Can An Unlove Child Learn to Love?
The Atlantic|July - August 2020
Can An Unlove Child Learn to Love?
Thirty years ago, the world discovered tens of thousands of children warehoused in Romanian orphanages, deprived of human contact and affection. They’re adults now.
By Melissa Fay Greene

FOR HIS FIRST THREE YEARS OF LIFE, IZIDOR LIVED AT THE HOSPITAL.

The dark-eyed, black-haired boy, born June 20, 1980, had been abandoned when he was a few weeks old. The reason was obvious to anyone who bothered to look: His right leg was a bit deformed. After a bout of illness (probably polio), he had been tossed into a sea of abandoned infants in the Socialist Republic of Romania.

In films of the period documenting orphan care, you see nurses like assembly-line workers swaddling newborns out of a seemingly endless supply; with muscled arms and casual indifference, they sling each one onto a square of cloth, expertly knot it into a tidy package, and stick it at the end of a row of silent, worried-looking papooses. The women don’t coo or sing to the babies. You see the small faces trying to fathom what’s happening as their heads whip by during the wrapping maneuvers.

In his hospital, in the Southern Carpathian mountain town of Sighetu Marmaţiei, Izidor would have been fed by a bottle stuck into his mouth and propped against the bars of a crib. Well past the age when children in the outside world began tasting solid food and then feeding themselves, he and his age-mates remained on their backs, sucking from bottles with widened openings to allow the passage of a watery gruel. Without proper care or physical therapy, the baby’s leg muscles wasted. At 3, he was deemed “deficient” and transferred across town to a Cămin Spital Pentru Copii Deficienţi, a Home Hospital for Irrecoverable Children.

The cement fortress emitted no sounds of children playing, though as many as 500 lived inside at one time. It stood mournfully aloof from the cobblestone streets and sparkling river of the town where Elie Wiesel had been born, in 1928, and enjoyed a happy childhood before the Nazi deportations.

The windows on Izidor’s third-floor ward had been fitted with prison bars. In boyhood, he stood there often, gazing down on an empty mud yard enclosed by a barbed-wire fence. Through bare branches in winter, Izidor got a look at another hospital that sat right in front of his own and concealed it from the street. Real children, children wearing shoes and coats, children holding their parents’ hands, came and went from that hospital. No one from Izidor’s Cămin Spital was ever taken there, no matter how sick, not even if they were dying.

Like all the boys and girls who lived in the hospital for “irrecoverables,” Izidor was served nearly inedible, watered-down food at long tables where naked children on benches banged their tin bowls. He grew up in overcrowded rooms where his fellow orphans endlessly rocked, or punched themselves in the face, or shrieked. Out-of-control children were dosed with adult tranquilizers, administered through unsterilized needles, while many who fell ill received transfusions of unscreened blood. Hepatitis B and HIV/AIDS ravaged the Romanian orphanages.

Izidor was destined to spend the rest of his childhood in this building, to exit the gates only at 18, at which time, if he were thoroughly incapacitated, he’d be transferred to a home for old men; if he turned out to be minimally functional, he’d be evicted to make his way on the streets. Odds were high that he wouldn’t survive that long, that the boy with the shriveled leg would die in childhood, malnourished, shivering, unloved.

THIS PAST CHRISTMAS DAY was the 30th anniversary of the public execution by firing squad of Romania’s last Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, who’d ruled for 24 years. In 1990, the outside world discovered his network of “child gulags,” in which an estimated 170,000 abandoned infants, children, and teens were being raised. Believing that a larger population would beef up Romania’s economy, Ceaușescu had curtailed contraception and abortion, imposed tax penalties on people who were childless, and celebrated as “heroine mothers” women who gave birth to 10 or more. Parents who couldn’t possibly handle another baby might call their new arrival “Ceauşescu’s child,” as in “Let him raise it.”

To house a generation of unwanted or unaffordable children, Ceauşescu ordered the construction or conversion of hundreds of structures around the country. Signs displayed the slogan: the state can take better care of your child than you can.

At age 3, abandoned children were sorted. Future workers would get clothes, shoes, food, and some schooling in Case de copii— “children’s homes”—while “deficient” children wouldn’t get much of anything in their Cămine Spitale. The Soviet “science of defectology” viewed disabilities in infants as intrinsic and uncurable. Even children with treatable issues—perhaps they were cross-eyed or anemic, or had a cleft lip—were classified as “unsalvageable.”

