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The Girls Who Went Away — the unbelievable power of unconditional love 06/21/2011

Posted by ALT in Historical Context, Survivor Voices.
Tags: , , , , ,

A mother’s unconditional love for her child, denied systemically, but springing forth in all its glory despite numerous institutional/institutionalized attempts to quell it – this is the story told over and over in The Girls Who Went Away: The hidden history of women who surrendered children for adoption in the decades before Roe v. Wade.*

And it has moved me deeply.

The book is about pregnant teens from the 60s who were sent to institutional homes for unwed mothers to have their babies quietly, and then pressured (or downright forced) to put them up for adoption.  At this time, out of wedlock, teenage pregnancies were an unspeakable shame to the family and simply anathema to the social order (though in another decade that would change completely) –  and this was seen as the only possible course of action: go far away, have the baby, and then forget it ever happened, move on.  When the mother returned home, the subjects of her pregnancy and the birth were so taboo that many were not allowed to speak of it (or their feelings about the experience) ever again.

Until now.  This book is about these mothers, and what’s more – it is told by them.  The author (Ann Fessler) interviewed over 100 birth mothers, and includes many of their first person retellings of the pregnancy, birth, and the lifelong impact these events had for them.  Fessler also shares her own personal story – she is one of the children that was “given up” during this time period, and it is breathtaking to follow her questioning of the dominant adoption story, ultimately finding deeper meaning and her own biological mother’s love.

The dominant frame story in our culture about teen birth mothers being that they:

  • Aren’t prepared/ready for their babies and don’t have the capacity to take care of them
  • Don’t want their babies

But this doesn’t begin to express the complicated emotions and stories of birth mothers.  It is truly powerful to hear their retellings of the unbreakable bond, the love, they carried for their surrendered children throughout their lives – children they carried for nine months and then perhaps never even saw again.  Nearly every woman reports being told that she would “forget,” move on with her life to have other children and not remember the relinquished child.  But they could not forget.  Take this letter, which Fessler received after the publication of the first edition, for example:

Professor Fessler,

I went out today at lunch to buy your book, hoping it will give me some insight as to what my mother went through.  She died a few years ago on her 70th birthday.  When she was in the hospital, delirious and hallucinating from a serious infection, I learned that my mother was one of the women you write about.  She spent hours crying and begging, “Bring me my baby.”  When she regained consciousness she did not recall telling anything but I spoke with her about it and she did—in very few words – confirm her ordeal.  She was weak and very sick.  I was never able to get more information before she passed. 

In that moment at the hospital, her entire life made sense to me.  She was a woman who had a sense of sadness and longing her whole life.  It burdens me beyond comprehension to think of her sadness and despair and of her never being able to speak of it or share it with anyone.


Many years later, on her deathbed, this woman was calling for that long lost child, who she had not even spoken of to her family!  Ah, love is amazing.

A few excerpts

The love the new mother felt for the child, despite her best efforts to follow the social worker’s advice and not form an attachment:

It’s funny.  The whole time I was carrying my daughter, I told myself that I wasn’t her real mother.  I really believed that.  I knew that I was carrying her but, you know, that was the party line, that’s what they told you.  The social workers said that you were carrying the child for someone else.  And I really went along with that in my head.  I guess in a way I was less tormented because most birth mothers didn’t have that kind of detachment. They knew that they were their child’s mother.  They knew what they were losing, and I was just totally out to lunch in that department.  Until my daughter was born.  I realized at that moment, that’s not the way it works.  She was my daughter.  I realized that fully, in every way, she was my daughter.


A young mother questions the trope that the child is given away to someone who can care for him better:

I want to make the point that he was taken from me.  I never gave him away.  He was never meant to be a gift.  If anything, the gift was that I thought I gave him the parents he needed.  They were the gift.  They were the gift to him.  My son was not a gift.


Mothers reflect on the role of trained professionals and institutions in their stories:

I wasn’t supposed to see him [my son] at all.  They said, “You shouldn’t see him, because you’re going to forget and have other children.”  They said, “Write down on this side of the paper what you can give your baby.  Write down on the other side what the adoptive parents have to offer.” … They said, “Well, just picture what he’s going to look like.  You know, he’ll not have the nice clothes that the other children are going to have and on the playground, they’ll call him a bastard.”  And I believed that.  I remember writing down they had money, they had a father, they had a house, and they had clothes and food.  And on my side I only put down love.  That’s all I did have.

