CRF Blog

The Science of Suffering

by Bill Hayes

In The Science of Suffering for the New Republic, Judith Shulevitz looks at why some children of traumatized parents suffer while others thrive.

The children of the traumatized have always carried their parents’ suffering under their skin. “For years it lay in an iron box buried so deep inside me that I was never sure just what it was,” is how Helen Epstein, the American daughter of survivors of Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, began her book Children of the Holocaust, which launched something of a children-of-survivors movement when it came out in 1979. “I knew I carried slippery, combustible things more secret than sex and more dangerous than any shadow or ghost.” But how did she come by these things? By what means do the experiences of one generation insinuate themselves into the next?

Traditionally, psychiatrists have cited family dynamics to explain the vicarious traumatization of the second generation. Children may absorb parents’ psychic burdens as much by osmosis as from stories. They infer unspeakable abuse and losses from parental anxiety or harshness of tone or clinginess — parents whose own families have been destroyed may be unwilling to let their children grow up and leave them. Parents may tell children that their problems amount to nothing compared with what they went through, which has a certain truth to it, but is crushing nonetheless. “Transgenerational transmission is when an older person unconsciously externalizes his traumatized self onto a developing child’s personality,” in the words of psychiatrist and psychohistorian Vamik Volkan. “A child then becomes a reservoir for the unwanted, troublesome parts of an older generation.” This, for decades, was the classic psychoanalytic formulation of the child-of-survivors syndrome.

But researchers are increasingly painting a picture of a psychopathology so fundamental, so, well, biological, that efforts to talk it away can seem like trying to shoot guns into a continent, in Joseph Conrad’s unforgettable image from Heart of Darkness. By far the most remarkable recent finding about this transmogrification of the body is that some proportion of it can be reproduced in the next generation. The children of survivors — a surprising number of them, anyway — may be born less able to metabolize stress. They may be born more susceptible to PTSD, a vulnerability expressed in their molecules, neurons, cells, and genes.

After a century of brutalization and slaughter of millions, the corporeal dimension of trauma gives a startling twist to the maxim that history repeats itself. Yael Danieli, the author of an influential reference work on the multigenerational dimensions of trauma, refers to the physical transmission of the horrors of the past as “embodied history.” Of course, biological legacy doesn’t predetermine the personality or health of any one child. To say that would be to grossly oversimplify the socioeconomic and geographic and irreducibly personal forces that shape a life. At the same time, it would be hard to overstate the political import of these new findings. People who have been subject to repeated, centuries-long violence, such as African Americans and Native Americans, may by now have disadvantage baked into their very molecules. The sociologist Robert Merton spoke of the “Matthew Effect,” named after verse 25:29 of the Book of Matthew: “For unto every one that hath shall be given … but from him that hath not shall be taken.” Billie Holiday put it even better: “Them that’s got shall have; them that’s not shall lose.”

But daunting as this research is to contemplate, it is also exciting. It could help solve one of the enduring mysteries of human inheritance: Why do some falter and others thrive? Why do some children reap the whirlwind, while other children don’t? If the intergenerational transmission of trauma can help scientists understand the mechanics of risk and resilience, they may be able to offer hope not just for individuals but also for entire communities as they struggle to cast off the shadow of the past. [more]