Only the change in the attitude of the individual is the beginning of the change in the psychology of the nation.
I recently finished reading a fictional novel, “The Kitchen House.” The author, Kathleen Grissom, writes a gripping story from the perspective of an Irish girl, Lavinia McCarten, who comes to the United States as an indentured servant because of the death of her parents en route. The captain of the ship takes the young girl to his plantation, as payment for the passage, and places her in the care of his African-American slaves. She lives a dual and complicated life as a white child growing up in the south in the last part of the 18th century. The book is a phenomenal read for many reasons. However, what intrigued me most about the story was the development of the character, Marshall, the plantation owner’s son. Grissom creates a personality out of a series of traumatic childhood experiences. In the end, Marshall becomes a much maligned antagonist. Nevertheless, because I knew his history, a part of me had a confusing compassion for his plight.
From the perspective of society, Marshall led a privileged life. He lived in a large, comfortable home with servants, he had a private tutor, and he had more than he needed when it came to food and clothing. In contrast, the reader comes to learn that he has an absent father, an opiate addicted mother who harbors prejudicial hatreds, and a sexually-deviant perpetrator for a tutor. In the vernacular of the emotional health realm, Marshall had an Adverse Childhood Experience score of 4 (If you are not familiar with the scoring, please go to www.acestoohigh.com ). Painfully, but not surprisingly, Marshall takes on the same characteristics of his parents and teachers and struggles to adapt. In the end, he causes the death of a loved one, becomes an alcoholic, expresses his anger through domestic violence, exerts his control over others by raping his female slaves, and suffers his own fate at the hands of his illegitimate son born out of an incestuous relationship. One cannot imagine a more painful portrayal of an innocent life squandered by a prejudicial society at the hands of individuals driven by its message.
The novel moved me to compassion. There were many heart-wrenching scenes in the book where the seeds of hatred were sewn by characters who lacked awareness of the origin of their feelings. Shame and secrecy stand out as pervasive themes. One begins to understand the challenge of unraveling all the misconceptions we face in life as Grissom weaves missed opportunities coming and going in both circumstances and relationships. It’s no wonder we struggle into adulthood trying to figure out what we are doing in life. While you find yourself despising Marshall’s behavior throughout the book, you recall the love and laughter he showed toward his sister, Sally, as early as page 5 of the novel. However, thereafter, Marshall carries the foreboding of a troubled child throughout his adult life. It is easy for the reader to forget that what happened to Marshall was not his fault. He had both early and profound childhood trauma. As a result, his adverse behavior represents a precociously unstable maturity. You come to think of him as never having had a childhood. While the setting of the “Kitchen House” correlates with our country’s troubled past, I find that the novel speaks to something far more universal than the subjugation of one race by another. It speaks to the character development of children. Throughout childhood, we are taught to recognize our differences. At times, we purposely seek out our differences in order to celebrate our uniqueness. This often alienates others. If one skill, or skin color, or physical feature, or talent is arbitrarily deemed superior, the chasm created by the differences widens. This can go horribly wrong. People can struggle to relate to one another. If a child learns this message from an emotionally unhealthy parent or teacher, life becomes much more challenging. If a child learns this lesson amidst a host of adverse childhood experiences, then a child like Marshall emerges. We should not be surprised, confused, or disgusted. The child simply learned what he or she was taught.
Children are a product of their upbringing. Problematic behavior in adults generally correlates well with problematic circumstances from childhood. What is our nation’s attitude toward the emotional health of our children? Is it possible to change the course of our nation by recognizing the importance of protecting our children from adverse childhood experiences? I think it is and I think many would agree. Isn’t it time?