The tears of our mothers: trauma and its transmission

My mother rarely cried.

Yet there were so many, so many reasons for her to. There was so much distress around us. Neighbours, relatives and friends came and cried on her shoulders. Many came to our house to seek refuge. To seek safety. To seek guidance. To seek nurture. I can only remember vividly one of the very few times I saw my mother’s tears. That was when her own mother died. Other tearful times have blurred in my mind but I am certain they were mainly related to the death of loved ones.

I am a crier.

It took me a while to make peace with this but, I am a crier. It is very easy to for me to tear up. It has always been. Mostly these days I do not feel too self-conscious, although I occasionally still do and when I do, I hide. Many mammals instinctively hide when ill, wounded or weak. Perhaps as humans we are equally capable of displaying this behaviour at times of vulnerability. Particularly when those around us depend on our resilience and on our silence. Perhaps this is also partly why my mother rarely cried. But not all tears are tears of sadness although, they mainly are. Very rarely they are tears of joy. Sometimes tears of anger. Sometimes they are tears of fear.

My mother rarely showed fear.

I do not have any memory of seeing her afraid. Not a single one. As I write this, I hear how both incredible and incredulous this sounds. But it is the truth. And, there is a part of me that is in complete and utter owe of her fearlessness. Her courage. She needed it for all the battles she had to take on. Can you even begin to imagine the courage and determination it takes to survive colonial violence, turbulent decolonisation, civil and genocidal war, divorce, patriarchy, brutal racism and xenophobia all in one lifetime? This evades my comprehension. It truly blows my mind. We often omit our mothers’ resistance when we think about feminism. When we think about defiance. When we think about survival.

Survival amidst sustained destruction and annihilation attempts, is the ultimate defiance. I think that I have inherited something of her fighting spirit. A humongous gift. The gift of survival, I call it. However unlike her, I have struggled with ‘anxiety’. I have for a long time. Although it took me a while to even understand this. And it’s been a journey. I rarely have panic attacks these days. But unsurprisingly, my mind does tend to wonder towards the darker side of human possibilities. I have learnt to catch it when it does. I can redirect it. Although I am not always successful.

Intergenerational and historical trauma

I think about intergenerational trauma, a lot. Something that is grossly neglected within psychological and mental health practice in the U.K. This absence makes little sense. This absence is evidence of its presence. Our standard clinical conceptualisations of trauma continue to be highly individualistic and centred on the psychological consequences of exposure to adverse events on individuals. For example, the American Psychological Association (APA) refers to trauma as an ‘emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster’ and further adds that ‘longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical’.

My mum did not experience shock. She has never been troubled by flashbacks or other psychological distress related to her experience of violence. In fact, she rarely spoke of the hardship she experienced or saw. In France and before that, in Africa. Some of what I know of the harm she has experienced, I know because I have directly witnessed it occurring. Some of what I know, I have known by doing research into the political landscape she lived through. Some of what I know, I have caught in conversations with my parents within which atrocious acts were described, in passing. In the most mundane of ways.

Acts of mundane humiliation and banal degradation. Stories of death and destruction were rarely recounted but when recounted, were recounted nonchalantly. Mainly though, it is stories of everyday, normalised dehumanisation that I have heard. Stories of being required to bow one’s head to white people. Stories of being whipped within white Christian missionary schools. Stories of being spat at. One anecdote in particular has stayed with me. It was recounted by my step father as one of his formative experiences. It is the story of a white manager in Brazzaville disciplining a black employer by asking him to open his mouth, spitting in the gaping orifice then asking the black man to swallow the phlegm. A perfect allegory, I have always thought, for colonialism.

These stories of whimsical and gratuitous brutality and sadism were told without any emotion. Many remain with me. When we think about mental health and in particular about the ‘excess’ of psychological distress in people of African and Caribbean backgrounds and in people of colour more broadly, it becomes clear that it is very specifically the second and third generations of displaced groups or ‘migrants’ who tend to carry the bulk of the distress. One can’t help but wonder how much of that distress actually belongs to older generations, sometimes to generations long, long gone.

Much empirical evidence suggests that trauma may be passed down through generations. Historical trauma and intergenerational trauma conceptualisations consider the impact of trauma beyond immediate or individual exposure. Historical trauma has been defined as the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding across generations, including the lifespan, which emanates from massive group trauma (Brave Heart, 1999). The definition highlights the impact of trauma or mass atrocities and its transmissible if not contagious, quality.

Intergenerational trauma overlaps with historical trauma. But while historical trauma is centred on mass violence and group level atrocities, intergenerational trauma need not involve mass or group violence to be in effect (although the complication is that in practice it often does…) it simply refers to the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next, usually within the same family contexts. While we do know that trauma transcends those directly affected and that it moves across time and space, our understanding of how exactly this occurs is still limited.

