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Perfect in Herself (January 24, 2010)

posted 26 Aug 2010, 10:59 by Bhavithra Aloysious

by: Gay Bradshaw, Psychology Today

Who then is free? The wise man, who has dominion over himself; whom neither poverty, nor death, nor chains affright; brave in the checking of his appetites, and in contemning honours; and, perfect in himself, polished and round as a globe, so that nothing from without can retard, in consequence of its smoothness; against whom misfortune ever advances ineffectually. —Horace The Roman poet speaks from experience: he was no stranger to poverty, death, or misfortune. His father had been a slave and Horace himself fought alongside Brutus, of et tu fame, in the bloody civil wars that followed Julius Caesar's assassination. Unfortunately, their armies were eventually defeated, Brutus committed suicide, and the sword-carrying poet returned home to find the family property confiscated by victors.

Horace sets a high, and admirable, standard for us to maintain a self "polished and round as a globe" particularly in the face of traumatic events. Those who manage to overcome unimaginable psychological and physical ordeals discover that the self can tap into deep reservoirs of resilience, conferring not only survival, but internal integrity. However, Horace's model self is neither static nor immutable.

How often have you heard said of someone who has experienced a violent event or other overwhelming experience, "She just isn't herself anymore"? The ever-smiling outgoing bonne vivante has suddenly become expressionless and withdrawn to the point of hostility, a shadow of the person before trauma. Others astound with their apparent lack of change. They step back into life, picking-up former careers or pursuing new ones with vigor, and engage in everyday habits of housework and holidays. Traces of their hardship are barely distinguishable from the lines and pouches that come with age. The past disappears seamlessly under the carpet of time, beguiling family and friends into forgetting that once their father or sister almost succumbed to endless terror. However, outward appearances and physical survival can mask who lies within.

The story of Primo Levi is a haunting example of the incongruity between physical exterior and psychological interior. He lived decades beyond the horrors of the Holocaust, developed a successful career as a chemist, and became an internationally acclaimed writer. Yet, in what is generally assumed to be an act of suicide, he plunged to his death from the third story of his apartment building.

Whether or not Levi's death was self-inflicted is a personal matter best left to his friends and family. More significant is the reminder that there is much more than meets the casual eye in the liberated prisoner who greets the fresh air and sunlight with exhilaration and re-joins community—yet not.

When passing judgments on others we are cautioned to be wary of projections. Our impressions may reflect less an individual's genuine psychological state than our own wishful thinking or cultural conditioning. This lesson extends to the experience of other species, illustrated most vividly in the case of animals kept in cages and confined in zoo exhibits.

Lucy eats, plays a harmonica, and paints pictures for visiting children at the Edmonton Valley Zoo. She is a 34 year-old Asian elephant who lives alone in a concrete enclosure in the frigid cold of Canada since the age of two. Lucy has survived and she looks very much like an elephant. Or does she?

A recent scientific study assessed Lucy's health listing a number of ailments uncharacteristic of a young female elephant: "rheumatoid arthritis, foot abscesses, toe nail cracks, foot pad problems, abscess in hip region, chronic respiratory problems in the form of trunk discharge, breathing from the mouth, blocked nostrils, wheezing, [and] obesity."[2] Unlike her free-ranging contemporaries, Lucy has "a severe obesity problem, has never experienced pregnancy, given birth, or propagated her own progeny." Issues relating to eating and sleeping disorders "are related to loneliness or mental or psychological problems."

Lucy is described as "dull, inactive, [and] relatively disinterested in any form of physical activity." She displays stereotypy and rocking, the repetitive behaviour characteristic of prisoners kept in sustained, stressful confinement.

Additionally, she shows no ear flapping. . . and tail/trunk movement is absent. She often appears to be trying to support herself by leaning against a wall or object; which may be due to her leg problems, arthritis and/or obesity.[2]

When Lucy is not on exhibit, zookeepers "make efforts to motivate or ‘force' her to walk, meaning it is not necessarily performed voluntarily." Based on thirty-nine parameters relating to physical condition behavior, housing, nutrition, and other factors used to estimate overall wellbeing, Lucy received a 3 compared with scores of 10 received by her wild counterparts. Most tellingly, perhaps, is this simple observation: "Lucy walks slowly, unlike the majestic walk seen in elephants in the wild."

