Thanks to William for sharing this chapter of his book with us:
Chapter 6: The Aware and Vulnerable Prenate
“Woman is the artist of the imagination and the child in the womb is the canvas whereon she painteth her pictures” Paracelsus (1493-1541)
Ben was seven years old. His mother and father were separated, but remained close friends, and his mother had a new live-in boyfriend. Ben’s father was welcoming to the new boyfriend. Perhaps because of the harmony between all parties, Ben’s discomfort stood out. He seemed somewhat off center, and when I asked him to draw a picture of his family, including all parties, he drew both males as large and looming, overwhelming figures. In the picture, he depicted himself as small and frail, with fear in his eyes. “Scared eyes” he called them. Both men were in fact gentle souls, calm and not prone to anger. Ben’s mother and the boyfriend were both mental health practitioners, and dealt with the separation and new relationship in therapy with Ben. So Ben’s feelings were a bit illogical in their own way, and the illogic often indicates underlying traumas. He also had “funny feelings in his head, things twirling and tingling.”
Knowing that children often experience birth as overwhelming, I wondered if Ben was exhibiting unresolved birth trauma. He seemed lost, and at the same time overwhelmed. His mother noticed. So I proceeded by asking Ben to draw a picture of his birth, shown here. The picture included two large and looming rocks, very similar to the drawing of the two males in his family, previously drawn. The rocks were perceived as dangerous because they were going to fall on him and crush him. In addition, there was something trying to get in that was poisonous and dangerous. He couldn’t get out from the rocks and was stuck. But suddenly, he could get out.
After drawing his picture, I asked Ben what he had drawn. He told me the following story about his picture, “There’s two big rocks, and there is a boy in the middle, and he is being surrounded and attacked. The boy is gonna be for sure, crushed bad. And there’s something else trying to get into the rocks. It could kill him. And it’s pushing ’em (the rocks) over on him. The boys a goner. He’s going to be squashed, and there is gonna be a big explosion. He’s screaming for help, but nobody can hear him. They are all doing some work, or something. The boy got no help, but got out O.K.”
In the weeks and months following his drawing, we played birth games in which he climbed into “womb surrounds” forged by the bodies of adults and other children, and explored pushing his way out in various ways. The rules were, he could stop the game anytime he wanted by just saying, “Stop I mean it.” In this way he felt safe to explore some intense feelings of being stuck and buried by an avalanche of rocks. He discovered some real panic at being stuck and not knowing how to get out. He discovered something poisoning trying to invade the space, and was afraid and disturbed by that. Along the way, he encountered many feelings, mostly being stuck and fears of the rocks (people) crushing him. Ronald Laing (1977) often said that birth and conception are opposite sides of the same coin, and that conception traumas have their way of coming up during birth, and influence how birth is experienced. So conception trauma leads to birth trauma.
It’s clear there was some claustrophobia during Ben’s birth, and that he was frightened of being buried and not breathing. Every time he encountered these fears during birth games, the intensity of the emotions decreased in the next and ensuing sessions. This shows therapeutic progress.
The two rocks can be seen as the two sides of the uterus, pushing down on him, but can also be seen as two eggs, suggesting he might have had a twin conceptus who died, since he was a singleton at birth. This would explain the death anxiety that appeared during the birth games. The presence of something attacking him may have stemmed from ambivalent feelings around his biological conception, and maybe some anger and rejection from one of the parents. When children experience poison, it often refers to the hostile nature of toxic chemicals of the body endanger the vulnerable conceptus.
As described above, Ben dealt with many aspects of his conception: the fear and ambivalence of joining-up with the egg; the directional confusion (i.e. which way to turn); the anxiety in choosing eggs; the cellular identification and somatic concomitants; the sense of “not belonging” and associated sadness; the crashing and associated anxiety; and the sperm-engulfment. Because of the resolution in these conception issues, I expected that they might not show up as he reexperienced his own birth. And in fact, none of these themes did surface during his birth regression.
After the two therapeutic sessions were completed, a follow-up evaluation was done, to see what changes the mother and/ or her boyfriend reported. The mother reported that he seemed much more interested in spending time with her and her boyfriend, and seemed to be accepting the new relationship quite well. She said that he was far less moody or sad. When I asked Ben about his body, he said that he had had no more “head swirlies” or “tingly body feelings,” and that being with (mom’s new mate”) was O.K. (a compliment coming from him). He mentioned to me that he “now had two families,” which indicated a new level of acceptance. His mother reported that he seemed to “belong” more, to which Ben agreed when asked.
