At three weeks old, Izidor was abandoned at a state-run hospital for “unsalvageables” in Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania — left behind by his family because one of his legs was deformed. Estimates say that under Ceaușescu’s regime, 170,000 babies, children, and teens lived in “child gulags” subsisting on thin gruel, often in filthy, horrific conditions. Deprived of loving care of any kind, those that lived were often under-developed physically and mentally, and found it difficult to form attachments with other people. At The Atlantic, Melissa Fay Greene reports on how growing up at the hospital affected Izidor’s capacity for empathy and attachment and how his emotional makeup has affected the American family that adopted him as a teen.

Like all the boys and girls who lived in the hospital for “irrecoverables,” Izidor was served nearly inedible, watered-down food at long tables where naked children on benches banged their tin bowls. He grew up in overcrowded rooms where his fellow orphans endlessly rocked, or punched themselves in the face, or shrieked. Out-of-control children were dosed with adult tranquilizers, administered through unsterilized needles, while many who fell ill received transfusions of unscreened blood. Hepatitis B and HIV/AIDS ravaged the Romanian orphanages.

At age 3, abandoned children were sorted. Future workers would get clothes, shoes, food, and some schooling in Case de copii—“children’s homes”—while “deficient” children wouldn’t get much of anything in their Cămine Spitale. The Soviet “science of defectology” viewed disabilities in infants as intrinsic and uncurable. Even children with treatable issues—perhaps they were cross-eyed or anemic, or had a cleft lip—were classified as “unsalvageable.”

Neural pathways thrive in the brain of a baby showered with loving attention; the pathways multiply, intersect, and loop through remote regions of the brain like a national highway system under construction. But in the brain of a neglected baby—a baby lying alone and unwanted every week, every year—fewer connections get built. The baby’s wet diaper isn’t changed. The baby’s smiles aren’t answered. The baby falls silent. The door is closing, but a sliver of light shines around the frame.

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