Gracias a La Vida Disowned, The Attachment Bond, The Other Side of the Coin

In June in San Francisco, the city is more colorful than ever, with rainbow flags billowing gaily in the wind. We live blocks from the famed Castro District, which is community and home to a large number of LGBTQ inhabitants. 

June is Pride Month, and for the last two years of the pandemic, festivities of all kinds have been toned down or cancelled, like everything else. As with all other re-openings, restoring some sort of “normal”, even if it is a “new normal”, brings a wash of feelings and memories. For some reason, I found myself drifting back to thoughts of my childhood friend, Jimmy (not his real name).

I was in 6th grade, and Jimmy was in 7th. He was a gangly, goofy smiling blond, and I was a too-sensitive, introverted bookworm. We were a pair: two invisible misfits who found each other and somehow became best friends. I would join Jimmy on his paper route, and we would spend hours pedaling our clunky three-speed bikes around the neighborhood long after the deliveries were done. We could joke, and Jimmy also had the depth that we could talk about serious things. And that we also endlessly did. 

As ever, my memory is spotty, and I don’t remember how we lost touch with each other for many years. I was in my middle 30s when I heard from Jimmy again. He had become a top fashion model in Milan. He was gorgeous; well, the glossy magazine photos of him were. But now it was the 1980s, the height of the AIDS epidemic, when it was a most terrifying and a pretty inevitable death sentence for those infected. When he contacted me, Jimmy was very sick. Once back in touch,  I spent as much of the short time he had left with him as I could. 

Jimmy wanted to talk about dying, and he said no one wanted to talk about that. We talked and talked, just like we always had. I don’t remember much at all, except how soon he died and how tragic it was. A tragedy sadly shared by many, if not all of us in my generation here in SF.

Most tragic of all, perhaps, Jimmy’s very religious parents, who had always seemed like such “nice” people and who had not known he was gay until after he got sick, distanced themselves and disowned him. They just could not accept it. He had always been invisible and disconnected from them, and now in his final days, more than ever. And then he died. Terribly neglected as a child, he was completely abandoned in his darkest and final hours. I am so sad about this and also deeply sad that my memory is so raggedly incomplete. I wish I could honor Jimmy with fuller recollection, and I wish I had it for myself.

Jimmy wanted to talk about dying, and he said no one wanted to talk about that. We talked and talked, just like we always had. I don’t remember much at all, except how soon he died and how tragic it was. A tragedy sadly shared by many, if not all of us in my generation here in SF.

Intergenerational Transmission of Self Hatred?

What kind of weird “otherism” would make a parent hate and reject their own flesh and blood? Self-hatred? More likely a legacy of feeling unseen and hated themselves. And yet it seems to be a horrible multi-cultural mutation. 

This morning I heard a program about spirituality and religion in the LGBTQ world. There were speakers from Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, First Nation, and Christian backgrounds, some still searching for a way to remain in faith, describing being shunned, outcast and worse by family, community and seemingly God. It seemed their only best consolation was in sharing experiences and understanding with their diverse compatriots around the world.

Nonetheless, the primordial attachment bond (we share it with all mammals) is the source of our deepest and most persistent longings and reactions. Clients often wonder why their vulnerability and stubborn endurance of mistreatment seems so intransigent; why their futile strivings for approval from the elusive parent endure, even often long after they have died. The “quiet” and invisible, seemingly subtle injuries of being ignored, not known, abandoned, forgotten, or as with Jimmy and many like him, disowned, are perhaps the most insidious, devastating, and under-rated trauma stories of all. And sadly, they are all too often the stories that, in effect, “have no story.” Often lacking concrete form, the experience of, in effect, “missing experience” having vanished from view disappears into non-existence, and the sufferer feels guilty or baffled about “feeling so bad.”

