In September, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a psychologist, demonstrated her knowledge of neuroscience, as well as her expertise in trauma’s effect on memory, when she told the Senate Judiciary Committee how it was that she was sure that Brett Kavanaugh, now a Supreme Court Justice, had assaulted her at a party in the early 1980s when they were both teenagers in high school.
“How are you so sure that it was he?” said Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee. Ford responded, “The same way that I’m sure that I’m talking to you right now. Just basic memory functions and also just the level of norepinephrine and the epinephrine in the brain that, as you know, encodes that neurotransmitter that codes memories into the hippocampus, and so the trauma-related experience is locked there, whereas other details kind of drift.” I am not here to re-litigate the Kavanaugh hearings. No one, other than Ford and Kavanaugh, will ever know the truth about what actually transpired at a party 35 years ago. However, we all know that the brain is still developing when we are children and teens, and even those of us who are not scientists can understand intuitively that the architecture of the cortex — its flaps and folds, its synapses and dendrites — is more susceptible to damage in those early years. Consider how a sapling sometimes must be bolstered with wooden splints to shield it not only from wind and rainstorms but also from animals, children and stray objects that may jolt the tree while it is still growing and fragile. A jolt to a sapling, like a jolt to a young brain, will undoubtedly be severe and perhaps irreparable, compared to a jolt to a mature tree or to the brain of an adult human. Fortunately, the human brain, unlike a sapling, has a plasticity to it. That neural plasticity, nurtured with therapy and love, as well as free will, can allow us to recover from what might be irreversible trauma to a young tree. I absolutely agree with Dr. Blasey Ford that trauma victims, who are just children or teens, can “encode” those memories for decades without revealing or indeed without retrieving them.I know this from my own experience with trauma that did not involve any possible sexual assault when I was a teen.Rather, it involved a physical and sustained psychological attack that occurred when I was five, in kindergarten. Unlike many of today’s immigrant children, who, under the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy earlier this year, were detained in cages and separated from their parents, I did not flee a corrupt regime that persecuted my family.
That would be my paternal grandfather, who emigrated from Kiev, Ukraine, around the time of the Russian Revolution. No, I was born in New Haven, Conn., in October 1965, right at the time of Vatican II, when, among other things, the church stopped instructing its parishioners that Jews killed Christ. So, when I began kindergarten in the fall of 1970, a month shy of my fifth birthday, I was fortunate that my classmates, all of whom were Gentiles, had learned from Vatican II’s “Nostra Aetate” that Judaism and Christianity flower from the same Tree of Life. In its declaration, initiated by Pope John and completed under Pope Paul, the church wrote of Judaism that it is a “well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles.” Similarly, the United States might be viewed as a well-cultivated olive tree, which has been enriched by the wild shoots of immigrants, slaves and Native Americans, who provide the roots to the tree. That does not mean that, over the course of 242 years, the olive tree has not weathered disease, parasites and changes to the climate. While we, as a nation, have striven to be a beacon of freedom, we have also interned Japanese-Americans during World War II; blacklisted supposed Communists, overwhelmingly Jews, during the McCarthy era; enslaved millions of African-Americans; decimated Indian tribes; denied women the right to vote until about 100 years ago; and still commit hate crimes, such as the recent massacre of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Still, the civil rights movement, women’s rights movement and Vatican II had, at least in theory, improved life for many of us by the time I entered kindergarten in 1970. To show just how much Jewish-Christian relations had supposedly improved, my public school, which was being renovated in 1970, held its classes at the local Reform synagogue, Mishkan Israel, though it is worth noting that my family was not invited to join the private swim, tennis or golf clubs in our town. I can recall crying on the first day of kindergarten, as did many of my classmates, when my mother, a former public schoolteacher, had to leave the room in the basement of the synagogue. Yes, I had separation anxiety, although it was nothing out of the ordinary. I seemed to warm up in class soon thereafter.
