Breaking Down the Walls of Silence
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Jean Liedloff

Jean Liedloff

Jean Liedloff (1926 – 2011) is an American author, best known for her 1975 book The Continuum Concept. She was born in New York. As a teenager, she accomplished the Drew Seminary for Young Women and began studying at Cornell University, but began her expeditions before she could graduate. During a diamond hunting expedition to Venezuela, she came into contact with an indigenous people named the Yequana. Over time, she became fascinated with the Yequana, and made a decision to return to Venezuela to live with them. She wrote her book The Continuum Concept in an attempt to document the Yequana way of life, in particular their style of child rearing. From 1968 to 1970, Liedloff was editor of The Ecologist.
A website has been created by members of the Liedloff Continuum Network (LCN) to educate and serve the public: www.continuum-concept.org

From The Continuum Concept:
In the maternity wards of Western civilization there is little chance of consolation from wolves. The newborn infant, with his skin crying out for the ancient touch of smooth, warmth-radiating, living flesh, is wrapped in dry, lifeless cloth. He is put in a box where he is left, no matter how he weeps, in a limbo that is utterly motionless (for the first time in all his body's experience, during the aeons of its evolution or during its eternity in the womb). The only sounds he can hear are the wails of other victims of the same ineffable agony. The sounds can mean nothing to him. He cries and cries; his lungs, new to air, are strained with the desperation in his heart. No one comes. Trusting in the rightness of life, as by nature he must, he does the only act he can, which is to cry on. Eventually, a timeless lifetime later, he falls asleep exhausted.
He awakes in a mindless terror of the silence, the motionlessness.

He screams. He is afire from head to foot with want. with desire, with intolerable impatience. He gasps for breath and screams until his head is filled and throbbing with the sound. He screams until his chest aches, until his throat is sore. He can bear the pain no more and his sobs weaken and subside. He listens. He opens and closes his fists. He rolls his head from side to side. Nothing helps. It is unbearable. He begins to cry again, but it is too much for his strained throat; he soon stops. He stiffens his desire-racked body, and there is a shadow of relief. He waves his hands and kicks his feet. He stops, able to suffer, unable to think, unable to hope. He listens. Then he falls asleep again.

When he awakens he wets his nappy and is distracted from his torment by the event. But the pleasant feeling of wetting and the warm, damp, flowing sensation around his lower body are quickly gone. The warmth is now immobile and turning cold and clammy. He kicks his legs, stiffens his body, sobs. Desperate with longing, his lifeless surroundings wet and uncomfortable, he screams through his misery until it is stilled by lonely sleep.

Suddenly he is lifted; his expectations come forward for what is to be his. The wet nappy is taken away. Relief. Living hands touch his skin. His feet are lifted and a new, bone-dry, lifeless cloth is folded around his loins. In an instant it is as though the hands had never been there, nor the wet nappy. There is no conscious memory, no inkling of hope. He is in unbearable emptiness, timeless, motionless, silent, wanting, wanting. His continuum tries its emergency measures, but they are all meant for bridging short lapses in correct treatment or for summoning relief from someone (it is assumed) who will want to provide it. His continuum has no solution for this extremity. The situation is beyond its vast experience. The infant, after breathing air for only a few hours, has already reached a point of disorientation from his nature beyond the saving powers of the mighty continuum. His tenure in the womb was the best approximation he is ever likely to know of the state of well-being in which it is his innate expectation that he will spend his lifetime. His nature is predicated upon the assumption that his mother is behaving suitably and that their motivations and consequent actions will naturally serve one another.

Someone comes and lifts him deliciously through the air. He is in life. He is carried a bit too gingerly for his taste, but there is motion. Then he is in his place. All the agony he has undergone is nonexistent. He rests in the enfolding arms, and though his skin is sending no message of relief from the cloth, no news of live Oesh on his flesh, his hands and mouth are reporting normal. The positive pleasure of life, which is continuum-normal, is almost complete. The taste and texture of the breast are there; the warm milk is flowing into his eager mouth; there is a heartbeat, which should have been his link, his reassurance of continuity from the womb; moving forms are visible that spell life. The sound of the voice is right too. There are only the cloth and the smell (his mother uses cologne) that leave something missing. He sucks and, when he feels full and rosy, dozes off.

