The Uninvited Guest from the Unremembered Past: An Exploration of the Unconscious Transmission of Trauma Across the Generations

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Freud wrote to Binswanger on the anniversary of his daughter's death, "We will remain inconsolable. I don't care for my grandchildren anymore, but find no joy in life anymore."The author poses the question in this book; what legacy does grief, loss, trauma have upon the second and third generations? When Freud wrote "I don't care for my grandchildren anymore', what impact did his agonised grief have upon them?This book is a meditation on the ideas that have evolved in response to this question over the author's thirty years as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. Her central thesis is that we must not ignore, in our psychoanalytic practice, the impact of our ancestral history, especially if our ancestors have suffered, for their anguish can return and haunt us. It is the anguished return of traumatic experience that repeats itself across the generations and affects the way the next generation is perceived.

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CHAPTER ONE: Aeschylus and ancestral history

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“… man is a historical person, the mask of his history”

(Reiff, 1963, p. 25)

The bleak landscape of generational pain and conflict and its consequences upon human moral action lies at the heart of many early Greek mythological tragedies and in particular Aeschylus’s Oresteia. Thirty years after Marathon, Aeschylus wrote this trilogy. Scholars have pointed out that Aeschylus had a philosophical and moral interest in exploring the causes of destructive action among the many warring Greek clans, for he was called upon to help govern Athens following the Persian defeat of Marathon in 490 BC. Vellacott (1956) suggested that the trilogy was bringing dramatic form to Aeschylus’s belief that a democratic political framework and a legal court were the only way of bringing peace to generations of family bloodshed. When I first wrote about the Oresteia (Coles, 2007), I was interested in the sibling conflict between Atreus and Thyestes as the origin of the murder of Agamemnon and Clytemenestra. More generally, I argued that Aeschylus seemed to understand that sibling relationships can hold intense emotions of love and hate, and these emotions can determine the choices that people make in their life. Siblings of the same sex can find themselves in sexual conflict, such as Atreus and Thyestes, and wreak the most appalling revenge. In contrast, siblings can support each other beyond the call of loyalty such as Agamemnon going to the Trojan war to support his brother, Menelaus. Perhaps the most powerful sibling emotion is found between siblings of the opposite sex. Electra and Orestes are united in their decision to kill their mother and her lover. What I did not emphasize was that sexual conflict between siblings, as in the case of Agamemnon’s father Atreus and Atreus’s brother Thyestes, can have moral consequences upon the grandchildren, Electra and Orestes.

 

CHAPTER TWO: Sophocles and the fate of adoption

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“That which is neglected escapes”

(Sophocles, 1962, line 111)

In the last chapter we saw that when Aeschylus depicted the mythological tragedy of the House of Atreus, he brought psychological insight into the way family conflict can rebound across the generations. The myth dramatized the way a blood feud can accumulate in ferocity and it highlighted the idea that an original trauma will be repeated unconsciously in the next generation if it is not remembered and spoken about. However, Aeschylus leaves his audience to put together the past history that Orestes carried and its consequences upon his present action. We know Orestes is relieved of his suffering, but it is left an open question as to whether he was aware that the blood feud began with his grandfather Atreus and his great uncle Thyestes.

It could be said that Sophocles knew that Aeschlyus had left more detailed questions about individual human motivation unex-amined. It was as though Sophocles sensed that it was not a sufficient explanation of human behaviour to point back to ancient feuds. And so, in Oedipus Rex, Sophocles presents a more personal exploration of the impact of ancestral conflict upon individual identity. Little has been made of the fact that Sophocles is suggesting that if we are to account for personal suffering, then the antecedent conditions need to be known. Oedipus’s suffering was the result of the lies that were told him about his parentage. He is denied the knowledge of his true heritage, which is that his father had not wanted him and his mother colluded with his father to get rid of him. Simon (1988) made the important point that these Greek writers were reflecting the war-torn world in which they lived, and in which the abandonment of children and filicide played a part in the cultural trauma. And, as a consequence, we witness Oedipus’s struggle to know himself and rule well while at the same time we see him pitted against the grain of unavoidable self-deception. On this account the tragedy in which Oedipus murders his father and marries his mother is not the enactment of a universal wish within us all, but it is the playing out of a pathological fantasy that is precipitated by the failure to tell Oedipus the truth about his ancestral history. Or, another way of putting it might be to say that he enacted the pathological fantasies of many adopted children.

