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.