It Starts with The House

January 1, 2019

It’s January 2019 and that means that the five candidates whose campaigns I volunteered on – Gil Cisneros, TJ Cox, Katie Hill, Katie Porter, Harley Rouda – are all taking their seats in Congress. Happy New Years to them and please do such a great job that your constituents will return you in 2020 with resounding victories!​

My 14-year-old cousin and I are here with candidate Gil Cisneros and other volunteers from SeaChange. That’s the organization created by Rep. Karen Bass who doesn’t just vote right and raise money. She believes in community organizing for change and she makes that happen.

In Bakersfield with TJ Cox and the legendary Dolores Huerta.

And Happy New Years to you too!


Intergenerational Trauma – Part 5 – Childhood Amnesia

October 2, 2018

As I learned at the symposium, Inheriting Genocide, and shared with you in the first installment, during the Armenian Genocide in 1915, infants and children were snatched from their mothers and given to Turkish, Kurdish, and Bedouin families.

After the war, adult survivors in the Armenian diaspora and aid organizations sought to ransom and rescue the abducted children. Some children did remember the past—only too well. They didn’t come forward as they feared they would be slaughtered if anyone knew they were Armenian. But many of the children had no memories at all of their early years or even their original names.

Salpi Gharazian told us how her grandmother would read obituaries and repeat “How lucky! How lucky!” When Ghazarian asked, “What do you mean lucky? They’re dead!”, her grandmother answered, “Look. It says here where they were born. They knew where they were born.”

All of us lose conscious memory from the time of birth until around three years of age: “childhood amnesia”. But what happens during those years lost to consciousness does leave its imprint. It may not figure in our autobiography, the narrative we can tell about ourselves, but it all becomes part of our “implicit biography” which Dr. Andrei Novac says includes nonverbal patterns of response, the framework geared perhaps above all to relationships.

For each of us, the implicit biography is a powerful part of identity. As for the lost Armenian children, they didn’t react when read lists of Armenian names. They didn’t react to the Armenian language. But the gates of emotion and memory opened at the sound of an Armenian lullaby.

How deep they go, the childhood memories we are unable to remember!

I thought of a Nigerian I know here in LA. He feels a pang when he sees children at play, reminders to him that he never had a childhood. And I thought of how often Hector has said that when we play theater games, we become little kids again.

Infants at play live in a world of pure imagination. They know nothing of rules or winners and losers. All that comes soon enough as they are socialized through more structured play on the way to adulthood. But in those first years, as Hector often says in ImaginAction workshops, “There’s no right way or wrong way. Whatever you do is perfect.”

Of course, many of us don’t remember ever feeling that way.

We learn about attachment in those forgotten years, 0-3, about whether safety and reassurance will return when we’re hungry or cold or scared or alone. I like to think that when we gather together in an ImaginAction sudden village and play together like little kids we recapture our own perfection and the idyllic days we have forgotten. Or maybe sometimes we can repair the past and experience that perfect grace for the first time.

Intergenerational Trauma – Part 4 – Theories of Transmission

October 2, 2018

My own account on this subject is very limited, so if you’d like a more thorough introduction to epigenetics, I recommend the essay/review, Epigenetics: The Evolution Revolution by Israel Rosenfield and Edward Ziff as published in the New York Review of Books.

Here’s my report, and I’ll be posting the final installment, Childhood Amnesia, a few minutes from now.

“When a crime against humanity occurs, all of humanity is affected,” said Christie Tcharkhoutian, speaking at the symposium, Inheriting Genocide: Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma.

In that spirit, I’ve tried to apply what I heard that day very broadly. Right now? I’ve just watched footage of still another school shooting. Children dead. Hundreds more traumatized by what they’ve gone through. Millions of parents and kids affected as well, as they realize, once again, that there is no place of safety, that in our society guns have more rights than human life. Politicians are complicit in the slaughter. Gun manufacturers profit from it. No one is left untouched.

“Most trauma,” said Dr. Andrei Novac, “has fallout in society.”

This installment, however, will briefly share theories about the transgenerational effects of trauma. How is it transmitted? There’s no single explanation. Instead we have to look at the individual, at the interplay of biological and psychosocial factors.

As Dr. Natan Kellermann pointed out, even within a single family, not every child inherits the burden of secondary trauma. He asks about content, process, and timing: what the child learned, how it was told, and when—and how the child reacted to this knowledge.

