It Matters: Intergenerational Family Trauma

Okay not your ordinary genealogy topic…but reading my grandfather’s letters and his mother’s diary [Lulu: A Soprano’s Aria]. We can’t help but wonder how much trauma gets passed down through families and the sometimes maladapted ways we deal with it. I am talking the spectrum from Wars, to early loses, abuse, dysfunction the whole gambit. It’s an aspect of genealogy we don’t always talk about, but I wonder, if for some of us, pursuing genealogy and the stories of our ancestors is an attempt to reconcile our own lives with that of our forebears and to heal the multigenerational wounds. I have no answers to the questions, but I do know in some deep way they have always inspired my desire to understand the past and how it informs my present.

Poppy in Weaverville

While we know depression, alcoholism, abuse etc can run in families —does that mean the sins of the father are forever destined to be visited upon the sons and daughters? If gambling, promiscuity or addiction runs in your family are you doomed to repeat it? I wrote the title to this blog post early one morning and some of the opening sentences. And I then I ordered a couple of books from the library on the topic and then came across a recent excellent article by Helen Parker-Drabble ” How Key Psychological Theories Can Enrich Our Understanding of Our Ancestors and Help Improve Mental Health for Present and Future Generations: A Family
Historian’s Perspective
” all pointing out what I already suspected, “Intergenerational Trauma” is a thing, and it matters.

I have known of some of my family’s traumas since I was a child. And as an adult and later in graduate school doing a family genogram pointed out more. But it was really a comment by my son that made me think of how much gets passed down and sadly passed on. Not just predisposition to diseases or diseases themselves but as the newer field of epigenetics shows that the experiences and memories of trauma get passed on, even without our knowing it. That conversation was followed by one last week along similar lines with a genealogy group. So perhaps part of our genealogical quest is not just for answers, but it is for understanding and healing. Perhaps if we learn to overcome unhealthy familial patterns and work to strengthen the healthy ones. We can succeed in paving a better path for our progeny.

So what traumas in our family tree might we pay attention to? This is my short list but I am sure there are items I have missed.

  • War, ethnic cleansing, holocaust
  • Migration, upheaval
  • Death of parent, child or spouse particularly untimely ones
  • Birth trauma. miscarriage, abortion, adoption
  • Marital conflict, divorce
  • Substance abuse
  • Mental illness: schizophrenia, bipolar, depression etc.
  • Chronic illness or disease including epidemics
  • Natural disaster: flood, fire, tornado, earthquake etc.
  • Rape, physical or emotional abuse

If your family has, but a few of these, consider yourself very lucky. My family has every one of the above and some for multiple generations. Like those evaluation lists for “Life Stress Inventories” some of us enter this world with a stacked deck. I remember doing an exercise on birth order and realizing that I was the first child that lived, the second child, the only child, and the older child, with an adopted younger brother. I did not choose these roles but they were mine, and laden with bobby traps.

As you examine your role as a genealogist or family historian, I ask you to think how much trauma has played a part in your search? Is your quest a simple hobby, you just enjoy, or is there something more that lies beneath the surface?

Here’s a short writing assignment start with yourself and follow your ancestors back regarding a particular trauma. Here’s my example with an emphasis just on the trauma of WAR:

  1. Me: Viet Nam War, and the draft was a large part of my adolescence
  2. Father: WWII at 18, was at the Bloody Battle of Tarawa, Wounded at Saipan…..among first troops at Nagasaki
  3. Grandfather Milo: WW1 in France as Army Medic at 18, WWII in the Pacific Theatre at Tinian where the bombers left from for Hiroshima and Nagasaki
  4. Great Grandmother Lulu PADEN: Her son Milo & Brother Louis WWI et al, Twin Brothers in Spanish American Wars, Uncles in WWI as well. Her father & uncles in Civil War & her maternal Uncle died in War
  5. 2nd Great Grandfather (Lulu’s father) James Lewis PADEN served in the Civil War
  6. 3rd Great Grandfather (James Lewis’ father) Rufus COATES had many sons who served in Civil war & one was a prisoner of War
  7. 4th great grandfather William COATS served in Revolutionary War

If we added nothing else you can see how just one element WAR touched every life and some of them deeply at each generation. We do not exist in isolation. These traumas are not without their tolls. They are not just things we register on a family group sheet. They affect us deeply in way we probably don’t even realize. We can be family historians that do not just record the past but we attempt to understand it

Veterans Home Cemetery Yountville California

Kelly Wheaton © 2022 All Rights Reserved

6 Comments on “It Matters: Intergenerational Family Trauma”

  1. Very poignant!

    We share that family history of all the wars (my dad was in the Navy WWII Iwo Jima and Nagasaki after the bomb).
    Great grandfather Will is buried in the Yountville Veterans Cemetery Spanish (Philippines) Incident (not a war but a military battle before WWI.
    My grandmother
    Lolita (sister of your grandfather) was forever emotionally damaged from her wicked, abusive father.
    My dad’s grandma Hannah was a young widow soon after coming from Ireland and ended up in a Stockton mental facility 1880’s. A very young son (we just learned about) was taken from her.
    I too, like you, have all those difficult, traumatic life events on my family history list.

    What a mess.

    Without Faith in God, dear Kelly, I don’t think I would have made it to 73!

    You’re a jewel and appreciated more than you know!

  2. Hi Kelly, Touched a nerve here. I have 3 such situations I am struggling to characterize sensitively in a family history. One relates to the birth and life of a handicapped child, in another family endured multiple incidents of accidental death of children caused by close relatives, and the third is a family with multiple members who served hard duty in the the Civil War. Each had their impact on later generations. You’ll forgive me if I don’t pick up pen for a writing assignment!

    • Yes, part of the reason for writing was to see how many nerves I hit—how much trauma is out there in our community of family researchers….I suspect we are not alone. Some writing is for public view and some is for us alone. For me writing is about discovery.

  3. As one example: Emotional and/or physical abuse is a major trauma in our family over at least 5 generations. Hopefully stopped by me by making it public to my children, explaining why I was quiet and never reactive to any of their ‘unacceptable’ behaviour. I started genealogy before I retired so that I could finally find a larger “family” going back in the generations, than my nuclear one.

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