After the Romanian revolution, children in unspeakable conditions— skeletal, splashing in urine on the floor, caked with feces—were discovered and filmed by foreign news programs, including ABC’s 20/20, which broadcast “Shame of a Nation” in 1990. Like the liberators of Auschwitz 45 years before, early visitors to the institutions have been haunted all their lives by what they saw. “We flew in by helicopter over the snow to Siret, landing after midnight, subzero weather, accompanied by Romanian bodyguards carrying Uzis,” Jane Aronson tells me. A Manhattan-based pediatrician and adoption-medicine specialist, she was part of one of the first pediatric teams summoned to Romania by the new government. “We walk into a pitch-black, freezing-cold building and discover there are youngsters lurking about—they’re tiny, but older, something weird, like trolls, filthy, stinking. They’re chanting in a dronelike way, gibberish. We open a door and find a population of ‘cretins’— now it’s known as congenital iodine deficiency syndrome; untreated hypothyroidism stunts growth and brain development. I don’t know how old they were, three feet tall, could have been in their 20s. In other rooms we see teenagers the size of 6- and 7-yearolds, with no secondary sexual characteristics. There were children with underlying genetic disorders lying in cages. You start almost to disassociate.”

“I walked into an institution in Bucharest one afternoon, and there was a small child standing there sobbing,” recalls Charles A. Nelson III, a professor of pediatrics and neuro science at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital. “He was heartbroken and had wet his pants. I asked, ‘What’s going on with that child?’ A worker said, ‘Well, his mother abandoned him this morning and he’s been like that all day.’ That was it. No one comforted the little boy or picked him up. That was my introduction.”

Children at the Home Hospital for Irrecoverable Children in Sighetu Marmaţiei, Romania, in September 1992

The Romanian orphans were not the first devastatingly neglected children to be seen by psychologists in the 20th century. Unresponsive World War II orphans, as well as children kept isolated for long periods in hospitals, had deeply concerned mid-century child-development giants such as René Spitz and John Bowlby. In an era devoted to fighting malnutrition, injury, and infection, the idea that adequately fed and medically stable children could waste away because they missed their parents was hard to believe. Their research led to the thenbold notion, advanced especially by Bowlby, that simply lacking an “attachment figure,” a parent or caregiver, could wreak a lifetime of havoc on mental and physical health.

Neuroscientists tended to view “attachment theory” as suggestive and thought- provoking work within the “soft science” of psychology. It largely relied on case studies or correlational evidence or animal research. In the psychologist Harry Harlow’s infamous “maternal deprivation” experiments, he caged baby rhesus monkeys alone, offering them only maternal facsimiles made of wire and wood, or foam and terry cloth.

In 1998, at a small scientific meeting, animal research presented back-to-back with images from Romanian orphanages changed the course of the study of attachment. First the University of Minnesota neonatal-pediatrics professor Dana Johnson shared photos and videos that he’d collected in Romania of rooms teeming with children engaged in “motor stereotypies”: rocking, banging their heads, squawking. He was followed by a speaker who showed videos of her work with motherless primate infants like the ones Harlow had produced—swaying, twirling, self-mutilating. The audience was shocked by the parallels. “We were all in tears,” Nelson told me.

In the decade after the fall of Ceaușescu, the new Romanian government welcomed Western child-development experts to simultaneously help and study the tens of thousands of children still warehoused in state care. Researchers hoped to answer some long-standing questions: Are there sensitive periods in neural development, after which the brain of a deprived child cannot make full use of the mental, emotional, and physical stimulation later offered? Can the effects of “maternal deprivation” or “caregiver absence” be documented with modern neuro imaging techniques? Finally, if an institutionalized child is transferred into a family setting, can he or she recoup undeveloped capacities? Implicitly, poignantly: Can a person unloved in childhood learn to love?

TRACT DEVELOPMENTS FAN out from the Denver airport like playing cards on a table. The Great Plains have been ground down to almost nothing here, to wind and dirt and trash on the shoulder of the highway, to Walgreens and Arby’s and AutoZone. In a rental car, I drive slowly around the semicircles and cul-de-sacs of Izidor’s subdivision until I see him step out of the shadow of a 4,500-square-foot McMansion with a polite half-wave. He sublets a room here, as do others, including some families—an exurban commune in a single-family residence built for Goliaths. At 39, Izidor is an elegant, wiry man with mournful eyes. His manner is alert and tentative. A general manager for a KFC, he works 60-to-65-hour weeks.

“Welcome to Romania,” he announces, opening his bedroom door. It’s an entryway into another time, another place. From every visit to his home country, Izidor has brought back folk art and souvenirs— hand-painted glazed plates and teacups, embroidered tea towels, Romanian flags, shot glasses, wood figurines, cut-glass flasks of plum brandy, and CDs of Romanian folk music, heavy on the violins. He could stock a gift shop. There are thick wine-colored rugs, blankets, and wall hangings. The ambient light is maroon, the curtains closed against the high-altitude sunshine. Ten miles southwest of the Denver airport, Izidor is living in an ersatz Romanian cottage.

