By third grade, Frutos was regularly accompanying her parents on shoplifting sprees. "They would use us as a coverup," says Frutos, 35, of Fresno. "We would go in the grocery store, steal whiskey. My mom had a great big purse, my dad would shove it down his pants. Then at the end of the day they would sell the items, and go get their heroin."
While her parents robbed and shot up and roaches scurried around the kitchen, Frutos memorized poems, such as "A Psalm of Life," by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. She recited them in her head like a mantra.
In high school, a teacher noticed her. He gave her information on financial aid, got money from a parents' fundraising bingo group to help prepare her for advanced placement courses, and told her over and over that she was university material.
The message resonated. "I think, deep in my core, I knew my parents' way wasn't for me," says Frutos. Today she is a nurse practitioner, married and expecting her first child. An innate belief that one is somehow special, Kennedy found, was also a common element in children who work their way out of terrible circumstances.
Genetic research is confirming that some people are, indeed, special. They may have inherited a particular gene that programs them for added resilience in the face of adversity. Simply put, those with advantageous DNA, including what's called the 5HTT gene, bounce back better.
But for those who lack the gene, all may not be lost. MarySue Heilemann, professor in the school of nursing at UCLA, studied 315 women who had emigrated from Mexico. If resilience is in part an inborn personality trait, attitude and circumstance can give it a shot in the arm. "What some theoreticians imply is that you either have it or you don't," says Heilemann. "Even if that's the truth, what if you have a little bit of resilience? Is there something that can boost it?"
Her study found, not surprisingly, that money is a resiliency booster. But the amount necessary to keep on truckin' doesn't conform to the usual definitions of poverty or wealth. "Women who said that their finances were adequate to meet their needs during the last month coped well," she says. Enough money to meet monthly obligations, whether that's a $500 rent check or a $5,000 mortgage payment, can ignite a spark of resilience.
Biology, psychology and instinct can take women a long way. But Heilemann's research is a reminder that, though friends, support and nurturing count a great deal, when a crisis intrudes, even strong, resilient women have to be able to cover the bills.
The friendship factor
IT takes only casual observation and a modicum of life experience to see that women are good at making friends, and that their friendships are important to them. Women are nurturers, caretakers and talkers. Science, says Taylor, has charted the benefits of nurturing throughout the brain.
The female instinct to call in the helper troops, that network of girlfriends, sets up a chemical cycle unique to women. When females feel stress, Taylor says, the hormone oxytocin is released. That encourages them to protect the kids and start the telephone tree going. Contact with children or friends releases more oxytocin, further calming them and everyone around them.
The hormone works better at reducing stress for women, Taylor says, because estrogen apparently enhances the action of oxytocin, while testosterone seems to reduce its effect.
"What you see in the brain is lower activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, greater activity in prefrontal cortical regions and lesser activity in the hypothalamus among people with strong networks," says Taylor. Other researchers have connected those areas to heart rate and blood pressure regulation, as well as to emotions and empathy. Women literally carry around a network of support in their heads.
That may be why those supportive girlfriends that women so famously cultivate don't have to be next door, down the block or even in the same city. Women just have to believe the network is there, and will rally when the SOS sounds.
With America's mobile society, Tanya Finchum, professor at Oklahoma State University, wondered how important proximity was to friendship. She talked to 25 women, age 45 and older, who had relocated across state lines several times in their lives and kept in touch with old friends. It takes, she found, at least once-a-year contact such as a Christmas card, for the relationship to continue -- two missed years, and the friendship is history.
But letters, telephone calls and e-mail updates, detailed and honest about bad news as well as good, were a fine substitute for what might have once been a face-to-face coffee break or shopping expedition. "They don't just paint a rosy picture," she says. "They share intimacies, right down to the nitty gritty."
Far-away friends have helped sustain Halpern through the grief of widowhood. Her best friends go back decades and most of them live in New York.