Healing histories: tracing trauma through the generations

To fully understand the complexity of our present communities, we have to dive into our manifold pasts.

As children of parents who grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution, there were myriad stories told to us by our families, sometimes in the form of detailed anecdotes, sometimes as passing mentions. Growing up, we heard stories of school teachers publicly shamed and beaten by former students; grandparents sent away to labour in re-education camps in the countryside; relatives, neighbours and friends driven to suicide by the government. Our parents’ stories of trauma belong to a larger historical context, and it’s not uncommon to find that children of Chinese immigrants connect over what they know of their family histories.

China’s longer history of trauma is often forgotten by the West. Our grandparents’ generation, too, lived through a tumultuous period of history. The first half of the 20th century was dominated by the decades-long civil war that bridged the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the Communist state, along with the Second Sino-Japanese War between 1937 and 1945. Diana Lary, a historian of Republican China, has suggested that “violence begets violence, and victims become perpetrators.” Thinking about this history of violence reminds us of the ways in which the present is shaped by the past.

Meiwen, a third-year history student at USyd, describes feelings of guilt and anxiety related to her family’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution.

“I don’t know to what extent I can connect my own experiences of anxiety to the Cultural Revolution. But I think part of being anxious is feeling an absence of trust in the world, and a large aspect of trauma is the betrayal of trust. During the Cultural Revolution people’s trust was betrayed on multiple levels, including between the individual and the state. I also feel anxious around wasting food and spending money, because I know how much food meant to my family during that period.”

With almost half of all Australians born either overseas or to a parent who was born overseas, it is undeniable that as a nation, our identities are drawn from all over the world. Often, those identities are shaped by stories of war, unrest, repression, and upheaval, creating traumatic threads which weave through subsequent generations, sometimes in ways that are barely visible to us. This phenomenon, in which trauma is passed down through generations, is known as transgenerational or intergenerational trauma.

It’s important, before entering into an exploration of transgenerational trauma, to acknowledge that Aboriginal Australians have been talking and organising around their experiences of trauma and their interactions with the destructive forces of colonisation for decades now. Meera Atkinson writes for The Conversation that “Australians, generally speaking, have an inadequate understanding of transgenerational trauma and underestimate the effects of the extreme and sustained traumas experienced by First Nations communities.” In the US, too, Native Americans talk of the concept of a ‘soul wound’, referring to the lasting damage done by colonisation.

There is also a growing awareness of transgenerational trauma in contemporary media. Chinese-American writers such as Shayla Love, Wei Tchou and Jenny Zhang have begun exploring their parents’ and grandparents’ traumatic pasts in short stories and nonfiction for Western publications. Jennie Shulkin, a third-generation Holocaust survivor, has written about the importance of documenting family history, partly as a path to working through trauma. Referencing sociologist Joy de Gruy’s work on ‘Post Traumatic Slave Disorder’, Lincoln Anthony Blades suggests that, “If the Holocaust caused immense emotional, physical, and psychological effects intense enough to cause trauma to survivors, then the abject horrors and brutality suffered by slaves is more than likely to have the same effects on black slavery descendants worldwide.”

The study of transgenerational trauma involves a number of academic disciplines. For psychologists and therapists, it can be a factor in piecing together the origins of mental ill-health or patterns of behaviour. Geneticists see a new field of study looking at the potential for trauma to be genetically encoded and passed on. For historians, it is one way of understanding the lasting impact of historical events.

Amelia Klein is an alumna of USyd and a historian; her work on trauma and healing in Holocaust survivors and their descendants has led to her teaching on the subject at the University of Chicago. “Trauma is so individual; it really depends on the family and the constellation of the family,” Klein emphasises. “We all have family history, and we inherit family history and stories, and our identities are shaped by our parents and grandparents and our extended family and the experiences they had.”

“I think it’s definitely hard to make generalisations in this kind of field,” says Avril Alba, a senior lecturer in Holocaust Studies and Jewish Civilisation at USyd. Alba herself is a second generation descendant of a Holocaust survivor.

Asked about how migration might have shaped people’s experiences of trauma, she says, “I think you’re right in saying there is an interaction between the two experiences [of migration and trauma]. I think that migration is really the culture shock and coming to terms with new languages, new cultures, new systems, all of those kinds of things; whereas the trauma is more a physical, emotional rupture. Do they mix? I think they must.”

“My grandfather was in the Polish army and my grandmother ended up in a German workers’ camp,” says Jessica*, a third-year USyd student. Jessica explains that her grandfather, who was a prisoner of war, “always wanted to move, find new places, new ground.”

