Sunday, October 30, 2011


In the literature that discusses abused and neglected children you will find the term “parentified child.”   What this Latinate mouthful refers to is a child that circumstances have forced to grow up too soon and assume adult responsibility for younger siblings. Adults is this child’s life are at best inadequate, at worst simply not present either because they are frequently absent or have abandoned their children altogether.
I was such a child.  Our father was often in jail or prison.  Our mother simply left us alone without any substitute care or protection at all.  She did this a number of times and according to her older brother and her younger sister, once left us alone for an entire week.  So I had to become a caretaker of siblings of four years, three years, and eighteen months.  I was five years old.  It was a big job that I carried out more or less successfully.
If my childhood took place today and not decades ago, my reward for looking out for my younger siblings would be to be labeled a “parentified child”.  In today’s literature of child abuse and adoption I am described as a difficult creature.  When I and the siblings I cared for are fostered or adopted, I resist turning over my responsibility to two strangers I have not yet learned to trust.  Rather than have social workers and foster or adoptive parents appreciate the role I played, I am made to feel I am standing in the way of forming new family bonds.       
My siblings and I had nearly ideal foster parents who soon adopted all four of us at once in less than a year.  But even they, with graduate work in psychology, failed to understand or appreciate the role I had played.  Instead of patiently understanding and supporting the transition I was making as I began to trust them, they resented having what they saw as a rival eight-year-old parent in the house.
The Most Difficult Part of the Transition
I think the most difficult part of the transition to a new foster home for me was learning to accept that as these new adults became our parents, relations with my siblings would change.  The bonds that had helped sustain us through years of neglect and shared danger began to weaken.  My siblings began to act as normal siblings do, at times cooperative and loving, but also at times competing with each other and challenging me.  I saw this rejection of the parental role I had played as a rejection of me and I took it hard.  I describe that conflict and its resolution in my book Children of the Manse.
I think social scientists and social workers like to use scientific sounding Latinate words because they think it makes them seem more professional.  But pinning a label on a child such as “parentified” also has other effects.  It works to turn an individual and unique child into an abstraction.  It creates a false sense of understanding that somehow removes the need to listen carefully to a particular child.   Also, since the label “parentified child” seems often to be used in a pejorative sense, it has the additional effect of seeming to blame the child for behavior he could not avoid. 
I am not opposed to classification when that helps to clarify and understand as long as it does not obscure the uniqueness of each child or seem to blame the child for his behavior.    There are better words to describe the likes of me and other children who have had to grow up too soon than the pseudo-scientific and Latinate label “parentified child.”   I would suggest using “child-parent” instead.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Most important for success, do you have an open heart?  Are you able to give love? Are you willing to accept being pushed away when you are trying to offer love?  Are you willing to love a child who at times seems to be supremely unlovable?  In extreme cases, are you willing to hear the words, “I hate you!” and continue to love the child?  Are you willing to wait for years before your investment in loving is appreciated?  My foster mother told me it took a year before I would accept her hugs and two years before I would hug her.  Among her friends she spoke of me as “My little ramrod.” But she won me over with her love. 
In my experience knowledge is the second most important requirement for successful fostering and adoption.  Are you willing to inform yourself, to attend classes and seminars and read the literature on foster care and adoption, on abused and neglected children?  My foster mother was an elementary school teacher with work in child psychology.  She told me years later that she needed everything she had ever learned to help me. 
                                          THIS IS MY CHILD
Will you be prepared to speak and act as mother (or father) of the child or children from the moment they enter your home?  I and my three siblings had met the Luchs only once before we arrived at their residence two weeks later.  Our new foster mother kneeled down, put her arms around the four of us, and her first words were, “Mother is so happy you are here.”  A cousin was present and described that scene years later.  “It was as if in that instant she suddenly became your mother.  I’m sure the way she repeatedly spoke of herself as mother that afternoon and forever after made it easier for the four of you to begin to accept her as your mother.”  
                                             ORDER IN THE HOUSE

