Life Without Atticus
When Siblings Parent Each Other
I was seven years old and my brother, Kenny, was ten when our parents, each in their own way, disappeared. It was the summer of 1990, and Kenny and I roamed freely around the house. In matching bowl haircuts and hand-me-down clothes, we smoked our own birth cigars, which we discovered in the bottom of an old cedar chest. The “It’s a Boy!” and “It’s a Girl!” cigar boxes lay empty in the bushes as we sat atop our treacherously slanted roof with a lighter, but I wasn’t afraid: I was with my brother, and we were on our own.
We repeatedly watched To Kill a Mockingbird on a dusty VHS tape with worn ribbons and poor sound quality. We related to Jem and Scout, the wild siblings who lived in poverty and didn’t have a mom. Scout became my role model, and Jem personified my devotion to Kenny. We memorized the dialogue in the movie and would recite our favorite lines, such as “My Lord, Aunt Stephanie! You almost gave me a heart attack!” and “Cecil Jacobs is a big, fat hen!” Most of all, we envied them because they had a father.
The previous year, our father had had an affair and fathered a child. He was covertly paying a considerable amount of monthly child support, which I later learned was partly blackmail money. No one in our family would discover the affair, the child, or where the money was going until after he died, 16 years later, but it explained why our lower middle-class lifestyle was quickly reduced to invisible poverty. We didn’t qualify for food stamps, scholarships, or free lunches, as my parents’ joint income was too high and the child support wasn’t documented. But our dad was destroyed by the strain of keeping his secret, and so he was the first parent to fade away.
He lived in his office and in front of TV screens, rarely speaking. To the outside world, he was a quiet and kind man. Yet in the secrecy of our home, he was abusing our mother behind a closed bedroom door—financially, emotionally, and sexually. That summer, he fully retreated into a hell of his own creation. We could see him, but he wasn’t there. His body remained, but his heart had died. My new, make-believe father, Atticus Finch, sat with me at a dining table made of cardboard, cuddled me on an imaginary porch swing, and read me stories at night.
Like Jem and Scout, we found ways to entertain ourselves that summer. My favorite game was the Cockroach Hunt. We’d creep into the kitchen at night and turn on all the lights at once. Multitudes of cockroaches would then scurry away, and we’d see how many we could squash with our bare feet before they disappeared into the cracks in the walls and the rotted-out holes in the floor. Crushing them required a strong stomp in order to break through their shells and expose their milky guts, which stuck to our feet. We’d push and shove each other in an effort to sabotage the other’s success, yet we could never keep track of our kills, which caused heated late-night arguments.
“That one was mine!” I’d pout.
“No way! I got all of those,” Kenny would protest.
“You’re a cheater,” I’d cry.
Our mother disappeared soon after. She wasn’t strong enough to get away from our father because her family had taught her that she was weak. She’d had rheumatic fever as a child and was told she wouldn’t survive. When she did, she was told she wouldn’t live to be a teenager. When she did, she was told she’d never have children. She was constantly told what she couldn’t do, not what she could. Her family treated her as “the weak one,” and she adopted this identity as an adult, to our father’s advantage.
That summer, she stopped cooking and cleaning, and when she wasn’t working long hours to pay for a child she didn’t know existed, she locked herself in her bedroom. We were told by our father, grandmother, aunts and uncles, and teachers that we shouldn’t upset our mother. We needed to behave and let her rest, and so we did. We stopped knocking on her bedroom door, we stopped telling her about our day, and we left her alone as we were told. All we could do was watch as she slowly, steadily, and silently disappeared. Her body remained, but her heart faded away.
With our parents gone, we created our own games, cooked our own meals, fielded calls from bill collectors, took medicine that we found in the backs of drawers when we were sick, and ran from adults who stopped their cars on the side of streets and asked, “What’s your name?”
- - - -
“Hang on, Scout!” yelled Kenny as he chased a tire down a residential street. I was in that tire as it plunged down a hill and bounced off a parked car. Luckily, I was unharmed. Jem and Scout showed us how to play this game. I sat in the tire’s hole, wedged my feet into the gap, and held on to the sides with my tiny hands. But that first time, moments before I climbed in, I tried to back out.
“It’s too scary,” I said quietly, on the verge of tears.
“If you die, you die. But you can’t always be scared,” Kenny said as he hugged me. “You’re brave ’cause you’re my sister.”
I smiled and got into that tire, knowing that I could die but that, if I did, at least I’d be with my brother.
When you’re a child and your parents can’t see you, you try to make sense of it. You start to believe you’re invisible, unlovable, not good enough, or simply a bad kid. Kenny was the only one who could see me, and he taught me how to be brave, how to make myself visible in the world, and how to—at the very least—see and love myself.
As a Gestalt therapist, I’d use an empty-chair experiment with a client wanting to reconnect after estrangement, having the client speak directly to the family member and share their thoughts, feelings, boundaries, and expectations with them. This would provide an opportunity for them to gain more clarity about their desire for reconnection, as well as a way for me to support their level of acceptance of the family member’s response.
I might then invite the client to speak as their younger self and revisit the time when they decided to end contact. I’d say, “Can you tell your present-day self about your choice to end contact? Let them know what was important about that choice?” I’d then invite the client’s present self to respond to their younger self and share current hopes, needs, and motivations for reconnection.
My goal would be to support the client’s ability to deepen the experiential and somatic basis of their younger self’s choice to end contact. If they ended contact out of self-protection, I’d make the themes of safety conscious again in the here and now, reemphasizing their ability to assess, moment to moment, their safety and comfort. Importantly, I’d want to support their ability to access anger as a way of imparting that they can protect themselves, should the need arise.
