A few months ago, Gorilla Girl was having a hard time in school — major meltdowns, tantrums, and what her teachers describe as “hoarding” — of paper, scraps, class toys. They were concerned partly because Gorilla Girl seemed to hoard without purpose. I made an appointment with the school counselor, and in the meantime, one of Gorilla Girl’s teachers, who is an adoptive parent herself, lent me her copy of The Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier, with a warning that some of it was difficult reading.
Although it was difficult, it was also worth the challenge. Verrier makes a convincing argument about the profound loss of birth mother that affects children deeply, even when they are adopted virtually hours after birth. Drawing upon the research of others, clinical experience, and statistics about the experience/treatment of children who are adopted, she points out that this early loss is central to understanding adoption and the relationship between adopted children and adoptive parents. She maintains that the notion that “love conquers all” is far too simplistic to help families deal with the complexities of adoption. Love is certainly a part of the equation, but that love needs to compel adoptive parents to understand, investigate and provide resources for adopted children.
One of Verrier’s central premises is that the loss of the biological mother, even when children are young, remains imprinted upon their experience. The idea that children don’t understand what has happened to them, she claims, is absurd. Children have an experiential memory — and that memory, even if not verbalized or attached to narrative, lodges in their psyches and affects a future personality and relationships.
Much of Verrier’s book made sense to me, and when her anecdotal and clinical descriptions mirrored the experiences I have had with both of my children — the compliant child and the defiant child — I was even more convinced that she was on to something. I don’t mean to suggest that she reduces all personality and temperament issues to adoption — that would be too simplistic on the other end of the spectrum. However, her insights helped me to get a more realistic handle on the underlying causes of behaviors that seem inconsistent, unexplained, or terrifying. It is the kind of book that needs at least a second read, and I plan to come back to it again.
For the moment, though, Verrier’s insights are helpful to keep in mind as my children face the challenges of structures in school, of expectations, and of relationship with each other and with their adopted family. Specifically, one of the behaviors that Gorilla Girl’s teachers noticed –hoarding — is sometimes described in children who are adopted. Perhaps it has something to do with attempting to fill a void, or with reassuring the self about a connection to things that represent comfort. Of course, GG’s collections may lead her to a life of accumulating many unique objects, so in and of itself, her compulsion might lead to some outlets for self-expression.
One of the more helpful things about Verrier’s book was her honesty about her own experience with her adopted daughter. She had come through on the other end of the story, and even though she was careful not to reveal too much of her daughter’s personal struggle, it was clear that as a family, they had faced challenges that she also documented in her clinical practice. That ability to move in and out from deep personal connection to the professional approach proves most helpful since distance can sometimes give you a new idea about understanding that may not come in the heat of a moment. The distance of the clinical approach can be helpful in seeing what you can’t see when you are enmeshed in the struggle.