For better or worse, we are all too aware that nature’s design is to exist, survive and persist into the future by proliferating one’s likeness and perhaps broadcasting that. It is as if the world were a giant Petri dish of infinite rabid species in a wild race to replicate their own. Some organisms cross ethnic lines and collaborate to help one another in the endeavor of spreading: mushrooms helping trees, bees helping plants, many plants helping each other, and some of the heroic people who work to rescue the endangered from extinction. In Michael Pollan’s lovely book, The Botany of Desire, he poetically describes this.
Left to ourselves, however, across nature, we would all be blindly cloning ourselves into perpetuity. With great frustration, I saw this during months when I was too busy to keep up with regular daily cheesemaker “hygiene,” and the roqueforti, like greedy imperialist pirates, ferociously took over the world in my “caves.” It was everywhere. Blue cheese is delicious and all, but when you are trying to make Gouda or Gruyere, it should not voluntarily turn blue. Oy vey. After my book was written, like rebuilding after a war or flood, recovery took many months. Lesson learned.
Many parents indeed strive, perhaps unwittingly, to sculpt little echoing 2.0 iterations of themselves, maybe attempting to get a few bugs out, maybe actually failing to see those and passing them on. There is, of course, great pride in tradition, bloodlines, and culture, and there is something comforting and safe about more and more of the same. I remember, as kids, singing “rounds:” Row, Row, Row Your Boat, Frere Jacque, Hinay Ma Tov U Manayim, repeating the same little song over and over with a different little voice jumping in at intervals, continuing to make a lovely harmony. We could go on like that for ages – it was so simple and sweet. As one with some undeniably OCD-like tendencies (unlike my variety-loving husband,) I find repetition and routine to be regulating and reassuring as well as efficient – call me boring. (I do get a lot done!)
Often, we work to “manipulate” or control proliferation or the direction of transmission and development.
And of course, we find the inevitable mutations, some devastating like cancer, some less so. Some are for the better, which is how we get evolution. Before Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in 1954, such speeds were deemed humanly impossible. Since then, the record has been broken many times over, and by 1999, a mere 45 years later, another 20 seconds had been shaved off by subsequent generations.
Often, we work to “manipulate” or control proliferation or the direction of transmission and development. This can be dicey and controversial: pesticides, genetically engineered food, test tube babies, some producing the stuff of horror movies. Some results are miraculous, like vaccines and disinfectants, or processes like pasteurization or retrofitting. So, it is complicated. I find it amazing that the addition of minuscule quantities of starter “cultures” (and I love the irony of that multi-definitional word) changes the nature of milk, making it receptive to transformation not only from liquid to solid, but changes in its sensory character, giving us literally thousands of delicious flavor varieties. Yes, interrupting nature is indeed a mixed bag.
By now, we are all painfully aware of the intergenerational transmission of trauma and neglect, the complex chain of repetitions that continue to enslave, infect, and blind ad infinitum. I am like a broken record on the gnawing subject. And yet it persists seamlessly in both the macro and micro. The nature of untreated trauma is to re-enact it, attempting to recount in behavior, a story too deeply hidden or too despicable for ordinary language. The language of re-enactment is insidious, and the ramifications can be like a tumor where the aberrant cells are so entangled with nerves and healthy tissue as to make extrication a deadly operation. Where to begin? Or where to continue, as we are certainly not the first to wonder.
In 1865 slavery was officially abolished in the U.S. That was President Lincoln’s most admirable intent. But the change only went so far – we did not get to the root level. We got “Jim Crow,” a way of formalizing and canonizing segregation and inequality, becoming a vigilante free-for-all. With “redlining” or refusing loans and insurance to targeted groups, the freedom-endowed blessings of home/land ownership, to hold and bequeath for generations, and suffrage were legally and culturally unobtainable to huge groups of the nominally “free” citizens. The wealth and intergenerational progress that might have been accessible in a truly just and equal nation were barricaded and jealously kept for the white and male. Obviously, we are still saddled with the self-perpetuating impact. Anger, poverty, disenfranchisement, alienation, and unaddressed trauma, large and small, is being visited on subsequent generations, who, if not helped, are doomed to repeat and pass it on. So, how do we break these intergenerational chains? A resounding question.
Acknowledgment is precisely naming and owning the wrongdoing, fully and to the satisfaction of the injured party, without minimizing, qualifying, or “explaining,” and verifying if the acknowledgment encompasses the extent of the hurt.
