Attachment in Popular Literature

The whole theory of Attachment only came into the scientific literature in the middle 1900s. It was developed by the psychiatrist John Bowlby who then studied the effects of emotionally distant parents on the lives of their children. There were thousands of these children and adolescents in the aftermath of the second world war. Even though Attachment Theory is now used  by every agency that deals with young children (and it is part of the mental health diagnostics for children), it is relatively unknown to everyday parents. However you will have come across its effect in your own life, of those around you, and most certainly in popular literature.

The book: Leila’s Secret by Kooshyar Karimi

This book tells the parallel true stories of an Iranian woman “destined to be stoned to death” and an Iranian doctor “who risks his own life to save her”.

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“I still have another eleven months of military service to complete in Quchan, and I plan to travel between the two towns every week, spending one or two days with my family and the rest working at the military base hospital.

The arrangement is far from ideal – I won’t see enough of my wife and daughter- but I’m used to making do, having grown up in a destitute family where my father was often absent and my mother struggled constantly. My father drove a bus between Mashhad and Tehran and was regularly away for days at a time. I’d see him maybe once a week but he was always emotionally remote. In spite of that, I would stay awake at night waiting for him to come home, and when he did, way after midnight, the smell of diesel on his clothes as he stepped into our single-room house was an aroma of delight and relief. The solitude I endured as a child prepared me for the sacrifices I made as a man.

But I want a proper family life for Newsha. She will never have to worry about where the next meal is coming from, and will never feel rats running across her bed in the middle of the night as I did, but food and material goods don’t of themselves fashion a family. I want my daughter to be bathed in love, to know that her father adores her. I want to be someone she never has to doubt, as steady as a rock, utterly dependable…. I want the world for her, quite literally. But for the next little while, I am going to be an absentee father, and it makes me sick at heart.”

The book: My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain. 

Kathleen is a sophisticated single thirty-something travel writer whose best friend has recently died. She has taken time out from her job to go back to Ireland, her roots, where she is trying to sort herself out and think things through. She is a troubled young woman. This segment from the novel is one of her insightful moments and beautifully describes the beginnings of healthy mental health.


Ella held Ollie upright in front of her by his plump upper arms. He fitted perfectly against her skirt. She walked him in front of her, steering him to put one wavering bare foot forward – first this one, then the other one – by nudges from her wide thighs. He must have felt very safe – held so firmly in the shelter of her legs. But his round face was frowning, the lips pouted with effort. He looked at his grandfather crouched on a level with him, a few feet away from him on the lawn. He looked at the outstretched arms, and the piece of yellow biscuit in each hand.

There’s a good Ollie! They were saying. There’s a good little boy! I laid my hand on Spot’s silky head, to keep him from moving. We were immobile as spectators, but Ella and Bertie were as pliant as reeds, bending into the little boy with no thought but of him. Ollie strained forward, and his mother let his arms go, and for a few seconds he teetered, there in the sunlight, upright for the first time. It seemed, for a split second, that everything waited for him. Even the ducks in the tin bath under the apple tree stopped squawking. Then he plopped down, hard, on his padded behind. He didn’t have time to cry because Ella scooped him up again.

There’s a good boy Bertie called to him lovingly! There’s the best little boy in the world!

His shorts and nappy had fallen around his ankles. He looked down at them in bewilderment, and then lifted his face to his mother, expecting her to do something about it. She slipped his legs free with one smooth move.

She moved him forward again in front of her, her hands big and red on the white skin of his shoulders. His thin torso and the pink cheeks of his bottom and his tiny penis looked new to the world, naked below his little shirt. But he was more confident now. She let him go again, and he wobbled again, and she caught him. She let go again. The chubby legs held under him.

The mother arched up over him, and steadied him, and let him go again, and this time he did it – he stumbled across the grass into the welcoming grasp of his grandfather. Maybe five or six headlong steps was all he’d done, but he had moved from one set of arms to the other without falling.

Well! Aren’t you the great little fellow!

I threw myself back on the garden seat, a tension I hadn’t known I felt flowing out of me. These were the moments of the end of Ollie’s infancy and the beginning of a long life of walking. And I felt as if I had crossed a threshold too. To be absorbed by watching a child learn to walk! To have arrived somewhere where I knew people who taught children to walk!

We went for a walk along the lane at sundown, the dog and I. The scene in the garden had entered into my heart, and I thought about it as I walked .. The people I know who are very well – this is what must have happened to them. Their mothers must have led them forward into the world. The mother stands behind the child, and lets him move forward on his shaky bandy legs, and he knows that there is a mass of love behind and above him – so attentive to him that even when he falls, he is safe.

They can look with perfect candour into the faces of people they love, their selves forgotten. They are not afraid to forget themselves… They are themselves through and through….

I stopped for a moment, leaving the lane, by an idea. Suppose my mother was raised in one of those brutal orphanages, where they whipped you if you wet your cot? That would explain why she didn’t know that mothers are supposed to love their children.”

The book: Cruel and Unusual by Patricia Cornwell

“… I patched up the holes guilt had chewed into my consciousness. Whenever I dealt with my family, I felt irritated and annoyed. Whenever I refused to deal with them, I felt the same way I had as a child, when I learned the art of running away without leaving home.  In a sense I had become my father after he died. I was the rational one who made straight A’s and knew how to cook and handle money. I was the one who rarely cried and whose reaction to the volatility in my disintegrating home was to cool down and disperse like a vapour. Consequently, my mother and sister accused me of indifference, and I grew up harbouring a secret shame that what they said was true. (Kay Scarpetta, medical examiner, main character in the Patricia Cornwell series)

The book: The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom

Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of the handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged pieces beyond repair.

The damage done by Eddie’s father was, at the beginning, the damage of neglect. As an infant, Eddie was rarely held… and as a child he was mostly grabbed by the arm less with love than with annoyance…

Still for countless hours of his…youth, Eddie wanted for his father’s attention….

This was their life together. Neglect. Violence. Silence. An now, someplace beyond death… Eddie was stung again by the denial of a man whose love, almost inexplicably, he still coveted, a man still ignoring him. His father. The damage done.