Two other follow-up evaluations were done, one at six months and one at seven years after completion of the two sessions. In general, all of the gains he had made after his final session were maintained, and seemed to be consolidating in his life. For example, he seemed deeply settled into his new family unit, and said that he liked it very much. The new sense of belonging had transferred to his school, where he felt more at home, and to his peer relationships, where he also seemed to belong and was forming primary friendships. He also seemed less reticent, and more willing to “go after things.” One of the things he pursued with vigor and intensity was music. He found that he had a talent for music, and began to study and to practice. At age 14 (the last follow-up), he was exhibiting considerable talent, doing public performances with a band whose members were 18 years and older.
Birth Memories are Valid, but Prenatal Memories are Most Influential
A sizable group of European mental health professionals in the 1970s, led by psychiatrists R.D. Laing and Frank Lake, contended that prenatal memories were the most influential because they were the first. This perspective is apparent in Laing’s (1976) book entitled The Facts of Life, where he says, “The environment is registered from the very beginning of my life; by the first one [cell] of me. What happens to the first one or two of me may reverberate throughout all subsequent generations of our first cellular parents. That first one of us carries all my ‘genetic’ memories” (p. 30). He goes on to say, It seems to me credible, at least, that all our experience in our life cycle from cell one is absorbed and stored from the beginning, perhaps especially in the beginning. How that may happen I do not know. How can one cell generate the billions and billions of cells I now am? We are impossible, but for the fact that we are. When I look at the embryological stages in my life cycle I experience what feels to me like sympathetic vibrations in me now . . . how I now feel I felt then. (p.36).
Frank Lake (1979) concurred with Laing’s perspective, stating that the most formative life experiences occur during the prenatal period, especially the first trimester. He was the first to document that maternal experiences during gestation travel to the unborn baby via chemical messengers (catecholamines), and provided clinical research showing that maternal affect such as grief, anger, and sadness travel to the unborn baby and are experienced there with a similar or greater intensity than in the mother, and have long term impacts on the personality and development of the child. His books include Clinical Theology: A Theological and Psychiatric Basis to Clinical Pastoral Care (1966), and Tight Corners in Pastoral Counseling, (1981). In the former book, he outlined the pre and perinatal causes of the major psychopathologies: depression, hysteria, dissociation, paranoia, phobias, and personality disorders like schizoaffective and borderline personality disorders. He did a large epidemiological and clinical study, and made the discovery that a large number of children in the UK, 33 percent, had problems with bellyaches, and that these bellyaches were traced back to mothers having war traumas during WWII when they were pregnant. Their war traumas were passed on to their unborn babies umbilically, manifesting in bellyaches as children. He was very successful in using regression therapy to treat children with bellyaches, regressing them to the womb where they uncovered and released their own wartime traumas, strongly influenced by the mother’s experiences. Along with Donald Winnicott, Ronald Laing, and Frederick LeBoyer, he was one of the most renowned and revered physicians of the last half of the twentieth century.
Prenates Incorporate (Embody) Maternal Experiences and Feelings
The following case is an example of umbilical affect, of how unborn babies embody maternal experiences and feelings, or stated differently, how maternal feelings permeate unborn babies. In general, there is a rule of thumb, that the more unconscious a mother is about her experiences and feelings, including unresolved traumas, the more likely they are to permeate.
Janine’s father died just before she got pregnant. Most of the pregnancy, including the time she was attempting to conceive, was spent grieving the loss of her father. She had a psychotherapist who helped her with the grieving process.