I can recall our first exercise or cognitive test, when each kid in class was asked to recite the name of every classmate. As it turned out, I was the first and only kid, who, on his or her first try, recited correctly the name of every student. After I finished this exercise, the other kids craned their necks, looked at me and applauded. I can also recall how much fun it was for me to be studying letters. I was used to the alphabet because my mother, who had taught third grade, had posted flash cards in our kitchen and quizzed me on them, starting when I was about three. By the time I got to kindergarten, I could identify the letters of the alphabet and read. I raised my hand quite a bit in class, was called upon frequently, and answered questions with much joy. Everything was fine until the Jewish High Holy Days. Because I was doing well in school, my parents undoubtedly felt comfortable taking me to Providence, R.I., where my maternal grandparents lived and where we attended their temple for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, both of which actually take place over two days. I can recall missing a few days of school and having my 5th birthday with my relatives in Providence. When I came back from Yom Kippur services on an October day, I, who was the only Jewish kid in my kindergarten class, walked into my public school classroom late, after the drive from Providence, about 100 miles away. That was when my teacher, who will remain nameless, though we might call her Mrs. Pumblechook, chided me for missing school. “Why couldn’t you have gone here?” she said, as she stalked me to my seat in the back row. “We don’t belong to this synagogue,” I replied, and then I told her that we celebrated the High Holy Days in Providence with my grandparents. Three years later, my parents and I would join Mishkan Israel and become members at that synagogue, where I would spend time in the very same basement room.
But in 1970, I began to dread that space. When I started to cut and paste with my left hand, Mrs. Pumblechook yanked me by the arm, pulled me aside and told everyone that she was putting me in the “dunce corner.” Just as I was the first and only kid to shine on a memory test, I was also the first and, for a while, the only kid to be punished by being shunted to the dunce corner, where I was forced to stand.
It was a shadowy spot, in the back corner of the room, not far from a window, through which I could glimpse a grassy area that looked overgrown, an untamed garden. It might have been the Garden of Eden, from my perspective, as Mrs. Pumblechook, as evil as the serpent, began to dump me in that corner, where I hunched against the wall, on a fairly routine basis. Over the course of the year, other kids would end up there too, but no one was singled out the way I was, and I did not understand why. I had never been told of anti-Semitism, acts of which grew by 57% in the U.S. in 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League. That was the single, largest, year-to-year increase since the ADL began compiling those statistics in the late 1970s.
But I was a very little boy in 1970, and all I knew was that Mrs. Pumblechook was in charge, an authority figure, not unlike a warden in a prison. Like a Kafkaesque protagonist, I got the feeling, an ancient one, passed down over the generations, that I was guilty of a crime even if the crime was never really named. It may be that this is when I started talking to myself. I certainly used the time in the dunce corner to daydream and to stare out the window, preoccupations of mine to this day. I have been thinking about this more of late not only because of the increase in hate crimes in this country, but also because of the trauma, still being inflicted on children, who have crossed or tried to cross our border with their parents. As we all know, many more migrants, including dozens of children, are traversing Mexico from Central America, on their way to the U.S. These kids and their parents want to immigrate to our country, primarily because they are seeking freedom from oppression. Yet earlier this year, many kids ended up in detention centers, in cages, without their mothers and fathers, due to the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy on illegal immigration. And some coming now may face “rifles” from American troops, which Trump has proposed as a way of confronting migrants should they throw rocks. It would be grand chutzpah indeed for me to compare what I went through as a 5-year-old kindergartener to what the thousands of kids from Mexico and Central America journeying to the U.S. have gone through this year. When I was in kindergarten in 1970, I took the school bus home every day and got to see my mother and father. I was able to sleep in my own bed. My mother sang lullabies to me, as she had from the time I was a baby. My father told me bedtime stories. By contrast, many of the immigrant children, who have been in the detention centers, have been denied such nurture from their parents. They were and still are being traumatized throughout the day. I am sure that many have had nightmares far worse than any I had about Mrs. Pumblechook. They may even start to develop cognitive problems, changes in their brain, in addition to psychological disorders, as pediatricians have attested.
Although the brain can change due to trauma, I must point out again that the cortex is plastic and malleable. It can re-adapt and reconfigure into improved health even after being subjected to traumatic incidents. Recent studies have shown that exposure therapy helps to heal mice, who have been punished with electric shocks. Mrs. Pumblechook subjected me to quite a few metaphoric shocks. She threatened to hold me back, as she dragged me to the principal’s office and whispered conspiratorially. “If you tell anyone about this…”
Again, I was just a little boy and did not understand why she was being so cruel to me. I was so traumatized that I disappeared into a different world, a Walter Mitty land. Like most evolutionary adaptations, this dissociation took place subconsciously.It got reinforced day after day, when Mrs. Pumblechook ignored me when I raised my hand, and when she humiliated me by sticking me in the dunce corner.She kept this up for about six months. Finally, she was forced to call upon me at the end of the school year in the spring of 1971, after the principal had a chat with my mother.
