Kristin Hannah’s novel about a family’s survival in Alaska can also be read as the triumph of love through secure attachment. As a therapist I was most struck by how the central character, the daughter, Leni, could not only survive but even thrive in a relentlessly abusive environment. And how her mother, Cora, could offer her daughter a secure attachment even as she suffered from what could be called an avoidant attachment disorder.
The daughter of a traumatized Vietnam veteran who physically and emotionally abuses his wife, Leni is unshakably connected to her mother Cora. “Like peas in a pod,” they call themselves. But despite this connection, Cora repeatedly chooses her husband over her daughter and will not leave him no matter how his abuse escalates. Somehow, Cora’s mother-love for Leni and Leni’s love for her mother remain rock solid to the end.
When clients come to me with histories of parental abuse, even if they are just a witness to this abuse, it is highly likely that their childhoods are marked by dis-regulated attachments to one or both of their parents. When this is so, we find adult lives marked by the repetition of problematic behaviors with significant others.
Much has been researched and written about attachment styles since Mary Ainsworth in the 1950s first conducted research on the effects of maternal separation on a child’s development. This post is not a review of attachment styles so much as it is a review of how Leni survives and thrives in the Great Alone. At the end of this post I included links to some articles that specifically address different attachment styles.
In the Great Alone, Cora allows her husband Ernt to repeatedly abuse her and when he is not exploding in anger, she lives in fear of the next time she triggers him. Cora clearly does not believe there is anything valuable about herself worth protecting. In the novel’s last third, when we meet Cora’s parents, their coldness and withholding behaviors help us understand how Cora could have grown up to think so little of herself. But human nature is not just one pattern nor does it fit tidily into an analytical framework. Cora, in fact, has an extremely healthy and nurturing attachment to her daughter Leni and this somehow co-exists with tolerating her husband’s abuse. Although Cora won’t save herself from Ernt, she will save her daughter from him. When Ernt finally turns his violence on Leni, Cora stops him and in so doing, she also saves herself. From that moment on, Cora is able to recreate herself and accept, with eyes wide open, her family of origin.
In the novel we also experience Leni’s coming of age. Upon arriving in Alaska Leni fluctuates between wonder and awe at the natural beauty and the depression of living in isolation. She soon meets a boy and her hopes and dreams of a secure attachment unfold. As Leni’s romantic attachment develops, and her father’s opposition to the boy grows, her mother’s support remains steadfast, even though any defiance of Ernt’s wishes means a beating for Cora. But Cora will give anything of herself that allows her child to thrive and does so without martyrdom, reproach or manipulation. She does it simply because she loves her daughter.
As a therapist, this book is memorable because it portrays the complexities of a damaged woman who still wholeheartedly loves her daughter, as well as the tremendous and positive impact this kind of love has on a child. The Great Alone proves the powerful value of a parent’s unconditional love. We see and understand that Leni feels fully recognized and appreciated by her mother. These are the moments that establish secure attachment for Leni and make it both possible and believable that she would emerge from her family of origin fully able to love another, completely and securely. Without that secure attachment, her ability to love would have been far less assured.
Most of us who come to therapy do not have a mother like Cora, especially when there was abuse present. The therapeutic relationship, although it can never replace the absence of a secure attachment with one’s early primary caregiver, it can repair that absence. The therapeutic relationship can make it possible to feel whole, cared for, and not alone while looking into that absence.