Janine’s unborn baby (Jon) was an entrapped participant in her therapeutic experiences, but better off than not, for reasons explained below. He experienced her loss, depression, grief, and rage, but also her resolution. This kind of process is a great gift because it teaches an unborn child that wounds can be healed, and how. At the same time, it creates a deep and lasting bond between mother and unborn child because they go through a difficult process together, and know each other intimately, even if not expressed verbally. Because of this, Janine and Jon were almost inseparable, both having the feeling they understood each other at a deep level. But something was amiss. When Jon was three years old, he began having extreme nocturnal pain in his anal tract, so intense that sleep loss, nausea, and sweating occurred. This triggered abuse memories in the mother, who reengaged therapy to find out what had happened to her. There she discovered that her father had anally abused her on several occasions when she was a baby. Until this point Jon’s nocturnal pain was handled via medications, but when Janine dealt with her abuse memories, without saying anything to Jon, his pains subsided, and he no longer needed medication. It seems that he was carrying her abuse memories in his anal tract, or stated differently, that because Janine’s memories of abuse were unconscious and defended, they readily permeated in Jon’s system, presumably during the prenatal period when they were in close physical proximity, a prime condition for permeation. Some therapists explain the process a little differently. They say that when Janine recovered her abuse memories and owned them as her own, there was a natural boundary formed between she and Jon, a separation that protected Jon from carrying the abuse memories. In any case, if Janine had not dealt with her grief, it would have presumably permeated into him, forcing him to be symptomatic in various ways consistent with unresolved grief.
Being aware of permeation, I invited Jon to engage in therapy with me when he was older, during his teens. In his treatment, Jon’s artwork followed a consistent pattern. He drew volumes of pictures of dead and decaying animal corpses, often embellished with black swords and daggers, colored with swatches or streaks of red. He drew prehistoric creatures, and he was obsessed with the idea that they were sick and would die before he died, which meant his death might be impending. These creatures were presumably reminiscent of his grandfather’s emaciated and degenerative condition leading to his death, and a permeation of his mother’s concern about her father’s impending death. He also had flashes and brief visions of hooded men, knives, naked women, stakes, rope, sexual positions, and violence.
When he shared these visions of ritual abuse with Janine, she reported she had several dreams that matched, and in subsequent therapy sessions, uncovered ritual abuses that took place in her father’s lodge between the ages of 7 and 10, including obscene frescoes, depictions of human sacrifice, and pagan alters. So Jon’s artwork helped Janine uncover her ritual abuse. He drew a series of drawings depicting macabre, ritualistic, and sadistic abuse on female babies and young girls by men in a secret society, the very material his mother had repressed and dissociated. When he showed the pictures to Janine, she had dreams that verified the content of his pictures. Janine used the drawings to reengage her own therapy and uncover her ritual abuse, and was much better off afterward. She said, “It turned my life around. I realized I no longer needed my weight to protect me against abuse. I lost 190 pounds, became more assertive, and am doing what I want to do in life, being successful and strong.”
Without an umbilical connection between Janine and Jon, Jon would never have had such an intimate connection with his mother’s abuse and other wounding. The placenta, once thought to block input to unborn babies, is more like a sieve, allowing passage but slowing the rate of influx. This means that cigarette smoke, alcohol, medications, recreational drugs, and emotions pass unabated through the cord and placenta and into unborn babies. Lake called this phenomenon “umbilical affect,” and spent a number of years collaborating with me, developing treatments for umbilical trauma. We also found that paternal feelings, mediated by mothers’ receptivity and reactivity, and by somatic energy fields of fathers, also permeated to babies, and could be resolved through treatment.
Although prenates can and do take on parental experiences, they have unique personalities, and often react differently than their mothers, factors that may be important are the mother’s own ability to differentiate self from other, that is, realize that she and the baby are different people, and that her wounding could negatively effect her unborn baby, setting up a kind of protectiveness. The healthiest condition is when mothers are able to perceive themselves and their wounding correctly, and process their wounds at a deep level, usually in concert with a health care professional. The worst scenario is when the mother is unaware of or in active denial of her wounding, has poor boundaries, or is undifferentiated from her baby. Undifferentiation means that the mother has no sense of separation from her unborn baby, there is no I and you, only we. These conditions promote permeation. Children then have to carry their parents’ issues as they go through life, often being symptomatic until they separate from their parents, and understand the problem was not theirs in the first place.
Prenatal and Birth Traumas Affect How Life is Perceived and Experienced (Recapitulated)
For years, clinicians have observed that prenatal experiences affect how babies perceive and experience their birth. Furthermore, prenatal traumas provide “tinctures” for later experiences, filters through which subsequent events are perceived AND CHOSEN. For example, when a baby is stuck during birth, the baby is likely to perceive later events as entrapping, even when they are not. A ten-year-old girl, Lucy, reported claustrophobic conditions in her classroom. She said, “I don’t like it there, It’s all crowded, like bunched up and all on top of me. And it all has to be done just so” (meaning there were high expectations). But when I visited the classroom, I was stunned because the opposite was true. The classroom was spacious and open, and the teacher’s personality was warm and friendly, and did not appear to be rigid and full of expectations. The desks were spaciously arranged, there were large open windows, and open spaces with learning centers. To help Lucy with her negative feelings, she was moved near the door, which helped, and was referred for birth therapy. The therapist checked with the mother and the birth records, and both confirmed that Lucy was stuck for sixteen hours with heavy contractions and no descent.
