Eye Formation: Holes, Sight, Story

In cheesemaking holes are not flaws. In fact, we call them eyes. In a specific family of cheeses, the “Alpine” cheeses, by design, the cultures ripen, grow and bubble with a lovely, sometimes deliciously smelly aromatic gas that puffs up inside the curd and makes for the little, cavernous jewels. The process is called “eye formation.” I remember when I got my first pathetic little eyes in an early Gruyere. I was so excited. I have since become much more skilled with the Alpines, although I have learned, that in order to get really big holes, you have to have really big wheels. Admittedly I have never aspired to be either a big wheel or a big cheese, so I content myself with my modest, but nonetheless satisfying mid-sized results.

Colloquially, the Alpines are for the most part lumped under the category of “Swiss” cheese, which is hardly accurate, as they have been made all over the world, in the various countries where cows were seasonally herded up and down mountains in winter or summer to where the weather and grazing might be better for milk production. Growing up, I always rather hated the “Swiss cheese” that would routinely appear in our embarrassingly boring and redundant brown bag lunches. It was a pale waxy, perhaps rubbery slab of something that tasted rather like soap. I usually peeled it off and stashed it in the bottom of the bag. Now I love a good Jarlsberg or Emmental.

There is also an unsavory variety of holes in cheese that are in fact flaws. These are the “mechanical holes.” The mechanical ones are those that are the result of some sort of crack, or failure to bind, consolidate, or grow integrally whole. They may result from some oversight of temperature, excessive or insufficient handling, poor timing of something, inattention, lack of sufficient containment or pressure, or some fluke of circumstance. If there are too many mechanical holes, the curd mass can even effectively fall apart, fail to thrive. Back in my early cheesemaking days when my failure rate was about 60%, we routinely had to serve these poor developmentally disabled youngsters, with a spoon. Thankfully my ever-patient husband joined me in eating all my mistakes.

I think of neglect much like holes, gaping absences in developmental experience. Empty spaces inside that burst and open into gaping voids, often to be filled with brilliant and creative adaptations, but lonely and empty nonetheless. And quietly shrouded, existing in the shadow of absence, largely and protractedly it may languish for a long and lonely aging in the dark. I have had to learn to “see” neglect. In effect, developing that capacity for sight, the ability to discern and be present with the trauma of neglect, has been another kind of “eye formation:” growing the eyes, ears and heart to recognize and understand the hidden, seemingly unexplained pain.


I think of neglect much like holes, gaping absences in developmental experience. Empty spaces inside that burst and open into gaping voids, often to be filled with brilliant and creative adaptations, but lonely and empty nonetheless.


I recently read a book about frequency, What the Ear Hears (and Doesn’t): Inside the Extraordinary Everyday World of Frequency by Richard Mainwaring. I did not like the book that much but it definitely opened my eyes in a number of ways. Before I discovered neurofeedback, I really only thought of frequency as meaning now many times a week a couple had sex? Or I did not think of it at all. I have since learned to think about frequency not only in relation to EEG or brain waves, but in the fact that everything is energy, according to Einstein, which means everything has frequency. That is what the book is about, and the author being both scientist and musician, focuses much on frequency as it relates to music and sound. He does tell many interesting stories.

Everything having frequency, includes the deep rumblings of seismic shifts. Living in earthquake country myself, I had never known or thought of this. And apparently the vibration of seismic movement has frequency that can be perceived as sound, but a sound so low, that we humans cannot hear it. But some animals can. The book tells a lovely story about a little girl whose life dream was to ride an elephant, and while on a family trip to Thailand, finally gets the opportunity. Riding high on the back of the mighty creature, he takes her on a lovely ambling walk out on a beautiful, sparkling beach. Until very suddenly the elephant makes a sudden pivot and hurriedly sweeps her in the other direction onto higher ground. Safely up and off the beach, they look behind them to see a massive tsunami has swept through precisely the spot where they had only moments before been strolling. The elephant had heard it coming.

Neglect vibrates at frequencies that a trained and practiced ear/eye/heart/body can hear and feel and sense. Without that special awareness and sensibility survivors truly get washed away by the “waters of oblivion” as my theme song Too Much of Nothing so exquisitely expresses it. Both survivors and therapists, all of us really, must grow the ears of an elephant so as not to miss it.

This is why neglect has slipped under the radar for so long. For the most part, usually having no noisy, thrashing, fiery presence, it easily goes ignored. For an infant, being left alone, or left alone too much, can be as devastating as any more overtly violent life experience. But if the futile cries go unheard, until they exhaustedly and hopelessly cease, there is no witness, no record that it ever even happened. Except the scarred nervous system, the perhaps “mechanical holes” that form inside that infant, later, child and adult.

Recovery from neglect is about learning patterns to look for, frequencies to tune into, to cobble together the fragmented story. One of the first clues, is the poverty of memory. I have always been rather amazed at my vacant and spotty memory of my own childhood. So much of it is blank. Where was I? Equally interesting is how little bits and pieces percolate up from seemingly nowhere, even now after years and decades that I have been working on this.

A second, and probably most salient flag is the morass and complexity of relationship. The ambivalence between both longing for and fiercely fighting against any need for relatedness. Self-reliance is both the life raft and the prison of the neglect survivor, and perhaps the work of a lifetime to resolve. Even after years and decades of study and work, and thirty plus years of (mostly!) happy marriage, I can say it is a work in progress. And relationship challenge is a dead giveaway that most likely a neglect story lurks beneath.

Perhaps a third key marker is some sort of distortion in relation to emotion. For some whose neglect is very early, there may be a rather numb, undifferentiated, largely cognitive “understanding” of feeling – especially for boys and men who grow up in cultures where emotion is viewed as weak and not encouraged. Because we learn to identify, feel, name and express feeling in relationship, through the experience of “feeling felt,” when that does not happen, something is clearly missing. I remember constantly looking outward to try and figure out “what do people do?” Or how I was “supposed to” feel? Unable to take cues from inside, and with no one to ask, I flailed as many of us do, and also became an astute student of the emotional reactions (accurate or imaginary) of others. It is a task (of humility!) for the neglect survivor to reluctantly swallow, that their own perception of the other and their own assumption, may be their very own fiction, and again, a hint to their own story.

I like to think of the study of neglect as a kind of treasure hunt, a searching for clues that will lead us to the treasure: the story and the precious child. Much of the story is outside of ordinary awareness, or the fields of daily consciousness or sensibility. Cheesemaking is a handy metaphor for trauma and certainly neglect trauma healing. Virtually universal, timeless, the study is endless. It is organic and alive, a heady mix of science, art, perhaps even alchemy, time, a large measure of patience, and acceptance that sometimes it truly stinks.

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.

Earthquake Country: Tectonics, Magma, Shape Shifting

Living in an earthquake country, the imagery of seismic rumblings is a familiar part of daily life. I went through the “big one” in the Bay Area in 1989, and we all live with the knowledge that there will be another good-sized shaker sooner or later. The wiser among us

Read More »

Sex Matters: Regulation, Sex-Ed, Voice

As we head into mid-life, it is natural and typical to think about the passing of time, what is behind us and what lies ahead; what we have and have not achieved or accomplished; what we have treasured, and what we may have missed out on. Looking ahead, we may

Read More »

Not Sloth: Blame, Freeze, Recovery

Painfully often, I hear laments from clients and occasionally from myself, about squandered time. It may be the understandable and often enough blaming impatience about how unbearably, interminably slow it is, if possible at all, to feel better after childhood trauma and neglect. I have come to identify what I

Read More »

Signup to my Mailing List