Friday, August 15, 2014
Traster and That Primal Wound: Quick, Call a Celebrity!
A reader, Sandee, suggested the other day that I write about a disinformative blog, http://www.adoption.net/adoptive-parents/blog/rescuing-julia-twice-conversation-with-the-author-adoption-groups-can-t-stop-talking-about?vnc=wuavX09V9a14E. The blog post in question poses Tina Traster as an expert on the development of adoptive children and pursues her beliefs with admiration. She seems to have become the Jenny McCarthy of the adoption world and is having her 15 minutes of fame in a similarly dangerous way (dangerous to other people, that is). This is evident in one of the interviewer’s first questions: “What is RAD, in your own words and as a parent?” (my italics).
Who cares how Tina Traster defines Reactive Attachment Disorder “in her own words”? Are diagnostic criteria now a matter of personal opinion? Do worried hospital ethics committees now tell each other, “this is serious. We’d better consult a celebrity”? There is no question that over the years the DSM criteria for Reactive Attachment Disorder have changed somewhat (it was originally defined as an early feeding disorder), but the term has never been up for grabs in Humpty Dumpty fashion.
Someone I knew a long time ago insisted on calling apple jelly marmalade, and was always annoyed when he was handed marmalade after asking for it, rather than getting the apple jelly he meant. If we are going to communicate about anything-- and especially about important issues rather than condiments—we need to be in agreement about the meanings of terms, and for maximum communication we do well to accept the definitions of people who have studied a topic systematically and empirically. Traster and many others of her type want to define Reactive Attachment Disorder as “apple jelly” when knowledgeable people have already defined it as “marmalade”. This does nothing but darken counsel, and it leads unsophisticated readers to think that Traster is talking about the same disorder that is described in DSM ; but, she isn’t.
That Traster is not really talking about Reactive Attachment Disorder is evident in the list of symptoms she describes as characteristic-- none of which are diagnostic criteria given in any of the editions of DSM. Traster states that the children who should receive the Reactive Attachment Disorder diagnosis are superficially charming and manipulatively engaging with strangers, but aloof and disengaged with familiar caregivers. She says they don’t make eye contact, chatter incessantly, and want to control everything. They also fail to connect cause and effect, according to her.
Anyone who has studied the alternative or vernacular psychological theory that is the basis of Attachment Therapy will recognize these characteristics as part of the diagnostic checklist used by people like Walter Buenning and Elizabeth Randolph, and more recently by “Kali” Miller, who has had her psychology license suspended in Oregon. Children who show some of these symptoms in a severe and persistent way may indeed have mental illnesses or other conditions which if unresolved will produce a concerning developmental trajectory; it’s also possible that their parents or caregivers are the ones with the emotional or behavioral problems, or that the adults may have fallen for a much mistaken belief system. Superficial charm and exploitation of others (if intense) can be aspects of psychopathy. Failure to make eye contact can be a part of autistic spectrum disorders, or, of course, it can be culturally determined, as many groups regard a child’s direct gaze at an adult as highly disrespectful. Constant talking can be part of some genetic disorders, and as for wanting to control everyone and everything, who doesn’t?! The cause and effect thing is something that Attachment Therapists seem to have picked up from Piaget’s work on cognitive development, but they don’t appear to have thought through what a person would be like if he or she actually did not understand cause and effect (could they catch a thrown ball, for example?). I think what they actually mean by this is that the children keep performing unwanted acts even though they are severely punished for them; however, the parents’ failure to understand behavior management is not the same thing as the child’s inability to comprehend cause and effect relationships.
But let’s go on with this interview. Where does Traster think Reactive Attachment Disorder comes from? She names a number of potentially harmful experiences such that no one in their right mind would predict good outcomes as their results. But then she goes on to the crunch: that the real causal problem is “the traumatic break of the maternal bond, or the primal wound,as some call it…”. Now, talk about failure to understand cause and effect relationships! Traster is assuming that early separation from the birth mother is traumatic, because she believes that there is a “maternal bond” or emotional connection of child to mother, that has occurred before birth. She ignores the well-known development of child attachment to caregivers (father too) over the later months of the first year after birth, and therefore misses the developmental period during which abrupt, long-term separation does cause obvious emotional trouble. Why does she do this, other than simple ignorance about child development? She is following the claims of various “alternative” thinkers, such as Nancy Verrier, David Chamberlain, Lloyd DeMause, the Association for Pre-and Perinatal Psychology and Health, Nandor Fodor, Frank Lake, old uncle Georg Groddeck, and all. These people have all claimed that on the basis of their own mystic knowledge, sometimes assisted by LSD or partial asphyxiation, that empirical evidence about early development should be rejected and their own assumptions accepted instead.
Now Traster states that she is no longer worried about her adopted daughter because the child is both “bonded and attached”. She seems to miss the point that the real meaning for “bonding” has to do with the adult’s emotional commitment to the child, not vice-versa. And this interview shows enough of her ongoing concerns about how people have treated her (no baby shower!) that one does wonder to what extent her own needs have gotten in the way of the relationship with the child. Her warning that parents should avoid therapists who seem to be “charmed by the child” also suggests an ongoing uncertainty about which person is the child, and which person a therapist has to find charming. Again, this is good old Attachment Therapy stuff-- that the adult caregivers deserve special attention and care and are having a really hard time, while the unfortunate child is simply causing trouble and should be ignored by other people (e.g., Nancy Thomas’s advice that the children should wear dark glasses when in public so they can’t give people sad looks).
Really, it’s all very depressing. Traster knows how to work the celebrity thing, and her followers love that. The fact that she’s wrong again and again, and that there are many other people who know better than she does, just doesn’t seem to make much difference. Unfortunately, celebrities aren’t held accountable for bad outcomes, as professionals sometimes are.