The collective and social unconscious

Jung’s collective unconscious is posited to be a structure of the psyche distinct from Freud’s so called ‘personal’ unconscious. Whilst our personal unconscious is posited to be a repository for unacceptable sexual or destructive fantasies/wishes or impulses, the collective unconscious encapsulates group level cultural inheritance which is acquired independently from personal experience and which is instead, the product of collective experiences, knowledge and symbols/archetypes thought to be biologically inherited. The social unconscious is the group analytic/Foulksian extension of Jung’s initial concept. It designates the co-constructed and shared unconscious of members of a particular social system such as communities, societies, nations or cultures. Although the operation of the social unconscious evades our conscious awareness, it provides meaning to all our communications and relationships and seeks to reproduce in the present, past arrangements and relationships.

Proposing that a part of our unconscious mind is collective and transmitted via genetic or epigenetic pathways means that individual consciousness is at least in part, predetermined and shaped by events that took place before our existence. By our collective past. For both Jung and Foulkes this includes the experience of our ancestors as well as their wounds and trauma. This historical material exerts a powerful influence. It shapes how we behave, how we see the world, how we relate and quite fundamentally again, it continually strives to reproduce itself. That is to say, the primary function of group unconscious mechanisms is to ensure the survival of ancestral modes of being, feeling and thinking as well as the reproduction of past social and political configurations.

Very few scholars have interrogated the mass trauma of colonialism and it’s correlate with contemporaneous geo-political violence. I have long hypothesised that there likely is a direct link between 1) historical levels of colonial violence and contemporary political conflicts within former colonies and 2) the very type of past violence and current manifestations of violence within the same zones. The social and collective unconscious are helpful tools to think about the contemporary reproduction of colonial violence within former colonies since they posit that part of our unconscious aims to structure the present in line with past social arrangements.

I do not believe it is coincidental that the parts of Africa which were turned into rape and torture camps and human butcheries sanctioned and/or orchestrated by European colonial powers, continue to experience some of bloodiest conflicts on earth. Any basic group analytic or analytic formulation of these traumatic events would see on-going mass violence and political turmoil as related to past atrocities. Evidence of a collective memory. The continuing psychic legacy of colonial violence and its re-enactment in the present.

The reproduction of trauma

Although social and collective unconscious conceptualisations partly allow us to understand the transmission and reproduction of trauma, there are other mechanisms at play, particularly when we’re entering the domestic or family domain. Psychoanalytic investigations of intergenerational trauma in Holocaust survivors, found that projective identification was a core mechanism by which trauma was transmitted. Anxious parents who projected Holocaust-related feelings and anxieties into children often had children who introjected them and would as a result, behave as though they had directly themselves experienced concentration camps and other Nazi atrocities.

When we think about intergenerational trauma things can get very abstract and very conceptual very quickly, making it difficult to recognise the everyday psychological legacies of historical trauma, particularly if we do not have analytic tools. This is arguably unhelpful and provides fuel for further skepticism and resistance. However, if we break things down and move away from formal analytic formulations, the manifestations of intergenerational and historical trauma and their transmission can become more obvious, for more of us to recognise in our life, for example;

– We may feel compelled to seek retribution or revenge for the harm or, injustice that has been inflicted onto our ancestors

– We may feel compelled to repair or undo humiliation or degradation inflicted upon our parents perhaps by overachieving

– We may reproduce cycles of harm and abuse in our life so that we experience the pain, hurt or suffering our ancestors or parents experienced

– We may harm and abuse our loved ones or those closer to us identifying with historical perpetrators/aggressors

– We may stop ourselves from experiencing joy or happiness or engage in self-destructiveness out of loyalty for those who have suffered or indeed been destroyed

– We may seek to protect those who have been harmed and become compelled to overlook or forgive their mistakes, contribution or complicity

– We may feel compelled (or indeed be designated) to experience feelings or emotions which were too dangerous to express or experience by those who came before us, mourning on their behalf

– We may become hypersensitive to or triggered by events or incidents which harmed our ancestors even if we were not personally exposed to them

– We may deny, minimise or dissociate from the violence which our parents or forebearers experienced and/or blame them for the same

– We may become suspicious, distrustful or aversive to groups or individuals who have historically belonged to perpetrator groups, groups who carried out violence against our forbearers

Concluding thoughts

What I hope to have started to illustrate by sharing a little bit of my mother is that so many of our tears, so many of our fears are not ours alone. Sometimes we cry for those who could not or were not allowed to cry. Sometimes we feel fears that do not only belong to us. It is clear that harm, abuse and trauma which came ‘before’ us and affected ‘older’ generations, that of our parents, our grandparents, our ancestors is not beyond us. Despite not/not fully belonging to us, this can have long lasting consequences for us not only in terms of psychological functioning, but also in terms of social and geo-political configurations. In the case of projective transmission of trauma, unprocessed affective states may be passed on through fearful and terror filled gazes. Trauma can also be transmitted biologically and through stories, and sometimes through silences. In any case, and even though this challenges so much of what we have been taught and are socialised to believe, an individualistic lens to conceptualise trauma seriously limits our understanding of human harm and of the consequences of violence.

Thank you for reading

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