The Richest Boy in the World.
GOSPEL OF MARK, 4:25
WHEN WORD GOT OUT to polite society that Jean-Jacques Rousseau had, starting in the late 1740s, placed the infants born to his mistress Therese Levasseur with the Paris Foundling Hospital, the philosophe and inventor of modern childhood supposed he'd better explain himself. He later wrote (in Volume II of his Confessions) that he had, contrary to appearances, acted to save his offspring--five in total--from "their father's fate":
I will content myself by saying that in handing over my children to be brought up to the public authorities, for lack of means to bring them up myself and by making it their destiny to become workers or peasants rather than adventurers or fortune-hunters, I believed myself to be acting as a citizen and a father would act, and I looked upon myself as a member of Plato's republic.
Though it has a place of note among the Western world's more perverse rationalizations of indefensible behaviour, Rousseau also strikes, as he often does, a vein of true self-awareness.
Some historical context first. In the year 1746, when Rousseau was 34 and he and Levasseur had their first child, 3,274 Parisian children were--according to biographer Maurice Cranston-abandoned in the streets by their parents, and roughly a thousand of these were (like Rousseau's) actually delivered to the "public authorities." Paris had a population of close to half a million in the mid-1800s. In a typical year, more than two thirds of the infants taken in by the city's Foundling Hospital died from disease of one sort or another. Even though he later made inquiries about them, Rousseau never found out what happened to his and Levasseur's children. In private, he felt "remorse" for having taken no measures at the time of giving them up to make it possible to track the infants' later fate.
Orphanages on the European model went out of favour in Canada (with the exception of Newfoundland) in the 1920s. The first Children's Aid Societies, later to become in most of the provinces Child and Family Services agencies, were set up in the late 1890s. Since the late 1920s these bodies have had the power--so long as a judge approves-to seize neglected or abused children from their parents or kin: to "apprehend" such children and place them under the temporary or, if circumstances warrant it, permanent guardianship of the province. The children are then mostly cared for by foster families. Sometimes they go to adoptive parents. Instead of foundling hospitals, we have the legal, bureaucratic, and interpersonal complexity of a child welfare system.
Not that Louis XV's France wasn't a formidable early bureaucracy. Its centralized record-keeping of child deaths, if not its policies and instruments for preventing those deaths, seems to have been superior to that of the province of Alberta in the digital age. (1) Nor were Rousseau's actions typical. The middle class of that time and place had strong moral codes concerning paternal responsibility. There is little reason to feel morally superior. Still, we can pinpoint with much greater accuracy now the harm that would have been inflicted by the author of Emile upon his abandoned children--supposing any of them survived infancy.
Children, especially between the ages of one and four, but after this crucial developmental period as well, need more than the food, shelter, and hygienic living conditions that a well-run orphanage can provide in order for their brains and psyches to grow in a healthy way. Children can survive deprivation of most every sort, but what they will become without love and attention is another matter.
DAVE HEATH'S 1956 black and white photo "Vengeful Sister" shows a boy of about eight curled up in pain on a concrete landing, as though he's just been hit, while a slightly older girl runs away from him, howling or (possibly) laughing. The photo is from A Dialogue with Solitude (1965), which former National Gallery curator James Borcoman once called "undoubtedly the most important book by a photographer to appear in [the 1960s]." Heath is also known for the photos of American and South Korean infantrymen he took during an uncertain ceasefire that stretched through the winter months of 1953-54. (To mark the fiftieth anniversary of their creation, Lumiere Press of Montreal in 2004 came out with a limited edition fine reprint of the portfolio, entitled Korea.) Some of the soldiers look no older than eighteen or nineteen. Their faces are marked by anguish and grief. The pictures in A Dialogue with Solitude were taken in American cities. Some are of children; many are of women in their twenties or thirties.
Heath's central thematic preoccupation arises out of the fact that he was abandoned when he was a toddler by a biological mother--and father--he would never know. According to Borcoman, "[Heath] spent the rest of his youth until he was sixteen in foster homes and an orphanage." A Dialogue with Solitude is a book haunted by loneliness, unknown women, the anguish of missed crossings, and by distractedness (what we might now call "dissociation").
