Privation: Development in the absence of attachment

Deprivation refers to the breaking of the attachment bond once it had been established. As discussed in a previous article, this would include temporary separations, such as a brief stay in hospital, or permanent separations such as the death of a parent. The key point here (regardless of time length) is that the bond between the child and the primary caregiver exists or had existed.

Privation refers to a situation where no attachment bond has ever had the opportunity to develop. Such cases are, thankfully, relatively rare and, because they are so rare, we rely on a very different kind of research method to investigate them.

While studies of maternal deprivation can look at large samples and correlate these samples with later outcomes, studies of privation must rely on case studies, that is, a detailed investigation of a single participant, a very small group of individuals.

Case studies are fairly common in psychological research and we have learned a great deal about cognitive and social functions from those small number of people who have suffered specific impairments in, for example, their short-term memory (and therefore their ability to create new memories). At the other extreme, a very small number of individuals have exceedingly good memories, some of them for specific things such as faces. By examining these extremes (these individual differences), we can learn a great deal more about how memory functions.

In the same way, by investigating the often tragic and heart-wrenching lives of individuals who have never been provided with the opportunity to bond with another human being, we begin to learn more about how attachment functions and how individuals thrive or flounder when raised in extremely challenging conditions.

Stories abound of children surviving in the absence of any kind of attachment figure, from fictional characters such as Tarzan and Mowgli to real life feral children who have seemingly survived hardship against all odds. Some have been kept in confinement while others have seemingly been raised by non-human primates, wolves, dogs and even sheep. While the validity of some of these stories remains tenuous at best, there are many modern and well-documented accounts of feral children who have suffered varying levels of privation, abuse and neglect and survived to lead relatively normal lives. Others, however, haven’t fared as well, lacking the ability to learn language and other cognitive skills as well as physical and psychological impairment.

Case Study 1: The Bulldog Banks Six

The first example was documented by Anna Freud and Sophie Dann in 1951 and involved a group who became known as the Bulldog Banks children, six refugees discovered by Russian troops at the Terezin concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic.

It is believed that the children were orphaned at only a few months old and, therefore, had little or no time to form any adult attachments. While at the reception centre for refugee children in Windermere, it was decided that all six of the children should stay together. They were eventually housed at the Bulldog Banks Centre in West Sussex.

The care of the children was placed in the hands of sisters Sophie and Gertrud Dann, who had been brought to the centre from the Hampstead nursery run by Anna Freud (sixth and youngest daughter of Sigmund Freud). Two other members of staff (Maureen Wolfison and Judith Gaulton) had previously been at the Windermere centre.

It’s impossible to imagine the existence the six children (aged between three and four years) had endured during their short lives and their behaviour certainly reflected the environment in which they had been raised – to use the term loosely. They could be highly aggressive and spit and hit or smack adults who attempted to restrict their movements or behaviour; they had no idea what toys were for and would regularly destroy them.

Their language skills were limited, which perhaps increased their levels of aggression and hostility and they would only engage with staff if they needed something. They were, however, devoted to each other and displayed a heightened sense of fairness, for example, insisting that each member of the group received the same share of food at mealtimes.

Leadership was passed around the group, with each child taking their turn. Staff noted that it was impossible to treat them as individuals due to their tight-knit connection to each other. In the camp they had been cared for by other inmates but the nature of life there meant that they never formed attachments to adults, indeed, in a 2016 interview one of the children (Bela Rosenthal) stated that being around adults was one of the hardest things she had to deal with at Bulldog Banks, ‘In the camp we only saw grown-ups when there was food,’ she said.

By 1946 all children had begun to display consideration and helpfulness to the staff, as well as identifying with adults in ways previously not seen. Eventually, it was decided that they were ready to be adopted and spent some time with prospective adoptive parents. On later follow-up investigations, the children appeared to have made good progress and were able to cope well with adult relationships.

There are a couple of important factors to note here. The first is that, while the children were never given the opportunity to attach to adults, they did have each other and, as noted, that bond was extremely strong. The second point is that, not only were the staff at the Bulldog Banks Centre sensitive to their needs, they were also continually available, providing at least some opportunity to experience a limited adult attachment.

Interestingly, this adult support is one factor that arises often in studies of both attachment and resilience. From James Robertson’s observation of young children in hospital to Emmy Werner’s longitudinal studies of the children of Kauai, this focus on a adult support seems to be a key component in supporting young people raised in adversity. But what if even this support is absent?

Case Study 2: Genie*

On November 4, 1970, a woman and her daughter visited a welfare office in Temple City, California to seek benefits for the blind. A social worker spoke with them and thought that the girl was six or seven years old and possibly autistic. When it was revealed that she was actually 13 years old, the social worker became concerned and called her supervisor, who then called the police.

It transpired that the daughter, identified only as Genie, had spent her life locked in her bedroom. During the day, she was tied to a child’s potty-chair in nappies; and most nights, she was bound in a sleeping bag and placed in an enclosed cot with a metal lid to keep her shut inside.

Her father would beat her every time she vocalised and he barked and growled at her like a dog in order to keep her quiet; he also forbade his wife and son to ever speak to her. She became almost entirely mute, and knew only a few short words and phrases, such as ‘stop it’ and ‘no more.’

