In light of last night’s Mad Men finale (shhh, don’t tell – I haven’t seen it yet!), we thought we’d repost this gem of a blog post on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Diving into the booze-fueled, glamorous and tumultuous world of Mad Men, Catherine and Perry take the case of anti-hero Don Draper and show how childhood trauma can translate to myriad struggles and pathologies in adulthood. A higher ACE score generally means an indiviual is at higher risk of substance abuse and mental health issues as an adult (among other things). Read on to find out what Don’s ACE score is and learn what all of us can do to mitigate the effects of childhood traumas like abuse, poverty and homelessness.

Don Draper giving his most famous new business pitch, just before revealing a shocking secret from his past about a Hershey bar. Photo from AMC.Don Draper giving his most famous new business pitch, just before revealing a shocking secret from his past about a Hershey bar. Photo from AMC.

Written by Catherine Hinrichsen with Perry Firth, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness, for Firesteel

It’s been tantalizing and a little agonizing, in the final weeks of the landmark TV series “Mad Men,” to guess how it will all end – especially for the protagonist and last of the “difficult men,” Don Draper.

Will he jump off a building? (Absolutely not.)  Will he find the “sad tornado,” mystery waitress Diana? (It’s hard to care about this.) Will he escape to California and re-brand himself yet again? (Quite possibly.)  Is he D.B. Cooper? (Oh, come on.)

Mad Men has been a powerful force in television, and not only for its portrayal of the last breaths of the boozy ‘60s advertising industry. The acclaimed drama captures our attention because of its depiction of a supposedly powerful man’s attempt to outrun his traumatic childhood. Viewers have watched Don drink, womanize, hurt people and hurt himself. As my colleague Perry Firth describes it, “he is the living, breathing embodiment of the truism, hurt people hurt people.”

Perry is a grad student in school psychology, one of Firesteel’s most popular bloggers and my go-to person for anything related to childhood trauma. You’ll see her influence throughout this piece. Because she is not a Mad Men viewer (yet), she was the perfect person to work on this piece with me, and assess Don’s behavior from a more clinical perspective, as opposed to my position as a fan who desperately wants to see a realistic yet positive end to Don’s journey through self-destruction and redemption.

And you can’t write about Don Draper without addressing his terrible childhood, which crops up throughout the series.

Note: There may be spoilers in this post; however, one of the beautiful things about watching Mad Men is that even knowing what happens doesn’t diminish the pleasure of the viewing experience.

Don-blended-family-ustv-mad-men-season-6-portraitsDon’s blended family, dealing a generation later with his tumultuous upbringing. Image from


Don didn’t grow up in the kind of family that pulled together and faced adversity together, their love helping them survive. In fact, there wasn’t any love in that bleak home. Don was just another mouth to feed, a weight around the neck of the people who raised him out of obligation, not affection.

Yet, outwardly, Don has achieved the American dream. He came from nothing and became a millionaire, along the way marrying a gorgeous model, buying a beautiful house in the suburbs, raising three adorable children and rising to the top of the New York advertising world.

3-Betty_gunDon’s wife Betty in one of her finer moments, avenging her family. Image from AMC.

However, what keeps viewers hooked is less his success and more his inability to hang on to it.

Don is an alcoholic. His health is generally bad, and he contributes considerably to the success of his tobacco-industry clients. He has difficulty attaching to anyone emotionally and sustaining a mature adult relationship. He destroys his own marriages, and endangers those of friends, with his deceptiveness and serial womanizing. He treats women as conquests to be tossed aside, including a string of secretaries – the exception being his protégé, Peggy. He’s known to disappear without warning, leaving colleagues in extremely awkward situations.


In “advertising heaven,” Don ponders an escape yet again. Image from

One question the show is really asking, through Don’s adult actions, is: How much adversity is too much adversity? On a deeper level it asks viewers: Should the loss and adversity which drive someone’s actions dictate how we interpret them?


As it turns out, much of Don’s behavior is grounded in what psychological research has identified as adult consequences of childhood adversity and trauma. We know that serious adversity and trauma in childhood, especially when it is sustained over the child’s lifetime and isn’t buffered by protective factors, can have serious long-term consequences. It can even make it hard for people to make healthy decisions. In fact, the research areas of Adverse Child Experiences (ACEs) and toxic stress explore these relationships specifically.

In “The Hobo Code,” a homeless man confirms the negative influence of Don’s father via a mysterious carving. Image from

In “The Hobo Code,” a homeless man confirms the negative influence of Don’s father via a mysterious carving. Image from

ACEs research looks at how adversity in childhood hurts adults, and how it shows up in behaviors like substance abuse, poor health and increased risk for early death. ACEs are actually broken down into different events, which can then be used to generate an ACE score, which can help to explain someone’s risk for negative consequences in adulthood, or partially explain why an adult is struggling. For example, childhood sexual abuse, emotional neglect and mental illness would yield a score of 3 ACEs.

About a year ago, Perry wrote about this fascinating research. More recently, to help me with my Mad Men analysis, she explained ACEs in the context of the show.

“The original ACE study included the following events as Adverse Child Experiences: physical, emotional and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; parent with mental illness; incarcerated household member; domestic violence; parental substance use; and parental divorce,” Perry said. “These are all events, especially when they accumulate, that we know cause toxic stress and potentially lasting mental and physical health consequences. Today, however, other ACEs that could be added to the list include poverty and childhood homelessness.”

Infographic from depicts three categories of ACEs. Don has experienced quite a few.

Infographic from depicts three categories of ACEs. Don has experienced quite a few.


Though we meet Don when he’s living the American dream in the 1960s, his story gradually unfolds to reveal some staggering hardships in his Depression-era childhood. Continue reading on Firesteel’s Blog→