A Monster Iguana
Trying to figure out the brain and developmental pathways in humans from conception to death is not idle. I first became interested because I wondered where intense “religious” feeling came from, and because counseling and group work in preparation for the ministry often takes the influence of childhood seriously, whether or not it is Freudian. (It counts in character development for the theatre and in teaching as well.) But then when I began to read about trauma in children, both sexual and simply abusive or maybe “just” verbal, it became significant to know at what age the damage was done because it was likely to be the spot needing attention and unraveling. A five-year-old understands sexual penetration in quite a different way than a fifteen-year-old.
Of course much damage is done in terms of emotional organization and even intellectual development. Maybe it’s tougher for a kid who had a life of cherishing and nourishing that was ended abruptly than for a kid who was raised in addled, criminal, bruising circumstances and learned how to survive it. Even by joining it. In fact, those old patterns are often more crippling than broken bones.
If sexual abuse was mixed with extreme violence, which often happens when boys are doing street survival sexwork, then some things will be written in flesh, bone and blood. Pretty hard to find an experience impressive enough to overwrite it. If initiation into a gang is a near-death beat-down, what else have you got but death? These convictions about survival are deep in the old brain, maybe even the brain stem. They are inscribed in neurons with the sharp point of a syringe needle.
The seemingly archetypal age for targets of sexual and violent abuse appears to be what Freud called Latency, what some call the Quiescent Child, others call Adrenarche. Many of the famous child-hero stories are about this age (6 to maybe 11), both male and female. For girls they are pre-menstrual/pre-pregnancy years. Until the ability to identify people via the DNA of epithelial cells and various body fluids, this might have been considered a “safe to molest” age because victims are known to be experimenting with story telling. They are old enough to object, which is part of the titillation for some, but not really big enough to resist. They are big enough to use guns, maybe knives, but will be blamed for that. Smart ones can set traps, maybe offer sex or other services like theft or carrying messages.
They are still developing social skills and affiliations. The small sex play incidents in the neighborhood where I grew up happened with this age group, but often with a newly adolescent child (12 or 13) leading the way. I can remember (maybe age 3 or 4) being invited to let several boys of maybe 8 or 9 years look at my tiny cleft. So I did. No touching, no trauma. Just electricity coming off those boys. I’m hard-wired counter-phobic — if they had seemed scary, I would have done it anyway.
I think those same boys did something worse to my younger brother. He was a clam about almost everything. Our family was progressive, maybe a little too much. My young cousin had a girl friend who asked if she knew where babies came from. “Sure,” she said, pulling clothing out of the way. “Right there!” How does one know whether kids should know too little or know too much? So much depends upon the age and personality of the kid and the nature of the social environment.
Searching for salamanders
Two things are particularly relevant. One is that a person is a process and can develop, change, learn, forget, re-assemble in new circumstances. It's called "plasticity," which is a dumb word for it. "Survival" is better. Maybe a kid can’t figure out what’s happening as a pre-schooler, but by high school it’s a different story, altered by memory. Maybe a devastating one. Increasing consciousness of one’s own life can be disorienting, self-hating, unbearable. Suicidal.
The other thing is that so much of the human mind is truly unconscious — not repressed, never put into words so it can have a name, but a physically linked reaction in the way that any mammal can shy away or bite when something triggers a deep provocation. We’re learning from PTS, a name and syndrome we’re still defining. We’re learning from red chairs where one can imagine ghosts sitting so one can tell them off. A certain smell, a dog barking far away, an item of clothing in a certain style — a shadow passes over the heart.
If there’s anything abused kids have, it’s game. Girl games are different from boy games but they learn from each other. I have on my shelves the classic “Games People Play” by Eric Berne, and a derivative by Steiner called “Games Alcoholics Play.” Both are very helpful and relevant. Games pop up in churches, schools, media, different ones relevant to different cultures and situations. Some people call them “defenses.”
The original Berne book has a sub-title: “The Psychology of Human Relationships” in one place and “The Basic Handbook of Transactional Analysis” in another. The key premise is that games are between people and that what’s happening is a transaction. Sometimes it’s bargaining: “If you do this, then I’ll do that.” Sometimes a gift: “I’m giving you this. Will you please like me?” Or maybe a threat: “Either you do this or I’ll make you wish you had.”
What makes this interesting is that the interactions have handles so you can pin them down to think about, and sometimes they have two handles: the obvious one as above and then underneath it another secret transaction with oneself: “I’m a shit and I’ll make you prove it.” Or maybe, “You know nothing, Jon Snow!” The culture also plays games: “You pretend you’re grateful and I’ll give you free HIV drugs,” or “I give you free medical help so you owe me and I don’t have to be nice.” It might not be conscious.
The best thing I got from “Games Alcoholics Play” was the pattern of triangles with three roles: offender, persecutor, and savior. What makes THIS interesting is that they slide around from one corner to another. There’s the original offender, then the persecutor and the savior that intervenes. But then the offender may become a persecutor of the savior, esp. if the person is identified with a certain part of society (women, social workers, cops), and then the original persecutor has to turn to being the savior.
The most obvious game is “Uproar,” overturning the game table to prevent any conclusion being reached, esp. if you’re losing or things are getting sensitive. A big fav among women is “NGYYSOB”, pronounced “nickysob.” The acronym is for “now I’ve got you, you son of a bitch” — it means trying to trip someone into behavior they deny.
By the time of adolescence, most kids know a lot about all this, but that doesn’t necessarily make it work. A sharing circle of kids can often be far more enlightening than an adult guide, but they tend to be a little harsh so then the guide must intervene. But this is where the terrible lizard of the reptilian brain can be brought up to the light of the pre-frontal cortex and, through fire, be revealed as a tender, lovable salamander.