Reaction to “Origins of Attachment” (part II)

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Welcome to part II of my reaction to the 2014 book Origins of Attachment co-written by Beatrice Beebe and Frank Lachmann. OK, allow me to get one of my pet peeves out of the way at the onset (as promised in part I). And this is not a reaction just to the Origins book (for short). Most all of the books I read in the area of psychology make this egregious error: They talk about high levels of trauma and at the same time rarely if ever ask the most pregnant of questions (and forgive me for the emphasis but this angers me so): “WHERE IS ALL OF THIS TRAUMA COMING FROM?” I call this the Wild Kingdom effect (after the 1960s TV show). In Wild Kingdom, one person films a scene out in the wild while another delivers a running dialog along the lines of, “Here we see a wild predator viciously attacking a defenseless fawn.” Even as a kid I used to yell at the TV, “Put down the camera and help the defenseless fawn you jerks.” And so today I do find myself reading psychology books where trauma figures prominently (i.e., the Origins book) and yelling, “Stop writing your damn book, get out of your lab or office, and identify, go out to, and confront the source of all of this trauma.” [1] I just find the Wild Kingdom effect to be so dehumanizing. And now we have kids with smartphones filming people in grave distress and not offering any help at all. Uploading these violent scenes to their Facebook pages or Instagram accounts takes precedence over being human. Allow me to stay with the Wild Kingdom effect for a moment longer.

The final section of the Origins book consists of discussants offering up their reactions to the information delivered by Beebe and Lachmann in the preceding chapters. One discussant writes: “It is postulated [in the Origins book] that given the traumatic histories of the mothers [that were studied], they come to the experience of mothering with profound anxiety, vulnerability to being triggered by their baby’s distress, and a need to self-monitor or self-regulate, placing a barrier between mother and child.” Another discussant tells us, “With the disorganized [attachment] infants, Beebe and Lachmann repeatedly note [my emphasis] that the trauma in the mothers’ histories greatly affect their ability to empathically respond to their infants.” Not once during the entire Origins book do we encounter any discussion of where all of this trauma is coming from, especially trauma directed toward mothers. As mentioned in part I, all information from the societal realm has been filtered out. This Wild Kingdom effect points out one of the huge biases expressed by the Origins book (nay, most psychology books): there is a very narrow pipeline connecting the research lab and the clinician’s office. (A large attachment conference I used to attend was called Bridging the Gap as in bridging the gap between the lab and clinical practice.) Anything that falls outside of that pipeline is assumed to not exist, which in many ways explains why trauma can be talked about in very theoretical and clinical terms and not, then, naturally lead to discussions of trauma out in the real world. The lab – clinician’s office pipeline is supported by rarefied air.

I find the Wild Kingdom effect expressed by many psychology texts to be very disconcerting. I felt this unease as I read Origins. And this brings me to my first reaction to just the Origins book: I found myself zoning out over and over. When I caught myself zoning out, I’d snap to and begin to laugh. Why? Well, within my laughter I discovered an interesting irony. Allow me to explain.

At the heat of it, Origins is about the various patterns that can develop as a mother communicates with her infant. An attuned mother (e.g., a mother who is tuned in to her infant’s nonverbal communication of head turns, facial smiles or grimaces, body twists and turns, touches, and, well, you get the picture) tracks her infant. An attuned mother will take turns communicating with her infant often allowing the infant to direct the “conversation.” Here’s the type of mock conversation that Beebe and Lachmann imagine for an attuned mother – infant pair (no need to focus on the details for now):

Overall, future secure infants and their mothers may develop a procedural representation, or internal working model, of face-to-face interactions that include the expectations that, “I [the infant] can anticipate when you [the mother] will look and look away; I know your rhythms of looking at me; I feel seen by you. I follow your feelings up and down as I feel more happy or more distressed; we go up to the top positive peak together. What I feel and what I do resonates in you.” … Mothers of future secure infants come to expect, “I [the mother] know that when I touch you [the infant] more affectionately, you will look at me and smile more. I know that moving forward and looming is hard for you, and you orient away. I know that when I move back, you come back to me.”

