I had a nightmare, wherein my husband drove us through Greensboro, and he was chatting about this one and that one and the things they had done. The weather was foul, full of wind and thunder. A tornado appeared four streets away from us and roared from west to east. Good backseat driver that I am, I tried to direct him into an empty lot, but more tornadoes were forming there. He indicated the tornadoes and asked if I wanted to die. I told him I wanted to feel safe, and then I awakened.
I suppose that is what we all want--to feel safe, especially when we feel like the world is collapsing all around us. A lot of people take that feeling for granted without realizing it. Abandoned children never do.
I’ve put off this post for a couple of reasons. The first is simply because it is a subject that can occasionally be painful to me. I keep it at a distance most of the time and try to view the past through an analytical lens. I keep perspective that way.
The other reason is because people tend to have very strong feelings on the issues of orphans and adoption. These strong feelings generally result in passionate arguments for or against … well, concepts, and not necessarily children. People dislike having their expectations challenged, and in some cases, feel guilty; although they have, in actuality, done nothing wrong.
Emotions are funny like that. Our brains tell us one thing, but our hearts say something different.
So today, I am going to talk about abandoned children–the perennial favorite of most authors–and these children’s special needs. As an adoptee, I am highly sensitive to themes of abandonment in both film and literature. The casual way in which abandonment is treated has always bothered me about a lot of the myths and stories I remember from my childhood. In these stories, the young hero is abandoned at an early age, but never suffers a single identity crisis. Complicated creatures like mothers and fathers are held at arm’s length, or cast into the shadow of the grave.
In real life an infant knows its mother’s smell and moods. Both the mother and father produce chemicals, such as oxytocin and vasopressin to name merely two, that help facilitate bonding with the newborn infant. Through the great cocktail of chemicals in the human body, all three–mother, father, and infant–nurture one another through sight, smell, and sound.
When an infant is permanently removed from her biological parents, the child is not only deprived of these beneficial chemicals, but stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are produced in greater quantity. Cortisol and adrenaline prepare the body for flight or fight in response to either psychological or physical danger. In some children further imbalances in serotonin and noradrenalin can reprogram the child’s brain to remain in a constant state of readiness. Combined, these imbalances can result in physical issues such as high blood pressure, easy startle response, and instantaneous explosive behavior–symptoms which are consistent with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Even when a child is transferred from an abusive environment into a loving home, the brain remembers, and the child perceives the world as an unsafe place. Children who have experienced early trauma also have attachment issues, suffer from the inability to focus, and possibly night terrors. They are impulsive and tend to exhibit defiance, aggression, and rage. In a subconscious effort to self-medicate, some of these children will become dependent on drugs and alcohol in adulthood.
Welcome to my world. Having experienced all of those things, I can assure you there is hope.
A nurturing environment coupled with parental patience and adults who are aware of the issues involved can mitigate many damaging experiences, but it takes time. In other words, while adoptive parents can’t magically wipe away the past, they can teach their children coping strategies that will enable the children to survive and sometimes thrive.
What does all of this have to do with writing science fiction and fantasy?
With my Los Nefilim series, I have two individuals who were abandoned at very early ages: Diago and his son, Rafael. Diago suffered tremendous abuse, and still deals with the fallout from his early childhood. Rafael, meanwhile, was abandoned at an earlier age and lived in an orphanage before Diago discovers him.
I didn’t need to research the effects of abandonment on either Diago or Rafael–personal experience was already under my belt. I did do some research into how to mitigate the effects of abandonment on children. By looking at the problems and solutions that the adoptive parents of Russian orphans placed in American homes experienced, I was able to see tactics that failed miserably and others who experienced success.
Apparently, in some cases, the adoptive parents weren’t prepared for the emotional issues of their children. They expected love and discipline would be enough. One example that remained with me was that of a young Russian boy who had been adopted by an affluent family. The mother and father tried everything in their power to do all of the things they, as parents, felt they should do. In other words, they employed the parenting tactics their parents had used on them. There was a schedule, and rules, and expectations for behavior, which the youth was unable to fulfill (and this is not to fault the family or the child–they did everything the doctors and psychologists told them to do).
Due to his own fears and abuse, the child could not meet these parental expectations. In frustration and fear, the child lashed out. The family became afraid and got in touch with the adoption agency. The agency placed the child in a different home.
The second couple had a lot of experience with abused children. They had a more relaxed regimen. For example, in his previous home, the youngster would want to eat all the time. Food deprivation in the orphanage was a factor in this behavior. The first adoptive mother wanted to establish regular meals that fit the family’s lifestyle. When the youth disobeyed her, she would, in turn, become frustrated, impose more restrictions, and this would only intensify the youth’s misbehavior.
In his new home, he was supposed to be present for meals, but if he wasn’t there was no retribution. As the family continued to sit down and eat at regular times, the youth eventually joined them. This took a great deal of time and patience on the new adoptive parents’ part, but as I said, they were used to dealing with abandoned children.
The difference between these two homes weren’t the difference between “good” parents and “bad” parents. The major difference was in the parents’ expectations and preparation for the child’s issues.
For adopted children, a perpetual cycle of questions remains lodged in the back of the adoptee’s mind like splinters in the subconscious. Who am I? Where do I belong? Are there people who look like me, think like me, somewhere else in the world? Will I know them if I see them? And, more importantly, will they know me?
All the while, I loved my adoptive parents, and my father especially went out of his way to say that I was loved. Even so, there was a constant tape playing in my heart that said: I’m not good enough to keep; no mother rejects her child unless something is wrong with it; if I want these people to keep me, I have to do better, be better; I’m not good enough, not good enough, not good enough …
Remember what I said earlier: our brains tell us one thing, but our hearts say something different.
A child’s brain may parrot the assurances of the adoptive parents and society as a whole, but the child’s heart bears a different pain, one they are not always able to articulate. Feelings aren’t rational–they are simply there, lurking within us and waiting for the right trigger to stimulate them into existence. Some adoptees eventually learn to reconcile the facts of their circumstances with their feelings, others may become swallowed by the world around them.
One of the reasons I loved Jessica Alba in Dark Angel (a science fiction series from 2000) was the adept manner in which both the writers and Alba handled the protagonist, Max Guevara, who was an genetically engineered super-soldier, but with a missing piece to her life … the mystery around her mother and her birth. They managed to convey the trauma of Guevara being separated from her mother at birth along with Guevara’s constant yearning to find her mother and the story of her beginning.
This is why I find stories with children who are spirited away from their parents into new circumstances hard to swallow at times. Infants don’t roll into the world as a blank slate. Our experiences in the womb are embedded in our psyches in order to prepare us for survival.
The child who is taken from her poverty stricken parents and raised by royalty doesn’t automatically adjust to these new circumstances flawlessly. The clash of parental attitudes versus the child’s hidden traumas don’t need to be explored in depth in every story, but a cursory acknowledgement of known behavior patterns between adults and adopted children are preferable to none at all.
To concede these issues exist by fairly representing them in our stories is the difference between … say … the adoptive parent who tries to modify her child’s special needs to her expectations and the parent who knows his son’s hunger is driven by fear. One is governed by the intellect, the other by the heart.
If you want the abandoned child in your story to be whole in body and spirit, march the head and the heart in tandem. Then do what every parent does: push your story into the world and hope for the best.
This post originally appeared on SF Signal's Special Needs in Strange Worlds (January 20, 2016).