Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Did Anne of Green Gables Have Reactive Attachment Disorder/

Looking at various on line discussions of Reactive Attachment Disorder, we see multiple claims that every orphaned, mistreated, or medically fragile child is likely to have RAD (a disorder incorrectly claimed to cause anger and aggressive behavior). Made-for-TV movies like “Child of Rage” echo these claims. But… people have not always thought that orphans as a group were overtly or covertly hostile to other people. This is a fairly recent idea, and one without real support.

Let’s look at how people used to think about orphans in the 19th and 20th centuries. Literary depictions of children give us some information about how people thought, because readers would not have accepted stories that went against their own beliefs about orphans.

Should Anne of Green Gables have been diagnosed with RAD? She was described by L.M. Montgomery as having come from an orphanage to her adoptive home on Prince Edward Island, so she had experienced the separation from her birth mother that is supposed to be a major factor in RAD. She was taken in by people who did not really want her; they had asked to be sent an orphan, a boy, who would be helpful on their farm and grow up strong to work for them. Anne’s adoptive mother wanted her to be sent back to the orphanage and exchanged for the right kind of child, but Anne had winning, though exasperating, ways (hmm, psychopathic charm maybe?) and the adults decided to keep her. As she grew up, Anne was a bit impulsive, but affectionate to her caregivers, and friendly to her teacher and other children. In later books, she was shown as falling in love and marrying, while maintaining loving relations with her former caregivers. The author  clearly did not think of Anne as emotionally handicapped or depict her as having more risk-taking behavior than went with her red hair (an assumption of the time). Orphans were all right as far as L.M. Montgomery was concerned.

Did Oliver Twist have Reactive Attachment Disorder? Born to a poverty-stricken mother who soon died in the workhouse, and not knowing his father, Oliver spent his first years “on the parish” with minimal food or care. When big enough to be useful, he was sold to an undertaker as an apprentice, but escaped only to be taken in by the criminal Fagin and forced to learn to pick pockets by his terrifying mentor. All the elements of abandonment and mistreatment are here, even Oliver’s presence at a murder. Nevertheless, Oliver grows up as a kind and engaging person who is willing to give half of his small inheritance to someone else. Orphans were all right as far as Charles Dickens was concerned.

How about Dondi, if anyone else remembers him? Dondi was a comic strip character following World War II. He had a lot of black hair, pale skin, and huge dark eyes. His ethnicity was far from clear, but he was a war orphan of some kind, and was adopted by a very rich lady with a lorgnette and an immense bosom. She was always drawn from a child’s-eye perspective, so the bosom was much in evidence. Despite his experiences of separation and trauma, Dondi was not only not angry, but was depicted as wholly good. His reliable moral compass made him an ethical adviser to Mrs. Van Bosom and her friends. Orphans were not only all right, but purified by suffering, in the opinion of the artist.

And then, what about Huey, Louie, and Dewey, or Ferdie and Mortie? These Disney characters of the Depression, fostered by their uncles, the cranky and indifferent Donald Duck and the somewhat more socially engaged Mickey Mouse, were depicted as mischievous, but no more so than non-orphaned children. Their independence was admired rather than being interpreted as high-risk behavior.

My point here is that beliefs, expectations, and stories about influences on children change historically and are not necessarily good guides to decision-making about individual children. When narratives tell us that orphanhood is a psychologically healthy status, we tend to believe that, and when we believe it, authors tend to tell us that  orphans do very well even under very difficult circumstances. When narratives like “Child of Rage” tell us that orphans are not only dangerous but capable of hiding their threat from us, we may believe it, especially if the stories are repeated. And when we believe, there are many reasons why more such narratives may be presented to us.

What’s the moral of this discussion? It’s not a good idea to depend on stories for our understanding of children’s mental health. Stories are always more interesting when they exaggerate reality, and when they repeat for us what we already think. They cannot tell us about diagnosis and treatment of emotional disorders as systematic research can do.


It can be hard for people to resist the appeal of “Child of Rage” and more recent examples of the type – but just think: would you expect to learn the real facts about sharks from “Jaws”?  About human physiology from “Fantastic Voyage”? If not, just keep in mind that stories about childhood mental illness were not written as sources of fact, and we should not try to use them that way.

9 comments:

  1. Today Anne of Green Gables would certainly have been diagnosed with AD for "persistent nonsense questions and chatter." Murella thought there was triangulation of adults going on. Accident prone, impulsive, and "unrealistic fantasies" would fit, too.

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  2. Yes, she would have been diagnosed with AD by those who DO diagnose with AD! Not with RAD, though...

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  3. And don't forget the time she broke her chalkboard over that kid's head :)

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    1. Hi Theresa-- I was waiting for you!

      That incident always reminded me of when I smacked a pesty boy over the head with one of those big flat geography books we used to have.

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  4. And what about Jerusha Abbott, the main character of Jean Webster's novel "Daddy Longlegs"? She was an orphan from birth, raised in an orphanage, but was smart, cheerful, and able to adapt to her changed circumstances when a generous benefactor decided she must go to college and payed for her education. She made many friends from various backgrounds. Far from being "damaged" by her stay in an institution, she decided to use that experience to work on reforming those "child asylums", as they were known.
    I wonder if today, she would be branded as a "psychological liar" because when in college, she hided that she had been in an orphanage and told the other girls that she had a family living afar, so that she wouldn't feel singled out.

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    1. *pathological, not psychological (autocorrect is a terrible tool)

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  5. This is getting to be quite a list!

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  6. Hi, I am very curious about your comment that RAD doesn't cause violence, rage or aggression in children. My nephew displays all of this (he was adopted out of the Foster system). He has been diagnosed with RAD, as well as Fetal alcohol syndrome and oppositional defiant disorder, all under the umbrella of the FAS. It could be the combination that is responsible, but everything my family has read, and the psychiatrists they have seen does say that those are typical RAD traits.

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    1. Anyone who says the traits you mention are typical of RAD has obviously not read the DSM description of the disorder. ODD does include the behaviors you list, so why do you ascribe them to RAD?

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