Dominic Cummings’ strategy to hold on to power hangs not on what he included in his story. It hangs on how well he told it.
I don’t mean it matters how well he performed it in the sunshine of the Rose Garden. I mean it depends on how well he has fashioned his story to fit the shape of the classic Drama Triangle. If he and the government can get enough people to join him in that Triangle, then he will have pulled it off.
What’s the Drama Triangle, you ask? It’s a psychological concept developed in the 1960s by Stephen Karpman to help make sense of emotional conflicts. It lets you trace the patterns and positions that hide in the murky waters of human relationships.
The row in which the UK finds itself, about the actions of a government advisor, is all about relationships. The people versus the government. The plebs vs. the politicians. We thought we were all in this together. People have sacrificed their most intimate wishes – to hold their mother’s hand as she lies dying, to hug away their child’s confusion – for the good of others. They have honourably and painfully done their duty.
The row over Dominic Cummings is not about obeying rules, whatever it sounds like on the surface. This row is about betrayal.
The people of the United Kingdom have not simply done as they were told. They have sacrificed. They have surrendered moments of love – perhaps the final moment they would ever be able to share – for the greater good. They have suffered, with dignity and kindness and trust and grief.
Dominic Cummings’ story makes a mockery of their suffering. The government mocks its own people’s pain every time a minister stands up to endorse his story. Betrayal isn’t hard to achieve. All you have to do is look past the suffering you have had a role in creating.
The Drama Triangle helps us see all this murky stuff.
The Drama Triangle highlights the three positions people most often adopt in moments of conflict: Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor. Some people prefer the language of comic books and Marvel stories: Victim, Hero and Villain. Ultimately, all the positions are a path to victimhood. “It wisnae me. I done good. I bear no blame.”
If you’d like to see the Drama Triangle in action, here’s my favourite video.
The position of Victim allows a person to embrace their victimhood. It makes everything easy. They don’t even have to wonder whether they had any responsibility in the matter. A person can be a victim of anything. Cummings’ story allows him to be the victim of the media, a victim of his circumstances, a victim of the virus. He is even a victim of his own child. It was, after all, his own 4-year-old’s need for childcare that was the thing that purportedly sparked all the commotion. The child just happened to have London-based parents who, unfortunately, had not thought to plan in advance how his need for childcare would be met if they were felled by that Villain Virus. It left his parents as victims of unforeseen circumstances.
But that’s okay. Because it enabled Cummings to step into the role of Hero.
The position of Hero allows you to save the day, save the other person, save the situation. You can be lauded for being the Rescuer. You can feel good about yourself. Cummings stepped into the Hero role as soon as he placed himself behind that wheel, whisking his sick wife and vulnerable son to safety, up in Durham. It’s what any ordinary Hero Dad would do, isn’t it? The government has confirmed that every caring father in the land would have been wise to follow in Cummings’ footsteps. You haven’t thought to arrange local childcare? No worries. Just strap your child into the close quarters of your car and drive 250 miles with both parents sneezing out COVID molecules. That’s what Heroes do, you know! They whisk others to safety!
It’s a shame Cummings didn’t have a magic carpet to hand. It would have been faster for the lad. And it would have kept him outdoors, too, which we’ve learned is a safer place to be. But I digress. Magic carpets? That’s the territory of fairy stories.
Yet, wait. Maybe they kept the windows rolled down through that whole long journey? I mean, that would have let the air blow about the carriage, shooing the virus molecules out into the soft night air. Surely any ordinary Hero Dad would have thought to do that, in order to keep his vulnerable son safe from the Villain Virus? I wonder why Cummings didn’t mention that, when he was telling his story in the Rose Garden?
I mean, he thought of so many other ways to occupy the role of Rescuer. He drove 60 extra miles to check to see how blurry his eyesight was, before he embarked on the gruelling return journey to London. And he is such a Hero in Shining Armour that he didn’t even think to ask his wife to take the wheel. Knights who ride in on white horses always stay in charge of the horse, you know. They never ask the frail princess to take the reins.
And there was that valiant night-time drive Cummings made to the Durham hospital, after his young son had needed an ambulance ride away from the country cottage. (Wait. What about the paramedics and the medical staff who were placed at risk from the virus molecules the child might be spreading, having picked them up in London? Shhh. This story isn’t about those people. This is about Cummings and his own nuclear family. Besides, it’s not really a country cottage. Haven’t you read his account? It’s just “sort of” a set of “concrete blocks” on some private land.)
And don’t forget that Cummings really has been a valiant servant to the government, throughout this pandemic. There was that moment, right at the start, when he had to run home to his sick wife. She had called him, feeling ill. There’s footage of it on the internet. Didn’t you see how fast he was running? But when he got home, it turned out okay. She wasn’t so very ill. He was able to return to the office, ever the loyal advisor. (Wait. What about the colleagues to whom he might have brought back the virus? Doesn’t he have a responsibility to protect them? Shhh. This story isn’t about those people. This story is about Cummings the Hero.)
