The Primal Wound | Notes & Critical Review

Nancy Newton Verrier. The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child. Gateway Press, Inc., 1993. (225 pages)


…it was easier for us to give her love than it was for her to accept it. (xiii)

At the same time that she tried to provoke the very rejection that she feared, there was a reaction on her part to reject us before she could be rejected by us. It seemed that allowing herself to love and be loved was too dangerous; she couldn’t trust that she would not again be abandoned. (xiii)

What I discovered is what I call the primal wound, a wound which is physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual, a wound which causes pain so profound as to have been described as cellular by those adoptees who allowed themselves to go that deeply into their pain. I began to understand this wound as having been caused by the separation of the child from his biological mother, the connection to whom seems mystical, mysterious, spiritual and everlasting. (xvi)

Are we bonded? I don’t think that I would be able to write this work if we were not, but it is a bond forged in the fire of sacrifice and pain, not the easy, fluid, continuity of bonding she might have had with her birthmother. We have both suffered, but we want to create something out of that suffering. (xvii)

Part I: The Wound

Too often in our approach to the newborn we deal with him as if he is exactly that–“brand new.” We neglect the fact that the neonate is really the culmination of an amazing experience that has lasted forty weeks. … By looking at the neonate as if he had “sprung full-blown from the brain of Zeus” we are missing the opportunities that the newborn’s history as a fetus can provide. – T. B. Brazelton

Chapter 1 – Adoption as an Experience

The Amazing Awareness of Babies

The truth is, much of what we have traditionally believed about babies is false. We have misunderstood and underestimated their abilities. They are not simple beings but complex and ageless–small creatures with unexpectedly large thoughts. – David Chamberlain

Babies know more than they are supposed to know. Minutes after birth, a baby can pick out his mother’s face–which he has never seen–from a gallery of photos. … The newly discovered truth is that newborn babies have all their senses and make use of them just as the rest of us do. Their cries of pain are authentic. Babies are not unfeeling; it is we who have been unfeeling. – Dr. Chamberlain, Babies Remember Birth

If babies remember birth, then they also remember what happened right after birth,… (5)

…for the child abandonment is a kind of death, not only of the mother, but of part of the Self, that core-being or essence of oneself which makes one feel whole. (6)

The Need for a Permanent Caregiver

Despite the continuity of relationship which adoption provides, adopted children experience themselves as unwanted, are unable to trust the adoptive relationship as being permanent, and often demonstrate emotional disturbances and behavioral problems. And, although these symptoms may be more evident in children who have had previous multiple caregivers, my research has shown that they are also present in those children who were permanently placed at or near birth. (7)

Why is it that a child, even so young as a few hours or a few days, cannot make the transition without problems? What about those children who are never told of their adoption? (7)

Adoption Issues

These issues center around separation and loss, trust, rejection, guilt and shame, identity, intimacy, loyalty, and mastery or power and control … (7)

External Considerations

…an atmosphere of openness regarding adoption issues within the family will improve family dynamics, but neither of these remedies will eliminate the primal wound. (8)

Adoption as a Concept

Dear Mommy, Come and get me.

Abandonment and Adoption as Experiences

The adoptee was there. … That he may have only been a few days or a few minutes old makes no difference. He shared a 40-week experience with a person with whom he probably bonded in utero, a person to whom he is biologically, genetically, historically and, perhaps even more importantly, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually connected, and some people would like him to believe that it is the telling of the experience of the severing of that bond which makes him feel so bad! (10)

What adoptees need to know is that their experience was real. (12)

The Importance of Early Experience

What happens when adoptees go in for therapy, and their therapist considers adoption irrelevant to their problems, even though this was part of their early experience? (12)

Our current understanding of prenatal psychology has made many realize that the environment in utero is an important part of a baby’s well-being. (12)

It doesn’t seem to matter what kind of mother a child has lost, or how perilous it may be to dwell in her presence. It doesn’t matter whether she hurts or hugs. Separation from mother is worse than being in her arms when the bombs are exploding. Separation from mother is sometimes worse than being with her when she is the bomb. – Necessary Losses, by Judith Viorst

I am suggesting that we have to understand what we are doing when we take him away from her. (13)

The Trauma of the Abandonment and Adoption

No matter how much the mother wanted to keep her baby and no matter what the altruistic or intellectual reasons she had for relinquishing him or her, the child experiences the separation as abandonment. (14)

Birthdays and Birthday Parties

For adoptees birthdays commemorate an experience, not of joy, but one of loss and sorrow. (16)


Adoption, considered by many to be merely a concept, is, in fact, a traumatic experience for the adoptee. It begins with the separation from his biological mother and ends with his living with strangers. Most of his life he may have denied or repressed his feelings about this experience, having had no sense that they would be acknowledged or validated. He may, instead, have been made to feel as if he should be grateful for this monumental manipulation of his destiny. Somewhere within him, however, he does have feelings about this traumatic experience, and having these feelings does not mean that he is abnormal, sick, or crazy. It means that he is wounded as a result of having suffered a devastating loss and that his feelings about this are legitimate and need to be acknowledged, rather than ignored or challenged. (16)

Chapter 2 – The Connection with the Birthmother

It is my thesis that in the earliest phase, we are dealing with a very special state of the mother, a psychological condition which deserves a name, such as Primary Maternal Preoccupation. … The mother who develops this state … provides a setting for the infant’s constitution to begin to make itself evident, for the developmental tendencies to start to unfold. … There is something about the mother of a baby, something which makes her particularly suited to the protection of her infant in this state of vulnerability and which makes her able to contribute positively to the baby’s positive needs. – Donald Winnicott

The Mysterious Link Between Mother and Child

Mother vs. Primary Caregiver

I don’t believe it is possible to sever the tie with the biological mother and replace her with another primary caregiver, no matter how warm, caring, and motivated she may be, without psychological consequences for the child (and the mother). An infant or child can certainly attach to another caregiver, but the quality of that attachment may be different from that with the first mother, and bonding may be difficult or, as many adoptees have told me, impossible. (19)

