The Primal Wound Book Tour

Our current book tour selection is The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child by Nancy Verrier. I and my fellow Book Tourists — adoptees, first parents, adoptive/adopting parents — spent November (Adoption Awareness Month) reading this controversial book that was originally published in 1993 — the early days of the open adoption era.


My take on it? Lots of yeses and lots of nos.

The premise is that a primal wound exists for every baby/child/teen separated from his/her biological mother. This includes not only adoptees, but also babies placed in incubators, children born via surrogacy and children placed in day care. The thesis continues that such a primal wound leads to issues that “center around separation and loss, trust, rejection, guilt and shame, identity, intimacy, loyalty, and mastery or power and control…”

There is a lot of insight in this book, which was written by an adoptive mom and therapist whose daughter was in deep pain. I think it’s well worth a read, especially at this stage of my children’s lives (they are 8 and 6).

When my children were babies, I would not have been as open and receptive to Verrier’s thesis as I am now. During the baby years, I felt there was no question that my children had bonded with me. With my first, I was in a state of euphoria — after years of drought, I was finally a mom! We had reached the happily-ever-after and because of what we’d been through to get there, the rest was to be a piece of cake. With my second, the attachment took a bit longer, seemingly on my end. I was certain, after we morphed into a tightly knit family, that happily-ever-after had resumed.

But babies don’t stay babies. They grow and individualize and wonder and work things out. Issues arise. Some are overt and I can help with them. Yet other deeper issues may exist beyond my ability to reach. Reading this book extends my abilities by giving me insight into what might be going on as my children grow — what to watch for what emotions lie beneath the behaviors, and what I might be called on to do or to allow to play out.

Children with a primal wound, according to Verrier, tend to be either highly controlling or highly compliant, as a result of a pre-verbal assault on the rightness of their world, of the utter lack of control during this defining episode of their lives. “Having been manipulated at the beginning of their lives makes some adoptees manipulating and controlling.”

Children who become compliant, according to Verrier, may become highly responsible — not because they are healthy and well-integrated, but as a response to that initial rejection. “As Rick said, ‘I knew I had to be a better person than the one who was given away.'”

Children with a primal wound, according to Verrier, tend to have difficulty in relationships, with intimacy, due to this early break. They often pre-emptively push away people (and jobs) to avoid being hurt again. “Being wanted by my adoptive parents doesn’t compare to being unwanted by my birthmother. — an adoptee.”

Ouch. What a powerful statement. We parents are wise to listen.

There are more indications of the primal wound, all worth knowing about, if only so that I can recognize what may (or may not) be happening for my kids as they become tweens and teens and adults. In my opinion, knowing is almost always better than not knowing — hence my advocacy of open adoption and open records.

The head shaking came from the anecdotal nature of the evidence. When dealing with human subjects, it is impossible to isolate variables. Some adoptees are controlling. Some adoptees are not controlling. Some non-adoptees are controlling. Some non-adoptees are not controlling. A causal link has not been established because of the inability to isolate adoption as THE factor in a personality.

Many of the noted issues — “separation and loss, trust, rejection, guilt and shame, identity, intimacy, loyalty, and mastery or power and control” — perfectly describe ME. My own parents say that *I* am controlling. I became overly responsible and strived to be perfect. I have had trouble with abandonment. I have felt unworthy. I have felt I don’t fit in with my own family.

I was separated from my mom at age 5 by an oxygen tent, so maybe I *do* suffer the primal wound.

But is it possible that perhaps these issues are maybe somewhat universal?

I addressed this conundrum on this post (about a comment from Melissa’s post on Adoption Chiasm), excerpted here:

Me: Anonymous, I gather, suffers from a Primal Wound.

“I was adopted as an infant, I have a great adoptive family that I love very much. I was not abused. I got everything I ever wanted, went to college and have had a good life. I would give it all up to have been raised by my 17 year old emotionally immature birth mother. I would give it all up to experience what it would be like to grow up feeling normal, like I belonged and happy.”

In essence, Anon asserts that the road not taken (the abstract) is superior to the good life s/he has had (the concrete).

The appeal of that road is that it is a fairy-tale road. There are never any potholes, and the sun always shines, but not too hot. It’s a smooth, gently sloping road with bounteous apple trees adorning the sides. In short, it’s the angel you don’t know compared to the devil you do.