The same can happen with permeation, and Jessica is a good example. Unbeknownst to Jessica, her mother had a very difficult time conceiving children, especially Jessica, whom it took over two years to achieve a fertilized egg. Jessica thought it quite irrational, but believed that she was unable to conceive, and therefore did not use birth control even though she had a lot of lovers.
At the age of 32, Jessica wanted to conceive a child with her boyfriend, who was ambivalent but consented to try, and was willing to raise the child by herself, if necessary. They tried to conceive for three years with no success, at which time Jessica asked her mother if there had been any history of reproductive problems in the family. Jessica was stunned to find out her mother had reproductive problems, and was told by a psychotherapist that her own (Jessica’s) problems could be psychological, a kind of permeation from her mother. No medical reasons could be found, so Jessica started counseling sessions. Soon thereafter she conceived a baby, whereupon the boyfriend turned brutally violent against Jessica and the baby, extremely jealous and fearful of what would happen when the baby was born. His fear was he would lose her to the baby, and would no longer be important to her. A series of beatings occurred during the first trimester, and Jessica fled. She spent the remainder of her pregnancy in a distant and safe place, under conditions that were close to “ideal.” She was glad to be rid of her boyfriend, realizing for the first time how immature he was. She meditated daily and earned income from work at home. She had an extensive and supportive family system as well as friends, and the remainder of the pregnancy was uneventful in terms of stress or trauma. She devoted time to her unborn baby every day, talking and singing to him, and doing bonding exercises. . She gave birth at home, and described the birth as short and simple, with no complications.
Although the birth was short and uncomplicated, Jessie experienced birth trauma. This became apparent when he was eight years old, when he began having bouts of temper tantrums and anger outbursts for almost no reason. He was sent home from school on numerous occasions, from hitting, scratching, and biting other children. The teachers reported that he had an inferiority complex, and thought all the kids were out to get him. Jessie engaged in art and regression therapy between the ages of 8 and 10, and had the following memories, in the order they occurred. In the second trimester, Jessie experienced his mother’s jogging as abusive, saying that his head bounced painfully on top of her bones. During birth, he experienced the perineal massages (given repeatedly during birth) as intrusive, and the contractions as abusive and violent. Next he became aware of his mother’s physical pain, and felt guilty he was causing such pain. Then he began to have flashbacks to the first trimester, but he could never remember them well enough to draw them or describe them. He had a series of night terrors, and one night, saw a man in his room who was threatening to kill him. In fact there was no one there. He went on medication to control his night terrors and anxiety, and began to have longer regressive memories of the beatings that he and Jessica experienced during early gestation. Because prenates do not have sufficient neurological integrity or adequate life experience to assist in discriminating between current and historical realities, they perceive and interpret events based on past experiences. His birth was mostly a reenactment of the rejection and abuse he received in utero. After completing all of his sessions, he was no longer symptomatic, but it took a number of years and life experiences before he began to believe he was as worthy as other children, at which time he developed healthy and nourishing relationships with other kids.
Traumas Are Recapitulated in Life
Trauma sufferers unconsciously attract, choose, manipulate, or perceive life situations that trigger unresolved traumas. This process is called recapitulation, described in a chapter entitled “Recapitulation Theory” (Emerson, 2000). The unconscious purpose of recapitulation is to bring traumas into the light, where they can be seen, discussed, and resolved with the help of others. Unfortunately, help does not often arrive, and the recapitulated situations are often filled with conflict, denial, argumentation, and blame. For example, when Zach recapitulated his mother’s abortion attempt on his life, he rejected his beloved girlfriend before she could reject him, and accused her of plotting to kill him. She was justifiably outraged because she had never thought of such a thing, and had a hard time killing ants and bugs, no less human beings. Their relationship dissolved in a heap of arguments, conflicts, and blame.
