Susan Pinker is a psychologist whose most recent book is The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make us Healthier and Happier.
Imagine strangers plucking your child from your living room – say, while the preschooler is absorbed with Lego or cartoons – then depositing her in a distant location where she's neither adequately fed, protected, nor understood. You don't get to see, much less, hug your child again for years. Now imagine what it is like to be that child. The terror and irreversible loss are unimaginable.
In fact, the nightmare of child abandonment is so foreign to the usual human state of affairs that the trauma transforms the coating around a child's DNA, forever altering her behaviour and immunity. The surprising part of the process is that she can then pass this acquired vulnerability on to her kids.
That's how early deprivation can play out, not only in the survivors of residential schools, but in subsequent generations. Recent evidence from epigenetics – a fairly new science – shows environmental triggers can signal the existence of danger or deprivation, rejigging how genes are expressed.
Studies show that young primates who don't get parental TLC struggle mightily. When research psychologist Harry Harlow separated rhesus monkeys from their mothers in the late 1950s and allowed them to be "raised" by their peers, or by wire models kitted out with milk dispensers, he discovered that these "surrogate-raised" monkeys never learned how to play or to interact the way their peers did. Without the predictable give-and-take of parental love, the metal surrogate-raised monkeys spent their days rocking back and forth, clinging to the bars of their cages for hours, shrieking, biting or mauling themselves. Decades later, researcher Stephen Suomi found that young monkeys deprived of their mothers' affection showed exaggerated physiological reactions to stress, including sky-high levels of cortisol in their bloodstreams and weird variations in the proteins that regulate neural cell growth. When given the chance, these monkeys also downed huge quantities of alcohol.
Human primates are similarly traumatized when removed from their families. Romanian children who spent years in bare-bones orphanages during the brutal Ceausescu era now show grave behavioural and cognitive problems. "From the level of molecular structures to the level of complex social interactions, these children are unquestionably disadvantaged," wrote the Harvard researchers who followed their progress.
Through epigenetic means, subsequent generations can inherit these problems. An impressive system links conditions out there in the world with our body's – and our offsprings' – ability to react to them. When basic needs aren't satisfied, biochemical messages are launched that switch certain genes off and others on. These gene sequences affect what we usually consider to be life choices – how intensely a person craves alcohol or nicotine, for example, how blithely one takes on risk, or executes a plan for the future.
It's not only the victims who may have been damaged by growing up in residential schools. Through biological channels, their children and grandchildren may be affected, too.
But all is not lost. The institutionalized Romanian orphans who then lived with a loving foster family for several years were able to recoup much of what was derailed by emotional neglect. When there's long-term commitment, the researchers discovered, recovery is possible.
But it's a long process. Only when we recognize that native families have been deeply injured – not just historically, not only culturally, but biologically – can we begin to make amends.