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317: Unconditional Love

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Prologue

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And let's head back in time-- back to when being on TV meant you sort of half-shouted every single thing you said.

Harry Harlow

This is the primate laboratory at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Ira Glass

The year is 1960.

Harry Harlow

In this laboratory, there are approximately 120 rhesus monkeys-- the subject of a study that wants to know the answer to the question, what is an infant's love for its mother?

Ira Glass

Now, the reason there even was a study asking this very basic question, back when CBS Television took a camera crew to Wisconsin-- well, that is actually the kind of thing that most of us today would find sort of surprising. You see, the researcher that they're filming-- a guy named Harry Harlow, was trying to prove-- I know this is going to sound crazy-- he was trying to prove that love is an important thing that happens between parents and children.

And the reason why he felt the need to prove this point was, at the time-- and, again, I know this is going to sound kind of out there-- the psychological establishment, pediatricians, even the federal government were all saying exactly the opposite of that to parents.

Deborah Blum

It's actually one of those things that you say, how could they have thought that? But psychology just didn't believe in love. And if you go back and you pull any of the psychology textbooks, really almost pre-1950, you don't even find it in the index because it was not a word that was used.

Ira Glass

This is Deborah Blum, the biographer of this renegade researcher, Harry Harlow. She writes about how psychologists at the time actually saw loving behavior towards children as a problem, a menace. At one point, the head of the American Psychological Association declared, "When you're tempted to pet your child, remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument."

Deborah Blum

Yeah, that was John Watson. And he actually said there are serious rocks ahead for the over-kissed child, and then defined over-kissing as kissing your child more than once a year.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Deborah Blum

I mean, that was the message of almost everything.

Ira Glass

Yeah. At some point, there are government pamphlets, you write, that are warning parents not to touch their children, and you quote some. One says, "Never kiss a baby, especially on the mouth. Don't rock or play with children."

Deborah Blum

Yeah. Not to say that everyone follows what so-called experts do, right? But, certainly, you had an enormous effect of this affection is wrong, love isn't real-- trust us, we're scientists-- that greatly shaped those kind of perceptions.

Ira Glass

How is this possible? Well, first of all, psychology was still pretty young, and psychologists hadn't figured out how to measure love, how to quantify it, talk about it in a scientific way. So the thinking about love's role was incredibly crude.

And at the same time-- this is all at the beginning of the early 20th century-- medicine was still figuring out how bacteria spread infections. And pediatricians had noticed that, in hospitals, the kids who were picked up a lot by nurses seemed to get more infections.

Deborah Blum

So doctors were saying, don't pick up your child, don't pick up your child, don't pick up your child. So you had a kind of confluence going there. You had pediatricians saying, we're telling you for health reasons that you should never cuddle your child or indulge them. And guess what? Psychology says if you follow those rules, if you show your child no affection, you will make them a better human being. So back off.

Ira Glass

And this is the way it was for decades, until about the 1940s. Health care workers started to notice that some children in hospitals, in orphanages, who were treated this way never picked up, never loved, would wither and die-- literally die. But even this did not change the opinion of the psychological establishment.

So enter Harry Harlow. He sets out to prove that love is important-- in fact, love is a key to normal development in children-- and that what bonds babies and mothers is more than just the baby's need for food.

Harry Harlow

Now this is what we tried. The responses of the baby monkey are very similar to those of the human babies.

Ira Glass

This is Harry Harlow on CBS in 1960. In the cage with the baby monkey are two dolls.

Harry Harlow

We constructed two substitute mothers. They have absolute patience. They are available 24 hours a day. The mother hits the baby with love.

Deborah Blum

What he did is he gave them two alternative dummy mothers. One was a wire mother with an ugly face, and one was a cloth mother. She had sort of a fluffy terry cloth body.

Harry Harlow

These are the only mothers these babies ever had.

Deborah Blum

And in the simplest experiment, baby monkey would be put in a cage with both mothers, but wire mother had the milk. So by all the theories, the baby should bond to wire mother, because she's feeding him.

Harry Harlow

Here's Baby 106. Watch.

Ira Glass

The little baby monkey-- which, by the way, is the most insanely cute thing you have ever seen-- scampers under the wire mother, which is like a wire, mesh cylinder with a boxy head and eyes, apparently made from a billiard ball. The monkey sucks from a bottle that comes out of its chest, and then it runs to cuddle with the other mother.

Harry Harlow

Oh, he's going back. He's back on the cloth mother, and he'll stay on the cloth mother. Actually, this baby spends 17 to 18 hours a day on the cloth mother, and less than one hour a day on the wire mother.

Ira Glass

The monkey rubs itself against the cloth doll until it seems to get some solace from it, and then it relaxes. In other experiments, it comes back to the cloth doll for reassurance when it's put into scary situations. When the cloth mom is nearby, the baby is curious. It walks around and explores. It's confident.

And this is how Harlow proved that the relationship between mother and child is more than just about getting food. The baby monkeys needed something else, something that had to do with being cuddled and touched and reassured.

Deborah Blum

It was clear that in this sort of cuddly feeling of affection came all kinds of really important developmental responses. You know, security, curiosity is essential or more essential than being fed.

