A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all of nature in a rage
William Blake was outraged by the idea of a bird in a cage, it being a violation of the natural order. One can only imagine what he would think about children in cages, an outrage which should put all human nature in a rage.
Americans and many in other countries were shocked when they learned that children were separated from their parents as the fugitive families attempted to gain entry into America. They sought to get away from the brutality of their own country only to be met with a more “civilized” kind of brutality, which is, of course, not civilized at all; in fact, it makes a mockery of America as a supposedly civilized nation.
Separation of children from their families comes in many forms. Illness of a parent can set it in motion, as can the hospitalization of a child. Anyone who has experienced the horror of war knows that fathers go to war; children can be fatherless for significant periods of time. Death of a parent or parents can leave children bereft. Natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis can play havoc with the stability and cohesion of family bonds. But the kind of forced separations that have occurred at the border between Mexico and America that Trump’s sadistic zero tolerance has engineered is especially barbaric in a nation whose symbol is the Statue of Liberty, which welcomes “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free” into the arms of a tolerant, enlightened nation. Shame seems to have little clout in the current political management of our great nation.
Psychoanalysts know that a child’s attempt to build a sense of constant love and safety is the outcome of many factors. A child learns to tolerate the normal frustrations of child development as long as the bond between mother and infant remains stable. If the child is angry and frustrated at times, she/he learns to appreciate that anger does not destroy love as long as the relationship maintains its stability. Brief separations and frustrations teach a child that love, frustration, and anger can be tolerated. Long-term separations are another matter. Brutal separations such as those that are occurring at our border introduce another most significant variable of course: trauma. Trauma occurs when the mother or both parents are ripped away from the fabric of constancy and trust; consequently, a child’s frustration and anger, usually addressed toward loving, understanding, and comforting parents, has no place to go and is turned inward by the child, with massive consequences for the sense of trust and love, reliability and constancy that development so needs to proceed on its adaptive, life-enhancing journey.
Public outrage forced Trump to change this sadistic policy, but the problem of the children detained in tents, camps, and cages could not be redressed by executive order unless it also ordered the immediate reuniting of the 2,300 children with their families. A tragedy was set in motion, and heartless political policy seems unable to address the scope and dimension of its crime.
If the child cannot express the nature of her/his disappointment, the nature of her/his fury, each citizen of America must become a “facilitating environment,” as D.W. Winnicott termed it, so that this trauma, this disgrace, can be redressed by all the institutions a great society—a great nation— should possess. Winnicott also stated that “there is no such thing as an infant,” since everywhere he turned, he saw that infants and mothers are dyads that gradually become separate individuals, but only after a sacred and sustained bond of love and constancy has been established.
Trust is not a given, after all; it is a dynamic expression of love and hate that eventually establishes the internal, intrapsychic certainty that makes stable development proceed. Love and hate do not destroy each other.
On the contrary, they nourish each other, and trust is the offspring of that dynamic process, which begins in the arms and at the breast of a loving, reliable mother. To rupture that bond thoughtlessly and brutally is a barbaric act that all citizens must decry, lest they forfeit the right to call themselves citizens of a great democracy. All citizens must fight for the preservation of these bonds, these principles that should be at the forefront of the body civic and the body politic. The pursuit of happiness is written into our constitution as an inalienable right. If we deny this right to helpless children at our borders, we all become aliens from civic decency and political integrity. Our shame will not be easily removed from the face of our besmirched nation.
I want to end with a clinical example. Annie, a four-year-old girl, was in analysis for incipient school phobia and nightmares that began after her father left; he was stationed overseas in wartime. In one of the initial sessions, Annie reported a dream about a strange house. “I was in a strange house with a strange door. I was alone. I was afraid. I woke up.” She then made a drawing of the strange house and its strange door and made a most enigmatic, cryptic statement: “A door is a tear in a house.” This most emotional concept of homes with tears in them was much engaged with, in play and language, as the analysis proceeded, so much so that Annie, discussing the imagery of houses with tears in them, said rather dismissively around the time her treatment was drawing to a close, “Oh I got over that.” This little girl was able to process and repair the “tear,” working it through in the treatment situation.
The tears in the fabric of the homes of the thousands of immigrant children can only be redressed by an enlightened society and government that reunites these children as soon as possible, so that they also can redress the tears and eventually say, “Oh we got over that.” Time is precious as a child’s mind is developing. There is a government-induced tear in the fabric of their development right now that must be repaired immediately. There is no time to lose. ■
- Delia Battin, LCSW, is a training and supervising analyst at the Contemporary Freudian Society (CFS), a fellow of the International Psychoanalytic Association (FIPA), a member of IPTAR and of the Association for Psychoanalytic Medicine, and on the faculty of IPTAR and the CFS. She practices in New York City. She has previously published articles on screen memories, play, the golden section, grief, and clinical psychoanalysis.
Collage by Mafe Izaguirre based on the photography by Tommy Van Kessel.