Another wave of attachment trauma is in the offing, with historical changes now unfolding in China. For decades, in an effort to manage burgeoning population expansion, the government issued a one-child mandate. Rapidly, baby girls became beyond worthless, a liability, and boys were inherently more valuable. Now it has caught up with them, and as the population shrinks and ages, there is a “shortage” of girls and women. With a shrinking population, how will the economy keep up? Parents worry about who will their sons marry. How can they afford the competition for suitable mothers for their heirs? And we have to wonder about the impact on attachment bonds of all this “conditionality.”

When couples talk about “unconditional love”, I must disclose my bias. I believe the one time in our lives we can reasonably hope to be loved “unconditionally” – meaning regardless of what we do or don’t do – is in infancy. It is an honorable goal but not always possible or even adaptive. I certainly would not expect Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, for example, to love each other unconditionally and similarly in less dramatic cases. But in infancy, that is the one time we can rightfully and realistically hope to be loved and valued with no expectation to perform or somehow merit, earn or win that love. When that is lacking, it is an unspeakably terrible lack.

 

And sadly, they are all too often the stories that, in effect, “have no story.” Often lacking concrete form, the experience of, in effect, “missing experience” having vanished from view disappears into non-existence, and the sufferer feels guilty or baffled about “feeling so bad.”

The Other Side of the Coin

Passionately involved in the Latin American solidarity movement for many years and being a music lover, the then “‘New’ Latin American Song” was an ever-present back beat or accompaniment. It was a beautiful hybrid of traditional folkloric and indigenous music and instruments, more modern folk music, and revolutionary lyrics. I was a tireless listener. Its “founder” or mother, was Chilean singer-songwriter Violeta Parra, most famous for her song, “Gracias a la Vida,” – thanks be to life – and acclaimed as the song that kicked off the new song movement. We all loved her. 

I was surprised and dismayed to learn that Parra’s 1967 death was from suicide. She was 50. As it happened, Parra was invited to Europe to accept a high-level international music award. She agonized over the decision to travel and be away from her beloved nine-month-old daughter. Ultimately, she decided to go and accept the award, concluding that the harm of being away from her baby for two weeks was outweighed by the good she might contribute to the world and to Chile by receiving the great honor. Shortly into her trip, Parra learned her daughter had contracted pneumonia and was terribly sick. Seized by fear of her daughter’s fate and racked with guilt for leaving her, Parra rushed to return to Chile. She found when she arrived that it was too late. Her little daughter had died. Parra was inconsolable, and ultimately this mythical lover of life killed herself by gunshot.

It is nature’s design for a mother to be as deeply attached as the child and to be as profoundly affected by attachment rupture. The same was true of mothers still in deep grief about the deaths of their murdered children in the massacre at Sandy Hook, now a decade ago. The interviewed mothers have never gotten over it, and we must anticipate something similar among the growing numbers of parents experiencing such losses. 

The inhale to George Floyd’s gasped exhalation “Mama, Mama…” with his last breaths. This is why we suffer so from the absence, loss, or never having had secure and loving attachments. Indeed, secure attachment is our inalienable birthright and the most natural and enduring of longings. 

To end on a more positive note, we do now have same-sex marriage. A relatively new historical development and change. It is evidence that, even at a glacial pace, there is movement on the historical map, which reminds us to not give up: that all our efforts at change are not in vain. 

Happy Pride.

 

The inhale to George Floyd’s gasped exhalation “Mama, Mama…” with his last breaths. This is why we suffer so from the absence, loss, or never having had secure and loving attachments.

Today’s Song:

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.

Say Cheese – Regulation, Nourishment, Love

As I was pondering what to write about this week and thinking that of late, my blogs have been perhaps too “dark”, I happened to catch a whiff of the pungent dirty gym socks-like odor coming off ME! The unmistakable smell of Breve Bacterium Linens, or what those of us

Read More »

Gaslight Words, Naming, A Trusted Witness

Doggedly committed as I am to therapy modalities that diverge from the “talking cure” I must admit that I love words. In the last few years, maybe since the internet became such a rapid-fire vehicle of fad and fashion, I have noticed with curiosity how certain words and phrases seem

Read More »

Signup to my Mailing List