The Scars of Childhood Traumas are Deep and Lasting. By Keith White  

In the past few days my friend and colleague, David Lane has seen fit to remind me that 118 years is a long time in residential care.  He is aware, of course, that I have not been in it that long, but equally aware that having been born in Mill Grove, and knowing scores of those who have lived there personally, I am in a rather unique position to reflect on some of the issues inherent in such care with the benefit of hindsight.  Books on “leaving care” for example, are rarely if ever written with the wisdom of the reflections of a person’s lifetime, let alone the thoughts and experiences of that person’s children, grandchildren (yes, and even great grandchildren).  And yet properly speaking is that not what we should be looking for when considering “outcomes”?

As I write this piece I am on a train travelling back form the south Coast of England where I have spent the day with one of those who lived at Mill Grove as a boy from 1951 to 1955.  I knew him then because throughout this time we grew up together, and today we discussed his story, due to be published later this week.  He is one of the slowly growing band of those who are writing and publishing their memories and reflections.

It so happens that I had already chosen the title of this piece before travelling to see him today. In point of fact I had sketched the outline of the content exactly six days earlier. But now I want to share with you, freshly-minted, my thoughts and feelings about, together with my reflections on this encounter. He greeted me at the station and took me to lunch beside the sea.  Then he immediately began by asking about Mill Grove and who would be leading it in the future.  This put me on my guard lest it would deflect time and attention from discussing his own book and story.  But he gently and patiently helped me to see, that what happened to Mill Grove was of considerable importance to him.  The future of the place that had been there for him when it really counted, mattered to him deeply, and so did my family and those who are responsible for holding the future of the place in their hands. He knew my grandparents and parents, who between them had cared for him.  It followed that my wife and I, and our children and grandchildren meant a lot to him.  So from the start the conversation was more reciprocal than I had imagined. And it was he who had taken the initiative

We finished our lunch before having any discussion of his book at all, and then drove to his flat, which was a short distance from the beach.  Then and only then was he ready to get down to what I had thought would be the main focus and substance of the day.  He had a notebook in hand, which took me off guard, because I was thinking of a much more informal and free-flowing conversation.  But I suppose it was a natural reaction to the fact that I was holding a full page of handwritten comments I had made on the first 100 pages of his book!

I asked whether he would like me to share with him some reflections, or if he had something else in mind. He nodded to me that I should carry on.  This being so, I ventured that there were two things that I felt might well help us understand something of the heart of the matter. The first was that he was in a residential nursery for the first 9/10 months of his life.  The episode was recorded in his book but virtually without comment.  This was understandable in part because neither he nor anyone else was able to help fill in the simplest details or facts about the place or those who had held him in their hands, fed and clothed him.  But when I read later in his story that he following this period he “rocked himself” a lot, I realised that he was describing the experiences and patterns of life of those described by Bowlby, Spitz and Goldfarb as they observed and filmed children in institutional care as a result of having been separated from their significant others (usually parents or family). I think this connection between separation and the comfort that comes from physical rocking came as something new to him.  And it was painful for us both as we tried to imagine what he might have been going through.

This led us to spend a fair amount of time discussing likely aspects of this separation and loss during the pivotal period of his life.  Nothing else could be properly understood without taking account of this primal trauma.  He wanted me to say more about what I knew of the effects on other children.  I explained that as I understood it something called the “ego project” tended to start in all young children around the age of two.  I referred to but did not quote the work of Professor James E. Loder (The Logic of the Spirit, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998) which had been important in my own reading of child development as described in The Growth of Love.  I suggested that the “ego project” was a defence against the discovery that the significant other was not always there for the growing child, not at their beck and call, and demonstrably not controlled by the child.

To deal with this harrowing discovery, over time and unconsciously, the child was creating or constructing a fantasy world that was safe from the vagaries of actual life (in which the significant other has more important people to deal with, and other matters of concern). It was reinforced by the western consensus that human history was also a project of progress in which an individual child, young person and eventually an adult is encouraged to develop this project, and receive rewards in the process.  His story, not surprisingly therefore not only showed some of the hallmarks of the “ego project” conceived in this sense, but also of a person who needed to find ways of defending desperately his fragile sense of self against all comers, and all events.

He is a very intelligent, personable, able and gifted person. So all his energy, talents and abilities went into laudable roles and activities (such as marriage, parenting, ministry and management), but his re-telling of his story was testimony to the fact that his social development was at the expense of his inner self.

This led us to a second reflection.  In the introduction to his book he wrote of his wife’s preliminary writing about the search for his origins as being “frozen” for ten years.  I told him that this was a word and concept that had often been used by those trying to understand how children cope with traumas, and that it helped me begin to grasp something of what was going on throughout his story.  He effectively coped with not only the early separation and loss, but also the many difficult and painful setbacks, losses and separations and confused and confusing relationships that would follow, by “freezing them”.  His wife had noticed that he was on the surface sociable and very good with people, but that he rarely risked sharing his deepest thoughts and feelings with anyone else.

Dwelling on this metaphor we compared notes on old heating systems in schools: they relied on big pipes running through classrooms.  After a snowball fight in winter when hands were frozen it was tempting to put the little fingers on the pipes to warm them up.  But a child only did this once because whatever the imagined benefits, the pain was actually excruciating!  So after a lifetime of freezing, with occasional periods when emotional feeling just began to return for a moment, we tried to imagine what it might be like if the emotional pain of feelings, fears, and traumas of several decades were suddenly unfrozen.  Freezing was an understandable learned unconscious reflex in the light of this.

Referring to a term his first wife used in her part of his story (the book is a joint effort), I wondered whether on reflection perhaps the two of us had been “half-connected”. And even today, I noticed that when we embraced and I called him “brother”, he called me “friend”.

At this point in our conversation he asked where, having written the book, did he go now, and what of the future.  It seemed to me that it was his children and grandchildren with whom the first developments would be apparent.  But I knew that already his book was being read by others who had lived at Mill Grove.  Who knew who would read the book and what the resulting connections and reactions would be?

He noticed that the time had come for me to leave to catch the train home. And so the time together drew to a close. As I began to write this piece it became clear to me that the title I had chosen should remain as it was before our meeting.  His resilience all through his harrowing but uplifting story, could not disguise the depth and lasting nature of the scars of childhood trauma.

But the practical and pressing reason why I intended to write the piece was to ask, in the light of this truth, what were the purposes, parameters and priorities of therapeutic children’s schools and communities.  Perhaps a discussion of this will need to wait until the next column.  But I close this one by reflecting that among the lessons that seemed to come from our very open discussion today were the following:  to provide a place (physical and emotional) where a child or young person knows security and predictability; to create the safe space in which a child or young person can explore inner thoughts and relationships at his or her own pace; to offer resourceful people who will empathise with and understand something of the depth of the traumas resulting from separation and loss; and to identify a person or persons who will be there for the child or young person throughout their life.  I guess that most of this is pretty much understood, but the last objective sounds almost fantastic.  And yet, that was what made today possible.  And possibly even the book: the life story.

I have referred before to that remarkable and seminal book, Out of the Woods: Tales of Resilient Teens by S. Hauser et al. (London: Harvard University Press, 2006).  It is a work that reflects with hind-sight on how some of the resilient young people in residential settings came to terms with their lives and traumas.  The researchers concluded that what mattered was that the therapeutic intervention expanded the personal narrative of the young person.  There is little doubt that over a period of 60 years this is what has happened in the case of the person with whom I spent today.  If a therapeutic community is not able to identify a professional who will be alongside the hurting young person for that length of time, then perhaps it should be helping to hone the skills of the young person to identify such a person themselves.


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