Immigrant Families: Forever Scarred by Forced Separation

Note: Some of the following comes from book three in my Appalachian Families series, which I’m in the process of finishing.

Never mind that President Trump signed an executive order today to stop families from being separated at the border—because, at this moment, they still are. For these families, the damage is already done. I know this only too well.

That’s because the day my children were torn from my arms, I cried so much it’s a wonder I didn’t turn into dust and blow away.

It was 21 years ago, and yet the pain was so great it sometimes still haunts me like it happened yesterday. Then my heart feels so full that I am afraid to cry, to shed my tears, worried they will sweep me all the way down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico, where I will end up floating in the Atlantic Ocean. Except once there, I will still be crying, unable to ever stop, becoming one with the water.

I heard the judge that day, the day my world changed forever. But his words didn’t make it all the way to my cerebral cortex. They sizzled inside my ears, bouncing back and forth while my brain tried to grasp their meaning.

How can you take my children?

Before my thoughts could even become words, the judge spoke. “You can appeal the decision.” Then, a few words from my attorney. I didn’t even hear what she said. All the energy I had been holding tightly inside dissipated as quickly as if I was a balloon animal that someone stuck a pin in. My knees gave out and I crumpled to the floor.

I’m sure this decades-old pain haunts my four children, as well. The scars are hidden beneath our skin, and riddled with shrapnel that no one sees. But we know they’re there.

Our scars remain today, and while we tried to overcome the damage done, it was impossible. Too many things happened during our three months apart, words spoken, actions taken, that were irreversible. But the most crucial element, I believe, to hinder our healing, was the individual thoughts we carried with us from that day forward. Why did you leave me? How could you do this to me? When will you come get me?

And then, when I couldn’t go get them—because the law forbid it—this: What did I do wrong? Why don’t you want me anymore? Why don’t you love me?

What I’ve personally heard about the current family separation, which is amoral and inhumane, hit me so hard it took me a good long week to even write about it. My first thought, upon learning that parents were told their children were being taken for a bath—only to not be returned—was of the Holocaust. Similar lies were told then, too. Jews, Poles, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, many of their families were torn apart, never to be reunited. My first public comment, on a friend’s Facebook page, was “Can anyone say Gestapo?”

Make no mistake, following a forced separation, these immigrant families will never be the same again. It is unnatural for children to be separated from their parents in this way. The child, the mother, the father—all three will carry these scars for the rest of their lives. Such a separation creates a hole in a child’s heart. A hole that will be filled with sadness, self-doubt, and anger. Anger that may later turn into rage.

While these feelings may diminish over time, they will never completely disappear. At best, they will rise to the surface during stressful situations, boiling over like a pan of hot milk left unattended on the kitchen stove. At worst, they will be buried deeper than our cemetery dead, so far down in the dark earth that you cannot see or feel them.

Being plagued with a gnawing sense of hopelessness condemns you to a life lived looking over your shoulder, forever trapped in the past. This failure to process your feelings will impede your ability to grow, to move forward. Even after you are reunited—if you are. But make no mistake, you won’t be the same person ever again.

Neither will your children.

The best you can hope for is to tap into your own well of resilience, to keep going. To try and thrive. Counseling can help. But even a trained therapist cannot always dispel the fear, or reverse the damage done to these children. Or their parents.

The Department of Homeland Security says that since May, 2,342 children were placed in what the world views as cages. (The practice of U.S. officials keeping children locked up is not new; nor does this number include thousands of other detained children, who entered the U.S. without their parents.)

Aside from the trauma these families must endure, what else has such a “zero-tolerance” policy wrought? Have we returned to a Dickensian era, a land fit only for the orphaned Oliver Twist? I thought internment ended with the Japanese. Have we learned nothing?

Apparently not. Even though we’ve known for more than 100 years that keeping children away from their families is traumatic. President Theodore Roosevelt convened the first White House Conference on Children in 1909. There they determined that “children should not be deprived of (home life)” by being placed in an institution. Instead, they should be placed with foster families.

