Poison not Just in the Neglect, but in the Cliches

March 10th, 2008

Poverty is Poison was the headline of a February 18th editorial in the New York Times. Every time I read something like this – old news passed off as a new discovery – I want to scream a little bit. Massive amounts of research, some of it quite famously cruel and spectacular, has been done on child development. That “children growing up in poor families. . . .experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones which impair their neural development” is not a new finding, nor is it surprising. These same stress hormones are found in children from abusive or neglectful homes, and it has been far beyond proven that children who are not nurtured in infancy, if they survive at all, will experience a host of problems, from social attachment disorder to learning disabilities.

What is surprising is that we, as a society, continue to expect and demand a cure through self-determination. That we negate the factual science of neural development in favor of blaming, shaming, or shunning the affected, believing that moral weakness or poor character, rather than any significant physical or cognitive deficit, is responsible for those who fail to rise to the social challenges of our competitive society.

I’d like to find your inner child and kick its little ass.

“Get over it,” pop star Don Henley once sang. “Complain about the present and blame it on the past, I’d like to find your inner child and kick its little ass”. Henley’s popular song, which seemed to show equal disdain for real victims as well as those faking it in exchange for a car crash payday, reflected the attitudes of many Americans at the 1990’s height of child abuse stories. Unfortunately, there was a window of time when it became somewhat hip to come out as an abused child – and celebrities, whether jumping on the popular bandwagon, or sincerely trying to help, only caused a serious issue to be taken less seriously. People started to recoil, not from the horrors of child abuse, but from yet another sad tale of alcoholism, rape, or rage – especially those told by people living a privileged existence far removed from the hardscrabble lives of the working and middle classes.

The backlash against abuse victims was swift, hard, and long lasting. English professors across America added “child abuse” to their list of cliched topics. More and more writers were steered away from the topic by threats of non-publication. When books were published, such as “A Child Called It” or “The Glass Castle”, the endings were happily-ever-after.

The old but persuasive bromides of positivity were shined up for a new generation who were spoon fed the concept of self-esteem without the struggles and accomplishments that naturally lead to a sense of self-worth. I remember arguing with my daughter’s second grade teacher about this when Elisabeth came home one day and told me spelling didn’t matter. I was sure she misunderstood the teacher, but no. Mrs Greene informed me that correcting a child’s spelling could “stunt” their creativity and lead to lowered self-esteem. My argument that self-esteem would be a natural byproduct of mastering the task of spelling fell on stubbornly deaf ears – as did my argument that creativity isn’t so fragile that it’s destroyed under structure.

That new generation is now grown up, and they seem all too willing to carry the torch for the crumbling and blind school of self-determination, regardless of scientific discoveries, old or new. Poverty is character, and character is destiny. Trauma is gotten over by self-help books and positive self-talk. Neural pathways, receptors and hormones are nothing that an hour with Joel Osteen or Dr. Phil can’t fix. Think it and be it. Get real. Or, as Oprah – who was once of the foremost advocates for the misunderstood underclass before taking the Cosmo girl road of peddling everything from diets to beauty secrets – might suggest, discover your spirit. Live your best life.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with feel-good philosophies, positive thinking, or living one’s life with passion. The wrong enters when these things are held out by the dominant society as a cure to problems that are far deeper, more serious, and more poisonous than everyday problems.

Not feeling great about the way one looks in a bathing suit is in no way equivalent to actually being (as opposed to merely feeling like) a social outcast.

I feel like a fraud. I’ve never fit in anywhere…

“I feel like a fraud,” says *Kari, who spent her first six years of life with a neglectful mother before being sent to live with her elderly grandmother. “I’ve never fit in anywhere … and my thoughts just don’t seem to work the way other people’s do.” Kari, now 46, spent most of her adult years trying to climb the ladder as a graphic artist in the corporate world.

“No one ever told me I didn’t have talent,” she says, “I did, and was probably even above-average in that area, but I just wasn’t well liked. I wasn’t liked when I was myself, and I wasn’t liked any better when I followed the advice of all those self-help, how-to-heal, or how to make friends books. I knew there was something different about me – something that made other people uncomfortable – but I never found what it was. I kept trying out all sorts of different approaches, but it was like I had some invisible mark of a social pariah. My work was valued, but I couldn’t get promoted. There were convenient acquaintances, but no real friendships.

“I went to therapists. I meditated. I read every book I could find on healing and being social, and I trained myself to carefully consider every response and every action. . .

