Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations

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A central thesis of this volume is that what human beings cannot contain of their experience - what has been traumatically overwhelming, unbearable, unthinkable - falls out of social discourse, but very often onto and into the next generation, as an affective sensitivity or a chaotic urgency. What appears to be a person's symptom may turn out to be a symbol - in the context of this book, a symbol of an unconscious mission - to repair a parent or avenge a humiliation - assigned by the preceding generation. These tasks may be more or less idiosyncratic to a given family, suffering its own personal trauma, or collective in response to societal trauma.This book attempts to address this heritage of trauma - the way that the truly traumatic, that which cannot be contained by one generation, necessarily and largely unconsciously plays itself out through the next generation - and to do so both from clinical and societal perspectives. The book looks first at the legacy of the Holocaust, the study of which broke ground for the new field of transmission studies; then the analysis and enactments of trauma in more ordinary clinical practice; and finally more recent, large-scale traumatic events within American society. Throughout, the links between the "little histories" of people and families and the "big history" of a society are illuminated and taken seriously.

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CHAPTER ONE: The second generation in the shadow of terror

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Ilany Kogan

Introduction

In his book Persistent Shadows of the Holocaust: the Meaning to Those Not Directly Affected, Moses (1993) describes the Holocaust as an unprecedented, systematic attempt to achieve “racial purity” through the extermination of innocent people. Reduced in the eyes of their persecutors to the lowest form of life, entire peoples—as well as homosexuals and the physically and mentally deformed—were regarded as a threat to the “Aryan race”; as invaders of the “Aryan body,” they were to be totally and completely annihilated in order to purge the German genetic pool of their taint. Thus, the Nazi’s “Final Solution” represented an utter and total debasement and dehuman-ization of some groups of people by another group, a cataclysmic event which changed the shape of human history forever.

The trauma of the Holocaust is often transmitted to, and absorbed by, the children of survivors. The psychoanalytic literature on the offspring of Holocaust survivors states that the Holocaust is transmitted to them through early, unconscious identifications which carry in their wake the parents’ perception of an everlasting, life-threatening inner and outer reality (Axelrod, Schnipper, & Rau, 1978; Barocas & Barocas, 1973; Kestenberg, 1972; Klein, 1971; Laufer, 1973; Lipkowitz, 1973; Rakoff, 1966; Sonnenberg, 1974). These children, whose minds have been impregnated with mental representations of the atrocities of the Holocaust deposited by their parents, carry within themselves powerful feelings of loss and humiliation, guilt and aggression. They often feel compelled to enact the parents’ suppressed traumas, thereby echoing their parents’ inner world (Auerhahn & Laub, 1984).

 

CHAPTER TWO: The broken chain: legacies of trauma and war

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Vera Muller-Paisner

The legacy of trauma needs only one moment in time, one moment in history to re-emerge with a different meaning. New associations can reframe the task of transmission to the next generation. Events such as the Holocaust continue to bring to our doorstep new ways of examining trauma, across generations, in different parts of the world, over a span of more than sixty years.

After the Second World War, many Holocaust survivors who stayed in Poland replaced their Jewish identity with the safety of a national identity as a Pole and Christian. Today, after more than sixty years, in a society that was Communist and anti-Semitic, Christian families have been discovering the secret of Jewish roots. Many elder family members, on their deathbeds, alter family history by declaring that they are Jews, and often ask to be buried in Jewish cemeteries.

Poles, raised to find their place in society as Catholics, are suddenly facing the dilemma of discovering parents who are Jews. Educated as Christians, they are trying to redefine religious identity. They are left with the task of trying to grasp the fear and horror of their family’s Holocaust narrative, to understand their relationship to it, and to attempt to form a new identification that would integrate and include this experience. In 1990, there were approximately 4,000 Jews in Poland. By 1996, there were between 10,000–20,000, and the number is rising, without immigration adding to it.

 

CHAPTER THREE: Traumatic shutdown of narrative and symbolization: a death instinct derivative?

