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The Legacy of Family Trauma: Part 4

legacy of family trauma part 4At the beginning of this series I said we would be trying to answer these questions:

  1. Why do some family members sail through hard times while others get stuck?
  2. Why does adversary cripple some people and give others heroic strength?
  3. How can different people from the same family remember things so differently?

In the previous entries I explained answers to the first two: How traumatic events impact us depends on our developmental age when they happen, our connections to other people, (which will matter more the younger we are), and our own natural resiliency.

To look at number three, we’re going to examine how things might have looked to Mattie Young. Mattie is the second oldest child in the Hines picture. Consider her place in the family story as we know it. Her two oldest sisters marry after their father dies and the loss of their income devastates the already poor family. Her next oldest sister (Mell) also married six months after the younger children were placed in the orphanage. Mattie stayed with her mother for another three years before marrying at seventeen. That’s three years as the only child in the home, left with a mother who was surely grieving and struggling with guilt. (There is some discussion that Catherine was forced to place the children in the home after the authorities saw Hines’s picture and the children lost their mill jobs. We will never know for certain but it’s safe to assume that it was a bitter act for Catherine.)

Mattie maintained a relationship to her mother all of her life and also seems to have had some contact with some of her other siblings.

If you asked Mary (the oldest of the children sent away, the one who never forgave her mother) about the children’s removal to the orphanage, you’d have one version. If you asked Mattie, I’m sure you would get another one. They’re both probably right. I’ve written before about truth and Truth, we have facts about the Young family but we don’t know what really happened.

June Jordan’s essay “On Listening: A Good Way to Hear” begins with the following:

If you want to know how somebody feels or thinks, ask him. If he can’t tell you in words you understand, ask someone else. Not anybody else, but somebody else. A relative of the man. A close friend. Somebody who seems to you very similar. And when you resort to these sources of information, qualify the value of your data: call it secondhand or worse.

If we want to know how Mary experienced her family, we have to ask Mary. If we want to know how Mattie did, we have to ask her. In families, we tend to think that how we experienced events is how they happened but siblings — even without the stark differences that Mary and Mattie had — have completely different perspectives.

Mattie is 14 in the picture; Mary is 11. We know this means they experienced things from different places developmentally. We can assume that they had at least some shades of differences in their temperament. And we know that what they experienced — their perspectives as well as the actual events — were very different.

Even if we looked at the two older girls Mattie and Mell (they were both 14 at the time of the picture although by the time the family split up Mell was 15) they would tell us different versions of the same event. Mell married soon after; Mattie stayed with her mom for another three years. What would they say about their lost siblings? What would they tell us about Catherine? Whatever they say, they would both be in some way right.

When you ask your family about traumatic events expect to hear differences. And, as June Jordan writes, qualify the value of your data. Understand that what you are learning is truth, not Truth. When you argue with another family member about what “really” happened, understand why we don’t always agree.

“You were always mom’s favorite!”

“No, I’m just the only one who didn’t walk away!”

“Dad was mean as a snake!”

“Only when he was drinking! I remember lots of times when he was good to us!”

In traumatized families the stakes are higher to own the narrative. One of us wants validation for our hurts, the other wants to deny that bad things happened. One of us is ready to move on, and one of us is still trying to make sense of the damage.

This is a good segue to how we’ll finish up; in the final post tomorrow, I’ll talk about how trauma shapes family culture across generations.

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The Legacy of Family Trauma: Part 3

further-notes-on-trauma-and-development-1Look at that grinning girl on the right up there! That’s Eddie Lou Young, 8 years old, taken in the mill where she’d been working since her father died a little over a year before. Joe Manning, whose wonderful research inspired this series, didn’t track down the child on the left but it was Eddie Lou’s charismatic little face that led him to discover the Young family. It’s also what led me to click through to her story before I clicked on any of the others.

It’s her smile that illustrates another protecting factor in family trauma: temperament. Some of us are simply born with a more resilient temperament than others.

Temperament, as defined by researchers Stella Chess, Alexander Thomas and Herbert Birch, is made up of the building blocks of personality. We are all born with certain temperament traits. How we live out those traits (nature) will depend on our experiences (nurture). There’s some flexibility and adaptability in our responses but we all start with traits that influence how we experience the world and — importantly — how the world experiences us.

Some of us are naturally more negative (cautious, careful, looking out for potential problems) and some of us are more positive (open, careless, ready to take risks). In some circumstances having a more negative emotionality will keep you safe. (If you cheerfully assume that all the cars will stop for pedestrians, you may not be as diligent about looking both ways before crossing the street.) But when it comes to drawing people to us, positive emotionality is the way to go.