Okay, what about the Villain then? How does that position on the Triangle feature in this story?
Well, Cummings flirts with that role, when he insists that he’s behaved appropriately and legally. He’s done nothing he needs to apologise for. Villains are always right, you know. And the Prime Minister agrees. What is there for you all to complain about?
So really, it’s everybody else, isn’t it? You can’t have a real Hero without a vicious Villain. There are actually several to choose from, in this morphing story. First there was the media, hounding him outside his house, distressing his wife and child. You wouldn’t seriously expect him to place his parents at risk of badgering too, would you? That’s why he kept his visit to them secret. He wanted to protect them.
And there was always the virus. We’re all fighting that Villain. We’re all scared he’ll turn his invisible scythe on people we love.
And now there’s you, dear public. You really are turning into persecutors. You refuse to believe Cummings’ story. You refuse to quit pressuring the government. You refuse to let his full and frank explanation in the Rose Garden be sufficient. Now you are making fun of him on social media. You refuse to let this moment pass, so that we focus on more important things. Stubborn plebs.
“What happens once you come to understand attachment? What do people do with this knowledge? The best way I know to answer these questions is by telling some real-life stories of people who have undertaken this journey of awareness.”
Those are the words with which I begin one of the chapters in my forthcoming book — a newly revised edition of Sabre Tooth Tigers and Teddy Bears: The connected baby guide to attachment. Since the book was first released in 2013, it has sold nearly 15,000 copies. Seven years on, it seemed time for an updated edition. The publishing team at connected baby never dreamed, when we embarked on planning for 2020, that something called ‘coronavirus’ would be part of the challenge we faced!
Ironically, though, these weeks in lockdown have highlighted the key message of the book. Human beings need connection. Without it, we suffer.
It is true that we don’t all need exactly the same ‘amounts’ of connection, nor do we need it delivered at the same pace or intensity. But each of us, individually, need the amount of connection that allows us to feel personally relaxed and comfortable. It’s no different from the urge to avoid hunger or cold. Human beings have a biological drive to avoid loneliness.
Hunger is managed by the digestive system (with major input from the hypothalamus in the brain). Temperature is managed by the thermoregulatory system (also with guidance from the hypothalamus). Connection is managed by the attachment system (with, yes, help from the hypothalamus). All three are all biological systems. Culturally, we tend to have a lot more awareness of the first two. In 2020, we have all learned more about the attachment system than we ever wanted to know.
On second thought, let me put that another way. Human adults have re-learned more about attachment needs than we ever wanted to remember. Every single one of us knew all about those needs when we were babies. It’s just that the uncomfortable memories of what we learned got stored in our unconscious, so we grow up largely unaware of those early lessons.
It is entirely possible for adults to go through the whole of their lives without any realisation that their emotional patterns and relationship decisions have been influenced by experiences they had as an infant. The aim of Sabre Tooth Tigers & Teddy Bears is to encourage readers to take a new look at that forgotten past.
Why would a person want to do that? Isn’t it unsettling? Well, yes, it is true that it isn’t always straightforward to undertake these discoveries. But the thing is….when people better understand how their emotional regulatory system works, they often find that everyday emotions become a bit easier. Actions and reactions make more sense. They stop beating themselves up. Shame can be replaced with self-compassion. Compassion can be extended to other people, including one’s own children. Patience requires less effort. So does holding to boundaries.
I would even go as far as saying that lockdown becomes easier when you understand your own attachment style. I’m not the only one who thinks so. Peter Lovenheim, author of the 2018 book The Attachment Effect, has offered his thoughts on coping with quarantine. He reckons that, of the three primary attachment styles, those people who have a ‘secure’ style (i.e., those who handle both emotional connection and disconnection reasonably well) will manage best in weathering this crisis. “They’ll be sheltering in place and helping to keep up the spirits of loved ones.”
For those who have an ‘ambivalent’ style (i.e., those who get anxious in disconnection), Lovenheim advises, in his light-hearted tone: “Watch less TV. You are not cut out for news shows that display a running tally of illness and death. Instead, call a friend.” And for those with an ‘avoidant’ style (i.e., those who feel most at ease with emotional distance)? He recognises that they chafe against rules that constrain. He suggests, cheekily: “Social distancing has long been your preferred way of life, so maybe just pretend that no one has ordered you to do it and it’s your own idea. Keep in mind that the sooner we get through this, the sooner you can regain your independence.”