No one can ever prove or disprove Anon’s notion that a life with a not-ready-to-parent biological mom would have been better than a life with those who parented her. Because we each get just one road.

This is the crux.

The comment started a new train of thought about roads not taken, which, as Melissa pointed out to me, is not just part of the adoption experience. It is part of the human experience.

On to my three chosen questions, asked by others touring with me.

Verrier presumes that most adoptive parents are ill equipped to handle the emotional complexities experienced by adoptees. Did/do you feel well prepared to address the sense of loss that your child might experience? How did you prepare yourself? How do you help/plan to help your child resolve his/her feelings about his/her adoption?

I went into parenting realizing that I was unprepared for both the parenting part and the adoptive parenting part, and also knowing that I would do my best to figure it all out.

To prepare myself, I have read lots and lots of first-person accounts of adoptees, running the gamut from happy to angry, which are very simplistic labels for very complex people.

I listen to what they say. I try to grasp what I can do to help (for example, keep communication open), what I should refrain from doing (for example, put the children in a position to divide their loyalties), and to also know when I cannot help — when I must simply abide with my children while they work things out.

And I ask for the wisdom to know the difference.

How do you think open adoption changes the feel of this book? If you don’t feel it changes it in any way, why? If you feel that it changes everything, in what ways? If you fall somewhere in the middle, how do you explain what does get changed and why other things are left unchanged?

I think open adoption does change the situation. I don’t think it ameliorates it, but it does go a ways in relieving the tension of all that not-knowing.

I have two main concerns about our open situations:

  1. Our daughter, in a fully open adoption with both first parents, has enough information on how her life would otherwise have been to build an idyllic picture in her head about it. She can see the grass on the other side of the fence, but it will never be her yard. Yet her older bio-brother gets to play there all the time (source).
  2. Our son’s is an open door adoption, meaning his first parents are welcome in our lives if they want to knock on the door. In meeting the needs of our daughter, are we making it more difficult for our son? One of our parenting challenges is to deal with the differing levels of openness our two children have.

As far as openness being an improvement over closed adoption, the proof is in the pudding. My children will be the final arbiters on this question as it pertains to them, in about a decade or two.

What signs did you see in your child that support the concept of a primal wound derived from separation of mother and child in the process of adoption?

I have what you might classify as a controlling child (I prefer to say assertive and spirited) and a compliant child (I prefer to say resilient and cuddly).

When we were going through reunion with my daughter’s first father, I did also notice a push/pull as she was simultaneously drawn to Joe and also needed to know she was firmly rooted with us:

One afternoon we had an out-of-proportion argument over chores. She went from zero to steam-coming-out-the-ears in a flash. Her eyes a-blazing, she hissed, “And if I don’t, are you going to send me to Joe?”


Sudden flash of insight: she wasn’t JUST worried that we would keep her from meeting Joe. She was ALSO worried that we might abdicate our place as her parents. This thought, I believe, filled her with terror. Like an earthquake was about to hit.

While I don’t take it as gospel, I do recommend The Primal Wound for adoptive parents and pre-adoptive parents. Further, I recommend that the book be read periodically as the child grows and experiences different stages of cognitive development. It is also helpful to listen to the voices of adult adoptees — for me, anyway.

17 thoughts on “The Primal Wound Book Tour”

  1. Thanks Lori!

    I was trying to put into words my concern that a great deal of what she talks about applies to human beings in general, and that in some ways we’re all wounded. Thanks for putting it together so gracefully.

    I agree that she brings up some very good and even possibly likely theories that I will hold with me as V grows, but due to her lack of true research will also keep it in check as well.

  2. I actually thought a lot about posts you had written regarding your daughter’s push/pull emotions while reading this book. So on the one hand I thought, well maybe Verrier is on to something. I also have a family friend (about 22) who REALLY seems to prove this thesis. Due to my own position in life (as a birthmother) I’m constantly analyzing their family dynamic and wondering if they have a bad relationship just b/c or if a lot of that struggle stems from the fact that she’s adopted….