Are you willing to establish schedules and programs and keep to them?  The Luchs believed in the importance of predictable schedules and programs as one means of restoring our physical health and fostering our emotional security.  Meal times, bed times, daily bath times, piano practice sessions, and when not in school, nap times, were fixed.  There were few exceptions. 
We participated in household chores from the beginning.  Every four days was our day.  On that day we were responsible for setting and clearing the table for the evening meal and, assisted by an adult, doing the evening dishes.  We made our own beds daily and picked up our rooms.  We took part in lawn care and major cleaning projects, usually family affairs on Saturdays.  As we grew up, more was expected of us.  The boys maintained a coal burning furnace and were primarily responsible for the cultivation of a rather large vegetable garden. 
                                 BOUNDRIES AND POWER STRUGGLES
Are you willing to establish and insist on the observance of firm boundaries and limits?  Your foster children will test you again and again.  You will need to choose your power struggles carefully because you cannot afford to lose them.  You and your spouse must win.  I remember one such struggle during which I was sent to bed from the family table without supper.  I resolved to fast, drinking only water, and imagined the Luchs would soon be their knees begging me to return to the family table.  They won.  I returned 24 hours later on my own. 
                               SAVE TIME AND ENERGY FOR YOURSELVES
It was relatively easy for my adoptive parents to save time and energy for themselves because we were all in school (the two youngest for mornings only) within days of our arrival.  They spent their mornings together, often collaborating on writing projects. 
Because our adoptive father had had TB as a young man and then suffered from undulant fever contracted in the Middle East, the Luchs took daily naps.  When we were not in school, we were also required to rest quietly during the early afternoon.  I think that rest period was good for our health and know that it nourished my love of reading and learning. 
                                         REASONABLE EXPECTATIONS
Are you willing to keep your expectations reasonable and flexible?  The children may have talents you do not and you will likely have talents they do not.  Do not expect them to fulfill your ambitions but do be alert to whatever gifts they have, and provide for the development of those gifts.  When a school music teacher pointed out that the four of us had musical talent our adoptive parents did not, our parents immediately arranged for the four of us to begin piano lessons and tolerated the daily cacophony of forty fingers fumbling through “Teaching Little Fingers to Play.”   That early music training has so enriched our adult lives!
                                               COMMUNITY COMMENT
Are you willing to put up with gossip in the community?  Some in our small town thought the Luchs could not afford to adopt four children and some were sure the adoption would not work.  A few even feared we might murder the Luchs in their sleep. 
                                         SOME OTHER CONSIDERATONS:
1. Are you able to listen to a child, to learn from and pay attention to a child?  Each child is unique, which means that parenting yours will require careful listening and the tailoring of all programs to that child’s specific needs.      
2. Except for your spouse, are you willing to say and to act as though the children are Number One in your life?  
3.  Are you willing to make no promises to the children you can not keep?  Abused and neglected children have heard too many false promises, which is a major reason they have difficulty trusting adults.  
4.  Can you identify and reach out for sources of support?  You may wish to begin working with a professional counselor before the children arrive.  My mother found support among her teacher colleagues.  
5.  Are you and your spouse willing to resolve your differences in a mature manner and especially to avoid raising your voices in argument in the presence of the children?
In my experience the BIG EIGHT personal qualities for successful fostering and adoption are: compassion, empathy, commitment, and perseverance; a sense of humor, knowledge, common sense and wisdom.  That’s asking a lot but if you have most of what it takes and are prepared for the challenge, healing a wounded child is one of life’s greatest adventures and most rewarding experiences. 

