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04 October 2011

Can Trauma Be Passed Down to Generations Unborn?

Leila Levinson is the author of Gated Grief: The Daughter of a GI Concentration Camp Liberator Discovers a Legacy of Trauma. She made a visit to Brookdale Community College on October 3, 2011. Her talk was sponsored by Brookdale's Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education. Levinson discussed the origins of her book Gated Grief and her continued work on finding wholeness for veterans and their children.

Levinson is exploring an important thesis that has seldom been looked at in any depth in research or popular culture.

Specifically, she asks the questions:

Does the trauma veterans experience get passed down to their children?

What is the short-term and long-term impact of war and it's related horrors on the veteran and the veteran's family and community upon returning home?

Her father was Doctor Reuben Levinson. After his death in 1988, she discovered a box full of photographs he took as an Army surgeon while liberating the Nordhausen Concentration Camp; she was previously unaware of her father's experiences at Nordhausen--and of his mental breakdown which occurred shortly after being among the first US troops to liberate that camp. Levinson went on to interview other liberators and extract her thesis (and later her book) from their experiences.

That her father witnessed atrocities and never spoke about the war really shocked her. She learned, in his way of thinking, "silence was protection."

This protection lasts only as long, however, as veterans could keep all they had witnessed and experienced to themselves--a mighty struggle and one that becomes all consuming.

One veteran told her, "I am certain they [the memories] will destroy me" and "I have to struggle every day to stay alive [against the crushing weight of all he had seen]." In this way these and similar individuals are still fighting a war many decades later, protecting their families and communities from the enemy that is their experience, keeping this energy locked within themselves, but the problem with energy is that it minds no physical boundaries. After a certain point, the processes of fighting against one's body and the energetic vibrations trapped within become impossible and self-destructive.

I knew of many veterans who used alcohol and adrenaline as forms of self-medication to keep the resonance of their experiences trapped deep inside, and Levinson spoke of her father's "workaholic" nature. A noted physician with the VA once told me, the problems for combat veterans really arise after they retire when suddenly they have no barriers, such as hard work, between themselves and their experiences--to quote him:

"[regarding therapy, some] will get in a group, and they will accept their wounds, their psychological wounds, and talk about where they are and what they are experiencing, and I think that can be healing as opposed to denial of who they are, what they’ve experienced, how it affected them, because that’s going to come out in some form of behavior--a lot of avoidance--and some will use a lot of alcohol and drugs to avoid, others will just work hard and kill themselves through work, others just can not relate to others, family even, because they’re so busy trying to keep this 'other' what we now call PTSD under control. . . .[all the good programs] try to get people to confront the demons, if you please--confront that part of themselves they’ve formally denied, make peace with it and say, sure, it is part of me."

What one understands as the daughter or son of, in this case, a combat veteran is that something momentous and terrible has happened and it continues to affect us, and even if we're not completely aware of the original trauma, we can still sense the overall impact of this trauma as it influences us in very tangible ways. That mystery can wreck havoc in the psyche of a child having enough trouble finding his or her place in the world and dealing with the normal challenges of growing up, and when you factor in the added layer of the parent's trauma, you've got serious issues that will manifest in a host of psychological and physical illnesses.

I believe the field Levinson is exploring is closely associated with epigenetics. Epigenetics seeks to understand how environment can affect one's DNA as there would certainly be no prior scientific explanation for the effects of PTSD, for example, on the children of the veteran until epigenetics comes along. In this view one can actually understand how the DNA of the child is altered as it is expressed by the experiences of the parents. As the longest war in US history continues to rage, this idea has huge implications.

Seemingly closer to native cultures, shamanism or even Tibetan Buddhism, rather than science, epigentics presents a holographic universe, far from the Newtonian, reductionist world view. These ideas also meld seamlessly with Susun Weed's Wise Woman philosophy of healing as expressed in her book Healing Wise.

Certainly, there is great power and healing potential in Levinson's thesis, and also great responsibility. Particularly relevant to combat veterans but applicable to all of us, we must ask if we are shaping future generations in positive or negative ways with our thoughts and actions?

We must understand that all trauma is shared, and we can go a long way toward wholeness and healing when we start from this premise.

In Gated Grief Levison writes: "Without the chance to mourn their losses, veterans risk becoming stuck in their anger or numbness. They lock deep within themselves the terrifying images so as not to harm the people they love. But the images do not fade. Time only laminates them. . . .What would it mean for veterans if instead of victory parades we collectively acknowledged what the war took from them?" (256)

Indigenous people and those who've studied the legacy of slavery, for example, have long understood what has been referred to as group, historical or inter-generational trauma. I've included some links below to explore further this particular phenomenon.

Levinson's website: Veterans' Children.

A brief look at epigenetics.

The Gift of Diabetes explores inter-generational trauma as it is manifests in the epidemic of diabetes experienced by the First Nations people of Canada.

From the Indian Country Diaries a similar viewpoint, though they focus more on the physical aspects of passing down trauma, the same concept works for those seeking to understand the energetic relationship between the trauma of the parents and community and how their children and future generations are impacted.

Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart of Columbia University is on the cutting edge of this inter-generational trauma research. Here's a video of a recent lecture. To view the entire video, just click on each subsequent part as it pops up at the end of each segment.

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