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(For reasons of readability, the male form is used with personal names, however the female form is also always intended.)

Transgenerational Trauma (Part I)

Author: Silvia Prosquill (TVP)


“Trauma is contagious“, states Judith Herman pointing towards the relationship between mental illness and how it is structurally passed on within different types of relationships. Freud already addressed the transgenerationally transmitted emotional processes in his book “Totem and Taboo”. He argues that

“[…] we may safely assume that no generation is able to conceal any of its more important mental processes from its successor. For psycho-analysis has shown us that everyone possesses in his unconscious mental activity an apparatus which enables him to interpret other people’s reactions, that is, to undo the distortions which other people have imposed on the expression of their feelings. An unconscious understanding such as this of all the customs, ceremonies and dogmas left behind by the original relation to the father may have made it possible for later generations to take over their heritage of emotion.” (Freud 1912-13)

Angela Moré draws on Freud´s notion of emotional inheritance that he understood as re-enactment of an unconscious, phylogenetic heritage related to his concept of the Oedipus complex. This heritage can be conceived as incorporation of a prehistoric-mythological patricide into the sons’ mental structure. Freud elevates this notion to a collective level when he refers to this phylogenetic pattern as the “sediment of human cultures”. In-depth examinations and findings increased in the course of the second half of the 20th century with the key research question concerning the significance of traumatic experiences for the post-Holocaust generation. The findings showed that the successor generation suffered from traumatic experiences transmitted unconsciously from their parents. Psychoanalytic treatment revealed that these traumata experienced by the Holocaust victims were unprocessed and unintegrated. They posed a lifelong burden to the victims as well as the perpetrators manifesting itself in fantasies, dreams, emotional experience and the subsequent generations’ unconscious behavior. Moré applies this transference phenomenon to the descendants of abuse victims, children of mentally ill parents, war and torture experiences. The consequences of extreme traumata such as the holocaust fundamentally change the descendants´ mental structure.

Brigitte Rauschenbacher (1998) highlights the fact that the unconscious is understood as “that which struggles against the conscious”. The stronger the resistance, the deeper the footprints left in the unconscious which strengthens the impact of the unconscious. Unlike Freud, who viewed the transgenerational transmission of traumatic experiences as “archaic heritage” she wants it to be seen as unconscious transmission of “the unsaid and suppressed”. However, after a certain time what she refers to – in Freud’s terms - as “cultural latency”, the traumata with all their manifestations would reappear in the next generations on a collective and individual level: individual histories gain “collective significance” when vast segments of the population (as victims, followers or perpetrators) are affected by this dynamic of suppression. Thereby, she points to the significance of including memory fragments in the experience of affected individuals to cultivate a society’s’ historic self-conscious. According to Moré, traumatic experiences not only affect the successor generation but also influences the third, fourth and the following generations.

Traumatised parents are not capable of bearing with the emotions, fantasies and the connected parts of the self, and can’t process these experiences symbolically. They need their children to unburden them projectively as „containers”. This causes a re-enactment of the traumata through their children because the children, as Bohleber (1998) writes, try to make sense of what happened to their parents. Since these internalized emotions could neither be symbolized nor verbalized, the children are just as incapable of processing them symbolically. Hereby, the children live in two realities: their own and that of their repeated parents’ dramatic history.

The meaning behind Triggers

Marianne Rauwald (2013) refers to the intrapsychic process of traumatic transmission with the term “Trigger”. According to the author, a trigger is a sensory impression that evokes memories of past experiences. This permanent sensory overload and the heightened alertness trigger the defence mechanisms of splitting, intrusion, avoidance and denial. For instance, the screams of an infant can revive the parents’ traumatic memories in their unconscious and trigger the said defence mechanisms to avoid the unbearable emotions. In the worst case, the child is subjected to abusive actions in order to silence it. This kind of parental behavior causes an attachment disorder that renders a secure attachment impossible. Rauwald speaks of unconscious, intrinsic representations that the victimized children carry with them. Hirsch (2011) describes this process as perpetual trauma representing the aftermath of the traumatic introjection. The “alien” (“das Fremde“) would be implanted through the paternal traumatic experiences. They appear as foreign objects or „transgenerational introjections“. Faimberg (1987) refers to a „tyrannical intrusion of a story“ into another subject.

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