Putting attachment theory to use
It is in taking attachment theory beyond the realm of theory and applying it to real-life challenges (like pandemics!) that its value becomes clear. That is why I am grateful to the range of people who have allowed me to tell their stories in the new edition of Sabre Tooth Tigers and Teddy Bears. We hear how Jennifer, as a mum, realised she could support her anxious daughter, rather than get impatient with her, on the days she was reluctant to go to school — because Jennifer came to understand attachment. We hear how Iain, a defence lawyer, has transformed the way he presents clients’ cases within the courtroom – because he was introduced to the science of adverse childhood experiences. We hear how three headteachers — Angela, Eileen and Frances — became so confident in their understanding of the emotional regulatory system that they purchased massive teddy bears for every classroom in their schools. There are other stories told in the book, but I don’t want to spoil all the surprises!
I’ll end with the story of Tony, who was sent to boarding school at the age of 7. Now in his mid-50s, he is still working to make sense of the traumatic impact of those early years. I admire Tony’s willingness to share his story publicly, both on his website and more widely. As he says in the book, “Going to boarding school is considered a privilege. There is a shame associated with telling a story of privilege as a story of trauma. I have to re-confront that shame every time I share my story.” Yet, when you view the remarkable animated film that Tony has created as part of his journey of recovery, you are left in no doubt about the power of attachment ruptures to wound – and the power of attachment knowledge to heal.
Celebrating with a Book Launch
That is why Tony Gammidge will be amongst those joining me at the Book Launch for Sabre Tooth Tigers and Teddy Bears, on 16th May 2020. I have invited him and other guest speakers to reflect on the ways they have benefitted from understanding attachment theory and why they believe everyone deserves that opportunity.
You too can hear what they have to say, if you wish – because you are also invited to come to the Book Launch on 16th May, 10.30am – 12.00pm (GMT), from wherever you live in the world. One of the silver linings that has come out of the collapse of live gatherings is the rise of online ones. All you need to do to attend is sign up via this link, and then tune in this coming Saturday.
Actually, that’s not quite true. You’ll also need, please, to bring along a glass of your favourite fizzy morning beverage. Despite the distances, we want the occasion to feel as celebratory as possible, so we’re going to end it with a toast. I guess we’ll have to pretend we can hear the ‘clinks’!
If you’d like to pre-order a print copy of the book, you can do so on this link. After the Launch, you’ll be able to obtain the book in three additional formats: audio, eBook and online. The connected baby team has always been keen to have the insights in the book reach as many people as possible, and the challenges wrought by COVID have only strengthened that desire. I am grateful to every single person who helps to expand the ripple of understanding.
I look forward to welcoming everyone who can come along to the Launch. Bring yourselves, your children and, if you wish, your teddies! Thank you all.
With Donald Trump’s inauguration upon us in a few days’ time, I find myself thinking of Vice President Biden’s comments earlier this month: “Grow up Donald. Time to be an adult. You’re president.”
That is not going to happen.
Why not? That is the question that I hear being asked repeatedly: Why is it that Donald Trump keeps behaving in this aggressive, belligerent, exaggerated manner, especially since he has already won the election?
However, there are many people who have never heard of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. They have no idea what it is or how it arises from unmet attachment needs. So they continue to find Trump’s behaviour baffling.
I thought a piece on this topic to be timely, since Trump is about to be inaugurated into one of the most powerful positions in the world. Our globe is a scarier place when it is impossible for citizens to predict or interpret a leader’s behaviour. Fear isn’t good for us.
I’m not partisan in writing this piece. I hope it will be of help to Trump supporters and detractors alike. We all need to think more about the ripple effects of mental functioning. If Donald Trump does have this serious personality disorder, then the two camps have something terribly important in common: the motivation for his actions is not caring for the American people, but is always about his own ego.
What’s Trump said now?
Let’s start with a few reminders of Trump’s recent behaviour.
Trump continues to engage in explosive Twitter tirades, often tweeting late at night or early morning.
On 13 January, he used the phrase “sleazebag political operatives” in a flurry of angry tweets.
On 11 January, he used Twitter to accuse the US intelligence services of functioning like those in Nazi Germany.
On 9 January, he called Meryl Streep one of the “most overrated actresses in Hollywood”, following her speech criticising his bullying behaviour.
On 9 January, the media mogul Rupert Murdoch gained a place on Trump’s list of “great guys”, because “Murdoch likes me much better as a very successful candidate than he ever did as a very successful developer!”
On 6 January, he referred to himself in a tweet as a “ratings machine”, pointing out that his ratings as host of the television show The Apprentice had “swamped” the first season ratings gained by its new host, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
On 4 January, Trump claimed that sales of 16-year-old Jackie Evancho’s albums had “skyrocketed” after her announcement that she would sing at his inauguration ceremony, although an analysis showed that the spike is better explained by the fact her Christmas album was on sale during December.
