What does acceptance mean to you? For Emi Nietfeld it meant being "accepted" into Harvard -- a triumph of epic proportions given the adversity she experienced throughout her childhood. In her harrowing new memoir, "acceptance" also meant coming to terms with a traumatic childhood in which she was removed from home and placed in a series of alternative living arrangements, including a residential treatment center for children. Each step of the way, Emi is given the message that she must exhibit "acceptance" that she is the cause of her difficulties. During weekly therapy sessions she was instructed to focus on her own contributions to the problems that led to her removal from home. She was condemned for challenging this lie. The truth was that Emi’s removal was primarily due to her mother's refusal to address her own extreme, dangerous, and literally toxic hoarding which forced Emi to sleep in an unheated mold- and rodent-infested home resulting in her being chronically exhausted and often unable to breathe. Because her mother was charming and savvy enough to evade detection (home visits were never made), Emi was viewed by the mental health system as the cause of her own problems rather than a victim of circumstances. Making matters worse, to stay in the heated mold-free environment of the residential treatment center, Emi had to “accept” that her behavior was bad and subject herself to erroneous diagnoses and treatment. Additionally, throughout her childhood Emi was expected to exhibit grit and resilience, resulting in her traumatized condition being interpreted as a reflection of her personal failure. The "gospel of grit" was used to exonerate the systems that failed her, leaving her to absorb the impact of the trauma so that society did not have to address the underlying causes (such as poverty and untreated mental health issues of parents). The "song and dance of resilience" chipped away at her humanity as it expected her to singlehandedly fix what was wrong. More than anything, she wished that someone had told her and the those in her world that she was removed from home because her mother had a problem rather than treating her removal as her failure to be a good enough daughter. Emi was also expected to "accept" that her life would be limited by her circumstances, that she should give up her dreams of going to Harvard, reading poetry, pursuing material success. Thankfully, her native intelligence, curiosity, and inner spirit, combined with her mother's unfailing confidence in her, yes – we’re all a mixed bag, led Emi to achieve all that she aimed for.
For the professionals at the Psychological Maltreatment Alliance, there are many lessons one can draw from this beautifully written book, chiefly among them is the lifelong impact of the psychological maltreatment perpetrated against Emi by her mother. More than the physical neglect she suffered, the emotional neglect (a form of psychological maltreatment) from her mother was by far the most damaging to her sense of reality and her very soul. Despite her obvious love for her daughter, Emi's mother was unwilling and/or unable to get help for herself, resulting in her inability to attend to Emi's basic needs for a safe and nurturing home environment. Emi's pervasive childhood experience was the denial of the reality that her home was disgusting and unsafe. There was chronic gas-lighting in which Emi was made to feel that there was something wrong with her for wanting to live in a clean and safe home.
Another important message that we at the PMA take from this book is the importance of adults listening to children rather than simply assuming that their caretakers have their best interests at heart. Most of the adults minimized Emi's concerns, assuming that she was exaggerating or just being difficult. If just one person had given her the benefit of the doubt and visited her home, she would have been believed and felt understood. A third lesson is that achieving markers of success (higher education, respected career, and so forth) does not automatically make up for feeling chronically misunderstood, unsafe, and unloved as a child. At the core of Emi's life journey is the ultimate acceptance that her mother would not be able to acknowledge her daughter's suffering and her own contribution to it. Like so many psychologically maltreated children, Emi will probably always have some degree of unseen scars in her psyche. It is our mission at the PMA to help prevent such harm to the next generation of Emi's by ensuring that all mental health professionals have access to adequate information about what psychological maltreatment is and how to respectfully and supportively intervene when -- for whatever reason – parents are not able to provide a safe, loving, and nurturing home for their children.