Neglect, Being Wanted, A Place to Belong
Some years ago, I was asked to be a main presenter at a weekend Institute of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) to teach about trauma and sexuality. I was thrilled. It was my first time ever being invited in that public of a way. I was the main attraction and I could hardly believe it. The director of the program was a lovely woman named Susan whom I had never met before.
I was self-conscious about everything. I never missed a conference, but I had never attended one of the weekend “institutes” I did not really know my way around PowerPoint then, and I had endless nervous questions, while also being embarrassed about having so many questions. Oy vey! What I was soon glad to learn, was that Susan always answered my emails immediately, with patience, care, warmth, and never implying any kind of judgment or sense that my questions were excessive or reflected ignorance (-or idiocy which is how I felt.) I discovered that Susan was much like me: thorough, somewhat perfectionistic and painstaking to do her best. As ever, there is always a song in my head. I asked her “Susan, do you know the old song by Santana, “You Are My Kind?” I love that song, and I felt that very kindred, connected feeling with her. She said she did not know the song, so I sent her a youtube link so she could hear it.
Susan gently guided me through the preparation process for the Institute, and through the Institute itself. All went quite well. As the weekend drew to a close, I was more than a little relieved. Susan did one last amazing thing, that cemented the feeling that she is my kind, (and also brought me to tears.) As the weekend drew to a close and people filed out, she piped our song through the large conference room loudspeaker.
One of the tragic sequelae of trauma and neglect is the shame and grief ridden feeling of not belonging anywhere. The child roams the world orphan-like, like the mythical little bird in the famous children’s book Are You My Mother? In that story, the poor little thing approaches every creature (and even some machines) in its path, asking the same urgent question: “Are you my mother?” It is a profound and primitive primal need to be attached to a caregiver and a pack, certainly when we are young and not nearly able to care for ourselves, but not only then. It is wired in to the limbic brain, that the first line of defense when a child or young mammal is scared or distressed is the “attachment cry.” We reach for connection. Only after that fails, do we then resort to the fight/flight or freeze defense. The need for affiliation, to be connected and secure by being part of a larger group, persists through the lifespan. When that connection is deficient or missing in early life, it can become, as for the little bird, a relentless and gnawing quest. For the child of trauma and/or neglect, the search for a group or family can go all sorts of ways.
I got very confusing messages growing up. My parents both being survivors of the Nazi Holocaust and refugees in the United States, felt on one hand, like strangers in a country that was not ours, while also being immensely relieved and grateful to be there. They felt both welcomed, and a profound fear and mistrust. We were supposed to fit in but not “assimilate” too much and lose our identity. And never quite let our guard down, because you never know when people will turn on you. It was a confusing message for a child. I surely did not know what that identity was. My father often told us “You just don’t know what it is like to go to bed hungry, or live on bread and worms!” So, I knew I was not really like him, and did not know how to be enough like him to please him. My mother’s first major heartbreak was when as a little girl, her best friend turned on her from one day to the next, to join the Hitler Youth, I longed, like all little girls, for a best friend. But not like that!
When the Need for Affiliation is Exploited, or Goes Awry
When I was in college, I became an impassioned political activist. Latin America was exploding with military coups and fascist dictatorships that were enough like my parents’ experience as to make me feel perhaps kindred, but different enough, that I could rebel against my parents. I remember a book I read during that time, the story of a Chilean diplomat, Orlando Letelier, exiled by the dictatorship and living in Washington DC. He was murdered by a car bomb on Embassy Row in broad daylight. It was a chilling account.
Letelier’s killer was identified, as Michael Townley, an American employed by the secret police of the Chilean Dictatorship. The book was largely a character study of Townley, or that is what I remember about it these 40 years later. Townley was a lost soul. He lacked a sense of direction, a sense of home and identity, roots or purpose. Somehow, he wound up in Chile. I don’t believe the book told much of his background. But my experience has been, that whenever a young person travels thousands of miles from family and home, there is always a story. In Chile, he was prime bait for the Chilean DINA, the notoriously vicious and cruel secret police, best known for the torture of thousands after the 1973 coup. Being disenfranchised and searching, Townley was a ready and receptive candidate and rapidly excelled at the job. He was technically skilled, and efficiently orchestrated and executed the bold murder or Letelier and his young assistant Ronni Moffitt. Townley was a vivid example of the disconnected, rootless, most likely child of neglect, being easily seduced and transformed into a tool for some other and that other’s personal agenda. So, in need of someone to please, and a grouping to be a part of, they can seamlessly become even a proficient professional killer.
Around that same time period in my life, one night my apartment mate in Berkeley, brought home a young woman she had encountered on the street. The child-like woman was sobbing uncontrollably, and blubbering unintelligibly, clearly under the influence of some unidentified drug. She was terrified and grief stricken, and probably no more than 18 at the most. My friend found her curled up and shaking on the sidewalk, in the vicinity of a “spiritual” cult there dancing and chanting on Telegraph Ave. All we could discern was that she had been lured her to join them, and drugged into this barely conscious state. We kept her safe overnight, and in the morning when the drug had worn off and she could talk, we learned that she also, was a disenfranchised, survivor of some sort of trauma, again, a ready target for a “group” or a place to belong. I don’t remember the rest, but just remember making the connection with Michael Townley. How deep and sometimes blinding the loneliness, longing, the driving attachment need can be! It can over-ride coherent judgement and land the child of trauma and neglect (at any age) in some community or role, they might never have chosen.
Although I always understood climate change as a concern, it was never at the top of my hierarchy of concerns. I was always most compeled by causes with a more directly human cost and exhibiting palpable human suffering- until I read Thomas Friedman’s book, Thank you for Being Late. The book is one of those good books that are about 200 pages longer than necessary, but I did soldier all the way through it. In the chapter about climate change, it described how in countries of East Africa and the Middle East, climate change resulted in such drought and water shortage as to kill whole crops. Farmers were desperate both to make a living and to feed their families; and food was in short supply. Due to climate change, people were starving. And hungry people did not feel taken care of by their governments, like neglected children, they were left to fend for themselves. Many men began to migrate to other places where they might at least earn enough to feed their families. Many of course died. And many enraged by the neglect and by hunger, were readily receptive to terrorist ideologies and larger group identifications, spawned at that time. I can only imagine and guess, that those receptive to become terrorist killers and members of cultlike organizations, had an antecedent of neglect, an old rage ready to be ignited and erupt, and an urgent need for affiliation, activated by hideously neglectful governments. Again, what role might neglect play in dangerous or deadly dynamics we see in the world? These are questions that roll around in my mind.
The need to attach and belong is ubiquitous and primal. We share it with all mammals and some birds and invertebrates too. It is not to be underestimated in ourselves. Susan made me feel connected, cared for and like I mattered. That profoundly affected what I felt able to do, as well as my mood of joy and love through the process of preparing and delivering my presentation. All the more reasons why we must heal neglect, both positive and negative. Humans function better and feel better when they/we are part of something. And when we are not, our desperation can make us even perilously vulnerable. We can easily find ourselves in the “wrong” relationships, one way or another. We must be passionately present for our own children, and we must learn how to facilitate healing in the adult survivors of neglect and interrupt both the suffering and any intergenerational transmission.
To end on a positive note, have a listen!