I couldn’t distinguish the symptoms from my heart. It was polarizing to be told there was a diagnosis for the behaviors I felt justified in having. And then, I knew some part of my disease was spiritual or inherited.Heart Berries, p 70
It’s August and Terese Marie Mailhot has got me thinking about generational trauma.
In the past ten years, claims that parents’ trauma can be biologically inherited by their children have become increasingly common. The argument is not that violence or extreme deprivation change our genetic code, but rather that these experiences modify how our DNA is expressed, and that those alterations can be passed on to the next generation. One of the most popular theories is known as epigenetics, epi- meaning “alongside” or “upon.”
Rachel Yehuda, one of the field’s most important researchers, recently acknowledged that “it is not possible to attribute intergenerational effects [of trauma] in humans to a single set of biological or other determinants at this time.” But the seed of the idea that parents biologically pass their pain on to their children has found fertile soil.
The tantalizing concept continues to produce troubling fruit. BBC Future concluded in 2019, for example, that “Knowing that the consequences of our own actions and experiences now could affect the lives of our children – even long before they might be conceived – could put a very different spin on how we choose to live,” as if parents willingly undergo trauma (and are therefore, continuing the logic, inflicting a kind of “prebirth” child abuse).
Intergenerational trauma is something I’m still learning about and grappling with. As someone who has researched and written about the injustices of the child protection system and the history of eugenics, I get very nervous around theories too easily interpreted as: “Traumatized people are biologically different and pass their defects on to their children.”
In a perfect world, we’d use evidence of epigenetic transmission of trauma, slim as it is, to argue that we should protect all people from exploitation, violence, and marginalization and provide free, excellent, extensive care to anyone who has experienced existential harm. The grim history of child welfare in the United States suggests that solutions might focus instead on involuntary sterilization and child removal: responding to intergenerational trauma by inflicting intergenerational trauma.
Theories that imagine traumatized parents as disease vectors are especially dangerous for Native American and First Nation communities, which lose their children to foster care at wildly disproportionate rates. Before the passage of 1978’s Indian Child Welfare Act, 80% of Native families living on reservations lost at least one child to the foster care system, according to the National Indian Child Welfare Association. Today in states like North Dakota and Minnesota, Native American children are still removed from their families four to SIXTEEN times more often than they should be, given their proportion in the population.
Why are we so desperate to find biological mechanisms and explanations for the transmission of trauma over time?
Trauma certainly has biological effects — Jason and I live with its embodied expression everyday! But the structural pathways that intergenerational trauma travels seem so much more obvious, so categorically and directly consequential. On the map of social harm, structural transmission is the thick black line of an interstate highway, while epigenetics is the meandering blue streak of a country road.
I’m so excited to introduce Heart Berries: A Memoir this week. I had to wade through a few years struggling with our PTSD before I could fully engage the book. But I was aware of it, sitting there watching me from the trauma shelf, whispering, “You know you want to read me. You know there’s some special wisdom between these covers.” And there is. There is so much wisdom, lyricism, generosity, and honesty here. It’s a difficult, sometimes wounding, gift of a book.
In it, Mailhot unweaves myths of easy transmission and asks readers to consider why we yearn for stories of simple causes and one-sided monsters. She helped me understand the transmission of trauma as both more direct and more complex than I previously imagined:
Indigenous children, like their Indigenous parents and grandparents, are traumatized by white supremacy, settler colonialism, and genocide.
Working class children, like their working class parents and grandparents, are exploited and dehumanized by capitalism and the state.
And yes, hurt people hurt people, through their actions if not through their blood. As Mailhot writes, “Despair isn’t a conduit for love.” That’s also a ground truth. But she insists: The hurting is not all any of us are.
I can’t wait to get started discussing Heart Berries with you all. If you are following along, we’ll discuss the first half of the book (Chapters 1-4, or pages 1 – 67 in the 2019 paperback edition) on Thursday August 19 and the second half of the book (Chapters 5 – 11 or pages 68-124) on Thursday August 26.
Powell’s has a number of new and used copies of the memoir for less than $20 including shipping. If you live in the Cap Region of NY, the Upper Hudson Library System has paper, electronic, and audiobook copies as well.
If you’re not up for the printed word this month, Mailhot reads one of my favorite sections of the book and discusses it with Acoma Pueblo poet and educator Sara Marie Ortiz for the King County Library System’s “Author Voices” series here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iaeKove_FTg.
And if you are joining us for the first time, WELCOME! You can find the list of blogs in this series, in order, here: https://virginia-eubanks.com/ptsd-bookclub/.
Content warnings for the first half of Heart Berries: Child abuse, sexual assault and eating disorders are all discussed but not described in detail.