Raising Abel covers the seventeen years between Carolyn's adoption of the three-year-old Abel, and his turning twenty-one......years of sweetness, violence, personal growth, and heartache. Carolyn. Nash, single and 37 when she adopted Abel from foster care, clearly had the nurturing heart of a mother. From the beginning, she was cut from good trauma-mama cloth, woven with patience, forgiveness, empathy and lots and lots of love - not affection, but true, committed, sacrificial love. From the beginning Abel tested her mettle, with tantrums born of PTSD, and behavioral issues stemming from early trauma and lack of nurture. The revelations of almost every kind of abuse make one marvel at the resilience of children and wonder that the residual effects weren't even worse.
The terrifying part of the book for me personally, was seeing how a little boy who was doing well, and even, seeming to master the difficult behaviors of his early childhood, was completely derailed by the inner shift wrought by puberty. A boy who clearly loved his adoptive mother, and who had obviously bonded with her, turned into a strong young man who could terrorize and even harm her in fits of PTSD, the triggers for which were now less easy to discern. I lost sleep over descriptions of Abel as a teen, enraged and out of control, chasing his mother through the night-time fields on their remote country property, and Abel, a body-builder, smashing all the windows of their truck, and the walls and the furniture, and everything he could see in their home. And tears flooded my eyes, as he sobbed in sorrow and shame over what he had done, and his terrified mother struggled to make life-altering decisions in response.
Surprising in a book of this sort, the reader is carried along on waves of suspense. For far too long, Carolyn loves and cares for this vulnerable little guy, while they both are tormented by visits and possible permanent return to his abusive mother. All the while Abel, only three, begins, bit by bit, to reveal the monstrous and unbelievable actions of adults who were supposed to love and protect him. Anyone with experience of the fractured, and so often error-ridden social service system won't be able to breathe quite normally for much of the book...and then, there are the disturbing and cloudy areas in Carolyn's own childhood, which prompted by Abel's revelations, and aided by a wonderful therapist, begin to reveal troubling mysteries from Carolyn's own past. Yes, for many reasons it is a page-turner, but probably the aspect of the book that causes the mother of a traumatized child to turn the pages with a mix of anticipation and apprehension is the question - will he - will they - be healed?
One of the most interesting aspects of this book for me was watching this story play out, as Carolyn adopts and raises Abel in the years just before many of the recent discoveries in brain research and neuroscience that have led people like Dan Hughes, Bruce Perry, Heather Forbes, Karyn Purvis and others to develop specific strategies for parenting children with early trauma. The first (and every subsequent) time Carolyn gives Abel a "time-out" it is all I could do not to cry out, "No! Time IN!!!" While I rejoiced in the therapeutic relationship with the gifted Amanda that led to so much growth on Carolyn's part, I chafed at the lack of information she received about how Abel was progressing with his counselor, and found myself aching for diadic therapy or Theraplay.
And, perhaps that is another of the suspenseful aspects of this story- will Carolyn's instincts - which are generally so right - win out over what was then (and is too often now) the conventional wisdom? Will her love be enough? As Abel's behavior becomes more severe she allows herself to (or perhaps it is better to say, she is forced to) turn to programs that focus on behavior rather than trauma resolution - and, sure enough - Abel goes through a behaviorally-based residential treatment program, which has the expected [by me] result - a short-term change followed by a resurfacing of the behaviors generated by the deep hurts and shame that a program like that will never touch (and will, in fact, make worse by adding the shame of failure). And Abel's mother, in desperation, also turns to hospitals and pharmaceutical interventions, only to find what an inexact science it is, sometimes making things worse rather than better.
Raising Abel is a beautifully written book, and not a difficult read. It focuses on the story, and does not pretend to educate or preach. While a parallel is drawn between Abel and the physically disabled sister of his best friend, that image is not necessary to get the point across - a child like Abel, no matter what his behavior looks like - deserves understanding and compassion. Any parent, any educator, will be drawn to make ones own conclusions but most assuredly, will grow in understanding and compassion in the process.