Wounds of History: Repair and Resilience in the Trans-Generational Transmission of Trauma, edited by Jill Salberg and Sue Grand, takes a novel view in psychoanalysis using a trans-generational, social, political and cultural model to fathom trauma and its transmission. The view is radical in its departure from orthodox psychoanalytic trajectories in its portrayal of a multi-generational world. This approach allows for greater clinical creativity for conceptualizing and treating human suffering, situating healing in expanding circles of witnessing. The contributors to this volume explore inherited personal trauma involving legacies of war, genocide, slavery, political persecution, forced and unwelcome immigration and the way attachment and connection is disrupted and traumatized. It also addresses the ethical and social turn in psychoanalysis, the repetition of resilience, psychic wounds and the repair of these wounds. Read the passage below, from Karen Hopenwasser’s chapter, “The Rhythm of Resilience: A Deep Ecology of Entangled Relationality”.
Storytelling Without the Words to Say It
In our clinical work it is a challenge to hold in our minds an awareness of information that is dissociated and discontinuous (Bromberg 1998, 2006, 2011). It is even more difficult to hold in awareness information that is known through a felt sense, or a feeling state, that is not cognitively connected to the story (Hopenwasser 2008). I grew up in a family where the stories began in 1910 or 1915. The top layer of felt sense was as if life began in the new world and the life left behind never happened. But I have found clues to deeper, discontinuous layers of felt sense. I will share a personal experience of storytelling that was both discontinuous and traumatizing and will compare that experience with a kind of storytelling that is healing and builds resilience.
When I was as a young child, my mother told me the story of her arrival in New York. She was born in Montreal, where her family had settled at the turn of the twentieth century. History tells me her parents were running from repression and the impending pogroms in Kishinev, Russia, though I would never have known that on her account. As a five-year-old French- and Yiddish-speaking child she arrived illegally across the border from Canada into New York, a time when it was not so difficult to enter the United States illegally. The story told once, was that in the car, hiding in the “boot” was my Uncle Dave. I don’t remember why he had to be hidden and not my mother, or why he would not have been easily found. I just remember that is how they came to the United States. It never occurred to me to question the story. Really? Immigrants with limited means driving a car from Canada in 1920? Years later when I asked again about this the story was brushed aside. Not exactly denied. More like I don’t remember.
While my father was a lively raconteur, mostly tales of his adventures riding the rails as a young man during the depression, my mother said nothing about her childhood. Her father died on my fourth birthday and her mother was gone by the time I was eight. It never occurred to me, growing up, to notice that there were no stories about her childhood being told.
For me it was a different kind of storytelling that left a footprint on my psyche. My mother was anxious and claustrophobic. By the time I could remember much she was depressed and would often fall asleep reading on the couch. Even though she was an avid reader, I do not have any memory of her reading to me. It was my intellectually precocious much older brother who would come each night and read to me – sometimes the age-appropriate stories of Lewis Carroll, often the less appropriate Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and even less appropriate stories and poems of Edgar Allen Poe. This must have been the first words I heard of “The Tell Tale Heart”:
TRUE! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell.
How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
And then the end:
“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! – tear up the planks! here, here! – It is the beating of his hideous heart!”
My recall suggests that I was too young to understand all the words being read. But I have a felt sense memory of fear. I can see in my child mind an image of a heart beating under the floor boards (which I remember as being in the wall) conflated with the sound of another Poe creation, “The Bells”:
The tintinnabulation of the bells, bells, bells,
. . . Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
What a tale their terror tells Of Despair!
These nighttime tales were my first lesson about the power of storytelling in the lives of children.
I will probably never get to know more details of my mother’s early life, as she died before I realized this was something I needed to know. And while it remains conjecture, I will also continue to believe that my older brother’s fascination with the macabre was somehow a manifestation of a dissociated inheritance. I watched my brother pass this sensibility on to his children, while I took the opposite route of, at first avoidance (oh how I despise the writings of Poe) and then, processing this particular felt sense within a trauma-wise psychoanalytic psychotherapy.
The Rhythm of Identity
The rhythms of life churn us like a great sea churns under a rising full moon.
(Roberta Hill (Oneida poet) 1998, p. 73)
For many families, stories pass down from generation to generation locking in a narrative that may or may not be accurate, but serve to heal, comfort or build a sense of community. Native American poet Luci Tapahonso tells the story of a brutal, failed, forced assimilation of Navajo people in New Mexico from 1864 to 1868 in her poem “In 1864”. It is a narrative poem that tells the story of telling stories about remembering.
My aunt always started the story saying, “you are here because of what happened to your great-grandmother long ago”.
(Tapahonso 1993, p. 7)
And Native American poet Simon Ortiz, in his story/poem, “Time as Memory as Story”, writes about the movement of memory through time and compares the felt sense of either time standing still or the passage of time as if it were a trek toward finding oneself (Ortiz 2002).
In a European postmodern view of trauma and time, Pat Barker, in her novel, Another World, tells the story of three generations of trauma in a British family. She compares the passage of time to the flow of blood and describes how trauma causes coagulation, ultimately stopping the flow (Barker 1999).
Extreme traumatic experience in childhood has a profound impact on an individual’s embodied, neurophysiologic processing of time. While each day our body ages, never defeating death, neurophysiologically we seem to function more like a quantum computer, with the strange “spooky action” of entanglement and a posttraumatic difficulty distinguishing between past, present and future.
