An Op-Ed About Forgetting

A few weeks ago my colleague Wendy Selene and I collaborated on a piece we hoped to get published as an op-ed in one of our local papers.  Since we haven’t received any word from them,  I’m putting it out here, before it’s forgotten.



As psychoanalysts and mental health providers, we have had many occasions to observe that one of our greatest capabilities as human beings is our capacity to forget. While this has some enormous advantages (e.g; the experience of childbirth), the disadvantages can be disastrous for us as individuals and as a society. Take, for example, the experience of what it was like to be a terrified child. How could anyone who remembered the vulnerability and fears of losing a parent permit themselves to be party to a policy that requires inflicting such harm on the children of others?

As of this writing it is  estimated that over  2,342 children have been separated from 2,206 parents at the US-Mexico border since May 5 as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting people who cross the border illegally. The Tribune reported on Saturday that 66 migrant youths are being housed in Chicago.

From what we’ve come to understand, the departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement do not have a record-keeping system able to track the whereabouts of parents and their separated children. In some cases the children are moved in the dead of night to places unknown to the general public. Many of these children, and many of these parents, may wonder whether they will see each other again.

There is an extensive literature, universally accepted by health care professionals, that childhood suffering is a major contributor to mental health issues later in life.  In War and Children, a study by Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham during the evacuation of children from London during WWII,  the authors described how children removed from their parents to ensure their physical well being  suffered from psychological damage due to the very act of being taken away. A study by Rusby and Tasker of the long-term effects on the British evacuation showed that those who had poor foster care experiences had greater risk of lifelong depression, anxiety and self-criticism.

Sheldon Bach, a psychologist and psychoanalyst, emphasizes that a young age, it is our ability to see, smell, hear and touch our parent figures that assures us they exist.  Bach points to how a child’s sustaining memories of a parent are dependent on the child’s conviction that he or she is on the parent’s mind and present in the parent’s memory.  Protracted separations in early childhood destroy the bond between parent and child. After a short time of painful yearning the child will forget the parent, because he or she must forget in order to survive. He compares memories to beads on a necklace that represent the parents continued existence. Without their presence, the necklace seems to break, and what was once a pattern representing the knowledge of being loved and cherished is now just individual beads rolling on the floor. Trauma disrupts a sense of continuity.

In our own clinical practices we have witnessed again and again the later life sequelae of traumatic separation in our adult patients. Such sequelae include problems connecting with and establishing relationships with other human beings. Traumatic separation is consistent associated with the anxiety that  has become  so prevalent in our society.

With the stroke of a pen, President Trump declared that he was ending his policy of separating immigrant families.  Perhaps he hoped that this would put the issue out of our minds. But there is damage that has been done and needs undoing. This is not only a matter of morals and mental health.  It is a matter of national identity. If we allow ourselves to forget about these children we are become accomplices in creating an America that is unrecognizable to many of us, and we run the risk of forgetting who we once were.


Wendy Selene LCSW Director of Continuing Education

Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute

Neal Spira, MD

Dean Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute




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