I am so happy that Tina Traster offered me the chance to read and review this important story of her daughter’s adoption from Russia (Siberia, to be precise) and the family’s struggle with Reactive Attachment Disorder.
Let me start by explaining why this subject resonates with me, and why I was excited to read this book.
I have long been an advocate of “Attachment Parenting,” which sometimes receives a bad rap in the popular press by people who misunderstand it as a rigid set of rules. Really it’s more about rejecting rigid rules, trusting yourself, and following your baby’s (and later your child’s) cues. It was already something I was doing at least in part when I learned what it was called from my sister (who founded the Knoxville Chapter of Attachment Parenting International), and I’m now friends with someone who actually wrote the book (or at least one of them!) on it. So I know how important secure attachment is for children, and how we as parents should be fostering that from the moment of birth.
But what happens when children don’t get that kind of parenting, or indeed much parenting at all? As Melissa Fay Greene asks in her foreword to Ms. Traster’s book: “[W]hat of babies who . . . are unable to attract permanent devoted caregivers and cannot seem to locate an adult to adore? . . . What happens to such a baby if she is not rescued before the light in her eyes has gone out? . . . When a baby or young child has learned that no one is coming, that no one thinks he or she is the cutest little baby on earth; that he or she must weather hunger, cold, and sickness in solitary, those are hard lessons to unlearn.”
Doesn’t your heart just break, reading that? I know mine does. And it’s something I often think of and worry about because of the work I do.
As many of you know, my husband is an attorney, and we do a lot of work in the juvenile court system. We see babies who are removed from their parents as infants, and allowed to see them for only 4.3 hours per month. Sometimes months and years go by before these children are reunited with their parents. Many times they are moved from one foster home to another. No one seems to discuss the effect this has on their ability to form attachments not just to their parents but to anyone. Conversely, I routinely read Petitions to Terminate the Parental Rights of some of our clients which claim that no bond exists with the birth parents (with whom the child may have lived for many years) and that a bond has formed with the foster parents (with whom the child has lived for a few months). We always question these non-evidence-based assumptions when we answer these petitions, and demand to see the science that would back them up, but of course there is no such science.
So we worry. We worry about these kids, and their futures, because we know secure attachment is so important. And that’s why this book is so important, not only for those who have adopted from foreign countries or are considering doing so, but for anyone who is interested in helping the troubled children in our social services system, or in doing something to reform that broken system.
When Tina Traster and her husband, Ricky Tannenbaum, set out to adopt a baby from Siberia, they did not even consider the idea that their child might have trouble bonding with them. On the contrary, Tina was more concerned about her own “queasy ambivalence.” She hasn’t read any parenting books. She is shocked, and not in a happy way, to learn that Julia’s adoption will take place much sooner than they had been told. She doesn’t even know how to change a diaper.
Tina’s honesty in disclosing her fears and her mixed feelings about adopting a baby strikes me as a bold move. It would be easy to blame Julia’s lack of bonding on a mother who has her own issues with attachment–one who is in fact in the middle of long-standing conflict with and estrangement from her own mother. But this tactic works because of Ricky, who is not ambivalent, who is deft and efficient in caring for the baby from the start, who is loving and nurturing and who seems to his wife to have it all together. We are accompanying Tina on her journey as she worries when she sees other babies and the way their mothers interact with them, and becomes certain something is different about Julia at the same time that she questions her own ability to mother. When Tina writes: “For the first two years after we brought Julia home, I thought I was the only one in the world who experienced difficulties with her, that I’d made a mistake, that motherhood and I weren’t meant to be . . . only in the last year have I seen Ricky become aggravated with her behavior. She’s just as unresponsive to him as she is to me,” her concerns are validated, and any misgivings the reader may have had as to the origins of Julia’s inability to bond are swept away as well.
It takes a while for Julia’s parents to accept the diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder, and some time after that for them to decide to attack the problem head on, which they do not with the help of professionals but via copious research and then applying what they have learned on their own. They don’t advocate this approach for everyone, noting especially that some children with RAD can hurt themselves or others and would require professional intervention. But it works for Julia. While Tina is quick to make sure we understand that RAD is not something that goes away, that it will always be a part of Julia and will require constant vigilance by her parents, she has become “solidly attached.”
