‘Baffled by Love’

Sometimes, you think you know someone or have some clues about who they are, but the truth is that you have zero, zilch, nothing. That's what I found when high-school classmate Laurie Kahn sent me an advance reader copy of her first book, Baffled by Love: Stories of the Lasting Impact of Childhood Trauma Inflicted by Loved Ones (She Writes Press, 2017). 

I remembered Laurie as that pretty, popular-with-the-cool-guys, very athletic gal who seemed so confident yet aloof--too hip for me and my supposedly smart, student government, more nerdy crowd. We seemed to have nothing in common, and I can't remember ever talking with her, except maybe at field hockey practice where I gabbed while she raced up and down the field in our short maroon outfits. 

Fast forward several years--even decades--and I heard Laurie was a therapist in the Chicago area. I even ran into her once and we exchanged basic pleasantries. I had no idea, however, of her important work and certainly what she endured growing up in our "perfect" manicured suburban New York community. But back to the book. It is a terrific read--startling for its honesty and heartache but as well for the tales of survival of her clients--described anonymously. Even Laurie who made peace with her now late mother at the end of her life, got out of an unhappy marriage, and made a very happy one. Hooray! And all this is important as a lesson that we learned too: we are never too old to fight and find new healthy lives. 

For more of the back story, Laurie holds several degrees--a MA, LCPC, MFA and is a pioneer in the field of trauma treatment. For more than 30 years, she has specialized in the treatment of survivors of childhood abuse. In 1980, she founded Womencare Counseling and Training Center. Since then, her ideas and expertise have served both people who have experienced childhood abuse and hundreds of clinicians who have graduated from her Trauma Consultation Training Program. Her most salient contribution to the field is the concept of child abuse as specifically a traumatic experience of love. Kahn’s personal essays have been published in anthologies, and her articles and book reviews in professional journals. She lives in Evanston, Illinois, where Northwestern University is located with her husband, Michael, a professor, and her labradoodle, Kali. 


In the following book excerpt, Laurie writes about betrayal blindness, a concept I had never heard about but which makes so much perfect sense: 

“Little Red Riding Hood is a wonderful example of the dynamics of betrayal blindness. Red lives on the edge of the forest. Her mother tells her to take a basket of food to her ailing grandmother, and warns her to stay on the path and not talk to strangers. As she skips through the forest, she meets the Big Bad Wolf. 

'Where are you going, little girl?' asks the wolf.

'To my grandmother's house,' she answers. 

This is when I start wondering what's up with her danger detector. Are there really friendly wolves in the forest? I don't think so. 'Get help!' I want to scream. 'Don't talk to wolves!' This is also how I often feel with my clients who have damaged danger detectors. They ignore warning signs and do not recognize seedy characters. 

Little Red Riding Hood then tells the wolf where her grandmother lives. 'Mistake! Don't tell a wolf where your grandmother lives,' I think. And then comes a truly mind-boggling display of betrayal blindness. She arrives at her grandmother's house to  find the wolf pretending to be granny and does not run straight out the door. 

'Oh, grandmother,' Little Red Riding Hood says to the wolf. 'What a deep voice you have!' And then, 'What big eyes you have!' and 'What big hands you have!' 

Here's the problem: Little Red Riding Hood and others with betrayal trauma are unable to scream, run for the door, or call 911 because they need to maintain a relationship with someone they cannot escape. They are under the spell of someone who hurts them. Their inability to assess danger and summon appropriate self-protective responses puts them in peril This is the spell of dissociation. 

Why is Little Red Riding Hood walking the forest by herself? Does her mother ignore the existence of wolves and other dangerous beasts? Can Red acknowledge that her mother has put her in harm's way? And why is Red's father absent from the story? Are they pretending Red has a perfect childhood? Is that how Red became blind to danger and unable to distinguish a nice man from a beast? Perhaps, this is how she learned to ignore the dangers of sharp teeth and hands that paw at her. 

One of the cruelest truths about childhood traumas is the way it revisits its victims when they are adults. People who are victimized as children are more likely to be victims of domestic violence or to be sexually assaulted as adults. This is a consequence I believe, of a child's traumatic experience of love. When trauma is not healed, when it remains outside of awareness, it drives the traumatized person to recreate the very condition that caused the wound. The trauma repeats, with tragic outcomes that baffle my clients. 

A romantic notion I detest is that ‘love is blind.’ Love created with our eyes fully open and our past understood has a better chance of enduring, and of sustaining and enriching our spirits. In this way, another adage, ‘The truth will set you free,’ applies. But what my clients and I know is that the truth is also dreadfully painful.” 

Read more of the book. It's out now! The stories within and lessons learned will make you be happy devoted therapists like Laurie exist.

1 comment

  • Laurie Kahn

    Re connecting with you has been such a blessing. Thank you for this lovely piece.

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