Saturday, October 22, 2011


It seems unlikely we shall ever resolve the forever debate about the relative influence of our genetic inheritance versus our environment.  The pendulum of the debate seems to swing back and forth through the decades as new information becomes available to us.  Lately, it seems, the score is even at 50/50.     
But I have often wondered why we limit the discussion to environment and heredity.  Isn’t there a third or X factor?  I mean, heredity and environment are certainly the major influences in our lives.  But are we, as individuals, no more than the sum of our genes and environment?  Are we not actors in our own lives? 
Our genetic inheritance does set limits.  We can’t all be Bachs or Einsteins.  Environmental influences, on the other hand, provide the opportunities for development within those limits, which are not as limited as we sometimes think.  Now if you are a determinist who believes that your genes or your environment or, more likely, some combination of the two, not only set the boundaries but determine your life, the game is over.   There is no role for you and no place for human freedom.  But if you believe, as I do, that you, your choices, your efforts, can make the big difference, your role is of critical importance.
                        Why Are Some Children Resilient? 
Which brings us to this fundamental question.  Why do some who have had abusive and difficult experiences as children go through life thinking themselves victims “born to lose,” and too often end up repeating the sad histories of their biological parents?  Why do others, often described as resilient children or adults, manage to use their early experiences as motivators to overcome those early traumas and go on to create productive and rewarding lives? 
At age 14,  just beginning my own quest for self-understanding, it was upsetting to learn that psychologists held out little or no hope for human beings with an early history of abuse and neglect such as mine.   The books I borrowed from my adoptive father’s study predicted I would lack self-confidence.  I would have a dead emotional center and much difficulty in intimate relations.   At first I accepted what I was reading.  After all, it was in blocks of authoritative black print on white pages and these men and women were professional experts.   My immediate reaction was despair.   
But my second reaction was to rebel.  I would prove them wrong!  I would not repeat the sad histories of my biological parents.  I would live a productive life, find and marry a girl of my dreams.  I would father and raise normal children that I would not neglect or abuse.  I would succeed in my chosen profession, whatever that turned out to be.  All this and more of the good things in life I eventually achieved.         
I am not saying the psychologists were all wrong.   I struggled to maturity, fighting battles not everyone faces, strongly believing I could overcome most of the negatives of my early life’s experiences.   I did not do this alone.  I had the support and love of an informed and wise adoptive mother, my own in-house therapist.
                          The Most Important Factors     
Now I have just described two factors that make a resilient child and adult.  Studies show that the resilient believe they can choose their own path.  They believe they can take matters into their own hands and overcome their past.  They can imagine a better future and believe they can make that better future real.  They believe they can make the difference.     
The second factor is a mentor or mentors.  These are mature, admirable, and trusted adults.  Such mentors are capable of offering love, and modeling what it is to be a fully developed human being.  Most important, they believe strongly that the child they mentor can succeed.  Mentors can be foster or adoptive parents, therapists, pastors, coaches, or teachers.  They can come in fact from almost any walk of life.  There can be more than one for no child can have too many adults interested in their welfare.  What is essential is that they are capable of offering loving support, that they model what it is to be a fully developed human being, and that they believe in the child.  But support and encouragement is what mentors can offer.  Their efforts unaided cannot heal the child.  That hard and lonely work must be done by the child himself.   
   The Process Described
Maya Pines, in an l984 article in “The American Educator” described the process that resilient adults had to go through to heal the emotional wounds inflicted on them as children.  Her description fits my own experience.
"In solitude and separateness, they sorted out and ordered their chaotic world into some sensible whole, drawing from their chaos a lasting, sustaining inner strength.... Their sense of being different, unique and alone may have provided them with just the (right) foundation for (the) independent, intuitive thinking and autonomous behavior that they needed to protect their sanity and fend for themselves."
Pines concludes: "It is precisely the lonely task of ordering their disruptive lives and coming to terms with feelings of alienation or separateness which allowed them to develop such strong feelings of self-trust, a firm sense of who they were and of what they could --- and had to do in life.” 
Other Characteristics of the Resilient
More recently Gina O’Connell Higgins in her book Resilient Adults—Overcoming a Cruel Past identified additional characteristics common to many resilient adults.
Among these are:
…A strong spiritual center though most of the resilient do not participate in institutional religions. 
…The ability to support their faith in themselves and a better future imaginatively through reading and other experiences of the arts.         
…Eventually, a special pride in having overcome their past, a victory that made them stronger than they would otherwise have been. 

Friday, October 21, 2011


Plan an “ice breaker” or two for the first day
We --- two brothers, a sister, and I arrived at our foster home two weeks before Halloween.  On the trip up from the orphanage the social worker stopped to refresh us with a glass of cider. When we expressed interest in them, she bought each of us our choice of Halloween masks, what we then called “false faces,” and a large pumpkin.  Because we were anxious and shy, we asked if we could wear the masks into the house to frighten our new foster parents.  Somehow, without any planning at all, they and we were suddenly playing a game of hide and seek with the masks in which, when they found us, we would ask, “Who am I?” and our new foster parents had to name us.  If they got our name right, we had to remove our masks.  If they did not, we could continue to wear our masks and hide again.  But that was the last unplanned activity during the first weeks of adjustment to our new home.

