“Scare-City”: Hunger, Grief, Regulation

People sometimes ask me, “How do you come up with something to write about every week?” I used to wonder the same thing about local treasure Willie Brown, whose weekly column was my reason for reading the Sunday paper. When Willie quit, we turned off that paper. Well, for me, it has become something I can’t quite turn off. I might be listening to Public Radio, or half listening, or even one-eighth listening, and I will hear something that rousts me out of my kitchen task reverie. And then my mind starts whirring with words and thoughts and, of course, songs.   

That is what happened yesterday, when I absently tuned in to an interview with author Henry Hoke, of whom I had never heard, about his new book, Open Throat. Intriguing as it is, narrated by a cougar, the book did not quite sound to my taste in spite of the interviewer’s raves. However, hearing that one of the towns in the book was called “Scare-City,” which, of course, is a brilliant play on scarcity. I thought, “Wow! I wish I could claim that brilliant turn of phrase!” And it got me to thinking about the terror of not enough, which is a scar on the soul, body and brain of the neglected child. I, for one, was born and raised in Scare-City.

I began to think about the nameless quaking terror of not enough. It is no wonder that I chose anorexia. Better to eat nothing than feel the rumbling panic of insufficiency. And, of course. I was insufficient, inadequate, not enough, always driven to do more, do more, do more, vestiges of which still somewhat dog me. And no wonder it never felt safe to share or lend. Sharing, I was convinced there would not be enough for me. Lending, my things would come back diminished, wrecked or not at all. It was safer to kiss it off and only lend what I might be ready to part with or never see again, hide behind a pretext of generosity and give it instead, or buy the prospective borrower their own of whatever it was. Other people could not be trusted where “enough” for me was concerned. I remember my therapist’s enduring patience with trying to convince me that perhaps, in fact, there is enough to go around. Our family was ruled by “zero-sum.” Wherever possible, I opted out of the competition.

Neglect is, in fact, an impoverished city. No wonder so many neglect survivors I know are scrupulously thrifty, sometimes even appearing needlessly stingy, at least with themselves. Or family finances, division of labor and other resources are a challenge for relationships. Of course! Poverty is no fun at all. Is self-reliance a kind of hoarding? Or an insurance policy to huddle around myself against the danger of famine?


Lately, I have had occasion to dialog with grief expert Edy Nathan. I had never thought explicitly about the apparent sisterhood between neglect and grief. The two are united by loss. Neglect is about the loss of what most likely never was, what should have been, or maybe what was for a while, and then no longer. I realized long after the fact that my protracted grief about the loss of my first love was in fact, the boundless and nameless grief of “motherless-ness.” Other than that, or until then, loss simply evoked numbing. I felt nothing. Even though I was not literally motherless, I felt such a void of loneliness, an inexplicable quaking broken heartedness, that only found expression, if for a long time misdirected, reeling from another lost love. Grief is a hard sell! Recovering from romantic heartbreak is so dramatic, especially the first time, it is next to impossible to think of it as something else. 

In therapy and in parenting, the task is regulation. That is the royal road to sufficiency, to equilibrium, to balance, to “enough,” whether it be, doing or getting enough. Although I have thought of myself, perhaps flattered myself? Thinking I am pretty darn emotionally intelligent. Perhaps about some emotions or some people’s emotions, I am. But about grief, which lies at the heart of neglect, not so much! I have a lot to learn. And unprocessed grief, where does it go? As we know all too well, it will show itself somewhere.


I have never heard anything even vaguely endearing or attractive about US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Sexual harassment, greed and opportunism were what I knew of him until this morning when I heard an interview with documentary filmmaker Michael Kirk who has recently unveiled a movie about him the man. Hearing his story broke my heart. Born in a small rural town, so poor that there was not only a lack of food but no running water -even toilets. He was fatherless, unwanted by his mother and then grandparents, his cohorts in his attempt at the seminary, and his high-powered colleagues at Yale Law. Even ostracized by his black peers for being “too” dark-skinned, he was rejected everywhere. Thomas never was enough, never achieved enough, and never got nearly enough. The culmination of the haunting unending deprivation, the continued gnawing of ravenous hunger of every iteration must be what spawned the impulse to stockpile and squirrel away to somehow ensure safety and survival. Hardening against heartbreak or need, the attempt to somehow feel a modicum of power, all added up to what is almost a caricature of the neglect adaptation, the despicable character I have read and heard about in the news for years.

The word “regulation” has become very “buzzy” in the last couple of years. I am almost hesitant to use it as it has become almost as hackneyed and tired as “pivot,” “double down” and “deep dive.” Oy vey! How do these expressions become so viral? And I fear regulation could lose its crucial meaning if it has not already.

By regulation, we mean the ability to return to a calm equilibrium after having become activated in one direction or the other. It is the capacity or fluency for calming down after becoming agitated, anxious, aroused, or thawing and returning to presence after a freeze. 

Regulation, or “self-regulation”, is the ability to fluidly and naturally move between states. An infant learns to return to a baseline calm, initially by being calmed by a regulating other. That is how we develop the circuitry, how the brain and body learn the pathways, which we ultimately become able to replicate it on our own, -eventually. Certainly not overnight! And as parents of adolescents know, it is phased work and goes on for years to greater and lesser degrees. 

The failure of regulation by a present, attentive, and hopefully caring and consistent other sets the stage for all sorts of aberrations that may show themselves and persist in the body, emotion and behavior. And may indeed add up to being one way or another out of control. Thomas shows every indication of that. Which certainly does not excuse his terrible behavior, (even only what we know about.) And clearly, this contradiction between outrage and sympathy again is among the many complications and tangles of healing at both the micro and macro level. Long story short, regulation is the answer. 

For those interested, the Clarence Thomas documentary is free and available for streaming on Youtube. I have not watched it yet, but I plan to.

That is enough for today. I wonder what “Da Mayor,” Willie Brown is up to!

Today’s song:

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