Tina Traster has a long history of telling it like it is. An award-winning journalist for more than 30 years, the straight-talking Traster has informed and entertained legions of fans with her articles in countless national newspapers, magazines, and her popular “Burb Appeal” column. Appearing in the New York Post, the ever-amusing column chronicled this city slicker’s exploits after she decamped to the burbs (aka: Rockland County) with her hubbie.
But in a new memoir, Traster tackles a more serious topic: How she coped when it became clear that her daughter, who was adopted from a Russian orphanage at eight months of age, was suffering from Reactive Attachment Disorder. What’s that, you may ask? In short, it’s when children who were institutionalized or otherwise grossly neglected in their infancy are not able to form healthy emotional bonds with their primary caregivers. Traster had never heard of it either, but since publishing Rescuing Julia Twice (Chicago Review Press, $24.95) in May, she has emerged as a leading expert on the disorder.
Suddenly, Traster is popping up everywhere to talk about RAD: on TV and radio shows (including Good Morning America); in the pages of The Atlantic (which excerpted the book); and on the Psychology Today Web site, where she has now become a regular blogger. “I get e-mails on a daily basis from people all over the world. Some want to share their stories. People say: ‘Thank you so much for putting this dirty little secret out there. I have struggled so long in isolation.’ I give them a disclaimer — I’m not a psychologist, I’m just one mother who has been through this and devoted her life to this.”
Traster says that there is a checklist “out there” detailing “what RAD kids look like. Julia had every single trait, except at the very extreme end of the spectrum when you are talking about killing animals and sexual promiscuity.” The list includes such difficult behaviors as being unable to give and receive love, being argumentative, being manipulative, having little or no conscience, and being prone to angry outbursts. As Traster writes in the book, “Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt make it look easy. They adopt kids from all corners of the world and the media broadcasts images of perfect Kodak moments. They’d have you believing families bond and blend instantaneously. They don’t. Not always. Not in my experience, or in the experience of many others.”
Traster describes the early years with Julia: “Strangers or fleeting caretakers tell me I have the most adorable, delicious, precocious, confident child. Some say she’s the most adorable, delicious, precocious, confident child they’ve ever encountered. I nod and smile and pretend to share their sentiment, but I keep my thoughts to myself. How can I explain to a stranger that at home this child is distant, elusive, emotionally closed off, and defiant? What stranger will not say, or at least think silently, ‘Really? I don’t see that. It must be you because she’s not like that with me.’ ”
So how did she cope? “First, I spent a year and I read absolutely everything that had ever been written about RAD. And I do mean everything. I do everything slightly over the top,” she says. “My husband and I formed a team and discussed all the techniques out there, then we started to extract out what sounded most sensible to us.” Some things, the pair didn’t approve of. “Holding therapy — where you force the child into physical intimacy. We both knew that would never work.”
But some of their techniques clearly did work, because, as Traster says, “We got her to attach to us when she was about four years old. Today, Julia is in seventh grade, she just made the honor roll, and is playing all-county violin. Her artistic skills are off the charts. She is one thousand percent attached to us — we are her whole world. I sleep pretty well at night now.”