When therapists take a trauma history we want to know what happened and we want to know when it happened. Sometimes people say, “Oh that happened before I could even remember” but just because we can’t remember things doesn’t mean that they don’t have an impact on us.
It also helps to know what was happening in the family because their reactions create the environment where the children grow. In looking at the Young family, we can assume that the youngest children may not remember their father (the baby was only six months old when he died) but we can certainly presume that the grief surrounding them had an impact on their growing up.
Children have developmental jobs to do at each stage of their lives and at the very youngest, that job depends on the connected caregiving of a reliable grown up. If there is no grown up available or if the grown up is unable to be responsive, this will impact the infant no matter what that infant grows up to remember.
To think about this, I want to look at the oldest and youngest daughters placed in the orphanage.
At the time of the picture above, Mary (on the left) had just turned eleven. She was old enough to remember a time when the family was doing better, when her father was alive and the children weren’t having to work in the mills. After one month in the orphanage she was taken by an elderly couple (but not adopted) to help them work their farm. She married at fifteen to get away from them and went on to have eleven living children who grew up just about as poor she did. According to her daughter and granddaughter, she never forgave her mother for sending the children away.
“She hated her mother for doing that,” said her daughter, Annie Burke. “She hated her all of her life till one day I just couldn’t take it no more. I just told her that God would never forgive her until she forgave her mother. Her mother was already dead by then. … After that, I never heard her say anything about it.”
Annie remembers her mother as “jolly” although “she had her good days and her bad days.” Annie says that her mom would say that “she loved her daddy to death” but chose not to have a relationship with her mother. Mary’s focus was on keeping her children together at any cost. Several of her children were unable to finish school because they had to leave school and start work young, just as she did.
Granddaughter Runnette Smith remembers Mary as someone who was “hard.” As Runnette remembers it, Mary didn’t talk much about her childhood although she said the orphanage was “a terrible experience for her.”
Runette says Smith was “not a very loving grandmother. ”
“At one point, about five or six of us were sent to stay with my grandmother for a short time,” Runnette says, “I remember not feeling welcomed. I always felt like it was because my grandmother had been through so much for so many years, that she didn’t want to take on more children.”
It’s not a complete picture but it’s a picture. We know that Mary’s early life wasn’t easy and that it got worse as she got older. We know that she had four older siblings who likely helped care for her so she had strong connections and relationships. While she was not necessarily an easy person once she had her own family, she was committed to them and was able to sustain relationships with them. She was certainly shaped by her trauma and some of that she handed down but her first commitment was to do it differently than her mother and in this she succeeded.
Elizabeth was the second to youngest child in the family. She is 2 years and 9 months old in the picture above, which means she was about a year when her baby brother was born and 18 months when her father died.
We know things about toddlers. We know that they’re still very dependent. We also know that they are learning how to be independent by using the secure base of their caregiver for reassurance and encouragement. We can imagine that Elizabeth could not rely on the dependence she needed to foster healthy independence.
In families this size with children this close together, it’s natural that the older children were expected to take care of the littler ones. (This is evidenced by Mary’s heartbreaking first memory of the orphanage, “She said she had helped with the baby all day, and then she never saw her again.” Because the quote is “her” not “him”, it’s likely Mary was talking about Elizabeth.) This can be a perfectly fine set up in large families living in ordinary good health but for the Young’s, the family’s patriarch dies and the children and their mother are plunged into grief and poverty. How much attention did little Elizabeth receive? Too young to understand the changes, whatever consistency she counted on before was upended as the family moved from the farm to the factory.
Elizabeth stayed in the orphanage for about a year and a half before being adopted by the Murdaugh family. Somewhere in her late teens and early twenties she married and then had a son. According to census records, by the time her son was six, he was being raised by the Murdaughs and Elizabeth was living elsewhere.
“She was always leaving,” said her granddaughter, Evie Taylor, describing a woman meticulous about her appearance and ambitious in her professional life. “[S]he would just show up, drink too much, and then disappear.”
Elizabeth spent her first three years in deep poverty, in a family beset by heavy grief and crisis, and then in an institution that was inadequate to the care of any child, let alone very young children. She lost her most important caregivers and so lost the opportunity to learn consistency and care, love and responsiveness. And so she did not have these in her to give.
“I wanted her to be happy, and with family,” her granddaughter says. “But she was never a happy person. I think she had a lot of resentment. When she would go and visit family, she just couldn’t stay very long. She wouldn’t be happy around them, and they wouldn’t be happy around her.”
The differences between the sisters is very stark because there is almost a decade between them but it helps us see how the timing of trauma impacts the damage of it. Mary struggled, to be sure, and she grieved but she had it in her to do the hard work of keeping her family together in the face of extreme poverty. Elizabeth, who didn’t face the same grinding financial hardships, could do less. The same experiences — losing a parent to death, losing another parent through relinquishment — influenced their lives in very different ways.
The legacy of family trauma for their children and grandchildren also played out in different ways. Mary’s daughter stayed close to her mother as did her grandchildren. When the family needed help, they relied on each other. Mary learned connection and she passed that down to her children.