Later, numerous studies found that children raised in orphanages suffered from “the inability to bond, inability to effectively problem solve, inability to turn to others for help, poor peer relations, disciplinary problems, disruptive behavior.” And the current detention camps make those orphanages look like a playground. Given that these children range in age from babies to teenager, how many of the younger ones have already been molested by an older child? Or a caretaker? Judging from the disturbing video and audio clips, the sounds and sights of sobbing, traumatized children, these places are obviously worse than orphanages, which lost favor with the American public in the 1960s. No wonder the world, including the Pope and the United Nations, has condemned the U.S. for its actions. At least orphans had trained caretakers who comforted them when they cried.

But this basic human right is being denied these children. Children who should soon be reunited with their parents—but aren’t yet.

The very notion that no one is allowed to comfort these distraught children makes me furious! How is that even possible in this day and age, when we know that such cold and callous behavior is abuse? When we know that human touch is critical to good mental and physical health? That such a pattern can lead to severe emotional problems?

As proof, consider the famous artificial mother experiment conducted by psychologist Harry Harlow. He showed how crucial comfort is to humans, when, given a choice between a cloth mother and a wire one, isolated baby rhesus monkeys preferred spending 18 hours a day with the cloth mother, as opposed to spending only one hour a day with the wire one. This, even though the wire mother held the bottle the babies nursed from!

In an op-ed to The Washington Post, former First Lady Laura Bush spoke up about this lack of compassion and empathy. There, she told how Barbara Bush once held and cuddled a crying child who was dying of AIDS, apparently when no one else would.

Let’s learn from her, and do better. We can. We must!

* * *

Dear Readers,

My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my memoir was released May 2016. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April 2016.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!


I’m a Snowflake—and Proud of It!

As I watched some of the inauguration online, I began thinking about the last few months. Boy, have they been busy! Especially for some people, like the Trump supporter who emailed me recently, calling me a snowflake. Google helped me better understand the reference, confirming that the term was used in a derogatory way.

So, I decided to take lemons and make lemonade. (Like Trump’s own “deplorables” did, and good for them!) The word snowflake, as used by some folks, refers to “a self-imposed victimhood” by people who are so delicate they can’t handle, well, anything.

I love snow. And building snowmen, and lying in a bed of soft snow, making snow angels.

Snowflakes have been called “one of nature’s finest masterpieces.” Yes, they are delicate: hundreds of delicate ice crystals comprise these works of art. And yet—“two identical flakes have never been found.” That’s according to the book Atmosphere, which also says: “The endless variety of snowflakes is legendary. . .”

So, I’m beautiful and unique—and you are, too, if you’re a snowflake.

But that’s not all. As they fall through the air, snow crystals carry compounds of nitrogen and sulfur, which clean the atmosphere, supply moisture, and fertilize soil. How’s that for efficient, powerful, and just downright necessary for continued life?

Snowflakes are also inanimate beings that have nothing to do with politics. Which is important to understand, given what I’m about to say.

Some of you believe I’m a Hillary Clinton supporter. Let the record accurately reflect that I am not. (I was especially not a supporter when she stood by her cheating husband, a man who disgraced the office of POTUS directly in the Oval Office. However, I respect the fact that marriage is a sacred union, and as such, I have no right to tell anyone else how to handle theirs.) That said, I certainly do appreciate Hillary’s many positive actions on behalf of women and children.

Still, the bottom line is, I hate politics—because they’re divisive. Especially in 2016. Will these divisions continue in 2017? So far, it doesn’t look promising. We’re just twenty days into the new year, and already there is no sign of a slowdown in the strife and name calling.

I’ve experienced it and if you’re a snowflake (or a deplorable), you have, too. As a result, I felt forced to take a hardline stance on Facebook recently, instituting a policy for anyone who visits my page. My rules are nothing more than common sense and courtesy, but since both have gone out the window lately, I found the need to post them.

Speaking of that, there’s courteous, there’s civil, and there’s respect. Each one is different. I can be courteous and civil, while still failing to respect someone. Take my stance on the 45th POTUS: I highly esteem the office, but I’m still waiting for the man to earn my respect. He could begin by apologizing—publicly, on Twitter—for using it as the bully pulpit he’s turned it into.

