My Healing Journey from Shame to Self-Realization
“The great journey of transformation begins with the acknowledgment that we need to make it. It is not something we are undertaking for amusement, nor even for the sake of convention; rather, it is a spiritual necessity.” – Alan Lew
“Recovery begins with embracing our pain and taking the risk to share it with others. We do this by joining a group and talking about our pain.” – John Bradshaw
With the COVID-19 pandemic yet to be resolved, the entire planet is going through a trauma. The causes and effects of trauma have been a topic of discussion and research for many years. Recently it has been proven that parental trauma, like extreme stress, can alter how genes are passed down. Trauma leaves a chemical mark on a person’s genes, which can then be passed down to future generations. This applies to children of genocide survivors, and I dare suggest, to the African American community at large, descendants of slaves. The big ‘Aha!’ moment is that although the trauma never goes away, becoming aware and educated of its weight on our being is the first step towards healing.
This essay is a personal psychological examination of how trauma was passed down to me from my parents: a meditation on memory’s fragility and the affliction of inherited pain. It is also an exploration of the commonalities found in the children of survivors. I wrote and re-wrote this essay a few times over the years. It probably won’t be the last time, as it’s work in progress.
A good friend with a similar background said to me once: “With the Holocaust – I am done!” to which I thought, “Yes, you may be done with Holocaust, but is the Holocaust done with you?”
I am fascinated by the unconscious manner by which trauma inflicts my way of thinking and being. It’s a miracle and a blessing that sometimes I am aware of it in real-time, but it’s not always the case. I remember a discussion during an art class I attended at Santa Monica College over 15 years ago, when I said something about how the work, the creative work that is, makes me feel free. One of my classmates, who kind of knew my story, looked at me with intense staring eyes. You realize she said, that was the infamous welcome sign at Auschwitz’s entrance gate – Arbeit Macht Frei (work sets you free).
Next, I will attempt to explain and understand the connection between Intergenerational Trauma and Attachment Theory as they relate to Second Generation Holocaust Survivors. A few sections are written in third person language because they are excerpts from C. Fred Alford’s book and Marisa Berman’s article, as they are telling my story. I did not ask for their permission, but I figure that it might be okay since I am the subject. I can’t tell you how honored and acknowledged I feel to have my story told in books, alongside that of Art Spiegelman, the author of the famous graphic novel Maus, a classic in the genre of Holocaust books. It is a tale of survival, not only of the survivors but also of the children who survive even the survivors. In this preface, I also need to point out that in the greater talk about trauma out there in the world, much has been written and said on this subject. Thus, the terminology may differ at times, but the bottom line is the same: Intergenerational trauma is very real.
For many years it caught me off guard, and I did not know its name. That tape in my head would suddenly blare a version of “something is wrong with me.” It’s called shame. I often say that shame is the most cunning and deceiving muthafucka of them all. A sense of shame takes over me with no warning at unexpected moments. Here are some examples: shame for sharing my story with others, shame for not being able to move on and put this history aside, shame for talking about shame, shame that my father and my grandfather were treated like slaves without a fight, shame for belonging to my persecuted nation, shame for my anger and my rage. This list could go on and on, but I think you got it!
When I describe how shame torments me, I often find my words misinterpreted, which aggravates and annoys me; as if it’s not hard enough to touch and talk about this tender place, I am also misunderstood! Sometimes, people ask me: “Is your shame a feeling of guilt?” I will answer with a quote by John Bradshaw, whom I am forever grateful to for opening Pandora’s Box for me over 30 years ago. He said: “Guilt says I’ve done something wrong; … shame says there is something wrong with me. Guilt says I’ve made a mistake; … shame says I am a mistake. Guilt says what I did was not good; … shame says I am no good.”
Carl Jung said: “There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” Only when I gained enough courage to look straight into my shame (some call it ‘the shadow’) and start the process of accepting the parts I pushed away or held in denial, a small crack opened, revealing a sliver of light and a glimpse of freedom. I had to come to terms with and find compassion for the ‘little Jew,’ the helpless, frightened, mistreated one because he’s also part of who I am. This “coming to consciousness” was also the initial step in making peace with my father; the person who sealed himself off and buried his shame in silence, yet always in my eyes seemed to carry intense energy of agony and torment hovering over his head.
Below are excerpts from a magazine article by Marisa Berman and a book by C. Fred Alford.
“I did not witness the most important events of my life,” says artist David Gev. “They happened before I was born, yet their memory persists. How does one take on the memories of another individual, let alone the collective memory of millions?”
Gev was born in Be’er-Sheva, Israel, in 1960. His father, Baruch Ginzberg, was a colonel in the Israeli Army, a post he took up after surviving four different concentration camps during the Holocaust. Ginzberg spoke little of his experience to David or his younger son Israel in hopes of protecting them from the suffering he endured. In his artwork, Gev returns repeatedly to the view he imagines his father had through the slats in the cattle cars that transported him to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sachsenhausen, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau – each ride filled with fear, starvation, and death.
Artist David Gev’s work is meant to evoke the European landscape as seen from inside a train car on its way to a concentration camp. Gev did not directly experience this suffering, nor did he himself look out from the trains, or feel the pains of hunger and cold, but still he witnessed these things through pieces of stories told to him by his father. Without knowing all that occurred, he was forced to formulate images in his mind of what his father might have seen.”
“As one looks at photographs of glass art by Gev, one is surprised by how pretty the abstract scenes are. If one did not know what they represent, one would be hard-pressed to guess that they represent horror.
The general insight suggested by Gev’s experience is that: “We survive by forming relationships and adapting to the minds of others.”
Gev, and second-generation survivors, seem to have felt forced to imagine the horrors their parents went through in order to reach through a barrier of silence that was also a barrier against human connection, human attachment. Parents can love their children, but if they cannot share themselves with their children, if large portions of their minds are permanently closed to their children, if their Auschwitz emotional experience is wholly unavailable, then something will always be missing. It is this search for this missing piece, the lost connection with the mind of the parent that also forms and frames the mind of the second-generation survivor.
Gev seems to have found a particularly creative way of imaging the experiences of his father, melding the bits and pieces of what he was told into beautiful form. Gev is not memorializing the Holocaust but coming to terms with his own experience of the Holocaust, via his father.
Children want to know about their parents’ emotional experience during the Holocaust, or other traumatic times. They want to be let in. To be denied this experience is the equivalent of being dropped by the mind of the mother, as D. W. Winnicott put it. This can happen at any age and with either parent. For holding is not something that begins and ends in infancy and childhood. It continues throughout Life, as we try to find a place in which we are secure enough to just be.
Erik Hesse and Mary Main, leading attachment theorists, explain the process slightly differently. During the normal course of child-rearing, traumatized parents will reexperience their original trauma, leading to episodes of parental detachment and confusion. This is the case even with good, generally competent parents. Incapable of understanding the source of the parents’ distress, the child will either blame itself or be drawn into compulsively trying to comfort the parent. Role reversal, the child comforting the parent, is a common attachment strategy undertaken by children of traumatized or disturbed parents. It is a leading marker of what is called ambivalent attachment and is considered a response to unpredictably responsive caregiving.
How odd it is for the child to feel abandoned by the parent because the parent won’t share his or her horror. But that seems to be the way it works.”