In 2005 I spent 23 days in Eastern and Central Europe visiting Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary with classmates in the California Agricultural Leadership Program. We met with US Embassy staff, Bulgarian mafia (not on purpose), school children, and bus drivers. We saw monasteries and castles and old stone churches. Lots of them. The trip was exhilarating, grueling, and the opportunity of a lifetime. What I learned in Romania was life changing and therapeutic. Picture courtesy Leslie Leavens, 2005.
A few months before our Ag Leadership international trip I attended a seminar at San Quentin prison. The seminar focused on brain development and the impacts of criminal behavior on society. We saw a video that showed an experiment with a baby monkey that from birth hadn’t been allowed physical contact with other monkeys. The baby monkey shrieked in fear, withdrew, and rocked himself when he was approached by another monkey. Later in the same video, orphans in Romania reacted in a similar fashion, rocking and banging their heads against the sides of their cribs.
As I watched, I suddenly noticed that I was weeping and I was rocking too. Why was I doing that, I wondered? I searched the internet and learned that insecure attachments in my early childhood handicapped my emotional well-being.
To briefly recap what I’ve written elsewhere, I was given up at birth and adopted after months of being in a foster home where I received little physical contact from a foster mother. I had a major life-threatening surgery at a few months of age and was hospitalized for several months. As a result, I didn’t receive the nurture critical to a developing infant’s identity and personality. I missed out on vital bonding that would have prepared me to have successful relationships as I grew up.
After I was adopted, I initially received a lot of attention and love from my parents, but within the year they adopted another child who focused their attention on him. A compliant child, I went along and my parents had no idea that I had needs too.
While “normal” children adjust to the arrival of a sibling. I never did. My mother’s focus elsewhere caused a feeling of betrayal leading to my inability to trust her or anyone else. It taught me I could only rely on myself.
I recognized myself in the video that weekend at San Quentin. That was hard enough, but harder still was the realization that despite being a long-time Christian, I wasn’t really bonded with man or with God. I built a wall and retreated behind it every time anyone got too close. I was the only one I trusted. The root causes of my isolation and loneliness were buried so deep I had no clue they even existed.
For several days after San Quentin I mourned. It hadn’t been good news, but I was thankful to have met my sad little inner child, to have acknowledged her grief and survived. I had no idea there was more.
Since the video and subsequent revelations had been a breakthrough for me and since my Ag Leadership class would visit Romania on our international trip, I wanted to do something for the orphans. Coincidentally, several days later I was asked to teach a conflict resolution training for a nonprofit ministry called Touched Romania in Bucharest.
The overarching goal of Touched Romania was to intervene in the lives of these abandoned children who, like me, had not bonded with their primary caretakers. I had been trained in secular and faith-based techniques to mediate and resolve conflict. The Touched Romania staff was eager to learn a faith-based approach to conflict resolution. I was all in.
Despite the rigors of our Class’ intense travel schedule, the training went off without a hitch. Approximately 30 people participated. I was pleased to help Romanians who were giving their lives to orphans.
Under the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu, Romanians were encouraged to have as many children as they could. Ceausescu wanted to build an army to rival that of the Chinese. He was convinced that having lots of children was the key to building it. Birth control wasn’t allowed. Parents were encouraged to have children and let the state take care them.
His policies contributed to the devaluation of human life such that post-Ceausescu, an abortion could be had for a dollar. Those who didn’t abort came to a hospital, delivered their babies, and slipped out the door forever, abandoning their babies. Many of those children would eventually became street kids and victims of human trafficking rings.
Ceausescu was overthrown, but the problems he created remained. So Touched Romania went into the hospitals of Bucharest to hold and nurture babies desperately in need of love and affection. Theirs was the only wholesome touch some of the babies would ever know.
Though I was terrified of what I might feel, I went along. It was grim. The overheated hospital wing was home to 35 babies aged from birth to 18 months. They laid all day on lumpy mattresses permanently indented by countless babies who had lain there before them. Many were gypsy children, some with Downs Syndrome.
There were only a few nurses to take care of them so the babies seldom got diaper changes. The nurses propped their bottles up with blankets and left the babies to fend for themselves day in and day out. I saw one gruff nurse pick up a little Downs Syndrome baby by one arm, flop him on his side, and push his little face roughly into the mattress.
But while it was grim and the things I witnessed were disturbing, to my great surprise visiting the babies turned out to be a joyous thing. I was elated to hold them – a friend later said I was glowing.
While some babies slept, one saw me coming through the thick glass walls and began crying, trying desperately to attract my attention. A strange looking little guy, he appeared to be about 6 months old. There was a look of horror on his face as he cried for me. I was compelled to pick him up. When I put him down to hold another baby he shrieked again.
He was trying desperately to draw me in: to connect with me. He was saying through his tears that I alone could save him. He, unlike the monkey in the video, was willing to connect with me. Though I held every baby that was awake, I spent most of my time with him.
A day after our visit, I began to wonder. Who was that little boy who so tugged at my heart? Can disconnected children be changed? Is it possible that intervention at the right time and at the right scale can make a difference for children and adults? Can it make a difference for me?
Yes, it can.
Finally, I learned that little boy was actually a she. Her last name was Curt. So I resolved that if I never did anything else, I had to made a difference for her and the others.
After I asked about Curt her life improved, if only temporarily. She never got a family, but because they watched me with her the staff began to pay her extra attention – holding her, taking her to the park. I was glad, though it was the only comfort she would ever know. She died a year later from syphilis contracted from her mother at birth.
I wish I could have done more for that sweet baby who taught me so much. In the meantime, I do what I do in her memory. I’ve become active in foster care reform and write frequently about attachment issues.
Although our time was brief, although her time on earth was also brief, Curt’s impact on my life was profound. She never had a mother. I was honored to fill in, even if only for a few hours.