The early, heartbreaking rages of a baby with attachment disorder

From the very beginning to the very end of our lives together, Casey suffered from violent and debilitating rages and temper tantrums. The slightest thing would seem to set her off. She wouldn’t accept our attempts at comfort, so she was left alone to thrash around in her room until she fell asleep, waking up the next morning a new person, as if she’d exorcised an evil spirit inside her.

The “experts” told us she’d grow out of it; we just had to be tougher with her. How clueless they – and we – were.

Imagine if you’d been abandoned by your mother, for whatever reason. What if she had other children? You could be living in Shangri-La (as Casey did in Northern California) as opposed to rural Poland. It’s not surprising that your thoughts would turn to, “Why did you keep them and not me?” That would be enough to enrage me. And who would you take it out on? Your adoptive parents.

This is a scene from The Girl Behind The Door about Erika, Casey’s and my first night together in our hotel room in Warsaw on a hot night in July 1991, when we first discovered the depth of Casey’s rage.

*   *   *

 I’d never fed a baby before and felt like I’d been given a ticking hand grenade. I cradled Casey awkwardly in the crook of my arm, trying not to drop the bottle. She had a blissful look on her face, eyes half shut as she finished. I took the bottle from her and looked for something to wipe her mouth with, finally using my shirttail. She gazed at me, just as she had in the orphanage the day before. Now what do I do? Erika was still in the bathroom.

I walked her over to the window. We had an expansive view of a drab, gray sprawling city. A faint pinkish-red sunset filtered through a thin layer of smog. Across the street was one of the tallest and, perhaps, ugliest buildings in Europe, the Palace of Culture and Science. Built in the 1950s, it was a ‘gift’ from the Soviet Union.

Casey looked out at the view, seemingly mesmerized by the flow of traffic down below, a bustling swarm of small cars and trucks that must have looked like toys to her. Erika returned from the bathroom looking weary but happy. “Did you remember to burp her?”

“Burp her?” I remembered reading about it in a baby book somewhere. Erika rolled her eyes as she took Casey from me, hoisting her over her shoulder. “You always burp a baby after she eats.”

I called room service to order sandwiches, beer and hot water for making baby formula, and then flipped through the channels on the TV – a Russian game show, German news, Italian soccer, French political talk show, Polish documentary on Hitler, CNN. Thank God, something I could understand.

Erika buckled Casey back into her stroller and parked her three feet from the TV. She stared at the screen, unblinking, apparently hypnotized by the wonders of television and the news of the world.

I collapsed on the hard beds, spent, as a breaking story came on about Boris Yeltsin, the first elected president of Russia. “How long have we been at this parenting now? Four hours? I’m exhausted. I don’t know how I’m going to get through this for another eighteen years.”

Erika plopped down next to me. “Get used to it.”

My eyes fixated on Casey in the stroller in front of the flickering light. Here we were watching TV together. “Just kidding. I meant to say it was a good exhausted. I’m loving every minute of it.”

By the time room service arrived with our dinner and we ate, it was close to ten o’clock. Casey was still awake in front of the TV, squirming in her stroller. “Let’s put her to bed.” Erika unsnapped her from the stroller, checked her diaper and laid her in the crib on her belly with a wool blanket, the pink squeaky doll, a stuffed bunny and a goose down comfort pillow she’d bought at a gift shop in Warsaw.

Casey kicked and thrashed like a turtle trying to right itself, then pulled herself up into a crouched position on her hands and knees. Letting out a soft hum, she rocked back and forth on her knees while staring straight ahead.

Erika and I watched, transfixed, through the bars of the crib. She seemed to have no awareness that we were there. Erika whispered, “Oh my God. I think she’s trying to rock herself to sleep.” I studied her. “Wow. We saw those kids on TV in the Romanian orphanages do the same thing.”

Erika and I watched, transfixed, through the bars of the crib. She seemed to have no awareness that we were there. Erika whispered, “Oh my God. I think she’s trying to rock herself to sleep.” I studied her. “Wow. We saw those kids on TV in the Romanian orphanages do the same thing.”

She was referring to an ABC News 20/20 exposé we’d seen the year before about Romanian children abandoned in state orphanages, the disastrous result of a bizarre plan concocted by the Ceauşescu dictatorship to force women to bear children for the state. The televised images were heartbreaking – youngsters in straightjackets confined to metal bed frames in bleak, cold rooms; mentally disturbed adolescents left alone in silence, rocking back and forth; neglected infants drowning in their own filth, too weak to cry.

After about 10 minutes, Casey tired herself out, collapsing in a heap crying. Maybe it was her rattly cough that kept her from sleeping. Erika jumped out of bed, picked her up, bouncing and shushing her, but Casey’s distress seemed to get worse. Her crying became an ear-piercing scream.

I’d never heard such a desperate wail. Didn’t she have an off switch somewhere? We’d had a long day and needed sleep. Erika kept bouncing her up and down, rocked her back and forth, sat her by the TV, but she wouldn’t settle down.

An hour later, at eleven o’clock, Casey finally calmed herself. Erika laid her back down on her stomach in the crib, kissing her hot sweaty head, covering her with the wool blanket and pulling the comfort pillow up close to her face.

Casey Photos 1991-96_0042

We looked at each other, exhausted. I felt like we were two bomb disposal experts who’d just defused an improvised explosive device. Looking over the bar of the crib, careful not to disturb her, I listened to her breathe. Her nose was stuffy so she breathed through her mouth, wheezing from the congestion in her chest. I whispered to her, “Poor kid. You won’t be alone at night anymore.”