Clients of mine who were unsuccessfully aborted have common recapitulation patterns. They often feel rejected, and the rejection feels life-threatening. Or they become rejectors, with persecutory and rageful feelings of wanting to annihilate. R.D. Laing’s (1976) book, The Facts of Life, provides numerous examples of this process. From his own personal life experiences, and those of his patients, Dr. Laing concluded that people remember, are haunted by, and re-enact their conceptions, fetal life, birth, and other early events. Laing said, “page a56 quote: …many of my contemporaries feel that what has happened from their conception to and through birth has a relevance…these feeling patterns deserve serious attention…it does not seem to me to be, a priori, nonsense, or antecedently impossible, that prenatal patterns may be mapped onto natal and postnatal experience.” For example, a patient of Laing’s had implantation trauma. A common dynamic occurs when the conceptus must attach to the tissues of the uterine wall, and has to hang on in order to stay vs. falling off and dying. The patient had long-term recapitulative effects of his implantation trauma. He lived his life hanging on by his bare fingernails, to jobs, relationships, vacations, and hobbies, always in the clutches of deep fear that he might lose what he has, or is doing, and die at any moment. He said, “I feel I’m hanging onto a cliff with my fingernails…if I let go, I’ll float off down the river. I’ll be washed away. I shall be completely mad.” (p. 52) Laing described another case of recapitulation (p. 51). His thirty-six year old patient experienced her life precisely in terms of embryological events. He said, “She can remember nothing except pain and terror. She feels like a ball of fear (blastocyst anxiety)…a round sponge sodden with terror (chorionic anxiety), in dreams she sees herself like a globe spinning around (blastocyst before implantation), there is a paisley pattern on the surface (she is overtaken by a fear of (the globe) falling (pre-implantation anxiety), she tries desperately to procrastinate, she fears she is going to be buried alive (fear of implantation), her mother and her fear tell her she has to be buried.”
Some clients are likely to perceive birth contractions, parents, or medical personnel as annihilative, even if there is no such intent or fact. They are also more inclined to attract, manipulate, or choose life-threatening circumstances that are eerily similar to their pre and perinatal abortion attempts. For example, Sally’s mom tried to abort her with drugs, and as a teenager, Sally “accidentally” overdosed on a prescription drug, and nearly died. She chose a county job working with inner-city truants, many of whom had drug problems, and got caught and indicted for drug paraphernalia that she confiscated but forgot to take out of her car. She said, “I nearly died of embarrassment when my friends found out.” She accidentally gave her aging dog an overdose of steroids, threatening his life. Sally was perpetually anxious about people trying to get rid of her, perceiving other employees as plotting her demise. She believed that undetectable cancer cells were eating away her body and that she would die before she was forty. Whenever in a conflict with someone, she became mute and filled with “enormous fear”, retreating for days before she was able to speak again. “It feels like he is trying to kill me,” she would often say. Sally is a client who did not profit from regression therapy, being too terrified to engage the process. She and others are in the minority, but they do exist. Sadly, Sally remained symptomatic, although therapy did help her to adapt better, and to avoid harmful recapitulations and situations.
Prenatal and birth traumas are more likely to recapitulate, more likely to have lifelong impacts, and more likely to be untreatable (because of client resistance) when they are followed by traumatic misperceptions, recapitulations, reinforcing conditions, and retraumatizations (that is, life circumstances that are nearly identical to the original trauma). They are much more likely, almost certain to recapitulate if treatment does not occur. Zach is an example. He was stuck for 29 hours while his mother pushed and pushed as hard as she could. It was the mother’s first birth, and they were too poor to hire medical help, and in any case, lived far away from any potential care. The father was a farm worker and had to be in the fields from sunset and into the night, so she was alone with her labor, and quite frightened. Such an experience predisposes a child to claustrophobia, but does not necessarily result in the condition unless reinforced. Zach had a number of reinforcing conditions: his older cousins locked him in a dark and stuffy closet for 24 hours when he was two years old; he was locked up for 2 hours in a broken refrigerator he climbed into by himself (recapitulation); and he was nearly choked to death by his cousins during several wrestling matches. As a young child, five-year-old Zach watched playmates laughing and playing a burial game in sand, but he kept his distance, too scared to join in. But his perception of what happened was distorted by his unresolved trauma, exacerbating his claustrophobia. In panic, he ran to the playground supervisor to tell her of the danger, that they were holding each other under the sand “for ages”, and were starving (suffocating) to death. But the playground supervisor saw the whole scene. The children took turns burying each other for several seconds at a time, with their noses sticking out so they could breathe. They were tittering with fear, to be sure, and it was a type of birth game that children play, but Zach’s misperception was an exacerbation of his trauma, because no amount of telling him he’d misperceived would convince him otherwise. As an adult, he was quite claustrophobic. He had great difficulty riding in elevators, small cars, and airplanes. It was impossible for him to sit in crowded theaters unless he sat in an aisle seat. He could not tolerate being held by anyone, even if it was gentle and reassuring. During sexual intercourse, infrequent as it was, he felt terribly compressed and trapped. His claustrophobia was not resolved until his birth and each of the described events was processed and treated.
