I'm writing a book called Good Morning, Monster which explores five cases of severely abused patients I had when I was a psychologist . They clung to sanity by a thread and I am exploring their heroism and bravery.
Have you ever wondered why some people with terribly disturbed childhoods turn out to be normal sane adults? This book, about psychological bravery and the process of psychotherapy will describe how it happens and what tools these patients used to cling to the wreckage and rebuild themselves.
I have finally almost finished the book and have now gone to the patients, some of whom I have not seen for thirty years, to ask them if I may write about them. I gave each of them a five page summary of their case to give them a brief idea what I was up to. I agreed I would show them the final copy when I have finished the book in hopes of getting their final approval.
What surprised me by their reaction to the summary was how loyal they were to their abusive parents. One man said, "Please don't say anything bad about my mother. She did the best she could do." This is a mother who locked her son in an attic for five years with nothing in the room while she and her husband ran a Chinese Restaurant. When he got to kindergarten he had no language, neither Chinese or English so he failed.
During a catch up lunch with another ex-patient the first thing she did was tell me her father had died. She stayed at the hospital in Sault Saint Marie for weeks on end and in the last month he only recognized her. She said between sobs that when he died she felt that a part of her went with him. She paused, looked at me and said, “I know you think I’m crazy to have been so attached to him, but I always have been. I know he had huge faults, but I chose to overlook them and just take what he could give. I honestly feel he loved me as much as he was able. Nobody’s perfect. You’re right I’m a fighter. I fought to keep him in my life. "
I think she recognized the dubious expression on my face so she continued, "I hope you aren't going to slam my father in your book." I pointed out to her that he had abandoned her in a cottage in a woods in Haliburton at the age of eight with her two younger siblings. He said he was going to get cigarettes. He was like the father in The Glass Menagerie, who worked for the phone company and fell in love with long distance. She heroically managed to take care of her younger siblings throughout a Canadian winter until she was discovered stealing underwear for her brother at Giant Tiger and was put in foster care. After I reminded her of this she said, "Has he always been the best dad? No. Did he always love me or give me all the love he had? Yes."
When I heard these two ex clients defence of their parents, I had three reactions. First I realized I had underestimated bonding. (Bonding is the formation of a mutual emotional and psychological closeness between parent and child, and their newborn child. Babies usually bond with their parents immediately following birth.) Loyalty to a parent, no matter how much they have tortured and abandoned you, holds firm.
Bonding exists in the animal world as well and it is almost impossible to break that attachment. At the Toronto Zoo a gorilla who was raised in captivity alone for the first few years and never saw a maternal bond was artificially inseminated and gave birth. She had no idea what she had given birth to was a baby or that it had anything to do with her. She never bonded to the infant. The baby had the natural instinct of bonding to the mother. The baby continually climbed on the mother to attach. The mother rejected the baby by batting it away. Tragically, the baby would not give up. It got a concussion and brain injury and finally the psychologists but a little red football helmet on the baby trying to get the mother to bond. Ultimately after the mother broke limbs they had to be separated.
Second, I thought of all the narcissistic clients I'd seen who are enraged at their parents over minor infractions. ( example: "I will never speak to my parents again because they won't pay for my wedding.") I wish they could have been flies on the wall when these people discussed their parents.
Third, I realized I had to go back to the drawing board and look at my notes again and include what the difficult parent's had endured in their childhoods with their parents. I found with the mother who had locked her son away, she'd been a child in an opium den in time of war in Vietnam in the 30's. Her mother had allowed her to be burned by 'hot pipes' for money. She had no idea how to parent and from her perspective locking her son away and earning money was protecting him. The father, of the other client who left his family in the forest had a sexually perverted father and a physically abusive mother. He also behaved far better as a father than his parents had.
Interestingly, the trepidation of my former patients made me go back and revamp the cases including what had happened to their parents in their childhood. I think the cases are rich and more complex now. There are no licenses or regulation for parenting. The most common tool for parenting is role modelling. What you do as a parent is influenced by what happened to the parent in childhood. Multi-generational abuse almost always gets handed down in some form. I was thankful that I was reminded by my patients that although you can abhor some behaviour, to judge it is a mistake.