Polly's pages (aka 'Donna Williams')

Ever the arty Autie

When a parent has Reactive Attachment Disorder


Donna Williams' mother pregnant with her in 1963

This is a picture of me in mid 1963 BEFORE I WAS BORN… I’m the lump, probably around 6-7 months cooked. My mother would have been 19 in this pic. I suspect my father’s brother, my uncle, took the pic as he had the slide and I’d never seen it until this week. Finally, a baby picture of me with my mother.

She’s working a new mod con… a slide projector she’d have been projecting at the wall or a screen at the other end of the room… probably something one of my father’s customers traded in on a car as my father was a second hand car dealer. And see the pink TV… probably another trade in.

The rocker on the floor would have been my older brother’s… he was born when she was 17 and there had been another ectopic prenancy after that and before me. The diapers on the TV would have been my older brother’s as he was probably around a year old when this pic was taken (he was 16 mths old when I was born). The legs on the old sofa are those of my pop, Harry, my father’s Dad, who was a WW1 veteran and a very serious, private, moral and very quiet man. He and my mother would have been in completely different worlds. They all moved house the week after I was born.

She came from 9 siblings in poverty… you can imagine how full on it was to find herself on pregnancy number 3 from age 17-19, much like her own mother and determined to not become what she had so resented… a ‘baby machine’.

I look at the diapers, the rocker, the pregnant belly, the dilapidated stool, the relative poverty, the thin single curtain, the raggy hair… I think, who was looking after her mental, emotional and physical well being?

My father was 7 years older than this teenager and was still married to his first wife who he’d married years ago when he was 19. So on any level she and my father were already not ‘peers’. Nor was my mother attached to my father’s parents. They were in their 70s and completely supportive. But sometimes its not about whether one had support but whether one could relate to and appreciate that support.

The problem was that my Paternal Grandparents were in their 70s and her own parents were still in their 30s and they were worlds apart. She may as well have landed on Mars. My mother was not attached to my father’s parents. They were completely supportive. But sometimes its not about whether one had support but whether one could relate to and appreciate that support.

The problem was my Paternal Grandmother was warm hearted, sunny, open, kind and loved children. My mother, however, referred to my her with disdain as ‘dotty, potty and deaf’. I do not blame my mother for this reaction. She had grown up amidst addiction, violence, emotional neglect, social stigma and poverty, so had a ‘natural’ disdain for my grandmother as warmth, kindness, charity were foreign to my mother. As a person with Reactive Attachment kindness would likely have made her feel vulnerable because since a young child she had built her sense of security on bravado, apathy, toughness.

My Paternal Grandfather was serious, responsible, moral. My mother’s father was sociopathic and an alcoholic with all the skewed boundaries this comes with. So again, she could not have related, nor felt grateful or ‘at home’ with this foreigness.

For someone with Reactive Attachment Disorder to have settled into what these Paternal Grandparents had to offer her would have more than likely have felt like a disloyal rejection of her own background and therefore of herself.

She was caught between a rock and a hard place on every front. She had moved in with them when first pregnant… not much autonomy… or dignity…
What would ‘future’ have meant… or ‘choice’… whatever relationship she’d had with my father in their first year together had fallen apart during her pregnancy with me. Six months into her pregnancy with me the women in this picture had gone out into the night to find him. She found him, having sex with a teenager and his response was to threaten her with an axe for having the audacity to be out looking for him.

From there their relationship just kept sliding down hill and as she stayed home with two children in nappies he became a full time womaniser out most nights. The only worth he had to her now was to keep the roof over her head and hopefully make enough money to eventually improve upon it so they could exit poverty.

This is essentially a picture of someone very alone. Having been thwarted in getting rid of this unwanted pregnancy she’d have been biding her time to just ‘get thing thing out of her body’.

At 6 weeks old my mother took all my belongings and me and tried to give me to the uncle who had taken this pic. Him and my aunty Rhonda agonised over whether to keep me. She wanted me but he feared that when I was an older child she’d want me back and that they wouldn’t cope losing a child they’d brought up as their own. So they refused to take me. I have nothing but empathy for her desperation in doing this and the honesty of those feelings.

