Inherited Images


It is well known that the borders of a child's psyche are highly permeable. Like the feelings that echo between people—what we now call mirror neurons[1]—mental images can be transferred from parents and other adults to younger generations. Although actual memories are not transferred, it is not uncommon for parents and caregivers who have experienced extreme psychic trauma to transmit to a child what has been called an image deposit,[2] that is, a mental picture of the excruciating events that they and others from their group have endured.

Mental pictures—like the Twin Towers in flames on 9-11—and the strong feelings that they evoke, can be passed from generation to generation, becoming part of the internal reality of descendants. Imagine seeing one's home demolished before one's eyes, or one's town burned to the ground. These are experiences that rarely dissipate. In my case, the legacy of my father’s trauma at the liberation of Buchenwald—what he saw, the terror he felt, and the rage that ensued over the dehumanization of his people: These all became part of my visceral inheritance.

Vamik Volkan, student of Erik Erikson and scholar of collective trauma, calls the powerful mental representations of large-scale trauma internalized images. His studies show that traumatized adults can unconsciously deposit their internalized images into the developing self of the child who then becomes a reservoir for the adult’s trauma images.

Like suitcases stuffed with important family heirlooms, traumatized images that belong to an older generation make their way to young people packed with emotion. And more: Because they evoke such strong feelings—like tribal loyalty, indignation, grief, and rage—these critical images are also loaded with psychological tasks. Volkan posits that large-scale trauma memories carry with them tasks that have been left unfinished by the group’s senior members. These unfinished tasks translate to the next generations as many things. They might require children to complete parents' unfinished mourning, convert humiliation into pride, or to avenge their ancestors' losses.

But it is up to the younger generation to decipher their own psychological landscape, since much of what it contains was placed within them without conscious discussion. What will they do with these images? What if they can't decipher the roots of his feelings and images yet acts on them unconsciously?

Or maybe the new generation will have hostile feelings towards the descendants of its parents’ enemy, or with a random group that seems to represent the original perpetrators. If it has military power, the younger generation might use it against the descendants of the victimizers. Or…it may choose to study, understand, and dialogue rather than act out the mental representations of their parents.

We don't need studies to tell us that transgenerational trauma is all around us! The prolonged stress and suffering of the Syrian civil war, the displacement of millions of families, and so many other forms of social violence are ubiquitous. Every day increasing numbers of ethnic and cultural groups around the world endure their own brand of historical traumas and pass them down to their children.

Do we—the luckier ones, for now—have tools to reach out to those on the road, in refugee camps, in our midst? What about the children who harbor the impact of their own and their parents' suffering? Can we help defuse their traumatic pictures and replace them with life-giving images? For it is here in the next generation where meaning is being made and tasks are being assigned for the future. I welcome your thoughts.

Please join me for a lecture and discussion on this topic: "Healing Intergenerational Trauma: Images of Light & Hope" in Denver at Regis University, April 19 at 7:00.

[1] Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score, (58-59, 111-1123)

[2] Volkan, V. (2006). Killing in the Name of Identity (159-160).

Tirzah Firestone