Our foster mother had arranged for a boy my age to play with me and my brothers.  He and his father arrived with two large boxes of toys and games which entertained us until supper time during which the four of us all talked at once (the rule in the orphanage was silence at meals) and “ate vigorously.”   After supper, in our first family project, we carved a pumpkin on the kitchen table.  We delighted in digging our hands into the squishy center of the pumpkin to remove the pulp and offered lots of advice to our new foster father as he carved the pumpkin. After we had all bathed (four at once in a large tub!) and put on new pajamas, our foster father placed and lighted a candle in the pumpkin which he carried to the hall outside our bedroom.  For the first few weeks the four of us slept together on beds in a single room after which Janey, the youngest at age four, was moved to her own bedroom adjacent to that of our new foster parents. 
     Introduce the children to their new environment
through an Orientation Week
Our first week was carefully planned.  The morning after our arrival, a Saturday, my new mother walked me up to a grocery store to shop for my first ever birthday dinner the following Monday.  Then we all walked to our new school where we met the art teacher and the principal and toured the school and borrowed books from the library.
During the rest of our orientation week our after school activities included a stroll through the campus of the university a few blocks from our house, a visit to the tree nursery where we would develop a large vegetable garden, a tour of the church we would attend, our first physicals by the family physician, and a visit to the apple farm of friends of the family where we gathered apples and black walnuts.  On our second Saturday we all marched up to the main street of town to buy new clothes and shoes and had our first haircuts in a real barber shop.  These were institutions and activities that would be important in our lives. 
Introduce the children to the rules, schedules and routines of their
new household and culture during the first week
Our day began that first week and ever after in the kitchen with a spoonful of cod liver oil washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice, a luxury our foster mother considered important for recovering our health.  We were given napkins and our own napkin rings, a novelty for us, and taught how to use them.   We were introduced to the schedules and routines of our foster home.   Meal times, bed times, daily bath times, and when not in school, nap times, were fixed.  Each day had its own rhythm.  Monday, for example, was laundry day.  Tuesday was cleaning day.  We spent Sunday mornings in church.  Predictable schedules and routines are an important means of restoring physical health and fostering emotional security of wounded children and will contribute to your own mental health. 
                 Involve the Children early in clearly Defined Household Chores
Introduce the children to household chores during the first month.  Every four days was our day.  On that day we were responsible for setting and clearing the table for the evening meal and, assisted by mom or dad, doing the evening dishes.  We made our own beds daily and picked up our rooms.  We took part in lawn care and major cleaning projects, usually family affairs on Saturdays. 
Organize Some Family Fun Activities during the first weeks
In addition to trips to an apple orchard and a tree farm, we enjoyed trips to two state parks in the area during the first weeks where we were allowed to run free through the fields and woods, a joy not permitted in the tightly regimented orphanage from which we had come.  In today’s world there are many other possibilities for family outings. What is important is that everyone participate, that the children truly enjoy the activity, and especially if they are boys, that the activity be vigorously physical.  Provide suitable athletic equipment for the children at once and locate a park or place nearby where they can use it.    Wear them out if you can!   More generally, keep them busy, challenged, and fully occupied, whenever possible in creative activities.   
 Involve your extended family and friends
If you have one within reach, involve your extended family in your fostering project.  As our adoptive mother became in her language and her actions our mother the afternoon we arrived, so did our extended family accept us at once and over time would wrap their arms around the four of us.  We were made to feel we were a part of the clan.  Involve also your close friends and your communities, religious or otherwise, in the nurture of the children.  No child can have too many adults interested in his or her welfare. 
The children will probably arrive with personal treasures.  Mine were a green fountain pen given to me by my biological father the last time I saw him at age five, and a photo of my much loved maternal grandparents.  Help them protect their treasures.  They will like you for that.  Treasures are an important element in letting go of the past.  
Document the First Weeks
Keep your camera ready and try to spend a few moments in your now very busy lives documenting those first days.  They pass quickly and will not come again.  My mother kept a journal during our first ten days together, which is why I can write about our own transition in such detail.     
Expect the first months to be exciting and exhausting.  As the Luchs put it in a letter to family and friends, “The first month was a bit rough on the old folks and we presume even rougher on the children.”  But a year later Mom wrote, again to family and friends, “Well, we come to the end of the happiest year of our lives!  We never realized how much we were missing until we had the children.” 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


