Free To Tell: Lou’s Writings Shine a Light on Child Abuse and Addiction
“Don’t let the truth become disguised,” in the words of the bright and sensitive and doomed young author, is the theme of this heartbreaking and inspiring volume. Free To Tell is a monument to a creative spirit, a celebration of his life, and an illumination to anyone wanting to understand child abuse, trauma, addiction and despair.
– Gabor Maté, M.D., Author, In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction; When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection
I was traveling north on Highway 101, headed to Portland for the 43rd Annual Conference of the Northwest Institute of Addiction Studies. Dr. Gabor Maté was the featured keynote speaker for the first day of the three-day symposium. En route, I stopped to watch the sunset. Lulled by the sounds of the crashing surf, the dance of fiery light on the blues of the Pacific Ocean, I felt the inner waves of emotion rising and falling.
I was awash in gratitude. Gabor had read the draft manuscript of Free To Tell. He had offered to write an endorsement. I felt wonder at the synchronicity of the NIAS Conference happening in Oregon that week, the opportunity to meet Gabor, to network Lou’s CD/book project, and to reconnect with places and people dear to us when Lou was alive on Earth. I felt a quiet joy and satisfaction. How amazed Louis would be that his poetry, essays, journal writing and lyrics had been reviewed by Dr. Maté, internationally respected for his groundbreaking insights concerning the link between childhood trauma and addiction. Gabor leads, inspires, uplifts, while tackling the most difficult human experiences. He is doing what Lou himself had hoped to do one day.
Beneath these feelings was the intimate and ever-present undertow of the dark emotions: sorrow, loss, grief. I’ve learned not to struggle against these powerful tides. Let them wash through. Breathe in. Breathe out. Surrender. As the Sun sank from view, a sense of peace came over me. This warm, life-sustaining light was not disappearing forever, only hiding for a time behind the limits of our ability to see. Before heading back to the car, I checked my phone. Gabor had just sent his endorsement. My eyes filled with tears. I sat down again on my rocky perch on the cliff above the ocean. I breathed in deeply the salt air, exhaled prayers of thanks. Before setting out again, I pulled from my luggage a small vial containing some of Lou’s ashes. I released the earthy dust into the waves, into the sky.
“Everyday Attachment” was the theme of the 2017 NIAS Conference. Researchers and clinicians such as Gabor Maté, Christine Courtois, Joyanna Silberg, Eli Newberger, Bessel van der Kolk and Boris Cyrulink are unanimous and unequivocal in their conclusions. The essential role of safe, loving, nurturing childhood attachment in human development is no longer controversial. It cannot be overestimated. Dr. Courtois, Dr. Newberger and Dr. Silberg are additionally familiar with and outspoken about the plight of single mothers who attempt to keep their children safe when they are at risk of abuse. To say that family courts do not favor us is the mother of all understatements. If Yosemite were run like family court, the park rangers would warn the campers, “We have some mother bears in the park suffering from serious anger issues, but we’ve come up with an innovative and effective solution. We’ll be taking their cubs away and giving them to predators.” Problem solved.
“Attachment Theory” is not theory. It is reality. Attachment is the only means for all mammalian creatures to survive and thrive, especially for us “upright,” big-brained primates. Humans require consistent, positive, loving connections to our caregivers as infants and throughout childhood if our brains and bodies are to develop optimally as Mother Nature intends. The human child remains biologically dependent (and therefore extremely vulnerable) longer than any other species on Earth. Abuse in early childhood – especially chronic trauma of long duration, perpetrated by an adult to whom the child looks for protection, will cause long-lasting or even irreversible damage to a child’s developing neurological system.
“There are certain characteristics that define a good chimp mother. She is patient, she is protective but she is not over-protective – that is really important. She is tolerant, but she can impose discipline. She is affectionate. She plays. And the most important of all: she is supportive. So that if her kid gets into a fight, even if it is with a higher-ranking individual, she will not hesitate to go in and help.”
