Above It All: Transcenders Succeed Against All Odds

BOSTON - Abandoned by her mother, raised in a small West Virginia town by an abusive aunt and a lecherous uncle, Elizabeth didn't seem to have a chance.

But when her impoverished family couldn't even provide a bathtub, and a school counselor complained she was dirty, she made the swim team so she could get a daily shower.

Too poor to ever dream of owning a clarinet or violin, she joined the school band anyway, playing whatever instrument the school had to offer.

For years, psychologists have studied children who crumbled under the weight of a traumatic upbringing, reinforcing the notion that abused children become ruined adults.

But recently they have come to believe that the Elizabeths of the world - called ``transcenders'' by one researcher - can yield clues on how to help all kinds of troubled children.

Lessons learned from transcenders may be used to help those who can't rise above the circumstances of their lives, said Norman Watt, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

``In a sense they are experiments in natural therapy,'' he said. ``The kid whose mom is schizophrenic who still grows to be a Rhodes scholar may tell us something about how nature works.''

``Life for transcenders is often short, sharp and brutish,'' said Karen Northcraft, a psychiatric social worker in Evansville, Ind., who taped 20 hours of conversations with Elizabeth, the subject of her doctoral dissertation.

``But they do well in situations anyone else would find crushing,'' she said. ``If they had been born into different families, they might have been prodigies.''

Elizabeth told Northcraft of bone-breaking beatings by her aunt, who she said once stripped her naked and dunked her in a vat of scalding water. She told of the night when she was 8 that her uncle got into her bed and sexually molested her for the first time in what would be five years of assaults.

Elizabeth's aunt often told her that her mother had sold her for $25.

Her battle did not end with grade school. She gained admission to college and was told she was dyslexic and should drop out. But she worked her way through school, earned a graduate degree and became a family therapist.

What happened? How could she possibly have endured?

Northcraft said Elizabeth told her the turning point came in the fourth grade. One of her secret pleasures was her long blond curls. When her aunt shaved her head, the well of pride, anger and determination buried within her broke through.

``After that, she was able to reject what her aunt was saying and start making her life better,'' said Northcraft, who met Elizabeth through another professor familiar with her work.

Transcenders are smart, resourceful and independent thinkers. They all have the potential because of family surroundings to suffer social or psychological problems, but transcenders seek out other ways to live, Northcraft said.

``They have self-confidence, and early on they think for themselves,'' Northcraft said. ``They emotionally distance themselves from their parents, and they choose their actions rather than do what would be expected in their environment.''

Northcraft cited one case study of a boy whose schizophrenic mother thought the family's food was poisoned. The woman's two daughters believed her delusions and would not touch the food, but the little boy ate heartily.

Asked why, he responded, ``Well, I'm not dead yet.''

The sisters grew up neurotic. The boy went off to college and was successful and happy.

In the worst of times, transcenders envision themselves elsewhere, imagining that they can do great things despite their surroundings, Northcraft said.

They include all kinds of people, from the very obscure to the well-known, such as actress Carol Burnett, the daughter of two alcoholics who as a girl dreamed of someday going to college.

Richard Rhodes, in his new book ``A Hole in the World: An American Boyhood,'' details how he and his brother were viciously abused by their stepmother. He went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

And they're like Mary, 25, who grew up with an alcoholic father who often flew into violent rages.

``He'd come home and accuse mom of having affairs,'' she said in a telephone interview.

``The hardest thing was to emotionally separate myself from the craziness that went on in my family,'' she said. ``It still goes on and it still hurts, but when you separate yourself you don't get as involved with it.''

She now is at the University of Denver working toward a double major in psychology and sociology, and maintaining a B average.

Northcraft said she decided to join the small group of professors studying transcenders when she found volumes of research devoted to troubled children but little to those who succeeded. Most studies on such children have come only in the last 10 to 15 years, she said.

``We know much more about the factors for failure then for success,'' Northcraft said. ``It's become conventional wisdom to say, `Well, I was battered as a kid, so I'll batter my kids.' ''

Now such attitudes may be changing, said Watt.

``The ethos used to be that if your parent was schizophrenic, the chances you will be, too, are high,'' he said. ``Now that's changing. We are starting to unlearn that previous message.''

The most important lesson? Any child may be able to transcend a hurtful home life if just one supportive, stable adult - a teacher, friend or counselor - is around to help, said Michael Goldstein, a professor of psychology at UCLA.

``One child we studied had a psychotic parent,'' Goldstein recalls. ``But he built up a relationship with a neighbor who taught him electronics and how to fix things. The kid went on to become an engineer and a relatively happy person.''

Adult transcenders still carry the emotional scars of their childhoods, said Northcraft, who dubbed them transcenders because she disliked the moniker some psychologists gave them: ``invulnerable.''

Elizabeth still hurts, but she has helped heal herself. ``I looked into my soul,'' Elizabeth said. ``There is nothing that I am hiding.''