In my adoptive father’s study were many fascinating books.  At age fourteen I was drawn to his collection on psychology and especially to the books that discussed human psychological development.  Sometimes what I read troubled me.  As I was just beginning my quest for self-understanding, it was upsetting to learn that psychologists held out little hope for human beings with an early history of abuse and neglect such as mine.   
I was introduced to the notion that what happens to you by the age of eight determines your future for all time.  I arrived at our new foster home with three siblings just in time to celebrate my eighth birthday.  The books I borrowed from my father’s study forecast that I would lack self-confidence.  I would have a dead emotional center and much difficulty in intimate relations.   I would fear abandonment and have to live with a strong sense of vulnerability.   I was likely to suffer a lifetime of depression.  One psychologist actually recommended that those with a history such as mine should not marry.
The worst news in the psychologists’ books was that I was different from my peers, which at age fourteen I wanted very much to deny.  More than anything else, a teenager wants to be like other kids, to conform to their standards, and to belong to the world of the young.   Those who have never had the experience of knowing they are different in adolescence will have difficulty understanding how sweet the word “normal” sounds to a teenager who fears he must stand outside the group, feel isolated, and suffer loneliness.                                                                                                  
                                                I Have No Future
At first I accepted what I was reading.  After all, it was in blocks of authoritative black print on white pages and these men and women were experts.   My immediate reaction was despair.    My fate was determined and there was nothing I could do about it.  Any possibility that I could be a fulfilled and happy man seemed remote at best.  What I read affected me deeply.  I felt crushed by the experts and at first did not feel I could discuss what I was reading with anyone, not even my perceptive and loving adoptive mother. 
But my second reaction, which I remember came later, was to rebel.  I would prove them wrong!  I would live a productive life, find and marry a girl of my dreams.  I would father and raise children.  I would succeed in my chosen profession, whatever that turned out to be.  All this and more eventually came to pass.       
I am not saying the psychologists were all wrong.   I struggled to maturity, fighting battles not everyone faces, strongly believing I could overcome most of the negatives of my early life’s experiences.   I did not do this alone.  I had the support and love of a wise adoptive mother and the encouragement in my school of some amazing teachers.   
Again and again my mother told me, “You are talented, you are intelligent.  You can become whatever you want to become.”  All this I describe in the memoir of my early years, Children of the Manse. 
It’s doubtful that most psychologists today would make the categorical hope-destroying statements that I read in my father’s books in the l940s.  Today’s psychologists would probably agree that a history of early neglect and abuse need not be the end.  Emotional wounds can be mostly healed and many have overcome their early years of abuse and neglect to lead unusually productive and rewarding lives.    
Only once did my adoptive mother think my behavior probably required the attentions of a psychiatrist.  I was fifteen and deep in the emotional turbulence of the teens.  My adoptive parents found me moody, uncooperative, and rebellious. I insisted on wearing my Levi jeans tight and low and had begun talking and acting like the young movie star, James Dean.
                                 My Psychiatric Evaluation
There was a woman, my mother said one morning at breakfast, who she wanted me to meet.  Dr. Baird, a psychiatrist.  The mere word psychiatrist created freezing waves of anxiety that flowed through me.  At first I strongly resisted such a meeting and at great length but finally agreed to accept an appointment with Dr. Baird.  She spent half a day talking with me; observing, asking questions, and putting me through a series of written exercises.   At the end of the session I was dismissed and my mother was invited into Dr. Baird’s office.
Mom told me later that Dr. Baird began with a serious look on her face, saying, “You have a serious problem.  Your son is suffering from a difficult condition.”  Then Dr Baird smiled.  “It’s commonly called adolescence,” she continued.  “Otherwise,” she said, “Your son is a sensitive but normal fifteen year-old male.”  Dr. Baird added that she was impressed with my maturity and wished to offer me a position as a junior counselor at her camp for disturbed children the following summer.   My mother, perplexed but greatly relieved, was light-hearted and smiled a lot as she shared Dr. Baird’s diagnosis over our lunch at a Mexican restaurant. 
When I became a man I began to see my difference not as something to regret, but as something special most of my peers did not have.  I grew into looking at my early history differently.  I saw the same reality but through a different lens.    I came to realize I did not have to repeat the sad life stories of my biological parents.  I had been freed to create myself, to become my own man.   
Here are some of the things I would say to those older foster and adopted children whose backgrounds, like mine, include neglect and abuse.     
Points to Ponder
---You are not as different as you may think.  Sadly, many children experience forms of  
neglect and abuse while remaining in their biological families.
---Being fostered or adopted has its good points.  It can deepen and enrich you as a human being.  It can free you to create yourself, which now seems to me life’s most exciting adventure. 
---Don’t feel sorry for yourself.  Don’t let yourself become a victim.  Come to terms with your difference.  Accept it and make something positive of it.    
---Get help with your anger, which was one of my issues.  Anger can only hurt you and can even destroy your chances for future happiness.   
---And, finally, do not lose heart.  Never surrender to despair, never give up hope.  It is never too late to heal.   You are free to become.      

