When I was a little girl in Poland, we had a town idiot. He mumbled instead of talking, made faces, laughed when he should have cried. He was thirteen years old. He had no parents, no home, no country. He lived by begging and by coercing people into giving him whatever he needed to survive. They gave it to him partly out of pity, mainly out of terror.
Once, as I was walking through a field and eating a piece of bread and butter, he appeared. In his demanding, seemingly pleading fashion, he babbled out his request and reached for my bread. I refused. Instead, I gave him only a bite out of my bread. I was ready to share it, not give it away; I was recognizing our equality and not really accepting his insanity. He was surprised. He took a bite out of my bread and spat it out at me, in fury. He walked away. A few minutes later he turned around and with a face no longer crazy, he came back, took a bite out of my bread, and in a voice as clear as a bell said, "Okay. Thank you."
The pact was made, the bridge was built. Forever. Whenever we met, we went off into the woods and shared a piece of bread, a pretty stone, a flower, a soul. With everyone else he remained crazy - until the Germans killed him.
Thus I knew that sanity and insanity are part of the same continuum. The difference is only in degree.
- Mira Rothenberg, Children With Emerald Eyes
Mira Rothenberg has spent her life building bridges.
Children With Emerald Eyes is an extraordinary book. It is partly a collection of case studies, partly exquisite poetry, and above all a work of great compassion and grace. Since the late 1940's, Rothenberg has worked with children, most of whom were dismissed by the psychiatric establishment as hopelessly insane. Before Prozac, before Haldol, before the advent of any particularly useful medications, Mira relied on her almost supernatural intuition to reach and treat schizophrenic and autistic children. She did so by defying one of the great unwritten rules of psychology: she became emotionally invested in her patients. She decided that not only would she treat them, she would love them. In doing so, she helped many, lost some, and allowed her own heart to be both buoyed and trampled. Love is like that, in all its myriad forms.
She did not aspire to treat these children. Though she knew her talents lay in the field of psychology, the idea of working with children frightened her. She resisted when, as an undergraduate at Columbia University, her class was interrupted by a desperate plea for an interpreter of Eastern European languages. A group of young teenagers had arrived from Europe. Most had been born in Nazi work or death camps; all had been abandoned for their own safety or orphaned in unimaginably horrific ways. Raw as untended wounds, brimming with fury, wild and mistrustful of all authority, these were children who had never been children. None spoke English; none wanted to. Mira refused repeated requests to act as teacher and communicator:
...not me, I thought. I had left Poland under slightly similar circumstances. I knew their pain, their terror, their sorrow, and their rage. Not me. I am not going through that all over again...
"No," I said. "The scars are too deep."
"Whose?" (the professor) asked.
"Mine and theirs," I answered. "I want to forget. Theirs will become mine. I don't want it."
But the professor persisted, and Mira grudgingly relented. She was utterly green. Though she was a student of psychology, nothing in the literature prepared her for the depths of torment she faced in these children. They hated her on sight, and she allowed their hate. She did not castigate them for feeling it, nor did she discourage it. She allowed them to feel what was rightfully theirs, and as she did, they began - cautiously, slowly - to open up to her. Day after day, one by one, they began a litany of tales "worse than the sickest imagination could produce." They were mired in an endless kaddish. She resolved not to wrench them from their pain but to be what they needed - a witness, a scribe, a listener. She let the children teach her.
Her initial reaction was prophetic; their pain indeed merged with hers, their scars took up residence in her own soul. But as she listened, as she actively refused to sweep their collective trauma under the proverbial rug, the children began to emerge from their fortresses of hate. They began to dance, to paint, to interact in nonviolent ways. Recognizing their sense of helplessness and displacement, she began to teach them about another fierce, proud group of displaced persons - the Native Americans. The children were immediately riveted. They first "became" animals - predatory animals, avenging animals - tigers, lions, wolves. Gradually they became gentler, though still proud and independent animals - eagles, deer, horses. And the children created poems about themselves, about their spirit animals, about freedom and swiftness and fire. They wrote and put on a play for the entire school. Joseph, the fiercest, wildest child of all, even put away the knife he had carried constantly since his arrival in the States. Stallions have nowhere to carry weapons.
And Dr. Eisenberg looked a bit shy and a bit uncomfortable hearing all the rage and fierceness, love, kindness, and poetry coming out of the mouths of these children. He asked, "And who is Mira? is she the keeper of all these animals?" And one kid said, "Oh no, she is the fiercest animal of us all. She is the lioness." And another child said, "Yes, but she is also the sun and the earth where these animals live." And Dr. Eisenberg left, because he cried.
And then the children became Indians. They lived in teepees, breathed in the mythology of a proud and displaced people, and even put on a play about the Trail of Tears.
And finally, the children became themselves.
She lost Joseph. He died soon after the play. Though he had lived by his wits for most of his thirteen years, surviving on garbage in the freezing woods of Eastern Europe, he died in relative comfort as an expatriate. "But freedom was too much," Mira observes, "too much for this little child. The diagnosis of his death was undetermined, because one does not die of freedom in the medical books. Just as one does not die of happiness. But one does."
But many more survived. And Mira was hooked - hooked on the moment when the shroud of terror lifted from one child and revealed the light beneath its folds. Fascinated by the prospect of finding the lost, of unwinding the graveclothes. Hopelessly addicted to hope.
The book, published in 1977, is a collection of children. Some she found; others stayed out of her reach forever. But she was, and is, stubborn in her love and unrelenting in her compassion. Her patience is boundless. The children in Mira's book are, for the most part, patently unloveable. They refuse to speak; they hurl feces; they claw and bite. One little girl demands that everything from the clothes she wears to the milk she drinks be presented to her wrapped up in a package. They are frightening children, voracious and needy and manipulative. They are furious children, impotent and mute in their rage. They are ugly children, rejected and rejecting, who live in the intricate confines of their own private fantasies. They are insane.
But Mira sees them for who they are under the fear, beneath the pain. She waits for them to blossom, and many of them do. Like orchids, many of them require years of tending, countless hours of patience. Even then, some are irrevocably lost - lost in the death camps, lost in memories of abuse, trapped in the labyrinthine corridors of schizophrenia or behind the vacant stare of autism. But Mira is their witness, their scribe, their lioness. She loves the unlovely with unsentimental equanimity. She dares to stare into each child's private abyss, and she unflinchingly allows the abyss to stare back into her.
Find this book. Read it, then read it again. Let these children's stories snap you in half. Books like this change people, and they are too rare to ignore.
Mira Rothenberg is a psychologist, clinical director, and co-founder of the Blueberry Treatment Centers. She is an adjunct professor in the graduate division of Long Island University and a psychologist on the staff of Long Island College Hospital. She is the mother of Akiva Goldsman, a child who grew up among the profoundly disturbed children his mother so lovingly tended. He gave Mira the name for her book and went on to pen the gorgeous screenplay for A Beautiful Mind. She has no discernable interest in "making a name for herself"; her presence on the internet is practically nonexistent, and as far as I can tell she has written no books other than this one. But to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children, she is a Seeker and a Finder. She is a builder of bridges. She is a lioness.
Work cited: Rothenberg, Mira Children With Emerald Eyes. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.