Today, I found a clipping from last month’s (paper) NY Times on my desk. I reread it, and knew immediately why I had cut it out originally: “When you are surrounded by something so big that requires you to change everything about the way you think and see the world, then denial is the natural response.” *
The words took my mind immediately to the experience of too many of our kids who are “surrounded by something so big….” that is incomprehensible to me, let alone to them – who actually experience it. I speak, of course, of their experience of abandonment. But is it the original abandonment in and of itself, or is it that they are continuing to be abandoned by the very society that they continue to live in?
Dr. Francine Cournos, a psychiatrist in her mid-60s, teaching at Columbia, wrote a book (“City of One”) that we give out to all the people interested in foster care adoption who come to our introductory training (at Family Focus Adoption Services – [for Google as always]). Dr. Cournos lost her father at three and her mother before she hit her teens. She then lived with her grandmother who eventually developed dementia. At thirteen, the rest of the family got together (aunts and uncles) and placed her into foster care in New York City, where she stayed till her adulthood. Dr. Cournos writes that the fact that her family could so deliberately do this to her was a worse pain for her then the loss of her parents and grandmother. That is a very strong statement.
The foster kids who need new families often have their pictures and a short blurb about them posted on the Internet, at what are called photolisting sites. What does it do to a kid to know that year after year after year nobody is interested – despite the “advertising” – in giving to him the family commitment that (s)he needs? Nobody in the entire country? Our question, as adults of course, is what does it say about our culture, our society, that we could leave any kid unclaimed and unloved? But most of the kids don’t have the wherewithal to question the society. Rather, they blame themselves for their circumstances. And that blame reaches to a level inside themselves that makes it very difficult for them ever to transcend the self alienation that is an almost automatic reaction to the depth – such depth – of recognizing that they do not matter enough to anyone.
We, as a society, teach our foster families that “love is not enough” to heal the wounds the children carry. The phrase probably comes from the wonderful book of the same title by the psychologist and Holocaust survivor, Bruno Bettleheim, written forty years ago and talking about children in institutions. But in truth, I don’t know of anything that can overcome alienation, but love.
The reality that our kids have learned in their guts is so big that they are required to change everything about the way they think and see the world. But the denial probably belongs to us more than to them. What I have come to believe through my experience with these kids is very anti-cultural. I have learned that while there is lots of emotional attachment among people; even lots of very real caring; and even more feelings which are labeled love, the truth is very much darker.
Fourteen years ago, after I buried my barely 21 year old son, Irving, I came back to work and decided that if our training was to be worth anything, then we had to begin to talk about the nature of love, because adoption (which is necessarily always of a person who has been abandoned) cannot be about anything else, and still be real. We developed a wonderful exercise that we still use all these years later. At the end of the exercise, in one of my infamous imaginary scenarios, we change the original story (see below**) of King Solomon and ask our families: if Solomon had not changed his decision when the one woman told him not to chop the baby in half, but rather to let the baby go with the other woman, and that baby was never to be seen by her again, would you say that she loved her baby? 99.9% of our people say yes, and they say it pretty much immediately. Which shows – to us and to them – their intuitive sense, no matter how much they have been influenced by Hallmark, of the true essence of love: the willingness to sacrifice anything and everything we want for the good of the beloved, as a gift requiring nothing in return.
And by that definition? I say it all the time – and get people very bothered by it: There is very little love in this world.
We all get it. The exercise proves that. But we don’t do it. The sheer number of kids with nobody is only one example among many that proves that.
It is very sad. And very dark. Very much darker than most of us prefer to believe.
* Thomas Friedman, a columnist for the NY Times, quoting a guy named Paul Gilding, from a book Gilding wrote about the environment.
** With my apologies to the religious folks who know the story better than I: King Solomon was a biblical judge who was very wise. Two women came to him, after the baby of one of them had died, each claiming that the living baby was theirs. Solomon decided to cut the baby in half to settle the claim. With that, one woman immediately said no. “Let the baby go with the other woman.” And with that, Solomon changed his first decision, now saying, “Now I know who the real mother is.” And he gave the baby to that woman who was willing to let the baby go.