Elizabeth’s son left his children, too, just as his mother did, enacting her infant experience across generations. Elizabeth’s grauddaughter points out that Elizabeth was “resourceful” and could have tracked her siblings down if she wanted to but chose not to. She remained isolated from her family because this is what she learned.
For the next post I’m going to talk about temperament.
Recently I came across a blog by author/historian Joe Manning called Mornings on Maple Street that, among other things, looks at the history behind the work of Lewis Hines. Hines was a photographer who documented the plight of child laborers in the United States from 1908 until 1924. He photographed children in coal mines and in factories, children working on the streets selling papers, and children on farms picking fruits and vegetables.
On a day off last month when I should have been writing case notes, I got lost in Manning’s site and spent considerable time reading his research on the Catherine Young family (pictured above in January 1909).
Catherine Young was a widow with eleven children living in Tifton, GA. Only nine of her children are pictured above because the eldest two were married and living away from the family. The five oldest children in the picture — from the girl in the plaid dress, on up — were all working in the mills, as was Catherine.
Manning had trouble tracking the family down — digging through census records and stumbling over red herrings — before finally being contacted by a family member who was able to help him put all of the pieces together.
By the time he was done with his research, Manning had talked to many of the children’s descendants, followed and recorded the stories of each child pictured above, and could finally add this caption to the photograph: “Catherine Young (40 years old), with her children (L-R): Mell (14 years, 10 months), Mattie (just turned 14), Mary (just turned 11), Alex (9 years, 8 months), Eddie Lou (8 years, 5 months), Elzy (about 6 years), Seaborn (about 5 years), Elizabeth (2 years, 9 months), and son Jesse (1 year, 8 months)”
In considering the history that Manning put together of Catherine Young’s family, we can examine the different ways that people process similar childhood experiences. Why do some family members sail through hard times while others get stuck? Why does adversary cripple some people and give others heroic strength? How can different people from the same family remember things so differently?
Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to use Manning’s research to illustrate answers to these big questions. For those of you who grew up in families impacted by trauma, I hope this will give you insight into your extended experiences and how it’s shaped your family culture in general and your own life specifically.
The holidays bring a lot of this up for people because they’re seeing family of origin more or they’re confronting “what might have been” grief and loss. People find themselves revisiting difficult memories or trying to ignore intrusive thoughts about their self worth or worries. Plus with all of the running around and high expectations of this time of year, it can be even more difficult to stop and breathe or to take care of yourself.
But if you’re serious about breaking the chain, then a first step is letting go of how you think things ought to be and taking measure of the way things are. The holidays are a good time to take stock because it’s so out-sized that underground feelings tend to make themselves known.
People who grow up in chaos react to chaos in one of two ways: they either crave it and go towards it; or they shut down as soon as they see it coming. (Sometimes they have a little bit of both — the chaos feels lousy but it also feels familiar and we tend to be drawn to the things that feel familiar.) Notice when you’re inviting chaos in and notice how it affects you.
Are you over scheduling yourself because it feels somehow right to run yourself into the ground during the holidays? It might feel like your duty or like you have no choice. But is it good for you?
Self care isn’t selfish. For those who grew up in homes that were less nurturing than they ought to have been, self care is part of what’s going to break that chain. When you feel calm and cared for then you will have the capacity to be calm and care for other people.
So how do you start to do things differently?
- Acknowledge that this can be a difficult season because validating your own feelings is an essential part of healing.
- Say no to what you can say no to.
- Say yes only when you really want to say yes.
- If you have to power through a painful visit, schedule time with a loving friend after (even if it’s just a phone call or a quick check-in by text).
- Set boundaries and create breaks. Long visits can be broken up by running errands, walking the dog alone or otherwise giving yourself time away to regroup.
- Less is more during the holidays. We tend to get caught up in continuing traditions that may be more of a burden than a pleasure; it’s fine to take an easier way out. Don’t fret about doing elf on the shelf AND gingerbread houses AND caroling AND a white elephant exchange AND latkes for the neighborhood AND AND AND. More passive traditions are fine like using holiday glasses at dinner during the month or serving peppermint tea before bedtime.
Imagine that there are four people about to get on a ride at the State Fair. It’s the Graviton, the ride where you stand up against the wall with a thin chain hooked loosely in front of you and the ride starts spinning and spinning, faster and faster and then it tilts and the bottom drops out. The only thing that’s holding you in is the centrifugal force of the ride.
One of the people has been on this ride before and knows how it works and loves how it works. That person remains calm. They get off the ride and they’re fine. We’ll call that person A.
The other person hasn’t been on the ride before but assumes that the people running the park know what they’re doing. That person feels nervous. They get off the ride and they’re fine if a little shaky. We’ll call that person B.
The third person doesn’t trust the park owners and thinks that when the bottom drops away that the ride has broken. They’re afraid for their life. They get off the ride sobbing and are greeted by warm, loving friends who embrace them and comfort them. That person is C.
The fourth person doesn’t trust the park owners either and believes the ride has broken, too. Think think they are about to die. When they get off the ride, there is no one there to greet them and they feel miserably alone and abandoned. That person is D.