Because, as Rep. Mark Pocan said, when asked if he was attending today’s inauguration, “At minimum, it’s time for Donald Trump to start acting like President Trump, not an immature, undignified reality star with questionable friends and a Twitter addiction.”

And Trump’s continual attempts to malign the press—who is trying to hold him accountable—by saying “the dishonest media” is no different than saying that all businessmen are thieves. Or all firefighters are arsonists. Even if you support someone, if you pride yourself on being fair, you must call a spade a spade. Not a shovel. Journalists as a whole are no worse than people in any other profession.

Speaking of businessmen, a good friend of mine spent decades working with Florida contractors who never received their final draw from Trump. Many contractors pay their expenses—supplies and labor—with the first few draws. Any profit comes at the end, with the final draw.

Except when the customer refuses to pay it. Like Trump regularly did. “Did you know any subcontractors who got their final draw?” I asked. “No, not one,” my friend said.

But if you use social media to call attention to anything Trump has done that is wrong, like actress Meryl Streep did at the Golden Globes earlier this month, his supporters will immediately attack you. And try to distract you. This happened to me on Twitter and Facebook, when I posted about Streep’s comments. Perhaps it’s happened to you, too.

To anyone who does that, I say: stop confusing the issues, or, as happened in this case, ignoring them. Trump did mock a man with disabilities, who also happens to be a journalist. It happened. And Streep was spot on for calling it that. Yet Trump supporters quickly attacked her, and turned her words against her, calling her out for her support of Roman Polanski—which occurred 14 years ago.

Yes, Polanski raped a 13-year-old girl. I was raped at 13, so would I take exception to that? Absolutely not! Neither did Streep. Look at the context, which had nothing to do with Polanski’s 1977 actions. The standing ovation given Polanski by the entire audience came about because of the directorial award he received for The Pianist. Would I have stood up for him? Nope.

But that’s not really the point. Neither are Meryl Streep’s 2003 actions regarding Polanski. One act (Streep’s standing ovation) does not cancel out the other (Trump’s mocking). So when Trump supporters try to change the topic, as happens to anyone who tries to hold Trump accountable, please remember why they do it: they don’t want to acknowledge the flaws of someone they have placed on a pedestal.

This is called gaslighting. I have a sinking feeling we’re going to see a lot more of it in the next four years. But only if we let it happen. If we refuse to let argumentative people engage us, there won’t be enough gas to keep the fire lit.

If you’re not sure how to disengage, or stay on topic, just remember that time with your rebellious teenager. You know, when you caught her and her boyfriend necking in his Mustang. So you sentenced her to volunteer at a local shelter for pregnant teens.

She tried to distract you of course, whining and crying and finally threatening to run away—but you didn’t let her get away with it. And in the end, after she saw how bad those teenage moms-to-be had it, she thanked you. (And you didn’t become a grandmother ten years too soon.)

Moreover, if we get off our bums, and remove our thumbs from Twitter, and instead channel our energy into more worthwhile pursuits, we stand a greater chance of extinguishing the gas-lit flame.

If, though, you are suffering the effects of a Trump win, or you’re suffering at the hands of snowflakes like me, I have a recipe to help. In just three easy steps, I guarantee you will feel better.

1. Bake some cookies.
2. Take them next door to your neighbor.
3. While visiting, ask how they are doing, and find out what you can do to help them.

Finally, for a country that claims to be God-fearing (“one nation, under God”), I must say that the American people certainly don’t act like it. Yes, I’m concerned and even a little worried about what havoc the Trump administration might cause. But I’m also completely confident that God has everything under control.

I will get through the next few years the same way I have the last few decades: because I have better, more important things to do. And so do you. For instance, I have more stories to tell, and books to write. I need to work on being a better person, exercise (my mind and my body) more, and—last but far from least—find my daughter.

So close your mouth and move your feet. Volunteer to help people who are already being targeted, be they journalists or Mexicans or Muslims. Or anyone else who needs it.

Are you ready? Good, because believe it or not, we will survive!

* * * * *

Editor’s Note: My website is being revamped, and more changes are in the works. So I hope you’ll pardon the mess and be patient, as I iron out all the kinks.

* * *
My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my memoir was released May 7. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!