Those Rages

From the very beginning to the very end of our lives together, Casey suffered from violent and debilitating rages and temper tantrums. The slightest thing would seem to set her off. She wouldn’t accept our attempts at comfort, so she was left alone to thrash around in her room until she fell asleep, waking up the next morning a new person, as if she’d exorcised an evil spirit inside her.

The “experts” told us she’d grow out of it; we just had to be tougher with her. How clueless they – and we – were.

Imagine if you’d been abandoned by your mother, for whatever reason. What if she had other children? You could be living in Shangri-La (as Casey did in Northern California) as opposed to rural Poland. It’s not surprising that your thoughts would turn to, “Why did you keep them and not me?” That would be enough to enrage me. And who would you take it out on? Your adoptive parents.

This is a scene from The Girl Behind The Door about Erika, Casey’s and my first night together in our hotel room in Warsaw on a hot night in July, 1991 when we first discovered the depth of Casey’s rage.

*   *   *

 I’d never fed a baby before and felt like I’d been given a ticking hand grenade. I cradled Casey awkwardly in the crook of my arm, trying not to drop the bottle. She had a blissful look on her face, eyes half shut as she finished. I took the bottle from her and looked for something to wipe her mouth with, finally using my shirttail. She gazed at me, just as she had in the orphanage the day before. Now what do I do? Erika was still in the bathroom.

I walked her over to the window. We had an expansive view of a drab, gray sprawling city. A faint pinkish-red sunset filtered through a thin layer of smog. Across the street was one of the tallest and, perhaps, ugliest buildings in Europe, the Palace of Culture and Science. Built in the fifties, it was a ‘gift’ from the Soviet Union.

Casey looked out at the view, seemingly mesmerized by the flow of traffic down below, a bustling swarm of small cars and trucks that must have looked like toys to her. Erika returned from the bathroom looking weary but happy. “Did you remember to burp her?”

“Burp her?” I remembered reading about it in a baby book somewhere. Erika rolled her eyes as she took Casey from me, hoisting her over her shoulder. “You always burp a baby after she eats.”

I called room service to order sandwiches, beer and hot water for making baby formula, and then flipped through the channels on the TV – a Russian game show, German news, Italian soccer, French political talk show, Polish documentary on Hitler, CNN. Thank God, something I could understand.

Erika buckled Casey back into her stroller and parked her three feet from the TV. She stared at the screen, unblinking, apparently hypnotized by the wonders of television and the news of the world.

I collapsed on the hard beds, spent, as a breaking story came on about Boris Yeltsin, the first elected president of Russia. “How long have we been at this parenting now? Four hours? I’m exhausted. I don’t know how I’m going to get through this for another eighteen years.”

Erika plopped down next to me. “Get used to it.”

My eyes fixated on Casey in the stroller in front of the flickering light. Here we were watching TV together. “Just kidding. I meant to say it was a good exhausted. I’m loving every minute of it.”

By the time room service arrived with our dinner and we ate, it was close to ten o’clock. Casey was still awake in front of the TV, squirming in her stroller. “Let’s put her to bed.” Erika unsnapped her from the stroller, checked her diaper and laid her in the crib on her belly with a wool blanket, the pink squeaky doll, a stuffed bunny and a goose down comfort pillow she’d bought at a gift shop in Warsaw.

Casey kicked and thrashed like a turtle trying to right itself, then pulled herself up into a crouched position on her hands and knees. Letting out a soft hum, she rocked back and forth on her knees while staring straight ahead.

Erika and I watched, transfixed, through the bars of the crib. She seemed to have no awareness that we were there. Erika whispered, “Oh my God. I think she’s trying to rock herself to sleep.” I studied her. “Wow. We saw those kids on TV in the Romanian orphanages do the same thing.”

Erika and I watched, transfixed, through the bars of the crib. She seemed to have no awareness that we were there. Erika whispered, “Oh my God. I think she’s trying to rock herself to sleep.” I studied her. “Wow. We saw those kids on TV in the Romanian orphanages do the same thing.”

She was referring to an ABC News 20/20 exposé we’d seen the year before about Romanian children abandoned in state orphanages, the disastrous result of a bizarre plan concocted by the Ceauşescu dictatorship to force women to bear children for the state. The televised images were heartbreaking – youngsters in straightjackets confined to metal bed frames in bleak, cold rooms; mentally disturbed adolescents left alone in silence, rocking back and forth; neglected infants drowning in their own filth, too weak to cry.

After about ten minutes, Casey tired herself out, collapsing in a heap crying. Maybe it was her rattly cough that kept her from sleeping. Erika jumped out of bed, picked her up, bouncing and shushing her, but Casey’s distress seemed to get worse. Her crying became an ear-piercing scream.

I’d never heard such a desperate wail. Didn’t she have an off switch somewhere? We’d had a long day and needed sleep. Erika kept bouncing her up and down, rocked her back and forth, sat her by the TV, but she wouldn’t settle down.

An hour later, at eleven o’clock, Casey finally calmed herself. Erika laid her back down on her stomach in the crib, kissing her hot sweaty head, covering her with the wool blanket and pulling the comfort pillow up close to her face.

Casey Photos 1991-96_0042

We looked at each other, exhausted. I felt like we were two bomb disposal experts who’d just defused an improvised explosive device. Looking over the bar of the crib, careful not to disturb her, I listened to her breathe. Her nose was stuffy so she breathed through her mouth, wheezing from the congestion in her chest. I whispered to her, “Poor kid. You won’t be alone at night anymore.”

Then I blew her a kiss goodnight.

8 thoughts on “Those Rages

  1. When I read your blog I couldn’t help but think of our son. The similarities are almost eerie. Except for the fact that Casey is a girl in the video that could be my 10 year old. His rocking has lessened but to this day he rolls back and forth in bed, singing, to lull himself to sleep.
    John, since our first email exchange I felt like my family was not alone out there. Every time I read your blog or look at the website I thank God that you have the courage and strength to share this wonderful and tragic experience with the world. You are making a difference – you are making us aware. We are fortunate right now – the anger and rages have subsided, the meltdowns are almost non-existent. I welcome the peace but am ever wary of its return. Perhaps it won’t come back-maybe it will. I find myself following my gut more than expert advice from schools or therapists. It’s through other families’ experiences that we can learn the most about our kids. Thank you for sharing this most difficult pain. I speak with my son very candidly about any and all issues he raises. I can’t change his biological parents or his past-I can help him work through his feelings. Thankfully he has started talking and sharing with me. Thank you John.

  2. John, thank you for your beautiful descriptive writing. On top of the orphanage deprivation, many of our kids’ nervous systems were injured by their parent’s govt-subsidized vodka drinking. The more I read up on Eastern Europe history and culture, the more I understand, and forgive. But I have 2 challenging teens from Russia and don’t see how they will ever become self-sufficient. John, thank you to you and Erika for sharing your pain, observations, and wisdom.

    • Thanks Marianne! While Casey’s orphanage was about as pleasant as an orphanage can be, she probably spent most of her time in her crib. We were told that about 2/3 of the kids were handicapped so the staff was pre-occupied just doing damage control. Beyond that I have no idea what other biological issues she might have been exposed to.

  3. Erika and John your story is courageous and beautiful.Through your stories I am sure will help so many to heal and cope. It might not be a summer sizzler for the beach but do believe you have great messages to convey. Please don’t give up!

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