Attachment and Bonding

…the difference between attachment and bonding, as I see it… I believe that it would be safe to say that most adopted children form attachments to their adoptive mothers. This is a kind of emotional dependence, which may seem crucial to their survival. Bonding, on the other hand, may not be so easily achieved. It implies a profound connection, which is experienced at all levels of human awareness. (19)

The Broken Bond

It is my belief, therefore, that the severing of that connection between the adopted child and his birthmother causes a primal or narcissistic wound, which affects the adoptee’s sense of Self and often manifests in a sense of loss, basic mistrust, anxiety and depression, emotional and/or behavioral problems, and difficulties in relationships with significant others. I further believe that the awareness, whether conscious or unconscious, that the original separation was the result of a “choice” made by the mother affects the adoptee’s self-esteem and self-worth. (21)

“I Want My Mommy”

Birthmother Fantasies

The Difference Between Understanding and Feeling

The baby doesn’t care why she did it; the baby just feels abandoned. And that abandoned baby lives inside each and every adoptee all his or her life. (25)

Confusion Between Love and Abandonment

The idea that the birthmother loved the baby so much that she gave him away is a non sequitur so far as the child is concerned. (26)


The connection between a child and his biological mother appears to be primal, mystical, mysterious, and everlasting. It can no longer be assumed that one can replace the biological mother with another “primary caregiver” without the child’s being both aware of the substitution and traumatized by it. The mother/infant bond takes many (26) forms and the communication between them is unconscious, instinctual, and intuitive. To those researchers who want to believe only what they can observe, this may not seem very scientific. It is understood by mothers, however, to whom it does not seem to be all that mysterious. The significance of that bond is confirmed by the increasing numbers of adoptees and birthmothers who are out there searching for one another.

| Although the idea of searching to reconnect with the biological mother is filled with conflict and anxiety, it should not be regarded as pathological. It should, in fact, be regarded as healthy. We all need the biological, historical, emotional, and existential connection which is denied so many adoptees. For them, searching might be seen as an attempt to heal the primal wound about which there are no conscious thoughts, only feelings and somatic memories–and an aching sense of loss. (27)

Chapter 3 – Loss of the Mother and the Sense of Self

Dual Unity with the Mother

During [the “extra-uterine embryonic phase”], though the physical body is already born, the Self or core-being of the infant is not yet separate from that of the mother but psychologically is contained within her. The nature of the relationship between mother and child is characterized, not by subject and object, but by a kind of fluidity of being, of mother/child/world transcending both time and space. The mother provides a container for the child’s developing ego, just as she had previously provided the container for his developing physical body. (29)

An uninterrupted continuum of being within the matrix of the mother is necessary in order for the infant to experience a rightness or wholeness of self from which to begin his separation or individuation process. (29)

A Break in the Continuum of Bonding

Premature Ego Development

She is his whole environment, his whole world. If for some reason the mother cannot be counted on to be the “whole environment” for the infant he begins to take over that function from her. Rather than a gradual well-timed developmental process, the child is forced by this wrenching (30) experience of premature separation to be a separate being, to form a separate ego before he should have to do so. This phenomenon is often referred to as “premature ego development” and is sometimes considered pathological. (31)

It was as if I figuratively sat up in my crib and said to myself, “I can’t trust anyone. I will have to take care of myself.”

The danger, so far as our considerations are concerned, is that we may too readily accept this premature ego development as proof that the child is adjusting well to his environment. (31)

The Ideal State of the Self

The tie to the mother and the apparent need to reconnect with her, then, is not only a longing to find the lost object, but a longing to find the lost Self. (33)

The Search for the Self

The False Self

If someone rejects the outside you, that’s not so bad, because it isn’t really you; but if you let someone know who you really are inside and they reject you, that’s really rejection!

Rejection and Basic Trust


The integrity of the Self is necessary to the healthy development of the ego and its ability to relate to others. Any injury to the basic goodness of the Self, or to what some authors refer as the “ideal state of the self,” interferes with the timing and sequence of healthy ego development and results in that which I call the “primal wound.”

| This wound, occurring before an infant has begun to separate its own identity from that of its mother, may result in a feeling that part of oneself has disappeared, leaving the infant with a feeling of incompleteness or lack of wholeness. That incompleteness is often experienced, not only in the genealogical sense of being cut off from one’s roots, but in a felt sense of bodily incompleteness.

| For the child relinquished at the primal phase of development, when the mother not only plays the role of the child’s Self but actually is that Self, we may be dealing not only with the loss of the “primary love object,” but with the loss of part of the Self. At that primal stage, the child’s inability to mourn the loss of mother or of Self and his need to guard against further loss may cause him to adopt a false self.

| If the false self takes the form of an acquiescent, compliant child, the child is seen as being well-adjusted and not suffering any psychological pain. Others, however, in an attempt to demonstrate their pain and test the commitment of their parents, act out and may end up in psychiatric treatment, group homes, or jail. Neither is operating from the true Self, but from a false self and from a profound sense of loss. (38)

Chapter 4 – Loss and the Mourning Process

The Need to Mourn

The Unacknowledged Attempt to Grieve

The Stages of Grief

Defending Against Further Loss

It is interesting to consider, though, that adoptees may not realize the impact that they had on their adoptive parents at the beginning of their lives. It might be helpful for the parents to understand the reasons for their feelings of being rejected in order to respond sensitively to the child. (42)

Separation anxiety is common among adopted children. (42)

Psychosomatic Responses to Loss

Anxiety is seen as evidence of the lack of serious psychological disintegration. (44)

Basic Fault

The Death of the Psyche

…suicide is an attempt, on the part of the person in pain, to concretize or actualize something which is felt to have already happened, but which they can’t remember experiencing. (46)

Suicide is not the answer, however, but is a despair gesture – Donald Winnicott


A sense of loss expressed by most adoptees often seems to manifest in sadness and depression. This might be interpreted as an unconscious yearning for the lost love object (the first mother?) or in a feeling of incompleteness (the lost part of the Self?). The age at which a child is relinquished might have something to do with which of the two predominates. In any case, the result appears to be a loss of a sense of goodness of self and mistrust of the permanency of future relationships with significant others.

