Stopping the Trauma Train II

Despite the astonishing efforts I made to deny them, my ancestors were incontestably alive within me—with all their foibles and fears. Just as my grandparents' values had coiled down the twisted ladder of their DNA to me—love of the written word, Jewish education, and heavy food—so had the pain and injury of being a Jew been transmitted to me.

When I was twenty-five I dreamt of a slender Hungarian woman in a fur coat. Actually, she was a naked skeleton in a fur coat. The dream came at a time when I felt paralyzed by guilt. On the surface my life was thriving. I had a good job, and had just moved in with my new boyfriend. But I couldn’t enjoy any of it, couldn’t allow myself to buy a teapot or a new sweater without feeling I was betraying someone.

The boney woman in the fur looked at me and spoke in a thick accent. She said:

“Dahlink, don’t be a fool! Don’t you think we would be enjoying our beautiful things if we could?”

Suddenly the room was filled with many richly clad Hungarian ladies. I had interrupted their tea party. Now they were all looking my way. I knew they were dead, yet they were somehow beautiful and full of life. It was as if they were yelling at me:

“Do you think it helps us that you suffer? Not at all! Live the life we could not live!”

Shivers went through me. Who were these ghostly women and how did they know me? And how did I know that they were Hungarian? Their words stung me, broke me open.

I awoke and wept hard, feeling the resonance of their loving admonishment, knowing that at some level it was a real communication. These women were alive and pushing me to be more conscious. My "survivor's guilt"—amorphous as it was in those days because I did not yet know the truth about my own family—began to dissipate.

It was during that period that I realized I was carrying more than just my own singular life. Years later I learned that my mother's mother had been born and raised in Austro-Hungary, that most of her family had been trapped in Europe. Their elegant bearing had not helped them one wit to escape the Nazi roundup; their assimilation into high society meant nothing in the end. Stripped of all their identities and all they owned, they had died in the death camps.

So what is inheritance? The field of behavioral epigenetics gives us a biological basis for much of what we are discussing here. It shows that dramatic environmental events can make enduring changes to our molecular biology. These changes not only stick in us, but can show up in our children and grandchildren, as well.

Let’s say our grandparents suffered some stressful or traumatic circumstances like a war or food shortage. Their stresses can force a constitutional change in their DNA that sticks and shows up in us, their descendants. Epigenetic research shows that children who inherit stress from their forebears can have more difficulty metabolizing their own stress.

But though we inherit genetic and epigenetic circumstances, we still have the capacity to work with our biological realities. Knowing that our ancestors went through traumatic experiences helps us understand ourselves and make choices for self-care and self-compassion. We do have choice even when dealing with traumatic legacies. As Dr. Rachel Yehuda, one of my traumatology gurus says, "…feel empowered, because science has shown us that you can change a lot of what you don’t like, and override a lot of what you can’t change."

[1] Do Jews Carry Trauma in Our Genes? A Conversation With Rachel Yehuda.

Tirzah Firestone