Imagine yourself at a family reunion. Aunt Sadie puts her hand on your shoulder and tells you you’re the spitting image of her sister Rose. Uncle Mo swears your soccer prowess comes from his side of the family, superb athletes all. The baby has the thick black hair of your Irish ancestors, and though you’ve always said you’ll never scowl like your mother, as you age identical scowl lines appear around your mouth.
The heritability of physical traits is a known and accepted fact, but a burgeoning branch of scientific investigation, epigenetics, has unlocked the mystery of how the emotional lives of our ancestors, and the traumas they suffered, affect our well-being.
In the ancient world, when a tragedy recurred in a family line—sons murdering their fathers, suicides, madness—the cause was thought to be the workings of a curse, or Fate, or the actions of punishing, vengeful gods.
With the aid of our vibrant imaginations, humans have spun tales about how the sins of the fathers would be visited upon the children and their children’s children “unto the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34.7). The great Greek tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—warned audiences that transgression against the gods weighed heavily on future generations. The chorus in the opening lines of Sophocles’ Antigone proclaim the horror in the family line:
“How many miseries our father caused! And is there one of them that does not fall on us while yet we live?”
In contemporary fiction, novelists Ocean Vuong (On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous), Celeste Ng (Everything I Never Told You), and Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Water Dancer), among others, explore manifestations of transgenerational trauma. We’ve come a long way from pinning our misfortunes on family curses and the whims of the gods, but we are still discovering how the emotional experiences of our ancestors, their personal stories, told and untold, have altered our bodies and minds.
What stories whispered behind closed doors did you grow up with? How many relatives suffered with depression? Were there suicides? Violent behavior? Exile and displacement? A history of poverty? Unmourned griefs? Which questions about your family’s past do not get answered? Evidence supports the claim that what has not been healed in our lineage may manifest indirectly in us, a new generation, as anxiety, depression, physical illness, or other afflictions.
In my own life, for a long time, I felt that the heaviness of a grief I carried did not originate with me. While researching my second novel, I discovered that one of my grandmothers died in a state mental asylum. She was never mentioned during my childhood, and I assume she was a source of pain and great shame. No one is alive now to tell me her story, but I am aware that her presence has always been with me. A character in my second novel is loosely based on her story, and through workings of my imagination, grandma has been returned to her glory!
During the years writing this novel, I began a period of searching and seeking, hoping to uncover, face, and resolve the hurt in my lineage. Toward the end of this time, I discovered the work of Rabbi Dr. Tirzah Firestone. As the saying goes: when the student is ready, the teacher appears.
Dr. Firestone has spent at least one lifetime investigating intergenerational trauma from spiritual and psychological perspectives. She offers insight into the manifestations of inherited trauma and generously supplies stories and healing practices from many traditions in her online teachings. Her most recent book, Wounds into Wisdom, is a guide into deep inner excavations and explorations. In a world so harshly and painfully broken, her encouragement for us to heal as individuals expands the hope that we can also heal globally.
It brings me pleasure to introduce Tirzah Firestone to you in this two-part interview series.
Dale Kushner: Briefly, what is ancestral healing?
Tirzah Firestone: Ancestral healing is an ancient and currently burgeoning field that is based upon the spiritual premise that consciousness continues after death. After we pass from this world, regardless of our age or station, our bodies return to the earth, but our non-corporeal self continues to travel in non-visible realms, ultimately passing into an ancestral plane. Most spiritual traditions in the world agree that the ancestors, those who are no longer in the physical world, are still tied to us here on earth, for better and sometimes for worse.
DK: Why worse?
TF: Generally speaking, ancestors wish to play a beneficial role to their living offspring. Their job is to guide and care for their living progeny, assisting them to remain in life and flourish here. But because the deep residue of our lives continues to reverberate after death, it is not only our ancestors’ wisdom but their unprocessed traumas that affect their next of kin. Ancestral healing is the garnering of wisdom, guidance, and blessings of the well and wise ancestors, and then, with their support, helping to resolve and repair the unhealed wounds of those who are not yet well and wise.
DK: Is ancestral trauma, inherited, transgenerational, and intergenerational trauma the same thing? If not, how are they different? Please clarify collective trauma.
TF: All of these terms are related.
Ancestral traumas are the unworked legacies of those who have died. This might include unresolved life stories, secrets, resentments, or other injuries that never had a chance to heal. The scientific field of epigenetics bears out that these unprocessed life stresses can influence future generations in the form of inherited tendencies to similar kinds of stress, anxiety, and psycho-emotional issues. The term transgenerational trauma is much the same as intergenerational trauma, used more widely in Europe, Australia, and elsewhere.
Collective trauma is the residue of extreme life circumstances that occur (historical trauma is another term for this) that continues to affect not only individuals, but entire groups, ethnicities, communities, and entire nations. One example is the African-American community whose ancestors were abducted, shackled, and forced into centuries of slavery. We might say that their ancestral trauma is also a collective trauma that is still being worked through intergenerationally, in the lives of their living offspring as well as in the life of American society.
DK: In the last several years, you’ve worked privately with individuals and taught experiential courses on ancestral healing. Do all lineages have ancestral wounds?
TF: Yes, we might indeed say that all lineages carry ancestral wounds. Those who colonized others bear great moral wounds; the human pain incurred by their misdeeds is a legacy that continues for generations. Likewise, those who were colonized, enslaved, or murdered bear wounds that reverberate intergenerationally.
TF: I am a second-generation Holocaust survivor. My mother escaped Nazi Germany in 1939, leaving behind scores of relatives who were murdered in unconscionable ways. Even though she never spoke of them, I felt the reverberations of the family’s unprocessed shock, grief, and trauma. Ultimately, this led me to uncover the family history and then as a rabbi and psychotherapist, to study the effects of collective trauma in my people and far beyond.
DK: Does a person have to know about their ancestry to benefit from your teachings?
TF: One can begin this work with the tiniest amounts of information about one’s family (country of origin, political events there, etc.) Finding out about one’s ancestral history is relatively easy online these days. If we bring sincere intention, the unconscious will assist. Dreams and synchronicities come to inform us and help us to uncover more and more information.
DK: What are the dangers of not acknowledging ancestral/transgenerational trauma?
TF: Uncovering the dimension of intergenerational (or ancestral legacies) in our lives is extremely important. Without understanding the historical context of our lives and what came before us, our tendency is to think that our problems and imbalances began with us, that we created them. It is more often the case that the issues we are working on—whether we suffer from anxiety, fear, addiction, shame, or a feeling of not belonging, to name just a few examples—have roots in the lives of those who came before us, in what they suffered, and what they could not complete in their lifetimes. Often we are doing the work that was left to us, and it becomes our work. This then is ancestral healing! In doing our own inner emotional, psychological, and spiritual healing and untangling, we are also healing the legacies of those who gave us life.
You may also be interested in reading my two other posts about intergenerational trauma: “Family Deeds: Constellation Therapy & Generations of Trauma” and “The Things We Carry: What Our Ancestors Didn’t Tell Us”
This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”