Without feelings

Without feelings
Thursday February 18, 2010

Dear Alice Miller,

Yesterday evening I was reading a chapter in Bruce D. Perry’s ‘The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog’ (2006) co-edited by Maia Szalavitz. I read the chapter with the same title as the book. It was disturbing to me how the author described the abuser of the little boy Justin who was raised his first six years in a cage with dogs. According to my version of the book, Perry tends to use quite some softening words and in my view fails to inform the reader occasionally.

In the chapter Perry first describes how he finds Justin in this hospital, caged again by the staff/nurses because they didn’t know what to do with him. Certainly in this context, I would have written at least, how wrong this institution, the nurses etc, were to cage a traumatized child once AGAIN.

Then he talks about Justin’s grandmother who took care of the boy from 2 months till she died when he was 11 months. I do not know how he could know this for sure, but she was ‘[…] by all accounts, a kindhearted, nurturing woman who adored her grandchild’. And when Perry describes Justin’s torturer: ‘during her illness her live-in boyfriend Arthur, babysat for Justin. Baby Justin’s behavior became difficult, surely a result of losing both his mother and his grandmother in such a short time. Arthur, still grieving himself, didn’t know what to do with a crying, tantruming young child, and being in his late sixties, he wasn’t physically or mentally prepared for such a challenge […]’. Later on Perry writes: ‘Arthur was not malicious, but he was ignorant about the needs of children. He made his living as a dog breeder and sadly, applied that knowledge to the care of the baby. He began keeping Justin in a cage.’ Yes Perry this is very SAD indeed.

He continues: ‘He was very limited himself, probably with mild retardation. He raised Justin as he raised his other animals: giving him food, shelter, discipline and episodic direct compassion. Arthur wasn’t intentionally cruel: he’d take both Justin and the dogs out of their cages daily for regular play and affection. But he didn’t understand that Justin acted like an animal because he’d been treated as one, and so when the boy ‘didn’t obey’, back into his cage he went. Most of the time Justin was simply neglected.’

Maybe it is me, but this description of a horrible situation sounds to me very naive, almost as if he doesn’t seem to feel what it means what he is writing. What about connecting Arthur’s grown-up behavior to his past childhood, that would have been maybe more informative than this very naive sounding description of the dynamics of a severely disturbed man towards a very young child.

There are more of these stories in the book all very tragic about abused children and Perry knows a lot about development of the brain of children and how trauma works yes, but why describing it all with so much emotional distance?

Thanks for reading,


AM: You are writing: ” Perry knows a lot about development of the brain of children and how trauma works yes, but why describing it all with so much emotional distance?” Apparently he can much understand and analyse but he can’t feel. My impression when I read this book was the same as yours: this man seems unable to feel. Thank you for sending us this letter, I think that the whole psychological literature is full of works like this: lifeless and thus naive, as you rightly say