Brokenness can be an inheritance.
I think about inheritances often now, with the weight of a two-year-old in my lap. I often read In the Night Kitchen with my son at dusk, partly in the hope that he might learn to read earlier than I did, but I am also drawn to the complexity in Maurice Sendak’s comic book for children. While the book seems to be about a toddler’s dream-like mission to source milk for breakfast, the adventure takes a darker turn when uniformed men wearing toothbrush moustaches force the young protagonist into an oven.
Sendak was raised in a Jewish-Polish family of Holocaust survivors and the book’s imagery is no accident. Researchers in the 1960s observed that the children of Holocaust survivors were seeking treatment in large numbers and In the Night Kitchen reads like a child’s expression of what was clinically labelled concentration camp syndrome, or secondary trauma.
My reading routine was broken when I became a parent, (quite literally in the instance that my two-year-old pulled a handful of pages from Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and ran from the room while declaring, and I quote, ‘it’s Star Wars’). My nightstand is now an impulsive stack of non-fiction on devices, Gothic comfort food and picture books, but I often feel as if I am reading the same story from text to text; the effects of trauma can be passed on or handed down—inherited—even if we were not present, or yet born, when the trauma occurred.
In the recent non-fiction essay On the Road, Katerina Bryant writes of how a road death in the family half a century ago resulted in a trauma that still finds expression in her relationship with her mother. The legacy of the loss is expressed in both silences and a language of worry that has transferred to Bryant’s own behaviour:
Secondary trauma is what you would imagine. When we live together, we experience trauma together so in that, while we are not physically harmed by a loved one being assaulted, we can mourn for them. We can fear with them. We can make changes to our own lives to protect them and ourselves. And so, trauma can move through the generations.
Bryant writes that while she feels a sense of freedom when driving, she can still nurse a familiar anxiety when others are on the road, and an ethic of caution that began with a tragedy in 1966 continues with her.
The ethic of caution was more than familiar as I read the piece. My own family has experienced a death on the road. I cannot deny the legacy of our own tragedy, one of my son’s names memorialises the lost loved one, and I wonder at how the very motions of caregiving relationships can be the mechanisms by which trauma is transferred.
The ways we were loved, and love in turn—our proximity, our protection, our providence—can carry a brokenness that is seen and then repeated.
Researchers long assumed that these child-rearing behaviours were the primary cause of transmission, but some evidence suggests that trauma can be inherited epigenetically as well.
When German forces cut off food supplies and created a famine in the Netherlands during WWII, the babies born during that winter had drastically low birth weights. Researchers found that not only did that famine affect the lives of those born at the time, but that the grandchildren of those infants had significantly more problems with diabetes and obesity half a century later.
While trauma cannot rewrite our DNA, it does affect the epigenome, which determines how our genetics are activated and those changes to our genetics are heritable to the second and third generation, hence why the grandchildren of scarcity would struggle with over-consumption.
Not only do we inherit trauma through our relationships, we can physically inherit its after-effects as well, which is also to say, brokenness is carried beneath our skin and shared in the ways that we love.
The Gothic understands this well; the family curses that linger, the ghosts that remain, the sins of the fathers visited upon the children to the second and third generation. I read Stephen King’s The Shining last winter, the story of a child that sees symbols of old traumas around him as his father descends into a patriarchal pattern of mental illness, alcoholism and violence. I wrote that the Gothic was like comfort food, but the meat of this story feels as much grim reality to me as it does a penny dreadful.
These are the inheritances I think about with the weight of my son in my lap. I read to him, my arms encircling his own, and wonder what is shared in the way that I hold him, in the skin he now grows into.
What will be passed on in the words I choose, or choose not, to speak? What is handed down in the snaps and the silences? Will he learn the familiar ethic of caution, gingerly sensing the fragility of our frames left to chance? Do some traces of the scarcity, addiction and grotesque violence in the not-too-distant family history lie remembered in our arms as they touch?
Will he learn to say ‘I love you’, as I do, instead of admitting ‘I am afraid’.
We do not, can not, know all the traces of trauma we carry, but I am considering these legacies, not just as a parent, but as a writer. I am seeing legacies, passed on, handed down, writ large in people and place. I am practicing the sight. I am watching for ghosts. I am reading trauma; written into our lives, coded in our social systems, bound in our very flesh.
My reading routine isn’t broken. I am reading brokenness. And in reading brokenness, I wonder if there can be some understanding of it, and a chance to shape its expression.
I read In the Night Kitchen with my son, partly in the hope that he might learn to read earlier than I did, and perhaps Sendak’s dream-like evocation of secondary trauma will impart another form of understanding. There are inheritances we pass on we have no say in, but some things we can choose to pass on; blessings as well as curses, gifts and truths. Brokenness can be an inheritance, but perhaps the ability to read brokenness can be as well.