All four people were on the same ride. All four people had fundamentally different experiences.
Here is the definition of trauma: If you are fearful for your life or the lives of those around you.
It doesn’t matter if the ride was safe if a person does not perceive it as safe. (As an aside? I was told by my mom all of my growing up that those State Fair rides aren’t safe. There is no way I’d get on the Graviton and if I accidentally did? I’d be person C.)
A is going to be fine because they liked the ride, they liked how it worked and how it felt. B is going to be ok, as well, because B has faith that the people in charge know what they’re doing. C will likely be all right, too, because C is immediately surrounded by people who validate their experience and offer comfort and support. But D? D is not going to be OK because what mitigates trauma (and even if this does not look traumatic to everyone there and wasn’t experienced as trauma by everyone there, for D it was) is connection and D has no one to connect with.
This is my message to you. We do not get to decide when people get to be afraid or what their experiences ought to be. There are people in our community who are afraid right now; maybe you are afraid right now. It doesn’t matter if person A or B doesn’t get it; you have a right to your feelings. And what you need — what we need — is to find each other. Mr. Rogers says to look for the helpers and now is the time to do that and now is also the time to be the helpers.
If you are person C or D, please reach out. Find your safe people and start planning some specific ways you can spend time together. There are lots of ways to create good, solid connections and sometimes that’s coffee together, sometimes that’s phone calls, sometimes that’s joining together and organizing, and sometimes it’s joining together to help someone else. We need each other to mitigate our fear when the bottom drops out.
If you are person A or B, please understand that your experience is not everyone’s experience. You may not be afraid, you may even be having fun but we are a community and we must recognize that many people in our community are suffering.
To that end, I am partnering with Columbus Birth & Parenting to host a supportive gathering this Sunday in our offices from 10am to 2pm. We have no idea how many people will be here and we don’t have an agenda; just some ideas to give people space to feel validated and supported. Because the event has gotten larger than we anticipated and because some people who can’t attend would like to feel included, we will be using #hopeandaction on social media to find each other. We encourage you to Tweet, Facebook or Instagram using that hashtag on Sunday in order to connect with like-minded people near you to create and strengthen community ties. If you are currently a client, please know that you are invited, too. I will not acknowledge our connection and will respect your confidentiality but I will welcome your participation. If the fact that I’m hosting this event feels uncomfortable to you, please let me know and we can talk about it. I respect that my clients have diverse experiences, backgrounds and beliefs and want you to know that I support you, period.
Therapists are supposed to be neutral and not bring their politics into the counseling room but if you’re a therapist with a bunch of different Wonder Women all over your wall then it doesn’t take too much guessing to figure that she didn’t vote for the guy who was joking about “locker room talk.” So let’s dispense with the pretending and agree that I’m as disappointed and as sad and as angry as are many of you.
So what now?
We need each other now. Some of us are going to feel more isolated and afraid than others and we need to reach out to them. Some of us have loved ones who may be feeling this more deeply because they are members of those targeted during the campaign; go to them. If you were one of the targets of the campaign, please know that there are people who support you.
I’m hearing a lot of fear from kids in my office (and in my life). Please be mindful of the media you play around them. Check in with them. Ask them what they’re hearing at school. Go to the other adults in their lives and get them on the same page if you can.
Teens can be more vulnerable than we realize. They’re idealistic and when idealism falls, it hurts. A lot. Teens who are members of groups called out during the campaign need your special support. I know that my own daughter has faced more hate speech in the past couple of months and I’ll be keeping a close eye on what’s happening in her school for the duration. You keep an eye on your kids, too, and together we’ll keep them safe.
Also, look for hope. Look for the social justice warriors who have come before us and who are among us now. It feels lonely but we are not alone.
Some Resources in Central Ohio (please feel free to leave additional information about groups you think people ought to know about in the comments below):
Black Lives Matter Columbus (their Facebook group)
Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO) provides comprehensive individual and community programs for survivor advocacy and support to LGBTQI survivors of hate and bias violence, discrimination, intimate partner violence, stalking, and/or sexual assault.
Disability Rights Ohio a non-profit corporation with a mission to advocate for the human, civil and legal rights of people with disabilities in Ohio.
Kaleidoscope Youth Center working in partnership with young people in Central Ohio to create safe and empowering spaces for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning and Ally youth through advocacy, education, support and community engagement.
Progress Ohio the state’s leading progressive organization, composed of two non-profits: ProgressOhio.org, a 501 (c) (4) organization formed in 2006 to promote progressive causes, and ProgressOhio Education, a 501 (c) (3) organization.
Standing Up for Racial Justice (list of all the state chapters) is a national network of groups and individuals organizing White people for racial justice. Through community organizing, mobilizing, and education, SURJ moves White people to act as part of a multi-racial majority for justice with passion and accountability. (Here’s the Facebook group for Worthington.)
There are a lot of therapists out there who are ready, willing and able to sit with you while you grieve, cry, holler, and find ways to move forward. YOU ARE NOT ALONE. WE ARE NOT ALONE.