“The weirdest thing has always been the way people respond to me. For some reason, my words were always taken far more personally than if they came from someone else. For instance, if one of my colleagues casually complained, it was no big deal. If I did the same thing, even using almost the same exact words, it was an Oh my God event – people would be shocked, or instantly label me a chronic complainer.

“It’s that kind of over-sensitivity. . .to me as a person, and to my words. . . that made me afraid to speak out at all. I was labeled weird, no matter how normal I thought I was, or how like them I tried to act. I became quieter over the years, and my own sensitivity around other people became so heightened it was almost paralyzing.”

After seven jobs in 19 years, Kari quit. She subsisted on unemployment and savings for two years, while struggling with intense depression and thoughts of suicide. One therapist suggested Kari might have a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome, a diagnosis that left her with little comfort. “Even if I agreed with that, which I really don’t seeing that I don’t have many of the symptoms, it really doesn’t change anything,” she says.

Eventually, Kari went to work as an $8/hr. checker in a small grocery store, which pays her extra on the side to create signage. It wasn’t the life Kari planned, but she’s not alone.

genie.jpgThere are profound and visible differences between a “wild child” like +Genie, who was discovered at age 13, after having been isolated from infancy in a dark room in her parents’ home, and David Pelzer, whose childhood abuse and isolation was chronicled in the book “A Child Called It.” Genie never recovered, while Pelzer went on to become a successful journalist and author. Their experiences, the extent of abuse suffered, their brains, and exposures to other people, were quite different even though there are several parallels that can be drawn.

What is less obvious, and almost invisible in society, are those who were significantly poisoned in childhood – those who were permanently affected by the crossed wires, mixed-up hormones, and neural changes caused by poverty, neglect, and abuse. Most often, those affected are physically indistinguishable from those who were reared in relatively normal and healthy homes.

The emotional and social differences, not seen by the naked eye, may range from mild to severe, with Kari’s case being somewhere in the moderate middle.

There’s no “get over it” cure, and no amount of shame or blame placed on victims can reorganize or “fix” the brain that was damaged in infancy or childhood. The best that survivors can do is to be aware of the differences and develop the patience, personal strength, and comprehensive understanding necessary to deal with being something of an outcast – with being, perhaps, “of this world, but not necessarily in it.”

For society, the question should not be about a cure that doesn’t exist, but a two-fold one of awareness and prevention. Rather than throwing the science (and its subjects) away in favor of the quick, convenient, and empirical “bootstrap” approach – which seeks to make everything from financial achievement to social success mere matters of character and effort – society might instead seek to understand the deeper, more realistic reasons why some former victims of poverty and abuse fail to thrive.

Understanding that, we might put more stock in prevention and make the end of poverty and child abuse in America a real and urgent priority, rather than shuffling both off to the easy-to-forget realm of stale news and tired cliches.

*Real name not disclosed.
+Genie was the psuedonym given to Susan Wiley by researchers. She now lives in an undisclosed group home in Southern California.

19 Responses to “Poison not Just in the Neglect, but in the Cliches”

  • You did it again, Jane. Made me really think about things in a different way.

    I know you didn’t mention it in your article, but I’ve read before that a disproportionate number of people in prison come from poor / neglectful backgrounds.

    I wonder what would happen if we could really eradicate poverty in this country, and what would happen if we were swifter to act in cases of abuse?

    Obviously, infants and children have impressionable brains. I did not know though that their chemistry and hormones were also effected. Like most people I think I assumed that once they went to school, or got out into society, they’d learn whatever they missed at home.

    I am guilty of leaning on the bootstrap theory.

    I do think that there are people who are just lazy or misfits for their own reasons, but now I can also see that there are those who might have, for lack of a better word, disabilities that aren’t seen.

    Thank you for this article. You really opened my eyes today!

  • I could be a Kari. I am a Kari although I try to fight it, just like she did. This story, her story, scares me.

    Can I write you a personal e-mail?

  • Eme, I also am scarily like Kari.

    I wonder if the harsh attitudes of the 1990s can be connected to the rise of right wing talk radio and the Fox Network, both of which were born at the same time. Armies of people with a certain mind-set were born and replicated with the group-think, “bootstrap” maxims heard by this new media. Does anyone else see a connection?

  • Eme, my email address is in the “about” section at the top of the page, and I welcome letters from readers.

    SusanG, yes, I definitely agree there is a connection between the terrible legions of right-wing media and the apathetic or cold shoulders of the American public, but there was something already present in our culture that allowed for the rise of that kind of human hatred.

    Was there a saturation level? A feeling, perhaps, that the problems of one group were being overlooked while another group’s problems became the focus? Did the haves get sick of listening about the have-nots?