| The stages of grief through which an abandoned child will pass include rage and protestation, a sense of hopelessness and despair, detachment, and finally a kind of resignation and the beginning of attachment to the substitute mother. If an adoptive mother, being especially tuned in to her baby, experiences his hesitation in attaching, she may feel it as rejection. She should, instead, understand this as the child’s need to protect himself from rejection.

| The unconscious fear of further losses, which threatens annihilation, causes anxiety. This anxiety may manifest in behavior designed to make the parents understand the chaos the child is feeling inside (acting out) or in withdrawal and psychosomatic symptoms. Both responses are protecting the child from a more sever state of (47) psychological deterioration. A more dangerous response to a sense of impending doom is that of suicidal ideation. In children suicidal thoughts get acted out in risky behavior (such as engaging in dangerous activities, driving recklessly, taking drugs, etc.), whereas most adults are more overt in attempting to end their despair.

| Many adoptees say that they tolerate death better than they tolerate separations. They may respond to loss by denying it, becoming numb to it, or by trying to avoid it. Trying to avoid loss causes many adoptees to avoid intimate relationships. This is just one of the many consequences of the devastating loss suffered at or near the beginning of their lives. Those and others manifestations of the primal wound will be discussed next. (48)

Part II: The Manifestations

(The pain of adoption) is something that can lie dormant most of one’s life. If it erupts in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood and is dismissed as neurotic behavior or normal rebellion, it can subside into numbness. But it can stir malignantly in some adoptees all their lives, making them detached, floating, unable to love or to trust. … (Adoption) has got to be understood. – Betty Jean Lifton

Chapter 5 – Love, Trust, and the Adoptive Mother

The Limitations of the Adoptive Mother

Who Is the Abandoner?


The question “Who was the abandoner?” and the subsequent projection onto the adoptive mother the role of the abandoner is often (55) experienced as a phenomenon called “splitting,” in which a child assigns all “good” attributes to one set of parents and all “bad” attributes to the other. … Freud called this the “family romance” theory. (56)

On Being Special

Being chosen by your adoptive parents doesn’t mean anything compared to being unchosen by your birthmother. – Denise

Images of Love and Hate

A Matter of Trust

Love Is Dangerous

The Relationship with the Father

The Withdrawal/Acting-Out Dichotomy

The Nurturing Mother

The Right to Selfhood

Chapter 6 – The Core Issues: Abandonment and Loss

Loss of a loved person is one of the most intensely painful experiences any human being can suffer. And not only is it painful to experience but it is also painful to witness, if only because we are so impotent to help. To the bereaved nothing but the return of the lost person can bring true comfort; should what we provide fall short of that it is felt almost as an insult. … There is a tendency to underestimate how intensely distressing and disabling loss usually is and for how long the distress, and often the disablement, commonly lasts. Conversely, there is a tendency to suppose that a normal healthy person can and should get over a bereavement not only fairly rapidly but also completely. – John Bowlby

The Profoundness of Loss

If the primal experience for the adopted child is abandonment, then the core issues are loss and the fear of a further abandonment. (69)

There is no permission in our society to recognize in each of life’s transitions the polarities between gain and loss or joy and sorrow. We are expected to be happy, sing songs, dance jigs, but never to mourn. (69)

We are a society in which we want everything to be “nice” or positive, and one in which we try to ignore or get through as soon as possible everything that is painful or difficult. We have a great deal of difficulty accepting, understanding, or even acknowledging that it may be paradox and polarity that give life energy and excitement, the impetus toward movement, the aspiration toward change and growth. (69)

So, with little permission to fully acknowledge or mourn our losses, we deny them; we send them down into the depths of the unconscious, where they rule our lives in many insidious ways, causing feelings and behavior which are then sometimes labeled as pathological. (70)

The Pathologizing of Abandonment and Loss

Depression may be a sign of unresolved grief. (70)

In addition to the now recognized trauma of child physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, I propose to add the trauma of the separation of a child from its mother. (70)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

There are other signs of trauma: intrusion, a traumatic memory of that first abandonment, and constriction, a shutting down or surrendering to the situation at hand (being in the “wrong” family). (72)

Adoptees vacillate between intrusion and constriction,… (72)

The provocative behavior often plays into the parents’ insecurities about being good enough parents and into their own rejection issues. They then become defensive and retaliatory, instead of understanding and steadfast. Sadly, their defen-(73)sive reactions often produce the very outcome which the adoptee feared in the first place: abandonment–being sent out of the home to residential treatment centers, boarding schools, or simply out on the street.”

[via: this is also called “sabotage.” Depending on the severity, I call this the “swirly of doom.”]

Manifestations of Separation and Loss in Childhood

The Numbing of Affect

“If You Leave, You’re Out!”

Fears of Abandonment Are Not Fantasies

Stealing and Hoarding

The people from whom the child steals are those he likes or respects the most:… (78)

Control as a Foil to Loss


Our failure to acknowledge the devastation of separation from the birthmother on adopted children extends into many other areas of our (79) society, where we routinely ignore or deny the impact of loss. Unresolved grief over some long-forgotten (or repressed) loss may be at the root of much of that which is considered clinical depression in our society.

| While it is true that many grieving people need help, this help is not so much in the form of getting them through it quickly as it is in giving them permission to feel their loss and the time and means to process it. Most of these people are not sick or abnormal; they are people who are suffering as a result of society’s ignorance, and its use of denial as a major defense against pain and paradox.

| Although blaming the victim is often a phenomenon of trauma, (rape victims and battered women, for instance), being separated from their birthmothers and handed over to strangers in the adoption process is the only trauma where the victims are expected by the whole of society to be grateful. Theya re not grateful; they are grieving, and the original abandonment and loss are the sources of many other issues for the adoptee. (80)

