest, Crawford slapped, kicked, punched and tried to strangle her daughter, while subjecting her to a severe schedule of cleaning and other household chores, driven by the movie star’s alcoholism and who knows what else.

The publication of Mommie Dearest, perhaps the first memoir ever to document child abuse from the child’s point of view, changed the landscape of victim representation and was an early precursor to today’s more robust protection of victims’ rights. Generally speaking, we don’t recognize the long-term psychological damage that is inflicted on people who are abused, neglected and trafficked. It is hard for people to understand that what happened 20 years ago is creating behavior patterns today.

Being sent to boarding school at the age of 10 was a turning point for her. She understood that the rules she grew up under weren’t normal. She tried to build a degree of self-esteem after years of being told by her mother that she was useless. Education was the path forward for her.

“Fear is the water that abused children swim in,” Christina says. “Because you don’t know what’s going to happen and your life is so chaotic. But on the other side of the equation, it’s fear from people who are afraid to speak up. Fear that they’re going to lose their job or that people are going to say something bad about them. If you were to ask me about one thing that embraces all of us, it’s the constant fear.” The fear doesn’t go away when the abuser dies. Christina says, “Because it’s internal.”

After a period of estrangement in the latter years of her mother’s life, she attempted a reconciliation. It turned out not to have been possible. Christina says of Crawford that at that point in their lives, “She was an alcoholic. She was ill. She was drug-addicted. And I think she just wasn’t playing with a full deck. I completely lost context – not contact, but context with her, because I wasn’t physically present. Then she died.”

Christina and her younger brother Christopher were cut out of Crawford’s will, for what was cited as “reasons which are well known to them.” Christina was so furious she went straight to her desk and started writing down everything that had happened in her childhood. Her two younger siblings disputed the book.  Different people in the family experience the parenting situation in different ways. Because the parenting situation is different towards them, they may have trouble believing how awful it was for a sibling.

Credit for much of this blog goes to Emma Brockes for her June 25 2019 article about Christina in The Guardian. Though I hesitate to add this movie trailer, I will for full diligence to this blog.

No Answers

I have a friend with a similar problem to today’s story. Her daughter is not adopted. Her situation is as complex but not as fraught – perhaps. Unless we have the experience our self, we really can’t judge how someone else copes or not with the challenges of their life. I have no answers or even ideas for this one, only empathy and compassion for the whole situation. Though an adoption problem is mentioned at the beginning of this piece, it isn’t clear that the daughter is adopted but she may very well be. Adoptees often (though not all) have relationship issues.

“We dissolved the adoption of our son 5 years ago.”

“We currently have a daughter in a private residential treatment center. She is beginning to own her problems and making an attempt to work on her life, maybe 5% of the time. The staff says they see improvement, we have seen very little, if any, plus her usual tactic is to put forth just enough effort to get you off her back but then regress severely. I have zero faith that the effort they see is going to be genuine, granted she has never had full support 24/7 when she would achieve these moments of trying to cooperate before, so maybe this time is different. Anyway, staff is telling us we need to give her the benefit of the doubt. ‘She is beginning to see that there is a better way to work through her trauma, but doesn’t fully believe she has what it takes. She needs to see you believe in her, that you think she can do it.’ This came after we cut a phone call short because she refused to engage. Kinda like a smack on the wrist.”

“Her program has periodic 10 day home visits and one is coming up the end of this month. To say I am dreading it, is putting it mildly. She causes chaos and pain at every turn and I am the one stuck with her for the whole 10 days. I am really struggling with the ‘Trust her more,’ issue. I don’t trust her one bit. She has stabbed me in the back, figuratively, so many times over the years when I gave her one bit of trust.”

“It feels to me like my daughter is all that matters, no matter what she does to our family, her siblings suffer too, we are to put that behind us and give her the benefit of the doubt. I have always had issues with healthy boundaries and am actively working on that area. This issue feels like I am to push all that aside because my daughter’s life matters more.”

She posted this in an adoption disruption group. She felt the members would understand her point of view. Many of them have shared stories about their challenges and know all about the trauma and grief these children bring into a family.

The woman goes on to write – “I want to love her, but she makes it incredibly hard to do so. My question is, how do you stay emotionally healthy when you feel as though your needs don’t matter? Are you to ignore your own needs, while giving a child who has destroyed so much, the benefit of the doubt? How do you begin to process it? I crashed emotionally on April 1st because I know this is the month for her next home visit…I can’t keep reacting this way.”

What Could Go Wrong ?

Regarding a kinship guardian placement vs temporary foster carer ?

An adoption community acquaintance writes –

I’m supposed to take custody of a relative’s baby tomorrow (hopefully.) The caseworker is coming back out tomorrow to see things are in order for him. He’s been in a foster carer’s home for 5 days and they are already claiming he’s bonded to them and begging the caseworker to keep him. Now I’m scared the caseworker is going to come up with an excuse why he needs to stay with them vs coming to me. Selfish, selfish, selfish.

His mom is on track to start overnights in December with reunification in January. Of course, whatever stuff I have for him, will go with him, when he goes home. He was previously with dad’s mom and she lost custody because she allowed dad to have him unsupervised.

Fostering is about reunification, not adoption.

One responder wrote – THIS is a huge problem for the foster care programs. Does the state/program/whatever get money when an adoption occurs????

Another one noted – 5 days is a transition time, no way to bond enough in that time frame. He is not bonded. He is surviving. He’s clinging to a bit of kindness in the midst of chaos. At five days in, he’s likely still confused every time he wakes up and opens his eyes! When there is family that should always be the only choice. If he can be so “bonded” after 5 days with strangers, imagine how much more bonded he’ll be after five days with FAMILY.

And this advice – Let them know that with you, baby will still be able to spend time with safe relatives, which they wouldn’t be able to do in foster care. (Safe is the key word they will be looking for. They will prefer foster care, if they think kinship will allow “unsafe” interactions.)

And finally, this from experience, a woman writes –

Bonding happens faster with family. My instant “bond” with my daughter was due to her losing her mother and attaching herself to me. She is related to my husband by blood… their connection was unspoken and immediate. Ours was initially her needing me, and later it grew into something deeper. They are confusing bonding with a desperate need for human connection… they could have been anyone and the baby would cling to them after being separated. You might have a true bond that is immediate rather than earned. (I have seen this with my own eyes! My relationship with her is now a true bond and we are very close, but her connection to my husband was just a given.