Listen. It is 1941 in Bergen-Belson concentration camp, a non-extermination camp where many prisoners died nonetheless of starvation. Francine Christophe is 8 years old, bearing a large Star of David (Juif) on her chest, imprisoned there with her mother, the barracks head. A strong and reassuring mother, keeping chocolate for the moment her daughter needed it the most.

Listen. As now-83-year-old Francine Christophe – holocaust survivor, writer, and poet – tells you how her mother and she and her piece of chocolate saved an emaciated woman giving birth in the camp. Not only that – how years later, she was given that chocolate back.

Hers is a story of human kindness in the face of Nazi horror. But, it is also the story of mothers and daughters. Of Francine and her mother. Of a barely alive mother giving birth to a baby girl. Of Francine’s daughter, many years later, asking if her mom might have fared better with psychological counseling after the war. Francine’s answer: “No one thought of mental heath then.”

Let’s think of mental health now – particularly the mental health of babies and children. Their need for a mother they know is emotionally present and strong enough to count on. How babies might be alive (but barely) – held in suspension – if they aren’t certain they have that kind of mother.

This is a psychological fact.

I see it all the time in my office – in those who didn’t have a mother they could count on as Francine did even in the direst of conditions. In children whose attachments are insecure; in adults – who still have a scared little child living inside them; in those who had an inattentive or rejecting mom; who suffered deprivations; lost a mom in one way or in another too early in life.

Pediatrician turned psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnicott, provocatively said: “There is no baby without a mother.” What does that mean?  Of course, there is a baby.  But, what kind of baby – in what kind of state? It is terrifying, virtually impossible to be an infant alone. It cannot survive.

This is a psychological truth.

Francine Christophe tells of how her chocolate saved the mother of a baby born into terror – to a mother who might not live. This baby, a feeble little thing, didn’t cry. Didn’t even wail. She couldn’t. A sound might have alerted that baby’s fragile self to the fear her mother wouldn’t survive. But, when the camp was liberated 6 months later and they unwrapped the baby’s rags – the baby screamed. Francine Christophe says: “That – was when she was born.”

Before that moment, that same baby – entering life into the most tenacious of circumstances – was in suspended animation. Waiting. Waiting to be sure her mother lived. Until then, she could not feel or want – anything. First things first. She must be sure she had a mother. Only then, with that certainty, could that baby come alive.

Francine Christophe’s story goes back in the world’s history to unimaginable atrocities, to a time in her own history of utter fear. Yet she had a mother she could turn to. A mother that, in conditions of starvation and terror, made sure Francine did not starve emotionally. No baby or child can settle into who they are (and will become) without a strong, available, and reliable mom. A mother that isn’t too frightened to live.

Where there’s been no such mom, what I see in my office is a life stilled: a self sealed off behind numb walls of hopelessness and anxious thoughts. Waiting: to scream and cry and live. It is my task as a therapist to offer therapeutic chocolate. To find that frozen self. Understand its fear. Give it a place to feel. Set it free.

*Francine Christophe’s interview is from Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s (3 Volume) Human: The Movie.

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