One of the other Harlow experiments was one in which they took nice, cuddly, ever welcoming cloth mother, and they made her into an abusive mother or a rejecting mother. Harlow called these evil mothers. One of the cloth moms had brass spikes embedded that would shoot out when the baby monkey held on. I mean, they were blunt tipped. It didn't cut them to shreds but they hurt. And one was like a shaking mom.

Harlow wrote very graphically. He said the babies would be shaken till their teeth and bones rattled in unison. And one would just hurl the baby away. It was spring loaded.

But what they found was that when the mom quit-- spikes retracted or shaking stopped-- the babies came back and they did everything they could to make those mothers love them again. And then they cooed and they stroked and they'd groom and they'd flirt, and exactly what human babies do with their moms.

And they would abandon their friends. They had to fix this relationship. It was so important to them.

Ira Glass

Harlow spent years as an outcast, fighting for his ideas, before things finally changed. Though Harlow, he did so much to convince people that a parent's love for a child is one of the most important things that anyone could ever get or need, he did not have so much success with the love in his own life. He was notoriously cold.

Deborah Blum

He had a wicked tongue and everyone lived a little bit in fear of it. He was not at all a warm and fuzzy person, and he certainly wasn't a warm and fuzzy father. He had four children by two different marriages. Almost all of them, his children-- the ones I talked to-- remember him as being gone.

Ira Glass

Was he self aware enough to actually understand how publicly he loved the idea of love, but in his private life he wasn't carrying it out?

Deborah Blum

I don't think he was maybe until the end of his life. And he had difficulty in a lot of relationships.

Ira Glass

In a way, of course, who else would be so interested in how does love work, except for somebody who really needs to figure it out? Well, today on our program, stories of unconditional love. If you can get a monkey to love a terry cloth towel with a cue ball on its head, it doesn't seem like it should be so hard with your own kids, right?

We have two stories today of parents and children, and exactly what unconditional love gets you. We first ran today's show all the way back in 2006. Act One of our show, Love is a Battlefield. Act Two, Hit Me With Your Best Shot. Stay with us.

Act One: Love Is A Battlefield

Ira Glass

Act One-- Love is a Battlefield. In this act, a family faces a kind of profound question. Can you teach love, even to a child who has all sorts of reasons not to learn love? Alix Spiegel has this story.

Alix Spiegel

Until he was seven years old, Daniel Solomon slept sitting up. This wasn't because upright was a particularly comfortable position or because some exotic medical condition prevented him from straightening at the waist. It was just because Daniel didn't have another option. For the first seven years of his life, he lived in a crib in an orphanage in Romania with another child his age.

Daniel Solomon

His name was Niku, and he was more a shy kid. He didn't really talk much. And, I mean, it was kind of weird but it was fun to have him in there. It was-- I don't know what we even did, but we were there for seven and a half years and we got along, I guess.

Alix Spiegel

During the day, one set of adults would feed and clean Daniel, Niku, and the other 100 or so orphans who lived in the same room. During the night, there was a graveyard crew. But even though Daniel was there for seven and a half years, he can't tell you the name of any of the adults who took care of him. He didn't know any of them well enough to say.

He also can't tell you much about how he passed his time, what he thought about. He didn't go to school. He didn't go outside. He only left his crib to eat and go to the bathroom, so there wasn't a lot of material to draw from.

Daniel Solomon

There was one window where you could see the city. And I don't remember exactly when I started thinking about it, but you kind of started to think about, like, what is that? I know you'd see all these car lights and all the lights in the city. And I think I started thinking about, like, what is that and why am I here, not there?

Alix Spiegel

One thing Daniel does remember is that he didn't spend a lot of his time yearning for a family, imagining some mother and father would drop from the sky to rescue him.

Daniel Solomon

No. I've seen several kids who had left and I'd wondered where they were going. But if I knew about it, I would have wondered, obviously, but you didn't know anything about it. It's like, a kid who never eats chocolate doesn't know what chocolate tastes like. I didn't know what a family was, and I didn't think I really thought about it at all.

Alix Spiegel

In fact, the story of how Daniel came to have a family, whether or not he actually wanted one, begins with a kind of accident. His mother-- or anyway, the woman who would become his mother, Heidi Solomon-- got a magazine in the mail from the adoption agency that was in the process of evaluating whether she and her husband were fit to have children.

Heidi Solomon

We were just in the beginning of our home study when we got a magazine, and it had his picture in it. And I don't really know how, because there was hundreds of pictures of kids. And I just remember telling my husband, I'm like, I think this is our son. So it was just kind of weird. Like, for some reason, his picture just, like, radiated to me.

Alix Spiegel

Five months later, Heidi and her husband, Rick, drove from their home in South Euclid, Ohio, to the Cleveland Airport, and took an eight hour flight to Romania to pick up their new son. Heidi is a special education teacher by profession. And she says that she felt certain ever since she was a kid herself that she wanted to adopt children-- wanted to even though she knew that adoption could be difficult, that the kid might have developmental problems or emotional problems or physical problems, or all three.

Heidi believes strongly that people should do what they're capable of, and she says she felt capable of adopting a child. Rick, on the other hand, had started with a more conventional fantasy, that he would have biological children. But Rick loved his wife. And so even though it hadn't been part of his original plan, he agreed. And he says that when he and Heidi finally walked off the plane in Romania and saw the dark haired child dancing on the airport ramp, he felt certain that he and his wife had made the right choice.