“When my mum and my aunt were growing up, they moved to a new state or even new country every one or two years. I think that was because my grandfather was involved in the war and he was locked up in prison … and in response to that I think he spent his whole life trying to exercise his freedom.” Jessica’s upbringing was much the same; by the time she finished high school, she had lived in nine different houses across two different states. “There was this constant sense of looking for better, looking for more, never settling, never being comfortable in one place or never laying roots.”

Stephanie, a history honours student at USyd whose parents immigrated to Australia in 1988 as a consequence of the civil war in El Salvador, describes the way her parents’ experiences have shaped her own identity. “I take on what [my parents] brought from El Salvador. They don’t really talk about it, but you can tell that there is pain.”

For many children of immigrants who escaped conflict and persecution, guilt is a common experience.

“Of course I didn’t experience [the conflict], but [as the second generation], you feel like you have to move beyond what happened,” says Stephanie. “You feel like … I was born in Australia, the lucky country, so I have to make something of my life. If your parents had witnessed something so awful, you feel guilty.”

Art: Momoko Metham

Klein is careful to remind us of the ubiquity of trauma. “I don’t think it’s unique to the Holocaust. There’s been trauma since day one, it just wasn’t as spoken about in the general population.” She also points out that the effects of traumatic family histories may not be immediately apparent. “It’s interesting to also look at subsequent generations and … these histories and memories they’ve inherited that they might not even know.”

Here, Klein mentions Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience who has researched the potential for trauma to be passed down genetically. Yehuda’s work at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York found that Holocaust survivors could pass a genetic tag onto their children which affected the production of stress hormones — an example of epigenetic inheritance.

“We always suspected that there was genetic risk, but no one could understand exactly why disadvantage in mental health and illness passed down even when you tried to do something about it, for instance [with] provision of social services. There still seemed to be this ongoing risk,” says Mark Dadds, director at the Child Behaviour Research Clinic at USyd.

In 1801, almost 60 years before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, French scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed the hypothesis that characteristics acquired by an organism during its lifetime could be passed onto its offspring. Lamarck’s ideas were largely dismissed during his life. Even now, we understand that going to the gym and growing large muscles doesn’t imply our children will be stronger. The idea would strike us as absurd. Yet Lamarckism continues to be discussed today, largely in the context of a growing field of research referred to as epigenetics.

Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression that result from environmental stress and major trauma, rather than changes in the DNA sequence itself. Whilst DNA is largely understood as fixed, it can be regulated and manipulated by a group of chemicals which attach themselves to the DNA. Among the most significant of epigenetic processes is where environmental information leaves a mark on the chemical coating of the chromosomes, known as the methylation. The level of methylation can affect the expression of genes, repressing some and activating others.

“If life screws you over and you don’t parent so well, you haven’t got as much access to money and resources and jobs, and your children are going to suffer as well. So that’s the kind of passing on that we’ve always been really interested in. But lately it’s become clear that there are other more complex pathways,” Dadds explains. “For example, a traumatised person then maybe passes on exposure to challenges in the womb for the new generation, so that the new baby might be exposed to much higher levels of stress hormones. The latest one that’s incredibly radical and is captivating everyone’s attention is that you pass on epigenetic risk. […] So that what you acquire in terms of your genome changes may be passed on through germline cells to your children, so they’re born with a different epigenetic profile.”

A study published in Nature Neuroscience by neurobiologists Brian Dias and Kerry Ressler at the University of Emory showed that trauma could be inherited across three generations of laboratory mice. Ressler and Dias trained the first generation of mice to fear the scent of acetophenone by drifting the chemical through a chamber whilst giving the male mice electric shocks. Eventually, the mice came to associate the scent of acetophenone with pain, shuddering at the scent even in the absence of a shock. Three generations down the line, their grandchildren similarly shuddered when exposed to acetophenone. This led Dias and Ressler to conclude that environmental information can possibly be inherited at an epigenetic level.

The idea that trauma can be passed on genetically is certainly a radical one. Among scientists, the theory remains controversial. So far most research, such as Dias and Ressler’s study, has been limited to lab animals. Yet mounting evidence seems to support the claim that trauma can be inherited genetically in humans too. In 2009, researchers examining the brains of Canadian men who had committed suicide found that their genes contained a chemical coating, possibly influenced by exposure to abuse during childhood.

Whilst previous research on the children of Holocaust survivors understood the transmission of trauma to occur as a sole consequence of environmental factors — for instance, poor parenting — new research on epigenetics provides a more comprehensive picture of transgenerational trauma, one that incorporates both environmental and hereditary causes.

Research on epigenetic inheritance raises important questions. What are the wider implications of the genetic transmission of trauma? How can the cycle of trauma be broken, if trauma is, at least in part, biologically caused?

