Personal, Professional and National

A new book exploring the emotional inheritance of trauma subtly demonstrates its impact on both the national and personal story.

As I sit and read Galit Atlas’s book, my three-month-old daughter rests, assured, in my arms. No wonder then that my thoughts shift between the past and the future, between previous generations and those to come. What emotional burden do we carry with us, and what of it will be transferred to her? How will my past shape her future?

In her book Emotional Inheritance: A Therapist, Her Patients and the Legacy of Trauma, the psychoanalyst Galit Atlas invites us to visit her clinic—and her mind. Atlas’s writing, stirring and evocative, captures and vividly describes her patients’ emotional state, stimulating private thoughts and memories. For a moment, the reader becomes a guest in the therapeutic encounter, watching and experiencing the process as it unfolds. Atlas’s skill as a clinician and as a writer allows her to tease out topics and truths hitherto hidden or unknown to her clients. In writing about these moments of illumination, she also exposes her own personal connection to her patients. In this sense, Emotional Inheritance—much like my thoughts here—presents itself as a very personal book.

Atlas’s personal and professional background, and the relationship between this and her patients, is embedded in her book, as are her Israeli and Jewish antecedents. Atlas, born in 1971 and raised in Tel Aviv, works today as a psychoanalyst and clinical supervisor in private practice in New York, and teaches on the faculty of New York University’s postdoctoral program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. Among other things, Atlas is known for her expertise in relational psychoanalysis, a field in psychoanalysis that emphasizes the role of real and imagined relationships with others in one’s life. As such, even though it isn’t the book’s principal focus, in describing some of her Israeli/Jewish patients—such as Ben, who is preoccupied with his military background, and Rachel, with a family history of Holocaust survivors—aspects of Israeli society and culture becomes integral to the book as well.

Looking back on the experiences of one’s forebears, and how these may affect a person’s psyche, is one of the most common lenses in psychotherapy. Right from the beginning of the history of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud denoted the concept of transference—the understanding that unconscious and unresolved conflicts, anxieties, and fantasies, shaped in early childhood, will be projected onto others later in life, and that these patterns can be repeated and revealed through therapy. Subsequent theorists, including Yolanda Gampel and Selma Fraiberg, have described how unprocessed traumatic events, such as the Holocaust, can exercise an unconscious influence on later generations of the same family. Unprocessed trauma, the argument goes, can be intergenerational: that is, unconsciously transferred from one generation to another.

Theoretically grounded in this perspective, Atlas takes us on a journey that begins with the ancestors’ generation, continues with the parents, and ends with our own. In tracing this route, she sheds light on the legacy of intergenerational trauma, and its transmission from one generation to another. Atlas’s contemporary account of psychoanalysis focuses on the family traumas that lurk at the bottom of the well-known Freudian iceberg. In his theory, Freud presented the human mind as composed of three levels of awareness: the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious. These levels manifest in the form of this metaphorical iceberg: the conscious part is the one revealed to us above water; the preconscious is located under water, close to its surface; and the unconscious, which may conceal the unknown family traumatic history, is deep down in the ocean, but motivating the entire mind. Unprocessed intergenerational family trauma may have the potential to unconsciously influence our behaviors, and to steer our life’s route.

Drawing from the more contemporary research-based approach of epigenetics—the study of changes in organisms, including humans due to the modification of gene expression, as opposed to changes to the genetic code—Atlas suggests not only that there are findings regarding hormonal changes in the healthy offspring of people who have experienced major trauma, but that we can also use this epigenetic perspective and data to observe intergenerational inheritance of emotional trauma. That is, that the transmission of emotional inheritance can create an actual change in one’s psyche, and become embedded in one’s mind—similar to the biological changes found in second-generation survivors of trauma. Traumatic silences and secret experiences, Atlas asserts, can shape our lives. “We inherit family traumas,” she writes, “even those that we haven’t been told about.”

While this approach may not be entirely novel in psychoanalysis, its relevance lies in the way that it continues to explore this “radioactive” legacy of trauma. It expands our understanding on not just the way trauma can be inherited, but also on how it can go on to affect future generations. Atlas demonstrates how traumatic events, such as the loss of a child or being the victim of incest, can be revived and relived, often in surprising ways, much later in the life cycle.

