“Our parents did not talk about loss. Sometimes, once in a long while, they might offhandedly mention soldiers or a violent father, but nobody ever said anything about what must have happened: abuse, sexual assault, the traumas of poverty and war. But even at a young age, without understanding what these things were, we sensed them as we kicked our way through the currents of our day. We could feel it looming somewhere, large and dark beneath everything: our parents’ pain.
So when the hands came, we offered our cheeks. We offered ourselves as conduits for their anguish because they had suffered so we wouldn’t, so we could watch Saturday morning cartoons and eat sugary cereal and go to college and trust the government and never go hungry. We excused all of it, absorbed the slaps and the burns and the canings and converted them into perfect report cards to wipe away our parent’s brutal pasts.”Stephanie Foo, What My Bones Know, p 147
Part II of What My Bones Know begins with Foo feeling broken by her C-PTSD diagnosis and Part III ends with an understanding of the bigger social fractures that produce trauma and suffering. That journey — from individual acknowledgement to collective reckoning — is crucial, fruitful, and challenging. And Foo does a masterful job, weaving together the histories of colonialism and violence that intersected in her life so dangerously.
In Part III, Foo returns to San Jose and to her family in Malaysia to investigate her own story. The mind can hide the truth of trauma, so she leans on her skills as a reporter to figure out crucial questions: Is her trauma personal or communal? How is her family history of violence connected to her parents’ migration and to her community of origin?
I know how hard the holidays can be, and it seemed fitting to use this week to talk about intergenerational trauma. One of the things I truly admire about Foo’s work is her willingness to go beyond facile explanations for her C-PTSD. Though her parents were clearly responsible for the abuse and neglect that shaped her childhood, they also suffered. Their road to the Valley of Heart’s Delight was paved through the atrocities of the Malayan Emergency and more subtle cultural and spiritual erasures of assimilation.
Those histories, Foo argues, are embedded in her body, down to the (epi)genetic level. She writes,
“Every cell in my body is filled with the code of generations of trauma, of death, of birth, of migration, of history that I cannot understand. … My family tried to erase that history. But my body remembers. My work ethic. My fear of cockroaches. My hatred for the taste of dirt. These are not random attributes, a spin of the wheel. They were gifted with purpose, with necessity.”Foo, p 202.
There is evidence that trauma impacts epigenesis — the processes that shape gene expression. Trauma does not impact genes themselves; it does not alter the DNA sequence. But some research suggests that trauma and adverse childhood experiences can impact molecules such as histones and processes such as methylation, which activate or repress different genes. Importantly, the theory of epigenetic inheritance of trauma holds that some of these changes can be passed down to the next generation.
Major changes in the expressions of our genes are a normal part of life — puberty, pregnancy and menopause all involve “epigenetic cascades” that radically alter how certain genes are expressed and result in big changes to our bodies. Toxins can influence epigenesis, as when cigarette smoking triggers the expression of cancer-causing genes. So can life choices like diet and exercise.
Evidence of epigenetic inheritance of trauma in humans, however, is somewhat thin. For example, see Yehuda’s famous work on Holocaust trauma inheritance, her write up of it, and critiques of the work here, here, here and here. In light of the theory’s wide acceptance in popular psychology, then, it is worth stopping to think about why it might be so seductive. (For an example of the complicated ways the theory gets used, see “My Daughter Inherited My Trauma and It Almost Killed Her.”)
I come to the conversation about epigenetics from a place of genuine struggle. On one hand, I’ve experienced myself the deep embodiment of existential harm — how, as my body worker puts it, “Our issues get in our tissues.” On the other, I’ve seen the way that socially-constructed harms like poverty get biologized (“those kinds of mothers”) especially in my work with parents battling the “benevolent terror” of Child Protective Services (CPS).
I know parents and families do terrible things to children. I also know that Black and Indigenous parents lose their children to CPS for raising their voices at case examiners or refusing to let the police in to their homes. Or, going not very far back into our history, for simply encouraging their children to speak their language and value their culture.
That’s why I get very nervous when we start talking about the biological inheritance of trauma. My fear is that the theory that trauma is carried in the cells — and that it is passed from one generation to the next via the epigenome — can easily pathologize whole groups of people, especially in their roles as (potential) parents. In the context of our country’s horrifying legacy of eugenics, evidence of epigenetic inheritance of trauma is likely to be used as a pretext for family surveillance or even fertility management.
Foo has said that readers find it easier to understand the ways that trauma is carried between generations through flawed nurture — we’re quick to blame bad parenting. But, she argues, readers have a harder time seeing the complementary role that nature, biology itself, plays in perpetuating generational harm.
My concern is that offering only those two options, nature and nurture, obscures the role of the social. Our culture and our institutions create existential harm — current, ongoing, life-altering harm for communities of color, for migrants, for poor and working class families, for women, for people with disabilities.
“It was really important for me to describe that this was not just like an isolated familial problem. This was a communal problem. … [W]e can’t really totally heal from the micro problems unless we heal the macro problems.”Stephanie Foo, At Liberty Podcast: The Impact of Intergenerational Immigrant Trauma, ACLU, May 19, 2022
It’s so important to pinpoint and understand the collective sources of trauma and the ways that structural violence resonates through the social — as well as the individual — body across time. And yet epigenetic accounts of intergenerational trauma transfer seem to me to locate the problem back in the bodies of the oppressed and exploited. It’s a kind of inequity doomspiral.
The ancestral harm of slavery, Native American boarding schools, and colonial wars don’t have to be genetic to be real. I fear the theory of epigenetic inheritance of trauma lets us off the hook for doing the hard work necessary to change how our culture and institutions create and perpetuate structural violence.
Even if trauma does become biology, that doesn’t mean it’s immutable. As Diane McIntosh has argued, the epigenome may be the SparkNotes for cells, but it is, at most, “written in pencil.” We can rewrite our society, our minds, our bodies, and the stories we pass on to the next generation.