Monday, August 4, 2014

Book Review: Too Scared To Cry

There were only three days left of summer school in the small town of Chowchilla California.  Twenty-six kids were riding the bus home when the bus driver slowed to a stop because a broken down van was blocking the road.  The moment the bus stopped three masked men with guns boarded the bus.  They drove the bus full of frightened children to a set of blacked out vans and then divided the kids in two groups and loaded them in the back of each van.  With no way of knowing what happened to the other van, they drove in darkness for the next eleven hours.  No food, No water, No bathrooms, No communication of any kind.
A few frightened kids tried to cheer themselves up by singing “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands.”  No one ever clapped.

Around midnight the vans stopped and after blinding the kids with flashlights and interrogating them, all the victims were forced to climb down into a large hole in the ground.  Once in the hole the kids found they were in a buried moving van, and they looked up to see the large metal doors swing shut on top of them.  They listened as they heard shovels full of dirt piling up on the doors above, and they realized they were all being buried alive.

After a few hours the bus driver and a few kids piled up everything they could find in the truck till they could reach the doors above them.  Then they started trying to pry them open and dig themselves out. 
Sixteen hours later they emerged, and found no sign of the kidnappers.  They found help, called the police, and were all quickly rescued by FBI and policeman alike.

All the victims were checked out by doctors and found to be in good health.  Other than some dehydration and a few cuts and bruises, the kids were “fine.” They returned to their homes to find mass media as the whole country had been watching and waiting for the outcome of this tragedy.

Everyone was elated – the kids were fine.  No one had been killed, molested, or physically injured.  The kidnappers had been arrested and would be sent to prison. Everything was gonna be okay.  

Months later a child psychiatrist specializing in childhood trauma called one of the parents to ask if she could come talk to one of the kidnapped children to gather some information for research and offer a little therapy.  The kidnapped child’s mother said “You are an angel of mercy, an answer to our prayers, come quickly.”

The kids were not fine.  Once the doctor saw the games they chose to play on the playground, heard the dreams they had, observed the ways the re-enacted the terror; she knew these kids were not even close to “fine.”
Eighteen months after the kidnapping, one of the older male victims was at home when a car broke down in front of his house.  His parents asked him to go help the driver. The boy walked out towards the broken down car and shot the driver with a BB gun, injuring the Japanese tourist.  The boy knew what happened when cars look “broken down” in Chowchilla.  He was going to be the hero this time, there would be no more kidnappings.

The rest of this book explores what Lenore Terr learned from her work with the Chowchilla kidnapping victims as well as hundreds of traumatized kids she has seen since.

It's been 38 years since the kidnapping:  What happened to all those kids?

There isn't a lot of information because most of them didn't want to talk about it it even at the 5 year follow-up, let alone the 10 or 15 year follow-up.
They want to move on (understandably) - but many of them are reliving the kidnapping or recreating it in their own lives without realizing it.

Most them them are doing fair, but suffer from "futurelessness" - they don't plan well for the future because they are sure something bad is going to happen and they'll die. So a few married at age 15 or 16 so they could marry before they died. Some are in prison for aggressive acts they committed when they were trying to be a hero and help someone.

Most of them moved away to get away from the reminders in town, only to move back later because they need the support of family and friends.

That's about all I could find.


This book is very sad, and very useful in my line of work.  It goes on my list of books such as Out of the Shadows and Crank: books that are needed, helpful, educational, enlightening, but not enjoyable.

Here are a few of the things I learned from reading:

Traumatic memories aren't well formed if they occurred before 28 months old. The kids still remember the trauma, and they are still troubled by it, but the memories are very vague.  - p. 181

Memories are not as vivid if it was a repeated trauma.  One time events stick in the mind more than repeated traumas. Details get confused and forgotten if it was repeated over and over again- p. 183

A sense of a limited future is a good indicator of childhood psychic trauma. The victims either don’t expect to live, expect to live alone, or they make mental plans without any physical action to make them happen. - p. 165

A useful trauma question: "What's the worst, the scariest thing that's ever happened to you?" - p. 180

There are four key repetitions that occur in childhood psychic trauma:
Dreams, Play, Reenactment, and Visualization - p. 279

After childhood trauma – usually grades do not go down. They hold steady where they were before the trauma.  Good grades don’t mean that the victim is “fine”– p. 293


Azona said...

For me, one of the biggest eye opening revelations she made was about how when severely traumatized, a child will either shrink back into passivity or lose their sense of fear. This is something that happened to me. I have no fear in the most alarming of situations. As an adult I've had a gun to my head twice, been confronted with abuse several times, all without fear. It is important to distinguish I do have anxiety, over things in my imagination or future perceived events, but when faced with an extremely traumatizing experience, I am not afraid, I go "calm". Her book is the first I've ever read that describes this phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for saying this - I, too, have anxiety over future perceived events but no fear, like you, I go calm. I thought it was an abnormal reaction...