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What Does It Feel Like to Be the Victim of Neglect?

Paul Cody tells what happens when trauma is passive rather than active.

Key points

  • Trauma narratives, fictional and non-fictional, tend to focus on active abuse rather than neglect.
  • The relational trauma of neglect can be just as harmful as more active forms of abuse.
  • "Walk the Dark" by Paul Cody conveys the experience of neglect and the psychological havoc it wreaks.
Source: unsplash/Stormseeker

Chronicles of childhood abuse abound, primarily in memoirs and other forms of non-fiction. These focus primarily on active violence rather than passive neglect; it’s certainly easier to write about what happened than about what didn’t happen. But neglect can be just as destructive as violence. In Walk the Dark, Paul Cody renders such absence palpable, telling a story with few events that is nevertheless a page-turner.

This first-person novel alternates between Oliver’s (called “All”) account of his childhood, in which he was largely left to his own devices, and of his last year in prison, where he has served 30 years for murder and burglary. What distinguishes Walk the Dark from most other trauma narratives is that states of mind don’t merely explain the story—they are the story. All sees things as they are, without questioning or analyzing, demonstrating the extreme passivity that results from trauma. We live in the mind of this neglected child and, in the prison chapters, in the mind of the adult. We live the damage, experiencing the ways that deprivation can form consciousness.

We need to have others attune to our emotions and understand our thoughts throughout our lives, but “mindsight” is especially crucial in infancy and childhood. As psychiatrist Daniel Siegel puts it, to achieve a sense of well-being, to avoid negative outcomes that range from insecure forms of attachment to personality disorders, we need to be “recognized and seen” as our minds develop. All is not seen, not recognized. Shunted in and out of the bedroom according to whether his mother, a sex worker, has a client; left for days, weeks, months on his own (his mother’s friend Mabel checks in on him); kept docile and “happy” by a steady diet of drugs; sent to school for brief periods of time and, for the most part, deprived of the company of other children, who shun him in the lunchroom: the message he repeatedly gets is that he is invisible.

And so he begins to act out that invisibility. Dressing all in black, he begins to “walk the dark,” to roam his town in the small hours of the morning.

The ultimate outsider, he is drawn to the trappings of the lives of insiders, especially children, who belong to loving families, who live in nice homes, who have toys, swings, and sandboxes. He wants to be close to the adults as well, to people who have real lives, who have enough materially, but more importantly, who have enough emotionally. He starts to break into homes, not to steal or harm (he never tells us that he takes anything, and he doesn't mean to kill), but to get close to what he lacks and yearns for, as if, by being in the space of the “haves,” he could somehow absorb the well-being that grounds their lives. His status as an outsider continues in the sequestered life of the prison, where punishment consists of being a perpetual outsider, cut off from the world, and confined to a bleak, monotonous, and dangerous world. Incarceration comprises another form of neglect.

This is a sad story, but not a hopeless one. As a child, All is loved by his mother, and she remains loving if undependable for as long as she is capable of being there for him. As he enters his teens, he has a friend, Ivy, who walks the dark with him on occasion, both literally and with respect to understanding the bleakness of his world. All’s interest in the lives of others expresses not only his yearning, but also his ability to imagine other lives, a building block of empathy. This capacity flowers in the prison years, as we see when he tells about the suffering of inmates whom he has befriended. Again, there is no analysis, just reporting, but what All chooses to say conveys what he is incapable of telling us: I have learned, I have grown.

All has a foundation of strength and healing that enables his growth, a connection that can’t replace love but, as we are increasingly coming to understand, is vital to our well-being: a link with nature. When All walks the dark, he visits not only neighborhoods, but the natural resources his town has to offer: orchards, waterfalls, fields, places of solace and beauty. On one occasion, “I went out to the middle of a mown field, and lay down on the grass. There was almost no moon in the sky, just a thin sickle. But the smell of cut grass, the smell of the earth, the sight of so many stars up there, the coolness of the ground on my back and legs, the sound of bugs cheeping and clicking and droning. God.”

The moment is complex, because it is one of the few in which the adult comments rather than reports, albeit by retrospectively altering the child’s perception. The sensory experience is that of the child. But who says “God”? Likely the adult. And “God,” for All who has no religious beliefs, is a way of saying, that he understands what it means to be part of the world. The timing of this memory, right before his release, suggests that he understands that he is not an outsider, not invisible. He will have a life.

From a literary perspective, the technique in this novel is impressive because we understand All’s pain, as well as his growth, without analysis on the part of a narrator, nor of the character himself; again, his lack of reflection and passive acceptance of events ring true as the consequence of deprivation. From a psychological perspective, Walk the Dark lets the reader experience what it might feel like to grow up neglected. If you’re reading this post, you’ve probably had a life quite different from All’s. Here’s a chance to cross the divide to the interior world of the forgotten and invisible, to shed light on the darkness.


Siegel, D. (2023). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are Third Edition. Guilford.

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