When the parent’s trauma remains silenced, psychoanalytic theory would say the repressed experience is transmitted as a shadow over the child, and it’s the child who must now process the experience. On the other hand, sometimes there’s too much talk of the traumatic experience, repetitive and obsessive.

Tactics that helped a person survive there may carry over in habits here. The second generation feels the effects even if the mechanism is not clear.

Parenting style makes a difference. For example, survivors may be overprotective while others have no patience with any sign of weakness.

Today there’s a lot of interest in the biological or epigenetic factors, the way the biological stress response in the mother is transmitted to the child during pregnancy.

In just one line of research, as Dr. Andrei Novac explained, when a person perceives a potential threat, the impulse goes first through the frontal lobe which evaluates whether or not the alarm needs to be heeded. In people who’ve been traumatized, the amygdala doesn’t wait for the stimulus to be evaluated. Instead it releases a flood of adrenaline. For most people, this then triggers the release of cortisol which has an initial calming effect. But people diagnosed with PTSD show below normal levels of cortisol. Once an alarm is triggered, the organism doesn’t calm down—and it turns out children of people diagnosed with PTSD are more likely to develop PTSD themselves if experiencing trauma. They show the same low cortisol levels.

We tend to use the term “PTSD” for any negative consequence of trauma. For those of us who work with survivors of any sort of trauma, Dr. Novac stressed that PTSD is actually the least common diagnosis, though the most severe and needing the most treatment. The most frequent diagnosis is depression followed by anxiety which may be accompanied by substance abuse.

Dr. Kellermann reminded us that vast majority of survivors and their children function well. Consequences are unpredictable; most people will recover from trauma though everyone, depending on context and at different times, can experience either vulnerability or resilience. Every survivor had a history and a personality before the horrific event, during it, and after. When we generalize, we lose sight of the individual as well as the individual ways in which people interpret and make meaning from or find meaning in their life experience.

When we focus solely on the negative consequences of trauma, we may overlook the positive. As practitioners we can honor and support the strength, the sense of identity, solidarity, and commitment, the drive to achieve and never waste the life we’ve been given, all the motivating power that accompanies Post-Traumatic Growth.

Thanks for accompanying me this far. One final installment still to come.

Till then, be well,


Let them in!

June 26, 2018

Yesterday, the great Eisha Mason, who’s been fighting (nonviolently, of course) for justice probably from the day she was born, called a quick pop-up protest at Western & Wilshire in support of immigrant families. We were there!

And for the big demonstration, Los Angeles area folks, please be at City Hall at 11:00 AM on Saturday, June 30th to make it clear Families Belong Together!

Inheriting Genocide: Part 3 – Surviving Survival

June 10, 2018

Continuing my thoughts after attending the conference:

Much of what I heard at the Inheriting Genocide symposium resonated with my own experiences working at PTV with men and women seeking asylum in the United States after escaping prison, torture, and the threat of death in their countries of origin. What happens once you think you’re safe?

The people I work with face, as Holocaust and Genocide survivors have faced before them, the challenge of “surviving survival”. After the dangers of war and violence and perilous journeys, your place of refuge turns out to be where you have no papers, no work, no roof over your head, a language you don’t speak, and constant worry or grief over family and friends dead or left behind.

Among all the losses, after much betrayal, abuse, and exploitation, you have lost the ability to trust.

Many asylum seekers here in California still live in fear. They fear ICE. They fear there are government spies living among other immigrants from their country. Political activists and members of the LGBTQ community, criminalized in their countries of origin, fear retaliation against their families back home if their identities become known. In a very profound way, many still remain in hiding.

And so, overcoming isolation and repairing social bonds is also a priority.

In Los Angeles, Holocaust survivors have their own social club, Café Europa. At PTV, I facilitate writing and arts workshops. People get to express themselves while at the same time, creative projects help them regain the compromised ability to focus and concentrate. But I think more meaningful has been the weekly Resilience group of conversation, storytelling, theater games, laughter and song. Our group offers more than peer support. Real friendships are forged. I am constantly inspired and amazed: people who’ve endured so much and have so little are unstinting in their generosity to one another.