Born in Philadelphia in 1931, Heath has lived much of his life in southern Ontario. He returned to his theme in 2010 with a book of colour photos, Eros and the Wounded Self , dedicated to the mother he never knew. Figures of anonymous women hurry to unknown destinations or pause, absorbed in caring for children, in emotionally intimate or merely physical proximity to other adults, in solitary contemplation. The photos, presented in unrelated sequence, allude to the power of the mother (and, by implication, of the lover) to wound by turning away, and her power--perhaps--to resuscitate. Though they lack the grain and texture of his darkly finished work of the 1950s and 1960s, these remarkably disabused images combine warm depths of colour with a cool formal precision. (Eros and the Wounded Self, which has not yet found a publisher, can be purchased at blurb.ca.)
AROUND THE TIME Heath was serving as a combat infantryman in the Korean War, an upper-middle-class Londoner named John Bowlby (1907-1990) was beginning to formulate the psychological theory of attachment. Bowlby's father was court physician to Edward VII, his mother a society lady; the children of this family were largely cared for by domestic servants. John Bowlby would later write that the person he "attached" most strongly to was a nanny who left the family's service when he was four. As a man he became one of a group of psychoanalysts (which included Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, and Donald Winnicott) working out of London's Tavistock Institute during the Second World War years and afterwards.
The World Health Organization, working to help children whose lives had been disrupted by the war, commissioned Bowlby's groundbreaking report Maternal Care and Mental Health (1951), which concluded that, even if the exact psychological mechanisms were not understood at that time, "the prolonged deprivation of the young child of maternal care may have grave and far-reaching effects on his character and so on the whole of his future life." In the ensuing three decades, Bowlby parted ways with his Freudian teachers, skirmished with behaviourists, and linked the concept of attachment to evolutionary biology, ethology, and systems theory.
Bowlby's University of Toronto-trained colleague Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999) devised the experiments in the 1950s and 1960s to test attachment that have been repeated by hundreds of researchers since. In the "strange situation" experiment, both a one-year-old's behaviour towards her mother and a mother's behaviour towards her one-year-old are observed through a one-way window. Baby explores the room. Mother slips out while baby is playing. Stranger enters the room. Baby reacts. Mother returns to the room and reunites with baby.
The experiment differentiated between three sorts of responses: one indicating "secure" and two others insecure-"avoidant" and "ambivalent" --attachment. (Ainsworth's successors later added a fourth category: "disorganized" attachment.) A securely attached infant will be distressed by the mother's absence and stranger's presence, but upon reunion soon permits his mother to comfort him. He pulls himself together, as the English say. He shows that near mythic quality: resilience. But Ainsworth found that even among middle-class British or North American test groups, only about 70 percent of infants are securely attached.
Attachment, in the child developmental sense, doesn't have anything to do with biological kinship. After the 1960s, Bowlby drops his emphasis on maternal as opposed to parental care. The bond of attachment comes into being as a result of the mutual attentiveness over time between a child and the person or persons who parent him. In the third volume (1980) of his Attachment trilogy, Bowlby defined "attachment behaviour" in this neutral way: "any form of behaviour that results in a person attaining or retaining proximity to some other differentiated and preferred individual." Mostly this involves "little more than checking eye or ear on the whereabouts of the figure and exchanging occasional glances and greetings." If the attachment figure is not responsive or accessible, however, the child resorts to "following or clinging ... also calling or crying"-whatever will "elicit his or her caregiving." When the child is separated for a long duration from, or if she loses, the attachment figure, various sorts of psychological consequence ensue.
As Bruce D. Perry puts it (in his 2007 book The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook), attachment is "a memory template for human-to-human bonds." An infant or toddler who never attaches to a parental figure, or who receives "inconsistent, frequently disrupted, abusive or neglectful" parenting, will have an abnormally developed "stress-response neurobiology." That is, s/he will never learn how to calm and soothe the fear and anxiety that are a natural part of life-and never learn that "interactions with loved ones are our major stress-modulating mechanism."
IT DOES NOT REQUIRE a super-mom, or a breast-feeding mom, or even a mom, to protect against the debilitating epigenetic outcomes of neglect. In the ever-useful term of Bowlby's colleague D.W. Winnicott, a "good enough mother" is all that is needed, and a bottle-feeding mother --or father, for that matter-can indeed be sufficient to ensure attachment and psychic wholeness.
