"THE BOY WHO WAS RAISED AS A DOG, And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook" is quite plainly meant to remind you of Oliver Sack’s beloved collection, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” You know how those crazy people do crazy things and boys are sorta like puppies anyway. Bruce D. Perry, perhaps because of the help of his co-author, Maia Szalavitz, is up to the task. There’s a second sub-title, in case you didn’t pay attention to the first one: “What Traumatized Children Can Teach us about Loss, Love and Healing.” The boy in the title really was raised in a dog cage, but had the advantage of being in there with real dogs. One case is a true sociopath, a cold killer. And the Branch Davidian children, those spared from the confrontation holocaust by early removal, were cared for by Dr. Perry.
My favorite anecdote is about Dr. Perry arriving to see those Waco children for the first time, but being stopped at the door by a classic Texas Ranger, tall and armed. He did not believe that Dr. Perry, who had long hair and wears sandals, should be allowed inside. Dr. Perry explained that he was a child psychiatrist. The Ranger countered that all these good children needed was love and time. Dr. Perry saw a girl sleeping on a couch in the room behind the ranger. “Go check that girl’s pulse,” he asked. “Then tell me whether she needs help.”
The girl’s pulse was 160. The Ranger knew that was twice what it should have been. “This girl is in trouble!” he said. “Call a doctor immediately!”
“I AM a doctor.” One of his useful discoveries was that heart speed is an excellent indicator of emotional stress and that the kind of monitor runners wear to pace themselves can be an accurate “lie detector” even when the child doesn’t know whether he or she is lying.
The Ranger turned out to be one of the best adults in the lives of those children. Steady, practical, protective, and warm. In fact, years afterwards when the children were traced and visited as a follow-up, it turned out that the ones who were put in homes with those qualities, regardless of whether the families were surviving Branch Davidians or entirely secular, were the children who had found their balance and went on with their lives.
Perry’s book stories are not so dramatic as Barrus’ “The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping” (who couldn’t save his boy) or any of Vachss’ mysteries. But they are as profound and more explanatory. Perry uses cutting-edge brain research to guide his gentle therapies with children mostly younger than those of Barrus and not so criminal as those of Vachss. Perry understands a brain is something “built” by responding to what is happening to it and that damage at different points in the development of the brain leave it with deficits in characteristic places, affecting behavior in different ways. The answer is not surgery, is sometimes drugs, but is mostly social interaction in a way the brain can respond with new growth. Often the help is so basic and obvious that one groans that it hasn’t been provided earlier.
For instance, Perry tells us about Mama P, a huge “grounded” earth mother in a muumuu. All the children she cared for were “her babies” and when they freak out, even if they are seven years old, she simply holds them and rocks them. What she is doing is nothing like the grotesque exaggeration of “holding” that Perry also describes, a kind of restraint and injury that forces a child into distortions of reality. Mama P knows what she is doing and subscribes to no fancy theories. When Perry is confronted with an institutionally raised mother whose child is wasting away because she gets none of the natural cuddling and play most mothers love to provide, he asks Mama P to take in BOTH the mother and baby to live with her. This is done FOR A YEAR and saves them.
Perry makes it clear that one of the major deficits in the lives of children is the loss of the extended family and the alert community. This last week I was questioned again by former friends who could NOT understand why I would live in a village of 350 people on the prairie when I “could” be living in a city. I would not have to explain to Perry, whose original training was at the University of Chicago a while after I was there. He makes this clear right at the beginning by describing his two supervisors in the clinic. One, who might as well be called “Herr Doktor,” is all suit and theory, advising against anything but distance and analysis. The other is a male version of Mama P, doing what is obviously natural and helpful.
When Perry the beginner sees the little family of a girl he is trying to help going out into an arctic Chicago night, he knows that theory says he should keep his distance and let them cope, which he does a few times until he can’t stand imagining them at the several bus stops they will have to take to get across town. So he drives them home, agrees to stop at the grocery store on the way, and finally helps carry the heavy sacks up the stairs to the one-room apartment. That way the mother can carry the baby.
Was she just manipulating him? Playing games? Or wasn’t it simple decent practicality to get this woman and her young children home as safely as possible? Does one have to ask “what would Jesus do?” He is afraid to tell his stiff supervisor about it, but his human advisor is delighted he has made a “home visit.” “We should require EVERYONE to do that! It is SO valuable!” Perry is able to explain why the latter supervisor was right. He was not able to explain how that woman found the drive and strength to get help for her child at such a cost.
For many decades I’ve read this kind of book, partly to help myself. I had no great suffering in my life, but always a bit of a deficit somehow. I can trace them to public context (WWII), generational deficits (a maternal great-grandmother and then grandmother who died young), core family dynamics (a father who made his living on the road), and genetic vulnerability (hot-wired, introverted and near-sighted). I have never found any huge traumas, though there were some painful incidents. Blundering along, I found Bob Scriver and the Blackfeet who together healed some shortfalls. I think this is most often how the lives of most people are. But once in a while things go terribly wrong and unlucky. That’s when you need someone like Perry or Vachss or Barrus, depending on the problem.
You know where to start? Art. Barrus’ boys have portfolios. Perry begins with his children on the floor with coloring books and crayons. They don’t necessarily color inside the lines.