Then I blew her a kiss goodnight.


  1. It’s written in the book Childhood Disrupted: “[Even] well-meaning and loving parents can unintentionally do harm to a child if they are not well informed about human development” (pg.24).

    Regarding early-life trauma, people tend to know (perhaps commonsensically) that they should not loudly quarrel when, for instance, a baby is in the next room; however, do they know about the intricacies of why not? Since it cannot fight or flight, a baby stuck in a crib on its back hearing parental discord in the next room can only “move into a third neurological state, known as a ‘freeze’ state … This freeze state is a trauma state” (pg.123). This causes its brain to improperly develop. It’s like a form of non-physical-impact brain damage.

    Also, it’s the unpredictability of a stressor, and not the intensity, that does the most harm? When the stressor “is completely predictable, even if it is more traumatic — such as giving a [laboratory] rat a regularly scheduled foot shock accompanied by a sharp, loud sound — the stress does not create these exact same [negative] brain changes” (pg.42).

    Furthermore, how many of us were aware that, since young children completely rely on their parents for protection and sustenance, they will understandably stress over having their parents angry at them for prolonged periods of time? It makes me question the wisdom of punishing children by sending them to their room without dinner.

    Though it’s only for April, every day of the year should be Child Abuse Prevention Month in this world. … Being free nations, society cannot prevent anyone from bearing children. Society can, however, educate all young people for the most important job ever, through child-development science curriculum. If nothing else, such education could offer students an idea/clue as to whether they’re emotionally suited for the immense responsibility and strains of parenthood.

    To quote Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint (Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School): “This is the most important job we have to do as humans and as citizens … If we offer classes in auto mechanics and civics, why not parenting? A lot of what happens to children that’s bad derives from ignorance … Parents go by folklore, or by what they’ve heard, or by their instincts, all of which can be very wrong.”


  2. There have been a few abandonments in my extended family. I don’t believe all of them turned out as well as they could have if the issue of abandonment and its impact had been truly understood and addressed.


  3. I’m so sorry to hear that Casey took her life. My son, adopted from Russia in 2001 at age one, has made many attempts at his own life as well. It is an intensely painful journey for these dear once discarded little people and for their adoptive families.


  4. Mr. Brooks, this is a compelling story, but it’s incomplete. You mention in your first sentence “From the very beginning to the very end of our lives together…” but provide no denouement. I’ve read fairly extensively about the abandoned Cold War children and have an acquaintance who, with her husband, has adopted two children from Russia. The children are, sadly, acting out all of the negative, predictable behaviors, and are a “handful” for their parents. Notwithstanding, this couple is strong, resolute, and compassionate about their children’s issues. My question to you is how did your relationship with Casey end, and what, if you could bend time, would you do differently today?

    And a passing note: When my daughter was very small she’d occasionally go on the warpath, as all children do, and then we’d have to deal with the tantrums — publicly as well as at home. I asked her pediatrician if there was anything that I could do that would squelch the behavior and he answered “Hold her in front of a mirror.” My wife and I tried it and the results were immediate and positive. When my daughter saw herself red-faced and squalling she almost immediately stopped her tantrum. What the doctor had told me is that when an infant has developed their initial sense of self, reflective surfaces give them a place to study themselves and grow. When a child sees her/himself in an unflattering way they will invariably seek to change the image. The first couple of times with this “treatment” it took a minute or so for her to settle down; but she quickly came to realize that when she was acting out she’d get the mirror treatment, and would stop her tantrum even before we picked her up – which we did, anyway. She has gone on to become a secure, well-integrated, well-educated, and successful professional woman, not at all given to angry outbursts, and remembers, without rancor, her own experiences before the mirror.


    • Dear Allen. Thanks for your thoughtful note. Yes my post is incomplete. I’ve written a book about just the things you correctly raise. Why did Casey take her life? What did everyone miss? What could we have done differently? I just can’t fit it all into 1,000 words or less. I’m happy you and your daughter found a “cure” for her. Therapies and parenting techniques for these kids are so hit and miss, and sometimes you stumble into the right program. Tragically we found all this out too late.


    • I will use that strategy if I am with a child who throws a tantrum in my presence. I wish I had known about it sooner!


  5. What a story of love. Thank you for sharing. It’s such a shame society puts so much importance into “what do you want to do when you grow-up…..” as if the stages of infancy and childhood are just a bumps in the road to Adulthood. But as many of us know, the result of an infancy void of love, protection, healthy attachment, human touch, validation, and affirmation is an adulthood spent searching for someone to convince our broken childlike souls we are worthy and loved and special. ACE findings both validate the WHY for me but also increase the sad realization that as hard as I try, I’ll never fix certain parts of my Little Me who was neglected and abused and berated her entire childhood. Akin to traveling through life with a permanently broken leg, emotionally, I’ll always have parts of my psyche that just don’t work right.

    And I always told myself I’d right all the wrongs done to me when I became a mother. It’s a hard pill to swallow when you find out you can’t fix it all. I have corrected much as my kids would probably score all zeros to maybe 1 as I was a teen mom so I had some trial and error years with my oldest child (and she reminds of such !) And I tell them, it is their turn to fix what areas I and their father were weak in. There is much hope for my grandchildren and beyond. And that is good.

    I pray the ACE becomes the foremost study when looking at the problems in childhood and we stop looking away from families when we think we see something wrong. Too many of us have been fed to the wolves of dysfunction for too long.


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