This past weekend, I was in London attending a fascinating work conference on intergenerational trauma. This type of trauma has everything to do with family, with the quality of primary relationships, and the way that hurts and wounds are passed on to the next generation. As one presenter observed, this type of trauma exists as “memories that never forget.” That’s because the hurts are committed by those closest to us, by those who are supposed to protect us: Our own kin. After all, we exist as part of a chain, one link in a long line of ancestors stretching back into the distant past. We share blood, DNA, physical makeup, and personality traits. Our unique family ‘inheritance’ is not just biological though, but exists on multiple levels of being. It is sometimes easy to forget that family inheritance also consists of gifts, talents, curses, and burdens that are passed down the line.
The topic of intergenerational trauma poses many questions. Just what have I inherited from my family? What has been transmitted to me, even inflicted upon me? What are the themes that I’m consciously and unconsciously repeating and living out? What are the toxic patterns I’m striving to avoid, possibly even break?
They say we are doomed to repeat what we cannot understand. In the conference, much was said about the impenetrable silence that often surrounds intergenerational trauma. This silence makes understanding the trauma so much harder. No one will speak of it, no one will face what has really happened. Life is expected to go on as ‘normal,’ whatever that is. For a child especially, this can become an impossible situation.
One presenter spoke of the philosopher Wittgenstein, who along with his brothers endured the horrors of fighting in WWI. Three of his brothers committed suicide in part because of it. During the war, Wittgenstein wrote “whereof one cannot speak, one stays silent.” The presenter explained that over time he changed his position and his philosophy, later amending the statement to “whereof one cannot speak, one cannot help showing the unspeakable.” This declaration explains how toxic patterns residing in families are generated – through unspeakable and unnameable acts and events. It also demonstrates how family hurts and wounds are transmitted to the younger generation, for the individual who has not faced his own trauma cannot help but inflict it onto others. We live out our traumas on others; we are doomed to repeat what we don’t understand. I think it could also be said, we are doomed to repeat what we don’t heal.
Alongside silence, repetition is another feature of intergenerational trauma. Similar issues, themes, and life events may cycle around again and again, not just in one person’s life but throughout several generations. I’ll give an example from my own family. On my maternal side, there is a long history of mothers abandoning their daughters to despair. When my grandmother wanted to leave her dysfunctional marriage and asked for support, my great grandmother said to her, “You made your bed, you lie in it.” Likewise when my mother wanted to leave her marriage, my grandmother said the same thing to her. And when I wanted to leave a relationship, I too asked my mother for help. But she did something different than the script dictated: She supported and welcomed me home. Her decision broke the cycle, allowing a new outcome. I know where it ended, but I still wonder where the pattern began. Perhaps it has its origins in the life of Mary Margaret Mc Mahon, my great great grandmother. Her parents, unable to care for her, left her at an orphanage when she was just an infant. This may have been the original wound of maternal abandonment that was enacted by later generations.
As I learned at the conference, intergenerational trauma often exists at the crossroads of ‘big history,’ the large sweeping social and natural forces at work in the world, and ‘little history,’ how individual family members handle these forces of war, economic and political upheaval, natural disasters, etc. I see this interplay in my own lineage. About four to five generations ago, my ancestors escaped pogroms in Lithuania, famine in Ireland, and crushing poverty in Slovenia. They left their homelands to seek asylum in the U.S. to make a new life. None of them ever saw their native countries again. Their lives in America were harsh and challenging, focused solely on survival and basic needs. I don’t think their overwhelming preoccupations with security, survival, and loss of ‘home’ ever went away. Instead, they seem to have been passed down the family lines. I’ve always felt these concerns and anxieties strongly within myself, sometimes so deeply that they seem to live within my bones.
This idea isn’t all that exaggerated. Current research is exploring the field of genetically transmitted memories. A recent study shows that mice trained to fear a smell passed this aversion on to their grandchildren. Researchers found that a traumatic event alters DNA in sperm. The mice’s offspring, and their offspring, were ‘extremely sensitive’ to this smell and would avoid the scent, despite never having experienced it prior. Changes in brain structure were also observed. As the BBC reported, the findings support the concept of ‘transgenerational epigenetic inheritance,’ where the environment affects a person’s genetics, which can then be passed on. This reminds me of another recent study on mice which discovered a gene that regulates alcohol consumption; when the gene is faulty, the mice were prompted to drink excessive amounts of alcohol. Current research of alcoholism suggests that it’s a 50/50 combination of genetics and environment that determine whether or not an individual becomes addicted. It may be more difficult for that individual to resist addiction, but it’s not entirely determined. And I think this is the important point – we do have choice, even within the powerful grasp of intergenerational trauma.
Stand and face your trauma. This was the main takeaway of the conference. This is ultimately what is needed to break the patterns and create a new story for oneself – and the family – moving forward. It is perhaps the most challenging thing some people ever have to do in life. It requires courage, and strength, and lots of support. To stand and face your trauma isn’t a one-time deal but “a spiral-like process,” as one presenter shared. You cycle around and around again with ever increasing awareness, always learning something new, opening something else up, clearing and cleansing along the way.
From my own experience, as well as witnessing my clients’ experiences, when you stand and face your trauma, you are standing and facing your entire family’s trauma. All you need do is look inside. It’s all there anyway, everyone’s hurts and pains and wounds, both conscious and unconscious. This notion may explain the incredible feelings of liberation and, strangely enough, connection when emerging out the other side of the pain. It’s the knowledge that we cannot ‘save’ others in our family, but we can heal ourselves. I do believe these acts of personal release create a kind of reverberatory effect within the family line. We can remember where we came from, and how we survived, but we don’t need to live out the trauma any longer.