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Can we inherit our ancestors’ trauma?

A therapist wondered if my family history could help explain my terrible homesickness on moving to Canada. Is she right?

By Zoë Grünewald

At 19, I opted to spend a year studying abroad in Ontario, Canada. As an independent, outgoing teenager, moving to a different country seemed just the sort of adventure I should be having. But my problems began as soon as I stepped off the plane at Toronto airport; I was gripped by an intense feeling of anxiety.

For two miserable weeks I felt sick and restless and pined for home. I took frantic calls from family and friends who urged me to stay, telling me I was experiencing a very normal bout of homesickness. I cried until I was sick, ignoring the worried messages that were pouring in.

I returned home 14 days after I arrived, humiliated and emotionally drained, and continued my studies in England. I can still feel the shame of it: I felt I had embarrassed myself, let my family and friends down, and burned through money I didn’t have. When people ask what happened, I don’t know what to tell them. I didn’t enjoy the university, I missed my friends, I was homesick. I was certain that I couldn’t stay.

A couple of months ago I relayed this story to a therapist, who immediately asked if I had heard of the term “inherited trauma”. She explained that the irrational, highly emotional response I exhibited to this fairly ordinary situation might not be my own – instead, I might have been experiencing the trauma of my grandparents, an inherited fear from incidents that took place long before I was born.

My grandfather arrived in the UK from Germany on the Kindertransport at the age of 14. He never saw his parents again; they were killed in the Holocaust. When my grandmother was just two years old she too experienced her own traumatic separation, having been sent to the UK from Ontario after the sudden death of her mother.

They were both orphans exiled to a foreign country, who would never see, hold or hear from the people who were meant to protect and love them. Almost 80 years later, their grandchild crossed the Atlantic, only to be gripped by hysterical pain. It sounds unbelievable, but could the two facts be related?

Rachel Yehuda is a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience. She set up a clinic for Holocaust survivors at Mount Sinai hospital in New York after seeing how the Holocaust was still affecting her local community. Yehuda looked at how traumatic events change individuals physiologically, through epigenetics. While genetics describes DNA sequencing, epigenetics looks at how genes can be turned on and off through chemical tags that attach to our genes in response to changes in our environment and behaviour.

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On setting up the clinic in 1992, Yehuda saw an increasing number of children of Holocaust survivors who sought her help – who felt guilt, pressure and separation anxiety that they linked to their parents’ histories. One possible explanation was that this was environmental: maybe scared mothers or overprotective fathers were causing their children to feel stressed. But Yehuda and her team began to wonder if there was an element of biological inheritance at play. They examined the hormone levels of Holocaust offspring and made a groundbreaking discovery. It seemed that they had the same hormonal abnormalities as their parents – the epigenetic tags that attached to their parents DNA in response to their trauma were evident in the next generation. PTSD symptoms and triggers were being transmitted across generations; trauma was, it seemed, inheritable.

Other studies have also floated the theory of biologically inherited trauma, including a 2013 experiment that suggested that mice can inherit fear from their parents or grandparents: it found that mice whose father or grandfather had learned to associate the smell of cherry blossom with an electric shock were more jumpy around the smell. These studies appear to grant scientific validation to something some people believe instinctively: that the impact of traumatic events can be felt, generation after generation.

However, many experts remain sceptical. After an influential study by the German geneticist Bernhard Horsthemke argued that most, if not all, epigenetic tags are erased during fertilisation, a Guardian article declared that the case for transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in humans had “crumbled”.

Yehuda herself has always acknowledged the limitations of her study, describing the attribution of any specific epigenetic mechanisms in offspring of trauma survivors as “premature”, as well as accepting that biological transmission does not mean that “biology is destiny”.

Even in the absence of conclusive evidence regarding the biological transmission of trauma, many of us feel, deeply, that our family stories and selves are inextricably linked; that the core of our being existed in some form before we were even conceived. I feel that it is impossible for anyone to understand me and my values without an explanation of my grandfather’s history.

In his 2016 book, It Didn’t Start with You, the therapist Mark Wolynn explores the ways in which our family histories imprint on us. Although Wolynn references the role of epigenetic inheritance, he acknowledges that there are other forms of inheritance – our words, and the stories we tell each other. Wolynn writes about the importance of understanding the language people use when they describe their anxieties and fears: like a “breadcrumb trail”, words can lead us back to the initial trauma.

Wolynn tells the story of Jesse, a 20-year-old man who developed insomnia and would wake “freezing, shivering and unable to get warm no matter what he tried”. Each night, Jesse was also seized by a strange fear that something awful would happen if he let himself fall back to sleep. When Wolynn asked about Jesse’s family history, Jesse told him that his uncle had died at the age of 19, frozen to death in a blizzard in Yellowstone, in the US.

Wolynn explains that: “Jesse was unconsciously reliving aspects of Colin’s death – specifically, the terror of letting go into unconsciousness. For Colin, letting go meant death. For Jesse, falling asleep must have felt the same.”

I wondered how all this might apply to me. Perhaps my strong reaction in Canada was linked not to a biological propensity for anxiety, but to my family story of grief and separation. In an essay for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Josie Glausiusz, one of the participants in Yehuda’s study, asked: “how does one separate the impact of horrific stories heard in childhood from the influence of epigenetics?”

In my case, I believe that sometimes our reactions to events are shaped by our memories of the grief, guilt or sadness that our loved ones experienced; shaped by the stories about their suffering that we are told.

Maybe there was a clue, too, in the shame I felt upon my return. Knowing that my grandmother, who I never met, was born in Ontario, I felt like a part of my past was there. I had thought it would be lovely to make that connection to her and return with the missing piece of our family story. When I instead experienced homesickness and regret, I felt deep disappointment and self-loathing. How could I, with my immense privilege, not stomach this opportunity, when my grandparents had endured far harder journeys from which there was no return?

There are many explanations for what happened to me in Canada. Perhaps it was inherited fear, perhaps I was responding unconsciously to stories about the tragedy of familial separation. Or perhaps I was experiencing a bout of homesickness that would have dissipated in a couple of weeks.

Either way, the debate about the inheritance of trauma illustrates how little we understand about our emotions and where they come from.

[See also: Marianne Eloise: “People dismiss your illness if you’re not bleeding on the floor”]

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