Attachment Through the Lens of Amal Abbass
A Brief Introduction
In my last thirteen weeks in our Black German Art & Resistance class, I’ve come to question my own relationship with attachment styles in relationships. While there were many conversations that sparked and inspired this blog post, the ones that emboldened me the most were our class conversations with Denese Walters and Doris Walker-Mayberry and Amal Abbass. After having the privilege of listening to and learning from Amal Abbass about her work in psychotherapy and the impact of generational trauma on attachment, I was then confronted with two examples of Black German transnational adoptees who spoke of their own experiences with attachment: Doris and Denese. Hence, my own view of attachment contained this conversation with Denese and Doris through the lens of Amal Abbass’ work.
While working to fully understand Amal Abbass’ presentation of ideas, I did research on attachment theory’s history. The term Attachment Theory was originally coined by a man named John Bowlby in 1969 in order to describe attachment styles between children and their parents. His work jump started the work towards categorizing different types of attachment, which at the time was still specified to parental attachment. One scientist named Mary Ainsworth completed cross-cultural research between Uganda and Baltimore (which you can read more about here) which proved Bowlby’s theory with empirical evidence. From there on, the many attachment styles were formed (Agishtein 1).
The categories of attachment styles differ nowadays, though there are a few commonalities between them all. Attachment theory states that there are multiple attachment styles that are formed during a child’s formative years. There are always a few types of attachment that include people whose reactions to stress tend to be more organized. The most stable attachment is secure attachment, which is formed in an ideal space where parental guidance leads to children who feel safe and supported in the world. Often, psychologists add a disorganized attachment style which results from an unsafe environment in the home, typically developed in the first two years of life. The video below goes in depth with the different types of attachment.
My first introduction to attachment theory was in the fall of 2020, when one of my close friends showed me a book which had an attachment style quiz. Naturally, I was intrigued. So, I brushed off my once-addicted-to-Buzzfeed-quizzes self and filled out each bubble accordingly. My results came back as being anxiously attached, something I had expected. If you want to know your attachment style before continuing to read on, here is one for free!
I’m not the type of person to take a quiz and let it go. Rather, I ended up deep diving into attachment styles myself. My focus at the time was largely on better understanding myself and my experiences in past romantic relationships. So, throughout this article you’ll read about my own personal experiences with attachment style too. To be completely open and honest, the words you’re reading today are those of a white American college student who was raised with two loving parents, and I am taking on writing about Black German adoption attachment. My goal here is not to appear as a guide through a topic that I’m sure many people reading this know more about through firsthand experience than I ever will from reading about it. Rather, I aim to explore how we attach as humans, and how adoption and cultural differences can change the way we view attachment styles. If you’re up for an adventure of exploring the theory behind what makes us act the way we do in interpersonal relationships, I invite you to continue scrolling and join me.
Doris, Denese, and Amal
Denese Walters, Doris Walker-Mayberry, and Amal Abbass are all Black German women through whom I’ve come to better understand the psychological and personal perspective on attachment theory. Doris and Denese are both women who were adopted in the United States from Germany into Black families. Their lives have been filled with the unique experience of being US military children, while also being transnational adoptees. Their experiences are particularly uncommon as they went to high school together with Rosemarie Peña, and the three collectively are all Black German adoptees. Further, all three of them did not discuss their adoption status until much later in life when they were reunited as adults. To view my class’ discussion with Doris, Denese, and Rosemarie about this experience and many more:
While Doris and Denese are only two people and certainly do not represent all Black Germans, their stories have inspired me to write about attachment styles because of the stories they were so kind to share with our class.
Amal Abbass is a child psychotherapist, entrepreneur, activist, and so much more. In the conversation you can find here:
, we spoke with her in class about her experience in all of her roles, as well as her personal experiences being a Black German woman. There are many parts to this conversation, and I encourage you to watch it all of the way through. However, for sake of staying focused on a single topic, this post will center around her elaboration on trauma, generational trauma, and mental health. Withal, Amal Abbass is an extremely accomplished woman and I hope that you will choose to engage with our conversation linked above as well as her keynote lecture, which you can
At this point, it may not be obvious what the connection between these two seemingly random conversations is. To be frank, I’m not sure that I would have seen the value in putting these three voices in scholarly conversation had I not met them in the same week. Now, though, I see Amal Abbass’ work as the perfect framework through which to view Doris and Denese’s lives. While Amal speaks, works, and writes about trauma, Doris and Denese have lived it. Hence, this becomes a perfect way to examine attachment styles that Amal Abbass gives background to in her lecture. The following section is a deep dive into this topic, examining what I’ve learned about attachment theory from research and Amal Abbass and applying it to Doris and Denese.
Doris and Denese through Amal Abbass’ Work
During our talk with Amal Abbass, she spoke largely about trauma and its effects on all people later on. About 20 minutes into the video, Amal Abbass speaks about the fact that trauma is carried with us, whether we block it out or not. Then, at 28:19 she speaks about the parts of generational trauma. This will focus largely on that portion of the conversation with her, as her speech about generational trauma directly relates to Doris and Denese’s perspectives on their attachment styles.