~ Jane Goodall
Dr. Maté stepped down from the stage. A long line was forming at the book table behind us. Gabor gave me a warm embrace before looking me in the eyes. He paused a moment before speaking. “What I am about to ask is in no way a criticism.” In his eyes I saw what everyone sees: the Light of compassion. “Why is it, do you think, that it took Louis two years before he could start to tell you about what his father was doing to him?” I suddenly felt faint; my heart raced. The physician had just touched my deepest wound, the source of my own dis-ease. (Pain. Fear. Terror.) I began to stammer out pieces of the unspeakable truth as Lou had shared it with me at ten years old, the terrible threats woven into his perpetrator’s abuse. No one had ever before asked me this question. Nevertheless, I had turned it over in my mind and heart, examining it from every possible angle (or so I thought) for nearly ten years. Silence. Child victims rarely disclose their abuse in real time if the perpetrator is a close family member, I added. (Yes, in my pain, I was actually beginning to lecture the expert about data he knows all too well.) “But Rhonda,” he continued, never breaking his gaze, “… and I don’t ask this to hurt you, how was it that your attachment to Louis became broken so that he suffered so long in silence before he could say, ‘Mama, my daddy is hurting me?'”
Dozens of people were now patiently waiting for a few moments of our Teacher’s attention. It was not the time or place to launch a discussion about the ways in which the family court system in America routinely forces children into relationships with their abusers.
It never is. Did I miss my chance? Should I have taken the stage, picked up the microphone, found my voice? Should I have broken Lou’s silence for him in a new and powerful way? I could have enumerated the myriad ways the system works to sever the child’s healthy attachment to his protective parent, all in the name of the child’s best interest. Exposed how the judicial process conspires to enable child abuse, abets the pervasive and deadly silence, sows the seeds of destruction and despair in the lives of thousands of good mothers and their children every year, shamelessly bankrupting us in the process. I could have told them exactly what complex PTSD looks like in me and in the crowd I hang with, my warrior woman friends. I could have made a heartfelt plea to everyone refilling their coffee cup, asking them to support the current Congressional House Resolution 72 in support of trauma-informed family courts. I could have hijacked the computer and shown the documentary, “Small Justice” by professor/filmmaker Garland Waller, or “Domestic Violence Continued: Contested Child Custody” by sociologist Dr. Sharon Araji.
Instead, I murmured my heartfelt thanks, gratefully accepted a second hug, and left the Conference for the day, my heart broken open once again.
That’s how the Light gets in.
Mothers Day 2018. I’ll be in Albany for the Battered Mothers Custody Conference. I was there in 2015, distributing copies of Lou’s CD. Mothers Day 2015, I was also in New Jersey at the BMCC. Lou had died six months before. No one understood my particular grief so well as my sisters and friends at the BMCC. 2013 was the Tenth Annual BMCC. It was held in Washington D.C. at the GWU School of Law. Louis called me from residential treatment in Arizona on Mothers’ Day. I was standing on the steps of the National Gallery, looking out over the National Mall. I asked his permission to share some of his story the next day in lobbying on the Hill. He said yes; said he was proud of me. I said that I was proud of him too, and that we were both incredibly brave. Our bond, broken when he was young through no fault of our own, was on the mend in the last few years of his life.
The theme for this year’s Battered Mothers (Child) Custody Conference is “Custody Litigation, Trauma and Recovery.” One of our key legal advocates is Dr. Joan Meier, Clinical Law Professor at George Washington University and founder of DV LEAP (Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project.) We hope that the recent publication of Dr. Meier’s pilot study, “Mapping Gender: Shedding Empirical Light on Family Courts’ Treatment of Cases Involving Abuse and Alienation,” funded by the National Institute of Justice and published in the Journal of Law and Inequality, will be a tipping point.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month
- #1 Be Aware. Watch and share this panel discussion, organized by the Spiritual Alliance to Stop Intimate Violence, held at Marylhurst University on January 6, 2013, featuring Rev. Warren Light, J.D., Paula Lucas, April Robyn and her daughter Mandy, and NOMAS (National Organization of Men Against Sexism) Child Custody Co-Chair Dr. Jack Strayton: Women Leaving Abuse: Children at Risk of Abuse and Murder.
- #2 Take action. Contact your Congressman and the members of the Judiciary Committee US House of Representatives, to register your support for House Resolution 72, co-sponsored by Congressman Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) and Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.)