The Girl in the Railroad Pajamas

Lost Children and the Failure of Empathy

The Girl in the Railroad Pajamas

As a psychologist and a mother, I’m haunted by the children of immigrants we’ve all been reading about, stolen from their parents and callously detained across this country. Of course, I’m not the only one. Many of us are overcome by the sorrow of these aching, terrified children. We can’t stop staring or we can’t stand to look. We wonder what we can do.

We certainly have sympathy. But over the years, I’ve come to think of sympathy as essentially worthless. It can masquerade as empathy, but sympathy is one step away from pity, and pity is one step away from turning its recipients into the “other.” And from there it’s only a short distance into the “us and them” scenarios in which feeling substitutes for action.

Empathy, on the other hand, is the life blood of the work we do. It creates the scaffolding upon which our therapy clients can consider themselves, reach out, and risk. We’re called upon to guide people, in their quest for relief from emotional pain, to discover themselves and to imagine and implement change. It’s not about feeling for them: it’s about feeling with them.

Some situations are so ecstatically good or so horrifically bad that we sometimes wonder if we can even get close to the strong feelings that accompany them. We learn early to humbly accept our ignorance, the failure of our imagination, the difficulty of finding resonance with the suffering of others. But that’s the work, the heavy lifting of psychotherapy, the early forging of intimate connections that will fuel our collaboration.

What about the people in large traumatized groups who cry out for justice and are punished for it? I think of the pictures and voices of those devastated children and my automatic reaction is: I can’t imagine. I can’t imagine the peril they fled in their homeland, the thousands of frightening miles, finally making it to the border and finding that the most dangerous leg of their journey began when they crossed the cherished finish line.

Many see the enforced separation of families as unfortunate blips on the screen that will be remedied once the children are handed over to their parents again. They’re unwilling to see the minute-by-minute suffering of the kids and our inability to do much more than distract them from it. One of my favorite poets, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote that memories of our own childhoods are often the best routes to true empathy. After all, “children are still the way you were as a child, sad . . . and happy, and if you think of your childhood, you live among them again.” This means going back to our own experiences of childhood attachment and separation, to intense vulnerability, and remembering what that’s like.

Last night I made the mistake of watching the news before I went to bed. Needless to say, I couldn’t sleep. The immediacy of the children’s suffering, combined with my clinical understanding that trauma is the ungift that keeps on giving, meant I could almost calculate the long-term risks to them in the future. Then, in the no man’s land between sleep and wake, I had vivid memories of a little girl in railroad pajamas.

When I was five I had my tonsils out. I was prepared for it by affectionate but basically dishonest grownups. They told me that the hospital was a “wonderful” place, that the doctors and nurses were really “nice,” and that I could have all the ice cream I wanted afterward. The hospital, in fact, was a cold, strange place. The staff may have been perfectly nice, but they caused me the greatest pain of my young life. And I was so nauseated from the anesthesia that ice cream was totally off the table.

When I stumbled through the post-surgery clouds, I saw my mother. She was sitting right next to the combination crib/hospital bed I was waking up in. Then I looked down and immediately started pulling at the ugly railroad pajamas I found myself wearing. She didn’t need my narration to understand. In the cache of exclusive pieces of information that uniquely bound us together, she knew exactly what was bothering me. “Yes, I know they’re boys pajamas,” she acknowledged, “but they won’t let you wear Cinderella Nightgown [part clothing, part transitional object] here. You can put it on as soon as you get back.” 

For the next two hours, I had the undivided attention of my mother—a treasure I usually had to share with the other kids in the family. She read me stories, fed me ice chips, stroked my forehead with cool cloths. Then the lights flickered. A nurse came in and perkily announced that it was time for my mother to leave.

“What?” I screamed without volume. “Go? Go where?”

“I have to go now, honey,” my mother whispered. She registered the panic in my eyes. “Sweetie, it’s the rule.” 

“The rule?! You’re the boss of me, not them! Say no!” I implored. “Mommy, don’t put your coat on!”

She said I’d stay overnight and she’d pick me up soon, in the morning. She kissed me goodbye.

“Mommy, come back! Mommy don’t go!” I moved to follow her, but I was strapped into the bed at my waist. I wanted to cry out to her, but my voice was trapped in jagged glass. She was gone, and it felt like she took half of me with her.

Panicked thoughts tripped over each other as I tried to understand what was happening. Mommy went away…for overnight. What is overnight? How much night is there before she comes back? What’s going to happen to me? I don’t know where my clothes are. I have to go home. I don’t know where I live. Why did they tie me to the bad? Was I bad? I need Cinderella Nightgown. Maybe Mommy will change her mind and come back.

My agonizing hypervigilance finally faded into a resigned sleep interrupted multiple times so I could check the sky for light. As promised, my mother returned the next morning and I greeted her like a puppy. Still, in the space of only 24 hours, a few of the threads that bound me to my powerful and safe mother had frayed.

Thousands of children are having exponentially worse experiences than the railroad-pajama girl. And their abandonment is not “for their own good.” Even in the most benign of conditions, children are not just little adults. They differ from us in the way they view the world, experience the words and behavior of adults, understand time, make sense of cause and effect. The overlay of intense suffering and fear further complicates the way they bear their situations.

At the height of our outrage over their treatment, we’re now being called to civility. Civility? Civility means being well behaved and silent and still. We’ve been civil far too long. The mantra in my house growing up was “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” But we now inhabit a place in which compassion is seen as a weakness, a place where people don’t see that “zero tolerance” is an oxymoron because loss, fear, separation, and abandonment are universal themes.

As therapists, we often bear witness to childhood suffering. We understand the corrosive influence of trauma over a lifetime—which could be paralyzing for us if we didn’t also celebrate the potential for resilience that allows for rebound. Our choice of profession deputizes us as agents of change. With an optimistic fierceness and “empathy with attitude,” we have the ability to counter the ominous forces within our borders who only thinly mask their disdain for the vulnerable.

Thirty years after my mother left me at the hospital, I left my three-year-old at the counter of a Dunkin Donuts. I drove a full block before I realized she was missing. I felt sick with terror, only to find that she was so busy charming the other patrons and hadn’t even registered my absence. But one little boy, sitting in the corner with his mother, had seen it. His anxiety reverberated through the whole place. “Mommy,” he stammered, “that lady lost her little girl. Mommy, she left her all alone.”

The mother was absentmindedly rifling around her purse for her keys. He tugged at her coat. “But Mommy, Mommy,” he started to cry, “Why did she go away and leave her all alone?”

I had no excuse then.

We have no excuse now.


Photo © YazolinoGirl/iStock

Martha Manning

Martha Manning, PhD, is a writer and clinical psychologist who has written five books, including Undercurrent: A Life Beneath the Surface. She has published frequently in the Networker as well as other magazines.