When he awakens he is in hell. No memory, no hope, no thought can bring the comfort of his visit to his mother into this bleak purgatory. Hours pass and days and nights. He screams, tires, sleeps. He wakes and wets his nappy. By now there is no pleasure in this act. No sooner is the pleasure of relief prompted by his innards than it is replaced, as the hot, acid urine touches his by now chafed body, by a searing crescendo of pain. He screams. His exhausted lungs must scream to override the fiery stinging. He screams until the pain and screaming use him up before he falls asleep.

At his not unusual hospital the busy nurses change all nappies on schedule, whether they are dry, wet or long wet, and send the infants home, chafed raw, to be healed by someone who has time for such things.

By the time he is taken to his mother's home (surely it cannot be called his) he is well versed in the character of life. On a pre-conscious plane that will qualify all his further impressions, as it is qualified by them, he knows life to be unspeakably lonely, unresponsive to his signals and full of pain.
But he has not given up. His vital forces will try for ever to reinstate their balances as long as there is life.

Home is essentially indistinguishable from the maternity ward except for the chafing. The infant's waking hours are passed in yearning, wanting and interminable waiting for rightness to replace the silent void. For a few minutes a day his longing is suspended, and his terrible skin-crawling need to be touched, to be held and moved about, is relieved. His mother is one who, after much thought, has decided to allow him access to her breast. She loves him with a tenderness she has never known before. At first, it is hard for her to put him down after feeding, especially because he cries so desperately when she does. But she is convinced that she must, for her mother has told her (and she must know) that if she gives in to him now, he will be spoiled and cause trouble later. She wants to do everything right; she feels for a moment that the little life she holds in her arms is more important than anything else on earth.

She sighs and puts him gently in his cot, which is decorated with yellow ducklings and matches his whole room. She has worked hard to furnish it with fluffy curtains, a rug in the shape of a giant panda, a white dresser, a bath and a changing table equipped with powder, oil, soap, shampoo and hairbrush, all made and packed in colours especially for babies. On the wall there are pictures of baby animals dressed as people. The chest of drawers is full of little vests, Baby-Gros, bootees, caps, mittens and nappies. There is a toy woolly lamb stood at a beguiling angle on top and a vase of flowers - which have been cut off from their roots, for his mother also 'loves' flowers.

She straightens baby's vest and covers him with an embroidered sheet and a blanket bearing his initials. She notes them with satisfaction. Nothing has been spared in perfecting the baby's room, though she and her young husband cannot yet afford all the furniture they have planned for the rest of the house. She bends to kiss the infant's silky cheek and moves towards the door as the first agonized shriek shakes his body.
Softly she closes the door. She has declared war upon him. Her will must prevail over his. Through the door she hears what sounds like someone being tortured. Her continuum sense recognizes it as such. Nature does not make clear signals that someone is being tortured unless it is the case. It is precisely as serious as it sounds.

She hesitates, her heart pulled towards him, but resists and goes on her way. He has just been changed and fed. She is sure he does not really need anything therefore, and she lets him weep until he is exhausted.

He awakens and cries again. His mother looks in at the door to ascertain that he is in place; softly, so as not to awaken in him any hope of attention, she shuts the door again. She hurries to the kitchen, where she is working, and leaves that door open so that she can hear the baby, in case 'anything happens to him'.

The infant's screams fade to quavering wails. As no response is forthcoming, the motive power of the signal loses itself in the confusion of barren emptiness where the relief ought, long since, to have arrived. He looks about. There is a wall beyond the bars of his cot. The light is dim. He cannot turn himself over. He sees only the bars, immobile, and the wall. He hears meaningless sounds in a distant world. There is no sound near him. He looks at the wall until his eyes close. When they open again, the bars and the wall are exactly as before, but the light is dimmer.


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  • David Daniel Added Liedloff's incredible work has had an incredible influence on me and my life as a father. Her theoretical framework is quite similar to my own.
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