Baffled by Love: Stories of the Lasting Impact of
Childhood Trauma Inflicted by Loved Ones
by Laurie Kahn
How does one explain the reality of cruelty perpetrated by humans onto other people? More baffling would be an encounter with statistics that indicate victims of violence often know their abusers. Worse still wouldn’t even be realizing that many of the traumatized are the most vulnerable of our citizens—children—but rather that those who hurt them so badly are the very people meant to cherish and protect them: authority figures such as parents, relatives, neighbors, coaches, babysitters. The understandings they develop of the world and how to function as part of it are learned within the context of their violent upbringings and brought to bear on every relationship they subsequently enter into. Without intervention, the dysfunctions that set the stage of their personalities—coping methods, interpersonal communication and more—can negatively impact their broader life in the present as well as far into the future.
Laurie Kahn, a psychotherapist in practice since three decades, brings us through some of the dark places individuals have traversed in Baffled by Love: Stories of the Lasting Impact of Childhood Trauma Inflicted by Loved Ones. These are re-tellings of childhoods disturbed, interrupted and robbed by sexual and other violence, emotional manipulation and “corrupt models of love.” As adults, Kahn’s clients couldn’t form healthy intimate relationships because what they understood to be love was actually a set of circumstances that crippled their abilities in love and other arenas.
This failure to know love can prove debilitating…Love is the pathway to connections with others; it is the key to our humanity. Love breeds compassion, and it sustains us in the face of adversity. Love creates meaning in our lives. Without empathy or compassion for others, you can harm others and feel little or no regret. Children who are deprived of love have two difficult choices: yearn for love or succumb to numbing indifference and contempt for others.
Lovelessness is excruciating in its banality. It robs a child of her vitality. It leaves no physical welts or scars, just a devastating, enduring emptiness. Lovelessness has no language, poetry, or music. It is unnamed, hidden from view and disabling.
Kahn’s discussion of each chapter is set up within a framework introducing a client or a particular angle that lays out a concept she expertly deconstructs and subsequently pieces together before our eyes as a means to illustrate how people’s lives are affected by what they have endured. However, the author doesn’t merely present case studies and pair the experiences with smart summaries of what went wrong, nor is her picking apart of life details shrouded in psychologist talk that—as I have often found elsewhere—makes sense individually but loses me under the weight of its numerous detail of theories, labels and pathologies.
Instead Kahn focuses on her clients’ humanity, often enabling our understanding in ways as simple as identifying what was lost and how that negatively impacts now, when the individual needs the foundation of such typical experiences to proceed in a constructive manner. In so doing the author displays her storytelling prowess, perhaps exercised even more brilliantly given these are not “stories” in the manner of which we are accustomed to discussing them. Respectful in how she handles each person, she lays out the scenes, interactions between herself and a client, perhaps, or someone may narrate or act out a memory—providing openings into angles she simultaneously discusses. One of Kahn’s most succinct passages illustrates the concept of what she calls “damaged danger detectors”:
Wendy was raised believing that the world was a dangerous place, and that family provided love and comfort. The abuse and neglect she experienced and witnessed in her family left her with no way to assess who was safe and who was not.
It points to what many of us hear about regarding any family dynamic, negative or positive: what the child grows within is what he or she perceives as normal, with the added handicap of mistaking other abusive behavior for caring, or inability to recognize warning signs in later relationships and, tragically, falling into the trap of serial victimhood.
Also a major part of how Kahn sets up her topic is by opening herself up as well to what we see. Alternating chapters move into the memoir, a condition, she writes, that “mortifies” her. It pairs, however, with another approach she utilizes, that of searing honesty within her counselor-client relationships that results in self-reflection, specifically as to the emotions she feels that unsettle her the most. With adroitness she addresses the relationship between the traditional therapeutic ideal of distance, not getting too close to clients, and trauma survivors’ greatest fear of triggering their therapists’ withdrawal.
As the book proceeds, all of this is wrapped amongst each other, nestled with details of her clients’ and Kahn’s own childhoods, as it exposes a reality that these lessons—repeatedly taught and learned by the author in her counseling role—can provide benefit to those outside of these scenarios as well. Honest self-reflection enables us to love ourselves better as we are even if we simultaneously, silently, admit there is much room for improvement, and provides compassion toward others and the ability to grow this sort of love. In this way and others Kahn keeps Baffled by Love from becoming, at its heart, an exercise in voyeurism. Instead, she enables us as humans to travel through this life with a better set of luggage, packed with tools that strengthen our self-respect as well as regard for the myriad ways in which we and those others who occupy any given moment with us got there, and move forward together.
While not the easiest book to read given its content, Baffled by Love nevertheless is also not a mere litany of abuse. Kahn explores ways to find healing, to discover a productive love, all within writing so smooth and pleasing we hardly realize we are, in some instances, also being instructed. Her varied angles are threaded together impressively, creating a smooth tapestry, powerful in its representation of histories and touching in its willingness to be vulnerable for the sake of others. With something to offer a wide audience, even those without the issues her clients faced, it is a worthy read that transcends other accounts of the healing of broken love.
About the author ….
Laurie Kahn MA, LCPC, MFA is a pioneer in the field of trauma treatment. For more than thirty years, she has specialized in the treatment of survivors of childhood abuse. In 1980, she founded Womencare Counseling and Training Center.
Since then, her ideas and expertise have served both people who have experienced childhood abuse and hundreds of clinicians who have graduated from her Trauma Consultation Training Program.
Laurie’s personal essays have been published in anthologies, and her articles and book reviews have appeared in the Journal of Trauma and Dissociation and The Journal of Trauma Practice.
She lives in Evanston, Illinois with her husband, Michael, and her labradoodle, Kali.
The reviewer received a free copy of Baffled by Love in exchange for an honest review.