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Harlow's Monkeys, the Holocaust and Separated Children at the Border | Lilith Magazine

The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

June 21, 2018 by

The Cloth Mother and Trauma at the Border

As you read this, more than 11,000 children captured while trying to enter the U.S. across the border with Mexico are warehoused in more than 100 facilities in 17 states. The thousands of children separated from their families in recent weeks are scattered across the country, and there is no coherent plan apparent to reconnect them with their relatives.

I keep thinking about Baby 106.

In the 1950s, American psychologist Dr. Harry Harlow used baby rhesus monkeys for groundbreaking research on childhood attachment. One of his subjects, Baby 106, was taken from its mother at birth and placed in a cage. Eventually it was introduced to two “mothers,” that were actually wire cylinders. One had a protruding nipple connected to a bottle of milk. The other, with no nipple, was covered in cloth. The baby monkey initially went to the wire mother and suckled. Then it went, and stayed, with the cloth mother, the one that offered some tactile comfort.

According to Dr. Harlow, babies like 106 formed attachments to their cloth mothers, and could become normal adult monkeys. Those introduced only to the wire mothers never developed attachments, remaining wide-eyed and anxious.

Manny, a Holocaust survivor I’ve know for many years, has a unique perspective on what’s going on at the U.S. border now. Manny was lucky enough to be thrust by his parents onto a Kindertransport train in Europe and taken to England. He describes his months before the separation as very difficult. Trying to get out of Hitler’s trap, the family literally ran from one border to another, sleeping in open fields or in burnt-out barns, often cold and wet, eating scraps of refuse. He says that time was hard but not horrid, because he was with his parents.

Once separated, however, Manny lost his tether. Placed with a family in the English countryside, far from the sounds of war, offered shelter, clothing, and food, he rebelled. And continued to rebel. He says he was angry for 10 years. Another Holocaust survivor, Yoka Verdoner, who was hidden in the Dutch countryside separately from her siblings, describes the trauma that all them continue to process:  anxiety, inability to form lasting relationships, and worse: “the lasting damage inflicted by that separation reverberates to this day, decades hence.”

This tracks with results found by Dr. Kalina Brabeck, a psychologist at Rhode Island College. She works with immigrant children who lose their parents to deportation among other causes. She says that the loss often leads to a form of post-traumatic stress, including paralyzing vigilance and emotional turmoil.

Manny’s story ends well. He built a life, had children, then grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Based on his childhood experience, though,  he fears for the future of the children now being processed.

To Manny and to me, the question is less about why the children are being separated from their adults and more about when this madness will stop and how soon will the children already wrenched from their parents be re-united with them

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