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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

Intergenerational Trauma

The term ‘intergenerational trauma’ refers to the way in which psychological difficulties experienced by people in one generation may – in unspoken forms – be transmitted down to, and impact, those in another. The scars generated by wars, migrations, ostracisms and political upheavals may be felt not just by those who actually experience these, but also by ostensibly more favoured descendants. A person might be blessed by seemingly calm and prosperous circumstances and yet in their psyches – for reasons that elude their conscious grasp – they may be substantially beset by anxieties and terrors bound up with things that unfolded in the life of a grandparent they never knew a hundred and twelve years ago on another continent.

The idea might sound almost mystical, as if trauma were being transmitted ‘in the blood’ or by some peculiar malevolent ‘energy’, but we can explain ‘intergenerational trauma’ in far more rational or prosaic terms. All that one has to keep in mind is that when a person who has been psychologically perturbed goes on to have a child, there is a strong chance that they will end up behaving around their offspring in ways that carry traces of the awful things that happened to them. A parent brutally interned as a youngster in a war may, for example, experience such a powerful wish that their own child never have to suffer as they did, they develop into a remorselessly cheerful caregiver with very little patience or sympathy for the sorrows of an ordinary life. ‘I don’t want you to suffer as I did’ may turn into a far more problematic: ‘I need you to be happy all the time.’ The child that results from this inadvertently punishing worldview might then end up feeling so ashamed and inadequate for not managing to have the hoped-for happy destiny proclaimed by their parent that, after wrestling with depression for many years, they might eventually take their own life when their youngest child is a teenager. This child, torn apart by its parent’s death, may evolve into someone deeply shut off from their emotions, distrustful of all relationships, which would then inspire (thirty years later) a divorce from an alienated spouse, and an offspring who seeks to master the chill in their surroundings by turning to alcohol or pornography. By this point, we might be a hundred and fifty years on from the foundational catastrophe.

Unfortunately for our hopes of progress, intergenerational trauma can exist even in the absence of any of the more dramatic political or material events that we associate with the term and that we collectively strive so hard to eradicate. The perils to which an ordinary existence are exposed are sadly more than enough. We can imagine a lively and tender girl growing up in a wealthy city in Switzerland who is forced to witness her beloved father die of cancer when she is eleven. Devastated by his loss, she might disown her vulnerability and develop too fast into a headstrong and somewhat blithe adult. When she becomes a parent, her child’s vulnerability might inadvertently evoke her exiled inner tenderness, which might lead her to treat her child’s ‘neediness’ with sarcasm and neglect. Uncertain of their mother’s love, this child would acquire a highly anxious style of attachment which, when they came to be a parent, would mean that they would cling to their child with unhelpful intensity, stifling them emotionally and inspiring in them, in time, a serious eating disorder. By this stage, we might be seventy-eight years on from the death of a textile salesman on a cancer ward in St Gallen.

The way to arrest intergenerational trauma is to begin – in the back of one’s mind – with a solemn commitment: the difficulties must stop with me. We should make it one of our central aspirations that we will do everything we can to try to stop or slow the transmission to our children of emotional legacies that have until now been passed on from unhappy soul to unhappy soul since the Late Roman Empire or the early Xia Dynasty. Whatever happened in Radziłów or Huế, South Kensington or Küsnacht we’re going to strive to put an end to the flow through the best and only tool we have: self-awareness.

To this end, we need to draw up a family tree, going back at least to our grandparents, and append to it whatever we can imagine may have been handed on to us. A presumption of innocence on our part is not tenable; we are carrying something, we just need to know what it might be. 

It’s often said that psychotherapy is indulgent. But if it manages to arrest some difficulties being transmitted to those downstream from us, given that if everyone has two children we will within three generations wind up with twenty-eight descendants (each of whom is going to have spouses, colleagues, friends and so on), then checking in with a therapist once a week may constitute the greatest act of communal benevolence of which anyone is capable. We aren’t having therapy for ourselves at all; we’re just standing in the middle of a stream performing a ritual to cleanse the not-yet-born of the problems of their dead progenitors.

Inheritance can be a lovely thing. We’ll be doing a properly great job and discovering the true meaning of love when we can ensure that – when it comes to emotional legacies – our children will inherit from us as little as humanly possible.

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