Rick Solomon

You know, he was just this bouncy, smiling child who was so excited, appeared to be bright eyed and happy and happy to see us. And I think my biggest fear going in was, like, he's just going to turn his back on us and we're going to really have to fight to get his love and attention. And he was not like that at all, at least initially.

Alix Spiegel

The family's early weeks back in Ohio were full of firsts-- the first time Daniel wore shoes, the first time Daniel slept alone in a bed. They played, and danced, and worked on English. And even though Daniel had some difficult moments, tantrums and fits of crying, both Heidi and Rick will tell you that, on the whole, the family had a good time.

This honeymoon, however, only lasted about six months. And then, Heidi says, came March.

Heidi Solomon

Until March, I think it was moving in a manageable direction. Like, there were tantrums, but there was progress, and there was tantrums and progress. And then his birthday is in March. And I remember at the beginning of March he said, they don't have March in Romania because I never had a birthday before. So this whole idea of a birthday was really overwhelming to him.

Rick Solomon

And March came around-- like, that's when I started thinking, like, about the biological thing.

Alix Spiegel

You see, until his eighth birthday, Daniel had never confronted the idea that he had been born, and therefore that he had actual parents, people who could have, had they elected to, provided a birthday party at some point before his eighth year of life.

This whole concept deeply disturbed him. And even though Heidi did her best to explain the difference between biological and adoptive families, it seems that Daniel didn't get it because he walked away from that conversation fundamentally confused about his relationship to Heidi and Rick.

Daniel Solomon

I started thinking that they were my biological parents, and how-- I was really mad at them that they put me there for seven and a half years, and then came and got me, like what happened. Like, why was I there for that long, and what was going on? And that's kind of, I guess, when all hell broke loose.

Alix Spiegel

During this period, Daniel conceived a powerful hatred of his parents-- a deep anger that he couldn't shake, even after the difference between biological and adoptive parents had been explained again and again, and his actual relationship to Heidi and Rick became clear. At that point, it just didn't matter. His anger had taken on a logic of its own.

Once he learned about the idea of parents and what his had done to him, he needed to hate someone and Heidi and Rick were the people closest at hand. And so his tantrums became tornadoes of rage-- seven, eight hour marathons where he would throw literally anything he could get his hands on. Rick and Heidi say that he put more than 1,000 holes in the walls of his room until, finally, they had to move everything out of his bedroom except a mattress.

They called in professional social workers and specialists, several of whom left bleeding, needing medical attention. Remember, Daniel was eight. But, really, Daniel saved the worst of it for Heidi, the person who most wanted to help him. He hated her, appeared to take actual pleasure in her pain.

Heidi Solomon

Like, one time, he gave me a black eye when I was trying to help him. And he smiled like he was so happy that he gave me a black eye.

Alix Spiegel

And what did you think when you saw your son smiling after you--

Heidi Solomon

I thought he really needs serious help, and he's very disturbing.

Daniel Solomon

There was a time where I remember my dad had hired this person to come to our house because my mom didn't feel safe with me in the house.

Alix Spiegel

Did you get that? They essentially had to hire a bodyguard. And even so, Heidi found herself calling the police several times a month, until Heidi and Rick turned to the mental health profession. They ferried Daniel from one psychiatrist to another, and religiously followed their advice.

One man told them to put Daniel on medication, pills for ADHD, which greatly improved Daniel's handwriting, but otherwise didn't do much to help. Another woman counseled them to buy Daniel a puppy. This also didn't work out so well.

Heidi Solomon

Like, in three days, he was strangling the puppy.

Alix Spiegel

Heidi was told by at least two psychiatrists that her son would never love her, that she should give him up to foster care. Worse, the situation with Daniel began to affect Heidi's marriage to Rick.

Heidi Solomon

It was just so hard on him emotionally, dealing with this kid who made no sense at all. I mean, and I will tell you it put our marriage on the line. I mean, there were times when he said, I'm leaving.

Rick Solomon

Looking back now, I just-- I didn't want to take that step, but I certainly thought about it, just because I was so unhappy with the whole situation. Yeah. I thought about leaving.

Alix Spiegel

But Heidi wouldn't give up on Daniel. Changing her son became a kind of singular focus, an idea that obscured all other considerations.

Heidi Solomon

I mean, one time a case manager sat down and said, this is what I think's going to happen. Daniel's going to hurt you. You're going to be in the hospital. He'll be in juvenile detention, and your husband's going to leave you. Like, I remember that very clearly.

And I looked at him. I said, does this mean we hit bottom, and we can start moving up now? Like-- I mean, I'm like, that was just my response. I'm like, OK, that's your thing. Like, what do we need to do to get better? Like, I understand what the situation is.

Alix Spiegel

I mean, would you have sacrificed your marriage?

Heidi Solomon

I didn't want to.

Alix Spiegel

The portrait that you're painting is you had to take everything out of his room. At a certain point, you kind of hired a bodyguard. It put a strain on your marriage. You called the police regularly. I mean--

Heidi Solomon

I know, like, when you're saying it, and I said-- I mean, I feel like, OK, like, I'm crazy, when you say everything in that list. It's not like I was with the bodyguard and I'm thinking, like, wow, last week-- I wasn't, like, always putting everything together in a list like that. And just, like, this is the way our life was so I just did it. I mean, I'm, like, a really stubborn person.

