We have all heard that the sins of the father are visited on his sons.
The truth of the statement depends on what you mean by sin or iniquity.
No son is or should be punished for his father’s crimes. We do not arrest the children of felons and put them on trial.
And yet, when a father disgraces himself and sullies the family name—think Bernard Madoff—other members of his family lose status and reputation.
But, you might be thinking, that only involves the perpetrators. What about victims of trauma?
Keep in mind… while trauma victims do not or should not feel any guilt, they often feel shame.
If we could erase that shame by telling them that they are not guilty, we would. Unfortunately, reducing the corrosive effects of shame is far more difficult.
The next question is more difficult. We know that family members share the disgrace of someone who has acted dishonorably. But, that involves reputation and social standing. Does the shame get passed down in other ways from one generation to another?
Is the process biological or cultural or both?
Judith Shulevitz addressed the question in an excellent article in The New Republic. Her report on the current research on the children of trauma survivors is intricate and comprehensive.
The process of transmission is complex. It contains more than a few moving parts. We know much more than we ever have, but we do best to recognize that we still do not have definitive answers.
It’s the right attitude for scientific research.
Since much of the research involves the transmissibility of PTSD by trauma victims, it is worth noting that, among such victims not everyone contracts PTSD. Different people and different communities process trauma differently.
The Cambodian refugees living in Lowell, MA are a case in point. Survivors of the killing fields of Pol Pot and their descendants have suffered a pervasive anomie and have had great difficulty adapting to their new lives in America.
One suspects that neither they nor their forebears ever faced the challenge of adapting to an alien culture. Nor had they developed the social mechanisms that would have allowed them to process the trauma and move beyond it.
With their old culture obliterated they produced a new culture that could only perpetuate the trauma.
Psychologist Rachel Yehuda saw an example in some Holocaust survivors:
What made Yehuda the saddest while cataloguing the stories of survivors’ children, she told me, were the descriptions of childhood homes that felt like graveyards and the children’s sense that laughter desecrated the memory of the dead. Death, she says, must not quash life: “Living and laughing and being joyous and almost disrespectful to those who suffered—it’s what they’d want you to do, without forgetting them,” she says.
Among Holocaust survivors, however, some dealt with the trauma more effectively than others. Many Jews have learned how to adapt to foreign cultures. They have also learned how best to overcome abuse and persecution. Where Cambodians who landed in Massachusetts did not find a flourishing Cambodian-American community, many Holocaust survivors joined established Jewish communities.
If refugees from the Nazis and their offspring have thrived relative to other victims of massive historical trauma, surely that has to do with the quantity of cultural and human capital that washed up with the survivors on the shores of America and Israel. But their flourishing may also be a therapeutic benefit of ritualized communal mourning. It is no accident that the Holocaust now has its own holy day: Yom Ha-Shoah, the Day of the Holocaust.
It is not good to ignore the trauma and it is not good to wallow in it. A day of commemoration accompanied by a culture that shows people how to deal with trauma seems to be the best formula.
And yet, as Shulevitz points out, communities that have been subjected to repeated traumas tend to lose all hope. They give up and are incapable of developing the coping mechanisms that would allow them to live productive lives.
The social psychological explanation has some salience, but it does not seem to answer all of the questions. Researchers have accumulated some evidence suggesting that the anguish associated with trauma can be transmitted biologically.
Psychologist Yehuda told Shulevitz that biology plays a much larger part than most culturally-based theories would have us believe.
Obviously, it is not precluded that trauma and the failure to deal with it produces a biochemical change in a human organism.
Yehuda discovered that it was not just the survivors who had more trouble managing stress. Their children were also suffering the same complex:
Shulevitz summarizes the biochemistry of PTSD:
PTSD occurs when the dysregulation induced by that trauma becomes a body’s default state. Provoke a person with PTSD, and her heart pounds faster, her startle reflex is exaggerated, she sweats, her mind races. The amygdala, which detects threats and releases the emotions associated with memories, whirs in overdrive. Meanwhile, hormones and neurotransmitters don’t always flow as they should, leaving the immune system underregulated. The result can be the kind of over-inflammation associated with chronic disease, including arthritis, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Moreover, agitated nervous systems release adrenaline and catecholamines, both involved in the fight or flight response, unleashing a cascade of events that reinforces the effects of traumatic memories on the brain. This may partially explain the intrusive memories and flashbacks that plague people with PTSD. Extreme stress and PTSD also appear to shorten telomeres—the DNA caps at the end of a chromosome that govern the pace of aging.
The children of mothers with PTSD were far more likely to suffer PTSD themselves:
In early papers Yehuda produced on Holocaust offspring, she discovered that the children of PTSD-stricken mothers were diagnosed with PTSD three times as often as members of control groups; children of fathers or mothers with PTSD suffered three to four times as much depression and anxiety, and engaged more in substance abuse. She would go on to discover that children of mothers of survivors had less cortisol than control subjects and that the same was true of infants whose mothers had been pregnant and near the Twin Towers on 9/11.
Maternal PTSD heightens the chance that a child will incur the kind of hormonal profile that makes it harder to calm down. Paternal PTSD exacerbates the possibility that the child’s PTSD, if she gets it, will be the more serious kind that involves feeling dissociated from her memories. A mother’s PTSD can affect her children in so many ways—through the hormonal bath she provides in the womb, through her behavior toward an infant—that it can be hard to winnow out her genetic contribution. But, Yehuda argues, paternal transmission is more clear-cut. She believes that her findings on fathers suggest that PTSD may leave its mark through epigenetic changes to sperm.
Evidently, it is fascinating to consider that trauma can change one’s genetic makeup and that one’s children will receive genes that have been modified through experience.
If that is true, it means that some people are genetically more vulnerable to trauma:
At the frontier of this research lies a very delicate question: whether some people, and some populations, are simply more susceptible to damage than others. We think of resilience to adversity as a function of character or culture. But as researchers unravel the biology of trauma, the more it seems that some people are likelier to be broken by calamity while others are likelier to endure it.