I am unbearable company during the Oscars. Like most US-based Brits I can’t help but do football stadium style cheering every time someone from the UK wins anything. Worse still I can’t watch films like Judy or Rocketman without analysing the”underlying messages” on insecure attachment. Nor can I enjoy The Joker, Harriet or Honeyland without giving a droning commentary on how toxic stress ruins lives. The invitations are drying up.
In case you are not clued up on the lingo: Insecure attachment is the term used to describe how poor early parental attachment undermines our ability to form healthy and nourishing relationships . Toxic stress is when prolonged childhood trauma chronically activates our stress response systems. Robust recent research now shows how people with either do worse in education, employment, physical and mental health and inter-personal relations throughout life.
From a rough estimate, about a quarter of 2020 Oscar nominee productions feature a story line with the following formula: Child trauma – healing/soothing relationships = train wreck adulthoods. Does the proliferation of these story lines in films mean our recognition of the link between early trauma and poor life outcomes ? It is not just happening in Hollywood. In the sober UK BBC Question Time a couple of weeks ago. Decorated former Police Chief Mike Barton told a studio audience that we can only reverse the London drug and crime problem if we address adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Research in the USA shows how media coverage on the theme has dramatically increased in recent years.
Our shared narratives should never be deterministic about the pathway from childhood trauma to adult dysfunction. Sometimes those with high childhood adversity flourish. But the most recent evidence suggests those with higher levels of trauma are much more likely to have poorer life outcomes. As Mike Barton may concur, they are the ones most likely to be targeted by criminals, groomers and radicalisers alike. As the US Centre for Disease Control has shown, they are also do much worse on almost every health and wellbeing indicator. The costs are huge and quantifiable. The UK Based Overseas Development Institute modestly estimated that violence against children alone (excluding the devastating global costs of child neglect) cost 8% of GDP. Conversely Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman argues that if we invest in prevention in the very beginning of childhood-the return on investment through life is up to 13-fold.
Film scripts don’t always end with trauma. They can also inspire us with recovery and resilience. Gus van Sant’s Good Will Hunting had nine Oscar nominations and won two and is one of America’s most popular films. It is perhaps the most compelling cinematic representation of how a young adult overcomes debilitating childhood trauma through connection with an empathetic witness . When the film was made, recovery through connection was only a common sense proposition. Now that proposition is firmly backed up by science base. Human connection and a sense of belonging in family, school or community provides a buffer against toxic stress. It calms the stress response system and helps rebuild the attachment model. It enables the child to build the resilience to navigate future shocks and see a lifeline to a better future. We call this science of resilience.
The opposite of Good Will Hunting’s story of recovery is the inter-generational emotional neglect suffered and transmitted by Elton John’s father in RocketMan. Deep in middle age he sings: “I can’t love, shot full of holes, I don’t feel nothing, I just feel cold“. At the extreme end of this spectrum is the character played by Joachim Pheonix in The Joker. Severe childhood trauma with no empathetic witness on the path to adulthood is costly for the individual, their family and society as a whole.
Film and literature critics often tell us that fine writing gives a tangible narrative to feelings the viewer or reader has, but could never put into words. The research shows that between 50 and 80% of any given population have experienced one ACE and between 10 and 20% have experienced 4 or more. Everyone, everywhere is affected by childhood adversity. We don’t talk about it easily. We could assume it has been taboo for most of human history. But if we are not affected by it directly, our spouse, neighbour or colleague is. It is often manifested in their decisions and behaviour. It’s why we identify so much with these stories. It’s one of the reasons Good Will Hunting is held in such affection and why so much of our popular culture alludes to this theme. This is our story. Our broken childhoods and our struggle to overcome them are a central theme of human existence and spirit. But a marginal theme within our national and international conversations. Could that be changing?
From an advocacy perspective I hope so. More public openness to the theme could drive the political will and public demand needed. A good public policy start would be investment in 3 things. Trauma prevention though early parent outreach and support. Recovery and resilience through trauma-informed communities and schools. Open and taboo-busting public discussion on adverse childhood experiences. These interventions could close the costly gap between what we know and the policies we do. Imagine how much trouble could have been prevented if Gotham City had had better childhood policies. In Pinner and Philadelphia too.
And that brings us back to Elton and his Oscar nominated recovery anthem: “Find the wind to fill my sails, Rise above the broken rails, Unbound by any ties that break or bend, I’m gonna love me again” How rich our world would be with an opportunity for everyone to rise above those broken rails.