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Dori Laub

Through a detailed clinical vignette and a review of the relevant literature, this chapter attempts to illustrate the failures in narrative formation, symbolization, and even in the process of psychoanalytic listening and comprehension, which occur in the wake of events of massive psychic trauma. Inexplicable gaps and absences occur in what should be all too evident and readily known, and the processes of exploratory curiosity come to a halt. The author attempts to explain this phenomenon through the cessation of the inner dialogue with the internalized good object, the “inner thou” that is annihilated in massive trauma. He tries to demonstrate the role the death instinct derivatives play in this presumed shutdown of processes of association, symbolization, and narrative formation. Such death instinct derivatives are unleashed once the binding libidinal forces of object cathexis are abolished and identification with the aggressor (the only object left in the internal world representation) takes place. Implications for psychoanalytic psychotherapy with severely traumatized patients are discussed and illustrated by another case vignette.

 

CHAPTER FOUR: Clinical and historical perspectives on the intergenerational transmission of trauma

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Peter Loewenberg

Trauma

Trauma is derived from the Greek term traumatikos for wound, meaning that external violence has caused an injury; this usage is still current in medicine and surgery. An axial event was the moment when the concept “trauma”, which had been limited to bodily injury, was expanded to include damage perpetrated on the mind, identity, feelings, and self. In the words of Ian Hacking,

Freud transformed Western consciousness more surely than the atomic bomb or the welfare state. His famous inventions, such as the Oedipus complex, are familiar enough, but we often ignore more fundamental aspects of his work. He cemented the idea of psychic trauma. [Hacking, 1996, p. 76]

It is no coincidence that the moment when Freud linked trauma from the physical to the psychic was in 1916, in the midst of the First World Wa r.

Psychologically, trauma means a violent shock, a wound to the person’s self-concept and stability, a sudden loss of control over external and internal reality, with consequences that affect the whole organism. We now recognize a spectrum of trauma and traumatic experiences. Trauma may be acute or cumulative. Freud defined “trauma” as “an experience which within a short period of time presents the mind with an increase of stimulus too powerful to be dealt with or worked off in the normal way” (Freud, 1916–1917). The external stimulus is too powerful to be mediated by the normal adaptive coping mechanisms; the person is overwhelmed and helpless. The self disappears and psychic survival is threatened. The affects and the ability to symbolize feeling states are damaged. Responses range from apathy, paralysis, dissociation, splitting, and withdrawal, to panic, terror, annihilation anxiety, fragmentation, and disorganized behaviour.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: The intertwining of the internal and external wars

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Vamik D. Volkan

This chapter examines the influence of traumatizing world events such as wars, war-like situations, and drastic political changes on the psyche of the individual, and raises the controversial question of whether or not to focus on such external events and their mental representations during psychoanalytic treatment. The analysand’s reactions to current or chronic traumatizing world events might severely interfere with the routine analysis of mental conflicts stemming from realistic and/or fantasized experiences of childhood. Sometimes, analysts themselves do not allow the impact of certain external events to be examined during the psychoanalytic treatment process because they unconsciously wish to protect themselves from their own anxiety and fear should the emotion of such events enter their offices. In this chapter, I also investigate the role historical processes play in the lives of ancestors in shaping our analysand’s symptoms and character formations.

Ignoring traumatizing external world events

 

CHAPTER SIX: Treatment resistance and the transmission of trauma

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M. Gerard Fromm

Patient authority and treatment resistance

As 2010 is the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the International Psychoanalytic Association, I would like to bracket this discussion with two of Freud’s statements. The first famously outlines the clinical trajectory of psychoanalysis: “Where Id was, there Ego shall be” (1933a, p. 80). In a sense, this description of psychoanalysis launched the field of ego psychology, leading to a rich set of theoretical concepts and a point of view about clinical technique. The conceptual contributions included the potential neutralization of the drives, and the technical approach emphasized supporting the ego in its all-important efforts at synthesis and mastery.