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Almost every day Evelyn Luchs, my adoptive mother, greeted the world with a smile.  People often said how good it felt just to be around her.  She gave a lift to everyone she met.  She had the good fortune to be raised in a loving family.  She had an open and loving and generous heart. 
But she expected performance.  She was not a slacker and she did not allow us, her four adopted children, to be slackers.  She wanted us to do and be our best, to make a sincere effort to use the talents we had been given.  That was all she asked.  Otherwise, her love was unconditional. 
Though busy and active as a columnist, hostess, and officer in state and national church women’s organizations, there was never any doubt in her mind or ours that, after our father, we came first in her life. 
In Children of the Manse I tell how she became my mother completely and without any reservations.  That did not happen overnight as it did with my younger siblings who had no memories or attachments to our biological family.   It was not so much that I resisted developing new attachments out of loyalty to my first family.  I had been hurt by that first family, not once but many times, and I had come to believe I could not trust adults to be kind and to keep their promises.  My adoptive mother told me later that it took a year for me to accept her hugs without resistance and two years before I could return her affection.    
But in time Evelyn Luchs won me over and this is how I describe the conclusion of that process in Children of the Manse:

“In time my relationship with Evelyn Luchs led to a sort of imprinting of my new mother’s image and her very being upon me.  I found myself imitating her gestures, using her words and speech intonations, absorbing her views and opinions, and sometimes even anticipating her thoughts as if our life rhythms had come together, and we were in step with each other.  I was a child who had lost the rhythm for the dance of life.  Evelyn Luchs taught me to dance again, to recover what I had forgotten or perhaps, had never known.” 
                         How Sarah Bush Became Lincoln’s Mother
Abraham Lincoln had an Evelyn Luchs in his life.  She was also not his biological mother, Nancy Hanks, because Nancy Hanks died when young Abe was nine years old.  It is likely that at this point Lincoln became the serious (some say melancholic) and reflective human being we know, as have so many spiritual leaders and philosophers who experienced a painful separation from a beloved parent in childhood.      
Ted Widmer, in the New York Times of January 29, 2011, describes the difference Sarah Bush Lincoln, Thomas Lincoln’s second wife, made in young Abe’s life.  Among the possessions she brought with her to the rude and isolated Lincoln log cabin in the woods of Indiana were books.  She later recalled that Lincoln read all the books he could get his hands on, and was already practicing writing and public speaking. (He imitated country preachers to the delight of his boyhood friends).  Sarah Bush was, Widmer writes, obviously behind his rapid progress and she later recalled that “His mind and mine….seemed to run together in the same channel.”  Lincoln’s father, Thomas, on the other hand, discouraged his interest in books and learning.   
The bond between Lincoln and his stepmother became close and strong.  In l861, now President of the United States, he received a letter from a friend in Illinois reporting that Sarah Bush was fading.  Lincoln made a special trip under difficult conditions and without a body guard to a small hamlet in rural Illinois to say goodbye to the woman who had probably done more to shape him than any other human being.  
             How Sarah Bush Saved Abraham Lincoln
Widmer concludes his article,
“…if Lincoln saved the Union, she (Sarah Bush) saved him…  At just the right moment, she encountered a small motherless boy, and helped him to become Abraham Lincoln.”   
We all need women (or men) like Sarah Bush Lincoln and Evelyn Luchs in our lives.  For most of us this role is played by biological mothers and fathers and many children are fortunate enough to have more than one or two such mentors, a grandparent or teacher or pastor or coach.   I believe children cannot have too many adults interested in their welfare.  But it is critically important that those of us who have lost our parents have at least one.  All we need is one, if she or he is the right one: committed, loving, patient, and responsible.
For children who have lost their parents, however that happened, the arrival of a Sarah Bush Lincoln or Evelyn Luchs at the right time is a special act of grace.  Some orphans and adoptees I know can quickly identify the woman or man who played a similar role in their lives.  Would that all of them could do so!       

