IN DEFENSE OF
"THE PRIMAL WOUND"
by Marcy Wineman Axness
"When you come down
From your Ivory Tower
You will see how it really must be
To be like me to see like me
To feel like me"
--Van Morrison, 1986
A few years back my husband was suffering from a mysterious, worsening pain behind his heels. The pain and its intrusion on his lifestyle was depressing for him, and even more depressing was the sense that this seemed to be one of those things that might never get explained but would rather, hopefully, go away on its own. It didn't, and he continued chasing down relief. One day he came home from the podiatrist happy and hopeful. He had seen his problem on the X-rays, he had seen in black and white exactly what was causing his pain. Real, tangible. There was a name for what was hurting him.
There are no X-rays for hearts, for souls. There are only courageous people willing to step forward and speak of certain difficult truths. I'll never forget the evening when I read Nancy Verrier's preliminary paper on her concept of the primal wound. I felt a sense of relief down to my bones, a tearful epiphany of Oh God, someone finally knows me, sees me, understands this impossible ache/not-ache, this me/not-me that I've been living all these years, in solitary, the loneliness of not being understood, and moreover, the exasperation of the narrow halls. One walks narrow halls of life when one is not conversant with one's full spectrum of being. Confined, and puzzled as to why. . .
And yes, for that night, and weeks of nights thereafter, I felt that I'd found 'The Key' to me: "Ah ha, so this is my core issue, and all those years of therapy, of dancing around the ancillary issues, was simply a prelude! " For awhile I suppose I did become "over-identified" with the primal wound, which is a concern that some experts have over this kind of ideological theory. These experts believe that to ascribe to any one theory the genesis of a person's essential make-up is a mistake. In the long run, I agree, as I will discuss later.
One Jungian thinker points out that Verrier unwittingly invokes the power of the Mother/Child archetype inherent in her ideas, an archetype which carries tremendous emotional appeal and therefore tends to lead readers of "The Primal Wound" to naturally find its precepts overwhelmingly true. The concern is that other ideas, images, and insights equally relevant to the individual will not be integrated in a healthy, well-balanced manner, but rather eclipsed by the primal wound and its powerful archetypal image.
One of the functions of an archetype, as I understand it, is to strum deeply-buried feelings. Clarissa Pinkola-Estes tells us that archetypal stories present us with the knife of insight, and set the inner life into motion--particularly important where the inner life is wedged or cornered. So many adoptees I've met and read about have inner chunks of themselves bound up in archaic chains; the tumult of powerful feelings that a relevant archetype can call forth may in itself be therapeutic--an emotional cathartic.
Then, later, comes the work of integration, but not, I believe, before one has had the opportunity to wallow, to swim deeply and languorously in this place of long-craved empathy. We're parched cisterns needing to be filled to over-flowing and then some, and then some, and then some, and then. . . slowly. . . we can begin to integrate, to be sensitive and receptive to other ideas, other influences, other forces which have relevance in our lives. Paradoxically, the comforting containment of Verrier's insights allowed me to open my eyes to myriad other important forces in my life, forces which I'd always dismissed as irrelevant to that overwhelming core ache.
To expect a set of newly-introduced (and, as in the case of the primal wound, profoundly powerful and empathic) ideas to go to a place of ready integration is like me expecting my child to be fully independent before she's had her fill of being dependent. It's neat and orderly, convenient, non-threatening, but it invalidates life as process, as everything in its own time. It ironically stunts growth rather than hurrying it along. And to worry that a struggling adoptee will remain in the grip of this archetype-based idea of the primal wound, so that everything for that person will forevermore be explained by that theory, is to reveal a cynicism about the emotional and spiritual resources of the adopted person to continue the process of integration, the process of pursuing wholeness along whatever paths lead the way.
