Another Chapter of the Story

As you may know, Ruth and I are committed life-long to the residential community known as Mill Grove and to those who live in it.  One of the effects is that we have remarkable, and possibly unique, opportunities to see how life stories unfold years, if not decades, after a child or young person has moved on.

Michael and Barbara

Here is an example.  Between 16 and 20 years ago two young people who had spent their childhood years with us went their separate ways.  I will call them Michael and Barbara. They are unrelated biologically.  Before they came to stay with us things had been very difficult emotionally and psychologically in each of their families. Consequently it was not an easy ride for either of them at home, school and in friendships. 

When he left, Michael tried to make his own way in life, was involved in some relationships of which he had high hopes but that did not last; and found sticking with work or jobs beyond him. Eventually, after several months living abroad, he arrived back home with us, having decided that he was finally going to embark on a long-term career.  He was effectively penniless and homeless at the time.

It did not go well for Barbara either.  She returned to a reconstituted family, and became clinically depressed after she left Mill Grove.  She lived abroad, and gradually things came together.  She is now married and a mother of three lively and imaginative children.  Last month she came to stay with us for a couple of days in order to attend the funeral of her grandmother.

Old times

And that is how it happened that Michael and Barbara met up once again at Mill Grove on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  It took a moment for them to realise who they were, before they quickly calculated that it had been at least sixteen years since they had last seen each other.  In no time at all they started swapping memories.  It was my privilege to be alongside them as they chatted.  I can’t remember a lot of what they said, but I can recall a deep sense of well-being, of connection, of acceptance within and between each of them.  It was a wholly spontaneous, natural and relaxed hour or so.  In fact I took some photos and they confirm this reading of the conversation exactly.

There were stories of school, mealtimes, holidays, and others with whom they had shared that period of their lives, including my father and the person who had been the special carer for them both.  One part of the free-flowing discussion was particularly moving.  Michael had always felt that he had been let down not only by his birth family, but by life itself.  The bottom line was that he reckoned that life (or someone) owed him something for the unfairness that he had experienced early in life.  (Knowing his story well I can confirm that emotional life had been hard – unfair, if you like – and that he had not formed satisfactory attachments with a parent figure.)

Being special; being envied

That prompted him to muse in passing that I was probably the person closest to a father figure in his life, before the two of them compared their experiences and recollections of the female carer who was closest to them.  (She was unwell on that epic Sunday afternoon, otherwise she would have been with us: now retired, she lives about a mile or so away.)  Michael felt that Barbara was her favourite and that she had received more than her fair share of sympathy and attention.  She smiled and stopped him short.  “You must be joking!” she exclaimed.  “You were the baby. You were spoilt something rotten.”  And she went on to remind him that there were times when as a little boy he was able to sleep in the carer’s room. 

He explained that there was a special reason for that: he was very frightened of the dark and had even kept a toy gun under his pillow in case there was an intruder.  No wonder he was allowed to sleep close to an adult on occasions!  But Barbara insisted, “Whatever the reason, you had many special times together in her room, and the rest of us were envious of you.”

I could sense the dawning realisation emerge somewhere within him, spreading as a broad smile all over his face.  He saw it.  Until this point of time he had been able to continue with the version of his life that confirmed it was always unfair.  He never got what he wanted.  What he deserved.  What he longed for.  But here was a transparently honest testimony to the fact, that however unfair and disturbed much of his life-story had been, sometimes he had received affection and attention that others had noticed.


Perhaps that seems like a rather minor, even insignificant, discovery, but I think not.  And I will tell you why.  Recently I reviewed the book Out of the Woods: a quite exceptional study of the resilience of several American young people.  They had been ‘incarcerated’ in a mental health institution as teenagers and yet somehow they had reached a place that was OK (“You might say satisfactory”) in their lives.  The researchers, who were psychologists, tried to discover clues to the nature, the dynamics, and the qualities of their resilience.

One of the factors that these teenagers in the study had in common was a grasp of their life-stories that was secure enough to be continuous and sustained, but flexible enough to be open to discovery and re-interpretation.  This is not dissimilar to the insights of Piaget into the dual process of assimilation and accommodation in growing children.  They had to have a framework into which to assimilate new data and experiences, but this framework had to be open to modification so that it could accommodate data that didn’t fit the previous framework.

As the American young people got older and found out more about themselves, the significant adults in their early lives, and life in general, they began to see certain things in a new light.  It was not about Damascene conversations, so much as the gradual awareness that the way they had understood themselves and their stories needed to be updated as new information became available.

Their peers (those that is who had not shown the same ‘resilience’ to that point in time), tended to have fixed and immutable ideas about their life-stories that no amount of evidence would shake. There was a brittle rigidity to the way they saw things.

Resilience (a very tricky concept to pin down) seems to be associated with the ability to allow the next chapter of your life story to inform, and where necessary, modify the nature and complexion of the story up until the previous chapter.

Unfreeze and learn

Now I am the first to acknowledge that the intense emotional suffering of many children leads them to ‘freeze’ parts of their lives.  There are childhood adversities and traumas that lie undigested and unhealed, and nothing can shake the defence mechanisms that they have built up to protect themselves from the hurt and associated bad feelings of periods or events in their lives.  The problem is that this leads them to fall down the same hole again and again without ever knowing or acknowledging what is actually going on.  Anything, or anyone who gets anywhere near the wound, is a threat to be repulsed.  The received life-story is thus protected, and rules OK!

I do not want to suggest that what happened on that Sunday and during the discussion was a dramatic re-writing of Michael’s life story, but it had the potential to be the beginning of a new chapter.  And if the new chapter of his life story holds on to the truths that Barbara revealed to him (and that I confirmed from my experience of the same period and characters in his life) this new chapter will cause him to rethink other aspects of his life story.  Perhaps previous chapters will be modified.

Of course the story is not over (far from it, I hope) and so there may be many twists and turns to come before the final page is reached.  But when Michael and I meet in the months and years to come, I will always be able to remind him that although his early life was difficult and unfair, there were times when he was the one who was envied, because someone showed him particular care and affection.  If he chooses to forget the conversation, then I will still have the photos with Barbara’s expression as she told him, “You must be joking!”

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