Friday, January 13, 2012


When I refer to my physical and emotional healing after suffering a history of child neglect and abuse, I say I am “mostly recovered” and “mostly healed.”  Those who know me casually sometimes tell me: “You don’t act like an adult abused as a child.  You seem perfectly normal to me and you have had a successful career many would envy.”  I usually mutter something about resilience in children and I may well be among the 15% of abused children, some with histories far worse than mine, who seem to recover and live successful lives despite everything.   Even so, one reality of the tragedy of child abuse is that it always leaves after shocks.   
I agree with the Buddhists about causes and inevitable effects.  Every action we take in this life for good or ill leaves a result that cannot just be wiped away.  That is the iron law of cause and effect.   Christians teach much that same thing when they say that while our misdeeds can be forgiven, that does not mean the harm those acts cause can be nullified.
Those who know me well recognize what I call my residue of child abuse.    Here are some of the signs they see.  I have a powerful startle reaction to loud noise, so strong that those who observe it comment on it.  Furthermore, if anyone’s hand or arm comes near my head suddenly, even in acts of affection, I flinch so strongly I am usually asked, “What’s wrong?  Why did you do that?”
There is yet another residue of child abuse.  My wife, who came from a loving family and had an unusually happy childhood, likes to relate her wonderfully delightful dreams.  Almost all of my dreams, on the other hand, are unhappy and filled with anxiety.  Many are full blown nightmares.  Only rarely do I have a happy dream. 
So these are some of the visible and rather obvious signs of child abuse.  There are, of course, other and invisible symptoms among adults abused as children.  But that’s another discussion.  
I am not complaining.  Despite my early history of abuse I have had an exciting and fulfilling life and may well be a more compassionate and sensitive person than if I not been abused.   I write this only to underline the seriousness and tragedy of child abuse.  It can never be entirely undone.    

Thursday, January 12, 2012


One of my chief tasks when working with children as a volunteer CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) was to prepare a comprehensive report about the children to whom I was assigned for court hearings. The report was addressed to the judge who would make critical and often difficult decisions about the children’s futures.   A CASA report is not meant to replace the reports of social workers, therapists, and others who worked with or represented the child but to give the judge an additional and independent source of information.
Preparing this report involved getting to know the children through regular visits to their homes.  It also required interviewing social workers, therapists, the children’s teachers, and anyone else who saw the children in question on some regular basis.
In my experience the most productive interviews were with teachers.  They were the best source of objective and accurate information about the children whose cases I was assigned.  That’s hardly surprising.  Apart from parents and foster parents, no one spends more time with children than their teachers.  They were keen observers.  They knew the children through the children’s behavior in their classrooms and when that was a problem, were usually aware that the child in question had a difficult home environment. 
In Children of the Manse I describe the contribution our school, a university teacher training school, made to our recovery from abuse, neglect, and two years in a county orphanage. Next to our home, Rufus Putnam School was the most important arena of our activity and our mother, herself a teacher, knew she had strong allies there in her campaign to restore our physical and emotional health.
Putnam teachers were observant witnesses of our behavior and development, a second opinion to our mother’s own of how we were doing. In the monthly written reports our teachers prepared, (Putnam did not give letter grades to elementary students) the four of us were often described as “easily over-stimulated,” even after we had made the initial adjustment to life in our new home.  At one time or another that first year, the reports described all of us as “tense.” “Mark is unable to lie still during midday rest periods. He plays with his hands and feet.” And of Janey, “She is gradually overcoming the tenseness she shows in all her work.”
Our teachers note that we were all abnormally self-critical and that I especially found failure difficult to accept. “He is likely to be discouraged when things do not work out the first time.  He needs to learn patience,” one teacher wrote of me. Mark’s teacher wrote of him, “Billy needs to develop more patience. He is so anxious in beginning  anything  that is new to him that he does not think as well as he can.” High levels of anxiety (clear evidence of a lack of confidence) as we undertook new tasks or projects were common to the four of us. We had other traits in common that were documented during our first years at Rufus Putnam.  Janey was the most difficult to understand but we all had speech problems. I wrote in the student’s section of a Putnam report, “I am trying to talk so people can understand me better.” Also, our ball handling skills were mediocre or worse because of the lack of any sports equipment at the orphanage. (That’s hard to believe, but true.) One playground supervisor at Putnam wrote of Mark, “He needs training in catching and pitching, and lacks coordination.”
But it was not just in observation that the teachers at Rufus Putnam contributed to our recovery.  We immediately responded to the emphasis at Rufus Putnam on the creative arts, none of which were given any attention at our former school near the orphanage.  We all responded to music in Ms. Morley’s twice weekly music classes after no music classes in our former school or at the orphanage.  “Janey is very musical,” Ms. Morley wrote. “Her dance interpretations are beautiful, graceful.” “Lewis is a good singer. He is much interested in all music activities.” “Mark works so hard in music and he is very musical.”
Of our fine Putnam teachers, my personal favorite was the art teacher, Mary Leonard, and her class my greatest delight. At that time I seemed to have more talent for art than anything else. Mary believed all children are natural creators, which is true, and that all children have artistic talent, which may be true.
Leonard exemplified a major John Dewey principle, building educational programs on the interests of the student.  Because she believed artistic creativity in the young was innate, it followed that the role of a good teacher, like that of a good coach, was to be an encourager and to create the conditions in which the student’s inherent talents could emerge. I believe Mary Leonard was one of the truly great elementary teachers of America.  She and all our Putnam teachers were talented educators and contributed much to building our confidence and restoring our mental health.