Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Reviews and promotion have called my attention to a book called “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find-And Keep-Love” by Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel S. F. Heller, M.A. It turns out to be a re-visit to my old friends Bowlby and Winnicott, the “teddy-bear” Object Relations theorists. During seminary, late in the evening, I would walk down to Michael Powell’s Hyde Park bookstore (the precursor for the Portland Powells’) where I checked the shelf for the Object Relations psychotherapy books coming in from England where the “school of thought” was developing. Much of it was a response to the confused child-raising practices and shattered families of the Brits trying to understand class differences, WWII, the end of Empire, and so on. They were asking something like the questions about “resilience” today: what can make a child invulnerable to tragedy?

Obviously the answer is NOTHING and they were naively more concerned with their own Brit children than the children of the Third World they had once known intimately. Nannies were one answer, though the theory that supported that was not about the discipline stuff that’s fun in comedy sketches but about the continuity of a caring and constant care-giver. (Where does all this alliteration come from? Oh, well.) First intimacy -- that of warmth, enfolding, cleanliness, food, and skin contact (the orphanages discovered the importance of skin contact when the babies without it died) -- becomes one’s template for every other intimacy throughout life. It’s best to know what that template is, even if there’s no wish to change it, because it affects one’s life so deeply.

Without making allowances for differences in temperament (which could be pretty problematic if there were a major style difference between the mother and child) kids tend to sort out into three groups: those who are "anxious" if they are separated from their care-giver (let’s call her “mom” since that’s a short word to type) but settle down quickly when she comes back; the “anxious-resistant” (20%) who are even more upset when Mom is gone and try to punish her when she comes back by pretending to not notice her or to hate her; and those called “avoidant” (20%) who seem self-sufficient and turn away from mom. Of course, in the early thinking of the experts Mom was to blame. Now, not so much. Nowadays some of the experts ARE Moms.

The pattern that had been identified with me at seminary and that I was trying to resolve (didn’t) was not really represented. It was seeking for a savior, choosing someone impossible, providing devotion, and confirming that the relationship ended because it was impossible. Clearly I must really want a relationship for some reason but -- then -- not after all. The professors and mentors liked the first part, but thought of their fall from grace when I detached as my serious character flaw. This turned out to be predictive when I left the ministry. If one is looking for an impossible and disappearing love-object (which was probably originally my father since he was on the road all the time), God is an excellent choice, esp. for a ministry student. So why wasn’t a religious love good enough, any more than any human?

The answer I came to was “fear of fusion.” The feeling that I would be swallowed into the personhood of the loved one and lose my own identity. It was not unrealistic and probably came from my mother considering me an extension of herself, therefore just like her, which I wasn’t. Or maybe she too chose a “leaving lover,” because of her own dad who was a building contractor for large structures (barns and warehouses) and often gone.

There’s another element that I haven’t seen in “scientific” literature, though it’s there in novels. Both my parents were coming from a rural setting to the city where they had petit professional jobs. (White collar/no power, like teaching.) It was a self-conscious time when people monitored themselves, watched themselves, to see how they were doing. Were they stylish enough? Up with the latest stuff? Raising their kids properly? How big a car, how big a house could they afford? How many children? How high an education?

Very much like now, except that then, mid-century, the moving was country to city and now the migration is likely to be regional or even international. These days this “reflexivity”, always watching ourselves, is practically an industry. Surveys. Advice columns. Articles. Night classes. The ‘zines provide questionnaires. You can find “attached” questionnaires on the Internet. For myself they confirm what I already know.

Maybe this element of watching oneself all the time is a good distancing mechanism that leads right into writing, which is one way to commercialize (or was) human relationship. (Short of whoring or counseling.) Watching oneself “parent” distances one from the kid -- interferes with the sincerity and spontaneity that make intimacy work. “Helicoptering” alienates children as much as paying no attention.

What about those floating Third World street kids with no parents? Some attach to an older kid. Some attach to a trick. Some attach to someone who exploits their labor. What choice do they have? Most don’t live long enough to have to worry about it. But they’re skeeters -- vectors for disease and disruption. Otherwise why would society pay any attention to them at all, except to use them as convenient? These children expect nothing, take what they need, but even they spin the fantasies of intimacy: a family, a gang, a sponsoring partner.

A family is no guarantee of intimacy. Families are hard work. The rivalries and injustices and left-over agendas from previous generations interfere all the time. If it’s a real family, someone nearly always needs to be rescued. People die. When people marry nowadays, the two sets of parents are often nothing alike and make no effort to weave together, because their children remarry and remarry and cohabit and don’t settle down until they are old. Dear Abby is always having to sort out entitlements and point out irreconcilable templates. Will someone write a book entitled, “Detached?” Hurry up, please. It’s time.

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