Attachment is not a secondary behavioural system, Bowlby insisted in his later work; it is primary. But it is entirely distinct from the need to eat and drink. Nevertheless, one outcome of the popularizing of Bowlby--the one that has led to the phrase "attachment parenting" in recent years becoming conspicuous among the upper and showiest layer of the North American middle class-has thoroughly confused attachment behaviour with breast-feeding.
In addition to encouraging breast-feeding well beyond the years of infancy, the "attachment parenting" vogue calls for the mother to stay home so as to make herself constantly available to the child or children. Often it involves "co-sleeping" practices. Because of the time and resources required, it is an elusive ideal for parents working full-time or for single parents. As there is to date no neurological evidence whatsoever for a degree of attachment beyond "secure"--business-class attachment, say, attachment for those that hath--parents of modest means and everyone else would do best to ignore the fad.
And yet. "Attachment parenting," this grotesquerie of twenty-first-century social display, is something more than a baroque curiosity. Behind the pseudo-concept is a biocultural artifact--a chimera of empirical observation; of legal, literary, and everyday verbal tradition; and of the most powerful intimations of personal experience. Even distorted by ideology, the artifact that we call "attachment" can tell us a great deal about ourselves.
When Rousseau declared that he was saving his children from his own fate by depositing them at the Foundling Hospital, he meant that the peasants or labourers he imagined they might become would be spared the torture of amour-propre, the struggle for status. He had liberated them from the misery of being middle-class aspirers, show-offs, enviers. Yes, there was a crazy paternal arrogance in making that decision for his children.
Even so, Rousseau's self-accounting points unforgettably towards some inescapable ambience of class identity that seeps into what should be purely psychological or neurological considerations.
The bestselling works of the Canadian physician Gabor Mate reflect the doubled social reality of attachment theory: on the one hand, the middleclass people buying his books take "attachment parenting" all too seriously, as a marker of status; on the other hand, the transients and addicts washing up in downtown Vancouver's Lower Eastside-and whose stories feature in those books-self-medicate for an array of very real psychic wounds, pre-eminently (according to Mate) attachment disorder.
Still, if you hope to make sense of, and empathize with, the non-imaginary sufferings of a toddler fitfully cared for by drug-addicted birth parents, apprehended in the first year of her life, and put in the care of a series of foster parents, the theorizing of Bowlby and Ainsworth and their popularizing successors will assist you much more than classical psychoanalysis. Fifty years on, we know that the "adversity" that comes with poverty and family chaos blights children's cognitive and emotional development.
Whenever I try to approach attachment in a strictly scientific sense, I find myself enmeshed at once in the question of inequality. To speak of attachment is to speak of parents and parenting (though not necessarily of biological parents). Tell me about your parents, and you tell me about the chances handed you in the form of their material circumstances. None of us gets to choose the ones who parent us. But by their educations and the size of their paycheques, the degree to which they are crushed or used up by work and/or other anxieties, their sense that they are or are not respected by others, we are each set on our respective ways. As the childhood development researcher Clyde Hertzman put it in 2013, those life trajectories are, more than ever, "socially partitioned."
IF I'M ATTUNED THESE DAYS to the depth and complexity of emotion around attachment, it's because I've been a foster-to-adopt parent for nearly seven years (a citizen, I hope, of a kinder commonwealth than Plato's republic). Recent experience has made me sensitive to the reverberations of attachment pain--I don't have a better name for it--running through the lives of my contemporaries, but also through certain works of art and literature. I'm like a bell that resonates to the cosmic and historical ironies of St Mark's "he that hath."
Modern awareness of attachment really only begins about fifty years after Rousseau--the earliest relevant text I know of is Wordsworth's Prelude sequence about a babe "blessed" in its early development by a secure attachment to his mother. Some Dickens novels--Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend--glow red-hot with attachment pain. It's there as well in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Halldor Laxness's Independent People, just about the entire body of work of Mavis Gallant, several of the stories in Colm Toibin's Mothers and Sons ... but this is by no means an exhaustive list, never mind a genealogy.
In contemporary culture, I sometimes come across attachment pain given powerful artistic form, and not just in books: Dave Heath's photographs are shot through with it, as I have mentioned; so too are the songs of Gillian Welch or Vic Chesnutt.
