The Primal Wound – Book Review

The act of ordering this book, let alone reading it, has been years in the making. In some ways The Primal Wound (1991) has stood as an enormous ancient wall, towering above me, looking down upon me with knowing eyes daring me to begin the ascent. It took me 8 years to do it and it turned out the ancient wall was a shimmering lake waiting for me to step close enough to catch my reflection.

The book, written by Nancy Newton Verrier, is succinct and full of depth. In its 221 pages it covers 4 major sections and 15 chapters, each topic of each chapter could’ve filled an entire bookshelf. The book is quite a contrast to the memoirs, blogs and interviews I’ve been immersing myself in these past few months. It is direct, critical and unwaveringly clear in its thesis: children separated from their mothers at birth suffer an irreparable wound that we must learn to acknowledge if we are to have any hope of helping mother and child through that wound and loss. Important to note that it primarily is dealing with the experience of domestic adoption in the U.S. and does not pay special attention to transracial adoption.

Parts I-III were filled with anecdotes and descriptions that felt as if they had been lifted from my life verbatim. It has been my experience, as with many people who have been adopted, that when professionals come to speak for us they do so with such ineffectiveness and lack of emotional understanding that their comments make it clear they have no real understanding of this primal wound, this deep loss that sits in our throats like an unquenchable thirst. Verrier, clearly has done good work in listening, researching and learning how to articulate those experiences in a way that is meant to be palatable to people interested in adoption.

The book’s primary audience, it seems, is people looking to adopt children. Verrier keeps coming back, time and again, to the need for prospective parents (I don’t love this term but haven’t come up with a better one) to deal with their own emotional trauma so that they can be unwavering in their commitment to their new child. Verrier argues that adoption should be done for the primary purpose of serving the child’s needs, at all times, and the parents need for a child should be subordinated. I couldn’t agree more with this direct message and appreciate it coming from someone other than someone who has been adopted, I think it is a good demonstration of using her voice to amplify what people who have been adopted have been saying.

A few quotes from Parts I-III that resonated with me deeply are included below. These quotes really aren’t new knowledge or information, but a demonstration that I am not alone in my experience.

This inability to trust the permanence of the mother/child relationship may also be at the root of many adoptees’ failure to feel love and affection from the adoptive mother. No matter how much or how often a child is shown or told that he is loved, he is unable to believe it.” p. 60

What adoptees need to know is that their experience was real. Adoption isn’t a concept to be learned, a theory to be understood, or an idea to be developed. It is a real life experience about which adoptees have had and are continuing to have constant and conflicting feelings, all of which are legitimate. Their feelings are their response to the most devastating experience they are ever likely to have: the loss of their mother. Just because they do not consciously remember it does not make it any less devastating. It only makes it more difficult to deal with, because it happened before they had words with which to describe it.” p.12

I believe that it would be safe to say that most adopted children form attachments to their adoptive mothers. This is a kind of emotional dependence, which may seem crucial to their survival. Bonding, on the other hand, may not be so easily achieved. It implies a profound connection, which is experienced at all levels of human awareness. In the earliest stages of an infant’s life, this bond instill the child with a sense of well-being and wholeness necessary to healthy emotional development.” p. 19

Although the adoptee might not be consciously aware of the fear of abandonment, which is then felt as free-floating anxiety, there is an attitude which can be readily discerned. It is a kind of watchfulness or cautious testing of the environment, which is called hypervigilance. p.77

Observing that his parents can be angry at him and still love him might begin to allow him to express his own anger about what happened to him.” p. 130

I could continue to add quotes, dozens more, but these are a sufficient sample to show the breadth and quality of observations that Verrier has to offer. On these insights alone I would recommend this as a text for anyone in the adoption “triad.”

The insights continue into Part IV but begin to morph into instructions and recommendations, many of which feel useful, but some which may be worth verifying with more recent research. A few things I did not appreciate and could’ve gone without include her insistence on a male and female parent to raise a child effectively. I hope those observations were a product of her time and don’t beliefs that the author would stand by today. Furthermore, although it is not explicitly stated, there is a short section where she opines that lesbians may in fact be attracted to women because they are searching for the primal closeness with their mother. Although I don’t pretend to know much about psychology it does seems like quite a claim to make without offering much in the way of supporting evidence.

In all, I found the text useful, and think that I waited long enough, perhaps maybe a bit too long, to read it. I was certainly ready to hear the words within those pages and ready enough that I found I had already formulated strong opinions or had stories about many of her observations. I would like someone to write an updated version for today and for it to write more directly to the experiences of transracial and intercountry people who have been adopted. I think that I would also have liked to have read this book while in therapy and will consider that whenever I return to therapy.

What would a book review be without a rating. I don’t really like stars or thumbs up so I’ll rate this book based on how many purple cabbages I think it deserves. I’ve been eating a lot of purple cabbage so it seems like a good way to indicate my approval. I’d give the book a solid 3.4 purple cabbages out of a full cabbage patch which I’ve been told can have as few as one or zero cabbages (if it’s a really bad year and the cabbage worms have been lucky) and as many as 15 cabbages! Probably there are larger cabbage patches but it seems unlikely.

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