Members of the public who aren’t yet on Twitter might be wondering on how earth brief social media statements, only 140 characters in length, can matter in the real world. Yet they absolutely do. First, we know for sure they come from Trump, not from some political committee who has crafted them on his behalf. They thus provide first-rate insights into his character. Second, it is this very personal use of Twitter that his supporters love. They feel the tweets give them a direct link to him, which would never be possible via the ‘biased media’.
But how does one explain these acts that are not presidential, comments that are so often eccentric and extreme? We start by realising that, if viewed through the lens of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, their content and tone aren’t unusual. They are entirely predictable, especially for a man now living outside his natural comfort zone. Trump has much less control of his world as a politician than he did as a businessman.
Incites negative emotions, especially through tantrums
False image projection
Sense of entitlement
Manipulates others by using them as an extension of the self
These descriptors give you a chance to decide whether you think they fit Trump’s behaviour. You can make a judgment as to whether you think it is possible he might have a diagnosable mental disorder, included within the clinical manual DSM-IV and attributable to somewhere between 1% and 6% of the US population. Amongst corporate leaders, it is believed to be four times that rate.
I use the world ‘possible’ above because it is technically impossible to know Trump’s mental health status without examination by a psychiatrist. The fact that no clinical professional has been given a chance to interview him is one of the reasons we haven’t heard more about Narcissistic Personality Disorder over this election period. All psychiatrists are prevented by the 1973 ‘Goldwater Rule’ from diagnosing celebrities whom they have not actually examined. Bodies like the American Psychiatric Association and the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists require that their members abide by it, due to the inaccuracy inherently at risk in ‘armchair diagnoses’.
Critics, though, argue that the stakes with Trump are now too high. What if the President of the United States is pathologically mentally unfit? Their worry is reasonable, because when it comes to Narcissistic Personality Disorder, the people who end up suffering most are not narcissists themselves. Instead, it is the people affected by their behaviour. That would be us, ordinary citizens in countries across the world.
As a research scientist who works with the public, my job is to help make sense of scientific insights on attachment, connection and human relationships. My aim in doing that is to reduce suffering. I think we deserve access to ideas and information that can assist us in interpreting unsettling behaviour from the next President of the United States of America. We need to reduce the fear and anxiety floating in the world.
So here’s how I think it is easiest to make sense of Trump’s behaviour: understand what’s driving it. The answer is: human attachment needs. At a fundamental level, Trump is no different from the rest of us. Here are two reasons why.
Why Trump is no different from the rest of us
1. We’re all driven by attachment needs.
Love. Belonging. Emotional safety. Human beings have a craving for these things. They lie at the core of the attachment system. When I say ‘core’, I really mean that. These are biological needs.
All mammals seek connection, but it is especially intense for humans. Our large skulls cause our offspring to be born extra-early, extra-vulnerable and ultra-dependent. It is our biological attachment system that keeps us alive as babies and that frames our relationships as adults. When our attachment system is placed under threat, our brains and bodies panic, because we move toward overwhelm. When the overwhelm gets too intense, it starts to feel like we’re at risk of dying. Our sense of self is tied up with the unconscious strategies we use to manage occasions on which panic rises.
People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder live with a lot of unconscious panic. Their sense of self is fragile, as a consequence of emotional injuries they suffered early in life. Their way of coping with that panic is to develop a false self that they can present to the world. The more grandiose and exalted, the better. That idealised self-image, projected to the world, keeps them from feeling the overwhelming emotional wounds that gave birth to the inauthentic self in the first place. As the author Preston Ni puts it, deep down, pathological narcissists feel like the ‘ugly duckling’. They worry they aren’t good enough, but they don’t want anyone, including themselves, to know it. A lot of unconscious psychological energy has to go into keeping up the front. Phew! It’s exhausting just describing it!
So, at a deep human level, the rest of us are just like Donald Trump, and vice versa. We all want to be loved.
2. We’re all seeking a sense of safety. Control gives us that safety.
We all seek emotional safety. That’s the aim of our attachment system. It is always on the look-out for relationship threats that can be spotted on the horizon. That monitoring is crucial to us as babies, because our immature stress management system renders us totally dependent on summoning people to rescue us from overwhelm. Overwhelm is frequent in babies’ lives; it rears its head hundreds of times a day. And it’s not fun. Remember: once it gets intense, overwhelm feels like impending death.
We gain a sense of safety through having enough control over our environment and other people. We are our best selves when we feel in control. If the threat risk has dropped, there is no need to stay on high-alert. Control = emotional safety = relief = relaxation.
You can see that pattern in Trump’s behaviour. When he’s at home at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, he is described as relaxed and calm. At his 2016 New Year’s Eve party, held there, Trump was described by the New York Times as “comfortable in his own skin”. He was reported by attendees as “holding court” at the party: “totally at ease, very positive, very gregarious”. Sure, he’s at home. He’s in control. He can be his charming best self.
