Sometimes, I feel like the mythical cat who lives nine lives as I think back on my various incarnations, which sometimes seem as if they were not me but someone else. Probably nine is not enough. I remember way back to my ardent activist days when I traveled a good bit in Latin America, I was also very taken with the textiles of Indigenous people all over the continent. I had tried my hand at weaving but never got too good at it. But I loved collecting beautiful colorful, exquisitely patterned and textured treasures from all over the place. I still have the various pouches, sashes, scarves, table coverings, and even an occasional poncho that I have been carting around with me through my various lives for almost 50 years! Wow! What brought this to mind was a flash memory. Who knows from where these things pop up?
I remembered how I was so taken by the people in the country town of Otavalo, Ecuador. Because they were legendary weavers, I made a special trip, bumping along dusty dirt roads in the rickety hour or two bus ride from the “big city” of Quito. This was many decades ago. I have no idea what these places are like now. The artisans of Otavalo were widely renowned, not only for their exquisitely beautiful craft but because, out of all the indigenous artisans on the continent, they alone had found a way to market and distribute their own work and safeguard the profits in their own hard-working hands. No small feat in a world where colonialism and exploitation were as old as the other ruins.
I especially remember the custom among the weavers was that their finest, most beautiful and most prized work were worn as undergarments. No one would see it but the weaver/wearer themselves. The most precious was closest to the body, closest to the core. Something about that always appealed to me. Prizing oneself that much, there is no need to showcase or grandstand, but rather a quiet appreciation of one’s own value. So different from how most children of neglect think of themselves, certainly a far cry from how I had always been where what was closest to the bone was fiercely hidden out of shame and fear, while my most beautiful creations were hastily given away, in an effort to score some value outside myself for a minute, somehow.
I have always suffered bitterly from the cold. I can never be too warm, but I am generally the one who asks for a blanket on the plane, and I relish on weekly bread-baking days my irrefutable excuse to crank up the heat to get the starter bubbling. I tell my husband, “I have no choice!” and he doesn’t argue because he loves the bread. I remember when early in my distance cycling days, I discovered the “sharkskin,” a very lightweight, tight-fitting, long-sleeved top made out of some stretchy nylon-like, magical material that was blessedly and unbelievably warm. Back in those days I think there was only one brand: Under Armor. I was in heaven with my new sharkskin. I remember the first time I went high on a mountain in Utah, where I always expected to be hot. But it was fall, the aspens were shimmering gold, and it was freezing cold. But that day, with that amazing new sharkskin hugging me under my jersey, I was amazed at how this seemingly flimsy, unassuming little garment was such a game-changer. Hidden from view, close to my core, it made all the difference between a cold, miserable day and a delicious, brisk autumn day in paradise. What can seem initially inconsequential, when close to the bone, can change night into day.
Infancy is the core on which all succeeding sedimentary layers are laid down. The attachment researchers tell us without doubt that the first two years of life are decisive, whether the base layer of attachment works its magic. What does and does not happen then is pivotal. It is when the right hemisphere to right hemisphere communication between primary parent and infant stimulates and nurtures brain development: a sense of self, an emotional vocabulary, the capacity to find one’s way between states, and return to calm. Sadly, so much neglect begins there. And there is no memory, with nothing to remember. We must reach deep into the nothingness, almost like reaching way into the hat to pull out the rabbit, to reconstruct the narrative. And the rabbit we find is most likely pretty ragged.
When infancy is safe, the base layer is like my shark skin. It insulates, embraces, and turns night into day.
Often, people come into therapy with a known trauma story, an overt abuse history, that perhaps they have been working on doggedly in all kinds of ways for years. It might be a truly nightmarish experience, and we are all familiar with the heinous memory of abuse and all manner of agony, clients,’ other people and our own. And they may have done a whole lot of really good work with good practitioners and maybe spent years and boatloads of money doing it. But they still suffer way too much, or can’t make a go of a relationship, or are running out of hope. It may be that the base layer, the unremembered early experience of neglect, has stayed buried, hidden, unexcavated, unprocessed. And the infant is as desolate and untethered as ever.
A Secure Base
In that same lifetime that I traveled south of the US border, I also read a ton about the people and places I was so compelled by. This was long before I “knew” anything about development or trauma or attachment, or perhaps I should say I didn’t know I knew anything, but of course, in my cells and in my heart, I knew quite a lot. Always the bookworm, I read probably hundreds of books back then. One book that I am guessing I read almost 50 years ago stuck in my mind. I did not know why at the time. A couple of years ago, I searched all over for the book. I couldn’t find my original copy. I could not remember the title or author. But I remembered the most important part. That the political prisoners in Chile were tortured brutally was getting to be known around the world, as Amnesty International and others did what they could to get the word out. I would read the accounts with horror and fear, wondering, if that were me, would I “break?” Or would I “sing?” as Tony Soprano would say. What stayed in my mind through all those decades was that the prisoners who had solid connections with their families, who held those attachments securely inside and felt their families’ support while in their draconian agonies, were the ones who held up, who stayed strong through the violence. Hardly surprising to me now, but why did that lodge in my mind as significant? I must have known on some level that I was deficient in that way. Years later, I was able to figure out the title and author: Hope Under Siege: Terror and Family Support in Chile by Michelle Ritterman. I found a copy and even met Michelle.
The early attachment is the bedrock, the foundation of a solid sense of self. Sometimes, working with the overt trauma story is part of the drilling down, but the essence remains to be mined. Often, the way we uncover it is roundabout, working with what older siblings or relatives can tell us about what was going on around us when we were in unremembered infancy, what was going on in our mothers’ lives, when we lived inside her body, waiting to emerge. Was she in grief from her own life events, or deaths, or a troubled marriage, or hunger? Often, from such reconstruction, bits of memory arise, usually unbidden. Even now, I am surprised by flash bulb images and unwieldy emotions.
I might add that what is perhaps obvious is so much abuse might have been prevented If protective others were present, paying attention, and staying connected to the little one. We have all heard stories of kids being left behind in gas stations, forgotten in burning buildings, or left vulnerable to sometimes predictable sexual exploitation because no one was mindful. And the cultural neglect that allows the trauma to persist through generations is for another day. Meanwhile, I have found another brand of Sharkskin called Helly Hansen, and they come in every imaginable color. Not exactly as beautiful as the Otavalo weavings, but deliciously cozy.