    And then there are so many adoptees and adoptive families that seem to not have those issues. Are they just lucky? Are they just in denial of emotions that may lurk below? Again, it’s impossible and unfair to generalize. We would never say that every single brunette boy with two older sisters behaves like XYZ, right? People are too complex.

  3. Great, great, great post Lori! I think the you nailed what I was feeling in that a lot of the issues in the book can pertain to anyone. Hilary made a similar comment: replace “adoption” with almost anything: divorce family, single parent, low-income, high-income, absent (emotionally) parent and you can end up with someone who suffers all theses same problems.

    I look forward to reading everyone else’s answers.

  4. such excellent analysis! I love how you weave in the examples of tessa and reed, and anon’s comment re: the road not taken. and how much of what the author describes applies to so many people that it’s unfair to generalize.

    thanks so much for organizing this tour! it’s wonderful to read everyone’s thoughts and perspective.

  5. Thanks Lori. This makes me feel better. Your stating that many people have similar personalities is true. This is a great perspective from an adoptive mother’s point of view. I also love all the things you discuss about the open adoption.

  6. Have you read her second book? I read it awhile ago and need to reread it, but I think she is more scientific in her approach if I recall correctly.

  7. Wow… so many good insights to chew on. Lori, the fact that we all only get one road is both simple and profound… It is so true that we can never know with certainly the outcome of any “coulda, woulda, shoulda” that we didn’t take.

    I also was a bit disappointed in the seemingly vague “research”. Gonna see if I can find the second book and check it out. For me, it didn’t take away from the core premise of a newborn wound… but did make the outcomes much more ambiguous.

    As all have said too – we are humans and (of course!) capable of re-routing our destinies for a variety of reasons. It will likely be incredibly hard to nail down the specific results of an adoption or abandonment experience, that are not at all influenced by other factors.

    And Deb, I agree that we may be on the brink of learning that newborn adoption is not “ideal” for the babe. Great point.

    Thanks Lori for organizing the tour! I’m off to some other stops now.

  8. I know people who are adopted and who HAVE adopted who have these issues, and people who don’t.

    I know people who have these issues with their BIOLOGICAL children.

    Sometimes, I think that being a human child, teenager, and adult comes with a host of problems, and we look for a cause. If there is an easy variable to isolate, like adoption, we point to it. However, often these anecdotal stories are told out of a larger context, which is that these problems occur with the same frequency in tradition, nuclear families.

  9. I really found myself wishing that Verrier had spoken more in her book, about the differences in the trauma experience, and their levels of impact. What the trauma was(adoption separation, illness-pain, premature birth…)I believe decides the intensity of the problems (RAD, ODD, ADD, autism, sensory disorder, OCD…)and the ability to heal. I honestly believe that adoption separation, for newborns-18mons especially, creates a severe break in the natural development process. I mean for how long have we known that a newborn can tell his own mother from others at birth, and that he does not see himself as a separate being from her until around 18 mons post birth? So when the child is placed during that stage of development with a different mother, that loss is truly cellular to him. He sees/feels loss of self first and foremost and that is an interrupt in the natural developmental process. Second to this he feels loss of ability to trust in those in control, because of feelings rooted in rejection by/loss of the mother. These are two different things. This also in my mind flips that old belief that the younger a child is at placement the better it will be for him or her. Perhaps the younger a child is, the worse the damage, since it is developmental damage as well as fear and trust issues? Through my own experience, adopting 3 newborns, I think I now believe that they are more adversely affected than an older child, one who has had the opportunity to complete that developmental process with the original mother, even if she is not always present or positive to interact with. Thinking about it this way has shown me that my children cope with not one loss but two.
    Hoping this makes some sense.
    I am looking forward to reading all the posts during this event. Iwas sorry my own blog is defunct and I did not sign up in time to participate. You did get me to reread and reconsider the info in Primal Wound, so thanks Lori!

  10. What I love most about this post is your personal insight and experience in open adoption and the differences and non-differences it creates in the theory of the Primal Wound.

    Back in the late 80’s, I was at the start of open adoption and even a step further into what it truly meant back in those times as I was one of the few, who back then, actually had promsied visits with my son. For the first two years his adoption was very open as promised, in his third year it became a semi-open adoption and in his fifth year it closed completely.