The last song on Vic Chesnutt's final record At the Cut is "Granny," which he said came to him complete in a dream one night in a Toronto hotel room. Chesnutt, adopted as a one-year-old by an economically struggling family in Zebulon, Georgia, was born (a year before me) in 1964. At the age of eighteen he broke his neck in a drunken, solitary car accident.
From some of his later lyrics, one gets fragmentary pictures of his upbringing, which was among poor whites. On one track from Skitter on Take-Off (2009), Chesnutt sings with harrowing shame and defiance about a mother working with a sewing machine to hem discount clothes for her children. Elsewhere his impolitic humour takes aim at an oblivious North America that pretends class differentiation was left behind long ago. Chesnutt's impish mid-1990s song about Prince William, "Wounded Prince," expresses a submerged fellow-feeling for the solitude of the richest boy in the world, left with his royal nannies while his "mama's getting poked/by some bloke/in the Bahamas."
Because of his quadriplegia, Chesnutt played an odd, affecting guitar, his left hand moving freely to form basic chords, the thumb and index finger of his right hand a kind of claw that picked out a minimalist melodic line. "Granny" is a piercingly simple song. A child speaks to his grandmother in her kitchen, asking her what she's doing. She answers him: she's making "pimenna [pimento] cheese"; she's "picking out the blackberry seeds [from her false teeth]." The song interlaces the child's questioning and being answered with the rhythms of living, of feeding and being fed, and so with the firming up of the child's sense of security and belonging.
The deep sadness of "Granny" is that the song's singer is not entirely one with the dialogue between grandmother and child. There is some great unspoken reason why it is the granny (and not the ma or pa) who is the attachment figure, she who comes up out of dream to protect and cherish. But it is not in the song's workings to tell the story in full. Structurally, the song is three-personed, and the singer, for all his incantations, is somehow not bound to family and to the rhythms of world and earth in the way of the blessed child of the dream.
There is a YouTube video of Chesnutt performing "Granny" live at a house party in Saskatchewan in November 2009. His banter is gleefully scabrous as ever, but he's tired. Late in the song, he pauses for an instant to curl his shoulders. He twitches his upper abdomen forward over his wheelchair, as if the sheath around his ribcage is cramping. ("About half of my diaphragm works," he told Terry Gross of NPR that year.) But he keeps singing. Muscle relaxants made it possible for him to perform.
Six weeks later, on Christmas Day, he took a fatal overdose of them.
THE CHILD'S VOICE in "Granny" asks the grandmother where his granddaddy, her husband, has gone to; she answers that he's been in heaven since "before you were born." And then the song turns out of its minor key to finish, the grandmother's voice in Vic Chesnutt's voice sweetly assuring the child, "you are the light of my life, / and the beat of my heart."
(1) In June 2013, Alberta's Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner upheld a freedom of information application made by journalists at the Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald, forcing the Ministry of Human Services to begin publicly releasing information about children who died while in the care of the province between 1999 and 2012. See the November 26, 2013, Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald article by Karen Kleiss and Darcy Henton, "Fatal Care: Foster Care Tragedies Cloaked in Secrecy," and the other articles in the "Fatal Care" investigative series. Alberta Human Services has since committed to providing, starting in April 2014, "year-to-date monthly statistics" online about the deaths of children in the intervention system. The ministry has also posted the following statistical document online: "A Preliminary Analysis of Mortalities in the Child Intervention System in Alberta" (http://humanservices.alberta.ca/documents/accfcr-analysis-mortalities.pdf).
Since 2008, J. MARK SMITH has learned more about Alberta's child welfare system, from the inside, than he ever imagined he would. He teaches in the English Department at MacEwan University in Edmonton. His poems have been published most recently in Vallum and the Malahat Review.
DAVE HEATH recalls that his reading of a 1947 Life essay about orphans and foster children, "Bad Boy's Story" by Ralph Crane, was an important early moment in his life as an artist. Heath's work has been collected by the National Gallery of Canada, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, and the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, among others. He taught at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto from 1970 until 1997. Since 2001, he has been working with digital colour photos, some of which can be found in Dave Heath's Art Show (C.J. Oystering Publishing, 2007).
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|Author:||Smith, J. Mark|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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