Chapter 7 – Issues of Rejection, Trust, Intimacy, and Loyalty

There is a deep yearning inside me to have a lasting and meaningful relationship with someone, but it scares me, because if you let yourself get too close, you can’t trust that you won’t be abandoned again. That fear of rejection … The way I take care of this is to reject the other person first. They never have a chance! – An Adoptee

Difficulties in Relationships

Rather it has to do with the triggering of archaic memory traces. (82)

The Fear of Rejection

Being wanted by my adoptive parents doesn’t compare to being unwanted by my birthmother. – An Adoptee

The Bad-Baby Syndrome

Losers and Stoners

For many adoptees one way of assuring that they won’t be rejected is to associate with the “losers and stoners” of life. (85)

Testing Out

…the rule of adoptees is “Do unto others first that which you fear they are going to do to you.” (86)

Rejection and Work

The fear of rejection in the workplace is often accompanied by a fear of success or an inability to believe in one’s competency or expertise. There is a kind of self rejection of one’s own talents and capabilities, which sometimes results in a sabotaging of one’s success. Or else, in the paradoxical way these things work for adoptees, there is a need to be perfect, to be the best, to get one more Ph.D. to prove that one has a right to exist. (87)

Issues of Trust and Intimacy

The adoptees’ lack of trust in the permanency of relationships brings about a distrust of closeness or intimacy and a need for distancing. At the same time there is a yearning for the very thing which is feared. (88)

Distrust of the Feminine

There is a general feeling of not trusting girls or women, of not being accepted by them, or of feeling generally uncomfortable around them. (89)

[via: is this a factor in patriarchy and misogyny?]

Difficulties in Separating

Distrusting the Self

This may make sense to the adult adoptee on the intellectual level, but it doesn’t make any sense at all to the baby who resides within that adult. (91)


Divided Loyalty

Loyalty to the Lost Child

Birthmothers also have a sense of loyalty to that lost child. There is a high rate of secondary infertility among them (perhaps as high as 40%). … There is so much pain and guilt connected to the surrendering of the child that many birthmothers give up their rights to motherhood. (92)

Chapter 8 – Issues of Guilt and Shame, Power and Control, Identity

Guilt and Shame

There is no way for others to convince adoptees that they are wonderful, lovable, beautiful people. If they get gentle, steadfast love and constancy of availability from those who love them (which includes absolutely no threat of abandonment), they may begin to trust in the possibility of their own goodness. But the only sure way for adoptees to rid themselves of shame is for them to work (95) it through for themselves. It is not enough for adoptees to gain acceptance from others; ultimately they must learn to love and accept themselves. (96)

Power or Mastery and Control

The Adoptee as Victim

…feelings have memories. (96)

Life Isn’t Fair!

Adoptees often have poor frustration tolerance or impulse control. … In other words it is easier for them to control the rest of the family than it is for them to control themselves. (98)

Parents often hear their children saying, “It isn’t my fault,” “I couldn’t help it,” or “I didn’t do it,” even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And, although it may be evident to the parent that the child was responsible for what happened, the child probably actually feels as if it were out of his control. (100)


The lack of personal history is a handicap for the adoptee because of the importance of knowing one’s past before planning for the future. (100)


The primary or core issues for adoptees are abandonment and loss. From those two issues the issues of rejection, trust, intimacy, loyalty, guilt and shame, power and control, and identity emanate. These issues are intertwined and fluid for most adoptees, yet are probably present even in those who seem “well-adjusted.” (104)

| Part of the problem is getting through the denial in both adoptees and their parents about the differences between adoptive and so-called “natural” families. The firs step for all triad members is to assess the level of awareness they have about adoption issues; in other words, the myths and stereotypes vs. reality. None of these issues can be addressed successfully unless they are also addressed honestly. The depth of the pain and the many issues caused by that pain are not easy to face, but for healing to begin doing so is essential. Parents, if they are honest in their perceptions about their child, can, with help from a professional, be tremendously effective in facilitating healing in their child. The next part of the book deals with this healing. (105)

Part III: The Healing

I believe that life is a paradox and that in order to avoid becoming frustrated and disillusioned, we have to accept this paradox (and perhaps even rejoice in it). We have to accept that life is not made up of absolutes:… (107)

The answer to the difficulties with adoption is not to deny them, ignore them, or to do away with adoption in order to avoid them. The answer is to acknowledge those difficulties, live with that reality, and learn how to deal with it. (108)

The idea of a wound caused by an infant’s being separated from its biological mother is not an easy idea to accept, because it implies that there is no way around this wound, no pat answers or magical solutions. It implies that all adopted children suffer from this wound, and that although there are certain criteria for evaluating the symptoms of the wound, different adoptees will respond to these manifestations differently. (108)

Healing must take place within various contexts: within the adoptive family,… (108)

Loss is paramount in the understanding of what is going on with each member of the adoption triad. …it is also true that there is loss involved for everyone, loss which needs to be mourned. Loss which is not mourned can be debilitating, leaving one feeling at the mercy of unexplainable and unpredictable feelings. Understanding, acceptance, empathy, and communication are the keys to the beginning of healing. (109)

Chapter 9 – In the Best Interest of the Child

Adoption should serve children who need parents, not the childless couples who seek children. (111)

In the Beginning…

The Need for a Conscious Decision

Most adoptive parents never consider that the substitution of mothers could be harmful for the child. Why should they? No one has really suggested it. Their intent is good, but their understanding is lacking. (113)

The Flip Side of Exploitation

The issue of exploitation also comes up in regard to the biological mother’s own attitudes toward the whole procedure of adoption. …a conflict of interest for people making money in adoption. (114)

Time for a New Approach

…the relationship should be devoid of as much confusion as possible. The jury is still out about how best to achieve this. (115)

The Need for Adoptive Parents

Because of the understanding and special nurturing needed for traumatized babies, prospective parents can help prepare themselves for parenthood by examining very carefully their own abandonment issues, their issues concerning their infertility, their reasons for wanting to adopt, their willingness to acknowledge the differences between biological and adoptive families, their expectations for the child and the adoptive family relationship, and how it will feel for them to rear a biological stranger, a child who may be totally different from them. (116)

