Facing Fears and Fostering Sympathy

In an article on the “Trusted Non-Profit Resource” HelpGuide.org titled “Attachment Issues and Reacitve Attachment Disorder,” Melinda Smith, Joanna Saisan, and Jeanne Segal provide an account of the causes, symptoms, and treatments of attachment disorders. They explain that children with an attachment disorder suffer from “a lack of trust and self-worth, a fear of getting close to anyone, anger, and a need to be in control.” The result is that these children “fee[l] unsafe and alone.” Attachment disorders “occur when children have been unable to consistently connect with a parent or primary caregiver”—for instance, when a child is hungry or not receiving proper attention. Symptoms of attachment disorders include inconsolable crying, keen awareness of or reactions too sensory stimuli, intense desire to be in control, and emotional withdrawal or detachment.

Very good. But what, you ask, has this to do with Harriet Martineau?

In her 1855 Autobiography, Martineau gives an account of the difficulties that she faced as a child, which difficulties are remarkably similar to the symptoms of attachment disorders described in Smith, Saisan and Segal’s article. Martineau explains that her mother always ascribed her daughter’s poor health in childhood and youth to the fact she “was all but starved” for the first three months of her life by her poor wetnurse, who was “holding on to her good place after her milk was going or gone” (39). This event, however unintentional, could doubtless be classed as one of those improper attentions that cause attachment disorders described above.

Martineau goes on to explain the physical and mental complaints that she suffered during her early years: “never was poor mortal cursed with a more beggarly nervous system” (40); “I could never cross the yard to the garden without flying and panting, and fearing to look behind, because a wild beast was after me” (40); “my panics were really unaccountable” (43); “I was always in a state of shame about something or other” (43); “I had no self-respect, and an unbounded need for approbation and affection” (46). Perhaps most telling is Martineau’s assertion that “[m]y fear of persons was as great as any other” (40). Each of these statements points to that condition described by Smith, Saisan and Segal.

In reading Martineau’s account of her early childhood, one cannot help but be moved by her portrayal of the fear that she faced at every turn. However, this account becomes even more remarkable when one considers the fact that this child whose “moral discernment was almost wholly obscured by fear and mortification” (47) became the astute and sympathetic author of How to Observe Morals and Manners. What brought about this transformation?

According to Martineau herself, it was her religion that allowed her to overcome the fears of her childhood. She writes, “the only support and pleasure I remember having from a very early age was from [religion]” (44), explaining that “[w]hile I was afraid of everybody I saw, I was not in the least afraid of God” (45). In some way, Martineau’s belief in God and reliance upon the structures provided by her faith enabled her to move beyond her intense anxiety and become a functioning and influential adult.

This connection, though by no means fully established here, between attachment disorders and Martineau’s account of her childhood terrors and of how her religious beliefs enabled the radical change that she experienced merits further consideration, both by those interested in Martineau and by those who seek to help troubled and traumatized children.

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