To Be or Not to Be: Love? Presence, Attachment

Occasionally, I read a book because it has been hanging out on the NY Times Bestseller List for so long that I feel I need to know what “everyone” is reading to keep up with the times. No, I am NOT talking about The Body Keeps the Score, which has been a fixture on the List for seemingly ever! (I was probably one of the first people to read that!) I did read 50 Shades of Gray (all three volumes!) only for that reason. Sometimes I do it also because the book was recommended by someone I am very fond of. Recently a very intelligent, young friend recommended a book that has been persistently hovering out there for quite a while, so I decided to go for it: the memoir I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy.

Never much of a TV watcher, and also of the wrong generation to be familiar with her, McCurdy’s story was all new to me. Born in 1992 and becoming a child TV star by eight, I had never even heard of the many shows she appeared in. But I found the book interesting because it is an exquisite portrayal of an often unrecognized and devastating form of neglect. 

Growing up in a Mormon household, she was the youngest of four, the only girl, the most adored child, and wildly idealized by her clearly troubled mother. McCurdy’s mother, Debra, had always dreamed of being a movie or TV star herself, and already in early childhood, Jenette was painstakingly molded and sculpted to become the child star of her mother’s own lost aspirational dreams. Right from the start, Debra dressed, coiffed, and shaped Jennette’s appearance and even play, to be Little Debra 2.0, but the deluxe version that had never materialized.

Until her earlyish adulthood, Jennette experiences her mother’s “attention” and focus as the epitome of love. They were “inseparable,” and Jennette lived to please her mother, while her mother busily doted on and prepped her to inhabit the illusion. They did everything together, including creating and sharing perversely disordered eating that would train little Jennette to aspire to anorexic weights and sizes, well before she even received that indoctrination from the larger world. It was their little shared ritual to go out to lunch and split a “chef’s salad,” with the dressing on the side, no cheese, no meat, and no egg. Debra was able to locate and ultimately enlist the connections and the professionals that would connect little Jennette with first extra, then “guest,” and then starring regular roles in ongoing TV shows. Debra was thrilled, triumphant and proud, as well as relieved by the ways that Jenette’s income took the financial pressure off the otherwise struggling family.

Meanwhile, having survived, at least into remission, a serious bout of cancer, Debra was able to utilize the “cancer card” to win sympathy and the occasional “pass,” both inside and outside the family. Debra was the super-nova. Jennette was but a satellite. This kind of neglect, where “there is no you,” is one of the most devastating and insidious. The child is told and imagines she is so “loved” that the annihilation and, in effect, “soul murder,” not to mention the extreme of intrusion, are indiscernible to the young person. It takes a while for the rage to register, the authentic, inaudible voice of “what about me?” Or who is “me” anyway?

It is only when Jennette is sidling into adulthood that she begins to feel tired and resentful of living out her mother’s dream, of being her mother’s alter-ego. By then, she is completely dysregulated, struggling with severely disordered eating, well on her way to alcoholism, and of course, has every kind of relationship and sexual confusion. It is a devastatingly brilliant portrayal of a profound, unrecognized form of neglect/attachment trauma. 

It would have been unthinkable for Jennette to imagine herself being neglected, as the attention, preoccupation, and obsession with her was unrelenting. Like many who are nominally “loved” even with less extreme of intrusion, it is challenging to identify the loss of self and the profound destruction of not being known, understood or seen.

Like many who are nominally “loved” even with less extreme of intrusion, it is challenging to identify the loss of self and the profound destruction of not being known, understood or seen.

Presence

Although Jennette rarely had a moment free of Debra’s towering invasion into any space she found herself in, her mother was never present with her. That invaluably vital developmental ingredient of being truly there with her never happened. Many clients I have seen bear all the scars of neglect but are hard-pressed to recognize, let alone name, their experience of nonexistence, of not being seen or known. They can’t understand why they feel so bad, shamefully calling it a failure of gratitude or some other sort of personal failure. Sometimes, their only identifiable (to them) and barely “legitimate” complaint might be in bodily symptoms. 

Jennette’s eating disorder is florid and undeniable, and she portrays the mysterious swings between anorexia and terrifying, uncontrollable binge eating as well as I have ever read. Although I never “graduated” to bulimia the way she did, I remember that runaway train, being out of control in both directions and not in control of which. It is a nightmare I hate to remember. How courageously and graphically she exposes it! And it helps her to recognize that something is truly wrong. Sometimes only the body can communicate this, or force it into awareness, as we are all finally starting to understand.

I was recently reminded of the unspeakable power of simple presence. I had a minor surgery that required anesthesia, and I was still pretty drugged on the car ride home and our return to the house. Apparently, it was early afternoon when my husband delivered us safely home. My memory is spotty to blank for most of it. I floated through the afternoon in a deep sleep and woke up somewhat disoriented about what day or time it was. But opening my eyes, the first thing I saw was my husband and our little dog, Angel. He had been reading, and she was keeping him company while I slept. I began to cry. Presence. Perhaps the most precious expression of love, and so tragically missing in the neglect experience. In awe of the experience, I was, of course, (gratefully) reminded of the tragedy of its lack.

Presence. Perhaps the most precious expression of love, and so tragically missing in the neglect experience.

Attachment

Another brutal police murder of a young Black man, Tyre Nichols, shatters the headlines. Although it is hardly a shock anymore, it is still unbearably shocking, this time, the wild beating perpetrated by five cops of his own race. That part is another whole subject for another day. What struck me, yet again, was how in his final moments, with his final breaths, young Nichols cried out “Mama, Mama…” much as George Floyd had. Attachment is a survival need for us humans, as all mammals. It is what we immediately grasp for and cry for in those moments of agony or terror when survival is at stake. More fundamental than even food, or almost air, its absence is like a slow suffocation. Often we don’t even know, or don’t know for a long time, like Jennette, just how airless the space is and maybe always has been.

Moments like waking up from anesthesia to a loving presence can bring simple but unutterably profound healing. We can all give that in big and small ways. So many reasons why we must wake up to the quiet devastation of neglect.

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.

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