Mind Matters — The Past Is Present

We are people of the now: quick apps; Amazon at the ready; near instantaneous gratification is ours. However, something must be gnawing at our souls. Why else would we be sending our saliva samples to Ancestry.com or 23andme?

Finding your DNA matters if your family tree may come up with some surprises you didn’t expect—a relative you didn’t know you had, a proclivity to a certain disease you were never aware of. And yet we persist—we do inevitably want to understand our origins and make connections with others who share them.

Heavily influenced by psychologist Murray Bowen, who, as early as the 1950’s and 1960’s, stressed the importance of a client’s family of origin, I took it upon myself to always construct a genogram of every client, usually in the initial session.

Climbing the family tree gives a wealth of information that would otherwise be dismissed. Patterns emerge in creating the genogram, a diagram of families and their relationships as far back as you can get them. One begins to see how deaths, traumas, illnesses, connect. Anniversary reactions to different troubling events become understood. The past is in the present.

Bowen always believed the biological connection of how trauma is transmitted down generations would someday be found, and it has been. Epigenetics is the study of how change occurs at the genetic level when some traumatic events occur. This is not a mutation of the DNA but a turning on or off of certain mechanisms in the face of biochemical changes that occur in response to trauma. What happened generations ago to an ancestor can carry forward to a descendant.

Recently, the APA Monitor highlighted the issue of inter-generational trauma. In 1966, psychiatrist Vivian Rokoff and her colleagues published their observations of psychological distress among the offspring of Holocaust survivors. Yael Danieli, Ph.D., is also well known for her inter-generational research with Holocaust survivors. Danieli notes, “massive traumas like those [like the Holocaust] affect people and societies in multi-dimensional ways. … it behooves us to study this area as widely as possible, so we can learn from people’s suffering and how to prevent it for future generations.”

Whenever there is trauma, there can be profound inter-generational effects. In addition to Holocaust survivors, this is evident in the history of the displacement and genocide of Native Americans, in the enslavement of African Americans, in the killing fields of Cambodia, in global migrations of refugees fleeing violence.

Inter-generational trauma can affect not only a family, but whole societies. While changes may occur at the cellular level—the epigenetics of the individual—they may also occur at the level of meaning-making. Family mythologies of how to view the world and others in it get filtered through the lens of trauma and fear. When we can name what we fear, we can rewrite the family mythology and address the traumatic themes in new and healthy ways.

Ignoring the past does not make it go away. Furthermore, being present to the past gives us an opportunity to bind the wounds of our ancestors and to open the future for our descendants.

The following additional resources are recommended by Tori Deangelis, in “The Legacy of Trauma,” Monitor on Psychology, February, 2019: