I am writing a book manuscript, Trauma Nation, which looks at how the United States is organized around the propagation of traumatic defenses. My work as a psychotherapist informs the project. I wonder what it would take to heal centuries of violence, oppression, complicated grief, and emotional neglect—much the way I am concerned for my clients. And yet this impulse to heal, social engineer, reform, etc., is symptomatic of what is often traumatizing about the US and the West in general–the continual need to address the impact of modernization and living in seemingly unnatural circumstances.
But what counts as natural? My personal gold standard has been our earliest ancestors. At times I look to the first hominids over five million years ago, when social emotions first developed. Other times I study the Upper Paleolithic some 40,000 years ago when protocultures began to flourish (and likely mirror neurons and dissociative defenses). And yet these comparisons have limitations. Such retrospective lenses get criticized for projecting values and biases, and sometimes say more about the person theorizing and her cultural milieu than the object of study.
I also value qualitative research that amplifies the unique voices of the people studied. This approach takes restraint and can be risky. It’s hard to be taken seriously as a researcher without overlaying some theory or interpretive frame. And yet there is something about unfiltered self-expression that resists objectification and can be more informative than the most well-thought theory. However, often the people most at risk of being “engineered” by social agendas show up as statistics, which although well-meaning (including protecting confidentiality), nevertheless can perpetrate what Michel Foucault called biopower: “techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations.”
I recently read Susan Madden Lankford’s Born, Not Raised: Voices From Juvenile Hall, which uses photographs and questionnaires to give voice to an often objectified population, incarcerated youths. Lankford is a photographer, documentary filmmaker, activist, as well as an author. She and her daughter spent a year visiting youths at a juvenile hall in San Diego, California. Their initial question was How did these kids get into this mess?, and yet their approach gave voice to the youths’ dreams, fears, hurts, and longings as much as answer their initial question.
Lankford showed black and white photographs to the kids in the Hall—e.g., a photo of a woman looking out a window, a portrait of a middle-aged man, a 1920’s
photo of a couple pushing a stroller that is holding twins—and asked them to write about what they thought was going on in the photos. One sixteen-year-old girl gave this explanation of the picture of a woman looking into the distance:
“This young………well actually old woman looks as though her life has been so rough. I think you took this picture to share the pain of her face. So stern and not trusting. Scared to believe anymore. Maybe she feels like there is no hope anymore. She looks like she waits for something special or bad to happen. Struggling with emotions she wants to hide or has hidden for a long time. I think she wonders am I real. Am I a person who deserves things. Am I special. “HER THOUGHTS” “Will or can I obtain these things.”
For one fifteen-year-old girl the photograph of the couple pushing the stroller led to these reflections:
“I am really in a bad mood because today is the day, that my brother was locked up, and it has been a year since I’ve seen him. It hard to communicate with him because he’s in Juvenile Hall [too]. And the hard part, is it’s hard to show him [that] I care, love, and miss him. Although, I know he’s really disappointed in me. But, I gotta still respect him. He’s my blood brother and its gonna stay that way.”
Lankford copied their handwritten responses and includes them with the photos. She also includes copies of handwritten replies to questionnaires she gave the kids. The questionnaires evoke the troubled lives they led. For example, a seventeen-year-old boy gave the following responses:
Write us what you remember about these topic and at what age:
a. remember being scared? YES, I WAS YOUNG AND MY MOM GOT SHOT.
b. steal something? YES ALOT OF CARS WHEN I WAS YOUNG.
c. help a friend? ALL THE TIME
d. question your happiness? I WAS EIGHT AND I DIDN’T THINK ANYONE CARED ABOUT ME.
What is a family? SOME ONE THAT IS THERE WHEN YOU NEED THEM.
Is this your first time in Juvenile Hall? If not, how many times have you been in here? YES IN SAN DIEGO
Who do you consider a role model in your life? Why? I DON’T HAVE ONE.
What was your most memorable event in your past? WHEN I CAME HOME AFTER I FINISHED MY TWO YEAR SENTENCE.
Reproductions of the kids’ reactions to the photos and questionnaires intersperse transcripts of Lankford talking with the kids as well as professionals, including a public defender, a psychiatrist, and a director of a detention facility. But Lankford lets the kids’ responses speak for themselves. Instead, from her discussions with professionals we find Lankford’s answer to her initial question. For the most part, Lankford concludes these kids got “into this mess” through failures of early attachment, living in disorganized (and often dangerous) families, exposure to trauma, histories of abuse and neglect, as well as failures of the education system to identify at-risk youths. Lankford’s findings support an evolutionary perspective, and the belief that human beings have evolved to initiate certain developmental stages through particular social and environmental conditions.
Although I have not worked with children in juvenile hall, I have worked with adults who spent time there when they were young. What has impressed me is how loving and generous they can be despite their hardships, although they don’t always know how best to express their love (or avoid unhealthy relationships). Feelings of shame about their pasts trouble many of them, which keeps them ostracized from the larger society, and existing on the margins. Attachment-related issues are nevertheless a primary focus of psychotherapy, and yet as I listen to my clients voice their concerns, I learn attachment is only part of the problem.
In his book The Two-Million-Year-Old Self, Anthony Stevens identified four distinct biosocial goals:
- care giving;
- care receiving;
- competing; and,
The first two, care giving and care receiving, relate to attachment needs, whereas competing and cooperating relate to one’s social standing in the world. Full development as a human being involves both. Stevens called them the “two great archetypal systems” that point to our two greatest needs:
“(1) that concerned with attachment, affiliation, care giving, care receiving, and altruism; and (2) that concerned with rank, status, discipline, law and order, territory, and possessions.”
The second archetypal system is often viewed punitively—in terms of breaking the law—or in the case of status, as a lowly pursuit associated with lack of integrity. And yet pursuit of power and status is so predominant—and resistant to some of the most rigorous attempts at social engineering—that perhaps we should become more curious about what motivates such drives. Why is it that people who fail to receive care giving seem to put so much energy into fulfilling this other archetypal need (or fantasizing about it)?
Stevens might say the preference for status is common to societies like the US that organize around hierarchies, which he contrasts with more affiliative societies organized around mutual support. The kind of society you live in likely determines which archetypal system (and corresponding needs) you will prioritize, particularly if the other archetypal need goes unfulfilled.
The focus on attachment is not a shortcoming of Lankford’s book—she gives a compelling account of how crucial healthy attachment is for human development. I recommend her book to anyone working with youths in juvenile hall or the foster care system, as well as to people who spent parts of their childhood in juvenile hall. I also think her book would be a valuable resource for people training in social work and counseling. Yet the harsh reality could be that the United States’ hierarchical social structure compels us to change the “voices” of those we find threatening despite that what they express is likely inevitable in a society that values status and power over mutuality and support.
Laura K. Kerr, PhD, IMFT is a Mental Health Scholar and Registered Marriage & Family Therapist Intern in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, visit her website.