Archive for October, 2018

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,