At the same time, a frequent complaint is that it’s so hard to meet Americans. But when I take asylum seekers to social occasions or on field trips, they often freeze when white Americans try to engage them in conversation. They don’t want to talk about where they are from, what happened to them, and how and why they arrived in California. Someone hears an accent and asks “Where are you from?” and the question feels like a threat. So I try to prepare my brothers and sisters for a richer social life through roleplay. People practice telling only what they are comfortable saying. They learn to turn the questions back on the Americans and get them talking about themselves. For example: “I’m from Uganda. How about you? Have you always lived in California?”

There are often other barriers to social life. For Holocaust survivors who are now elderly and frail, it’s almost impossible to make it over to Café Europa. Home visits provide at least some contact with the outside world. Clinician Sheila Moore suggests using technology so that people can join programs without being physically present—an approach worth exploring for ImaginAction and other service providers as refugees and asylum seekers also face multiple obstacles to participation.

One of our PTV brothers was hospitalized, alone and afraid, after injuries sustained during torture took a turn for the worse. The hospital agreed to ignore the 2-visitors-at-a-time rule. The entire Resilience group showed up and we held our weekly gathering squeezed into his room, around his bed.

Our family suffered another blow this year. People were devastated when a transgender PTV sister who arrived in this country believing she would be safe was instead brutally murdered. We attended vigils for her and, for the PTV scrapbook in which family members create pages to represent their identities, dreams, and life philosophies, the group created a page to mourn for Viccky who had not had the chance to create her own.

All survivors need to mourn their losses.

Till the next installment,


The Human Dignity Awards Dinner

April 27, 2018

The theme was Women in Human Rights and Healing and it was amazing to be honored last night along with LA City Councilwoman Nury Martinez, who’s led the fight against the trafficking of women and girls, Lisa Fujimoto of the Change a Life Foundation, and the wonderful Amina Nakiyaga who shook everyone up with her speech. We got the celebrity photo treatment and the photos were then projected in the banquet hall throughout the program. Here I’m with Amina

and here with Rossana Perez, my brave and talented friend who survived the worst in El Salvador in the ’80’s (and brought the flowers).

We raised a lot of money for the Program for Torture Victims – but it’s never enough!

Inheriting Genocide: Part 2, Conspiracy of Silence

March 31, 2018

As I posted last month, much of what I learned at the symposium resonated with me, with the work I do at the Program for Torture Victims and with ImaginAction, a theater arts organization dedicated to community healing. So for those who remain interested in the topic, here’s the link to the next installment as posted at the ImaginAction website. #2: The Conspiracy of Silence.

March for Our Lives!

March 25, 2018

Students, children, and youth were the vanguard of the Civil Rights Movement and the Chicano Movement. Now the young people lead again!

The March for Our Lives-LA demanded gun control and an end to gun violence, not only at school, but in our SoCal communities (from San Bernardino to Seal Beach), and an end to the police killing of Black and Brown youth.

Obviously, the goals of the first two movements I mentioned have not been fully achieved but…No turning back! No giving up!

Events Coming Up!

March 17, 2018

Sunday, May 6, 2018 at 7:00 PM I’ll be reading at the Ruskin Group Theater along with Garrett Saleen, Grace Singh Smith, and David Preizler, introduced by my fave Andrew Tonkovich, presented by Library Girl. The theater is at 3000 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90405. $10 at the door and free parking.

Thursday, April 26, 2018 at LA Cathedral: The theme of the Human Dignity Awards Dinner (to benefit the Program for Torture Victims) is “Celebrating Women in Human Rights and Healing” — and I’m one of them! along with LA City Councilmember Nury Martinez, Lisa Fujimoto of the Change a Life Foundation, and Channel 11 anchorwoman Marla Tellez. Tickets at

Inheriting Genocide

February 27, 2018

On February 7th, I attended a symposium at the Museum of Tolerance here in Los Angeles.

Much of what I heard from clinicians, researchers, and survivors seemed to apply to a wide range of survivors, including generations affected by historical trauma.

It resonated with me personally as well as what I’ve experienced working with asylum seekers at the Program for Torture Victims and through my artistic work with ImaginAction, an international organization dedicated to promoting social justice and community healing through the arts, especially through theater. I decided to write up some of my responses to the symposium for the ImaginAction website.

This may be of interest to some of you who follow this blog and so here’s a link to the first, introductory installment: Intergenerational Trauma.

In the months that follow, I’ll let you know when new installments are posted.

Part 2: Conspiracy of Silence.

Part 3: Surviving Survival .

Part 4: Theories of Transmission .

Part 5: Childhood Amnesia.