Intergenerational trauma

I’ve been reading the multi-generational stories that confirm the obvious: you cannot easily access intergenerational transmission of trauma in people where the generations stop, or where they may not have had the ability to openly tell their stories, or have memorials, or freedom from having to hide reminders of loss, or feel safe. It’s complex, dependent on inner and outer conditions.

For instance, my father’s grandmother, M, lost one baby when Dad’s mother, Elsa, was one and a half years old, and another baby when Elsa was two and a half. Then M lost her oldest child, and Elsa’s only companion, when that child was five and Elsa was four years old. M’s grief may have been bottomless, it most certainly preoccupied her and she may have become even less accessible to her remaining child. It’s no stretch to imagine that Elsa re-enacted what she witnessed as a young and lonely child, probably unconsciously, and in deep pain, that it should have been her.

Poor Elsa. Poor Daddy.

Yet no one told those stories. And no one appointed me the keeper of family sorrows. Apparently I appointed myself the role, to figure out why Dad was who he was, and how it all subsequently happened – that he lacked maternal attachment, as did his mother, and her mother – and then I was the child he attached to in such a grotesque way, the one who went numb with disbelief. And holds the stories.



My father listed the address of every house where he ever lived. He listed every company he ever worked for. He listed his religious affiliations, his schools, and his absence of anything else to list. He listed his life in addresses and employers.

So I googled the house where he was born on 15th Street in Moline and it’s a clapboard duplex, sadly leaning into itself, unsteady on its foundation after a hundred years on a beautifully shady street with lots of cracks in the sidewalk. Hanging branches of greenery obscure the large front porch.

The second house, where he was a toddler, has more character and is also over a hundred years old, with a better roof. I didn’t look up all the other addresses. I think I will. Will it help me to know him better?

I have spent the day obsessively transcribing ancestor information to my family tree. I pulled down the frayed manila envelopes with all my Dad’s genealogy charts, reading them for the first time, though he must have sent them to me over twenty years ago. There is so much I wouldn’t look at for so long. My father’s precise handwriting fills page after page. I find my father’s cover letter with a copy of Grandma’s self-published coloring book, an artifact from another generation. To my surprise, he praises Grandma, saying she “was at her best as a mother to my wife and a good mother-in-law to me. You can see her in my wife, almost two peas in a pod. May their souls rest in peace.”

Who was this man? He never spoke well of my mother’s family. Ever.

I watch myself trust his genealogy information when I didn’t trust him. I watch myself meticulously transcribe his neat handwritten boxes to my computer charts and I wonder, will this help me to know him? What am I doing with all this secondary contact? Is this a healing endeavor?

It used to be utterly confusing to find Good Daddy co-existing with Bad Daddy. Venturing on purpose into Good Daddy territory now, I feel its weight as something I can bear. Finally. Accepting his good days as I let the photographs of his old homes fill my imagination, I don’t know where this leads. I’m beginning to trust it.


“I’m fundamentally, I think, an outsider. I do my best work and feel most braced with my back to the wall. It’s an odd feeling, though, writing against the current: difficult entirely to disregard the current. Yet of course I shall.” —Virginia Woolf’s Diary, November 22, 1938