His Cabinet picks? He has chosen people he feels safe with. They may not all be the best people for the job, but, hey, they feel trustworthy to him. That’s emphasised by his tweet on 13 January, in which he said: “I want Cabinet nominees…to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!” Why does he need to articulate a quality that should come automatically as part of the job description for a Cabinet post?
Integrating family members into his political activities, despite the conflicts that risks? Yes, his family members make him feel safe. Rude to reporters at a press conference? Well, since he doesn’t generally like the media and he doesn’t know what questions reporters are going to ask him, it can’t feel a safe environment for him, can it? That would easily send his self-regulatory system into overdrive. Reluctant even to travel in the Presidential plane, Air Force One? Okay, his suggestion that he hire out his private jet to the government for his Presidential travel would indeed make him money, but I reckon that what’s more pertinent is a feeling of familiarity and relief when travelling inside his own personal plane.
Donald Trump is no different from the rest of us. He is seeking a sense of emotional safety. And, if he has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, then that internal sense of safety is fragile. A person inevitably exerts more control over their external environment when they can’t find a sense of control internally.
The problem for Trump is that he about to be President of the United States. That role risks putting him constantly outside of his comfort zone. He cannot control Congress; he cannot control the press; he cannot control other countries; he cannot control what his critics say of him. All of that uncertainty would easily keep him on constant high-alert. That would explain why he so often hits out on Twitter and in interviews. Punching someone – whether with your words or your fists — is a way of exerting control. All bullies instinctively get that.
Moreover, they feel better after punching. Lashing out is a tonic. Their cortisol levels drop once they’ve discharged all their pent up anxiety.
The problem for us ordinary people is that a leader who feels constantly threatened becomes even more erratic, more authoritarian, more dependent on intimidation and tantrums as a stress management strategy. That is a serious problem for the globe.
In understanding Trump, we better understand ourselves
I predict there will be a number of people who won’t thank me for this article. Essentially, I’m saying that there is a rational explanation for Trump’s eccentricities. The extremity of what he says and does has driven many of us to our own extreme positions. It is easy to stay holed up in 1) derisively laughing at him or 2) protectively defending him or 3) terrified by his capacity to blow up the world.
As Inauguration Week begins, I’m unlikely to win a popularity contest with either liberals or conservatives by saying that Trump’s dangerously quirky bullying can be explained logically. Indeed, the people I risk becoming most popular with are the trolls.
Important Note: Seeking to understand behaviour is not the same thing as saying that behaviour is okay. It is not okay to lie, to demean people, to rage and sulk, to obfuscate and gaslight. Seeking to understand behaviour is simply a starting place for devising solutions to problems. Finding effectivesolutions is always impossible unless understanding is your starting place. And you can’t reach understanding without curiosity. So yes, I am encouraging us to be genuinely curious about the origins of Trump’s behaviour.
Why publish an article that carries risk, when I could just as easily have chosen to another of my pieces on the healing power of laughter? The answer is that my main aim isn’t actually helping us to better understand the enigma of Trump. My main aim is helping us to better understand ourselves.
America got itself (and the rest of the world) into this situation, where they have elected a man who may be seriously mentally disturbed, because too many people felt unheard. The misery of poverty and anxiety about uncertain futures went unsolved by their politicians. It is in times of fear that we look to someone else to save us. As I have written about before during this election, our own attachment needs place us at most risk when we feel most vulnerable. It is at times of vulnerability that we are most likely to be tricked by people who tell us they will be our saviour, that they will be the one to make our lives great again. All they have to do is make us feel heard.
The best way to make sure you aren’t being conned is to get better at listening to your own vulnerabilities. Along the way, you also get better at listening to others’ vulnerabilities. That compassion is invaluable because…if we are to heal ourselves from the division that Trump’s election has created, we will need to get very very good at listening to each other.
“My view is simple: every young person deserves to be LOVED. So let’s come together and make this commitment: to LOVE our most vulnerable children and give them the childhood they deserve. That’s what inclusion means in practice.”
She then promised a “root and branch review” of the Care System. Essentially, she wants to understand how LOVE got lost from the Care System, and how we recover it. She wants to know how, despite the efforts of so many dedicated people, being raised in the Care System leads to statistics like these:
50% of children in the care system go on to suffer mental health problems.
Half the adult prison population were in care as children.
Children in care are 20 times more likely to be dead by the age of 25 than those not in care.
At a personal level, the part of her speech that most struck me were two short sentences:
“Recently I have been spending time with young people who have grown up in care. Their stories have moved me deeply.”
So it wasn’t the statistics that most moved the First Minister, chilling as they are. It was real life stories of loss.
I have discovered in my work how powerful stories are. They are perhaps the best vehicle we have for moving others to a place of action.