At the age of 20 months, when Genie was just beginning to learn how to speak, a doctor had told her family that she seemed to be developmentally disabled and possibly mildly ‘retarded’. Her father took the opinion to extremes, believing that she was profoundly so, and subjected her to severe confinement and ritual ill-treatment in an attempt to ‘protect’ her. Following her discovery, her parents were charged with child abuse, and Genie was taken to hospital in Los Angeles.

Genie had developed a strange ‘bunny walk,’ held her hands up in front of her like paws, and constantly sniffed, spat and clawed. She was almost entirely silent. In spite of her condition, hospital staff hoped they could nurture her to normality. When interest in the case widened, Genie became the focus of an investigation to discover if there was a critical age threshold for language acquisition. Within a few months, she had advanced to one-word answers and had learned to dress herself. Her doctors predicted complete success.

The charges against Genie’s mother were dropped and in 1975, now at the age of 18, Genie was returned to her custody. After a few months, the mother found that taking care of Genie was too difficult, and she was transferred to a succession of six more foster homes. In some of the homes she was physically abused and harassed, and her development regressed severely, returning to her coping mechanism of silence.

Genie has spent the remainder of her life in foster homes and institutions. Now in her early 60’s, she remains a ward of the state of California, living her life in an undisclosed location. According to recent reports, she is only capable of uttering a few words but can communicate competently using sign language.

How are we to evaluate the case of the Bulldog Banks children with that of Genie? The focus of attention for researchers has mainly been concentrated on her stunted language development and the search for a critical period in its acquisition. However, there are other interesting, yet tragic, consequences to the story.

While Genie did show an interest in staff during her stay in hospital, she failed to develop any attachment to them or indeed appear to distinguish between people. She would sit on her mother’s lap when instructed to do so but appeared tense, rising quickly when allowed. Her mother appeared oblivious to her daughters’ emotions and actions, lacking any sensitivity or recognition of Genie’s needs. Her unusual social behaviour persisted throughout her life, improving and then regressing dependent upon the environment she found herself in.

The significant difference between Genie and the Bulldog Banks six is one of early social contact. While Genie was raised in near-complete isolation, the Bulldog Banks children had each other, allowing them to experience at least minimal social interaction. The latter group also received a more stable and caring upbringing during and after their arrival at the centre, while Genie was passed from one institution to another or lived in a succession of foster homes (where she was, at times, abused further).

Timing also plays a role. Genie was much older than the Bulldog Banks six so would most likely have past any sensitive period where certain social and cognitive abilities would form. Michael Rutter’s longitudinal study into Romanian orphans adopted by UK parents might also assist us here. Briefly, Rutter found that those children adopted at six months of age or younger showed fewer attachment difficulties than those adopted between six and twenty-four months.

Case Study 3: The Koluchová Twins

Andrei and Vanya are identical twin boys born in 1960. They are often referred to as the Koluchová twins after the Czech researcher Jarmilia Koluchová publicised their case in a number of academic papers. The Koluchová twins lost their mother shortly after birth, and were cared for by a social agency for a year, and then fostered by a maternal aunt for a further six months.

Their development up to this point appeared normal. Their father remarried, but his new wife appeared to dislike the twins, banishing them to the cellar for the next five and a half years and occasionally beating them. The father was often absent from home because of his job.

On discovery at the age of seven, the Koluchová twins were dwarfed in stature, lacking speech, suffering from rickets and did not understand the meaning of pictures. The doctors who examined them confidently predicted permanent physical and mental handicap.

Once removed from their parents, the Koluchová twins underwent a programme of physical remediation and entered a school for children with severe learning disabilities. After some time, the boys were legally adopted into a loving, supportive and caring family.

Both twins caught up with peers of the same age and achieved emotional and intellectual normality. After basic education they went on to technical school, training as typewriter mechanics, but later undertook further education, specialising in electronics. Both were drafted for national service and later married and had children. They are said to be entirely stable, lacking abnormalities and enjoying warm relationships. One is a computer technician and the other a technical training instructor.

The twins were discovered later in life, not as old as Genie but younger than the Bulldog Banks six. Despite losing their mother, they did appear to have a relatively stable life until being returned to their father, nevertheless, it would have been difficult to form permanent attachments within this time.

They did, of course, have each other and we can assume that the bond between them helped during their most difficult times. What distinguishes their experiences from those of Genie appears to have more to do with what happened after they were discovered. Like the Bulldog Banks six, the twins were provided with support and finally adopted into loving families. Genie’s life after her discovery was a series of foster homes and periods of hospitalisation and, in some cases, further abuse.

Many things, therefore, influence our later development and behaviour. Thankfully, most of us won’t suffer the trauma and anxiety witnessed in the above accounts, nevertheless, who we become and the nature of our behaviour is often rooted in our very early experiences with other people, particularly those who are expected to raise us with care and sensitivity.

These case studies also highlight the positive impact of sensitive nurturing and support in later childhood and how good relationships can help even the most wayward or psychologically traumatised individual.

*I have decided to use the name Genie despite her real name being released in the press recently.

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