Monday, March 18, 2013


My understanding of attachment is biological and cross-species.  When I was in my twenties (normally the years of maternity) with Bob Scriver, a surprisingly maternal man, he repeatedly captured very young wild creatures and brought them home, expecting me to care for them -- which I did with pleasure, but on a basic level.  That is, I fed them by hand, took them to bed with us at night (except for the eagle), and interacted with them until they reached adolescence.  I was helped by a mother cat who nursed very young babies and taught the adolescent bobcats how to hunt.  When they approached adolescence, all these animals -- who were not caged -- left on their own to find new territories.  They’d disappear for a few days, come back, then eventually be gone for good.  We did not reflect in those days about morality of doing this. (I have never given birth or nurtured a human baby.) 

Through his later life, Bob would hatch eggs of larger birds, carrying them in the front of his shirt.  They imprinted on him and followed him everywhere even as adults.  If they were migratory, like the Canada geese which he stole from wild nests, they would leave unless caged.  (He never acquired chickens or “chicks,” in the human sense, but the latter were mostly not interested anyway.  He was a little too funky for most even after he was famous.)

Our relationship was similar to that of the geese:  I was closely imprinted and followed him everywhere until I had grown in skill, confidence and curiosity enough to “fly the coop.”  By that time he had converted me to being an instrument of his success and not much more, certainly not allotting any time to nurturing or even simple interaction.  It was not his fault that this omission opened up in me exposure to my childhood attachment issues.  He did not mind that I distanced myself, becoming an instrument, a writer with him as my subject.  He wanted that. 

The problem -- in some ways -- was not in our age difference (b. 1914 to b. 1939) but in our generational difference, since each generation has its own assumptions about what is meaningful.  His own attachment issues meshed with mine in dysfunctional ways that were deeply magnetic, holding us together.  His mother had dutifully raised her first son, but was ambivalent because of her difficulty in adjusting to a marriage that took her from a comfortable and cherished life in Quebec to the high windy prairie of the Blackfeet reservation.  In the English way, that son was the heir and belonged to the father.  As second son and therefore “hers,” Bob had to fight to escape smothering.  All these people had very strong will and vitality.

My infancy and earliest years were also with a surrounding mother, closely attached because my father traveled, who then became impatient with me after two boys had arrived.  Her mother was dying slowly of cancer.  She was stretched thin and pressed me into service as her instrument until I escaped in high school by being a high achiever, which was a major family value.

“According to some psychological researchers, [ambivalent/resistant attachment] develops from a mothering style which is engaged but on the mother's own terms. That is, sometimes the child's needs are ignored until some other activity is completed and that attention is sometimes given to the child more through the needs of the parent than from the child's initiation.”

I spent a great deal of time reading, attached to the people in books.  The family protected this, valued it.  Bob did not.  Once I hit puberty, I was separated from my brothers which became a separation from the whole family.  I went into my room, locked the door, and lived in books.  Bob didn’t allow this.  It is my pattern now, except that I lock the house.  My congregations were alarmed when I locked my office.  The pattern worries most locals, who are socialized to stay in groups, usually family.  When I go to Town Council and sit at the back, they are almost offended.  They want interaction and a webwork of attachments.  Church congregations were like this as well, which was part of my unease with ministry.  I see towns and congregations as books.

“Around 65% of children in the general population may be classified as having a secure pattern of attachment, with the remaining 35% being divided among the insecure classifications. Recent research has sought to ascertain the extent to which a parent's attachment classification is predictive of their children's classification. Parents' perceptions of their own childhood attachments were found to predict their children's classifications 75% of the time.”

In summary, a small preponderance of people welcome attachment but one-third are unsettled or ambivalent.  This may be both caused and perpetuated by the kind of society we have.  

“Children are likely to fall into the same categories as their primary caregivers indicating that the caregivers' internal working models affect the way they relate to their child. This effect has been observed to continue across three generations. Bowlby believed that the earliest models formed were the most likely to persist because they existed in the subconscious. Such models are not, however, impervious to change given further relationship experiences.”

The major shift I see now is a universal turning towards attachment to peers rather than to adult care-givers.  Day-care, group events, peer mentors, and -- more than anything else -- minute-to-minute constant electronic connection, plus the focus of the media on grouping children into markets, have meant that kids today don’t turn to adults for care or advice.  They ask each other what they ought to do about issues as serious as unwanted pregnancy, murder, disease.  Adults are seen (as in the days of early interaction of whites with Indians) as seizers, who will either exploit or imprison them.  For the most part, they are probably right.  Worldwide we probably have more missing and incompetent parents than at any time since the post-WWII chaos.  Criminal seizers have it easy.  Supposedly benevolent seizers have it tough.

Not only do kids try to take care of each other, many are pressed into taking care of their parents.  I don’t mean old frail parents, but alcoholic, childish, incompetent adults whose children -- often quite small -- try to feed, warm, comfort, and doctor their mothers and sometimes fathers or even grannies.

In all fairness it must be admitted that some kids exceed what normal parents are able to provide.  “Another issue is the role of inherited genetic factors in shaping attachments: for example one type of polymorphism of the DRD2 dopamine receptor gene has been linked to anxious attachment and another in the 5-HT2A serotonin receptor gene with avoidant attachment. This suggests that the influence of maternal care on attachment security is not the same for all children. One theoretical basis for this is that it makes biological sense for children to vary in their susceptibility to rearing influence.”

Survival of individuals and of groups, as well as whole species, is dependent on constant adjustment to new conditions in the environment, the ecology.  An occasional maladjustment may be a source of improvement.  Too great a maladjustment or two many of them will end in elimination.  In the Anthropecene Era the biggest and scariest changes are in other humans, but also they have a remarkable capacity and willingness to nurture each other.  Yet we must also attach to the foxes and geese, because they are part of our ecology, too.

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