Alix Spiegel

Then one day after school, when Heidi was busy making a snack for Daniel in the kitchen, he grabbed a knife from the counter and held it to Heidi's throat. No one in the family likes to talk about this episode. It clearly frightened both of them. The only thing Heidi's comfortable saying about it now is that the experience convinced her to reconsider the way she went about Daniel's education.

Heidi Solomon

I stopped doing any kind of tutoring with him at all for a long time. Because I said, I don't want him to learn how to read. Because-- this was around the time when Columbine happened, and I was like, it's really good that he can't get any information on his own.

Alix Spiegel

Did you feel like Daniel was homicidal at any point?

Heidi Solomon

Well, I was told he was homicidal.

Alix Spiegel

How do you love somebody who is homicidal?

Heidi Solomon

Well, because he wasn't-- I mean, even-- because he was my son. I mean, you have to love him or else there's no way out of it. You know, it's like if you're lost, you want to keep moving forward, to get to the end place. Like, I don't think I ever question my love.

Alix Spiegel

Heidi says the only time she did question whether or not she should keep Daniel was when she thought about the possibility of Daniel hurting someone else-- a fear that became more pronounced in the wake of an outside incident that happened around Daniel's 10th birthday. By that point, Daniel had been given the diagnosis attachment disorder, meaning his primary problem was that he was unable to feel connected to other people.

Heidi knew another kid who had been diagnosed with attachment disorder. She'd met him through her work, and had been so impressed with him that she actually asked the kid, who was slightly older than Daniel, to be his Big Brother.

Heidi Solomon

I thought he was doing really well. Like, he had been featured in the newspaper. He, like, delivered Meals on Wheels. And then it was, like, President's Weekend of 2000, he committed murder. Like, I mean, he came home and just sat down on his parents' couch that night after, like, cold blooded murder, without any emotion at all. Like, and I think I had seen him the day before.

I mean, it was horrifying in many levels. Like, I'd worked with this kid. It was, like, and that whole professional level, but it was horrifying to me personally. Because I was like, oh, my god, here was a kid with attachment disorder that I thought was doing better, and this is how sick he really is. I was like, I will never be comfortable with Daniel.

Alix Spiegel

Heidi was coming to believe something that frightened her. She was coming to believe that because kids with attachment disorder couldn't connect to other people, they couldn't feel empathy. And without empathy, they didn't possess a really important human quality.

Heidi Solomon

The bottom line is these people-- like, people with attachment disorder, they don't develop a conscience, and they have the ability to hurt other people without feeling guilty. Like, that's really dangerous.

Alix Spiegel

Heidi wanted her son to have a conscience. She didn't want him to be dangerous. And so she began to call around to find out more about aggressive treatments for the problem. The treatment of attachment disorder has a long and controversial history-- such a controversial history that many of the people who practice versions of the therapy decline to use its name.

It was started in the mid '70s by a psychiatrist named Foster Cline, who felt that children who acted out because of an inability to connect to their parents should be forcibly regressed, made to feel helpless and hopeless so they'd return to a baby-like dependence. Early versions of the therapy involved berating children, poking them, and physically subduing them by holding them down.

Therapists would sometimes direct profanity at a child, and also have the child direct profanity at them. Cline himself acknowledged that this was so harsh it was often difficult even for professionals to watch. But when outsiders criticized the treatment as sadistic, Cline responded that, quote, "These children need the kind of love that forces them to love others."

After the '70s, though, the therapy changed substantially, particularly after a couple of children died from being smothered in blankets. And by the time Heidi started hunting for something to help Daniel, most of the extreme methods of attachment therapy had been abandoned. So when Heidi heard about a doctor in Virginia who appeared to have had some success with a highly intensive program related to attachment therapy, she leaped at the opportunity.

According to the doctor, Ronald Federici, mother and child needed to spend several months side by side, literally no farther than 3 feet apart.

Heidi Solomon

The goal of his plan is to try to recreate the bond that never occurred, because I wasn't with him when he was born. But it'd be very natural for a newborn baby to spend an extended amount of time just next to the mom, until you're trying to recreate that attachment. So Daniel and I were like three feet apart for about eight weeks.

Daniel Solomon

I didn't go to school. She stopped her job. When she would go to the bathroom, I would be right outside the door. When I went to the bathroom, she'd be right outside the door. The only time she was not next to me was when I was sleeping. Like, literally, that was it.

Alix Spiegel

But it wasn't just being side by side. There were other elements to the program, like eye contact. Federici felt that because mothers and their babies spent a large amount of time just staring into each other's eyes, it was important for Heidi and Daniel to do the same. Daniel was required to look into Heidi's eyes during every interaction they had, and neither of them were allowed to move onto the next activity until Daniel did it correctly.

Heidi Solomon

Like, if I was talking to him, I would keep repeating what I was saying until he made correct eye contact. Like, I remember one time we spent, like, 20 minutes him handing me a notebook. Part of it, also, is he is not allowed to ask for anything. He couldn't ask-- because babies don't ask for anything.

They learn that they're going to have their needs provided for them. So it's not that he couldn't have a treat or he couldn't have every-- he just couldn't ask. Like, we went to the store, could not ask for anything, because he had to learn that I was going to provide for him what he needed.

Alix Spiegel

Predictably, Daniel resisted the program.

Daniel Solomon

Oh, I hated it. I totally, absolutely hated it. Yeah, I did every single thing not to do it.