Beginning at 28:19 in this video, Amal Abbass explains Rites of Passage. To paraphrase for sake of simplicity, she explains that Rites of Passage mark transitions in adolescence. While this is sometimes a ritual in indigenous cultures, oftentimes in non-indigenous Western cultures adolescents still are required to go through these rites of passage in order to be considered grown up. Nonetheless, many times in indigenous cultures these transitions throughout adolescence are celebrated, while many people in non-indigenous cultures do not receive the same celebratory tone for surviving and succeeding thus far in life. There are three stages of the rites of passage: parting, the liminal phase, and reintegration.
Amal describes parting as a “sense of having to let go of something” (30:19) and the liminal phase as being on the “threshold of something” (31:09). During every phase of life, we have to let go of the past and stand before the next phase of life before completing it, and these are the parting and liminal phases. The last phase is reintegration, which is adapting to this new phase of life.
Because many people don’t have rituals for transition periods in the west, Amal argues that many people go through traumas without support and recognition of surviving what they have experienced. While familial or therapeutic relationships can aid in this, the lack of this support can lead to intergenerational trauma because it was never addressed in the first place. According to Amal, “⅔ of children with intergenerational trauma have symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress”. At 36:50, Amal shows a list of effects that racial trauma has on people generations later, including drug use and aggression.
In this video of our conversation with Doris and Denese, the common themes between responses to trauma that Amal Abbass speaks of are evident. For example, Denese speaks about the way that she found out that she was adopted because she has legal papers in Germany and the United States with different names. As much as that is something that she lived through at a young age, it definitely was a traumatic experience to be forced to reckon with your own identity at such a young age. She even says at 11:29 that she used to make jokes about her experience to cope. Denese goes on to say that she always envisioned her mother to be a negative image in her mind because there is no other justification for giving her up for adoption. Even with these coping mechanisms, Denese still says at 12:05 that her relationship with her biological mother, even though imagined, affected her self image. This relationship with oneself of little self worth is exactly what attachment theory speaks of. The lack of secure attachment as a child led Denese to struggle with self image later on. Even further, to connect with Amal’s point about generational trauma, Denese says at 13:50 that she is in lifelong recovery for addiction, which as Amal states is an effect of generational trauma. Denese certainly has the effects of abandonment as a child embedded in who she is as a person as a result of her adoption, something that she will have to deal with for her entire life.
Doris, on the other hand, speaks about how her lack of ability to speak about her adoption affected her. At 17:00, she speaks about finding out she was adopted at age seven but being forbidden to speak about it. So, while Denese certainly had the lifelong effects of abandonment, Doris did as well but had no outlet for these emotions. She also speaks about the fact that her relationship with her adopted mother was strained because her mother didn’t believe she was truly her mother. Despite all of this, Doris persevered. She ended up marrying, finding her biological mother and multiple siblings, and having children as well. As Doris says, not all adopted children have negative upbringings. She views her own as a positive experience. Nonetheless, she’s had traumatic experiences that others simply wouldn’t have had to go through if they weren’t adopted. After finding some biological family members, Doris has benefited from a support system to discuss her unique experiences, which, as Amal Abbass says, is very important for healing.
Both of these women show examples of people whose adoptions impacted their lives, though clearly in different ways. While I did give a summary of their stories, I encourage you to watch the video of our conversation with them in order to hear all of the bits that I left out, as well as to hear their own way of telling what happened.
There are many parts of Doris and Denese’s experiences which correspond to Amal Abbass’ work in psychotherapy, attachment theory, and generational trauma. Naturally, it isn’t just adoptees that go through this. In my opinion, all people have trauma, and most (if not all) families have some form of generational trauma that they too need to work through. As much as it can be seen as a negative and is still very stigmatized to speak about mental health, it’s important to unpack trauma in relation to culture, ethnicity, adoption, parental relationships, and so much more. In the context of Black Germans, I hope to read and do more research about the effects of trauma, and I’ve linked a few resources below where you can learn more about everything that I’ve written about here and more. In learning about Denese and Doris’ lives, I hope that you too think about the ways that your life has been impacted by generational trauma and how it affects your attachment style. Ultimately, we are all humans with trauma, and it’s our responsibility to heal—not only for ourselves, but for those around us as well.
Agishtein, Peryl, and Claudia Brumbaugh. “CULTURAL VARIATION IN ADULT ATTACHMENT: THE IMPACT OF ETHNICITY, COLLECTIVISM, AND COUNTRY OF ORIGIN.” Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, vol. 7, no. 4, 2013, https://psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2014-01529-013.html. Accessed 8 Dec. 2021.
Borders, L. DiAnne, et al. “Adult Adoptees and Their Friends: Current Functioning and Psychosocial Well‐Being*.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 27 Feb. 2004, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1741-3729.2000.00407.x.
Feeney, Judith A., et al. “Adoption, Attachment, and Relationship Concerns: A Study of Adult Adoptees.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 19 Apr. 2007, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1475-6811.2006.00145.x.