There's a moment in Meg Jay's new book, "Supernormal: The Untold Story of Adversity and Resilience," in which a woman is describing her childhood shared with a younger brother prone to violent outbursts.
Because her parents were devoting such care and energy – understandably – to meeting their son's needs, the woman and her sister weren't allowed to have any.
"Nor did it seem," Jay writes, "they were allowed to have the whole range of human emotions."
"In our family," the woman tells Jay, "it went beyond 'If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. It was 'If you can't feel anything nice, don't feel anything at all.' "
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I had to pause and sit with that one for a while.
In "Supernormal," Jay, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of education at the University of Virginia, tells the stories of her clients and students (names changed) who grew up with significant childhood adversity: the loss of a parent through death or divorce, domestic violence, an alcoholic parent, sexual abuse, bullying at home or school. Her title is a nod to the fact that these folks (75 percent of the population, studies indicate) aren't abnormal (though most of them feel that way), but above and beyond normal – exceptional, extraordinary, heroic, in many ways.
The book explores the resourcefulness kids develop when they're surrounded by chaos and trauma – resourcefulness that serves them well in life, as heartbreaking as it is to watch it develop.
The girl who has learned just the right moment to enter the living room and ask for juice to de-escalate a fight in which her drunk dad is starting to beat up her brothers and her mom.
The boy who learns to comfort his mom about his dad abandoning them, even as he's weighed down by his own grief.
The girl who excels in school – academically and behaviorally – to mask the filth, poverty and parental drug addiction that await her at home.
Kids who create entire imaginary worlds in their bedroom closets, in libraries, anywhere, really, to imagine a life other than the one they're stuck with.
"They know better than just to be normal children," Jay writes.
Anger is one of the tools that can propel kids beyond the adversity that surrounds them.
"To feel angry is to perceive injustice, an unfairness that results from the misdeeds of others," Jay writes. "Anger is a signal that something has gone wrong. Something hurts. There is a violation of what 'ought to be.' "
But anger has a bad reputation. All too often we train our kids – and ourselves – to push away negative emotions and focus on the positives.
Elizabeth, the woman with the volatile brother (who was often examined by specialists but never given a single, clear diagnosis), was met with scorn and shame when she dared to express dismay about her brother, even though he charged her with a butcher knife and hurled plates at her during dinner.
Once, her brother humiliated her during a piano recital when he laughed at her loudly as she entered a silent stage to perform her minuet by Bach.
"Later that night," Jay writes, "when Elizabeth was sullen and she complained that Henry had ruined the night for her, her mother scolded her: 'For God's sake, Elizabeth. You just had this great experience that Henry will never have. He can't control himself. You're lucky you can!' "
I had the chance to interview Jay on recently at a Union League Club authors group luncheon. What, I asked her, should Elizabeth's mom have said about the piano recital? My heart goes out to that mom, valiantly trying to provide healthy childhoods for all her children, even as I ache for Elizabeth.
A better approach, Jay said, would be empathy for all involved. Something like, "I'm so sorry Henry laughed at you. That had to feel terrible, and you don't deserve to be belittled onstage." (I'm paraphrasing here.)
Followed by, "It might be difficult for Henry to watch you excel because he'll never have the experience of playing an instrument onstage. That makes me sad for him. But it certainly doesn't make it OK for him to mistreat you."
But a common theme in each of the stories Jay tells is a deafening silence where discussions about adversity should be. Parents who never even acknowledged the trauma their kids were witnessing daily – the parent who suddenly never came home again, a father's daily descent into a drunken rage, a mother's drug addiction.
The children were alone with their pain and, in many cases, made to feel guilty for even experiencing it. Until, that is, they found the refuge of therapy or a deep friendship or a strong, loving marriage. "Having a good partner can be as powerful as having a bad parent," Jay writes.
The book is quite hopeful, actually.
"In the long run, what goes right matters more than what goes wrong," Jay writes.
And kids who grow up with adversity often grow up with tremendous resourcefulness and resilience to make things go right during adulthood.
But I wish they had the chance to develop that resilience with less pain and loss attached.
I think there are lessons in Jay's book for all of us – those who grew up with significant adversity and those who didn't; those who are raising children amid trauma and those who aren't. We can all use a nudge toward more empathy in all of our encounters, especially our encounters with children.
The contradiction one is left with when good things come out of bad things, Jay writes, is heart-wrenchingly captured by this quote from Rabbi Harold Kushner, about the loss of his son.
"I am a more sensitive person, a more effective pastor, a more sympathetic counselor because of Aaron's life and death than I ever would have been without it," Kushner writes in "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." "And I would give up all of those gains in a second if I could have my son back. If I could choose, I would forego all the spiritual growth and depth which has come my way because of our experiences, and be what I was 15 years ago, an average rabbi, an indifferent counselor, helping some people and unable to help others, and the father of a bright, happy boy. But I cannot choose."
Many of us, though, each day have a chance to choose – how gently we will approach our loved ones, whether we'll broach a painful topic we've too long papered over.
How deep is our well of empathy, and how willing are we to dip into it. Jay's book makes a strong case for dipping deeply.
I'm grateful for her guidance.