Children Make a Difference

It makes me very nervous when people say that they want “to have a baby.” I would feel better if they would say, “I want to rear a child,” understanding all which that implies. Too often in our society, people want to have children as long as these children don’t interfere with their lives. Well, children are going to interfere with and change their parents’ lives. If they don’t, parents may not be doing a good job of parenting. (116)

Children come into the world as tiny, helpless, totally dependent beings. We owe it to them to do what is in their best interest. (117)

Chapter 10 – The New Family

Bringing Baby Home

Eye contact is very important. A baby should always be held while being fed,… Skin to skin contact is also important… (118)

Parents should not mistake a child’s reluctance to accept cuddling for a lack of a need for closeness and touching or a rejection of them. The child needs touch, but may not trust it. (119)

How to Handle Loss

Telling About Adoption

It should never be assumed that parents who adopt minority children have no prejudices. Treating a black child who is growing up in a predominantly white community as if he were white is a kind of racism, because it denies the child the right to be who he is. (122)

At all ages: Parents must tell the truth about adoption and deal with reality. (123)

Acknowledgment of Differences

Children’s Resistance to Talking about Adoption

Games and Play Time

Feelings should never be criticized or judged. (124)

Bruno Bettelheim, “The Importance of Play”

Art, Poetry, Music, and Dance

Parents can observe (or hear) if a child composes or prefers to play or sing compositions in major or minor keys, fast or slow tempos, and so forth. Again, no comment is called for, although an acknowledgment of the mood of the piece, such as “That song makes me feel sad; is that how it makes you feel?” may make the child more aware of his own feelings. (126)

Separation Anxiety

The Meaning of Discipline

When parents react from their own “inner child,” they cannot effectively parent. (129)

The key word here is teach.To discipline means to teach, not punish. (129)

The One-Minute Scolding and Who’s the Boss by Gerald Nelson.

Limits During Adolescence

The First Cardinal Rule for Adoptive Parents

One cardinal rule, no matter what the behavior, is to NEVER THREATEN ABANDONMENT. (133)

Five Cardinal Rules

  • As difficult as it is to acknowledge, YOU CANNOT TAKE AWAY YOUR CHILD’S PAIN.

Chapter 11 – Adopting Older Children

One Year of Love…

The Issue of Touch

For an adoptee who was adopted as a child, rather than as an infant, however, touch can be traumatic. Some of these children have been physically and/or sexually abused, and touch represents abuse. (137)

The Fear of Connection

It is, in fact, a good idea to take all things slowly with older adoptees. (137)

Being Empathic

…the child may regress to a younger age at first and periodically thereafter. This is normal. (139)

Difficulties in School

Children who feel abandoned fear abandonment, and keeping this from happening again takes energy and concentration away from academic pursuits. (141)

To get an idea of what this hypervigilance is like, watch a bird pecking in the garden. Notice how the bird is constantly lifting up its head and looking all around for signs of dangers. This is what it is like for the adoptee. Even though he may not be consciously aware of what he is doing, he is constantly on the alert for signs of possible rejection–the potential for abandonment. (141)

…there may be times when lowering the child’s anxiety level would be more important than his doing his homework. (141)

The Teachers’ Responsibilities

Discussing the Biological Family

The Wounded Parents

Healing the Adoptive Parents

Taking Care of the Biological Children

A Word about Fathers

A Chip off the Old Block

You Just Don’t Understand by Deborah Tannen

Father’s Support for the Mother

Because he is not having the same trouble with the child that she is, he is often critical of her, accusing her of provoking the confrontations which occur between her and the child. This gives the child more fuel for further insubordination and triangulates the family, with the father and child forming an alliance against the mother. If the father could begin to understand the true nature of the conflict between his wife and child and offer his support to her, the bond between the two of them would become stronger, which would benefit the whole family. (148)

[via: *sigh… guilty.]

Adoptive Parents Do Make a Difference

Adoptive parents have a great responsibility and a unique relationship to their adopted child or children. Despite the trails and tribulations which can occur in these families, they can and do make a difference in the lives of children who might otherwise be kept in situations which are detrimental to them. They can and must help to heal the wounds of their child, but they must also help one another heal their own wounds. Their roles are often misunderstood an the expectations placed upon them overwhelming, especially those parents who take on the enormous responsibility of adopting older children. It would be helpful for them to form groups to gain support from people who have had or are having similar experiences, and to help them overcome their feelings of isolation. (149)

| Adopting any child who has experienced the trauma of separation from the biological family is a challenge, but when one adds to that the emotional scarring of children who have experienced multiple separations and traumas, the challenge often seems overwhelming. These children need an enormous amount of patience, care, and understanding, and a lowering of expectations about their own response to that love and care. Meanwhile society can help by having a more realistic attitude toward adoption in all its myriad aspects. (149)

Chapter 12 – Reunions as a Means of Healing the Adoption Triad

Searching–Emotionally Charged for Everyone

The “Bad-Guy” Syndrome: The Adoptee as Bad Guy

The Birthmother as Bad Guy

Understanding the Birthmother

Very often the choice to relinquishment is forced upon her. (155)

A Double Loss

The Impact on the Extended Family

Problems in the Birthmother’s Nuclear Family

Reconnecting as Part of the Healing Process

Another Shift in Roles: Adoptive Parents as Bad Guys

Search and the Adoptive Mother

…there are some adoptive parents out there who still believe that the signing of those original relinquishment and adoption papers severed not only the legal rights and responsibilities of the biological parents, but the psychological, emotional, and spiritual ties between them and their children as well. This is wishful thinking, a denial of reality, which only widens the gulf between adoptive parents and their children. (163)

The Feelings of the Birthmother toward Adoptive Parents

Socio-economic status is often the number one criterion for selecting these parents, not their understanding of the issues or their psychological/emotional readiness for taking on this responsibility. (164)

