Transgenerational Trauma

It is true that sometimes the mind seems to “forget” some experience that was hurtful, but humans do not REALLY forget.  We do have the ability to place a painful memory in a locked draw of the filing cabinet of the mind” containing our memories. This is a self-protective ability that allows us to be temporarily unaware of what has occurred, so that we will not relive the pain over and over again.  Sometimes not only the hurtful memory is locked up, but so are other experiences occurring at about the same time as the trauma, so as to block out a reference point.

But the question is, do we really forget making the memory so that the trauma we experienced has no impact on our lives today?  Experts in the field of understanding the brain and the effect of wounds on it, teach that whether or not we have recall, as do patients diagnosed with PTSD, our bodies and daily life experiences are impacted negatively.  The cells of the body hold memory, and even “forgotten” memories play a poignant role in the formulation of our feelings, thoughts, attitudes and current behaviors!  New research is discovering that the amygdala, which is a brain structure responsible for autonomic responses associated with fear and fear conditioning, as well as the processing of many of our emotions, is dramatically affected by trauma during early fetal development. This causes it to be extremely sensitive to trauma in the later years of life.

Beyond those experiences we have encountered ourselves, are the experiences of our parents, grandparents and even Great-grandparents.  We carry within us thirty-two other individuals who came before us, from our mother’s and father’s side of the family.  What was occurring in their lives, famine or plenty, poverty or wealth, poor or great relationships, illnesses and deaths, experiences of trauma in their lives are passed down to us to the third and fourth generations. One reference to this is found in the Decalogue and in several other scriptural texts. Isn’t it interesting that even the Bible states in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:5) that the iniquities of the fathers are passed to the third and fourth generations?  Amazing that modern science corroborates the words of Scripture.

The National Institute of Health reports a current ongoing study of 200 mothers and children, which is slated to conclude in 2020.  According to them:

. . . emerging evidence suggests the long shadow cast by childhood trauma may not be restricted to only the lifespan of this vulnerable population of abused women, but also may be transmitted to another yet even more vulnerable population – their children – who then go on to exhibit an increased prevalence of neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders. Thus, a vicious cycle of perpetuation and possible amplification may become established. The prevailing view is that the intergenerational transmission from mother to child of the effects of maternal exposure to childhood trauma likely occurs after her child’s birth via the effects of maternal dysfunctional states and behaviors (e.g. low maternal sensitivity, depression).

In actuality, our parents and grandparents have a great deal to share with us about the experiences of their lives, but alas, so many hide these memories away, for fear of exposing family secrets and revealing some kind of shame.  Knowing the truths of the lives of those who came before us, can answer some or many of the questions about our own feelings, attitudes, thoughts and behaviors, since experiences of those in generations before us are passed to us today, and usually we have no idea where our behaviors originated.

References tell us that:

Students of human nature have long grappled with questions about the replication of parents’ traits into their offspring. Nonmedical writings have alluded to the fact that “sins” may be transmitted from parents to children. However, the first extensive elaboration on the impact of parents’ neuroses on their children came in the late 1800s from the emerging field of psychoanalysis. All subsequent schools of psychology examining trauma have been concerned with the handing down of neurotic traits. It was only in the post-Holocaust era that a consistent literature on the intergenerational effects of parents’ traumas emerged.

Not long ago, I was introduced to a book series and later a TV series entitled “Call the Midwife.”  I recall reading the first book while on a plane flying home from teaching a seminar. At one point in the reading, I found myself in tears. Why?  My family on both sides are English born. My Mother’s father would often speak of what he called “the poor farm,” in the “old country” and “Pa” was deathly afraid of it! He described it as a cold, damp, horrid, hole where people were sent when they were old and infirmed and had no place to go, or if they were financially destitute, with no means to pay for a place to live. The book I was reading spoke of a section in London, horribly bombed out after World War II, where crumbling brick apartments had been devastated by German bombs, and people still lived there.  The area was near the Thames River, where sea-going vessels came to load and unload at the docks.  Most of the men who lived in those roofless and rat infested apartments with wives and families, worked on the docks.

The book spoke of a family who because of their indigent state, were taken to the poor farm, or as they called it, the “Work House.” Children were separated from their mothers, and men separated from women.  All were made to work very hard, fed very little and treated very poorly.  Many children and aged died in that place, where the treatment of inmates was sub-human.

Why was I in tears?  Because finally I understood my Grandfather , and his deep-seated fear of going to a nursing home, which he equated with the “poor farm.”  Back when I was a girl, I could not comprehend his fear of a nursing home, as I didn’t see them as such terrible places. Suddenly, I knew. And I also understood my fear of getting so old, being alone and lonely, and stuck in some facility to die. However, I was able to put two and two together for self-understanding, but not everyone can do that. Many do not see the thread that runs through generations passing along their ways of thinking and behaving to us. They have not had the privilege of knowing grandparents or even great-grandparents, listening to them and learning of their beginnings.

In the Old Testament, we are counseled to: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of previous generations. Ask your father, and he will show you; your elders and they will tell you.”  Deuteronomy 32:7.  Amazing that the tradition for the Children of Israel was that on the Day of Atonement, the Israelites stood in their places in the temple and publicly confessed the iniquities of their fathers for one quarter of the day.  (Nehemiah 9: 2-4)   Why do you think this would be?  Could it be that by confessing the sins of their predecessors, they would not repeat them?

A collection of essays on traumatic transmission builds on the idea that “what human beings cannot contain of their experience—what has been traumatically overwhelming, unbearable, unthinkable—falls out of social discourse, but very often on to and into the next generation as an effective sensitivity or a chaotic urgency.” (Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations, edited by M. Gerard Fromm, 2012).

“How do we carry secret stories from before our lifetimes?

Transgenerational transmissions take on life in our dreams, in acting out, in “life lessons” given in turns of phrase and taught us by our family. Discovering transmission means coming to know and tell a larger narrative, one from the preceding generation. It requires close listening to the stories of our parents and grandparents, with special attention to the social and historical milieu in which they lived — especially its military, economic and political turmoil.”  Sitting with those from previous generations, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc., can offer us considerable understanding of them and their behaviors, and also of the thought patterns and behaviors passed down to us.  This information can give us the power to halt the progression to succeeding generations by the changes we choose to make toward recovery in our own lives.

In subsequent articles we will look at how early childhood trauma affects us physically, emotionally or psychologically and spiritually, underlying the importance of recovery in our own lives, making it so that as President Truman said, “The buck stops here” – with us, thus freeing our children and grandchildren from carrying the negative “stuff” handed down to us from our predecessors.

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