Like many prisoners, Lucy's physical state documents the ravages of forced confinement and isolation. Stress seeps into the body leaving enduring scars.[3] But what happens inside, to the mind? What might the mind look like if we could see it as we do the physical form?

Drawing from what we know about the neuropsychology of trauma, let us perform a gedanken experiment using Horace's perfect sphere as a model of the self to imagine the state of Lucy's mind. In so doing, we speculate on the psychological topology of Lucy's self as she evolved from a baby in elephant society to a young mature female in the prime of her chronological life.

Records show that Lucy was wild-born into a presumably typical elephant family, raised under the care of a mother and aunties, all immersed in verdant Sri Lankan forests. In the language of psychologist John Bowlby, Lucy formed a secure attachment with the capacity to self-regulate affect and to adjust appropriately with changes in her environment. Her traditional upbringing speaks of good psychological health and an intact sense of self, resembling Horace's resiliently perfect sphere.

At age two, Lucy was orphaned (cause unknown) and shipped across the ocean to the zoo. Since elephants are not weaned until the age of four or five years of age and female elephants remain in the-closely knit natal group for life, we can also assume that the loss of her mother and family was physiologically and psychologically traumatic comparable to other documented cases. [4] This profound relational trauma comprised the first deep cut into the polished sphere. But more were yet to come.

A second, great gash in Lucy's self developed with years of social isolation. Her struggle with subzero cold and snow so very different than her native tropics, was etched line by line with every year. The restricted life within barren enclosures deepened psychological lesions.

After more than thirty years of chronic stress, the spherical intact self mirrors the body on the outside. Though somewhat functional and elephant in form, Lucy has become wrinkled, distended, and distorted. She stumbles, barely able to walk. Her stereotypy and disinterest in the outside world suggest that she is withdrawing, her vision increasingly turning inward and sightless after years of staring at the same horizon obscuring grey.

Captivity is unnatural for any being. Science, in its embrace of trans-species models of brain and mind, blurs the distinction between the man condemned to internment and the elephant on exhibit. [5, 6] Whether made captive by concrete walls or electric fences, suffering is the same for an elephant, parrot, human, or any other animal. Bars and walls without imprison the soul within.

Lucy still lives. Sparked at birth in the magic of pachyderm society, the flame of her essential self burns. When the nascent self is nurtured, then even when confronted with trauma, it can access resources internalized unconsciously in childhood that "permit the restoration of one's capacity for love." [7] Her keepers say she has a "calm personality", has never harmed anyone, and is well liked: this and her upbringing speak of an intact self underneath the scarring. Lucy is a bright soul "against whom misfortune ever advances ineffectually". But for how long?



[1] The Satires of Horace and Persius, London: Penguin, 2005. p. 222.

[2] Varma, S. 2009. Welfare Status of Lucy the Elephant: An Investigation into the Welfare Status of the Elephant Lucy in Valley Zoo, Edmonton, Canada. In press.

[3] van der Kolk, B. 1994.The Body Keeps The Score: Memory & the Evolving Psychobiology of Post Traumatic Stress. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 1(5), 253-265.

[4] Bradshaw, G.A. & A. N. Schore. 2007. How Elephants are Opening Doors: Developmental Neuroethology, Attachment, and Social context. Ethology, 113: 426-436.

[5] Bradshaw, G.A., & R. M. Sapolsky. 2007. Mirror, Mirror. American Scientist. 94(6): 487-489.

[6] Bradshaw, G.A. 2009. Kin Under Skin: What elephants and humans have in common. Forbes Magazine. September 13, 2009.

[7] Krystal, H. 2004. Optimizing Affect Function in the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Trauma, in Living with Terror, Working with Trauma: A Clinician's Handbook, Danielle Knafo, ed. Lanham, Md.: Bowman and Littlefield, pp. 283-96.

Photo Credit: Zoocheck Canada

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