Adoptee, Caught in the Middle

Healing the Triad

It would be my recommendation that all triad members honestly look into their own souls and assess what they are truly feeling. (165)

These feelings do not have to be denied or apologized for. But if they are not owned, they will be projected upon another member of the triad. Such projections get in the way of true understanding among triad members. (166)

If both mothers put the well-being of the adoptee first, we will begin to see the importance of reaching out to one another in love, rather than drawing back in fear or hostility. There is no one way to see things. Everyone has had her own experience as well as her own perspective, which lead to her own perceptions. It is important to allow those perceptions to be challenged in order to understand the perceptions of others. Both can be right or partially right. In acknowledging this we can learn to love one another as we love our child. Love is not a quantitative commodity, to be rationed out or hoarded. (166_

Chapter 13 – The Reunion Process

Understanding the Emotional Climate of Reunions

What I would like to emphasize to both birth and adoptive mothers is that, even when her own inner child is being hurt in the relationship, she must act in the relationship as the mature adult in control of her actions. … I can’t stress enough how important it is for someone to be mature in these exchanges, and that someone has to be the mother (no matter how old the “child”). (169)


Genetic Sexual Attraction

In the normal and natural holding and touching which follows birth, sensual or sexual-like feelings are aroused in both mother and child. (1973)

The Incest Taboo

Sensual feelings and sexual impulses to satisfy them are natural and can be acknowledged, but they should not be acted upon. It is a boundary crossed. (173)

The incest taboo is part of almost every society and exists for a reason, a reason based more on psychology than biology. (173)

Sexual Feelings Between Biological Siblings

Reunions as Reconciliation

The Hard-to-Reach Adoptee

Love breeds more love and closer ties to everyone, while suspicion and fear create an atmosphere of tension and animosity benefiting to no one. (177)

The Reluctant Birthmother

Tenacity, Patience, and Understanding in the Reunion Process

None of the participants in these reunions can expect to eliminate the scar left by the relinquishment/adoption process. They can, however, gain new attitudes toward their experiences and become vital and permanent aspects of one another’s lives. (180)

Chapter 14 – Empowering Ourselves

In writing about the primal wound, I want to reiterate that the original trauma is abandonment as experienced by the child. The problem is not adoption. Adoption has attempted , with greater or lesser degrees of success, to be the solution to a problem, the problem of unplanned pregnancies. … Babies should never be separated from their mothers unless it is absolutely necessary, because separation causes trauma, and trauma leaves the child wounded. The wound affects adoptees all their lives and greatly impacts their relationships with others as they go through the life cycle. (181)

Shunning the Victim Role

The first thing an adoptee (or birthmother or anyone who feels powerless) can do is to become sick and tired of being a victim, of feeling as if he has no power in his life. (182)

Challenging Long-Held Beliefs

If you’re angry at your birthmothers for abandoning you, why do you keep abandoning yourselves? (183)

Allowing Feelings–Controlling Behavior

There are two things to address if one wants to begin to take his power back. The first has to do with experience: the loss, deprivation, abuse, or neglect one experiences as a child; and the second has to do with how one reacts to that experience: the lifetime habits which result from the experience. What are some of those habits? (184)

The Difference Between Personality and Behavior

Acknowledging and Mourning Loss

Our problem is not that as children our needs were unmet, but that as adult they are still unmourned. – David Richo, “How To Be an Adult”

…there is a need to grieve “the irretrievable aspect of what we lost and the irreplaceable aspect of what we missed.” (187)

Three Barriers to Integration:


Neurotic fear is the fear of what might happen. (190)

The irony in all three of these is that what is meant to protect us from fear only protects the fear itself. Rationalization is the sentry that guards not us but the fear in us!” (190)


The healing for guilt is forgiveness; the healing for shame is acceptance. (193)


Taking Back Our Power

Power within makes us feel calm and whole. It allows us to be assertive, but not aggressive. Power over is a form of aggression, intimidation, and control over others. When one has true power, it makes us free. (193)

Mistakes are risks taken that didn’t work out. (194)

Far better to dare mighty things, even though checked with failure, than to live in the grey twilight that knows not victory or defeat.

One of the risks we have to take if we are to become more integrated is the risk of intimacy. (194)

Being Assertive

Being assertive means taking care of ourselves. (195)

We don’t need everyone to love us. What we do need is a sense that we are real. (196)

Finding a Spiritual Path

Part IV: Conclusions

Chapter 15 – Further Implications of the Primal Wound

The Impact of Abandonment on Other Populations

During infancy, I believe no one else can truly take the place of the mother, and that her absence will have a tremendous impact on the child. Some women may resent my placing (202) so much of this responsibility upon them, yet I will stand by this position, both as a mother and as a psychotherapist. We need to make choices, and some of those choices have to do with what we are willing to sacrifice for our children. Denying a mother’s importance to her children will not diminish or erase that importance. A child’s sense of security probably has very little to do with his or her socio-economic status. Rather, his sense of security may hinge on his very early relationship with his mother and his subsequent relationship with both parents. (203)

The Surrogacy Myth

A woman who gives birth to a baby is the mother of that baby, not a surrogate (204) mother. The surrogate is the substitute mother, the one who acts in place of the mother, or in this case, the adoptive mother for whom the misnamed “surrogate” is giving birth. (205)

If contracts for human life take precedence over maternal instincts and the psychological well-being of children, we are in trouble as a society. (205)

The Need for Integrity

Unfortunately, in many cases, our technical abilities greatly exceed our moral integrity, so that we remain in denial about the impact of our endeavors. (206)

The Wicked Stepmother

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the Adopted Child

The Question of Abortion

Difficult Choices

There are no easy answers. (211)

More Honesty and Support. Less Judgment

It has taken until 1992 for many int he medical profession to recognize that infants can feel medical procedures and that they do much better when fully anesthetized than when they have to feel the terrible pain of those procedures. How much longer are we going to remain in the dark about what the fetus feels? What do doctors suppose recoil action means anyway if it doesn’t mean that something is painful, intrusive, or abhorrent to the organism? Perhaps detachment has replaced compassion in too many doctors’ professional attitudes. (213)

It is time that we stop denying painful truths in order to avoid the painful work of making difficult decisions, decisions which affect the well-being of our children. Our failure to keep our children safe and secure puts them in a perpetual state of anxiety. It is time to listen to our children and to put their welfare ahead of our own. Adopted children, foster children, stepchildren, biological children–all children deserve nothing less than our very best love and protection. (214)

Chapter 16 – Honor Thy Children

Challenging Old Assumptions

The Mother Connection

Putting the Well-Being of the Child First

It makes no sense to me that we take babies away from mothers who have no financial resources, and then pay someone else (foster parents) to take care of them. (217)

What Constitutes Security?