Rescuing Julia Twice is a gripping story, and Ms. Traster is a good writer (an award-winning journalist–this is no ghost-written memoir). It weaves together seamlessly the linear events of Julia’s adoption and what follows with scientific information (accessibly presented) on RAD as well as flashbacks to Tina’s past and the conflict with her mother. So this book is a lot of things put together, and that’s a strength. You will not be bored by it, and you will also learn from it. My only criticism is that I would have liked more story about Julia’s transition to firm attachment, and further information on the techniques her parents used. This is primarily the story of the road toward Tina and Ricky’s definitive realization that Julia has RAD, and I feel that the ending comes a little abruptly. However, to be fair, this may just be the story that Ms. Traster wants to tell, and she tells it very well.
Rescuing Julia Twice is available on Amazon both in hardback and Kindle versions. You can read more about Julia here, and more about Ms. Traster’s other writing here. Additionally, there are many resources on RAD listed in the Resources section at the end of the book.
As always, this review represents my own opinion. My only compensation was the review copy I received.
A few months ago, I was honored to be chosen as an “Off the Shelf” reviewer for Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City. Y’all may have noticed by now that I love books. So why wouldn’t I be thrilled to have the opportunity to read quality books (for free!) and talk about them here? My first review follows. My only compensation was the book itself, and the opinion is my own.
A Story Unfinished: 99 Days with Eliot is the story of every parent’s worse nightmare–the death of a child. And even more tragically, about knowing that death is inevitable before in the eyes of the world that child’s life has even begun. It sounds sad, and of course it is. But reading it will lift you up, not drag you down.
At a 30-week prenatal appointment, Matt and Ginny Mooney learned that their unborn child had a genetic condition–Trisomy 18–that would result in his death within hours or days of birth, if not before. But baby Eliot defied the doctors’ expectations and lived for 99 precious days. His parents chronicled his brief life in their blog, and those entries make up a portion of the book.
Knowing only that their time with their son would be brief, the Mooneys took full advantage of it, cherishing every moment. The shortness of Eliot’s life seems like a tragedy, but having feared he would die in the womb, each of those 99 days felt like a gift to the Mooneys and was treated as such.
This isn’t your typical biography. For one thing, you know in advance how the story ends–or at least how THIS part of the story ends. You know going in that Eliot dies in 99 days. And the story isn’t told in a linear fashion. Matt mixes the story of Eliot’s life with flashbacks and previews, and adds his insights. This was a little disconcerting to me at first because I didn’t expect it, but I think it works well for what he is hoping to accomplish with this book.
Because it’s ultimately not just the story of a baby’s life; it’s about what his parents took away from the experience, and what we all can learn from it. Yet I don’t want to make it sound preachy, because it isn’t. Matt believes in the goodness of God and the redemptive value of suffering, but he doesn’t sugarcoat the pain: “We do not get to pick the ways in which God chooses to reveal himself. Please understand what I am not saying. The loss of Eliot is bad, big-bucket Bad, and I make no attempt to tie a bow on our own experience nor the immense pain I come across in the lives of others. I miss him every day.”
People debate whether God causes bad things to happen, or ask why He doesn’t prevent them, or say that is He doesn’t prevent them, it’s just as bad as if He causes them. Some people believe that every death and every tragedy is part of God’s plan, and directly willed by Him with a purpose that we cannot hope to understand. Certainly all of us know that sometimes good things come out of bad things. Matt writes about this toward the end of the book, in talking about his journey to pick up his adopted daughter, abandoned in a Ukrainian orphanage because she was disabled. This was for me the most profound moment in a book that is overflowing with profound moments: “But for losing my son, I would not be in this car. I would not be in Ukraine. . . . If Eliot were here, I would not be here. The absolute worst thing in each of our lives was the thing that brought us together. Without walking a road of pain and misery, our paths would never have crossed. But they did. Lena is my daughter.”