I want, therefore, to use this article to tell another story, one that has been lost from our national consciousness. I want to tell the story of a 3-year-old who went into hospital for a tonsillectomy in 1965. Her parents’ loss, now long forgotten, played a crucial role in changing hospital practice. Every parent today who takes a child to hospital benefits unknowingly from that couple’s story of pain and courage.
Why re-tell that story now? One answer is that, if Nicola Sturgeon’s vision can be realised, then children in the Care System of the future will benefit from the determination that’s being shown now by the young people of Who Cares Scotland. At their invitation, Nicola has committed to hearing 1000 of their stories over the next two years. STV’s recent haunting documentary enabled us to share in five of those stories, including that of Laura Beveridge, who gave a deeply moving TED Talk in Glasgow in 2016.
A second reason for reflecting on the history of children’s hospitals is that, on 3rd November, I’m going to embark on a wee risk myself. I’m taking to the stage, as they say, with an entertaining show called TEDDY BEARS RULE. It’s designed to give the public a light-hearted take on the science of attachment.
The evening is being held in support of The ARCHIE Foundation’s campaign for a new children’s hospital in Tayside. It’s an apt partnership. The study of attachment began in earnest in children’s hospitals of the 1950s. ARCHIE’s work in hospitals today emphasises the importance of relationships, of emotional safety, of LOVE, for children’s healing. Even their logo conveys that message, with their lovable little mascot firmly gripping his cuddly toy.
But it wasn’t always the case that hospitals recognised the importance of relationships. That’s the point of my story of a child’s deadly tonsillectomy.
We begin in the early 1950s. The war is over and the National Health Service has been established. Thank goodness on both counts. All parents can now obtain medical treatment for their children, whether in moments of crisis, like broken legs and bad asthma attacks, or for scheduled operations, like hernias and eye corrections.
One aspect of the care, though, is that much separation between parents and children will need to be endured.
Standard practice for the 1950s was that parents were allowed to visit their children once a week, usually for one hour. It didn’t matter the age of the child: 2 years or 3 years or 10 years. Restricted visiting was simply the norm. Besides, trips on public transportation could be cumbersome, there were typically other children at home who needed to be cared for, and husbands needed someone to make their tea. (I am not joking.) In some hospitals, the restrictions were even more severe. In St Thomas’ hospital, children went one month before being allowed a visit, although their parents were permitted to observe them sleeping. In London Hospital, children under 3 years old went without seeing their parents at all. Parents could, if they wished, view them through partitions.
If this historic account leaves you a bit stunned, good. I want us to be stunned that, not all that long ago, our society took for granted rules that sound unimaginable to our ears today.
If you are looking for someone to blame, don’t. The system was filled with dedicated, hard-working people who simply did what was regarded as normal. Curiosity will get us a lot further than blame.
If you are an adult who was once a child in hospital in the 1950s (or 1960s or 1970s), and you can remember desperately wondering where your parents were: THANK YOU. Thank you for your strength then and your strength now, reading this article. I know there are very many such adults living in the UK today. Frequently you spontaneously raise your hands in my training events and share your stories of loss. Thank you.
Back to my story. A growing number of professionals and parents were concerned about this practice of restricted visiting. Amongst these were the psychologists John Bowlby, Anna Freud, and especially James Robertson. The data they were collecting led to the establishment of what would come to be known as ‘attachment theory’. But the 1950s were still early days in the study of attachment and emotional trauma.
Robertson found that when he tried to talk about his data, it proved too threatening for medical staff to listen to. They could not believe that their normal hospital practices could lead to lasting emotional damage. They felt offended, their professional integrity impugned. What Robertson was calling ‘emotional deterioration’, they simply saw as ‘settling’. Once a child stopped crying, they regarded the behavioural problem as having been solved.
In fact, that was part of the reason for restricting parents’ visits. When parents arrived, they not only brought ‘germs’, but also started off the children’s crying bouts again. How were a few nurses to handle a whole ward of crying children, once their parents had departed? Better to keep the parents away.
So James Robertson tried new steps in his campaign. In 1952, he made a narrated film called A Two Year Old Goes to Hospital, in which he showed viewers what ‘emotional deterioration’ in a toddler looks like. Did it help? No. The medical profession’s reaction was so intensely negative that he had to stop screening the film for a while.
Robertson integrated his efforts with those of others who were concerned. They wrote letters, published papers, penned editorials, gave lectures, created opportunities for distraught parents to tell their stories. By 1959, the debate had grown so heated that a formal review was commissioned by the Ministry of Health, chaired by Sir Harry Platt, President of the Royal College of Surgeons. His report called unreservedly for more humane care for children in hospital. Guess what changed? Very little.
