What Do You Know? Encyclopedias, Know it All, Learning to Learn

When I was growing up, there was no internet, no Google. There were encyclopedias. I remember a three-tier caste system of them: the most expensive and most sophisticated was the Britannica. The “middle class” was the World Book and the “lowbrow” I think, was called Colliers. I don’t remember. We had the World Book. I think we got it from a door-to-door salesman. There were door-to-door salesmen in those days, invariably men, in cheap suits and ties like the fuller Brush Man, peddling various products. Our World Book was bound in white, not quite 26 alphabetical volumes. I think X-Y-Z were all in one. 

The set sat on the lowest shelf of the living room bookshelves. I could curl up quietly on the rug for hours, looking all kinds of things up. No one really knew where I was.  And that was one of the few places I could surreptitiously learn about bodies, except for the occasional National Geographic photo of naked indigenous people somewhere. Admittedly I pored over those too. Thank goodness for the World Book! How else was a solitary little child of neglect to learn how the world works?

One of the missing experiences with neglect is having someone to talk to about random, thoughts and questions or teach them about things they might never have thought of or heard of. Children are by nature curious beings, the world, at least at first, is one grand oyster, or ideally so. I am so delighted to see my sister with her little grandson, nourishing his love of octopi by learning all about them with him. And exposing him to many other weird and interesting curiosities of nature. She is a wonderful teacher, and I am infinitely grateful to her as she was the very one who taught me to read when I was probably the age he is now, three-ish?  That was a godsend, a lifeline, and books became a lifelong source of comfort, company and information. I have never stopped reading since.

Children lacking an attentive parent or caregiver, who takes time and even takes pleasure in their learning and navigating the big world are once again thrown on their own developing resources to “figure it out.” It involves flailing, looking for models on TV or on the playground to imitate, or as a final resort, making things up. Besides the World Book and what I could get my hands on at the library once I was big enough to go there, all of those were my “answers.” But to be honest, I was, for the most part, pretty clueless. In fact, I remember in my early 20s when I finally started therapy, shyly asking my therapist, “What do people do when…” I still had no idea, and I have always said I only started learning to be a “regular person” when I worked in restaurants, also in my early twenties.  The other waiters talked about music and movies and sports, and I learned to imitate them and get over as somewhat “normal.” But I never really knew. And if or when I finally knew anything, I hung onto it for dear life, It seemed tied to existence somehow.

Know It All


Years later, when I began to formulate what I came to call the “neglect profile,” my anecdotal catalog of consistently observed traits in survivors of childhood neglect, I began to notice or perceive a “charge” at the very least, surrounding the whole notion of “knowing.” Admittedly, earlier on in my work as a therapist, before I put the pieces together, I might become exasperated and more than once lost my cool and exclaiming with frayed or absent patience (and certainly too loudly,!) “If you know everything already, why the heck am I sitting here?” Oy vey! Makes me blush to think about it now. It took a while for me to get it. 

Knowing what we know, or what we believe we know, anyway, is a survival strategy. Never having anyone to turn to for answers, the child of neglect resorts to their usual and only default: they pull in on themselves and solve the problem on their own, often with some pride or even self-righteousness. And often become quite defensive or “touchy” about what they know.  If I were to mess with that, it might be on the order of taking away a life raft, they might feel rudderless, defenseless. I learned pretty quickly not to argue about these things when possible.

Now on the internet, one can find answers about pretty much anything. There is no shortage of junk science, pop psychology, and “diagnoses du jour.” Admittedly, and it is probably obvious, it can irk me when precisely what I have been doggedly studying, consulting the best research from the top experts in the world for four decades, and a “lay-person:” friend, family member, client or random person, spouts expertise on something that is “my area.” We used to joke, “I heard it on TV, so it must be true.” Now it is the internet. Suddenly surfing the net becomes “research.”

My husband is a devoted supporter of my work, a survivor of hideous neglect himself. Recently reviewing something I had written about my longstanding “three P’s of neglect”, he innocently suggested an idea he had of a 4th P. I was momentarily incensed. My model, my turf, I was once again that reactive, touchy neglect survivor, as if I was in danger of disappearing or dissolving into worthlessness again. Thankfully these things don’t last too long anymore! But a well-worn circuit is persistent, and being a lifesaver, defaults to sticking around without a lot of self-awareness and ongoing mindful work!

Learning to Learn

It can often happen in couple’s therapy, where one partner will repeatedly say, “We talked about that!” Yes, and of course, they may have talked about it even and often ad nauseum. If it keeps looping back around, something has not been empathically or sufficiently understood and processed. If it had been, it would be laid to rest and stop rearing up. Updating the files can be a tall order! It means relinquishing something one might have been convinced of, which has felt quite essential.

A “know it all” quality is not attractive. Many survivors of neglect, at least before working on it, may come across that way. Sometimes I am able to gently remind myself, “Yes, that is how she makes people not like her,” or he, as it were. Then I am sheepishly reminded of making people not like me that way. Occasionally I can still lapse; briefly, I would hope. Suffice it to say that knowing, and being fierce about what one knows, is another expression of the lifesaving armor of self-reliance.  Becoming safe enough to acknowledge interpersonal need and to receive is a goal of our work. It also requires courage and humility, and, unfortunately, time. 

The child of neglect craves to be seen, heard and understood. I have learned from my mistakes never to offer unsolicited information if I can help it. I am still accused of “mansplaining” once in a while. I am trying to learn. Learning to learn from others is a rocky road of processing fear and discovering that it can be OK to not know, that someone else knowing or teaching me would not rob, endanger or annihilate me. And is often quite fascinating. What do you know?!

Today’s song:

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