There is a certain philosophy on the rise, no longer confined to California and the New Age, which proposes that we choose everything that happens to us. Currently promoted by Jungian analyst and author James Hillman in his bestseller "The Soul's Code", this notion states that each of our souls has a blueprint, or "daimon", which selects life experiences and circumstances for that individual which will forge his or her soul to its true, rightful shape and hue. Hillman has little patience for theories of early trauma determining behavior or personality, believing that such theories insult the integrity of the individual and his or her singularity. Hand in hand with this kind of self-determined fatalism, it seems, goes the attitude, "You chose it, so it's trivial--and degrading--folly to seek to amend it. "
I would propose to Hillman, and others holding a similar attitude, an elegant paradox which requires that we step out of our black-and-white, linear ways of thinking into a more inclusive, lateral-thinking mind-set: What if, for my true self to become manifest, I not only needed to experience being separated from my original mother at birth, but also needed to be given acknowledgment and empathy for that very painful experience? ? For that has been my experience: prior to reading about and addressing the primal wound in my own life, I felt simply bound up by a vague malaise, constriction, and what Estes calls "the grinning depression". Since Verrier's words set a healing process in motion, I now truly feel like the unfolding self I was designed to become, unfettered now, and able, as Hillman challenges, to "notice the fathering and mothering afforded by the world every day in what it sends" my way.
A longtime student of Hillman's, Dr. Randolph Severson, is an eloquent and passionate philosopher, author, and therapist in the field of adoption. He cautions, with regard to the primal wound, that "too much psychologizing about the burden and wounds of adoption alienates those who have suffered genuine pain and losses from their own psychological resources and spiritual strengths. Too much pathologizing of adoption forgets that every burden can also be a blessing. The psychological/spiritual goal is for the two to coexist, with one feeling or idea prevailing for a time and then the other, without either ever being negated or ignored. "
I believe these to be very wise words indeed. But to own that feeling of a burden, one needs to understand the nature of the burden, to have stared right in its face and down its throat. However, many adoptees have gone through their lives in the grip of a vagueness that echoes of a burden, of shadows of an abstract burden which have woven themselves around their lives, but with no definition, no resolution. It isn't coincidental that 'resolution' means to render distinguishable the individual parts of an object, and it also means to solve. One, I believe, must precede the other.
But there have been precious few opportunities in the lives of adoptees to achieve the first kind of resolution. All eyes in our adoptive families were on the blessings, so ours had nowhere else to look. "We were so blessed that you came to us" was never balanced with "It was sad that you had to leave your other mother. " "You're a precious part of our family" didn't allow for, "I wonder if those blue eyes come from your birthmother or birthfather. " The burden, which as experienced by the adoptee was pre-verbal and pre-cognitive, had no context, no language through which to be recognized as such.
Dr. Severson says "to separate [blessing and burden] adds to the internal blights that we know as depression and denial. " But we are pressed into separating blessing and burden through the simple non-acknowledgment of the burden. No one named our burden--well, Florence Clothier did way back when, but no one seemed to listen--and then came Reuben Pannor and Annette Baran, speaking of 'emotional amputation', and now Nancy Verrier and the primal wound.
There are those who object to Verrier's presentation of the primal wound as theory--or ideology--rather than as anecdotal insight based on her own clinical observations. How many cases of something must be observed before we extrapolate that to a more general theory of cause and effect which we may expect to see given a certain set of circumstances? If one person out of a hundred steps on a rusty nail and doesn't get tetanus, does that invalidate the disease as a disease of which to be cognizant? Did the person who identified Clostridium tetani bacterium fall under criticism for generalizing too broadly beyond his specific research subjects? Should he have simply related his findings as anecdotal and left it up to his readers to draw their own insights regarding what they should do when they step on a rusty nail? Did he somehow abridge their basic rights and freedoms by setting forth his findings as conclusive paradigmatic evidence as to the gravity of those types of wounds?
That each and every one of us is an individual who defies inclusion in a generalized theory is a romantic notion; at our core, we all chafe at being seen as anything other than our singular selves. But it's axiomatic that following this mentality would lead us to clinical nihilism--we'd never be able to diagnose a thing, for any bases for diagnostic comparison would be essentially invalid. It is in our nature as humans to try to make order out of chaos, to gel that which is inchoate, to 'get a handle on it'.
Attachment theorist John Bowlby says, "in living creatures variation of response is the rule and its explanation is often hard to fathom. " There are always a complex of factors contributing to any human circumstance, and to reduce any human experience to a single explanation inevitably falsifies and dehumanizes that experience. Rather than descriptive of a single event or circumstance, I tend to consider the primal wound as referring to cumulative experience, encompassing the heavily ambivalent, anti-connection, pre-natal mother/fetus relationship, then the separation of the child from its biological mother, as well as a spectrum of adoptive parenting styles and subsequent experiences which may compound or ameliorate the earlier trauma.