— Jordan Dann, MFA, LP, CIRT
New York, NY
Still, as an adult, I struggle with severe attachment wounds, and I battle the stigma that accompanies healing. How can I tell people that I stopped loving my parents as a child? And that I feel no love for them to this day? How can I explain that I’ve ceased contact with my mother and have no intention of taking care of her in her old age? This sounds like something a sociopath would say. For years, I feared that people wouldn’t understand, and would judge me.
Then I discovered Dr. Edward Tronick’s “still face experiment” about the impact of childhood emotional neglect. The University of Massachusetts Boston provides a video clip of the experiment on YouTube, which shows a mother playing with her baby daughter. They smile and laugh together until suddenly, the mother stops engaging with her child and sits silently, still, with a blank stare. The baby instinctively tries everything she can to get her mother’s attention. She smiles, points, reaches for her mother, screeches, and eventually cries with her arms and legs flailing at her sides. After a painful two minutes, the mother reengages, and her daughter quickly smiles and reaches for her once again; parent and child repair the break in their connection. When there’s no reengagement or repair, a child is left to meet their emotional needs on their own.
When I struggle to find the words to explain my attachment wounds to friends, I send them this video clip. I tell them, “I was that baby, but my parents never shed their still faces, so I learned to stop trying.”
- - - -
Today, I’m 38, and Kenny is 41. Our mother lives alone in a small apartment. I don’t know much about her life, and I have no need to. I’ve focused on the doors that have opened for me. I’ve moved out of state, earned a master’s degree, and embraced a loving support system. Kenny and I live 500 miles apart, and every summer, when we vacation together, we play as Jem and Scout.
One May afternoon, Kenny and I were digging for shells in the sand with our toes. Kenny’s partner, TJ, looked on in dismay from the shore at the heads of two middle-aged siblings bouncing up and down in the waves of the Gulf of Mexico.
“What if something bites us?” Kenny asked, clinging to my shoulders.
“If it bites us, then it bites us,” I said. “Look, it’s more likely that it’ll just cut us a little. My toes are already covered in cuts, that’s part of it. You gotta take risks to find the big ones.”
Kenny’s trepidation made sense, as we could easily uncover an angry crab or disturb a sleeping stingray. But I was determined to be in the tire, and this time I was taking him with me.
“Oh god, what is that?!” Kenny screamed.
“It’s just a fish.”
“It’s biting me!”
“Just keep digging.” I laughed.
“It’s loose!” he yelled in excitement.
“We can use our feet to bring it to the surface. Are you ready?”
“Yeah, let’s do it,” he said.
We used our feet to loosen the sand, and then wrapped our toes around the large, hard shape. We flapped our arms in the neck-high water to balance ourselves as we brought it to the surface.
“Yes!” Kenny yelled as he held up a large conch shell.
“You crazy kids!” TJ yelled from the shore.
- - - -
Scout, my seven-year-old inner child, is always with me. In fact, she’s the secret to my success as a psychotherapist. My first position after graduate school was as a therapist at a residential treatment center specializing in treating teenagers unable to attach to adults as a result of developmental trauma. These children were violent, manipulative, reactive, and frightened. Some had been adopted, others had been physically or sexually abused, and a few had come from homes very much like my own.
The adults in their lives—desperate parents, confused teachers, frustrated social workers—feared they’d end up in prisons, homeless, or dead. My colleagues had little trouble attuning with the adults, yet struggled to connect with the teens, who did everything possible to push them away. I had the opposite experience. When the teens said, “I don’t love anybody,” I understood. When they yelled, “Get away from me!” I stood my ground. When they attempted to sabotage our relationship, I forgave. It was Scout who helped me connect with them.
Now, I’m working with adults who’ve experienced childhood trauma, survived, and are struggling to thrive. Most have developed coping mechanisms that society supports, such as people-pleasing, climbing the corporate ladder, or generally overachieving in some way. But their inner children lie under the surface, alone, with needs still unmet. When these children come to the surface, Scout is there to greet them. She helps me guide them in meeting the needs of their inner children. Some need to feel safe, others need to know that they have internal value, and a few need to know they deserve to exist and take up space in the world.
Scout reminds me to show, not tell, these children that I’m a safe, nurturing adult. She lowers my shoulders, softens my face, and adjusts my voice to communicate humility, vulnerability, and unconditional acceptance. I may have a license to practice psychotherapy, but it’s Scout who’s the real expert.
- - - -
A child’s mind looks for the easiest explanation to serve as truth, and it was easy for me to believe that my parents didn’t love me because something was wrong with me. The truth—that it had nothing to do with me—was harder to grasp, but Kenny helped me understand that, because I never believed for one minute our parents didn’t love him because of anything wrong with him. In my mind, there wasn’t. So eventually, I had to admit that the same logic must apply to me.
Children don’t have an innate sense of how to love and be loved; they rely on an adult who provides safety, attunement, empathy, acceptance, and boundaries. They need an Atticus. They need dinner-table conversations, bedtime stories, rules, consequences, and cuddles on porch swings. I never had an Atticus, or a mother, but I had a Jem. My relationship with my brother created a foundation. It might have been cracked and cockroach infested, but it was a foundation we built ourselves.
Amanda Ann Gregory, LCPC, is a trauma and attachment-specialized psychotherapist, speaker, trainer, and writer. She’s licensed in Illinois, Missouri, and Texas and currently practices in Chicago. She manages the Transforming Trauma blog. Follow her on Instagram or Facebook for trauma treatment ideas and support. Contact: email@example.com.
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CategoriesFirst Person Families Kids & Teens Trauma
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