Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Transgenerational Trauma

By Saskia Brechenmacher, MALD 2016, The Fletcher School

What happens in the aftermath of mass violence? How do traumatized communities and individuals heal after systematic destruction? And by what means do the experiences and suffering of one generation manifest themselves in the next? Scholars have long recognized that mass violence shapes affected communities for decades after the original traumatic event. Emerging research in the social as well as medical sciences is attempting to shed new light on these mechanisms of intergenerational transmission.

On December 3, 2015, the Tufts University Initiative on Mass Violence and Genocide (IMAGe) convened an interdisciplinary panel to highlight the work of Tufts University professors in this budding research field.

Lisa Shin, Principal Investigator in Tufts University’s Department of Psychology, examines the brain function and cognitive processing of patients with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). During the panel discussion, she spoke about her research with US war veterans and offered a medical perspective on the logic of transgenerational trauma. Researchers previously believed that parents’ suffering affected their children primarily through environmental factors: children absorb their parents’ anxiety through imitation, stories and troubled family dynamics. However, Shin noted that new research increasingly points to the biological and corporeal dimensions of trauma. Across the board, children of traumatized parents appear to be more vulnerable to PTSD and less capable of metabolizing stress, primarily due to lower cortisol levels. Studies comparing twins indicate that certain individuals may have brain structures – such as smaller hippocampuses – that seem to genetically predispose them to PTSD. Moreover, a new wave of research is exploring the epigenetic effects of trauma: the ways in which traumatic experiences can alter the expression of genes (by changing the chemical coating of chromosomes) in an enduring and potentially transmissible manner.

Barbara Grossman, Professor of Drama and Dance at Tufts University, reflected on the potential healing effects of artistic production. As a theater director and teacher, Grossman examines the ways in which communities impacted by mass violence translate their experiences into writing, drama and film. In 2015, Grossman worked with a group of Tufts undergraduate students to put on Joyce Van Dyke’s Daybreak, a haunting depiction of trauma based on the true story of two survivors of the Armenian genocide who emigrated to the United States. In a play that evokes both profound cultural dislocation and hope, Van Dyke recounts the experiences of her own grandmother and her best friend, deported together from Mezireh, Turkey, in 1915. Artists, Grossman noted, can play a crucial role in “saving something” of a community or way of life that has otherwise been destroyed. They can bear witness to past suffering, and refuse to allow people’s lives to be erased. Van Dyke’s play also constructs an explicit dialogue between the past and the present: dreams woven throughout the action take the audience from Providence in the 1930s back to Turkey in the years of the genocide and to a far-distant future in which reconciliation becomes a possibility.

Transgenerational linkages also stand at the center of Kenda Field’s historical scholarship. Field, who is an Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at Tufts, takes a micro-historical approach to slavery, exploring how enslaved individuals survived and made meaning of their traumatic experiences. Her current research traces her own ancestors’ between the Civil War and the Great Migration – “Freedom’s First Generation” after the abolition of slavery. One of slavery’s greatest tragedies, Field noted, was the forced separation of enslaved families by sale, and the associated denial of family bonds. After abolition, descendants of former slaves searched for those who had been separated and began reconstructing their family histories. What stories did enslaved people tell themselves and each other in the midst of and after repeated separation and suffering? What kinds of catharsis and redemption did family history and storytelling offer to affected families? These are the questions motivating Field’s scholarship. Without using the language of “trauma,” Field highlights the ways experiences reverberate across generations – and the fact that people’s stories and insights matter, and help illuminate larger economic and political structures that shape people’s lives.

Lastly, Dyan Mazurana, Research Director at Feinstein International Center and Associate Research Professor at The Fletcher School, discussed key insights from her work on post-war recovery in Northern Uganda. As part of the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium, Mazurana co-led a sub-regional panel survey in northern Uganda aimed at gathering data on exposure to shocks and coping strategies, access to services, and the impact of serious crimes. She found that across the region, households with members who had experienced serious crimes during the conflict between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army were systematically more likely to have ongoing war-related injuries, less food security and worse access to health care, education and water. The more serious crimes the household experienced, Mazurana noted, the worse off the households today – a decade after the end of the conflict. Moreover, households that had a member who suffered sexual violence were found to be significantly more likely to experience a variety of crimes (e.g. theft, land grabbing, burglary) in the last three years, even compared to households that suffered serious crimes other than sexual violence. Mazurana emphasized that the long-term effects of serious wartime violations, including sexual violence, remain poorly understood – and the affected populations as a result seem to get trapped in cycles of deprivation and abuse.

In the Q&A session, the panelists discussed common themes across their various research fields. In particular, they highlighted the repeated finding that those who experience major emotional and physical trauma – as well as their offspring – seem to be systematically more likely to suffer from socio-economic shocks and experience adverse health outcomes, even after the immediate effects of mass violence have subsided. The panelists also addressed prospects for recovery and effective outside support systems. Professor Mazurana noted that with targeted and sustainable assistance, a number of former child soldiers from northern Uganda, considered by many to be “hopeless cases,” proved capable of reintegrating into society with remarkable success. She cautioned, however, that targeted assistance to the most vulnerable can often perpetuate local inequalities and local animosities. Any government and donor efforts should therefore be carefully designed to either benefit entire communities or make use of modern technologies and disbursement systems that do not put aid recipients at even greater risk.

The panel thus ended on a hopeful note: while the after-effects of mass violence transcend generations, pathways to recovery and healing do exist. However, supporting and strengthening these processes more effectively requires better knowledge of the mechanisms by which trauma and suffering get passed on – and the ways individuals and communities themselves make meaning of recurring violence.