Apparently, Mrs. Pumblechook was telling the principal that I should stay back. I can still remember my mother going over the flash cards and the letters of the alphabet with me. “All you have to do is identify a couple of letters,” she said with a look of concern on her face. When I got to school the next day, I sat in my seat in the back row and wondered how I would be treated by Mrs. Pumblechook. The principal made a special, unannounced visit to our classroom and sat near the front, on the opposite side of the class from the blackboard, where the flash cards were located.Despite my trepidation, I raised my hand, as I had at the beginning of the school year, before the Jewish High Holy Days. For the first time since October, Mrs. Pumblechook did not smirk or mock me when she called my name.Using a ruler, she pointed to a letter on a flash card, and I answered it correctly. Then she pointed to another rune, which I also answered correctly. The principal turned toward me and smiled.
She looked at Mrs. Pumblechook, nodded at her, then she left the room. After class ended that day, as I was trotting down the hallway for the school bus, Mrs. Pumblechook whispered in my ear, “We’re going to just let you go to first grade next year.” It bears repeating that I was not taken away from my parents, or anything remotely approaching that. Nor was I sexually assaulted. But the psychological torture I received from this anti-Semitic witch, just a few years after Vatican II, did indeed activate neurotransmitters in my cortex and encode the memories of the trauma in my hippocampus. Mrs. Pumblechook’s abusive behavior toward me was not just encoded or etched in my brain; it was seared into my hippocampus, where I gradually retrieved it over the decades, as I got psychologically healthier.
In some respects, it has taken me nearly 50 years to heal from the evil perpetrated on me by Mrs. Pumblechook. She must have damaged the architecture of my brain, because, even though I was reading at a very young age, I refrained from doing so for years after that trauma in kindergarten. I got no joy from reading for a long, long time, which is a characteristic of depression. As it turns out, my family has a history of depression and psychosis, to which I was predisposed, but Mrs. Pumblechook almost assuredly exacerbated the fissures in my cortex, in my growing synapses and dendrites, flaps and folds, through her sadism. Of course, what did I do, nearly 30 years later, in 1997, after being suicidal and hospitalized in the USC psychiatric ward? I became a proofreader at L.A. Weekly, which coincided with my courtship of the woman who would become my wife, Barbara. These two salutary events started me on my way back to a healthy life and a productive career as a journalist and novelist. Over the past two decades, I have resumed reading with increasing gradations of joy and pleasure. As for my dexterity or lack thereof of, I have used my right hand as my dominant one since kindergarten. Not surprisingly, my penmanship is and always has been atrocious. I am no good at fine motor skills. I can’t fix too many things around the house.However, I am pretty adept at typing, which is nice because I am a writer. When I use both hands simultaneously, I tend to do fairly well. I once asked an eminent psychiatrist, who is also a neuroscientist, about the consequences of being raised right-handed when you are really a lefty. He said that using both hands, even if not well, can be a buffer against dementia. So, maybe, I owe it to Mrs. Pumblechook that, all these years later, I have sealed my brain with love. For decades, I dissociated about this trauma and others. I entered an imaginative realm, which, when subjected to further trauma later in life, ultimately led to acute psychosis. Like the authority figures in Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment from the 1960’s, conducted around the time of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, Mrs. Pumblechook no doubt sensed something vulnerable about me and got pleasure out of jolting me with electric shocks of a sort. But over the decades, through nurture and therapy, love and free will, I have re-exposed myself to the traumas of years ago and transmuted them, as well as my possible genetic mutations, to my evolutionary advantage. I have used my artistic sensitivity and unique vantage point for creative purposes. And it is poetic justice that I am married to Barbara, who happens to be a Christian and a former public-school kindergarten teacher, filled with love. While Barbara and I take care of each other, Mrs. Pumblechook preyed on me. She wanted to kill my spirit, because, at a deep, primal level, she was probably jealous of my imagination, my memory, my voice and other cognitive abilities.
I can still hear her nasty brogue. When a friend told me to ask her what year it was, she denounced me with N’s and T’s. “Nein-Tein, Seven-Tay!” she said harshly, as if I had asked her if she had leprosy. Then again, I can also hear another brogue, the cheery, high soprano of Mrs. Mulcahy, the other kindergarten teacher in our public school that was held at my future synagogue, Mishkan Israel. I can still see Mrs. Mulcahy meandering down the hallway outside of our class, in the basement of the temple. My friends urged me to say hello to her. “Hi, Mrs. Mulcahy,” I said. She turned her head and smiled. “Well, hello, dear,” she chirped, her voice reminiscent of that of Julia Child. While passages of the Bible were warped by hatemongers earlier this year to justify cruelty toward immigrant children, and while a white nationalist recently murdered 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, it is nice to recall that Mrs. Mulcahy, back in 1970, had learned the lessons of Vatican II and the lessons of Jesus, to love kindergarteners and others even if they are of a different race, religion or ethnicity.