Alix Spiegel

Problem was every time Daniel resisted treatment, he was subjected to yet another program-dictated activity-- time-ins, the alternative universe version of time-outs. The idea is that since kids with attachment disorder prefer to be alone, every time they do something bad the response should be to make them spend even more time, even closer together.

Heidi Solomon

Like, we would sit on the couch and I would hug him. That was, like, his punishment.

Alix Spiegel

Like he said, at first Daniel hated the treatment. And at least initially, his behavior actually deteriorated. But then something happened.

Daniel Solomon

I think it was around the third week that I actually-- like, I was with her more. I think I realized that she's not as bad as I thought she was. I think this is kind of when it kind of changed.

Like, I didn't have as much time to hate her, I guess. And so, like, I kind of liked her a little more. Like, before, like, she would tell me not to do this. Then for, like, 45 minutes, I would hate her because she told me not to do this.

Well, you know, there wasn't a time where I could kind of, like, go somewhere else and hate her. I was next to her. I had to live with her, whether I liked her or not. I don't know. It's just something changed.

Alix Spiegel

Daniel says he actually came to understand, maybe for the first time, that his mother loved him. The realization just dawned on him in a different way.

Both Heidi and Daniel will say that after eight weeks, Daniel was cured of his violent behavior. It was gone, done. No more tantrums, no more throwing, no more threats. But there were still problems. Instead of acting out against his parents, Daniel started stealing-- at first, just small items from the local store, but it got worse.

After one particularly bad episode, where Daniel nearly ended up in juvie, Heidi decided it was time to go back to therapy. There was a center near their home called The Attachment and Bonding Center run by a guy named Greg Keck. Keck proposed a program that was in some ways similar to the three feet plan.

In addition to regular counseling, Daniel, who was now 13 and larger than his mother, would participate in holding therapy. That is, every night for a year, 20 minutes a night, Daniel, Heidi, and Rick were supposed to hold on to each other and talk, Rick and Heidi cradling Daniel like a newborn child, which is exactly what they did.

Heidi Solomon

I would-- even know he was really big, I would try to cradle him on my lap. Or it was really both Rick and I, because he would take up both of our laps. And I would look into his eyes the same way you would with a baby, and you make eye contact. And we would feed him with a spoon, ice cream. That's what we'd have to do to get him to-- because he liked ice cream.

Daniel Solomon

It definitely feels really weird. It's like, what is this?

Alix Spiegel

How did that, like, change the way you felt about them?

Daniel Solomon

Well, it's like they were feeding me ice cream. So I was like, OK, fine. But, like, it was like-- that's when I actually first started to be able to talk about what I was feeling.

Alix Spiegel

For the first time, Daniel really talked about his experience in the orphanage, opened himself up. And maybe it was the holding, and maybe it was the fact that The Attachment and Bonding Center gave Daniel a therapist he says he actually trusted, who led him through the process, but for one reason or another Daniel began to transform.

There wasn't a specific moment anyone can point to. If Daniel had gone bad in one month, the going good was a lot more gradual. Without anyone quite noticing, he began to help around the house. They were able to move furniture back into his room. He started to make friends his own age.

By that point, the rabbi of their synagogue called Heidi to tell her that Daniel had won something called the Brickner Award. The Brickner is given to the valedictorian of the confirmation class, and it's a huge honor for anyone. But in the case of Daniel, it had particular weight.

Heidi had taken Daniel to synagogue initially because she thought that it would help him to develop morals, but the training didn't take. Daniel spent several years being removed from the temple in police cars. At one point, he was actually banned from going to services. So as far as everyone, including Daniel, was concerned, the fact that he got the honor constituted a minor miracle.

One element of the award is that the winner gets to make a speech in front of the entire congregation. And Daniel told Heidi and Rick that he wanted them to think of his speech as a gift. And so when Daniel took the stage, the whole family was there.

Daniel Solomon

I spent my first half of my childhood in an orphanage in Romania. So for those years, I had no family, no love, no fun, no music, and no toys.

Alix Spiegel

Daniel talked about his early life, and all the trouble he'd gone through since. And during most of the talk, he was smooth and composed. But then he got to the end, and even from the audience it was clear that Daniel was shaking, struggling to keep his voice under control.

Daniel Solomon

Before I finish, I'd like to thank two people, my mom and dad. The reason that I'm here today and the kind of person I am today is because of you. Mom, never thank you enough for all the places you have taken me to. Even when I absolutely refused to go, I somehow had fun when I got there. Dad, you're one heck of a guy to put up with a crazy family like this. You guys are both amazing. I love you very much.

Alix Spiegel

It was, Heidi says, without doubt the most spectacular moment of her life. The question of whether or not it's possible to teach love is not an academic one. There are plenty of people who will face this issue. Adoption these days is on the rise. Most of these children will be fine, but some of them won't.

And at least on its face, the story of Heidi and Rick and Daniel seems to offer an encouraging example. Heidi and Rick were able to take a seven-year-old with no direct experience of adult affection and, with a certain amount of pain and suffering, turned him into a loving son. The only problem is that the actual participants in this story see things differently.

Alix Spiegel

Do you feel like you can teach love?

Heidi Solomon

No.

Alix Spiegel

See, Heidi actually has a very humble view of what is and is not possible, what should and should not be expected as far as love is concerned. In fact, she tells me that, in her own mind, what she wanted from Daniel all along was very, very modest.