What is equally false and dehumanizing as oversimplification of the causes of an individual's make-up, is the act of 'protecting' that individual by shielding them from their truth through lies of omission. There are many in the adoption field who seem to feel as if an embrace of the validity of the primal wound--by acknowledging what appears to be an unavoidable truth in adoption--would cast an unacceptable blight upon the entire life cycle of the adoption and the adoptive family. That kind of mentality is what leads to the various ills of the dysfunctional family, for as the late Dr. David Viscott simply defined it, a dysfunctional family is a family who runs from its pain. Runs to alcohol, drugs, over-work, perfectionism--all the handmaidens of denial, all the enemies of a sound inner life.
Many people worry that the notion of the primal wound fosters victim status in birthparents and adoptees. I propose that it simply acknowledges an existing condition through which we often already feel like victims! This same misperception is seen in adoptive parents' worries about how traumatic the telling about his or her adoption might be to their child, without any consideration given to the fact that the adoptee was there, and felt it when it happened! (If you have any doubts as to what babies--even before birth--feel, sense and know, there is plenty of research available: the recent cover story of "Life" magazine; Thomas Verny's "The Secret Life of the Unborn Child", or David Chamberlain's "Babies Remember Birth". )
There are those who consider the primal wound to be a forum for adoptees to do yet more whining and blaming, rather than 'getting on with their lives'. The message I've gotten all of my life is "count your blessings, stop whining, get on with it. " I have a fundamental problem with all modalities and methods which stress changing behavior, changing attitude, re-framing, at their primary bases. They only added to my frustration and self-flagellation because I just couldn't make those changes and re-framed realities 'stick'. Yes, these approaches have been incredibly useful to me, but only after having walked into that emptiness inside me, and felt it--finally, deeply--and grieved it. This, in my hard-won experience, is what effective therapy is about--not 'fixing' it, but feeling it.
To try and pick oneself up by the bootstraps and 'get on with it', before having the chance to lick one's wounds, to even see one's wounds, that is when one's life vitality is siphoned off, by any of myriad defensive coping mechanisms, by over-whelming feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, depression, and sometimes by thoughts--or more than thoughts--of suicide. (So many of the soul's painkillers are truly suicide in installments--smoking, alcoholism, drugs. ) By the way, let me state here that I absolutely do not claim this territory as solely belonging to the adoptee, but to anyone who has turned away, through coercion, collusion or self-delusion, from one's deep truth.
You see I believe that the adoptee has a deep--yes, primal--knowledge that Mother isn't this woman who's holding and feeding and cooing at him. (Plenty of solid research shows us that a newborn knows its mother and will work very hard to obtain her over anyone else. And while Brodzinsky et. al. assure adoptive parents that recognition doesn't equate with attachment, I believe that is a semantic distinction which is irrelevant to a newborn. ) And throughout our childhood, although this deep knowing prods us down deep, telling us that the emperor is naked, we come to embrace, out of our existential survival instinct, the position that the emperor is fully clothed, because that's what everyone else is saying, everyone upon whom we depend. We gradually become alienated from our own inner knowing, which leads to a hollowness inside, a hollowness that can't be filled by the noisy details of our lives going on, our school plays, our swim meets, our slumber parties, and 20 years later, our kids' soccer games, our promotions, our exciting plans for the new house, our baby on the way. The hollowness just feels more hollow when none of these can seem to "fill us up".
So when I am faced with the attitude, "Once an adoption has occurred, what good is served by insisting that adoptees are at a higher risk for anything as a result of separation from their mother? ", I find myself livid. This attitude reeks of the same repugnant paternalistic attitude of a doctor who might say, "Why tell her she's got inoperable cancer? Why not let her live her remaining months in peace? " (read, "in ignorant bliss". ) People have a right to the entirety of their realities. People have a right to own everything they are, including the not-so-nice, problematic, there's-no-easy-solution aspects of themselves, even if it makes things uncomfortable for their significant attachment figures.
And while there are those willing to accept the idea that "something like" a primal wound might "to some degree" afflict every adoptee "depending on a complex of other factors", I don't believe that's a strong enough position to be of any pro-active use to coming generations of adoptees. They need more than ambiguous 'might be's and 'maybe's, because you see, for every 'might be' and 'maybe' there is a 'maybe not', and adoptive parents, by and large--forgive me while I generalize--and adoptees themselves, all entangled in society's denial of adoption's real issues, will opt for the road most traveled, in other words, the 'maybe not'. "Our child doesn't suffer from that primal wound business. "
My God, how many beaming adoptive parents will gaze upon their bright, giggling, rosy-cheeked 4-year-old doing cartwheels on the lawn, and embrace the idea that she's likely carrying with her a very deep hurt, which may be scarring over in ways which will cinch in on her life ever so slowly, ever so invisibly? Unless there is literature and counseling out there which prods them, which challenges them to open up to the broader inner life of their child, how could we even expect them to? What parents need is support and guidance in opening to the truths of their child, not more coaching in denial.