Prenatal and Perinatal Traumas Impair Bonding
As Bloch (1985) and others have documented and described, traumas generate physiological dulling of the mind and body over long periods of time, even decades, in order to defend against wounding. The dulling is mediated by the parasympathetic nervous system, which shuts down body physiology and mental acuity so that emotional pain is not recognized or experienced. This shutting down has survival value because it allows one to function in life, but it taxes the body in an unhealthy way. In addition, there is a negative impact on bonding. The normal endorphins and endocrine hormones produced by close emotional and physical contact do not occur, so there is less ecstasy and delight and less physical energy in babies and mothers.
Trauma’s impair bonding (also called attachment) in another way. Babies need their psychological wounds to be acknowledged with compassion and love, and bond deeply when they are. In fact, it is astounding to witness the level and depth of bonding when baby traumas are acknowledged and empathized with, and this process can be seen in videos produced by Emerson Seminars. The bonding is noteworthy for its depth, intensity, and longevity. Babies who bond deeply are healthier and happier, and superior developmentally (Bystrova, 2009; Schore, 1996). In my research, traumatized babies who were empathized with had significantly higher scores on tests of intelligence than the control group, whose traumas were not empathized with. In addition, the empathized with (i.e. treated babies) were more highly rated on ten variables: human potential, emotional maturity, self-awareness, spirituality, empathy, peacefulness (nonaggression), depth of bonding, cooperation, independence, and joyfulness. It’s normal to feel closer to someone who understands and empathizes with your emotional pain. Think how you feel when a friend acknowledges and empathizes with a difficult life situation you are encountering. It brings you and the friend closer, there is a deeper appreciation and bond than before. The same is true with babies. When baby traumas are acknowledged with love and compassion, a deeper appreciation and bond forms between mothers and babies. However, many parents are unaware that baby traumas occur during the prenatal period and birth, or if they are given this information, they may be disbelieving, and therefore unable to acknowledge or empathize with baby traumas when they occur. In fact, my research shows clearly that the greater the number and severity of unacknowledged prenatal and birth traumas, the greater the negative impact on bonding. And if there are no traumas, babies still need to be acknowledged for the trials and tribulations they go through in order to be born, just as mothers need to be acknowledged and honored for giving birth. Many aspects of the birthing process are psychologically and physically painful for babies: medical exams and medical tests are often experienced (by babies) as unnecessary, invasive, and painful; medical personnel routinely separate babies from parents after birth, and separation can be terrifying – cortisol studies show that babies are distressed by separation; intensive care units are frequently experienced as terrifying, lonely, over-stimulating, and painful; anesthetization is particularly harmful because residual amounts of anesthesia are common in babies, even hours and days after birth, the numbing babies makes them less available to the bonding process; the same is true for epidurals — research shows that mothers who receive epidurals show less bonding to their babies than mothers who do not. In addition, on a practical level, babies are not perceived for the struggles and tribulations they go through being born, and their valiant efforts are not seen or celebrated. This also reduces the depth and quality of bonding.