Admittedly my own checkered past catapulted me from trying to work on a grand macro level to finding my place of work in the micro. It is only new for me to begin to work and speak more widely about trauma and neglect. I suppose it took me a while to get a voice, but there is no one right way to engage. We must simply do something, and if we do heal and transform ourselves, even unwittingly, like the roaming roqueforti (or Covid-19!), there is an undeniable contagion or call and response of some kind.
On the macro level, again, it is “complicated.” In San Francisco, there is a loud debate about a local public high school long known to have super-achieving graduates with the highest test scores in the country. It has historically been predominantly, if not exclusively, white. There is vociferous disagreement about desegregating it and making it more inclusive versus maintaining the strict “merit” system of admission. “Merit” versus some iteration of affirmative action. What is “just?” How do we break the chains of repetition that cement the growing divide between rich and poor, which certainly in San Francisco is becoming cavernous, with legions of individual trauma and neglect survivors or victims exploding within it. Where do we locate the ”affordable” housing, if it is to be built at all? In “my backyard?” Hot discussions here.
I spoke with my longtime colleague and friend Dr. Forrest Hamer, an African American Jungian analyst who thinks deeply and teaches about reparation, asking him his thoughts about confronting this gnarly and enduring hydra. He described a three-step model of reparation, primarily based on the famed Truth and Reconciliation Process undertaken in South Africa in 1995. His model is undeniably and, of necessity, quite fluid, owing to the different needs and injuries of different victims or afflicted populations. It is not terribly different from the model of apology I teach couples, but it inspired me to rethink my own protocol, because this one sounds even better. It consists of three steps: acknowledgment, redress, and closure. I can hardly hope to do justice to it here, but I will lay out the broad strokes, and think on it much more for future writings.
Acknowledgment is precisely naming and owning the wrongdoing, fully and to the satisfaction of the injured party, without minimizing, qualifying, or “explaining,” and verifying if the acknowledgment encompasses the extent of the hurt. Just yesterday, perchance, I had a flashbulb memory of a client I had some 25 years ago, a man with a deep childhood neglect injury who, in adulthood, lost his life savings in the now mythical Madoff Ponzi debacle that spanned 17 years in the 1980s and 90’s. My client was wiped out, losing all that he and his little family counted on to supplement his meager earnings. He was never made whole and died way too young. What sort of acknowledgment is in order there, let alone remuneration? How much is enough?
The second step is “redress.” What sort of action would be a salve and a meaningful recompense or gesture of rectification in each case? Would it be restitution in the form of financial compensation? How do you put a price tag on George Floyd? The legions of “disappeared” in Latin America? The robbed and ravaged First Nations of the many colonized lands? I heard from a gentle Hawaiian man the story of how his ancestral land on the Big Island was slowly devoured by mainland real estate moguls as it became increasingly impossible for Natives to pay quadrupling taxes on their long-held family properties. He himself, as a construction worker, was forced to build the very homes and resorts that displaced him, torn apart by internal conflict about participating in his own devastation, because he needed the work to feed his kids. It reminded me of concentration camp victims forced to dig their own graves. What would repair the loss of his grandmother’s sacred property, now dotted with multimillion-dollar homes? It is a very personal, painstaking process. For some, the cash is the redress. But not all.
The final step is closure, where both parties in dialog agree that some measure of justice is, at the very least, in progress. For many, this would include symbolic, ideological, and policy changes that would allow healing to endure and the wrongs not to be forgotten. Policy change alone, without community dialog and ideological discussion, can make for a whole new set of problems. I had one profoundly neglected African client, who, when he survived a round of layoffs in his tech workplace, was certain that he was retained simply for the purpose of diversity “quotas.” It made him not only less certain of his performance but the target of bitterness from apprehensive or displaced colleagues. I have heard other stories about workplace dissonance between “diversity hires” and “merit hires,” creating a 3.0 of racism. True closure, says Forrest, involves some kind of commitment to change that will stick and have meaning, that it is more than simply changing the street or sports team’s name.
Today I have more questions than answers, food for thought. For trauma and neglect survivors, what sort of response from perpetrators, if any, might heal? Or is complete detachment the more self-affirming path? And on the macro level, examining one’s own attitudes deeply and searching for a way to engage. When I embarked on the overwhelming process of cleaning up the roqueforti rein of terror, I committed to disinfecting the cave walls and checking each aging wheel every single day. Now perhaps eight months later, it is pristine in there and free of the blue scourge. Ah, were it all so simple…
Today’s song (our dad used to sing this):
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.