As part of his radical “return to Freud”, Lacan drew on Freud’s original German and retranslated the above foundational quote as “Where It was, there I must come to be” (1977, p. 129). He thereby shifted the field of discourse from one of forces and their control— Freud’s proverbial horse and rider—to the dimension of subjectivity. He recognized that it had been Freud’s genius to discover a model of psychological treatment that reversed the ordinary positions of doctor and patient. Within a traditional medical model, the patient was to make himself the object of the doctor’s knowledge and ministrations. But Freud, though he sometimes struggled with his startlingly new paradigm, set up a clinical situation in which he was to become the object of the patient’s unconscious strivings. As this transference from the past was gradually interpreted, Freud would return to the patient his or her own, formerly inchoate, knowledge about the sources of the illness.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: Turns of a phrase: traumatic learning through the generations

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Barri Belnap

Reading the language of the traumatized body, one sees evidence of a moment when rules and expectations are betrayed, leaving the victim in a sort of timeless zone in which no future is imaginable. The moment in which the traumatic mark is re-experienced is not normal time; time does not function as an expectable and reliable limit. Rather, time boundaries dissolve. “It is happening again.” The body braces for a shattering return that repeats as if no time has passed, making present realities seem unreal. “It”, the source of the destruction, is unclear. The sufferer searches and sometimes finds present causes, but they only partially explain. Often, there are no words at all with which to understand what is happening. In other cases, though words are spoken, they do not find recognition in the listener, but instead evoke denial. A “no response” is registered and prevents the witnessing of what is at stake in such traumatic moments.

Repetitive jokes and teasing between family members often preserve in ritual form a bit of family trauma, an “It” that is sustained and simultaneously disavowed. The expectation that “It is happening again” gets generalized to contexts where it does not wholly belong. Because there is no spoken or observable link between the traumatic repetition and the present, it is as if not just time but the laws that govern social relations are suspended. “It”, the source of the destruction, remains unclear and consequently potentially omnipresent. Considering the private pain suffered in such moments, the loyalty (conscious and unconscious) of sufferers to the preservation of their tie to “It” is both striking and puzzling.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT: Intergenerational violence and the family myth

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E. Virginia Demos

This is an exploration of how the trauma of loss and abuse, in a context of uprootedness, seems to have been transmitted across generations. It describes one young woman’s painful struggle to learn to trust her own experience, to come to terms with her parents’ commitment to a family myth that obliterated her reality, and to recognize how she was in danger of repeating their defensive patterns, thereby perpetuating the trauma. Her story unfolded gradually.

The patient

Ms L was an attractive, articulate, engaging twenty-year-old college junior, who had taken a medical leave of absence because of her daily drinking, her inability to concentrate and function in the college setting, and her suicidal wish to jump in front of a train. Consciously, she identified with the tragic death of Anna Karenina; over time, her story suggested deeper roots, not only in a fated romance, but in a more profound, unconscious identification with her mother, who, in her teenage years, had been struck by a vehicle.

 

CHAPTER NINE: A quixotic approach to trauma and psychosis

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Françoise Davoine

Quixotic” is one way to describe the intergenerational transmission of trauma—on the side of both the patient and the analyst—insofar as it is linked with the clinical experience of psychosis and the societal inscription of history.

Aborigine psychodynamics

We recently came back from an international symposium in Australia on the psychotherapy of schizophrenia, sponsored by an organization originally founded in the 1950s by Gaetano Benedetti. At that earlier time, it gathered psychoanalysts from Europe and the USA, especially from the Austen Riggs Center and Chestnut Lodge, who knew how to work with such severe cases. But this conference appeared to us actually to have been hijacked by numbers; we spent most of the time watching its members worship statistics and present cases as though the patients were things.

Only a New Zealander, John Read, stated that psychosis among children was linked to abuse half the time. He and Anne Silver from the late Chestnut Lodge boldly fought for the psychodynamic tradition against an enslavement to pseudo-scientific treatment approaches that seemed to rely on therapy, but were saturated with a rhetoric of objec-tification. Not a word about the patient’s dreams, not to mention the therapist’s dreams—the latter so characteristic of Benedetti’s tech-nique—especially in a land where knowledge proceeds from “The Dreaming” among aborigines.