What’s shocking to me is sitting with other birth mothers and hearing them tell the same story.  I thought, “My God, there must have been a textbook.”  You looked up how to get babies away from their mother, and this is how to do it.  There must have been, because we were all told the same thing.  Even the story about the playground.  I’ve heard it from other people and I’m thinking, “Oh my God.  It was a script.  It affected me so much, and here it was just a script.”


I feel as though I was preyed upon by this system, by these people that I was surrounded by.  Not some nebulous thing but real human beings, real people had a hand in taking my son away… I was not able to ever mourn my loss of him or be able to express how sad I was.  Nobody ever said, “Oh, I’m sorry…”

All of that came to a head when I realized that this wasn’t a good thing.  It was in everyone else’s best interests.  It was the convenient, expedient thing to do at the time, but it wasn’t really in our best interests.  It was not a win-win situation.  In my opinion, it was a loss for him, too.  He didn’t get to know his mother and father.  We didn’t get to know our son, and be with our son, which we should rightfully have been able to do.  The winners were the … social workers who got to do their job in the way that they thought they should do it.  We lost and we lost big.  I mean, we lost the most precious thing in our lives that ever was or ever will be – our baby.  Nothing can ever make up for that.


 The feeling of worthlessness instilled traumatically in the mother via this experience:

Then they [caseworkers] would say things about the baby.  It’s always “the baby,” never “your baby.”  And they were not talking about adoption except to say, “This experience will end.  You will forget that you were here.  You will forget that you went through this.  It will all be in the past.  Given time, it will fade.  You will get over it.  You know what you did was wrong?  You know that you are not really worthy of keeping your child?  You can’t provide a home for that child.  You can’t provide anything that child needs.  That child needs a mother and a father, and the things that they can give that child.” 

I remember feeling almost not deserving of having or keeping my child, but also feeling I don’t have the right to be a mom.  I don’t have the right to be a mother.  So we really heard that on almost a daily basis [at the group home]…


And on the indescribable joy of finding the relinquished child again, after all those years:

I got to the agency and they put me in this little room, an interview room, and the social worker said, “It will probably be about ten minutes and then I’ll come to the door and I’ll knock and I’ll let her [your daughter] in.”  So I sat there waiting.  And I was totally shut down.  I mean, devoid of any worry, of any fear, of anything.   And I remember thinking to myself, “You know what, this is it.  This is it.  You get one shot at feeling this feeling.  You can put it away, you can shut it down, but you know what, this moment will never come again and if you stay shut down you’re not going to show your daughter who you really are and what you’re really about.”  It was a physical thing I had to do.  I mean, I physically had to get in the moment.  And I did.  I mean, when the knock on the door came my daughter got to see who I really am.  Not a fake, not a phony, but somebody who really was in that moment for her.  The social worker opened the door and she said, “I want you to meet your mom.  This is Sue.  Sue, this is your daughter.”  And this beautiful young woman walked through the door.

We looked at each other.  I mean, we were both stunned, because she looks just like me.  We were totally stunned.  We hugged each other, that wonderful sustaining hug, and then we leaned back and the tears were streaming and we started to laugh.  I mean, how could you not laugh? It was like looking at yourself. 

(Susan II)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  there’s just no replacement for the not-of-this-world, truly unconditional love that a parent has for his/her children. 


A few more goodies:

Ann Fessler, the author, is interviewed by Diane Rehm, along with two birth mothers who contributed their stories to the book.

An excerpt (one woman’s story, from beginning to end) from the book.


* The mention of “Roe vs. Wade” in the title is more to imply that abortion was illegal and therefore not an option during this time period, than to indicate an ideological stance.  The author expresses no opinion about the abortion issue, which I greatly appreciate.  This book is not about proving a point politically; it is about letting these women – who have been silenced for so long – tell their stories.  Hurrah for survivor voices!

Empowerment in the context of trauma 03/31/2011

Posted by ALT in Philosophy/Spirituality, Treatments.
Tags: , , , , ,

Empowerment: the new favorite buzzword of mental health policymakers.  I’ve already mused a little bit about what that word might mean – both to them [certainly not having much to do with agency or self-actualization] and those of us interested in practicing true psychiatry (literally, soul healing).

A few more thoughts about empowerment in the specific context of trauma and trauma resolution, drawn mostly from famed trauma specialist and mind-body healer Dr. Peter Levine’s book Waking the Tiger.