Heidi Solomon

I don't think the goal was ever love. The goal was attachment.

Alix Spiegel

Do you feel like you can teach attachment?

Heidi Solomon

I mean, I think you can work really hard to create an environment where you can form attachment. You want to create these situations where it's more advantageous for them to attach than to keep doing things their own way and being in their own world, isolated.

Alix Spiegel

Heidi seems utterly practical about the whole thing, even about whether or not her son now loves her.

Alix Spiegel

Do you feel loved by Daniel?

Heidi Solomon

Yeah. I feel loved by Daniel.

Alix Spiegel

Like, in a way that you--

Heidi Solomon

Like, I don't think he wants to hurt me. I don't, like, worry about that at all.

Alix Spiegel

"I don't think he wants to hurt me. I don't worry about that at all." It's a very unsentimental view of her relationship with her child, but that is probably exactly what has made Heidi so successful.

That is, Heidi is an unusually pragmatic person. She's not a flowering earth mother with a wealth of love to give. She is fundamentally realistic, tough minded, and these are precisely the characteristics that are needed in this situation.

If you're the kind of person who actually needs love-- really needs love-- chances are, you're not the kind of person who's going to have the wherewithal to create it. Creating love is not for the soft and sentimental among us. Love is a tough business.

Ira Glass

Alix Spiegel-- she's the co-host of Invisibilia, a show on NPR about human behavior. Season 5 of Invisibilia starts this weekend. Find it wherever you get your podcasts.

[MUSIC - "LOVELESS TOWN" BY SARAH BLUSTER]

Coming up, another story that's going to make your job as a parent seem way easier than you felt about it at the beginning of this hour. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show-- unconditional love, stories of parents and kids and how hard love can be sometimes in daily practice.

Today show was first broadcast in 2006.

Act Two: Hit Me With Your Best Shot

Ira Glass

We've arrived at Act Two of our program. After a bunch of cases where parents of autistic children murdered their own kids, a parent named Cammie McGovern wrote an editorial in the New York Times about all the pressure that she and other parents of autistic kids feel. They hear about these amazing success stories where kids end up at Brown, at Harvard.

But those kinds of recoveries can't happen for every kid. This is the nature of autism. "In mythologizing recovery," she wrote, "I fear we've set an impossibly high bar that's left the parents of a half million autistic children feeling like failures."

For these parents, the regular parenting rulebook is out the window. There are all these different kinds of treatments. They worry about doing every possible thing. Dave Royko's son was diagnosed with autism at the age of two.

Things have gotten harder and harder over the years, and he and his wife recently had to make a decision. They had to decide whether or not to place her son in a facility for the rest of his childhood. Here he is.

Dave Royko

People say all kinds of things to me and my wife, as parents of an autistic son. And they mean well.

Karen Royko

People would sometimes say to me in public or in therapy waiting rooms-- there's a lot of interaction with parents and they would say, oh, you're a Saint. And I would just think, well, Jesus Christ, what am I supposed to? Beat the [BLEEP] out of him?

Dave Royko

Yeah.

Karen Royko

What else would you do? Well, we have to take a lot of anti-depressants. That helps, but--

Dave Royko

Yeah. God bless medication.

Karen Royko

Yeah.

Dave Royko

People would often say, I couldn't do what you're doing. And I mean, I know some people would say that-- I mean, it's really a compliment. But sometimes they'll feel like yes, you would do--

Karen Royko

Right. You would rise--

Dave Royko

Unless you're really a [BLEEP] person and not cut out to be a parent, you would be doing the same thing. The only difference is we have to do it.

Karen Royko

Right.

Dave Royko

And so don't-- and it always felt like a little whiff of this crap, like God never gives you more than you can handle.

Karen Royko

Right. You just want to kick those people in the teeth, don't you?

Dave Royko

That sounds harsh. Here's what it's like for us. On a typical day, our son, Ben, empties the contents of cereal boxes and egg cartons onto the floor. He opens car doors while we're driving. He walks into traffic. He throws himself up against the sliding glass door in our den. Luckily he's never smashed through, though he has put his hand through the windows in his room.

And by the time Ben was 12, he was nearly six feet tall and 250 pounds, a toddler in a giant's body. He dwarfed everyone in our house but me, which is why my wife, Karen's, arms are covered with bruises, scratches, and scars. I've come to call the various wounds he inflicts, "Ben-juries."

Almost daily, we experience things that other parents would recount for the rest of their lives as their biggest parenting horror story. Recently, Karen found herself in a toy store with Ben. The store owner complained about Ben's behavior. He looked her right in the eye and unloaded in his pants, which was nothing new. Crap is Ben's trump card, useful in all sorts of situations.

Karen Royko

And so she walked over, smelled it-- it smelled horrible-- and got really mad. And I said, well, can we use your bathroom? And he wouldn't let me put on his shorts, because they were wet.

And so we spent probably 20 minutes in that bathroom with me fighting him, trying to get those shorts on, and him really fighting. And I'm talking about pushing me, scratching me, and trying to get out of that bathroom. And I didn't want to let him out. He had no pants on, no underwear.

I'm laughing about it now, but at the time I was just beside myself. I was crying and sobbing. And finally, after a while, I looked out and that bitchy woman was there. She saw me and she said, you have to leave right now. Why did you bring him in here?