The Future of the Adoption

Adoption is still the best solution for those children who would otherwise languish in foster care or orphanages. But the procurement of babies by some of the methods going on today is, in essence, the buying and selling of human lives. This is unconscionable. (218)

Too often adoption facilitators are more concerned with socio-economic, rather than psychological, emotional, or intellectual considerations. (218)

Lowering Expectations

Society’s Attitudes Must Change

Every potential adoptive couple needs to be informed about the primal wound and the impact it will have on them, their child, and their child’s biological mother. In preparing for their new child, they should explore their own issues of abandonment and loss. (220)

The Mystic Aspect

In just how many ways are we connected with those who came before us? And equally important: Why should anyone have the right to keep us from renewing those connections? (222)

I’ve always wished that Moses had remained on Mt. Sinai a little longer and that God had given him an eleventh commandment: Honor thy children. Oh, what a different world it might be. … (222)

— via’s critical review —

I am really torn between two strong convictions that are critical to my review of this book. The first is my bias toward robust and thorough scientific research with the recognition that the behavioral sciences are perhaps the most complex and challenging of the sciences due to the sheer number of variables being exponentially higher than in other fields of study. The second is my own personal experience–as an adopted child, in a family of adopted children, in a community of adoptive parents and adoptees–which both substantiate and negate the ideas found in this book.

If we start with the science, there are a few statements which are not only not very scientific, they’re a bit alarmist. On page 13, Verrier asks, rhetorically,

…what if the most abusive thing which can happen to a child is that he is taken from his mother? (13)

Verrier writes on page 102,

Many adolescent pregnancies are attempts by adoptees to have someone biologically connected to them, “someone who looks like me.” (102)

First, when “grading abuses,” much more care needs to be taken before writing something with such rhetorical weight. Second, the anecdote about someone looking “like me” I don’t think can be solely, or even primarily tied to the “primal wound.” It is statements like these that gave me pause at times, wondering if the concept was either being taken a bit too far, or if the primary substantiation of the thesis was mostly anecdotal.

In addition, a good friend of mine who has a Ph.D. from Stanford in Social Psychology has also tempered my opinions with a review of the extant scientific literature on the subject–which is not much. There doesn’t seem to exist the broad spectrum of research that is normally needed to bolster such theories. Why that is, is beyond the scope of my current understanding. Perhaps it is best to start with Verrier’s own references and suggested reading list:


Bettelheim, B. (1987). The importance of PlayAtlantic Monthly, March 1987.

Bolby. J. (1980). Attachment and Loss (Vol. III: Loss) New York: Basic Books.

Brazelton, T. B. (1982). Pre-birth memories appear to have lasting effect. Brain/Mind Bulletin, 7(5), 2.

Chamberlain, D. (1988). Babies Remember Birth. New York: Ballantine Books.

Clothier, F. (1943). The Psychology of the Adopted Child. Mental Hygiene, 27, 222-230.

Crichton, M. (1990. Jurassic Park. New York: Ballantine Books.

Donovan, D. & McIntyre, D. (1990). Healing the Hurt Child. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Erikson, E. (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Frantz, G. (1985). Birth’s cruel secret/O I my own lost mother/to my own sad child. Chiron, 157-171.

Greenacre, P. (1953). Trauma, Growth and Personality. London: Hogarth.

Grossenbacher, F. (1984). Personal interview.

Kaplan, S., Silverstein, D., Benward, J., & Melfeld, J. (1985). Adoption: The Clinical Issues (Workshop sponsored by Parenting Resources, Tustin, CA. and Post Adoption Center for Education and Research, Berkeley, CA.

Jung, C. G. Collected Works.

Kirk  D. (1964). Share Fate. New York: Free Press.

Liedloff, J. (1975). The Continuum Concept. New York: Warner Books.

Lifton. B. J. (1975). Twice Born. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Machitiger, J. (1985). Perilous beginnings: Loss, abandonment, and transformation. Chiron, 101-129.

Maduro, R. (1985). Abandonment and deintegration of the primary self. Chiron, 131-156)

Mahler, M., Pine, F., & Bergman, A. (1975). The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant. New York: Basic Books.

Neumann, E. (1973). The Child. New York: G. P. Putnam.

Nickman, S. (1985). Losses in adoption: The need for dialogue. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 37, 365-398.

Pearce, J. C. (1977) Magical Child. New York: Bantam Books.

Richo, D. (1992). Hot to Be an Adult. New Jersey: Paulist Press.

Scarf, M. (1987). Intimate Partners. New York: Random House.

Sorosky, A., Bara, A. & Pannor, R. (1978). The Adoption Triangle. New York: Anchor Press.

Stern, D. (1985) The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York: Basic Books.

Stone, F. (1972). Adoption and identity. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 2(3), 120-128.

Taichert, L., & Harvin, D. (1975). Adoption and children with learning problems. The Western Journal of Medicine, 122(6), 464-470.

Viorst, J. (1986). Necessary Losses. New York: Ballantine Books.

Wockes, F. (1927, 1955, 1966, 1991). The Inner World of Childhood. New York: Spectrum Books.

Wieder, H. (1978). Special problems int he psychoanalysis of adopted children. In J. Glenn (Ed.), Child Analysis and Therapy, 557-577.

Winnicott, D. (1966). The Family and Individual Development. New York: Basic Books.

