Posts Tagged ‘trauma’

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,


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,


Interview at Awst Press – Beautiful ideas cross borders

December 11, 2015

Liz Blood was in the process of leaving Austin, TX for Tulsa, OK but still caught up with me and edited our interview for Awst Press. If you check it out, I also highly recommend the essay by Donald Quist.

and for something lighter and happier, the latest cat photo.

Millie and plant

He survived war and torture; she married him — and his trauma.

October 13, 2015

Here’s Miguel’s story of survival from the civil war in El Salvador. I always think it’s important to consider how trauma affects others in a family as well so I am grateful that Sandra was willing to talk with me about their marriage, and here is her story, too. Click here, please, to read.

Survivors of Torture, Rebuilding Lives in Los Angeles

February 28, 2015

It’s been an overwhelming experience to be working again with Hector Aristizábal and Julian Scharmacher, collecting oral histories from survivors and from their families.

We’ve been very interested not only in the experiences of the asylum-seekers themselves but also in what happens to the second generation, the people who are also affected by exile and trauma but who are too often overlooked.

We’ve met some extraordinary people but fears for safety–their own and their families’–has meant that many of these stories can’t be told.

A small brave group will open up onstage on March 23 and 24, and I am just beginning to post the narratives that have been approved.

You can find information about the free performances and read survivor stories as they go up at our website.

Mad Street Scene by Jose Ramirez

Mad Street Scene by Jose Ramirez

March 23, 2015 at Mercado La Paloma, Community Room, 3655 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90007 at 6:30 PM

Facility is ADA-complaint; Food available for purchase; Parking is free in the evening in the Mercado’s lot, on the street, and around the corner at DMV lot on Hope between W. 37th and Exposition.

March 24, 2015 at Cafe Club Fais Do-Do, 5257 West Adams Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90016

Reception and Cash Bar at 6:30; Performance at 7:00 PM

Restrooms at this venue up a flight of stairs. Street parking.

More to come over the next year so please keep checking in.

We are grateful to all the participants, to the Program for Torture Victims for their help. For the support that makes this project possible, our gratitude to the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and to CalHumanities, a partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.