According to Levine, trauma response is a necessary survival skill common to all members of the animal kingdom, and there are three basic, built-in strategies: fight, flight, or freeze.  After the previous two efforts (fight or flight) have failed, action is suspended and the intense survival energy is literally frozen in the motionless body of the prey.  This “freeze” response  is helpful for a couple reasons: 1. playing dead may lure the predator into a false sense of security, allowing for future escape 2. if escape is not possible, it is the body’s natural anesthesia for the coming pain of death.  Interestingly, for the prey who escape the event is not over until the discharge of the frozen energy – via convulsions or shaking — occurs.  It is an essential and instinctive conclusion to the traumatic episode.  It is how they move on with their lives sans emotional baggage/trauma.

Again, this is a response seen in all members of the animal kingdom; the gazelle trapped in the jaws of a tiger, the mouse being batted around by your adorable tabby cat.  The frozen, seemingly lifeless body.  The surge of energy and quick escape at the opportune moment.  And then the shaking or convulsions afterwards — a release of the stored energy.

The “release of energy” part  is where human beings can get into trouble.  A lot of times our natural traumatic response does not reach its instinctive conclusion, and instead the energy is trapped in an ever-deepening cycle inside the body, undischarged and untamed.

So a complete trauma response looks like this:

And an incomplete response looks like this:

Levine’s premise (based on over 20 years of clinical work with the traumatized) is that the trauma response can be completed at any time – even many years later.  What is essential to completing the response [ie, healing] is not necessarily a cerebral re-living or re-telling of the memory (though this could help), but allowing the body to experience the completed, successful response, and to achieve the empowering reality of a challenge (trauma) successfully met. 

So in the context of traumatic response, empowerment is an instinctive self-actualization.  The means to achieving a complete trauma response are built in, biologically, to the mammalian brain

Which means: self-actualization doesn’t have to be an entirely esoteric, philosophical pursuit!  

And you don't have to read all/any of these.


Great news, because overly cerebral processes often end up feeling artificial and insincere.  A healthy dose of instinct can clear that right up.

Peter Levine on releasing the physiological effects of trauma 03/01/2011

Posted by ALT in Treatments.
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From Peter Levine’s book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma

“Trauamtic symptoms are not caused by the “triggering” event itself.  They stem from the frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged; this residue remains trapped in our nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits.  The long-term, alarming, debilitating, and often bizarre symptoms of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] develop when we cannot complete the process of moving in , through, and out of the “immobility” and “freezing” state…

[See the immobility state as a potentially life-saving response to trauma in this video of a lion hunting a gazelle.  The gazelle freezes completely as the lion carries her off.  SHE IS NOT DEAD.  Her body’s natural response is to freeze a. so that she may attempt an escape after lulling the lion into a false sense of security or b. she can protect herself from further trauma – in this state she experiences no pain.]

A threatened human must discharge all the energy mobilized to negotiate that threat or it will become a victim of trauma.  This residual energy does not simply go away.  It persists in the body, and often forces the formation of a wide variety of symptoms e.g., anxiety, depression, and psychosomatic and behavioral problems.  Thesee symtoms are the organism’s way of containing (or corralling) the undischarged residual energy.

Animals in the wild instinctively discharge all their compressed energy and seldom develop adverse symptoms.  We humans are not as adept in this arena.  When we are unable to liberate these powerful forces, we become victims of trauma.  In our often unsuccessful attempts to discharge these energies, we may become fixated on them.  Like a moth drawn to a flame, we may unknowingly and repeatedly create situations in which the possibility to release ourselves from the trauma trap exists, but without the proper tools and resources most of us fail…

Fortunately, the same immense energies that create the symptoms of trauma, when properly engaged and mobilized, can transform the trauma and propel us into new heights of healing, mastery, and even wisdom.  Trauma resolved is a great gift, returning us to the natural world of ebb and flow, harmony, love, and compassion… I believe that we humans have the innate capacity to heal not only ourselves, but our world, from the debilitating effects of trauma.”

– Peter Levine

You can also hear more from Peter Levine in this 45 minute interview about the premise of his “Somatic Experiencing” therapeutic response to trauma.

Beware the Vampyre! For he is an archetypal representation of abuse 02/17/2011

Posted by ALT in Children's Mental Health, Historical Context.
Tags: , , , ,

Vampires are so in right now.

If you spend much time around pre-teen/tween/teen/young adult women, you’re likely aware of the Twilight phenomenon: quite possibly the most poorly constructed, badly written novels ever, the author’s disturbing pulp vampire fantasies barely hidden behind one dimensional, mostly Mary Sue characters (Stephanie Meyer should’ve just gone ahead and named the main character “Stephanie;” it would’ve saved us all a lot of trouble).

The cover should've looked more like this.