One of the hallmarks of posttraumatic adaptation is the belief that what happened in the past will happen in the future. And one of the hallmarks of dissociative adaptation is the belief that what happened in the past will happen in the future even when there is no narrative memory of what actually happened.
(Hopenwasser 2009, p. 72)
Even when there is little or no narrative memory of past trauma often the next generations carry this belief that what happened in the past will happen in the future.
I first understood how we can learn about this fragmentation of the lived past through poetry and fiction while reading Ann Michaels’ poetic novel, Fugitive Pieces, a fictional memoir of a holocaust survivor poet. In the first pages of Fugitive Pieces we are swallowed by the tale of a Polish boy hiding in a bog. He had witnessed through sound, hiding behind the wallpaper in a cupboard, Nazi soldiers murder his parents and drag away his 15-year-old sister. The boy is wrapped in darkness and filled with the sound of this overwhelming trauma. Later in the novel Michaels writes in her poetic voice how the dead entered into those who were forced to dig mass graves. Like Pat Barker she describes the flow into their blood streams and through them into future generations (Michaels 1997).
What Michaels writes as poetic metaphor is actually more than metaphor and near truth. Our stressful, traumatic experiences in childhood actually alter gene expression (through a process called DNA methylation) which is then transmitted onto future generations (Dietz et al. 2011; Malan-Muller et al. 2014; Skelton et al. 2012; van der Knapp et al. 2014). It has been shown that the offspring of male mice exposed to early traumatic experience show behavioral changes similar to those in the parent mice. This is thought to be secondary to changes in non-coding RNAs (Gapp et al. 2014). And recent research on the glucocorticoid receptor gene in children of Holocaust survivors reveals that paternal PTSD leads to hypermethylation while maternal PTSD has the opposite effect (Yehuda et al. 2014) with implication for differential symptomatology of PTSD, dissociation and depression. Chronic activation of stress hormones alters protein synthesis and so memorializes our traumas within our bodies.
Sometimes, storytelling serves not to remember, but the purpose of forgetting. Gabriele Schwab, who grew up in West Germany post WWII, describes being told the dissociated stories of horrible war trauma, only later to realize the purpose of these stories to camouflage a profound very personal trauma. She writes:
As a child I thus became the silent witness to these war stories, the one not allowed to ask questions or interrupt the flow of words. Yet I became much more. I became an empty vessel to hold a deeper terror that remained untold, a silence covered by words, a history condemned to secrecy, a deadly guilt and mute shame handed down as shards of splintered affect.
(Schwab 2010, p. 43)
If our bodies are in fact a resonant chamber, this sense of empty vessel is a disavowal of her inherited trauma, an attempt to make it not me. She goes on to say:
Yet, even as a child, I picked up on something amiss in these stories. That, more than anything else, left me confused. It was as if the words themselves were emptied of the very feelings invoked in me when I was confronted with the facts of horror. It was not that the stories were devoid of emotions but rather that words and emotions did not quite fit together; words echoed falsely. Children have a sense of this discrepancy but do not understand it. Today, I am convinced that I picked up on something untold, silenced, violently cut out. At the time, I was just confused and mortified by a silent terror that lay under the surface of what was told. It upset my trust in words, I think, as well as my sense of attunement. It complicated how I related to those I was supposed to trust, my parents and my grandmother. Words could be split into what they said and what they did not say.
The key word here is attunement. What is the difference between a healing, reparative storytelling and this more dissociated transmission of horror? Perhaps the difference is the relation of embodiment and environment. Perhaps the difference can be found in the rhythmic and resonant flow of memory between past and future. While Schwab is recognizing that “[w]ords could be split into what they said and what they did not say” we can also recognize that both cognitive and affective information is also transmitted without words. Information flows through deeply ecological and embodied processes shaping which storytelling fosters resiliency and which re-traumatize.
We are born into rhythm and music, we communicate through rhythm and music and we heal through rhythm and music. As W.E. Du Bois wrote about the precursor to the sorrow songs of slavery:
The child sang it to his children and they to their children’s children, and so two hundred years it has travelled down to us and we sing it to our children, knowing as little as our fathers what its words may mean, but knowing well the meaning of its music.
(1909/2012, p. 120)
Music (song) moves through time. It is the flow of knowing from generation to generation. It is the anti-coagulant for terrible events that stop the flow of time in our minds. It is both words and the music itself that carries information from generation to generation. And it is the experience of music and rhythm in a relational context that offers the possibilities of healing and builds resilience. Gratier and Trevarthan “have identified the motives and emotions for culture in narratives of mother – infant vocal interaction” and believe “that writing the story of life needs the sense of belonging to a community and that this is vital for well-being” (2008, p. 151). From the very start in life the resonance of rhythmic pulse embeds us within a relational universe. And as we develop through childhood it is the coherence of rhythmic neuronal oscillations multiplexing in the brain that allows us each a sense of continuity in our personal identity (Watrous et al. 2013). When trauma disrupts this coherence, fragments of memory fall off the arrow of time. What happened then, years ago, is happening now. And in ways that are so difficult to understand, what happened a century ago is also still happening now.
To read the full chapter click here.
This excerpt from Wounds of History: Repair and Resilience in the Trans-Generational Transmission of Trauma is published with permission, and thanks to, Taylor & Francis Group.
Karen Hopenwasser is a psychiatrist in practice and a Clinical Associate professor of Psychiatry, Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr Hopenwasser writes about trauma and dissociation in the psychotherapeutic process.