Considering the Effects of Childhood Trauma: Some Insights from Becker and the Cinema

Ernest Becker wrote extensively about childhood in his classic book The Birth and Death of Meaning. His analysis of how the newborn develops into an adult human being, a person with a unique and stable identity, is simply unparalleled and provides valuable insights into the fragility of children and their likely difficulties when exposed to trauma.

Basically, Becker argued that because humans have evolved to rely so little on instinct (hardwired programming) and so much on flexible learning based on experiences interacting in the world (software programming), the human newborn is far from ready for survival on its own and is the most helpless and vulnerable of all living creatures. Thus, from the beginning we are completely dependent on our apparently omnipotent parents. We control our distress and anxiety through attachment to our parents and internalization of the meaningful, orderly, and stable conception of reality they impart to us. And we internalize their values of right and wrong in order to remain good little boys and girls in their eyes so that we can sustain their security-providing love and protection.

So, in our early years we are making a critical and difficult transition from being vulnerable bodily creatures to becoming symbolic creatures with an identity imbedded in a world of meaning in which doing the right things affords us security. Exposure to extreme violence or tragedy during this time threatens our ability to accept this benign worldview and our safe place within it. Most troubling is when an important component of our security base is taken from us, as in the death of a child’s parent. Perhaps most uniquely disturbing is when our security base turns on us, conveying inconsistent values and unpredictable behaviors, and inflicting emotional and physical pain; how then does a child sustain equanimity? Even if brutal and deeply disturbed, the parent is typically still the only basis of security the child knows. Theodore Roethke expresses this problem eloquently:

My Papa’s Waltz

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

If we examine research on the effects of childhood trauma, we see ample evidence of the damage done by child abuse, parental death, and exposure to domestic and community violence. The most common conceptualization of the effects of these experiences is post-traumatic stress disorder.

The evidence suggests, however, a wide variety of psychological problems extending far beyond these symptoms. A useful distinction among these symptoms is whether they seem to involve turning inward on oneself or lashing out at the world. Thus there are internalizing and externalizing reactions.*

Ingmar Bergman’s film, Fanny and Alexander, poignantly depicts the more typical internalizing reactions of childhood trauma. The Truffaut film 400 Blows portrays externalizing reactions. Powerful films such as the Hughes brothers’ Menace to Society and Matty Rich’s Straight Out of Brooklyn examine how childhood exposure to violence-ridden urban environments can lead to pessimistic and often maladaptive and jaundiced worldviews, devoid of hope and meaning.

I recently had an African-American student confide to me that his philosophy of life, very much in line with this mindset, is largely based on the fact that by their mid-twenties, one-third of African-American males are dead and another third are in prison.

On the more positive side, there are always kids who have been through hell and yet continue functioning well, so a big task for researchers is to understand the factors which promote such resilience. Though in its infancy, the research so far suggests that the following buffers seem to contribute to resilience: 1) secure close attachment to a supportive adult 2) strong bond with competent pro-social adult from community 3) moderate or >IQ, lack of impulse or attentional problems, lack of family history of mental illness. [Recall Dr. Carl Bell’s point re the protective value of resiliency; also referred to by Dr. Fred Rivara comparing youngsters born with impaired resiliency, the result, e.g., of fetal alcohol syndrome. —NJE]

Notice that these are the types of factors we would expect to be helpful given Becker’s analysis of how children develop and sustain their equanimity. It seems likely that these buffers contribute to the child internalizing a benign, socially validated, and compelling worldview that provides meaning and self-worth, although research has yet to tap these psychological resources directly.

Finally, a few words about treatment possibilities. For patching up, there are, of course, anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications. Another possibility, which is inspired by a standard treatment for phobias, is relaxation training combined with relaxation during recall of or re-exposure to trauma-related thoughts. Psychodynamically oriented therapists would encourage emotional self-disclosures regarding the trauma in an effort to help the person attain closure and integrate the incidents productively into his/her view of self and the world. Although the academic community views this treatment with skepticism, recent research by James Pennebaker supports the utility of such an approach. Sandra Bloom, a co-presenter at this LOV conference, has worked and written extensively about such treatment of those who have been traumatized. Based on Becker and the work of Irwin Yalom, I would also suggest that existential psychotherapy to help the person reconstruct a compelling worldview that offers meaning and self-worth would be of great help.

Unfortunately, just how useful any of these approaches can actually be for those who have experienced childhood trauma is not entirely clear. What is clear is that improvements in social policies and conditions (particularly in the first 5 years of life) that reduce the prevalence of exposure to such traumas in children would be of greatest long-term benefit. The works of Ernest Becker and the efforts of those involved in the Foundation to understand the love of violence and develop approaches to controlling this fascination constitute hopeful efforts to promote such improvements. I wish us all good luck in this difficult task. * In the full 1400 word summary Dr. Greenberg here mentions the work of 8 researchers including LOV 6 keynoter Dr. Sandra Bloom and starts with an outline of the manifestations of the various syndromes. (The full summary is available from the EBF.) His presentation at this point then provided vivid cinematic excerpts of well-known films, giving examples of children in various violent cultures. (These video segments are available from the EBF along with the audiotape of the Greenberg talk.)