Dadds is hopeful. His current research examines the way early intervention and the introduction of positive parenting can reverse the effects of inherited trauma. Besides psychotherapy, an understanding of history, too, can be useful for working through the past. In Klein’s postgraduate research, she interviewed Jewish-Australian third-generation survivors of the Holocaust before and after they viewed their grandparents’ video testimonies; doing so elucidated the importance of both recording and examining such histories.

“A lot of grandchildren feel responsible to remember their grandparents’ story,” says Klein; she later adds, “for a lot of the grandchildren, they felt burdened by that responsibility.”

The importance of documenting and preserving these pieces of history comes up again and again in conversation; she found in her interviews that “the grandchildren almost felt a sense of relief that they had the story.”

“After they viewed the video testimony … they were able to begin the working-through process, and that enabled them to come to terms with the Holocaust in a new way. They felt they had the space to engage in a positive way and not feel burdened by these traumatic histories.”

Klein stresses that creating a dialogue around these records is the crucial next step in understanding familial, collective, and historical trauma. “It’s helpful — as a family or as a community — to sit together and watch the tape or listen to the testimony, because conversations arise out of that.” Documenting collective trauma is a rising trend, too: “There’s testimonies from Rwanda, from Bosnia, from Yugoslavia, even Japanese American internment. […] I think the movement to collect stories is definitely part of the zeitgeist now.”

Alba and Klein both mention the fact that second- and third-generation descendants of Holocaust survivors have tended towards healing or helping professions. “There are a large chunk of second- and third-generation Jews in Australia who are predominantly sort of in the helping professions — who are interested in psychological effects, social effects of trauma, political effects of trauma,” says Alba.

Klein affirms this fact: “There are studies on child survivors of the Holocaust and how a lot of them went into the healing professions.” Indeed, psychologist Paul Valent writes in the 1998 publication Children Surviving Persecution: An International Study of Trauma and Healing, “Many [child survivors of the Holocaust] joined the helping professions and were otherwise worthwhile and even altruistic members of society.” In a 2006 speech, writer and lecturer Helen Epstein noted, “[survivors and their descendants] have gravitated toward the helping professions and toward the healing wings of the arts, education and law.”

Jessica’s family history also reflects this trend. “My mum left high school at 17 to join the social revolution in the 1970s — anti-Vietnam War protests and all that,” she says. “She still sat her Year 12 exams and got a scholarship to uni, where she studied sociology and Russian. There was just this huge drive in her and also my aunt to fight for social justice.” Jessica herself feels similarly drawn to social issues surrounding policy, justice, and equality. “Since I’ve come into adulthood, I’ve worked for organisations and supported movements that have a human rights focus.”

Cultural theorist, Nina Fischer, has studied the way children of Holocaust survivors interpret their parents’ experiences in a book entitled Memory Work: The Second Generation. Unlike survivors and their videotaped testimonies, children of survivors frequently make sense of the past through literary texts. Moreover, coming to terms with the past entails turning their parents’ experiences into what Fischer describes as “usable pasts”. For children of survivors who can only understand the past in terms of family memory, it is often experienced as a burden. However, an adult equipped with historical knowledge of the past is better able to deal with its traumas.

“Being a history student has given me perhaps a more nuanced understanding of the politics behind trauma, as well as social justice — in other words, acknowledging how trauma leads to a sense of collective healing,” Stephanie says. “If you have a look at the role of truth commissions in history, on an implicit level — it’s all about building a sense of national resilience after [a country or region] having been broken.”

Stephanie also emphasises the power of the internet in forming communities through which people are better able to understand transgenerational trauma. “The internet connects to us a lot of different stories, about different sorts of conflicts, wars … I feel like people will be given a chance to look at their cultural history — their family — in a different light.”

Alba and Klein also make a point of bringing up resilience as a counterpart of trauma. “I don’t think you only inherit trauma; you also inherit strength, and resilience, and all of those things as well,” says Alba. Klein echoes this emphatically, saying, “There’s also this notion of post-traumatic resilience — how people coped, and survived, and made amazing lives, and had families, and had children. There’s hope in these stories as well, and I think it’s really important that it’s not just the intergenerational transmission of trauma.”

At the end of our conversation, Alba returns to talking about Aboriginal Australians. “I think in general, there is still a lack of awareness around Indigenous communities; we don’t allow our Indigenous communities to express their trauma,” she says. “Are we as a society prepared to listen to that trauma and to engage with it? I think that’s the real question.”

“I guess what I’d hope is that in our generation and the generations to come, there’s just an increased awareness [that] we’re actually a really multilayered nation and we have a huge diversity of stories and experiences […] Maybe it has trauma in it, but it also has huge wisdom and experience and tradition. That actually maybe something could be gained if the next generation could see their multiculturalism as actually something really complex and difficult, but ultimately rewarding. That, I think, would be a good thing.”