So Robertson turned to the press. He wrote a series of articles for the newspapers, inviting parents to send him letters about their experiences. He collected together hundreds of them, which he published in a book called Hospitals and Children: A Parent’s Eye View. One particularly harrowing story was told by a mother who re-mortgaged her house in order to pay for private treatment so that she would not have to be separated from her son while he recuperated from an eye operation. In 1961, Robertson convinced the BBC to broadcast a television series on the “cruelty” of hospital care, which featured parents’ letters and segments from the several films he had by now made. What changed? Not much.
Do you know what finally finally finally proved to be the tipping point, after nearly two decades of concerted effort? A story of loss. A little girl, 3 years old, went into hospital for an ordinary tonsillectomy, and ended up crying herself to death. Literally.
It was 1965. In line with usual practice, her parents were allowed to spend an hour with her on the day of admission but were thereafter prevented from seeing her. They were informed, though, that their child had come round from the operation, as she was crying continuously. The mother begged repeatedly to see her but was denied permission. Three days after admission, her little girl was dead, having bled to death, surrounded only by strangers called hospital staff. In a heart-wrenching letter, the mother wrote that she “could not help thinking that the continual crying caused the bleeding” and that she believed “her presence would have stopped the crying.”
It’s a shocking story. I want us to be shocked. And I want us to be curious. How is it possible that well-meaning staff could have failed to realise the importance of LOVE for reassuring a scared child? How could their lack of understanding be so complete that she ended up drowning in her own blood?
If you think the way I’ve told this story sounds too extreme, that’s okay. You can read the story for yourself, retold in the 2009 paper written by Dutch researchers Frank van der Horst and Rene van der Veer (pg 135). The case was much discussed at the time, in the press, in the medical journals and by the Ministry of Health. Whilst some leading medical professionals supported the mother’s view that her presence would have calmed and saved her child, others subtly blamed the mother for the death, suggesting that she had failed to adequately prepare her 3-year-old for the experience of being in hospital.
Blame. It is such an easy option for us human beings.
The only light to emerge from this terrible story of loss is that it helped the tide to finally turn. The Ministry of Health took a harder line on hospital visiting practices. By 1970, restrictions had come to be regarded as unnecessary and unsuitable for young children. It had taken two decades of campaigning. Things still weren’t perfect. But the tide had turned. LOVE was being permitted to flourish in hospital wards.
Why am I telling that story in such detail now? Two reasons.
First, when I stand up on stage on 3rd November in Dundee, in aid of The ARCHIE Foundation’s campaign for cutting-edge hospital facilities, I want the evening to be entertaining, full of fun and laughter. I won’t be telling this heart-breaking story. But I wanted to put it on record, so that, as we walk into that auditorium, we fully appreciate the significance of ARCHIE’s attention to relationships. ARCHIE gets it, and they are working to help ensure that others get it. The money we raise that evening will help them continue that work.
Connection. Laughter. LOVE. It is way too easy for us to take these basics for granted.
Second, Nicola Sturgeon’s speech about the Care System has filled many people in Scotland with hope. Tears were shed as she announced her root and branch review. I believe Nicola’s intention, and I have no doubt that the determined young people of Who Cares Scotland will hold her to account. They have claimed their own stories of loss. They have used their stories to drive long-needed change.
However, even hefty reviews do not automatically lead to action. My history of hospital care reminds us of that reality.
I do not want to wait two decades to achieve the vision Nicola Sturgeon set out this week. If our children in care are to experience the LOVE she seeks for them, and the LOVE they deserve, then it needs more than policy change. It needs culture change.
That part is up to us. We don’t have to wait for a governmental review. We can start today. We start with kindness and curiosity. We listen to stories of loss.
In August, I wrote a piece urging us not to buy into the language of ‘shock’ when it is used to describe images of children caught up in war. I was trying to help us fight the dangerous pull of sentimentality, when our human emotions easily cloud our ability to look upon harsh realities.
What do we think war looks like, I asked? Of course it looks like children dazed and covered in blood. There is nothing shocking about that image of Omran Daqneesh. He is a child caught up in terrible war. Yes, the image is haunting, awful, gut-wrenching. But it is not shocking. It is depressingly predictable.
My theme was picked up by blogger Tim Dunwoody, writing about the devastation that has occurred in Haiti as a result of Hurricane Matthew. He asked why the images were being described as ‘shocking’, given that Haiti is the poorest nation in the northern hemisphere. He wondered whether those of us who don’t live in abject poverty subconsciously protect ourselves from acknowledging its reality by telling ourselves, in times of disaster, that we are shocked by what we see. He challenges us to be real: “If we are honest with ourselves, surely we know that natural disasters always hit the poor the worst. Do the images from Haiti really shock us?”
I found myself returning to this theme once again as I looked at another of the week’s news images. This time, though, I wondered why we were not using the language of ‘shock’.
The answer is that we were, instead, using the language of ‘cute’. Our laughter at all the cuteness kept us from seeing the possibility of a harsher reality: a child being objectified.
