April 2018

Sunday, August 24, 2014


This week, as I read Daniel J. Siegal's The Pocketguide to Interpersonal Neurobiology, (more interesting than it sounds), I learned about the way that trauma can impact a family's brains across generations, and I've learned that there is hope to escape the cycle. 

The theme of generational trauma weaves through time and space: it goes centuries back in the stories we hear. Just think of all the Greek myths where men fed slaughtered children to unsuspecting gods and men and then their children were punished. And there are lines in the Old Testament (or Torah, depending on your upbringing) where God says God will visit "the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate [God]" (Exodus 20:5). Closer to home and more recently, the American playwright Arthur Miller explores this theme again and again. 

Three weeks ago, I researched and drew my family's genogram, a family tree that includes diseases of the body and mind, addictions, and emotional relationships so that we can see patterns across generations. When I began the genogram, I wanted to trace the impact that the trauma my maternal grandmother experienced as a teenager from her generation to my own.

I have long known that my maternal grandmother's family was farm poor during the Depression and that Grandmother had to forego a college scholarship in order to care for her younger siblings after her mother died, when Grandmother was sixteen. I have known that Grandmother's dear papa sold the family cow to buy my grandmother a winter coat.  

In my research, I learned more of Grandmother Matthews' story: her mother fell over from a heart attack when she was tying her shoe(or, worse, leaning over the trash can) in the kitchen. Two days later, Grandmother's aunt--her father's sister--hanged herself in the family barn. Not long later, Grandmother's grandmother committed suicide, slitting her wrists in a rocking chair on another uncle's front porch (where her five year-old grandson discovered her.) 

Grandmother did not go to college on scholarship but instead stayed home to raise her younger siblings and to take care of her father, who was diabetic and had stopped taking care of himself when his wife died. He died five years to the day after his wife died, and Grandmother continued raising her younger siblings, including sending them to college. Both of them would die because of conditions related to their addictions to alcohol and tobacco. As Little Brother Matt says, "This sounds like a sad country song." 

In interviewing my father, I learned for the first time that my paternal grandmother's mother also died when this grandmother was a teen (well, almost: Grandmother was twelve.) I wondered, "Why was this the first time that I heard Grandmother Edwards' story--or at least why was this the first time the story resonated with me?"

I also wondered why one Grandmother experienced such trauma and the other, as far as I could tell, did not. As I thought about their common experiences in losing their mothers while they still lived at home, I also thought about the differences: Grandmother Matthews cared for her sick father and then he died, too, whereas Grandmother Edwards' father lived, and since this grandmother was the baby, her older sister Magnolia (soon to be nicknamed "Ben") raised her. Ben was a delight, one of those joyful souls you meet a few times in a lifetime. Furthermore, Grandmother Matthews had to take on the role of an adult in a family where the adults were losing it, whereas Grandmother Edwards maintained the role of the baby all her life. 

When I watched the film, Legacy of Unresolved Loss: A Family Systems Approach, one of Monica McGoldrick's early comments resonated with me: “It is when…connections are severed, whether through death, divorce, or estrangement, that a part of us also dies, and that deadness can seep into all of our relationships, affecting people long after the loss has occurred.” 

I have long noticed the emotional inheritance of my grandmother's trauma, and in Siegal's book I learned that structural changes to the brain as a result of epigenetic (a new word for me) trauma can also be passed through the generations, making resilience in the face of stress more difficult for later generations. 

As I continued reading, I also read the hopeful news that our brains continue changing throughout our lives and can heal. As Siegel writes, "Preliminary findings about the positive impact of mindfulness meditation…support the hopeful view of the power of the mind to alter even epigenetic regulation of gene expression….It is never too late to use the focus of attention to alter the brain's architecture."

When he discusses the seven (or maybe eight) aspects of our life that support neuroplasticity, he even provides the key elements to becoming healthy:

1) aerobic exercise
2) good sleep
3) good nutrition
4) relationships
5) novelty
6) the close paying of attention
7) reflection
8) humor (maybe)

Further, he writes, "Being kind to oneself is a crucial starting place for lasting change." This seems true to me after 27 years of observing teenagers in high school classrooms (and their stressed-out teachers), and I'm glad to have it confirmed by a researcher. The implications for schooling--and for our society's addiction to punishment-- may be obvious: teaching someone compassion begins with compassion, not with shame. 

This lesson was one of the great Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King's lessons. He said:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness;
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate;
only love can do that.
Hate multiplies hate,
violence multiplies violence,
and toughness multiplies toughness
in a descending spiral of destruction....
The chain reaction of evil --
hate begetting hate,
wars producing more wars --
must be broken,
or we shall be plunged
into the dark abyss of annihilation.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Strength To Love, 1963

When will we learn the hope and wisdom of our saints and learn to love ourselves and one another? Perhaps that will be when we teach the hope and wisdom of our saints. Perhaps that will be when as a culture we value kindness more than a new car, silence more than sound, and stillness more than speed. 

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