I spent my first 6 months at the next house before being thrown through the window there. And I have empathy for her capacity to not cope, not relate, her confusion and distress at having a baby she was forced to care for which she saw as her further imprisonment in a life she couldn’t relate to.

Then I was in a Monday to Friday welfare program from 6 mths old to 2 and a half. This was a referral only program for destitute working mothers and at risk children and she was a stay at home mother with her child. I can imagine her shame and how those around her would have been waiting for her to learn to cope enough that she was deemed to have gained the skills to look after me.

When home she would push my pram through the gate of our Italian neighbor of the small dead end street and Mrs Cappellazzo, who had no English, would bring me into her house. I can imagine the desperation it took to do that, to feel so without choices that she would leave her own child abandoned through the gate of a stranger she had no social connection to. This is the kind of mother that would have left a baby at an orphanage if she’d have been able to. But with a partner and his parents who would never have allowed that, she was robbed of that choice, that imagined ‘freedom’.

At two and a half years old I was in a 3 days hospital inpatient assessment and became diagnosed as ‘psychotic‘(autism was then deemed to be ‘infantile psychosis’). It was usual to institutionalise psychotic children in the 1960s but my father would not allow it. Added to already being entrapped with a child she had no freedom to get rid of, she also had extremely strong feelings about disability. My mother felt ‘spastics and retards deserved to die’.

My father would take me out with him in the car at nights when he went collecting money for cars sold on terms. I can imagine how she might have felt, treated as ‘dangerous’ to her own child. I can imagine her feelings of abandonment with him out all night, knowing he was a serial womaniser out in that outside world that she had no such freedoms in.

From 2 and a half to 4 and a half years old I spent my time in the shed with my father’s parents in our back yard or at Mrs Cappellazzo’s or the park. I can imagine how it would have dented her self esteem to see her child loved by others when she herself could not find joy in the same interactions. It would have felt shameful, confusing, and impossible to explain.

I lost Mrs Cappellazzo by age 4 and both paternal grandparents by age 4 and a half, and my father was ‘banned’ from talking to me or picking me up from around age 3 and he complied so I felt I lost him too. I was, from then ‘Dolly the dancing doll’ which was the first time my mother took ‘ownership’ of me.

I can imagine her sense of ‘achievement’ of finally finding a way to have a ‘use’ for me, some basis of a presentable relationship to me, progressively even one that could be used to impress others with how lucky she was to have her very own dancing doll. But, imaginably, this was not going to be healthy.

I recognise how much of an achievement it was for her to even reach this ‘solution’ and how it really was her best attempt. I can understand how she would never understand why a child doesn’t want to be ‘owned’ or be ‘a doll’ or paraded as an object of impressiveness to counter someone else’s low self esteem. And I can understand how if she could have found her heart, she would have. But that a person who has not yet found self love can actually not yet love. All of which is ok and not to be demonised by those who have never walked in those shoes.


Growing up poor doesn’t make you sexually, physically, mentally or emotionally harm children, torture and kill animals, or experiment with suffocating, strangling or poisoning human beings. Being the younger sister to a golden child where is overt favoritism doesn’t do this either. Being born to alcoholics, or being one of 9 siblings and feeling you didn’t get what other children have doesn’t cause it, or experiencing social stigma as a child from ‘that kind of family’ doesn’t make one this type of abuser. Finding oneself without friends at school or feeling plain and unattractive, being born to an incestuous father and a mother who made babies but had no idea how to love them still would not necessarily do it. For only 30% of those born to abusers go on to abuse and 70% of children who have come from any or all of these things and did not become abusers.

It would be too easy, however, to say that being a psychopath or a narcissist would account for one becoming an abuser. But psychopaths and narcissists are the products of all kinds of families. It would be easy to say that such traits are inherited and that one could be not only born into neglect and abuse but have inherited the character that made one’s parents this way too… the idea that some kids are simply ‘born bad’.

It is easy enough to say that if substance abuse, being mentally ill , or having a child with special needs would increase the odds of a damaged parent not coping. But each of these things alone or even in combination would not make one an abuser.

