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When Love is Not Enough

By Susan Kuchinskas, East Bay Express, Emeryville, CA
November 28, 2007

Some traumatized orphans have brain damage that affection alone can’t heal. So therapists are seeking new ways to simulate the nurturing they didn’t get.

Claire raised her arms above her head and did a cartwheel on the balance beam. Her ten-year-old body was taut and strong, her limbs flowed like water from pose to pose in her gymnastics routine. Watching this magnificent girl, you wouldn’t suspect that she had recently used those powerful legs to kick her mom across the room because she’d told Claire to get up and go to school.

Getting to school has been a problem for Claire; she was late 54 times last year. And just the night before, she had broken the bow of her violin in a tantrum sparked by a careless remark by her dad. In fact, she’s destroyed many things, like a portable DVD player she couldn’t get to work. She’s taken scissors to her hair and clothing — and once brandished them during a play date.

Claire is a challenging child. But that shouldn’t be too surprising. She was abandoned in a market in South China when she was three weeks old, and spent the next twelve months in the municipal orphanage. “They showed us the room she lived in, maybe ten or twelve babies in little cribs,” recalled Barbara, her adoptive mother. “There were rows of small cribs with rails maybe a foot high. They didn’t let them crawl or walk, so they didn’t need to have high rails. When they put them in high chairs, they’d just sit there.”

After struggling for years to get pregnant and spending $16,000 on in-vitro fertilization, Barbara and Steven Pirelli had traveled from Oakland to China to adopt. They were drawn by nothing more than a single color snapshot. The baby they met was dirty and painfully thin: just fifteen pounds. From the waist down, she was atrophied. She couldn’t crawl, roll over, or sit up, and didn’t make eye contact. But Barbara and Steven didn’t care. “You’ve waited so long, you’re not going to say no,” Barbara said.

While the couple had been warned about what physical condition to expect, they hadn’t been prepared for Claire’s strangely detached personality. She was friendly to everyone — inappropriately so when she got older — but not especially bonded to her new parents. When she started preschool, all the other toddlers cried and clung to their parents when they were dropped off, but Claire happily ran off to the swings without a backward look.

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