Isn’t that fun. According to Beebe and Lachmann, that’s the way a secure mother – infant dyad should react one to the other. And Beebe and Lachmann suggest that that is how a secure dyad consisting of two intimate lovers should go. But when I would snap to after zoning out, I’d ask myself, “Hey, what happened to the secure dyad form of communication in the author – reader dyad? What am I, chopped liver?” Again, with no disrespect intended, many parts of the Origins book droned on forcing the reader to digest large plates of minutia. I can honestly say that as I read Origins, I could feel what it must be like to be an infant in a disorganized mother – infant dyad. The information coming in was largely unintelligible because I never could get a firm hold of what was going on. Not until chapter eight do Beebe and Lachmann use a metaphor intended to ground the reader. Preceding the use of this metaphor, Beebe and Lachmann state:

In the origins of resistant attachment [the details of which are not important here], infants vigilantly coordinate their facial-visual engagement with maternal facial affect, but they inhibit their engagement coordination with maternal touch, which becomes progressively less affectionate.

That’s certainly a mouthful. Yeah, I kind of get that. But then Beebe and Lachmann deliver this metaphor, which is like a drop of rain to a man dying of thirst in the desert: “It is as if the infants have ‘one foot on the gas’ and ‘one foot on the brake.” Hallelujah, praise the metaphor gods! This metaphor allows the reader to easily grasp the next observation by Beebe and Lachmann: “They [resistantly attached infants] resist being organized by mother’s touch [e.g., they put on the brakes], but meanwhile they vigilantly follow and join her emotional state [e.g., they step on the gas].” To be fair to Beebe and Lachmann, they have eaten, breathed, and lived the data that they have painstakingly collected over the course of ten years or more. They get it intuitively, or, as they put it, at a level of nonverbal procedural knowing or action knowing. As Beebe and Lachmann point out in Origins, it is often very hard to put procedural knowing into words. Try describing how you know how to ride a bike (which is a form of procedural or action knowing).

So, I recognize the difficulty that faced Beebe and Lachmann as they tried to put their intimate knowledge of mother – infant communication patterns into words a reader could understand. They largely succeeded, but, man, there were times when reading Origins was a hard slog, a hard slog out in a desert with no metaphors in sight. One reason I like reading John Bowlby’s work (i.e., his trilogy on attachment) is because he went to great lengths to keep the reader engaged. His books on attachment often read more like a good murder mystery or “whodunnit?” I get the impression that Beebe and Lachmann were not writing for the general public. Origins was probably written with the psychoanalytic community in mind (probably so that it would fit within the Relational Perspectives framework that holds it). No worries. I’ll do my best to present Origins in a way that makes it easily accessible. I’ll even throw in a metaphor or two.

Lest I be accused of not staying attuned to my readers, I’ll end this post here and pick back up by talking about some of the great insights Beebe and Lachmann deliver concerning mother – infant communication patterns. To whet your appetite, I’ll start the next part by trying to convince you that Inner Working Models really do exist. If you do not get the concept of an Inner Working Model (which is referred to in the first quote above), then the information Beebe and Lachmann present in Origins will be hard to understand (if not impossible).

Ooops, in part I, I promised I’d tell the story of Edward Tolman and his rat maze experiments. Let me do that quickly because the Tolman story will set the stage for my discussion of Inner Working Cognitive Maps in part III. Back in 1948, Tolman published a paper entitled Cognitive Maps in Rats and Men. A copy of Tolman’s paper appears in the 1973 edited volume entitled Image & Environment—Cognitive Mapping and Spatial Behavior (Roger Downs and David Stea, eds.). Tolman was a behaviorist conducting rat maze experiments back in the 1940s: essentially making rats run through various mazes in search of cheese or some other reward. Behaviorists believe that all behavior can be reduced to simple cause and effect chains: billiard ball A hits billiard ball B which then hits billiard ball C. By putting rats in mazes behaviorists study the types of simple cause and effect chains that rats (supposedly) develop in their quest to find the cheese. Behaviorists who conduct rat maze experiments believe that the behavioral chains used by rats consist of a series of events such as, “left turn, then right turn, then another right turn, then a left turn, and then the cheese.”

While running his rat maze experiments, Tolman observed behavior in his rats he did not expect, nor would such behavior be predicted by a model consisting of simple cause and effect chains. After a few runs through the maze the rats would scale the maze walls and make a bee line for the cheese. Tolman was stunned. What were these rats doing? More importantly, how were they doing what they were doing? Long story short, Tolman developed the idea that the rats were using some type of cognitive model or map to navigate to the cheese, and that these maps developed as a result of runs through the maze. In other words, as the rats ran through the maze they were creating a cognitive map of their environment, one that would allow them to calculate a straight line from their current location to the cheese. Thus was born the idea of Inner Working Cognitive Models. [2] In addition, Tolman moved away from being a strict behaviorist because it was now clear that cause and effect chains are not enough to explain behavior in rats and in men.