The book begins with the grandparent generation, showing how trauma experienced by a grandparent can become a presence in the grandchild’s emotional and relational landscape. Each chapter of Atlas’s book focuses on the personal history of a different patient, and the family trauma relating to it. During the psychotherapy sessions described in the book, family secrets and unknown details are revealed. Atlas’s descriptions of her sessions enable the reader to reflect on how emotional material running back two generations can re-emerge in the present. For instance, in the case of Eve, Atlas shows how the trauma of maternal loss in previous generations can reappear—in this case in the form of a wish to repair and find a way to enliven what was felt as dead or forgotten. Eve’s mother lost her own mother, Eve’s grandmother, at the age of 14, after Eve’s grandmother had been gravely ill for two years. In the chapter describing Eve’s psychotherapy, Atlas shows the different ways in which this deadness comes back to life when Eve’s oldest daughter turns 12 herself, through a love affair that makes Eve feel as though it has revived her. “If mothers get sick when their daughters are twelve years old, and then they die, then of course I had to save my life,” says Eve. In this way, throughout the course of Eve’s psychodynamic psychotherapy, unconscious traces of unprocessed family trauma and pain become conscious, enabling her to examine her choices and to take control of her life.

Next, Atlas focuses on the parent generation, outlining how family traumas in infancy or the period preceding one’s birth can shape our unconscious world. Atlas shows how therapy can create a new reality for their children, helping them live life to the full rather than repeating the unknown personal trauma of the parent. A good example of such family trauma is presented through Ben’s therapy. Ben, who served in an elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces, started therapy due to his conscious wish to be a good father to his future children. Throughout therapy, Ben slowly brings up unconscious topics related to his own father, and to the internalized notion that “men don’t cry.” The reading reveals how this unknown emotional inheritance which Ben carried with him restricted his ability to express his emotional pain. By exploring his own vulnerability and aggression, as well as his family’s history of masculinity and his own relationship with his father, Ben finds himself able to express new emotions. The ability to cry for the boy he was, the boy and soldier who wasn’t allowed to cry, opens new possibilities for him as a father.

Finally, Atlas focuses on the personal secrets that we keep from ourselves. In this third and final section, Atlas dauntlessly deconstructs personal traumas from her patients’ pasts, which expends their ability to experience a better future for themselves and for the generations to come. In this part of the book, Atlas seeks to unpick one of the most complicated and fundamental questions in psychotherapy: How can psychotherapy effect meaningful change in a person’s life? In what form can one break the cycle of inherited and transmitted trauma from one generation to another?

Atlas’s answer to this question is clear, elaborated across the book. By processing and understanding one’s personal family history and emotional inheritance, psychotherapy has the potential to break that intergenerational trauma chain. She creates a new manifestation, based on a quote from Jeremiah 31:29 at the beginning of her book: “In those days people will no longer say, the parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Things that have traumatized the ancestors do not have to impact on the lives of their offspring. Exposing what is hidden in our yesterdays can create better tomorrows.

Emotional Inheritance presents an absorbing and insightful perspective into how withholding intergenerational trauma in psychotherapy can have an impact on one’s life. For readers without a richer or experiential understanding of the therapeutic process and the way it evolves, the book offers broader context on the impact of trauma—not only on the individual, but also on their offspring. For therapists familiar with psychoanalysis and the therapeutic approach, the book offers a contemporary and fascinating lens, presenting an in-depth examination of the emotional inheritance of intergenerational trauma, and the different ways that this manifests in therapy and life.

From a societal perspective, the prominence of intergenerational trauma’s subtle impact can provide a wider lens of inspection. Through it, we can gaze upon the things we would rather not see or think about as a community. In this sense, and even though her book doesn’t focus on Israeli society, Emotional Inheritance holds out a potential gift to its Israeli readers: facilitating a standpoint encapsulating both our national and personal emotional inheritance of trauma, and its effects on our national story. For instance, directing our attention to the way that the trauma of the Holocaust influences Israeli society’s attitude to foreigners, marginal subgroups, and the country’s Palestinian-Israeli minority. In this way, the book prompts important questions regarding the fundamental traumatic elements that are woven into Israeli society: influencing both the past and the future, offering a potential way out of the transgenerational effects of personal and national trauma.

* Galit Atlas, Emotional Inheritance: A Therapist, Her Patients, and the Legacy of Trauma, Little, Brown Spark, 2022, pp. 288

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