THE POWER OF STORYTELLING TO HEAL INTERGENERATIONAL TRAUMA
Last month on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) I attended a lecture at SUNY Orange by Emily Wanderer Cohen, a writer and coach, about how storytelling can help people heal from intergenerational trauma. She related her own story of growing up with a Holocaust survivor mother whose paranoia, resentment, and protectionism of her daughter verged on abusive. As an adult, Cohen suffered from extremely low self-esteem, shame, and a constant feeling of being an imposter. Traditional talk therapy wasn’t effective, and she found that the only other people who really understood her were other 2nd Generation and 3rd Generation Holocaust survivors.
Finally after her mother’s death, Cohen discovered writing therapy, and her life changed. Writing therapy is a process of journaling that helps one to review, reflect, and respond to traumatic or painful episodes in one’s life. It can also help the writer trace the source of their current difficulties back to traumatic events of the past. For Cohen, this involved tracing how her mother’s behavior and world views forged under Nazi brutality in the concentration camps stayed with her for the rest of her life, and were passed down to her daughter. Cohen wrote a book of essays about growing up with her mother, and now helps other 2G and 3G Holocaust survivors to recover from their intergenerational trauma through writing.
I too have found writing to be a powerful healing force in my life. While I am not a descendant of Holocaust survivors, I did inherit some family trauma that severely impacted my mother’s childhood. It wasn’t until I began journaling and writing as an adult that I started to unpack how this legacy was effecting me. My first novel is an effort to untangle the pain and hurt throughout my maternal line, and to try to understand the stories I inherited.
Many facts about my grandmother are completely unknown. I know that her mother abandoned her when she was 11, and her aunt and uncle raised her. She mysteriously abandoned her first family in the 1940’s, then met my grandfather, a shell-shocked World War II vet and had two more daughters, the second (my mother) she gave the same name as her first daughter.
In my writing, I tried to get under my grandmother’s skin to imagine what circumstances could have led her to leave her child. The evidence was that she loved this daughter very much, and she was devastated to be separated from her. How did it impact her as a child, to be locked in an attic for days when her mother ran off with the housepainter? Did she feel isolated living with her husband in a factory town in upstate New York far away from her friends and family? Could she have had post partum depression after the birth of her first daughter? What types of psychological treatment could she have received in the 1930’s and 40’s? The more I thought about her life in that time period, the more empathy I developed for my grandmother.
Without a role model of motherhood, naturally she would develop anxiety around mothering. If the common ways of dealing with people with mental health issues was to numb, isolate, or institutionalize them, then it is understandable that she turned alcohol to medicate her pain. If she felt like a failure in her first marriage, then it is not surprising that she clung to her next partner despite his alcoholism, co-dependency, and abusiveness.
For the first time, instead of seeing her as a sad spectre hanging over my life, I saw my grandmother as a real human being, one I empathized with as a wife, mother, and daughter. I began to understand the source of my own fear and anxiety around being a mother, and how I inherited this from my mother. Even though my grandmother’s story was tragic, in my writing I let her spirit guide me towards a new ending, for her granddaughter 30 years later. This granddaughter struggles with many of the same difficulties as her grandmother, but she is given one significant advantage, the knowledge of what happened in the past and the ability to see the patterns that occurred. With this power, she is able to transform her inherited trauma into a creative force for connection, healing and love.
We all have this superpower, in the form of writing and reflection. This is why I became a writer, and why I want to help other people to write and tell their stories. Recent research around trauma therapy is finally proving what storytellers have known all along – when we tell a story we reconnect with each other and the world. We can examine our shadows with less fear, and write better endings to our stories.