I’ll talk a bit more about Tolman’s take on Inner Working Models in my next post. But let me leave you with this quote from his 1948 article as he talks about the cultural cognitive maps of men and thus moving us into the societal realm. Note his comment concerning the development of children, that children not become “too over-motivated or too frustrated” so they can develop open and flexible Inner Working Models. Sounds very Bowlbian to me:

Over and over again men are blinded by too violent motivations and too intense frustrations into blind and unintelligent and in the end desperately dangerous hates of outsiders. And the expression of these their displaced hates ranges all the way from discrimination against minorities to world conflagrations.

What in the name of Heaven and Psychology can we do about it? My only answer is to preach again the virtues of reason—of, that is, broad cognitive maps [my emphasis]. And to suggest that the child-trainers and the world-planners of the future can only, if at all, bring about the presence of the required rationality (i.e., comprehensive maps) if they see to it that nobody’s children are too over-motivated or too frustrated. Only then can these children learn to look before and after, learn to see that there are often round-about and safer paths to their quite proper goals—learn, that is, to realize that the well-beings of White and of Negro, of Catholic and of Protestant, of Christian and of Jew, of American and of Russian (and even of males and females) are mutually interdependent.


[1] I’m using the “bodies in a river” analogy here. The bodies in a river analogy is often used to describe the relationship between the various types of intervention strategies. Tertiary intervention strategies are designed to “pull bodies out of the water.” First responders are trained to “pull bodies” after some type of disaster: fire, car crash, flood, tornado, etc. Secondary intervention strategies are designed to “go up river,” that is to say, conduct research designed to understand why a particular problem occurs. Secondary intervention strategies often include disseminating information concerning the problem being looked at. All the scientific work being done in an attempt to understand global warming would be an example of secondary intervention strategies. Primary intervention strategies are designed to “confront the body throwers.” If we see a number of bodies in a river (metaphorically speaking), one would hope that someone or some entity would ask the natural question, “Who’s throwing all of these bodies in the river?” To return to the global warming example, the “going up river” process reveals that the release of greenhouse gases has contributed to the warming of the earth’s atmosphere. So, primary intervention strategies would focus on confronting the persons or groups who are releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Sadly, many people do not believe that global warming is occurring or that greenhouse gases are a problem. This points out that the educational part of secondary intervention strategies are important. This is where public intellectuals come into play. Suffice it to say that many therapists only engage in tertiary interventions: pulling bodies out of a river. Don’t get me wrong; pulling bodies is important. But there is a huge caution here: If a person or group only pulls bodies and never goes up river to confront the body throwers, then that person or group risks making the problem worse, not better. Simply, as more bodies are pulled, more bodies are thrown because the problem becomes a part of the social fabric. As therapists pull bodies with respect to trauma, then trauma becomes a part of the social fabric, it becomes part of the social background. Trauma then becomes just the way things are in society.

I learned about the river analogy while working as a volunteer at the Albuquerque Rape Crisis Center back in the 1990s. My supervisors and trainers at the Albuquerque Rape Crisis Center were very concerned that if all they did was pull bodies, sexual assault would become a part of the social fabric, the status quo, the way things are. I agree with the river philosophy, and so do many philanthropists who make grants in support of all forms of intervention strategies. Sadly, in the area of therapy, I see too much emphasis on tertiary intervention strategies and not enough emphasis on secondary and primary intervention strategies. We need more focus on what Mark Kiselica and Michelle Robinson call “advocacy counseling”: “mental health professionals [leaving] the comfort of their offices and [completing] their work in other settings” such as “the offices and meeting places of policy makers such as school board members, legislators, and government administrators.” What better way to help a client recover from trauma than for that client to see that they are not alone in the fight against the trauma producing agent. The desire to go up river and confront body throwers motivates groups like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) and events like Take Back the Night. Let us recall that John Bowlby (along with colleagues such as Donald Winnicott) actively and publicly fought against the UK’s policy of evacuating children from the cities to the countryside in an attempt to save them from the bombings taking place during WWII. Bowlby felt strongly that such potentially traumatic separations would do more harm than good in the long run.

I would suggest that the work of trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk fits within the rubric of advocacy counseling or advocacy therapy. Dr. van der Kolk co-wote the book Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society. Dr. van der Kolk (along with his colleagues) was instrumental in educating the public on PTSD and getting PTSD recognized as a diagnostic category so that people suffering from PTSD (especially military personnel) could qualify for benefits and services.

[2] I’m not sure that Tolman was the first to come up with the idea of an Inner Working Model, but he is often portrayed as the originator of the idea. If you know of an earlier example of Inner Working Models, leave a comment.