VIII. Families pass dysfunction and residual trauma down through the line.


We have the parents that we have. And their parents. And theirs. It matters deeply what happened to those people who came before us.

We carry personal, familial and collective trauma.

As a descendant of a family that came from various places in Europe to Canada, I inherit the collective trauma of World Wars I and II, rationing in England, bombs, fear of Jews, fear of Nazis, the impact of colonialism on my sense of privilege, the twisted logic of slavery and Residential Schools and genocide as a thing that is ok. Further back I inherit propaganda about Jews and Muslims from the time of the Crusades, xenophobia in general, shame and guilt given to all by various types of Christianity. I inherit a tendency to stoicism and “saving face” and “Keep calm and carry on.” And all of these, yes, all of these, have an effect on who I am in this world, since many of these remain unprocessed in our collective culture.

You will have your version of these if you are of European descent.

You will have still others if your family comes from elsewhere.

Did your people run from the Pogroms? Was your grandfather a supporter of Hitler? Was your family in Tiananmen Square, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Aceh? Did they survive an earthquake, a flood, a hurricane?

We make ways to deal with what life hands us.

Humans are remarkably resilient.

So your family got through what they got through and they were shaped by it. Now the ways that they made to cope with what they went through shape you: does your family tend to manage feelings with alcohol? Do you pull up your stoical socks and keep calm and carry on? Do you shriek at each other but then nothing changes? Do you lay blame? Do you retreat from conflict?

There’s an extended family that lives one street up from us. The kids of the two sisters go to my kids’ school. All the women in the family, the mother, the two sisters, and now the granddaughter, (actually the grandson also) look miserable all the time. They speak to each other sharply, call names… One day when it was pouring rain one of the sisters was walking her daughter home along the same route as us. The daughter was very upset - she had holes in her shoes and her feet were soaked but she didn’t want to go home because _______ (some man’s name) was going to scream at her mom. What a hard thing, to be nine and to be physically uncomfortable and unable to go home because you have to protect your mom from a danger that lives in your home.

None of these people asked for this. None of these people would have chosen this.

There isn’t anywhere to lay blame in any of this. But we can be sure of this one thing if you are alive in these times: you are suffering from residual or active trauma and dysfunction. You might be the one in your family who heals some of these hurts by looking straight at them and not turning away. You don’t have to. But...

If we can bear to look, we will see that people are hurting deeply and don’t know how to process their feelings and their hurt. It’s not really that they’re fundamentally awful, or trying to be a pain in the ass, it’s that they’ve been taught some messed up stuff by messed up people. So here we find the difficult balance of holding people accountable for their actions, while still giving them space to be the flawed humans that they are, knowing that they are capable of healing and of change if they put in the effort.

One of the things that can slow down our process is that we now come from families with short memories. Perhaps, if your family was diligent, you can tell stories that draw you back to your great-grandparents. You are lucky, if so. Most of us can’t see further back than our grandparents. And even of them only a few stories. Lifetimes are lost. There are few family legends. This makes us feel rootless. Ancestor-less. Who do we draw on if we cannot embed ourselves in a lineage?

The work here is to heal these things in us and then tell our stories. Let us find our way back to the long family memory.

#dysfunction #trauma #family #pain

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