The Things We Carry: What Our Ancestors Didn’t Tell Us: What behavioral epigenetics reveals about how trauma can transcend generations
What if your maverick blood sugar, your obstinate obesity, the asthma that has plagued you throughout your life, or the nightmares from which you wake numb and shaking, are not the result of your own lived experience, but are instead manifestations of hidden or unspoken traumas bequeathed from past generations? What if what happened to your great-grandparents has shaped who you are through a mix of external circumstances and epigenetic expression?
In the old Darwinian understanding of genetic inheritance, evolution was thought to be a gradual process that occurred over eons as a species evolved to adapt to a changed environment. On his trip to the Galapagos Islands in 1835, Darwin observed several species of finches. He speculated that the birds probably originated from the same ancestor finch and wondered what could now account for the slight variation among the birds. From this observation, he postulated that spontaneous mutation accounted for the difference in finch beaks and that a process of natural selection allowed for the mutant birds to thrive.
Take, for example, identical twins who have the same DNA code. In childhood, they appear to be identical, but as they age and are subject to different environmental and emotional conditions, they may lose their look-alikenes. Epigenetics explains changes in gene activity and expression not dependent on our DNA sequence.
Epigenetics is one way to explain the connection between nature and nurture, or as Carey puts it, “how the environment talks to us and alters us, sometimes forever.” The process of epigenetics changes the chemical modifications surrounding and attaching to our genetic material that in turn changes the way genes are switched on or off without altering the genes themselves.
In the relatively new field of behavioral epigenetics, Holocaust studies and research have studied the physiological and psychological effects of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other overwhelming emotional experiences such as occur from natural disasters, rape, the loss of a child, or an abusive home situation. Their findings have documented that trauma can affect the expression or suppression of certain genes, not only for the person involved but also for succeeding generations.
In a recent talk on NPR, the award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson raises the question of “ancestral memory” in the descendants of Africans slaves who crossed the Atlantic in slave ships under horrific conditions. Could the prevalence of high blood pressure among African-Americans today be an epigenetic response to the trauma experienced by the slaves who survived the voyage from Africa? Woodson speaks of her fear of swimming in large bodies of water, attributing this fear, which she shares with other African-Americans, to a set of behaviors loosely defined as “The Middle Passage Syndrome.
In her book, The Ancestor Syndrome: Transgenerational Psychotherapy and the Hidden Links in the Family Tree, French psychotherapist Anne Ancelin Schützenberger describes a patient she calls “the butterfly chaser.” The case offers a fascinating instance of how ancestral traumas can influence and shape an individual who has no knowledge of them:
“The patient was a geology lover. Every Sunday he went out looking for stones, collecting them and breaking them. He also chased butterflies, caught them and stuffed them in a jar of cyanide before pinning them up.”
Distraught with his life, the man went for counseling. His analyst decided to investigate the man’s family, going back several generations. What the analyst learned was that the patient had a grandfather who nobody mentioned and who was a secret. The doctor convinced the patient to find out more about the grandfather. In doing so, the troubled patient discovered that his mother’s father had done “shameful things.” Among other unlawful deeds, he was suspected of being a bank robber and was sent into forced labor, in French, casser les cailloux, which means, “to break rocks.” Later, the grandfather was executed in the gas chamber. The rock-breaking, butterfly-gassing grandson had known none of this.
What might these other experiences be? To this point, Jungian analyst James Hollis, in his book Hauntings: Dispelling the Ghosts Who Run Our Lives, asks: “How do we exorcise the haunting of our separate histories? How do we see outside the lens ground for us by fate…?”
His answer aims to inspire creativity. “If trauma freezes us to a spot in time, a place-memory, and to inherited patterns of behavior, so self-expression in the form of creative ceremony—dancing, singing, sculpting—inspires new energies to flow. Pick up your drum! Dance under the moon! Start a journal. Transformation begins with following your brave heart into the unknown.