Dr. Wendy McCord, a therapist conversant in pre- and perinatal issues, suggests that there are things adoptive parents can do to acknowledge and allow an adopted infant's loss and hurt, and thereby begin a healing process. These are simple, concrete things which, while perhaps challenging of parents' idealized vision of the adoptive experience, will begin to establish an atmosphere of trust for their child. This trust leads to the kind of intimacy which, more than any piece of paper, decrees them as that child's real parents. For parents who act not out of their own needs and insecurities, but rather out of a truly respectful, supportive orientation to their children, those are real parents. And that is real love.
Instead of sympathy--which will foster victim status--what a hurting child needs from a parent is empathy. "I can see that you're hurting. I bet you're missing your other mother. " "It was sad for both of you that you couldn't stay together. But I'm here for you and I'm going to stay here with you. " These may be difficult words to say, words which prod at an adoptive parent's own hurts and losses--of infertility, the death of another child, or other deep pain suffered on the road to adoption. But I can think of no greater gift a parent--any parent--can give a child than the freedom to be exactly who she is, with all that she feels, so that she doesn't have to bear, throughout her lifetime, the leaden emotional baggage of banished feelings.
When my children were each very small, I participated in weekly infant/parent guidance classes. One of the most revelatory things I learned was to acknowledge a child's feelings at getting hurt--or even just scared--in a fall, a pinch, a bump, whatever, without 'swooping' them up in rescue fashion, and 'making it all OK. ' "You tripped over that toy and bumped your knee, and I can hear how much that hurt, " or, "That was really scary to fall off the swing. " What a nice contrast to what I hear so often at the park as mothers respond to their children's accidents and tears. "Oh, I don't see any blood, you're OK, you're OK! " You see, to allow our children their feelings is quite uncomfortable because they needle our own buried hurts. In telling them, "You're OK, " we're making sure we're OK, too.
What I came to find with both of my children is that when their hurt is acknowledged, they don't feel the need to cry much at all. (I believe a lot of kids' crying is protracted in an attempt to convince the parents that "There is something to cry about, damn it! ") Many people are familiar with the fact that adoptees often have a whiny, "Why me? " response to myriad things in our lives, and now here's Verrier giving us one more, really juicy thing to whine about. But I propose that Verrier's ideas hold the promise of finally hearing our whines, the equivalent of the mother who picks up her crying child and instead of saying, "You're OK, everything's OK, " saying "That really hurt, didn't it? "
Verrier has been accused of loading birthparents with the guilt of responsibility for the primal wounds of their relinquished children. That mentality underestimates the emotional integrity (strained though it may be through grief and loss) of birthparents and their ability to face reality. Guilt is a mantle assumed by the wearer in the face of difficult truths which cannot be integrated; I hate to trot out an old '80's self-help slogan, but it's true-no one can make you feel guilty without your permission. Shall I not speak the truth so you won't feel guilty? To invoke a tattered psych-speak word, sounds co-dependent to me.
I feel that no one is responsible for my journey other than me; I feel blame for no one (only possible after good therapy), and hold a deeply cosmic and karmic view of my adoptive experience. And I agree that to treat our adopted children as victims would cripple them in their ultimately solitary task of reconciliation and healing. But even courageous lone travelers need the guidance of honest folks offering directions, and reliable guideposts by which to find their way.
I thank Nancy Verrier for offering us a beacon, a map of one kind of injured soul. Yes, some will get stuck at this particularly comforting way-station, and may languish there too long, maybe forever. But it's not our place to attempt to 'protect' anyone from that fate, because the journey belongs to them, with all of its vicissitudes. I thank Nancy for not letting those vicissitudes daunt her. I thank her for having the guts to stand up and speak a gritty truth against which many people will rail, and for which she will be called many things besides a truth-bearer.
Marcy Wineman Axness, an adoptee, lives in California with her husband and two children. She writes and lectures nationwide on adoption and pre- and perinatal issues, and is completing a novel, THE AWAKENING OF PEARL McEVOY.