“Everyone in Maramureş lives like this,” he tells me, referring to the cultural region in northern Romania where he was born.

I’m thinking, Do they, though? “You will see that many people there have these things in their homes,” he clarifies. That sounds more accurate. People like knickknacks. “Do you sound like a Romanian when you visit?” I ask. “No,” he says. “When I start to speak, they ask, ‘Where are you from?’ I tell them: ‘From Maramureş!’ ” No one believes him, because of his accent, so he has to explain: “Technically, if you want to be logical about it, I am Romanian, but I’ve lived in America for more than 20 years.”

“When you meet new people, do you talk about your history?” “No, I try not to. I want to experience Romania as a normal human being. I don’t want to be known everywhere as ‘the Orphan.’ ” His precise English makes even casual phrases sound formal.

In his room, Izidor has captured the Romanian folk aesthetic, but something else stirs beneath the surface. I’m reminded of the book he self-published at age 22, titled Abandoned for Life. It’s a grim tale, but once, when he was about 8, Izidor had a happy day.

A kind nanny had started working at the hospital. “Onisa was a young lady, a bit chubby, with long black hair and round rosy cheeks,” Izidor writes in his memoir. “She loved to sing and often taught us some of her music.” One day, Onisa intervened when another nanny was striking Izidor with a broomstick. Like a few others before her, Onisa had spotted his intelligence. On the ward of semi-ambulatory (some crawled or creeped), slightly verbal (some just made noises) children, Izidor was the go-to kid if an adult had questions, like what was that one’s name or when had that one died. The director would occasionally peek in and ask Izidor if he and the other children were being hit; to avoid retribution, Izidor always said no.

On that day, to cheer him up after his beating, Onisa promised that someday she’d take him home with her for an overnight visit. Skeptical that such an extraordinary event would ever happen, Izidor thanked her for the nice idea.

A few weeks later, on a snowy winter day, Onisa dressed Izidor in warm clothes and shoes she’d brought from home, took him by the hand, and led him out the front door and through the orphanage gate. Walking slowly, she took the small boy, who swayed on uneven legs with a deep, tilting limp, down the lane past the public hospital and into the town. Cold, fresh air brushed his cheeks, and snow squeaked under his shoes; the wind rattled the branches; a bird stood on a chimney. “It was my first time ever going out into the world,” he tells me now. He looked in astonishment at the cars and houses and shops. He tried to absorb and memorize everything to report back to the kids on his ward.

“When I stepped into Onisa’s apartment,” he writes, “I could not believe how beautiful it was; the walls were covered with dark rugs and there was a picture of the Last Supper on one of them. The carpets on the floor were red.” Neighborhood children knocked on Onisa’s door to see if the strange boy from the orphanage wanted to come out and play, and he did. Onisa’s children arrived home from school, and Izidor learned that it was the start of their Christmas holiday. He feasted alongside Onisa’s family at their friends’ dinner table that night, tasting Romanian specialties for the first time, including sarmale (stuffed cabbage), potato goulash with thick noodles, and sweet yellow sponge cake with cream filling. He remembers every bite. On the living-room floor after dinner, the child of that household let Izidor play with his toys. Izidor followed the boy’s lead and drove little trains across the rug. Back at Onisa’s, he slept in his first-ever soft, clean bed.

The next morning, Onisa asked Izidor if he wanted to go to work with her or to stay with her children. Here he made a mistake so terrible that, 31 years later, he still remembers it with grief.

“I want to go to work with you!” he called. He was deep into a fantasy that Onisa was his mother, and he didn’t want to be parted from her. “I got dressed as fast as I could, and we headed out the door,” he remembers. “When we were near her work, I realized that her work was at the hospital, my hospital, and I began to cry … It had only been 24 hours but somehow I thought I was going to be part of Onisa’s family now. It didn’t occur to me that her work was actually at the hospital until we were at the gate again. I felt so shocked when we turned into the yard it was like I’d forgotten I came from there.”

He tried to turn back but wasn’t permitted. He’d found the most wonderful spot on Earth—Onisa’s apartment— and, through his own stupidity, had let it slip away. He sobbed like a newcomer until the other nannies threatened to slap him.

Today Izidor lives 6,000 miles from Romania. He leads a solitary life. But in his bedroom in a subdivision on a paved-over prairie, he has re-created the setting from the happiest night in his childhood.

“That night at Onisa’s,” I ask, “do you think you sensed that there were family relationships and emotions happening there that you’d never seen or felt before?”

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