 

CHAPTER THREE: Sibling ghosts

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“An innumerable variety of cases can be thought of in which we should say that someone has pains in another person’s body … or in any empty spot.

(Wittgenstein, 1933–1934, p. 50)

Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Albee seemed to share a common view that it is the hidden and unspoken traumas of loss, violence, and death that inscribe themselves upon the psyche of subsequent generations. In this chapter, the repercussions that a sibling death might have upon the whole family, including any surviving siblings, is explored. In particular, if the loss of a sibling is hidden or never adequately mourned and remembered, its voice can be heard in future generations. Psychoanalytic theory since Freud has neglected the possibility that their presence might be felt across several generations and might be demanding to be acknowledged. Loewald put this idea particularly well when he wrote,

Those who know ghosts tell us that they long to be released from their ghost life and laid to rest as ancestors. As ancestors they live forth in the present generations, while as ghosts they are compelled to haunt the present generation with their shadow life. [Loewald, 1980, p. 249]

 

CHAPTER FOUR: Grandmother’s footsteps

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In the Preface, I recounted a dream that a patient had brought me, in his penultimate session, about going to his grandmother’s house for a meal. I had failed to recognize that he might have been telling me that his nurturing grandmother had been remembered and restored through our work together. At the time, I had never thought that there might be a significant grandparent within the internal world of the developing grandchild that might lie unrecognized. I had certainly not given much thought to the unconscious influence of my grandparents on my emotional development.

When Freud’s father died in 1896, Freud has told us that it left him in a state of confusion and guilt, as he struggled to give meaning to the influence that his father had upon his psychic life. What impact did his father’s death have upon Freud’s fathering of his own children, and how did his children react to the loss of their grandfather and to Freud’s grief (Masson, 1985)?

We know Freud reacted with anxiety to the death of his own grandfather from an anxiety dream he recounts in The Interpretation of Dreams, which he thinks he had when he was about seven or eight years old. He dreams of “My beloved mother, with a peculiarly, peaceful, sleeping expression on her features, being carried into the room by two (or three) people with bird’s beaks and laid upon the bed”. In one of his associations to the dream he says, “The expression on my mother’s features in the dream was copied from the view I had had of my grandfather a few days before his death as he lay snoring in a coma” (Freud, 1900a, p. 583).

 

CHAPTER FIVE: The nurse

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“If the woman disappeared so suddenly, I said to myself, some impression of the event must have been left inside me. Where was it now?”

(Masson, 1985, p. 222)

In the previous four chapters, there have been some shadowy figures whose representation can be found in our inner world. These figures, such as grandparents, dead siblings, or abandoning parents can haunt later generations if they have been left in unmourned and unmarked graves. In my clinical work, a fuller and more detailed investigation into earlier family relationships has seemed to unburden the psyche of some who have been holding an unacknowledged family trauma. But, in filling in some of their fractured narratives, there is one “uninvited guest” who has been neglected: the wet nurse, the nurse, or nanny. She has been present in the history of child-rearing for the last 3000 years (Fildes, 1988), yet she is a scarcely mentioned figure in most accounts of psychological development. In this chapter, the emotional effect that wet nurses, nurses and nannies have upon children is explored and a question is raised about their absence from psychoanalytic theory and practice. Though the nurse or nanny is a figure who occurs within the family of the privileged, the wet nurse is a more ubiquitous figure upon whose breast the rich, the orphaned, and the poor have relied, and it is her legacy that can be heard in the voice of the nurse.