Monday, October 10, 2011


I experienced painful separations from inadequate and neglectful biological parents at the ages of five (my father) and seven (my mother), which most psychologists consider the worst possible timing.    There are three separation scenes in my memoir, Children of the Manse. The first two describe separations from my biological father and the third the even more traumatic separation from my biological mother.   In the first scene involving my father, he is in the custody of two sheriff deputies and in handcuffs.  He has tried to hug me goodbye but can’t because of the handcuffs and the sheriff’s deputies refuse to remove them.  He is about to be driven away to a state prison and I can still see him seated in the back seat with one of the deputies as the black police car sped away.   I cried all night that night an aunt told me.  I was inconsolable.  In the second separation scene involving my father, he surprised me by returning two years later from prison and we spent a precious hour or so alone together.  Neither of us knew then that we would never see each other again. 
The last time I saw my mother was in the orphanage to which I and three siblings had been committed a year before.  She rarely visited us but on this occasion arrived with a new husband and -- worse to my mind -- a new baby.  I suddenly knew the end had come. The sustaining belief that I had nourished since entering the orphanage – my mother had promised that all six of us would soon be together again -- was a lie.
                Loss of Parents is Not a New Development
The loss of parents is hardly new in human history.  In most cases throughout the ages parents were lost through death.  Today it is more likely orphans are orphans of the living.  But however the separation occurs, the fundamental result is much the same; the loss of those we most love and the consequent death of innocence.  To lose parents profoundly alters the course of a child’s life and causes the child to be reflective.  Such thoughtfulness in turn leads to asking the fundamental philosophic questions. 
            Most of the world’s great spiritual leaders experienced such separations.   Mohammed’s father died near the date of his birth and his mother when he was seven years old.   Moses, according to the Bible, was surrendered as an infant by his mother and then adopted by an Egyptian princess.  The Buddha’s mother died when he was seven days old.  He was raised by her sister.  Though he could only be attached to his mother by what he was told about her and the knowledge that she was gone, as a young adult the observation of sickness, old age, and death set the historical Buddha on his spiritual quest.  
Also in the East, eminent religious figures such as Honen, Myoe, Dogen, and Shinran all experienced separation from their parents by age ten.  Dogen was the founder of Japanese Zen Buddhism, Shinran the founder of much more widely followed Japanese Shin Buddhism.
The same pattern can be seen among members of that other reflective tribe, the philosophers.  In a book in which he relates the lives of 22 modern western philosophers (Descartes to Sartre) to their philosophies, Ben-Ami Scharfstein, the former head of the philosophy department of Tel Aviv University, concludes:

”Painful separations are no doubt common in early life, but it seems nevertheless notable that at least twenty of the twenty-two philosophers may be supposed to have undergone them.” 
I’ve come to believe that my own intense search for meaning in the universe is in  part caused by those early traumatic separations.  I am not suggesting that only those who have such experiences have to cope with the fundamental philosophic and religious  questions; those, it seems to me,  arise more or less naturally out of the human condition.  But I am suggesting that the search for meaning in the universe is more intense among those who have personally experienced traumatic separations from loved ones when they were very young.   
The following quote from Wayne Muller’s book, Legacy of the Heart, sums it all up:

“I have noted that adults who were hurt as children exhibit a peculiar strength, a profound inner wisdom….Deep within them…just beneath the wound…lies a spiritual vitality, a quiet knowing, a way of perceiving what is beautiful, right and true….