    I don’t know, but I do believe that the rapid proliferation of right-wing media did help give rise to a lack of social empathy.

  • I hardly know how to respond since it’s been my job for close to two decades to help society’s throwaways get back into society.

    Do I have or see many success stories? Really, no. And it’s a hugely depressing aspect of my job. You grow close to the kids and teens, you think you’re making a difference, and then you hear all the news about unplanned pregnancies, drugs, arrests, homelessness, assaults…….. and this is after living in a structured environment, with education, people who care, and a lot of therapy.

    There are a handful that really make it though, or at least they’ve made it as far as I know, since I can’t know what’s happening internally. But I’ve seen some get through college, and go on to live better lives. What’s better, though? And how is anyone to know what goes on inside their hearts or minds?

    The thing that really hit me with this article is that we, meaning almost all of us, do have a tendency to think that everything can be reversed. That the kid who was raped from the age of four is going to eventually, somehow, be the same as the kids who weren’t, or even the same as the one who was raped once at age sixteen.

    We think somehow that therapy talk heals whatever happened to the brain of the child who was malnourished, traumatized, neglected, beaten, or worse.

    There was a girl in my unit who had the burn of an iron on her back. You could see not just the shape, but where the steamholes and everything were. Her mother placed that iron on her when she was six. Can anyone imagine the pain and trauma of that, along with various cigarette burns, broken bones, and beatings?

    I want hope for these kids, more than anything. I don’t want the demand that they be like ‘everybody else’, how could they be? I want the differences embraced though. I want them to know compassion and understanding. I want them to know it’s okay to be and feel different, and I want the whole damn world to stop and pay attention.

    What I don’t want is more of them in prison, or left to be victimized over and over again.

    And for those like Kari, who tried to stay in the light, I want there to be some appreciation for difference. We are not all made from the same cookie cutter. “Normal” is only what we accept.

  • I remember Genie!! I haven’t heard about her in years! Her story was so sad, especially when she got tossed around from place to place, sent back to her mother, and when the money dried up so did all the “caring people”.

  • LBJ,
    Your last sentence spoke volumes.
    So many displaced, emotionally battered people, physically battered people. Don’t you feel like all we do is shift them around from place to place, doctor to doctor, to therapy etc. It is sad to hear that more of your worthy efforts don’t work out LBJ,and I have to think these people are still grateful that you were there for them.
    I was lucky to grow up with a loving set of parents, and I am just horrified at the thought of what these people go through.
    Jane it is painful to think about these things. But we need to.

  • LBJ,

    This really got to me:

    The thing that really hit me with this article is that we, meaning almost all of us, do have a tendency to think that everything can be reversed. That the kid who was raped from the age of four is going to eventually, somehow, be the same as the kids who weren’t, or even the same as the one who was raped once at age sixteen.

    I have never really considered this, ever. Like Barbara, I was raised with and have always believed in the bootstrap theory.

    I learned something today, about child abuse and about myself, and how easy it is to fall into patterns of thinking without really thinking much at all.

  • Allison, my mom’s near the end now and although I know she’s not doing well, I really don’t know what to do with life without her. She has always been there, and a blessing.

    I don’t know why some people continue to have kids they clearly don’t want or aren’t in the frame of mind to care for. So much of everything we see is so preventable!

  • I almost feel lucky I was only raped once, LOL.
    You know if everyone would do their part, if everyone would try, if everyone just did a little more, we could make this world a better place.
    Love Always,

  • LBJ,
    Having been through what you are going through,
    I can tell you that you are going to need a tremendous amount of time to cope with all of it.
    So don’t beat yourself up when you can’t move on so to speak as soon as you think you might.
    I struggled for nearly a year with bouts of tears just from a glance of something, somewhere, someone, that reminded me of her.
    I told my husband, I don’t know how to stop it.
    And he said you lost the person who knew you first in this world, longer than anyone else. You are an extension of her, and you lost a part of yourself. There you go, you will get through one day at a time, and you will never really lose her.
    I talk to Mom all the time. I just make sure no one hears me! smile

  • I loved the article and my thoughts are this, until that “inner child” is healed in individuals, society as a whole will continue on this downward spiral. Throughout history, we’ve consistantly had whole generations of “children” (I refer to them as such because I don’t think most people in their late teens and early twentys are emotionally equipped for parenthood) having children. As soon as you are of legal age, you can get married and start a family of your own. This was almost the mantra in the United States after WWII. Social and sexual mores promoted this lifestyle. Children having children. Abuse begets abuse. Ignorance begets ignorance. Apathy and hopelessness begets apathy and hopelessness. Fast forward 50 yrs. Two more generations of the same and more intense diet and here we are. Education in this country is in the toilet. Drugs (legal and illegal) and alcohol are everywhere. The media spoon feeds us exactly what they want us to hear and see. The “Boogyman” is everywhere. I connected the dots and it seems very clear to me. Fear, secrets, lies, YOUTH…. snag the kids early and you have them for life…hmm.. democracy?