 

CHAPTER SIX: The trauma of war

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“Yet once I discovered this unexplained suicide [of my great grandmother], I came to see it as a symbol that spoke for three generations of my family”

(Holroyd, 2010, p. 323)

In the previous chapters, it has been argued that to know of the ancestral past may be an important part in unlocking a repetitive and destructive pattern of behaviour. Orestes was caught up in three generations of violent revenge. Oedipus was blighted by the deceptions that accompanied his unwanted birth. In the clinical cases of Martha, Muriel, and Nicholas, they all carried an ancestral history that was painfully discovered. The work that has been done since the 1960s on the legacy of the Second World War, and, in particular, the help that has been given to the survivors of the Holocaust and their children, shows most clearly the way traumatic experience rebounds on the second and third generation.

The work of several analysts, mostly working in the USA, in the late 1970s and in the 1980s with survivors of the Holocaust made it more possible to think about the way in which traumatic experiences of parents can be transmitted to their children (Bergman & Jucovy, 1982; Kestenberg & Kestenberg, 1982; Krystal, 1978; Niederland, 1968a). In the collection of essays that were brought together in Generations of the Holocaust (Bergman & Jucovy, 1982), there was general agreement that there had been a collective “wall of silence” from analysts, psychiatrists, doctors, and the general population about the aftermath of the Second World War, and, in particular, there had been a denial of the effect of the Holocaust on survivors and their children (Bergman & Jucovy, 1982, p. 33). It had needed twenty years after the ending of the war before the helping professions began to be aware that there had been a neglect of this historical fact. For instance, patients were returning to therapy after an earlier analysis that had ignored the Holocaust as a meaningful event in the inner world. The failure to think about the psychological effects of the Holocaust was partly to do with what was called a “latency period”, which was defined as the time it took for analysts to face and find a language to express the horror of what had happened (Kestenberg, 1975; Kestenberg & Kestenberg, 1982). It could be said that to call this period of silence a necessary “latency period” was being too generous towards the psychiatrists, psychotherapists, and psychoanalysts who had greeted the survivors of the Holocaust. Some felt that there had been a conspiracy of silence due to the countertransference reactions of rage and guilt in the professionals (Danielli, 1984). This divided response to the silence that greeted the returning survivors is echoed in the differing reactions of survivors themselves. Some survivors felt that they needed time to process their experiences within themselves before they could speak, and their therapists recognized that in talking too soon there was a danger that they would be retraumatized further. For instance, Buergenthal, writing his memoirs Lucky Child in 2010, said he could only write of his experiences sixty years after his survival in Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen, and the ghetto of Kiele, for, he maintained that

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: Brain development and trauma

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“In every nursery there are ghosts. They are the visitors from the unremembered past of the parents; the uninvited guests at the christening …”

(Fraiberg, 1987, p. 100)

Fraiberg’s famous paper stretches the imagination back into the nursery of childhood with the uninvited guests of dead siblings, forgotten grandparents, abandoning parents, and unremembered nannies and nurses, and invites them to the adult table of psychoanalytic discourse. Her paper imagines the position of the child within the nursery and believes that the destructive visitors are from “the unremembered past of the parents”. Her therapeutic task with her co-workers, Edna Adelson and Vivian Shapiro, was to try to open up the unremembered past of young mothers who were repeating their childhood trauma of deprivation and abuse upon their own infants. She discovered that however disturbed the mother might seem to be, if she could be helped to remember her own past experience of abuse, she was more able to give up the unconsciously inflicted abuse upon her child. The disturbed mother who had repressed her abuse and cut herself off from her pain by denying any feeling was more likely to identify with the original aggressor and harm her child. The capacity to remember and feel again the original trauma opened up the possibility of changing the abusive legacy of the nursery.

 

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