Monday, January 16, 2012

ON JOINING THE CLAN


There are adoptees who think that one must be reunited to one’s biological origins and clan to be a whole human being.  That was not my experience at all.  In fact, that notion seems to me absurd.  I have read accounts of adoptees who felt they were standing outside the circle of affection when attending the extended family gatherings of their adoptive clans.  Again, that was not my case at all.  The Luchs and Coulter clans, relatives of my adoptive father and mother, were at first curious and then opened their arms and accepted us as their own. And we accepted them
In time we would come to know the family culture and the ancestral histories and all the special family stories and would adopt these as our own.  That was easy for my three younger siblings who had few memories of our biological family at all.  But even in my case, with my fading memories of biological relatives, I found the integration of the Luchs and Coulter clans into my sense of who I am a natural process. It seemed normal to me that the parents of my adoptive parents would be my grandparents, that their brothers and sisters would be my aunts and uncles, their nephews and nieces, my cousins.
We spent our summer vacations on Coulter ancestral land and lived in a dwelling called the Old House built by my adoptive great-grandfather in the 1860s.  We slept in the bedroom that Cliff Coulter, our much loved adoptive grandfather, shared with his three brothers, Frank, George, and Harry.  Now it was my bedroom and the bedroom of my two brothers, Mark and Michael. The Coulter boys had slept over seventy years before in the same two brass beds in which my brothers and I were now sleeping.  Nothing, not the beds or the mattresses, not the water stained wallpaper, not the worn thin, faded multicolored carpets, had changed since then. 
During those long summer vacations we not only slept daily in the beds of our grandfather and his brothers, but drew and carried buckets of water from the same spring and drank and washed with its water daily.  We used the same outhouse under the same hickory tree, probably a sapling in their time, a giant in ours. We walked daily the same path they used that ran down through a field they planted in wheat or oats. We picked and ate the large sweet black berries from the same patch north of the Old House and probably heard the descendents of the same robins and catbirds, jays and flickers and hermit thrushes they heard.  Did they feel a soft morning breeze push through the white translucent gauze curtains across the room as I did?  Over the summers, as the experiences became cumulative and sank into us deeper and grew richer in meaning, layer upon layer, happy summer after happy summer, we became part of the place as the adopted but very real members of the Coulter clan. 
Two adoptive uncles, Ken and Newt, were models for us, men we aspired to become.  Ken was handsome, sophisticated and learned, everything I wanted to be.  But the uncle we saw most often during our vacation summers was Uncle Newt. While Ken presented an image of sophistication and urbanity, Newt appealed to every boy's interest in playful, flamboyant, virile masculinity.  Unlike his older brothers and mom, Newt did not go to college.  He drove a pop truck full of cases of Royal Crown Cola and bottles of Nehi beverages that he delivered to country grocery stores and diners and filing stations throughout Clarion County.  At the age of twelve I thought Uncle Newt had a great job and little gave me more excitement and pleasure than being invited to ride with him, helping him carry cases of pop and stopping for a lunch of meatloaf and mashed potatoes in one diner or another along the way.  Already in his 30s when we first met him, Uncle Newt still had the heart and spirit of a boy.  He was happy go lucky, he was fun. 
He showed us how to place our hand around a cow's warm, soft teat and pull it down and squeeze it at the same time to make a jet of white milk splatter the bottom of the pail. Sometimes he liked to show off his milking skill. With one long pull, which he aimed a dozen paces across the barn, Uncle Newt could hit the faces of a line of patient half-grown kittens who did not seem to mind being splattered with warm milk, which they then licked off their whiskered pink noses with their tiny tongues.  
On July 4th you could hear Uncle Newt coming from a mile or more away, lighting red two-inch firecrackers with his burning cigarette and throwing them out the window along the roadside.  He arrived for a day of fun with fire works of various types and sizes.  
We lived for Newt's approval in our early teens.  One compliment from Uncle Newt brought a smile that would shine inside of us for two or three days.  Our adoptive mother’s brothers, our uncles, were our heroes and models, especially Newt because we saw him so often and because he so clearly enjoyed being with us.   All this bonding through experiences with Uncle Newt was part of the process of becoming members of the Coulter clan, even though we did not share a drop of this uncle’s blood.    


Friday, January 13, 2012

THE AFTER SHOCKS OF CHILD ABUSE


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

IT TAKES A SCHOOL TO HELP HEAL A WOUNDED CHILD


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.