And so at that point, I just directed all of my anger towards her. And I said, OK, fine. We'll leave. So I just brought him out with no pants on in the store. And then, oh, my god, did she ever lose it. And so what was sort of funny was Ben really still wanted to shop. He wasn't ready to leave.

Dave Royko

Ben was only nine when we got the first serious suggestion that he needed more than we could provide at home. Two of his therapists sat us down and said that we should consider placing him in a residential program-- and the sooner, the better. As he continued to grow in size, it would only get harder to find a good program that would take him.

As grim as it was to imagine sending Ben away, I also found myself agreeing with them and, frankly, feeling relieved at the idea. Life had become an exhausting and sometimes frightening daily struggle to manage what was becoming unmanageable. Hearing them talk about the need for residential treatment felt like validation that, yes, things really had gotten that bad.

But Karen had a very different reaction.

Karen Royko

I was just floored and shocked and appalled and went home and just got under my covers and cried all day. I mean, he's a baby. That's the thing that bothered me the most about the whole decision. I just always felt like I can't do it to him. It's going to be just horrible for him. And as much as this is horrible for us, I can't do that to him.

Dave Royko

When I realized Karen felt this way, I found myself questioning my own values as a parent-- hell, as a person. What kind of person wants to ship his kid off to an institution? And how would Karen view me for the rest of our lives together if she ever felt like I pushed her into it?

So I resigned myself. I decided that if we had to get through another decade with autism before Ben reached adulthood, so be it. And to avoid dropping dead from exhaustion and stress, I better get in shape. I lost 90 pounds. I exercised. I was determined to get through this and come out on the other side alive and able to enjoy life again.

As a parent, you want to believe that there is a cure for everything with your child. In the world of autism, there is no shortage of treatments, only a shortage of results. We were providing Ben with as much one-on-one stimulation as humanly possible, and it wasn't working.

The summer before sixth grade was the toughest yet. Ben's toileting had regressed badly. He'd become increasingly aggressive. You could be sitting comfortably with Ben, looking at a book, or a TV show, and before you had time to react, his hand would dart out and put a deep scratch into your arm, or his elbow would land a hard blow to your chest, or smash your nose and send your glasses flying.

It wasn't clear where these violent outbursts came from. Was he mad, just trying to get a reaction, playing, trying to connect? Worst of all, he would often refuse to go to sleep. Or he'd sleep, and then be up for the day at 3:00 AM. The only time Ben doesn't require direct supervision is when he is asleep, which means if he's up, one of us is up, usually Karen.

In 13 years, Karen hadn't had one night of unbroken sleep. Summers were the worst. With no school, Ben was bored, which led to more tantrums and destructive behavior. It also meant no chance for Karen to grab an hour or two of sleep in the afternoon to make up for the night. It was this crushing exhaustion that finally did it.

Karen Royko

This was starting to feel like it was, like, a fatal-- Ben's autism was becoming a fatal condition for me personally. I was exhausted and can't function. And so I just couldn't do it, just I was done. I couldn't do it.

It was just such agony over the years, taking care of Ben. And there really was no one that could sort of save us or save me or save him from this horrible situation. There just wasn't sort of enough help or enough money or anything in the world to really make this tolerable year after year after year.

Dave Royko

Then Ben started doing worse in school. He was regressing. His behavior and toileting were worse than the year before.

Karen Royko

It really became clear that this is really bad for Ben. The best thing now isn't for him to have the nurturing of his mother 24/7. And I know you were ready for that to happen sooner.

Dave Royko

Yeah. Well, it felt nice being-- honestly, it felt nice really for us to be on the same page about this for the first time. It just felt nice being-- and part of it was it felt nice not having to feel like the parent who wasn't as good a parent. Because, in a way, it just felt like, well, am I really not as good a person, like, because I want to send our kid away? And so--

Karen Royko

I never thought you weren't a good parent.

Dave Royko

Even more extreme--

Karen Royko

You never tried to talk me into it or convince me.

Dave Royko

Well, I think part of it is I never really felt it was really open for discussion. I mean, I felt it was just such a basic thing. How could I argue that Ben shouldn't be with mom and dad?

At last, we were together on this-- the single biggest decision ever in the life of our family. But there was one more person in the house whose opinion mattered, and that was Ben's twin brother, Jake. And we still had some convincing to do.

Jake explained to my producer--

Jake Royko

Well, the first time I heard them mention it, I was-- I thought it was just so they could have more time on their hands, and I was pretty angry about that. And I told them, like, stop trying to convince yourself that this is for Ben.

Dave Royko

It was a good point. Were we doing this for Ben or for ourselves? Karen and I had asked ourselves this question too. And if sending Ben away had only been for the benefit of the three of us, we wouldn't have done it.

Instead of being bothered by what Jake said, I was actually touched. Because after all he'd been through, all the plans canceled and events ruined, you'd still empathize with Ben, who could be so hard to empathize with. But even Jake's empathy had to take a back seat to the reality-- that it was time for Ben to go.

Dave Royko

Do you remember what it was-- where the turning point was for you? When it went from feeling like we were sending him away just for our own sake, versus the turning point where you really felt like it was a thing that was necessary?

Jake Royko

That one night with the banging and the hitting and the screaming and the sobbing and the more sobbing and the scratching and the banging and the pounding through doors. You remember it.