I never thought I ever find a mitigating circumstance that would cut it in terms of fully accepting that the abuse I encountered was somehow inevitable. I always felt that regardless of how many cards were stacked against my abuser, in her childhood and into her life with my father, that she still had volition, made choices, chose directions. It was not until I began reading the posts of adoptive families living with children with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) that for the first time I found something I had to concede may have made my mother’s abuse inevitable, robbed her of the capacity to make healthy choices. For in reading about these children, I saw my mother.

These children had come from incest, violence, neglect, substance abuse, deprivation but most of all they had never healthily known what it was to feel lovable and trust that they were loved. Others, however, were born simply to Narcissistic, posturing, self absorbed mothers, to mothers absent due to physical illness or post natal depression, to homes with no available carer they could bond with. As a result these children never knew what secure love was and often only knew only the survival of ‘everyone for themselves’, the security of maintaining toughness, sabotaging anything that would make them vulnerable (such as healthy, non narcissistic love), and feeling empowered by divide and conquer tactics, getting away with ‘murder’ and the excitement of committing outright harm. And here were these adoptive families hoping they could turn around the Reactive Attachment Disorder of these children, hoping that in time love would heal, and I could see these were the families my mother never got to be part of. Her own Reactive Attachment Disorder was deemed ‘normal’ in her environment and she slipped through the net to become an adult, then a mother, with Reactive Attachment Disorder.

Everything else… the substance abuse, the mental health issues, the fact she was married to a wife beater who was a serial womaniser and had a child to the older sister she detested only added to the mix.

And then I could finally see what 5 early carers before the age of 5 had saved me from, and how much luckier I had been than her. I could see that it was not having toys or dolls or chandeliers or fancy clothes that had made this difference. It was the warm and jolly smiles I saw that I brought out in these carers and which told me indisputably that I was without doubt a lovable human being. I could see that it was not poverty or a lack of material things that had caused my mother to have Reactive Attachment Disorder. It was being born to people who failed to give her those feelings about herself. It was about having felt genuinely liked, genuinely wanted and genuinely loved.

And I could see, that among the abuse and its terror and its horror, there were times my mother wished to be more than an adult with Reactive Attachment Disorder, but she didn’t have the map. She still doesn’t. And she has changed, enough to probably not be the danger she once was, and of course, to me, how could being ‘less dangerous’ be an achievement?

As a person with autism I say to others with autism to never judge an apple by the standards of an orange just because the world is full of oranges. And I see that I have judged the achievements of a parent with Reactive Attachment Disorder by the standards of a child who escaped developing the same. I did not escape it because I was more worthy than she was as a child. I did not escape developing RAD because I was more emotionally intelligent, or of better character, or because God was watching over me. I escaped it because in my first five years I had got lucky enough to have slipped through the net of her control and became someone who did not have RAD.

When I love and feel loved I should pay homage not to the fact she tried to harm me, even kill me, and certainly damaged me, but pay homage to the fact that however relentless and compulsive she was in harming me, I cannot deny the evidence that others were able to love me in those first years because she had, in fact, let me ‘get away’. I am the product of the love invested in me by those who were lucky enough to know how to healthily love. But I am also shaped by the battle she was having with herself.

My mother has never faced the harm she has done, but few with RAD ever would and it would be futile to imagine or believe they ever truly would. Nor would she imagine I had loved her, for it is true I failed entirely to bond with this woman but equally it was my capacity to have bonded with five other early carers that left her on the sidelines.

I cannot say I have ever loved her as my mother. But I have had compassion for her as a fellow woman, as a survivor of domestic violence, misogyny and favoritism. I have felt camaraderie for her as another ‘broken child’ even if nobody ever acknowledged she was such a child. As someone with RAD she may well never appreciate having been understood because being understood means being found and being found should make one strong, but with RAD it only makes one feel vulnerable.

Donna Williams, BA Hons, Dip Ed.
Author, artist,and presenter.

I acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the Traditional Owners of this country throughout Australia, and their connection to land and community.

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