Me, Myself and I: Roots, One Person, One Hand Clapping

For some time I’ve been meaning to write a blog about the “Dilemma Without Solution” which is a centerpiece of my work. I consider it the heart and soul of neglect trauma. The woman who first identified and named the dilemma, Mary Main, is one of my greatest heroes. I hesitate to call her a heroin, because of the identification, at least in my mind, with the lethal drug. Admittedly, for whatever reason (most likely of course having to do with my bigger-than-life dad,) she is one of the few on my shortlist who is female. Well, I went to look her up to find out how old she is now, only to find to my dismay and then great sadness, that she passed away on January 6 (a historic anniversary in the US!), 2023. I will have much more to say about the loss, and the life of Dr. Main, but for now, I want only to remember and honor her as I yet again immeasurably appreciate her massive contribution to attachment theory, trauma theory and my thinking and my work. Thank you so much Dr. Main!

In 1986, Mary Main, in conjunction with her UC Berkeley collaborator Marion Solomon identified and named a fourth Attachment Style: The Disorganized Disoriented. Because it led directly to a new understanding of dissociation, it of course profoundly affected and came to inform trauma theory and practice, as dissociation is so often a telling trauma symptom. And Dr. Main identified its roots in what she came to understand and named “The Dilemma Without Solution.”

Attachment as we now clearly know, is a survival need. The human infant is dependent on parents longer than most if not all other mammals. And the infant instinctively “knows” that without the mother they will die. I am mindful in my use of the term mother, but because the infant grows in the mother’s body and makes their first and lengthy attachment there, I use mother as shorthand. Primary caregiver is perhaps more politically and even technically correct, but it may be tedious. And even the infant themselves intuitively “knows” that anyone else is, at least in some ways, the “wrong one.”

In the hierarchy of defenses from danger, for all mammals is the attachment cry. Our first and most primal response to threat, after orienting to it, is to cry out for the mother, just as George Floyd in his final breathless gasps uttered the plaintive cry, “Mama, Mama…” which continues to haunt me. When the attachment cry fails, the sequence is to attempt fight or flight, of course, impossible for an infant. And ultimately, collapse or freeze.

In the wild, the freeze response of a cornered prey animal is ratchet down all “non-essential” bodily functions to negligible, almost nothing, feigning death or “playing possum.” Perhaps with luck, the predator will think they are dead and lose interest in eating them, as most predators do not care to eat dead prey. Or the prey animal will numb out, and freeze so completely as to not feel the pain of being eaten, what we now understand as the dissociative response. The numbing of dissociation is well known to us, many from the inside, if not from our study. So back to our neglected infant.

A baby, confined or “trapped” in a crib may look up into an angry face, a scared face, a blank face, or worst of all no face at all, and will despair, and go through the survival sequence. Of course, unable to flee, with no hope of fighting, they reach, cry and then collapse or freeze. They even cease to cry. As Ruth Lanius, neuroscience of trauma research luminary reminds us, “the withdrawal of the mother is experienced by the infant as life-threatening.” Life and death are at stake.  And there begins the voiceless hopeless helplessness, and terror of dependency we have come to associate with neglect.


Very early on the child adapts with a ready stand-in, not conscious of course, but a default to “I’ll do it all myself.” It is not a solution but a life raft, a perhaps lonely means of survival. In the US and some other Western cultures, self-reliance is highly esteemed and respected. The “self-made” tough and autonomous “rugged individualist is a cultural icon to be emulated here. I was certainly a poster girl.

In ninth grade, as I slowly returned from the almost-dead of my anorexia, I had a game-changing experience. I entered a national essay contest. I competed with nationwide high school seniors. And amazingly, I won! What was game-changing about it was not the “obvious.” I wouldn’t say it helped me to feel better about myself really, or even get much attention from my parents, although there was an article and even a picture of me in the paper. I must have that old clipping somewhere. No, what really made the difference in my life was that I used the $100 prize to buy my first ten-speed, and rapidly became a distance bicyclist, I had my own wheels at 14, and could put distance between myself and my childhood home; I could become independently mobile. It was not only freedom, and my gateway to meeting older boys/men, but it gave a boost to my self-reliance. I was able to start my little housecleaning business ride to the mansions in the hills where I worked, and save money for college. Most ironic, however, was that the nationally ascribed theme for the contest, and the title of my essay was, get this: “No Man is An Island.” I have no idea what I wrote. I think that essay was somewhere in the bulging closets full of stuff to be gone through in our dad’s house when he died. I haven’t seen it. But I’d love to know what I wrote back then. All this is to say, the Self-Reliant Character is almost a caricature, the dead giveaway of neglect if we can learn to see it. The natural outgrowth of the “Dilemma” is how we can begin to discover ourselves or our clients who are children of neglect. And it is the heart of course, of why relationships are such a minefield. Attachment from the start is fraught with lethal danger.

A One Person Psychology

I learned this concept from one of my few other women heroes, Pat Love (yes, her real name!) whom I consider to be the greatest couples therapist in the known world. I discovered Pat in the early 1990s through her book Hot Monogamy, when I was first trying to formally learn more about sex. She became over time a trusted colleague, consultant and friend. I wonder how Pat is doing. The duality or contradictions of the one-person psychology are also often a marker of neglect. On one hand, the person is almost obsessively “other-directed,” and focused on the other. I constantly studied my mother’s state, if she appeared anxious, scrambling to make exquisite orders in the house, to have dinner made and the kitchen all cleaned up before she could stress about it, and also to guard against her anger or impatience with me. I was much more aware of her feelings and states than my own, constantly reading her, or trying to. It was a way to be safe, to try and please, and if not get love, ward off the opposite.

The flip side of one-person psychology is that living in a universe of one, one can forget to consider or even see that there is another. When I was first with my husband and we might go for a walk, he would be nine feet ahead of me without noticing, as if he had forgotten I was there, which in fact he had. I thought “What is wrong with this person? He doesn’t know how to walk with someone!” And it was true. The “one person” is so used to doing it all and being only alone, that they can readily lose awareness of the other. I often hear this from couples where at least one is a child of neglect. A wildly confusing construct.

One Hand Clapping

Neglect is a koan of confusion about self. One can be completely “self-centered” and self-focused, while simultaneously feeling “there is no me.” I was always utterly confused about existence. I forever wondered not only if I had a right to exist, but if I even did. The Dilemma is where it all begins. Sadly, the hornet’s nest of relationship begins in the cradle. It is indeed the heart of the neglect matter. We must treat it, and what may appear to be our “selfishness,” with the kind of kindness, gentleness and patience worthy of an infant.


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