    So for me, since open adoption was the start of my path and now being on the other side with being able to see personal how adoption has and has not affected my son, I am very curious about others experience with open adoption because I do wonder what would have been different and would have been the same had my son’s adoption not closed when he was so young.

    I’m not saying I believe open adoption is the absolute answer to any of the concerns brougth up in Primal Wound. I just find myself overly curious and interested in those like yourself who help me to gain some insight to where the difference may lay in the different types of adoptions.

    Thanks for sharing and for this great book tour. I have enjoyed it already and look forward to the next couple of days.

  11. I thought I was going to go to bed, but I couldn’t without coming by and seeing if today was the book discussion day.

    I’m going to come back and read your analysis more closely and follow some of your links. Fascinating, and has important application beyond the Adoption World, I think.

    Great job, Lori. You should have yourself a congratulatory glass of wine…a nice red?

  12. I was totally intrigued when you talked about this book and after reading this blog post, I can see why. SUCH a great analysis!

  13. In talking with you about the book and reading some other stops on the book tour, I’ve thought about the primal wound as being adoption-related. That is, intellectually interesting but not relevant to me directly.

    Until I saw the part about incubators. Which is entirely relevant to me and my children.

    I have to wonder how much impact comes from the separation itself, and how much comes from the parents’ reaction to the separation. Many NICU parents never fully recover. I like to think we have dealt with it better than most, but the feeling of being unable to hold my daughter for the first day of her life is a hard one to shake.

    So, bringing it back to adoption, even if it’s a secret from the child, the adoptive parents still know and perhaps behave differently, in subtle and not necessarily bad ways, than they would with a bio child.

    I wonder if there were a situation where no one involved knew that there’d been any separation (accidentally switched at birth, perhaps?), whether there really would be a primal wound. If a tree falls in the forest…

  14. Having not read the book, it’s tough for me to comment. But having read your review and the questions and answers you provided piques my interest.

    Although this book focuses on the primal wound related to adoption, it seems like it could be broadened to include many aspects of the human condition.

    Very thought provoking! Thanks for all of your hard work on this book tour.

  15. Really interesting response, thank you so much Lori.

    I am not involved in an adoptive situation whatsoever, but while I was working as a mental health counselor, I just so happened to work with some clients who happened to be adopted (as well as more, obviously, who had not).

    I think a lot of us have wounds from various experiences in our early life. Adoption can certainly be one of them. What I always found so interesting about counseling, though, is that whether something wounds, and to what degree, depends on the person. I wouldn’t doubt that the Primal Wound exists for some adoptees. But for others, I imagine it doesn’t factor nearly so heavily — and there is a spectrum in between.

  16. “Being wanted by my adoptive parents doesn’t compare to being unwanted by my birthmother. — an adoptee.”

    Everytime I see this quote somewhere I cringe. It sucks because it is true…it sucks because I don’t want it to be true.

  17. Interesting thoughts. I wish I had time to read all the posts on the book. So far, just Luna’s and Batty’s.

    I haven’t read the book and I may be misinterpreting things, but I just have a hard time believing it is THAT big of a deal. Not that there isn’t an impact, but how much compared to everything else we experience as humans?

    To me it is like saying stress causes infertility. Sure, it may have an impact, but don’t blocked tubes or suboptimal sperm have a bigger one?

    I just don’t see how it is that simple. If it is, perhaps the basis of my personality is rooted in my mom’s scheduled c-section. Maybe that is why I have no patience (having been born quickly, instead of having to work at it) or maybe that is why my sister (same situation) needs to hold on to things – because she was ripped from the womb before she was ready.

    Personally, I think it has more to do with a chaotic childhood with a mentally ill father than our birth experience. Life can be difficult and challenging for all kinds of reasons, not just our first experiences after birth.

    I don’t mean to poo-poo the book either. It is better to be aware and decide it is not (or is) an issue than to pretend the issue doesn’t exist at all.

    Also, as I mentioned in my other two comments, how much does conflicting personalities make a difference? Not that there is any guarantee with biological families (don’t ever tell me I am like my mom!), but a major difference could add extra challenges. This is where I think open adoption can help – if the parents click, they probably have similar personalities.

    Thanks for the thoughtful posts. A good subject. I hope I get time to read others.

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