Phantom Memories of Past Traumas


 When I started doing the research for this post, I had visions of Rod Serling standing off in the corner and the music from The Twilight Zone softly playing in the background. It seems we are not alone when it comes to our memory banks that have been filled from the beginnings of our lives. Those memory banks apparently are also home to the memories of the traumatic experiences of our ancestors. This is the science of epigenetics.

As researchers work to uncover some of the mysteries of multi—generational trauma, they have found clever ways to study how memories can be passed from one generation to the next. In one article it is revealed that researchers used roundworms to see how far back memories were encoded from generation to generation. The shocking results: 14 generations! Of course we humans are not roundworms. However, there has been extensive research going on for years that looked at transgenerational memory transmission from Holocaust survivors passed on to children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

In the book The inheritors: Moving Forward from Generational Trauma by Gita Arian Baack, the author describes a process a child can experience called transposition. “… the survivor’s child goes beyond identification with the parent and transposes himself or herself into the parent’s past, playing out the various roles in that past with the unconscious intention ‘to change the past and convert the parent’s suffering and guilt into victory over the oppressors.’”  

Mystic character deriving from DNA strands and made with family tree leaves.

There are other images presented in this book. One is the description that when language is blocked because of a tragic loss or shameful trauma that is too distressing to speak about, that loss or secret is sealed up and yet alive in what the author describes as an intrapsychic crypt. “The phantom can haunt the family through successive generations and can even skip generations and be transmitted from parent to a grandchild. The child may be diagnosed as obsessive, compulsive, phobic, hysterical, eating-disordered, manic, depressive, schizophrenic, autistic, etc. The haunted child becomes the unwitting agent of a gap in speech of the parent that blocks the child from living life as her or his own and becoming an independent being.” Is it therefore possible that some of these behaviors and disorders could have their origins in the unresolved traumas of ancestors?

The author shares that Esther Rashkin in her book, The Haunted Child: Social Catastrophe, Phantom Transmissions in the Aftermath of Collective Trauma offers the term phantomogenic, which means they have an unrecognizable source of transmission of distress. Rashkin developed a theory that unspeakable secrets from the past are so shameful, conflicted and destabilizing to the psyche that they need to be hidden and yet still preserved.  

This can all sound pretty fatalistic. Are we each victims of our ancestors’ traumas and therefore somehow condemned to live them out in our current lives? The author shares that Rashkin gives hope when she says, “ … to release the phantoms from their state of preservation in the recesses of the psyche, one must speak about the secret so that was able to move forward. Once the secret is revealed and spoken, the drama will be silenced and will not be transmitted transgenerationally.”

There is something about putting light on a darkness that creates opportunities to walk away from that darkness and experience the light. It seems that freedom from these phantom memories lies in being able to explore the truth of transgenerational traumas so they can no longer have the power to haunt our lives and the lives of our children. This brings new meaning a quote attributed to George Santayana in 1905 “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

For me this information reinforces a general belief that there is almost always a legitimate reason for some of the confusing and challenging behaviors of children and adults that can be based on some previous unfair, unjust experience. That does not justify immoral or illegal behaviors, rather it offers an explanation that can shift attitudes towards those behaviors and towards those people exhibiting them that brings elements of understanding, compassion and grace into the picture. This in turn decreases the need to blame, shame and punish. With transgenerational trauma, a whole new world of recognition is open for how we can be impacted by what we have inherited.

I like to think Rod Serling would be fascinated.

However, it is also important to consider what other researchers conclude about transgenerational traumatic memory transference in which they debunk some of the theories being postulated. Clearly research on a subject like this is difficult because there are so many variables and so much is subject to interpretation. A 2017 article in the Chicago Tribune provides an interesting counterpoint to what some of the other researchers have reported. Entitled “Experts debunk study that found Holocaust trauma is inherited”

Invitation for Reflections:

  1. How does inherited phantom memories and intrapsychic crypts impact your understanding of the nature of trauma?
  2. Why do you think this might be important for those of us who are students of trauma?
  3. What becomes our responsibilities to ourselves, our children and others who have families who have experienced transgenerational traumas if the way to mediate these transmissions involves being able to speak about secrets so that the trauma can be silenced and no longer transmitted transgenerationally?

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Lakeside Global Institute