Psychologists say that although we pass on legacies from generation to generation, we can also pass on trauma from past events.
We cannot change the past, but the past can change us for generations.
“To realize humanity’s ability to transform into the most vicious creatures on this Earth, we have that within us,” said Bill Kugelman, a Holocaust survivor.
Kugeleman is 98, but he vividly remembers his teenage life in Poland when the Nazis took him from his home and sentenced him to concentration camps. He used to smoke dried leaves to tame a raging hunger and went numb from beatings and fear. He believed he would never see freedom again.
“You weren’t reacting to things anymore. It’s like you’re beating the dead horse. That was it,” Kugelman said.
He says that even 80 years later, he cannot bring himself to give a full description of life and death in the concentration camps.
And for those closest to this kind of pain, it’s their story too – even if they haven’t experienced it.
Dr. Irit Felsen is a psychologist specializing in Holocaust trauma and knows this subject on a deeper level.
“Children of trauma survivors have experiential knowledge of their parents’ trauma from experiences they have never had,” Felsen said.
Both of her parents were Survivors, making her a 2G or 2nd Generation Survivor. She says children of survivors may react to their parents’ anxiety and depression.
“Being hyper-vigilant about all sorts of things all the time, being a little suspicious; suspicious illness, anxiety, and a tendency to have depressive experiences,” Felsen said.
It’s called “intergenerational trauma”, which means that a survivor has been so affected. Their descendants also struggle with the effects of a traumatic event.
According to the American Psychological Association, people who experience intergenerational trauma may exhibit emotional or behavioral patterns similar to those of the survivor, such as: shame, increased anxiety, guilt, low self-esteem, and depression.
Even substance abuse and difficulty forming relationships with others and much more. Although intergenerational trauma was first identified in the children of Holocaust survivors, it is not culture-specific.
Take Brought Plenty, an Indigenous woman and boarding school survivor who says she remembers the times when US federal authorities forcibly took her from her grandparents and sent her to a boarding school designed to erase her language, her culture and beliefs. “She just grabbed my hair on one side, my braids, and just cut it off and threw it right at me, then went to the other side and cut it off,” Plenty said.
She was only six and a half and never saw her grandparents again.
Now, at 70, Plenty recalls how she was forced to forget her name, bathed in soap that smelled of laundry and suffered physical abuse from fellow students and staff.
She says her daughter Nellia Faradi is now bearing the consequences of that trauma.
“I can honestly say with my older kids, I never kissed them. I never kissed them. You know, I never told them I was proud of them,” Plenty said.
Psychologist Fabiana Franco is part of a chorus of researchers who say difficulty expressing love or emotions can affect a child’s sense of self-worth, which they then pass on to their own children later on. in life.
Nellia’s trauma manifests in guilt as she helps her mother find missing children who never returned from boarding school.
“I have a breakdown at least once a month because, you know, I read all these testimonials and then I feel bad because I’m like, well, I should be able to read this if other people are going through this. But at the same time, it’s like, you know, you can’t carry the stories of hundreds of people,” Faradi said.
While researchers have extensively documented the effects of intergenerational trauma, there is no conclusive finding on how it is transmitted.
Researcher Yael Danieli thinks survivors may struggle to form healthy bonds and emotional attachments with their children, which can create a cycle of relationships of avoidance and mistrust. But a 2015 study by Dr. Rachel Yehuda at Mount Sinai Hospital found genetic changes in descendants of Holocaust survivors specifically focused on the gene associated with stress hormones.
This theory is known as “epigenetic inheritance,” the idea that environmental factors, like stress or diet, can affect your offspring’s gene expression.
In a 2008 lecture, Dr. Joy DeGruy, author of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, referred to this effect in the black community as “post-traumatic slave syndrome.”
“Hundreds of years of unprocessed, released, unprocessed trauma. Do you think there could be any residual impacts of that trauma? Of course there are. It hasn’t ended the friends , and it’s not over yet,” DeGruy said.
DeGruy says black Americans are still feeling the impact of slavery through high stress levels and affecting their body’s immune system.
She says there’s also a sense of a shortened future, internalized racism, trouble sleeping and outbursts of anger.
DeGruy argues that responses to trauma are so prevalent. Others mistakenly believe it is an intrinsic part of the black experience.
“That’s their culture. That’s how they are. So there’s poison in the cookies, but how are you going to get that poison out,” DeGruy said.
To cut the intergenerational chain of trauma, therapists recommend being open about the extent of past issues and discussing the impact with loved ones. There are also different areas of professional help. Narrative exposure therapy helps patients reframe traumatic experiences to let go of the control they have over their lives. And the Intergenerational Trauma Treatment Model focuses on healing unresolved childhood trauma through different cognitive-behavioral techniques.
But for Neilla and Brought Plenty, they are rebuilding trust and closeness by bringing justice to Indigenous children who never returned home.
“I know for myself that I have to take a step back in as painful a way as it feels. I want my daughter to live a good life,” Plenty said.