June 26th marked 25 years since the “handover” of Hong Kong back to its motherland, China. What an odd term, “handover”, as if what is home to millions is but a puck or a ball in some larger-than-life sporting game. I am largely ignorant about the history of China, my knowledge being limited to the bleak stories our dad told us throughout childhood about his seven years in the Shanghai ghetto, part of his multidirectional flight from Hitler Germany.
I remember the frightening descriptions of opium dens and the tragedy of his mother’s death there when he was 12 when Jews were not admitted to the hospitals. My college roommate was a vociferous Maoist, and a larger-than-life poster (not Warhol!) of the Chairman filled most of a wall of our dorm room making him almost a third roomy. That was most of my familiarity with that massive country and its equally massive history.
As part of the observance of this anniversary, BBC played an interview with a woman born in Hong Kong when it was still a British colony in the late 1950s and early 60s. Besides its own bulging population, the territory was flooded with refugees from the mainland in flight from a historically horrific famine. The population became so dense, and the people so poor, that there was a catastrophic scarcity of food and space, with three million people squashed together and occupying 62 square miles (160.579 square km). As many as 3,500 people occupied some single blocks, and families were hard-pressed to keep their children.
As a result, countless babies were being “disposed of” in various ways. Newborns were routinely dumped in garbage bins, graveyards, in the gutter, on doorsteps – anywhere they might be stumbled over by a magnanimous passerby. The interviewee was one of them, abandoned at 14 days old on the staircase of a public square. Although there was a record of the specific location and address, even the date she was found, her birthdate was unknown, and she had no name.
Police retrieved her and delivered her to an English-run orphanage, where she spent her first couple of years (there, the ratio of abandoned girls to boys was 76:6). The girl foundlings were all given the same name, Tsin: the name of a Chinese region.
When this Tsin was almost 2, a British couple came to the orphanage looking to adopt. They were a mixed couple which in Britain was largely unacceptable in those days, the husband being of Chinese descent, which complicated adoption in the racist UK. They figured in Hong Kong, they would have more luck. After touring several orphanages they selected our Tsin rather randomly. “My father tickled me, and I laughed, so I was the one.”
In her adoptive country, Tsin felt like the alien that she, in fact, was. She was somehow expected to emerge from the cocoon a fully English child. She didn’t know a word of English, and no effort was ever made to introduce her or support her around her cultural identity. Her parents gave her the domestically pronounceable name of “Debbie”, but that hardly helped her to fit in, let alone be accepted by the other children. She was teased and mocked with racist “jokes” and faces. Sadly and silently, she longed to wake up in the morning with white skin and round eyes. Her well-meaning parents exercised “benign (or simply clueless?) neglect,” leaving her to flounder in a lonely existence of feeling invisible, lost, and not understood.
It was many years later when the internet had shrunken and connected the world, that Debbie discovered others like herself; in fact, she found a group of women all lost and found on the streets of Hong Kong, with their own iterations of her story. She was dazzled and awed by the new experience of feeling kindred and feeling seen, and she felt in a way she never had. She had hardly known how numb, bereft, and lifeless she had been until then. Finding these women was truly a kind of birth for Debbie. When the little international group finally decided to meet in person, it was indescribable for her and all of them and a testament to the well-known healing impact of relationships and groups.
Perhaps the most poignant point in Debbie’s story was when she and a few other women visited the Hong Kong public square where she had first been disposed of as an infant. She sat on the cold stone of the steps, feeling a swirl of nameless emotions and emptiness. Being with the other women helped to ground her as she looked around at passersby, wondering, like the lost baby bird in the old children’s book, “Are you my mother, my aunt, my cousin, my near or distant relative?”
The quest and hunger for affiliation and attachment are as boundless and timeless as are their healing properties.
Interestingly in London, there is a “Foundling Museum.” Who knew?
Apparently, we have a fascination with mother-lessness (or parent-lessness, to be more correct) and an understanding largely outside of awareness of the primariness and immense power of that first and most essential attachment. On some level, we must know that attachment trauma, with or without bodily scars, constitutes the deepest and most stubborn of the injuries we endure. Although research is slowly bearing this out, developmental trauma and, most specifically, neglect, are slow to garner attention, let alone research, treatment, and education dollars to mediate and eradicate it. Absurd! What is neglect, but obliviousness to the centrality and salience of this bond, or lack thereof? On some level, we know.
The current exhibit at this Foundling Museum is about Superheroes. Admittedly, I have never been well versed in comic book lore. Although our family lost everything in the Holocaust, Oma on my mother’s side continued to be proud and even somewhat “uppity” about her Oxford education, which they could not steal, and that attitude permeated our family. We were raised to be bookish and “scholarly.” So, the characters of comic books were absent from my childhood reading education.
I was curious to learn from the description of the museum exhibit that all the Superheroes are, in one way or another, orphans. Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Black Panther… others of whom I have never even heard, in other languages and of other stripes. How very curious!
Say the exhibit designers: “Marvel’s X-Men experience both discrimination and social ostracisation… The superheroes’ early life experiences impact on their roles and the stance they take over good and evil in their comic lives.”
On some level, we must know that to endure the loss of the primal bond requires a strength that is superhuman. And the quest to connect to the world in some way, if not via an authentic self, and make that larger world safer for all, would be a super drive. That, in fact, does make sense. And looking at myself and countless children of neglect and disconnection that I know, it’s what drives many of us.
I have the good fortune to study with and be mentored by the greatest neurofeedback-of-trauma expert in the known world, Sebern Fisher. By some stroke of genius, I approached her and asked her to mentor me back in 2009 when I first trained in neurofeedback. Back then, there was a spot to be had on her weekly appointment calendar, which I have greedily clung to ever since. Two tenets that I learned from Sebern are trained indelibly into my brain. She has taught me immeasurably more, but I find these two little statements I repeat to myself and others more than any other:
- Whatever the positive or negative, large or small change we observe in the client’s brain, we NEVER rule out the possibility that neurofeedback is a factor. This requires not only scrupulous attention but also non-defensive responsibility, humility, and flexibility.
- Perhaps most importantly, Neurofeedback is NOT a standalone treatment. This means in our approach, it is not a mechanical procedure that we perform “on” or “to” the client, but rather it is a shared process undertaken by a dyad, or a triad really: the client, the therapist, and the computer. The psychotherapist/client relationship and the (well “trauma-informed” and “developmental trauma-informed”) psychotherapy are the context, the amniotic fluid within which the healing unfolds. The two are, as the Cubans say, “de un pajaro las dos alas,” two wings of one bird. Both necessary, neither sufficient.
This is why I prefer not to practice neurofeedback with other therapists’ psychotherapy clients and why I schedule sessions that are long enough to do both. The neurofeedback creates the regulation that often makes more and deeper material accessible and manageable for psychological processing, or so it appears.
On some level, we all know it, even if we are not awake to it. The litter of neglected attachment must be scooped up, transformed, healed, and prevented, even if one brain at a time.
Today’s Song: Talking Heads: People Like Us:
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.