Emotional Inheritance: A Therapist, Her Patients, and the Legacy of Trauma
EVERY FAMILY CARRIES some history of trauma. Every trauma is held within a family in a unique way and leaves its emotional mark on those who are yet to be born.
In the last decade, contemporary psychoanalysis and empirical research have expanded the literature on epigenetics and inherited trauma, investigating the ways in which trauma is transmitted from one generation to the next and held in our minds and bodies as our own. In studying the intergenerational transmission of trauma, clinicians investigate how our ancestors’ trauma is passed down as an emotional inheritance, leaving a trace in our minds and in those of future generations.
Emotional Inheritance is about silenced experiences that belong not only to us but to our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, and about the ways they impact our lives. It is these secrets that often keep us from living to our full potential. They affect our mental and physical health, create gaps between what we want for ourselves and what we are able to have, and haunt us like ghosts. This book will introduce the ties connecting past, present, and future and ask: how do we move forward?
From a very young age, my siblings and I learned to recognize what wasn’t acceptable to talk about. We never asked about death. We tried not to mention sex, and it was better not to be too sad, too angry or disappointed, and absolutely not too loud. My parents didn’t burden us with unhappiness, and they believed in optimism. When they described their childhoods, they were painted in beautiful colors, hiding trauma, poverty, and the pain of racism and immigration.
Both my parents were young children when their families left everything behind and emigrated to Israel, my father from Iran and my mother from Syria. Both grew up with six siblings in poor neighborhoods and struggled not only with poverty but also with the prejudice that came with being from an ethnic group considered inferior in Israel in the 1950s.
I knew that my father had two sisters who got sick and died when they were toddlers, before he was born, and that as a baby he was very ill himself and almost didn’t survive. His father, my grandfather, who was blind from birth, needed my father to go to work with him, to sell newspapers on the street. As a child I was aware that my father hadn’t gone to school and had worked to support his family since he was seven years old. He taught me how to work hard, as he longed for me to get an education that he could never afford for himself.
Like my father, my mother had also struggled as a baby with life-threatening illness. She had lost her oldest brother when she was ten years old, an enormous trauma for the whole family. My mother didn’t have many childhood memories and therefore those are unknown to me. I’m not sure my parents ever realized how similar their histories were, how their bond was silently tied with illness, poverty, early loss, and shame.
Like many other families, our family colluded and shared the unspoken understanding that silence was the best way to erase what was unpleasant. The assumption in those days was that what you don’t remember won’t hurt you. But what if what you don’t remember is in fact remembered, in spite of your best efforts?
I was their first child, and their traumatic past lived in my body.
There were wars where I grew up, and so often we, the kids, felt frightened, not fully aware that we were being raised in the shadow of the Holocaust, and that violence, loss, and endless grief were our national heritage.
The Yom Kippur War, by then the fifth war since 1948, broke out when I was only two years old. My sister was born on the first day of that war. Like all the other men, my father was called to serve in the army. I was left with a neighbor while my mother went alone to the hospital to give birth to my sister. The massive attack on Israel took everyone by surprise, and many wounded soldiers were rushed into the hospitals, which then became too crowded for women in labor. The women were moved to the hallways.
I don’t remember a lot from that war, but as it usually is with childhood experiences, it was all perceived as pretty normal. For years to come, the school had a monthly “war drill.” We children practiced walking quietly into the shelters, happy that instead of studying we were playing board games in the shelter and joking about the missile that might hit or the terrorists who would come with weapons and take us hostage. We were taught that nothing should be too difficult to handle, that danger was a normal part of life, and that all we needed was to be brave and keep a sense of humor.
I was never afraid at school; only at night did I worry that a terrorist might choose our house from all the other houses in the country, and then I wouldn’t be able to save my family. I thought about all the good places people used to hide during the Holocaust: the basement, the attic, behind the library, in the closet. The secret was to make sure to always keep quiet.
But I wasn’t so good at being quiet. As a teenager, I started making music, wondering if all I needed was to make noise and be heard. When I stood on stages, music was the magic. It gave voice to what I could not otherwise speak out loud. It was my protest against the unspoken.
Then, in 1982, the Lebanon War erupted and I was old enough to recognize that something terrible was happening. To the school’s memorial wall were added more and more names, this time of young people we knew. Parents who had lost their boys came to the school for the ceremony of Memorial Day. I was proud to be the one singing for them, looking straight into their eyes and making sure I didn’t cry because then I would ruin the song and someone else might have to take my place behind the mic. We ended the ceremony every year with “Shir La Shalom” (“A Song for Peace”), one of the most well-known Israeli songs. We sang for peace from the depth of our hearts. We wanted to have a new beginning and liberate our future.
I grew up on our parents’ promise that by the time the children were eighteen and had to serve in the army, there would be no more wars. But that, to this day, has not happened. I served in the army as a musician, praying for peace, traveling from one army base to another, crossing borders, singing for the soldiers. I was a nineteen-year-old soldier when the Gulf War started.
We were on the road and the rock-and-roll music we played was loud, so loud that we had to make sure we didn’t miss the sound of the sirens and could run to the shelters to put on our gas masks in time. At some point, we decided to give up on the masks and the shelters and instead ran to the roofs every time there was a siren so we could watch the missiles from Iraq and try to guess where they would fall. After each thunderous explosion, we would go back to our music and play it even louder.
We sang for the soldiers, who were also our childhood friends, neighbors, and siblings. And when they teared up, as they often did, I felt the power of touching another heart with my own, voicing the unspeakable. Our music expressed so much of what no one could say out loud: that we were scared but were not allowed to admit it even to ourselves, that we were still too young and wanted to go home, fall in love, travel far away. That we wanted normal lives but we were not sure what “normal” meant. Making music and singing out loud were meaningful and liberating. It was the beginning of my journey of a search for truths, the unveiling of the emotional inheritance within me.
Eventually, some years later, I left my homeland, moved to New York City, and began studying the unspeakable—all those silent memories, feelings, and desires that are outside awareness. I became a psychoanalyst, exploring the unconscious.
The analysis of the mind, like a mystery story, is an investigation. We know that Sigmund Freud, the great sleuth of the unconscious mind, was a big fan of Sherlock Holmes and maintained a large library of detective fiction. In some ways, Freud borrowed Holmes’s method: gathering evidence, searching for a truth beneath the surface truth, seeking out hidden realities.
Like detectives, my patients and I try to follow the signs and listen not only to what they say but also to their pauses, to the music of that which is unknown to both of us. It is delicate work, collecting reminiscences of childhood, of what was said or done, listening to the omissions, to stories untold. Looking for clues, piecing these together into a picture, we ask, What really happened and to whom?
The secrets of the mind include not only our own life experiences but also those that we unknowingly carry with us: the memories, feelings, and traumas that we inherit from previous generations.
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|March 12, 2022|
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