Hope and resiliency, not trauma, defines one’s own destiny. – Emmy Werner
Dr. Emmy Werner was born in West Germany on May 26, 1929, the same day of the month that I felt called to write this story in her memory. She was a German immigrant like my own Grandmother on my father’s side, and in my opinion, she is one of the unsung heroines of our time. A child psychologist, Emmy was best known for her leadership of a 44-year study that began in 1955, the year I was born. The study followed all of the infants born that year on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, a place I felt compelled to visit as an adult and spiritual seeker in search of myself.
…life is a gift, you know, if you survive it you should really make the most of it.
-- Emmy Werner
The study supported the conventional wisdom that children exposed to reproductive and environmental risk factors experience more problems than children who were not exposed. I was one of those problem children, born to a girl who was barely 14 years old who had been molested by her step-father. I was then adopted out of and then back into the family, lied to about my origins and told that I had been adopted from a family who couldn’t afford to keep me, thus making me unrelated to the family who raised me, even though I was. (I know - your head is swimming!)
My birth mother was known to me as my sister, my mother’s daughter from her first marriage, and to whom I thought I was unrelated. The truth unearthed when I was in my late fifties, opening a Pandora’s Box from which all manner of irretrievable destructive forces flew forth. It is the work of psychologists and researchers like Emmy Werner that has shed light on the subject of resiliency and given adult children, like myself, hope.
Werner’s most significant findings showed that children who developed into caring, competent and confident adults despite their problematic history had a number of protective factors that balanced out the risk factors at critical periods in their development. Among these were a strong bond with a non-parent caretaker and involvement in a community group. Fortunately, with gratitude for the mother who raised me, I had both of these: From camp counselors and girl scout leaders to the women who babysat, taught, and mentored me, including my sister who was like a second mother, grandmother, and Aunt Dorothy, all of whom have now passed away. These women will never know the crucial roles they played in making me the resilient and caring woman I am today. They all deserve an award, and I believe that the numerous national and international awards received by Dr. Werner, including the Dolly Madison Award for Outstanding Lifelong Contributions to the Development and Wellbeing of Children and Families, were received on behalf of the remarkable women in my life, the most deserving of which was my mother (mother-grandmother – shown here on the far right). I was not an easy child to raise.
Four generations: Great (great) grandmother, Minnie Culver, on far left whose mother came West in a covered wagon when she was a girl and settled in Cheyenne, WY. Sister (mother) front and center, grandmother (great grandmother) behind her.
My mother was born in a lineage of pioneer women who came West in covered wagons in the mid 1800’s. Her grandmother was one of forty thousand children who headed westward from the banks of the Missouri and Platt Rivers in a timeless tale of fortitude, faith and human resilience. It is my great (great) grandmother’s mother, Cynthia, for whom I am named, and so it is that I am also born in a lineage of pioneer women.
Emma Werner wrote 13 books inspired by her own early childhood losses, including that of her entire family on both sides, except for her father, during the holocaust. In her book, Pioneer Children on the Journey West, 120 young immigrants tell the stories of their journey west across uncharted prairies, deserts and mountain ranges, which sheds light on the invincibility of these children in the face of great odds. I guess you could say, I get it honestly. Thank you, Dr. Emma Werner, for preserving their stories, as I am preserving mine, and a legacy that continues to live on.
Emmy Werner is the recipient of the Distinguished Friend of the University Award. This award recognizes a non-alumnus(a) whose extraordinary service has advanced the university and made significant and lasting contributions to the campus. An internationally recognized developmental psychologist, she has spent a lifetime studying how children cope with adversity and how resilience impacts individuals across their lifespan. A professor of human development for 32 years before her retirement in 1994, Werner was the first UC Davis faculty member to win the Constantine Panunzio Distinguished Emeriti Award. She remained active in her scholarship and played a key role in UNICEF. Werner and her husband made a $1 million gift to endow the Emmy Werner and Stanley Jacobsen Fellowship to support Ph.D. students researching the genetic aspects of human behavior and development.
Please enjoy the following videos on Emmy Werner’s life and work.
© 5.26.18 Cynthia L. Stacey, all rights reserved