  • Found this website on Rosie O’ Donnell’s blog.
    I was having yet another panic attack- rocking back & forth like a child- praying for relief. I found some- reading this. I will keep reading. I am old.

  • Right on, Sister. For once someone exposes the layers beneath this lava crust that is our society in these present days. Where is it that we are taught not to think? Even in the New Age, those who have been a part of that are told to feel not think. Both are important this feeling and thinking together. After all aren’t we made for both?

    I’m not sure who said it, but an uneducated populace is easy to control. And Kari’s story resonated, a world where anything outside the approved “standard” is not tolerated. It’s only now in my later middle years am I really discovering how true that is. Having known it when I was young, then gained acceptance, then once more diminished, it’s a difficult road. For whatever reason I’ve found it difficult to stay “on task” for very long and my mind is always leaping to the next thought the next new idea, the next way of being in the world. It hasn’t slowed since I finally think I am actually beginning to understand. But I now know I’m ADD and I’m learning all kinds of ways to “fix” this. In other words, become normal. At least in this one way. I’m afraid my numerous other abnormalities will leak out however, and while I am learning many useful tools for whatever it is my life will continue to become, I think I may hold on to a good portion of whatever makes my ADDness.

    My sympathy with the current thinking is not to belittle anyone’s pain, not even my own, but to realize that is what life’s really about, pain and suffering as well as joy. And it can be more healing to realize that we all go through it and continue going through it one way or another. Some people even survive. Some people want to own their pain like an emblem they can put on with their clothes. I’m of the opinion it’s not something that can belong to anyone. (and yes the original final words I wrote are somewhere in the middle of this thing.)

  • Allison, a belated thank you. My mom has taken a bad turn and is now in the hospital.

    I am grieving already, and it’s hard. I hopped online for a couple of hours of distraction, before I head back to sit with her. I think she will probably pass tonight or tomorrow.

    Bless you. And thank you.

  • I am # 13 comment. Added initials to name since there is another Jan- may be more.

  • Go here to see the latest research on Susan Wiley “Genie”. If you can add anything to this, great, and I’ll credit you~!


  • I am 66- still I am learning the effects of torture that was pre-verbal.
    Jane- your analysis in this writing should be a preface for every book on child abuse.
    I dreaded the response I might have gotten even in this anonymous place. So far, it has been accepting- but I fear saying too much- like the paragraph above- causing ‘others to be uncomfortable’. Brutal pain is unbelievable to many people.

  • I’m not a fan of the saying ‘children having children’ unless you use it to include not an age but a maturity. Although you said it was most late-teen and early 20-year olds, your logic is fuzzy at best. If you choose to think that way then feel free to start to change the laws of when a child is considered an adult. Then convince perfectly mature late 20-year olds and early 30-year olds(more likely only possible with artificial means, and multiples abound) that they must care for their ‘children’ until they are 24 or 25. That whole mindset seeks to blame the poor for having children because they were forced to live in a home that did not properly take care of them and make them mature enough fast enough. I love the boot strap idea. I also love the education comes first idea. I think BOTH ideas should be championed together. Adults(within reason, not rape etc) have EVERY right(not just talking legal) to have children whenever they want. If you can’t understand that…then this country isn’t worth much solace at all. It is because of people like Linda that people who CHOOSE to have children in their early 20s get catty looks from OTHER(dare I say OLD) WOMEN who should be offering this well-intentioned friendly look everyone talks all nicey’nice about having/wanting…and supposedly stand for, search for, dream of…lalala. Do it! Be more accepting. Do,instead of say and judge. Either you are a young mother by choice or by accident. Calling them children is like calling 19 year old murderers children. Are you serious?! I am not a conservative by any means, but I do not tread these victim filled waters lightly. I know very few people who had “normal” childhoods and they are all doing inspiring, fascinating, and good things. Maybe I am a little quicker to forgive. My childhood cannot be summed up in quaint enough terms but it is mine, and no victim badge is going to take away ANYTHING I have earned…by myself. Beautiful children(UNDER THE AGE OF 18) included.

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