The persistent questions that occupy the heart of the wounded child …are the same questions pondered by the saints, seekers and spiritual teachers of the world.  What is most important in our lives?  How can we know what is beautiful and true?  How may we be joyful?  How do we learn to love? 


Sunday, October 2, 2011


When I became a volunteer CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) I was surprised to learn that most children in the foster care system eventually repeat the histories of their failed parents.  Even more surprising, many social welfare professionals expect them to do so.  I found such pessimism difficult to understand, I suppose, because I was a foster care child with a different history. 
My biological father, from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, dropped out of school in the 4th grade.    From ages 14 to 31 he was out of prison only long enough to sire five children.   His younger brother and sister also spent time in the Ohio criminal justice system.  My biological mother was from a working class family and dropped out of high school in the l0th grade.  In addition to me and my three siblings, four of our cousins ended up in the county orphanage.  
Did I or did my siblings repeat the failed histories of our inadequate parents?  Not one member of my family, my three siblings, our nine children, or our 13 grandchildren has ever been arrested or ever been in foster care.  Of our nine children eight earned college degrees from such institutions as Wesleyan University, Tufts, and Cornell.  Six earned graduate and professional degrees from the Air Force Academy, Georgetown University, the University of Virginia, the University of Texas, and Ohio State.   Our experience suggests that under the right conditions, the same or similar genes can lead to dramatically different results. 

The right conditions for us are described in the second half of my book, Children of the Manse.  I compare our lives before and after we arrived at the manse (the Luchs residence) in a chapter called “The Honeymoon.”  

“We had never been in such comfortable, spacious surroundings, eaten such good food, or slept in such pleasant rooms or beds. We had privacy for the first time I could remember, and our own closets and dresser drawers for our new clothes and new shoes. We could talk at meals in our turn and, incredibly, second helpings of food were available just for asking. We had a bathtub where, if we wished, we could bathe alone rather than having to stand in group showers as at the children’s home. Our lives were suddenly full of excitement and beauty — carpentry tools, whole rooms and boxes full of books, field trips to the country and free and noisy romps through the woods, music lessons, a delightful neighborhood of people and buildings to meet and explore, a large back yard to play in, and a friendly red-brick school on a university campus three blocks away. We were beginning to make new friends. While unending tedium filled our hours at the children’s home, we were now involved in a stimulating round of activities that never seemed to end. Janey would later sum up our first years in the manse and the surrounding neighborhood with, ‘What an exciting place to be a child!’”
I describe how Evelyn Luchs (our foster mother) restored our physical health and took on the much more difficult challenge of repairing our psychological health.  If I were designing a home for neglected foster children, I can hardly imagine a better environment than Fred and Evelyn Luchs provided for the four of us. 
Unfortunately there are not enough foster moms with the qualities and background (a teacher trainer who had studied psychology) of an Evelyn Luchs.  The reality appears to be that the adopters in our society today are from the upper middle class, want babies, and often look abroad to find them.  Most foster care, however devoted, is not provided by that segment of our society.  There seems to be growing consensus that as currently designed, a troublesome percentage of foster care is failing.
          Alternatives for Placing Abused Children   
If we were doing it right, there would be different kinds of placements for children in foster care.   I paint a grim picture of county orphanages in Children of the Manse.  It might surprise my readers that for some children I could recommend a children’s home.   I have read memoirs of graduates of children’s homes, mostly supported by religious organizations, with highly trained personnel, small living units, nutritious and abundant food, excellent sports training facilities and first-class medical care --- everything my county orphanage lacked.   I think an ideal children’s home for some children would resemble a residential boarding school.  Moreover, I believe there are children who would respond well to residence in a residential military school. 
My point is we ought to fit the program to the child’s personality and needs and not place all children in the only model of foster care we seem to have.   If this proposal seems too expensive, our current foster care system is also expensive, and the total cost to society of not breaking the chain of failed life histories from generation to generation is surely even more so.