Prenatal Aggression and Loss Foster Life Aggression
Mary and Jack, were married seven years before they considered having a baby. Jack was reluctant, wanted to wait longer, but Mary was impatient and worried about her increasing age (33). They stopped using birth control, and Mary got pregnant right away. But soon after confirmation of pregnancy, Jack had a tantrum about the pregnancy, threatening to leave if she did not get an abortion. Mary was on edge and frightened. She did not know what to do. She was completely dependent on Jack financially, but wanted to have a baby. Two months later Jack left Mary, presumably for another woman, and disappeared out of sight. Mary had little financial support and no marketable skills, so she thought it unrealistic to keep Todd. She decided she would have to give Todd up for adoption, or abort him. She decided to abort. She began by taking pills given by a doctor, but they did not work. She was frustrated and frightened, and had trouble sleeping. She had repetitive dreams of aborting him with the hooked end of a coat hanger, and awoke several mornings with blood spots. She finally attempted an abortion with the help of an off-duty nurse, who used injections and a sterilized probe. This caused bleeding but failed to abort the fetus. Afterward, Mary had an abrupt and immediate change of heart, deciding that these failures meant that she was to keep the baby. She subsequently realized that she loved the baby and wanted to give birth, and she reluctantly enlisted the financial support of her mother for prenatal, perinatal, and post-birth care, and moved back to her mother’s town.
Seven months later, she gave birth to a seemingly healthy boy that she named Todd. Considering that Todd had experienced three prenatal traumas – abandonment by his father, maternal dreams of violent abortion, and unsuccessful abortion attempts, it was reasonable to assume he would be symptomatic, but Mary claimed there were no problems. However, further inquiry uncovered the fact that Todd did not sleep well, and frequently woke up with night terrors, an indicator of unresolved trauma. Mary moved to her mother’s distant home immediately after the birth, so no further evaluations or treatments could be done.
Todd’s clinical picture changed abruptly when he was four and an half, after an emotional and stressful first visit by his biological father Jack. Jack physically and emotionally attacked Mary in Todd’s presence, angry because of her failed attempts to secure alimony and child support from him. After this, Todd had symptoms of severe trauma: lethargy, eating disorders, weight loss, mood swings, paranoia (fear that others wanted to harm or kill him), and social withdrawal. It appeared that the domestic violence reawakened and reinforced the abortion attempts and abandonment he experienced as a prenate.. I was unable to treat him because he lived s far away, but I referred him to a psychoanalyst whose work stabilized his symptoms. Thus, therapeutic progress was made, but the needed regression work did not occur. His symptoms escalated and became more specific as he got older. When he was 17, his sadism bore striking resemblance to his abortion attempt, of which he was still unaware. He got into bar room and alley fights, gouging others’ bodies with the blunt end of metal objects like trailer balls, hole punches, aluminum bats, ground probes, and brass knuckles. At 21, his favorite instrument of sadism was a fishing hook, and he was frustrated that he could never buy hooks big enough (coat hanger size was his fondest desire). As a young adult he was arrested four times for assaulting homeless people while they were sleeping, using heavy braided wire with a hook on the end, about the size and shape of a coat hanger hook but sturdier. He justified his behavior by claiming that he was punishing irresponsible and deficient people. He spent a lot of time in jail, but eventually righted his life by going into psychotherapy treatment, which included regression therapy.
In the case just described, I assumed that Todd experienced what his mother experienced during the original abandonment: the sudden and unexpected betrayal, abandonment, and loss when Jack left for another woman. In addition, Todd presumably experienced abandonment by his mother as well, since she tried to abort him multiple times. instead of asking her mother for financial and emotional support, a choice she loathed. Subsequently, he experienced the aggression of his mother’s abortion attempts on his life. Finally, he witnessed, and vicariously experienced, the overt aggression of his father against his mother when he was four. Because of these reinforcing conditions, prenatal abandonment and abortion attempts escalated into explicit and repeated violence against others as an adult, and the violence was not resolved until he underwent regressive and analytic treatment in his late twenties. During therapy, he dealt with the intense anger he felt in response to the abandonment by both of his parents, the abortion attempts, the overt aggression of his father, and with his own sense of culpability and shame, as if it were his entire fault. This case shows that direct exposure to aggression and violence during the prenatal period is a risk factor for adult violence and aggression. The old adage, “Children learn what they live,” is relevant here. Like children, prenates “learn what they live.” Prenatal violence begets adult violence, with the occurrence of reinforcing conditions.