Babies and children have two ways to get people to meet their needs: crying and whining is one. The other is being so appealing that people want to take care of you. It’s not hard to guess which way Eddie Lou leaned.

In the pictures that Manning shares of an adult Eddie Lou she is always smiling. This is in stark contrast to her  older brothers and sisters who kept the same serious — even dour — expressions as they aged. It’s no wonder then that her daughter-in-law says, “It’s my understanding that when Reese Parker [Eddie’s adoptive father] first saw her, he immediately fell in love with her. He could’ve adopted a boy, who could’ve helped on his farm, but instead, he chose Eddie Lou.”

That charm that got Manning’s attention and got my attention got Reese Parker’s, too. It got her out of the orphanage and into (by all accounts) loving home and it stayed with her for the rest of her life. Eddie Lou’s daughter-in-law describes her as “a very loving person” and “one of the happiest people I ever knew.”

Research tells us that resiliency is built out of three protective factors:

  • Attachment and Relationships: Our connections to the people around us (and our ability to sustain those connections)
  • Initiative: Our ability to identify our needs and take action to get them met
  • Self Regulation: Our ability to express emotions in healthy ways

From what we can tell, Eddie Lou was naturally likeable. Her children describe her as being very involved in her church and in her community, which addresses not only the relationships but also her initiative. Finally the good cheer her family ascribes to her speaks to self regulation skills.

In other words, Eddie Lou hit the resiliency lottery.

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Further notes on trauma and development

further-notes-on-trauma-and-developmentIf you are interested in learning more about stages of child development and trauma, I encourage you to read about the work of Dr. Bruce Perry and the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics. Perry’s research examines the way that traumatic events change brain development. Our experiences early in life actually shape our neural system; we adapt ourselves to the patterns with which we’re presented. From the time that we are born we depend on our social relationships to help us build our neural pathways.

Our first relationships — and that’s usually with our parents — prime our brains to expect more of whatever they give us. Babies are designed to elicit loving, responsive and connected relationships with their caregivers because this is how they grow best. If caregivers can’t give this, the baby’s brain structure will reflect it.

Our brains develop from the bottom (most primitive) to the top (most complex) so we can actually predict where the deficit will be in traumatized brains if we have a good trauma history laid against the trajectory of how brains grow.

Let’s go back to Mary and Elizabeth. We don’t know much about their earliest years so we’re going to have to do some guessing. Likely neither of them had an ideal infancy (the family was too poor and stressed for ideal) but it sounds as if Mary had more consistency of care than Elizabeth did. Grown up Mary has some good memories of the time before her father died and she did have older sisters so even if her mother was overwhelmed or unavailable, her sisters were there. On the other hand, Elizabeth’s father died when she was not even two. What did this mean for her caregiving relationships?

When you see a baby smile, your brain actually lights up and encourages you to reciprocate. That’s why you likely can’t help grinning back at an adorable 6-month old while you’re waiting in line at the grocery store. This is especially true if the baby belongs to you; we are most responsive to the babies that we spend time with and love. But if a caregiver is grieving then her ability to respond will be depressed, too.

Little Elizabeth likely did not get the same level of attention that her older sister Mary had. After their father died, the family was unhappy, perhaps less patient and more reactive, certainly less engaged in the emotional care of the second-youngest.

Remember, relationships are what very young brains rely on to learn about the world. If those relationships survive the trauma — if the caregivers are still able to spend time smiling back at the baby, responding to her cries, and helping her calm when agitated — she will have the fortitude to withstand the event. But if those relationships suffer — if the caregivers are too depressed to smile back, if they are too overwhelmed to pick her up when she cries, and if they are themselves too agitated to comfort her — her brain will bear the stamp of that dysregulation.

Let’s imagine that Elizabeth’s adoptive parents (she joined them at around age four) are loving, warm and tuned in caregivers. They smile back when she smiles, they offer hugs and cuddling, and they are quick to respond appropriately when she is upset. Why wouldn’t this have fixed things?

It’s because our brains lose flexibility as they get older; our neural pathways become more fixed. Elizabeth’s higher brain — the more complex brain — may continue to grow and allow her to seem more mature, but her limbic system — the more primitive part of her brain — will still reflect the chaos and disruption of her early years. She will act younger emotionally. She will be more prone to tantrums, more impulsive, and quicker to anger. She may also shut down and become closed off. This is because her early brain is still stuck in the fight, flight or freeze of her first traumas.

No wonder then that Elizabeth spends the rest of her life leaving; it was one of the very first lessons she learned.

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