The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child

Reviewed Publisher: 
Baltimore, Gateway Press, 1993, 231 pages, $14.95 (softcover). (Available from the author, 919 Village Center, Lafayette, CA 94549).
Reviewed Title: 
The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child
Reviewed Author: 

Nancy Newton Verrier is the mother of two daughters, one adopted, the other biological. She admits thinking "What can a tiny baby know?" was a naive, fallacious assumption on her part at the time she decided to adopt. Twenty-three years later, she has learned tiny babies know much more than she once supposed. Her awareness that her adopted daughter found it dangerous to love and to be loved since she could not trust that she would not be abandoned again led her to ten years of research. Verrier learned during her research that her daughter's testing-out behavior was one of the two polar-opposite reactions to abandonment. The other is acquiescence, compliance, and withdrawal.

The Primal Wound is an expansion of an exceptional masters' thesis: Ms. Verrier has combed through the body of recognized research and insight pertaining to the understanding of human memory, experience, emotionality, and behavior, adding insights unique to her experience with her daughters.

Given the available evidence that children are conscious before birth, during birth, and during pre-verbal life, we should not be surprised to read a child given up for adoption perceives the "giving up" a rejection. This rejection is so searing to some that it is difficult for them to love or trust again. Ms. Verrier cites convincing statistics showing that adoptees comprised only 2 to 3% of the adolescent population in the United States in 1989, yet they made up 30 to 40% of the population in residential treatment centers, juvenile halls, and special schools. This corresponds to my experience as a teacher of Seriously Emotionally Disturbed children and teens. Almost all of my S.E.D. students have been either adopted, victims of "failed adoption," or long-term survivors of neo-natal intensive care. Without exception, every S.E.D. student I have taught has had early and prolonged abandonment issues.

While Ms. Verrier intended her book to help adoptees, their parents, and the professionals who work with them, I think the book should be required reading for social workers, probation officers, family lawyers, judges, prison administrators, teachers, school counsellors, administrators, and state and national legislators.

The insights of the book are as applicable to children and "adult children" who have any abandonment issues, such as children whose mothers died during the birth process, children who were emotionally abandoned in utero, at birth, or during early childhood, whether the cause was economic, political, emotional, or "criminal." Children "voluntarily" given up for adoption share experiences of abandonment with children turned over to others so their mothers can go back to work, children sent away from war zones without their mothers, children whose mothers are rejecting, narcissistic, withdrawn, alcoholic, drug-addicted, or imprisoned.

My single suggestion for a future edition is inclusion of research proving prenates and neonates perceive, understand, and remember verbal and non-verbal communication. If children destined for separation from birth mothers were repeatedly told their mothers love them, that they are going to people who want them, that they are precious, loved, lovable, capable, worthy of security and happiness, it's possible that such communication could ameliorate part of the inevitable pain of separation.

Consider the emotional contrast of a "grass widow," a women whose husband goes out on an errand and is never seen again, with a widow who has experienced her husband's death. No one would suggest either type of "widowhood" as a desirable life-style: a woman whose husband disappears never has the resolution of knowing whether he is dead. Instead, she wonders if he found her so intolerable he couldn't stay or if another woman were more attractive to him. She has no leave-taking ceremony, little or no consolation, and no clear status.

Relinquished children, like grass widows, are too-often unsure of the reasons for their abandonment, attributing it to some flaw in themselves. Their status, like the status of grass widows, is seldom clear. Grass widows can at least tell their families and friends what they feel - whether it's betrayal, outrage, anguish, or depression. Relinquished children, however, seldom have their emotional reality validated since many adoptive parents (and even some therapists) still continue to assume "A tiny baby can't know or remember anything." If prenates, neonates, and small children can have their rights to have and to show their feelings validated consistently, their condition becomes more like the plight of the "real" widows, the ones who are allowed to grieve, to rage, to heal, and, eventually, to love again.

The Primal Wound is a challenging re-examination of everything our society has believed about adoption, and, by implication, about abandonment. The book makes me wonder if the most significant line of demarcation among humans is whether we feel abandoned or whether we feel supported. It's possible those of us who have early abandonment issues can't relate to those of us who don't and vice versa. The Primal Wound is a watershed book, the kind that opens new vistas of understanding of both the likenesses and the differences among us.

Publication Date: 
10/1994