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Book Review - Brief Reflections on Childhood, Trauma and Society

International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 6, 2015, 100-101.

Brief: Reflections on Childhood, Trauma and Society

By Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD

Reviewed by Lois Svoboda

Houston, TX: The ChildTrauma Academy Press. 2013. ASIN: B00E7A3FTW. $9.99 (Amazon Kindle). 69 pages. $9.99 (iTunes). 70 pages.

This brief, easy-to-read ebook by the eminent authority on traumatized children consists of “invited essays for magazines, prefaces for others’ books, commentaries, and brief policy pieces collected over the years” (p. v). Dr. Perry straddles several disciplines simultaneously: He is a pediatrician, a child psychiatrist, and a pharmacologist. He is a researcher into basic neuroscience and clinical research. His expertise has been called upon to deal with traumatized children after the Branch Davidian Waco siege in 1993; the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995; the Columbine school shootings in 1999; the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, DC; Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005; the FLDS Longing for Zion polygamous-sect raid in 2008; the earthquake in Haiti in 2010; the tsunami in Tohoku, Japan, in 2011; and the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings in 2012. He is the author of more than five hundred journal articles, book chapters, and scientific proceedings.

What I respect and warm to the most about Dr. Perry, however, is his humanity, which shines through every page of this book. His prodigious intellect, knowledge, and experience also show, but they don’t warm me. They awe me. Perry cuts through peripherals to the core needs of children—the need for connection, the need to feel special to someone. The lay public can easily read this book, but even learned scholars will learn something.

Each chapter is a short essay, a few pages long. For example:

Chapter 1—Biological Relativity: Time and the Developing Child, points out that the hours of childhood are disproportionately weighted with respect to their impact on the developing child relative to the hours of adulthood.

Chapter 2—Touch and Move, discusses the critical, life-saving importance of touch to the developing infant.

Chapter 3—Narrative, focuses on the critical importance to children of knowing their own story, which the public-welfare and juvenile systems don’t always acknowledge.

Chapter 4—Image and Emotion, presents why and how sexual abuse is damaging to children.

Chapter 5—Policy, answers the questions (a) What does the government need to know about the developing brain? (b) Why should the government be involved in early childhood? and (c) How can the government optimize child development? Perry’s conclusion is that neglect and abuse during the first 3 years of life can result in a lifetime of lost potential; safety, structure, nurturing, and enrichment in these first 3 years can result in a lifetime of productivity (p. 43–44).

The key to understanding traumatized children is to remember that they will be, at baseline, in a state of low level fear—responding by using either a hyperarousal or dissociative adaptation—and that their emotional, cognitive and behavioral function will reflect this (often regressed) state. The key points … help a caregiver provide the structure, predictability and sense of safety that can help keep traumatized children from staying in this state of fear too long. (p. 54)

Chapter 4—First Experiences, in Perry’s view, are pivotal:

It is our greatest battle with these (foster children who have been abused) to shift their world view. To replace the inaccurate, distorted and destructive memory templates created by a maltreated child’s first experiences is our greatest challenge. Yet it can happen; you have seen it; we have seen it. But all too infrequently. Yet there is hope. (p. 61)

Chapter 5—Memory, talks about how we remember, especially preverbal experiences:

For example, as an adult, when traumatized, there is a specific increase in sympathetic nervous system reactivity when exposed to cues associated with the traumatic event. With young children, following traumatic stress, there appears to be a general increase in autonomic nervous system activity in addition to the cue specific reactivity. (p. 73)

Chapter 6—Hope, captures the essence of the author’s perspective:

Hope is the internal representation of a better world; essentially, a belief that things can be better. It is, in essence, a memory. We have a memory of spring, and we use this memory to warm us during the cold; to give us the strength to keep going, because it isn’t always going to be like this; things will get better. The internal representation of a better world—the spring—is memory within our brain, based upon an earlier experience with spring. (p. 77)

You, my colleagues, are, in your caring interactions with these children, spring. And in the depth of the bitter cold of this child’s winter, you create hope; you build an internal representation of a better world—a world where people are decent and kind and good. And this child’s hope will whisper to him in the long, dark night of winter—these hard times will pass. (p. 79)

Thus, Dr. Perry, the optimist who deals daily with the hell of suffering, battered children, pleads for others to catch his vision of the possible—that we, yes we, can offer life and hope to children in pain, leading them out of the abyss of their misery, into a better place.

International Journal of Cultic Studies ■ Vol. 6, 2015