 

CHAPTER TEN: A mosaic of transmissions after trauma

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Howard F. Stein

Introduction

This chapter is a study of the transmission of trauma in virtually any direction. It is a mosaic or montage of vignettes that cumulatively illustrate the horrifying ease by which this transmission can take place. Studies to date focus on the intergenerational transmission of trauma, specifically in families from parents to children. What cannot be contained, mourned, and worked through in one generation is transmitted, for the most part unconsciously, as affect, mission, and task to the next generation. It is an amalgam of “deposited representation” (Volkan, Ast, & Greer, 2002) and identification. The fate of repression and dissociation is enactment. Among the most exemplary studies of this process are Volkan’s Bloodlines (1997); Volkan, Ast, and Greer’s The Third Reich in the Unconscious (2002); Brenner’s Dissociation of Trauma (2001) and “On genocidal persecution and resistance” (2005); a series of papers by Apprey on intergenerational transmission of trauma among African Americans (“The African-American experience: forced immigration and transgenerational trauma (1993), “Broken lines, public memory, absent memory: Jewish and African Americans coming to terms with racism” (1996), “Reinventing the self in the face of received transgenerational hatred in the African American Community” (1998), and “From the horizon of evil to an ethic of responsibility” (2000)); an important paper by Hollander (1999) on the experience of totalitarianism during the Argentine “Dirty Wars” of the 1980s; and a moving essay by Katz (2003) on intergenera-tional transmission of trauma due to war and state terror.

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN: Heroes at home: the transmission of trauma in firefighters’ families

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Kevin V. Kelly

In the spring of 2002, firefighter Mike and I were both new to our roles; I had just become the consulting psychiatrist to the Counseling Services Unit of the New York City Fire Department, and Mike was just becoming a psychiatric patient. He recognized that, like everyone else in the FDNY, he was suffering from the psychological effects of the World Trade Center collapse, but he made his ambivalence explicit: “I know I need to be here, but that’s not why I’m here—if it was just for myself, I’d tough it out.” He went on to explain that, as the senior man in his firehouse, he saw how traumatized the younger men were. “They need to be here, and they’re not going to come unless they see me doing it, so that’s why I’m here.”

In the time since then, I have had the opportunity to learn a great deal from Mike and his brethren about trauma, and to make some observations about how it might be transmitted. This chapter will present those observations, with the understanding that they are derived from a rather homogeneous and unique population, in the aftermath of an extraordinary series of events.

 

CHAPTER TWELVE: Afterword: lost and found

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M. Gerard Fromm

“And yet they, who passed away long ago, still exist in us, as predisposition, as burden upon our fate, as murmuring blood, as gesture that rises up from the depths of time”

(Rilke, 1945)

With this epigraph from the poet, Rilke, Jane Fonda (2005) begins a critical chapter of her autobiography, a chapter in which she tells the story of her having become emotionally lost in what she eventually realizes is the trauma of her mother’s life. Against the backdrop of Hollywood and Broadway, it is the story of two troubled people forging a terribly troubled marriage in an impossibly heady context. Henry Fonda is adored by his feisty tomboy daughter, despite his morose disposition and proclivity for rage and for the devastating silences he had suffered from his own father.

Frances Fonda is regarded by her daughter with more mixed emotions, primarily in response to how the child Jane perceived her mother’s femininity: sometimes sweet and lovely, often long-suffering, inadequate as a source of pleasure for her husband, pathetic in her attempts, ultimately broken, as, her marriage deteriorating, she descended into depression and became lost to both herself and her children. Psychiatric hospitalizations followed, without evident benefit, and Frances Fonda became increasingly suicidal. Accompanied by a nurse on a visit to the family’s northwestern Connecticut home, Frances retrieved a hidden razor blade from her bathroom and, back at the hospital a month later, on her birthday, cut her throat.

 

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