Dave Royko

I remembered it. It was a long, nasty tantrum late one night, where Ben lunged at me over and over with all his weight, and I ended up bloody and bruised, holding his bedroom door closed while he smashed himself against it for hours, trying to get out.

Jake Royko

This was extreme. I mean, there was, like, pounding and it sounded like there was punching going on. I'm not sure if there was.

Dave Royko

Yeah. What went through your mind?

Jake Royko

Well, he's certainly not happy. If he's throwing tantrums like that, he's not happy here-- not happy enough.

Dave Royko

The one thing that likely never will be resolved in all of this, the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night, is what is Ben thinking right now? Does he know he will see us again, that we still love him?

An autistic child can't conceive of other people's subjective inner life, and that means he probably can't really wonder if we still love him, because the idea that we feel anything at all is inconceivable to him. But he certainly can wonder why the people he loves most in the world, that he has always known and relied upon and trusted, have abandoned him.

In June, we drove Ben to his new life. We were extremely lucky to live near a facility that was perfect for him-- an hour and a half drive from us in Wisconsin. After our meeting with staff and unloading Ben's stuff, it was time for us to go. It was quick. A long goodbye would only make things harder.

I gave Ben a big bear hug, said I'll see you soon, and headed out the door, as Karen said her farewell, which I couldn't watch. Very briskly, we walked down the hall and out of the door, accompanied by the sound of Ben's wailing. It was a strange feeling to leave an unhappy Ben with strangers.

The familiar urge to swoop in and try to calm Ben down, and protect others from any potential behavioral shrapnel, was hard to resist. We felt terrible. But at the same time, we felt liberated.

When we got home that evening, we were so calm that it felt foreign. It felt like we were on muscle relaxants. We hadn't realized just how tense and jangled our nerves had been for 13 years. We sank into the couch and looked at each other. Karen said, this must be what it's like to be let out of prison.

Jake and his friends were upstairs, and Karen got the idea to take them for ice cream. My immediate reflex was we can't do that. And then incredibly, three minutes later, we were in the car getting ice cream, like we'd gone through a tunnel and came out in another universe. It was even stranger for Jake. He had never known life without autism.

Jake Royko

The first couple days, when he was gone, I was so relaxed that I was nauseous. I was, like, sick to my stomach. I felt, like, butterflies in my stomach. Like, what now?

It's like I was pulled out from my life and put into another with a couple of people who I still know there, and they're with me. But it didn't feel like home anymore. For me, like, home meant stress, and it meant a 5,000 pound brother who could be dangerous at times and hogged the couch.

Dave Royko

When weekly visits with Ben began after his first month, we immediately knew we had done the right thing. Ben was happy. In fact, it is very possible that Ben is happier than he's ever been. His days are jammed with activities and tasks from morning until night.

Every minute is scheduled. Even the downtime is structured, with rules and responsibilities. That's what Ben needs, and we could never have given it to him. And for us, that's what the choice boils down to.

Karen Royko

I don't have any second thoughts. I don't feel guilty at all. I know some people, trying to be nice after he went were like, oh, you must feel so guilty or, oh, how are you and you must be doing-- just assuming that I was really doing terribly.

And I was like, you know what? I really feel pretty good. I mean, I didn't even have to go to my shrink or anything after. I thought for sure I would be scheduling some appointments with my therapist, but I just feel it was right.

Dave Royko

Last weekend, we had our first home visit with Ben, and it was a joy. Ben walked into the house and stared momentarily at things that had changed, like the new couch in the living room. Soon we were in the backyard, and he swung on the bench swing for two hours, as happy and relaxed as I have ever seen him.

He spent the rest of the day with us. And when it was time to go, Ben and I got in the car and headed back to his new home. A half hour into our drive, Ben said, "The letter D." That was my cue to say, "And D is for?" Ben countered with, "D for a dump truck." And then he said, "D is for daddy."

I glanced in the rear view mirror and Ben was looking right at me, a rarity, and smiling. I reached back and, patting his legs, said, "That's right, Ben. D is for daddy, and daddy loves you so much." He beamed and, choking back tears, I said, "You'll always have daddy."

It's very possible Ben was oblivious to the meanings I was laying on our conversation. But I swear, it felt to me like we were on exactly the same page.

Ira Glass

That's Dave Royko. He's a psychologist in Chicago. His sons, Ben and Jake, are now both 25. Jake is a therapist at a mental health center. Ben is living in a facility in Cleveland. David and his wife, Karen, are still living in Chicago, but plan to move full time to Cleveland to be with Ben.

[MUSIC - "I WANNA BE LOVED" BY BUJU BANTON"]

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Alix Spiegel and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Jane Marie, Lisa Pollak, and Nancy Updike. Senior producer for today's show is Julie Snyder. Music help today from Mr. Terry Miller. Additional production help from Aviva DeKornfeld, Jarrett Floyd, Kathy Hong, Seth Lind, Stowe Nelson, and Matt Tierney.

Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 600 episodes for absolutely free. Or you can download as many shows as you want, watch our videos, and do other stuff using This American Life app. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our programs co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, who I tried-- I tried talking him into starting this radio show for years, until that one night--

Jake Royko

That one night with the banging, and the hitting, and the screaming, and the sobbing, and the more sobbing, and the scratching, and the banging, and the pounding through doors that-- you remember it.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.