_____ (1974). Fear of breakdown. International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 1, 103-107.


Benzola, E. Temporary Child: A Foster Care Survivor’s Story

Blau, E. Stories of Adoption: Loss and Reunion

Rodzinsky, Schecter, & Henig. Being Adopted

Carlini, H. Birth Mother Trauma

Demuth, C. Courageous Blessing – Adoptive Parents and the Search

Estes, C. Women Who Run with the Wolves

Gediman, J. & Brown, L. BirthBond

Gunderson, T. How to Locate Anyone Anywhere

Hendrix, H. Getting the Love You Want

Herman, J. Trauma and Recovery

Jones, M.B. Birthmothers: Women Who Have Relinquished Babies for Adoption Tell Their Stories

Lerner, H. The Dance of Anger

_____ The Dance of Intimacy

Liedloff, J. The Continuum Concept

Lifton, B.J. Journey of the Dopted Self

_____ Lost and Found

McColm, M. Adoption Reunions

Melina, L. Raising Adopted Children

Melina, L. & Roszia, S. The Open Adoption Experience

Miller, A. Drama of the Gifted Child

Moore, T. Care of the Soul

Moses, S. Dear Mom, I’ve found my birthmother

Pearce, J. C. Evolution’s End

Riben, M. The Dark Side of Adoption

Richo, D. How to Be an Adult

Schaefer, C. The Other Mother

Seligman, M. Learned Optimism

Severson. R.W. Adoption: Charms and Rituals for Healing

Sexson, L. Ordinarily Sacred

Solinger, R. Wake Up Little Susie

Sorosky, Baran, & Pannor. The Adoption Triangle

Stiffler, L. Synchronicity and Reunion

Tavris, C. Anger

Verny, T. Secret Life of the Unborn Child

Viorst, J. Necessary Losses

Welch, M. Holding Time

Zweig, C. & Abrams, J. (eds.) Meeting the Shadow

To shift to my own personal experiences, I acknowledge that Verrier does go on to say,

I am suggesting that we have to understand what we are doing when we take him away from her. (13)

This is very agreeable, and an ethic that I espouse myself. So, to that end, the complications of an honest analysis of The Primal Wound arise when assessing my own journey as well as the journey of the people in my community who have been adoptees or adoptive parents. And here’s the bottom line: There simply is no clear or consistent pattern of emotional, psychological, or behavioral anomalies for which the “primal wound” is a comprehensive explanation. YET, “The Primal Wound” makes perfect sense anyway.

  • While Verrier posits that adoptive children “experience themselves as unwanted,” (p.7) I know several in my circles who simply do not feel this.
  • The issues of “loss, trust, rejection, guilt and shame, identity, intimacy, loyalty, and mastery or power and control…” (p.7) are fundamental human ailmentsnot just those tied to those who have been separated from their birth mothers.
  • “Sadness,” “anxiety,” and “depression” are also far too complicated to simply attribute these symptoms to being adopted.
  • I know plenty of adoptees who love celebrating their birthdays, despite Verrier’s theory that, “for adoptees birthdays commemorate an experience, not of joy, but one of loss and sorrow.” (p. 16)


  • …I completely agree that the “neonate is really the culmination of an amazing experience that has lasted forty weeks.” (T. B. Brazelton) (p. 1)
  • …that an unconscious wound could “lie dormant” (Betty Jean Lifton) (p.49) and erupt later in life is absolutely valid.
  • …I, an adoptee, am absolutely “preoccupied with existential concerns.” (p.102)
  • …I do agree that we have culturally neglected to consider the psychology of the pre-born baby.
  • …I know plenty of adoptees who do very well in school, rather than expending “energy and concentration away from academic pursuits” (p.141) due to a fear of abandonment.
  • …for many, “The Primal Wound” makes perfect sense.

So given that, let us consider Dr. Marcy Axness’s short paper, In Appreciation Of “The Primal Wound”For so many, this nomenclature helps to explain (make sense/meaning of) the challenges they’ve been facing their entire lives. Understanding and connecting this to the trauma of mother/child separation is not just sensical, it is profoundly and meaningfully explanatory. I resonate deeply with the idea of separation at birth being a “traumatic event,” based upon the idea that the bond between a mother and child is a “continuum of being.” (p.29) And, I don’t see any reason to doubt that this has a significant impact on the child. (Consider the website Adoptee Rage).

However, the outcomes of that trauma as laid out by Verrier do not hold up with enough consistency, or even accuracy, to warrant sufficient weight to the long-term impacts on the child. This is, in my opinion, due to a host of millions of other factors that are really hard to account for that Verrier does not sufficiently consider including, genetics, race, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and the environment of the adoptive family (For a curated list of really wonderful and telling stories, see How Does It Feel To Be Adopted). And for many, there are no experiences which would indicate the primal wound even exists.

From a spiritual/philosophical perspective, there is little to no discussion as to how faith or religion either mitigates or heals said Primal Wound, or whether and/or how it is consonant with the entire enterprise of the study of philosophy or phenomenology. (I’ll soon post my notes to The Passion of the Western Mind in which Richard Tarnas posits in his epilogue–referencing Beyond The Brain by Stanislav Grof–that the entire journey of Western philosophy is archetypically explained by the trauma of biological birth, i.e., “separation from the mother.”) In other words, does religion exist because of this wound, or has religion emerged to heal said wound. In either case, my point is simply that isolating an analysis of the Primal Wound to biological or psychological categories may be insufficient.

I’m sure there’s more swirling around in my mind on this, but I hope most of that captures the fundamentals of my critique. I wish to conclude by stating clearly that regardless of my critiques, I do believe Verrier’s work to be of grand importance to the subject and discussion around pre- and post-natal realities. I have used the phrase “primal wound” as a meaningful expression to capture the phenomena around issues of adoption. This book, and several concepts within it have most definitely been helpful in my own processes, and in my own parenting.

To that, I am deeply thankful for the read (and to my mom who shared it with me).

About VIA

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: