"Where's Home?" by Gabrielle Israelievitch: a book for all foster children and those who care for them: an entry into empathy

Therapeutic Use: Empathy for the Self

There are over half a million children in foster care in the US; in Canada, nearly a hundred thousand. Whatever the reasons for their removal from home - violence, drug abuse, and/or neglect - they do not know how to make sense of what has happened to them. They are just children, after all. They try to make sense of their world in the way children who can’t understand do, inwardly by blaming themselves and feeling shame, outwardly by acting in ways that don’t even make sense to them or their parents.

These children have often witnessed and experienced horrible, frightening, and hard to understand events that create awful feelings. They rarely have consistent Others in their lives to help them process any of this. They just get moved around, severed again, without the hope that relationships can last. This makes it very hard to grow up, because to grow up you need reliable, sensitive Connections to An/other/s.


Ideas of Connection

Where’s Home? is a story about Connections and I wrote it especially for foster children because they have so few, if any. My hope is that all the threads of Connection when interwoven can act together as a kind of emotional safety net for a child who needs one.

The story presents a main character, a kitten named Littleprints, who is intended to be emotionally familiar to (too many) foster children. Stories that use animals as people can add emotional distance for the reader when the story message is powerful, provocative, or evocative. Also to keep the story more ego-distant, I use no “System” terms like ‘foster’, ‘child welfare,’ ‘adoption,’ or even ‘therapist’. These words would have a concretizing effect and would force the child out of the fantasy landscape that is necessarily far away and long ago, i.e. ‘elsewhere’. So in becoming engaged in the story of a young kitten and his life story, a foster child will above all have a sense of relief that he is not alone: Somebody knows his story and has lovingly made sense of it. And he does not have to be ashamed.

My hope was also this: Connected to, engaged with, the character, a child can become connected to his own life. He can experience himself as part of a story. He can feel that he belongs to a narrative that makes sense, that makes the difficult events he’s experienced seem part of a cohesive whole over time. A story can connect him to his past, to his present, and can point him toward a hopeful future.

Further, the story shows ways in which individuals may be connected to one another, how they maintain those connections, how they think about those connections, and how they use their connections with special others to soothe themselves as well as to feel safe and to develop.

There is another element of connection here, and that is the implicit and abiding connection between the Reader/Listener, and the understanding Teller. That is why the story can stand alone, because the Teller is portable inside the book. This extends the Connection between Listener/Reader and the Teller (the voice of caring, the voice of understanding, the voice of paying attention to him) across time, offering a voice that can sing to him of himself whenever he wants. Further, as a Reader-Aloud, the parent or teacher becomes this voice---and there is another Connection.

(Yet another Connection is the array of neural connections that are formed in Relationship, but that is another story.)

As Teller, I have digested a certain experience a foster child has offered me, and I offer it back to him in a form, the original “Littleprints” assures me, which is acceptable.

In sum, with no other ‘intervention’, this story itself should serve to relieve, confirm, and offer hope to such a child. Foster children don’t often see an empathic reflection of themselves.


Reading to children: a way of Connecting

Every child deserves the ritual experience of being read-to. A routine of nightly reading together as part of the entire bedtime ritual provides both the necessary predictability of this time with a parent and the opportunities for closeness, comforting, and connecting. For foster children especially, this is crucial.

Reading-to and reflecting-with creates the very sort of interpersonal environment that the story of Where’s Home? encourages. It’s about the relationship/s. So reading-with is an important and non-threatening way to enter into interpersonal and interactive shared space and shared focus with a child, where your attention and interest is shared outside both your selves.

Reading together with a caring Other can offer the safety and structure required for a foster child to begin to develop trust.


Why We Need Stories of Ourselves

As small children, stories about ourselves help us organize our first and fundamental experiences of who we are. They help us form our sense of self. When children are told a story about themselves, they know they are in the kindly mind of the teller (hopefully, one who is not in a hurry to be somewhere else). When they say with words or eyes (which they will): “Tell me a story about me”, they are saying in part: “Let me look at/see myself through your loving eyes with you, so we can share this pleasure in me and I can feel how treasured and enjoyed I am by you.” “Remind me of who I am (to you).”

When children hear their story it’s like seeing themselves reflected in their mother’s eyes and organizing, responsive care. A story of themselves can be where a good enough Mother (or her substitute) resides. As Mother does, so does the Story bear witness to the children’s life. Like Mother, the Story is a containing Other, holding their memories and a sense of their value, holding an understanding of them.

Just like Mother, as well, the Teller of Where’s Home offers her organizing reflection in a tone of affectionate acceptance, playfulness, empathy, and curiosity. And just like Mother’s loving gaze, the story is just for them. Ultimately the child’s identity narrative is co-created in the interaction with Mother--here, around the telling and listening and re-telling. This is how identity is formed.

When Good Enough Mothers/Others and Stories don’t happen for children—as when they have been maltreated, neglected, or raised in chaos-- their identity, their sense of themselves, is patched together from disconnected bits of a life that no one has helped him make sense of. Without the help of a good enough Other, traumatized children may only interpret their world as hostile and unsafe and see themselves implicated as unworthy and bad.

This makes it especially important that disenfranchised children have stories of themselves that help them make sense of and accept their disjointed but unique, lives. These stories can also help others help them.


Intentional STORY CONTENT of Where’s Home?

For thinking and talking about the kitten and his life. (See also: “Talking about the story with school children”)

  • Littleprints’ naming and special identity, a kernal of uniqueness from the beginning (naming story, special time, paw prints are unique, etc). Ideas of naming. Characters names render instant identity.
  • Depictions of an unsupervised, frightening, and chaotic young life that still has special moments for him.
  • Ways Littleprints protected and soothed himself: hiding, dreaming, rocking, hoarding food (all solo activities) (at first).
  • Littleprints’ finding for himself a talisman/treasure/bit of magic (marble) that he will keep with him through his moves, that he always has a special place for after it was lost and found emblem of himself in his box of memories).
  • Littleprints never knew what to expect (cf. conversation between Littleprints and Marble; why is having predictability and structure important?).
  • Intervention of the model Nice Mice family (Compare the Nice Mice family with the Bob Cat family).
  • The unpleasant surprise intrusion of the officials, the Bears, and dispersal of the original Bob Cat family: feeling of not belonging anywhere and not knowing how to act or what he felt.
  • Trouble with Bucky all along (why, do you think?), but he's a brother and that's important to recognize.
  • Introduction of special others (Mr. Ted, Dr. Lynx, Cool Cats) who listen and understand (who are the special others in your child’s life?).
  • Being offered something to belong to immediately upon being uprooted (the Box Club, with its symbol--the green box and a key).
  • Being moved from home to home along with his green box and his wildcat brother.
  • Meeting Mr. Ted and Dr. Lynx regularly at the (open, bright) Box Club, staying connected.
  • Eventual home with Bucky and the Cool Cats (what was different here from other places?).
  • Revisitation of old fear, triggered by Ma and Pa Cool’s ‘fighting’. How Ma Cool responded.
  • Reunion with a special sibling, the one he’d named; reflection together on their livesits good parts and sad parts, staying connected.
  • Bucky’s being taken away; Littleprints’ proposal for maintaining connection; Littleprints’ complicated reaction to Bucky’s absence. How Pa Cool responds.
  • Littleprints’ coming to understand his dreams, his fears, being able to name his conflicting feelings, being able to feel comforted by others and a sense of belonging, and coming to have hope for the future.
  • The Reader’s being invited to befriend Littleprints.


Illustrations by JULIANA NEUFELD
© Gabrielle Israelievitch 2013-2018. All rights reserved.