For today’s teenagers, this is basically the love story of their generation—or so it’s been marketed.  T-shirts, full-size posters, figurines, teen pop magazine pictures you can kiss before you go to bed at night proclaim the supreme love of Bella (human) and Edward (vampire).  [For some of the weirder Twi-fan stuff out there, check this out.  Also, this.]

Also, it's apparently not just for teenagers...

Young people want to learn about love, and these days they’re learning it from the media, as the topic has successfully become taboo in many families and certainly in school.  I can just imagine a young person, not really knowing too much about romance, reading the book (or seeing the movie) and thinking “That’s it… that’s love.”

Folks—that’s an entire generation being taught that abuse is the ultimate in romance, that love is dark, desperate, controlling, that the man of your dreams ought to be a threat to your soul.

Let me explain…

Vampire as the archetypal abuser/abused

As most literary figures and themes, vampires are a symbol; I’d go so far as to say that they are an archetype (IE, an ancient and nearly universal symbol recognized by many human cultures across time).  The vampire represents the victim of abuse who, having lost his soul, is transformed into an “undead” creature victimizing and therefore condemning other humans to the same fate.

Here are some common characteristics of the vampire archetype:

  • A reanimated corpse, “undead”
  • Vampires only travel at night (in darkness)
  • Maintains its immortality by drinking the blood of humans
  • The vampire’s need for blood destroys the victim
  • The victim of a vampire will become a vampire

It’s easy to see how these traits align very well with those of a victim of abuse/abuser…

[But first, a quick aside: my use of the “victim of abuse/abuser” construct may be a bit confusing—is the abuser the vampire? Or is the victim?  But as we shall see the symbolic relationship between the two is complex… it is commonly understood that the victim often identifies with, or retains a piece of, the abuser as part of the traumatic experience.  They bleed together… and so the symbolic representation of their relationship (the vampire) is a single entity from this perspective.]

Reanimated Corpse, undead

This represents the disassociation or severe depersonalization that a trauma victim experiences; many have described it as feeling “like a zombie.”  Victims say they have “lost a part of themselves,” and repressed traumatic material in the unconscious can contribute to this feeling.

Immortality by drinking the blood of others

Many (though not all) abusers are victims of abuse themselves.  It’s called “intergenerational trauma,” and it’s a phenomenon that’s quite well-known; childhood abuse inhibits the development of coping skills in a young person.  When that person becomes a parent, he does not have a positive example of parenting and has few skills to find one for himself.  She may also have developed a dependence on a chemical substance as a false coping skill, making it extremely difficult to care for children (addiction gets in the way).  Thus the cycle of abuse is perpetuated.


Drinking the blood of the victim can be equated with the act of abuse itself.  Like the vampire drinking the blood of its victim for food, the abuser seeks a kind of perverted nourishment from the abusive situation.  Some therapists maintain that the abuser is recapitulating an earlier trauma in order to master it… Tragically, the desired fulfillment, if achieved at all, is temporary and the abuser, like the vampire, is once again tormented.  For both vampire and abuser, there is no lasting security or resolution from the act.  Abusers often report that they experience the abuse as a regrettable and empty situation, and that they act on impulse, as the vampire acts on instinct.
(Micahel Butz, “The Vampire as a Metaphor for Working with Childhood Abuse” — read the entire article here.)

From here it is easy to carry on the metaphor… the vampire destroys the victim’s humanity be drinking his blood.  Likewise, a survivor of a traumatic experience may feel that his humanity was destroyed or severely injured.  If the trauma is not properly dealt with, this victim may find inappropriate ways of releasing the negative energy that was passed on to him by the abuser; in short he may become an abuser himself.

It doesn't get much more obvious than this: the apple, his hand on her neck, her posture, the exposed skin and "sacrificial victim" look of the dress, the bracelets - or are they handcuffs? ... (actual press photo for Twilight film)

The vampire in literature

This interpretation of the vampire archetype (as abuser) is one that is quite evident in the first modern literary appearance of the vampire: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The classic reading of the novel is that the Count Dracula, in his interactions with both Lucy and Mina, represents Victorian ideas about rape, feminine victimry, and abuse.

Not so today.  In Twilight (and I think we can safely assume all of the knockoff literature that has followed), vampire love is something to be embraced.  A love of this kind is as inevitable as the that of Romeo and Juliet, and in some way more alluring, seductive and desirable.

The symbology of abuse is barely hidden beneath the veneer of “true love,” as several bloggers have already pointed out.

The language of symbols is a mostly sub/unconscious one… readers of the novels are learning to valorize abusive love, whether they know it or not. What are the connotations for the millions of teenage readers who embrace this “love story” as the pattern upon which a relationship should be based?


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