On 10th October, US presidential candidate Donald Trump hosted one of his largest rallies yet. Nearly 10,000 people gathered in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania to hear him speak with anger and vitriol about the current state of America and its leaders. Approximately 45 minutes into the speech, he spotted a child dressed up to look just like him. Lots of people had donned costumes for that rally, and the parents of this two-year-old toddler had joined in, dressing him up as a mini-Trump, complete with dark suit, red tie, voting badge and a full head of similarly combed-over hair.
When Donald spotted the child, sitting high on a set of shoulders in the crowd, he invited his security guards to bring him up onto stage. The rapturous crowd loved it.
“What’s your name?” Donald asked.
The child responded with one of the abilities common to all young children learning to talk. He repeated the last word he heard: “Name!” Some of the papers explicitly noted that repetitive pattern in their coverage of the story.
“Are you having a good time tonight?”
“Where’s your daddy, and your mommy? Do you want to go back to them, or do you want to stay with Donald Trump?”
The roar of approval was deafening. You can hear that “beautiful moment” for yourself here:
It wasn’t just the crowds who loved it. So did the media. ABC News declared that ‘Mini-Trump Steals the Show.” The Toronto Sun said ‘Mini-Trump upstaged Donald Trump’. The Daily Mail charmingly called him the ‘Doppelganger Baby’.
So what’s wrong with any of that, you might ask? It was funny. The kid was cute. Nobody got hurt. The child didn’t even cry. If you look closely, he was smiling. His parents were there the whole time. What is the problem?
My problem is that our collective response was to laugh indulgently as an angry demagogue used a child for his own political purposes.
It’s not surprising. In fact, it’s a common strategy amongst demagogues. When they smile at children, they seem more likable. When they get us to laugh with them, we remember ourselves as having had a good time.
And if we’re having a good time, we’re more likely to overlook the ways in which a person is being used to manipulate us. That person (in this case, a small person) has been objectified, used as a pawn in a bigger game.
We have become pawns too. Donald played us all brilliantly: the crowd, the newspaper editors, those of us who looked at that photo and smiled.
Let me be very clear: I’m not particularly criticising him. He was doing what all politicians do: kiss babies. (The Atlantic published a lovely little piece in 2011 on why this “clichéd propaganda” works so effectively.) Donald was also doing what we might expect of a politically ambitious bully under severe threat: he was seizing an opportunity to shift the public mood. Three days previously, most folks around the world had been outraged by the way he had objectified women. He vaporised some of that anger instantly by getting himself photographed being sweet to a cute kid. It’s a brilliant strategy.
I am not in any way reproaching the child’s parents, either. Loads of parents involve their children in political struggles, using their very youth as part of the political point being made. The follow-up interviews (and even the pre-interviews) with Hunter Tirpak’s mother made clear that, as a strong Trump supporter, her aim was to bring positivity to a negative campaign. She is absolutely free to dress her child up as Baby Trump if she wants.
Rather, my critique is focused on us, the public. Why were we so easily entranced? Why did the language of ‘shock’ not appear in any of the papers? Why was this story dripping in froth and fluff, rather than scrutiny?
One answer is that Donald has offered us so many shocking moments during this campaign that we’ve become a bit inured to his antics. And this moment did come just after the meltdown created by his comments about grabbing women by the pussy. It is understandable that, in the face of such blatant objectification, we might miss the more subtle objectification involved in holding up a smiling child for public viewing.
So if you didn’t spot this interpretation, don’t feel bad. Nobody else did either, as far as I can tell. Donald is a very talented showman. He’s better even than Derren Brown.
And if you disagree (perhaps vehemently) with my reading of Donald’s performance, that’s okay too. Debate on the objectification of children would be terrific. It would let us address my earlier question: “What’s wrong with any of this?”
What’s wrong is that objectification is the first step on the journey to exploitation, xenophobia and abuse. When we are astute enough to spot objectification, we stand a better chance of preventing things from getting worse.
One other event occurred in the British media this week that highlights how ‘worse’ it can get. Louis Theroux produced a courageous television documentary exploring how he had failed to spot the sinister depths of his predatory friend, Jimmy Saville. What signs had he overlooked 15 years ago?
The programme made for unsettling viewing – but not because we were watching a man trying to make sense of his own guilt and gullibility. It was unsettling because Theroux was compelling viewers to ask themselves what they too had missed, as they laughed along with Saville, during all the scenes of smiling children. He was trying to help a nation not to get lost in a cloud of guilt and shame, but to have the strength and curiosity to ask: what signs did we miss?
Well, objectification is a pretty good sign.
The creepy, crazy thing about objectification is that it doesn’t have to feel bad. It can easily feel like entertainment.
Come to think of it, maybe objectification is at its most powerful when it comes wrapped in sentimentality. Who could possibly question laughing at innocent cuteness?