Violence as Attachment (Bonding) Gone Wrong
Clearly, our culture suffers from serious problems with aggression, and the causes may surprise you. According to statistics reported at the 2005 APPPAH Congress, violence and aggression are on the rise, reaching epidemic proportions. In the United States in 2003, 5,570 young people were murdered, an average of 15 a day, and 82% were killed with guns. Approximately 750,000 were treated for violence-related injuries in hospital emergency rooms. Thirty-three percent of high school students reported being in a physical fight at least once a year, and seventeen percent carried a weapon (http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/ factsheets/yvfacts.htm). Ninety percent of corporate security directors rate domestic violence as a high security risk, and sixty percent of senior executives say that domestic violence is all too common and a significant impairment of profitability. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women; 5.3 million women are abused each year, an intimate partner stalks over half a million and kills 1,200 per year. In every aspect of society – religion, government, corporations, education, etc., – statistics for violence are omnipresent and in most cases, are increasing. (http://www.aidv-usa.com/Statistics.htm). Violence statistics would nearly quadruple if self-violence such as suicides, suicide attempts, and masochism were included. In summing up his research on cultural violence, Paul Klite, Rocky Mountain News, concluded that America is a “culture of violence.” Reasons why abound: inadequate parenting, availability of guns, alienation of youth, mental illness, lack of school security, violence in film, violence in video games and TV, violence on the internet and in pop music. In addition, mass murders, terrorism, hijackings, workplace violence, product tampering, hate crimes, and suicide are regularly reported in the media.
The potential causes listed in the preceding paragraph omit a major player, bonding (also called attachment) deficits. Klaus and Kennel (1976, p. 2) define attachment as “…a unique relationship between two people that is specific and endures through time.” They go on to say that strong attachments between babies and parents form during birth and the postnatal period, and that healthy attachments are essential to a healthy functional life. Furthermore, extensive research shows that bonding deficits may be sufficient, in and of themselves, to cause aggression and violence. This surprising fact has been brought to light by various attachment therapists. Felicity De Zulueta (1993) researched clinical studies and expert opinion in attachment disorders, and concluded there was a consensus that violent aggression is the result of damaged attachment. She writes, “One of the most important outcomes of [research] . . . is the emerging link between psychological trauma, such as loss and deprivation . . . and destructive or violent behavior . . . violent aggression may be the reciprocal manifestation of a damaged attachment system” (p. 78). Attachment gone wrong is much like a deep love between adults that goes wrong, reflected in a proverb in the Penguin Dictionary of Proverbs, p. 119: “The greatest hate springs from the greatest love.” De Zulueta concurs that the greater the absence of or damage to attachment, the greater the likelihood of aggression and violence during childhood and adulthood. Concurring with Zulueta, Magid and McKelvey (1988) wrote a book about children with severe attachment difficulties, that is, those that are more or less without love in the first place. These children do not develop a conscience, and thereby can and do perform asocial or antisocial acts without remorse. The extensive research overviews by De Zulueta and Magid leave little doubt that bonding disorders and violence are related, and that preventive and treatment interventions need to be funded and instigated at the highest governmental levels to protect society from long term risk and damage.
This chapter has been an affirmation of earlier chapters, asserting that babies experience trauma during the prenatal period and birth, and that birth trauma is widespread and caused by factors outside the awareness of most parents and medical personnel. Practical suggestions for preventing and treating birth trauma are given in Chapter 8, for obstetricians, health care providers, and parents.
Bloch, G. (1985). Body & self: Elements of human biology, behavior, and health. Los Altos, CA: William Kaufmann, Inc.
De Zulueta, F. (1993). From pain to violence. London: Whurr Publishers.
Emerson, W. (1994). Trauma impacts. Audiotaped presentations. Seattle 1992, Petaluma 1992, and March 1993. Emerson Training Seminars.
Emerson, W. (1995). The vulnerable prenate. Paper presented to the APPPAH Congress, San Francisco. Available on audiotape from Sounds True, (303) 449-6229.
Emerson, W. (1993). Treatment outcomes. Petaluma, CA: Emerson Training Seminars.
Emerson, W. (1995/1996). Treating birth trauma during infancy: A series of five videos. Petaluma, CA: Available from Emerson Training Seminars, (707) 763-7024.
Laing, R. D. (1976). The facts of life. New York, Pantheon Books.
Magid, K., & McKelvey, C. (1988). High risk: Children without a conscience. NY: Bantam Books.
Piontelli, A. (1992) From fetus to child. NY: Routledge.
Verny, T. (1995). Working with pre-and perinatal material in psychotherapy. International Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Medicine, 7(3), 271-284.
© William Emerson, PhD 2015
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