Ever feel like your body bears not only your own lifetime of scars, but also the weight of traumas borne by your parents, grandparents, and even further-out generations?
There is an increasing body of science that says you do, in fact, carry your ancestors’ traumas as well as your own. Trauma, Resmaa Menakem says in his new book My Grandmother’s Hands[i]: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (Central Recovery Press, 2017), is passed from generation to generation in three primary ways:
- Through families in which one family member abuses or mistreats another.
- Through unsafe or abusive systems, structures, institutions, and/or cultural norms.
- Through our genes. (p. 10)
The science about the passage of trauma through our genes is called epigenetics. In one of the science’s foundational experiments, researchers taught male mice to fear the smell of cherry blossoms by associating the smell with mild foot shocks. The mice’s children and grandchildren were not exposed to the smell of cherry blossoms or to foot shocks, but they were “born with more cherry-blossom-detecting neurons in their noses and more brain space devoted to cherry-blossom-smelling,” and, more tellingly, they showed symptoms of anxiety and fear when they were exposed to the smell of cherry blossoms.[ii] Similarly, physical markers of trauma exposure have been observed in the children of Holocaust survivors and in people whose mothers were pregnant and near 9/11 ground zero.[iii]
Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands is a rare and ground-breaking book that not only explores the second and third ways in which trauma Is passed from generation to generation, but also attempts to heal those wounds and prevent them from being passed to even more generations. His focus is both breathtakingly broad – race-based trauma in the United States – and frustratingly limited. His book explicitly addresses only three audiences: white Americans, African-Americans, and law enforcement officials of any race. He mentions atrocities visited upon American Indians and talks about historical biases such as anti-Chinese laws and anomalies like immigrant populations who were originally treated as not white, but that “became white” over the course of time. Unfortunately, however, he does not use the existence of other types of racism to further illuminate his theories, and he does not further explore how changing American views of “race” might have affected the trauma felt by the families who were designated different “races” at different points in time. Nor does he overtly acknowledge the existence of biracial or multiracial individuals or families. Instead, he literally addresses all of his readers as either white Americans, African-Americans, or law enforcement officials, with chapter headings often specifying who should read what. (Although Menakem does acknowledge that law enforcement officials can be either African-American or white American, he does not seem to view their personal race as anywhere near as influential as their professional culture.)
Those are the drawbacks of My Grandmother’s Hands. The positives are enormous. For one thing, Menakem provides a cogent description of how traumatic events turn into “culture”:
Unhealed trauma acts like a rock thrown into a pond; it causes ripples that move outward, affecting many other bodies over time. After months or years, unhealed trauma can appear to become part of someone’s personality. Over even longer periods of time, as it is passed on and gets compounded through other bodies in a household, it can become a family norm. And if it gets transmitted and compounded through multiple families and generations, it can start to look like culture.
But it isn’t culture. It’s a traumatic retention that has lost its context over time. (p. 39)
Menakem also spends many, many pages teaching “how to settle your body” when it has been triggered into a fight/flight/freeze response by a trauma or the memory of a trauma. These sections are what make the book valuable for anyone who has ever experienced trauma of any kind. The exercises are not necessarily novel; they lean heavily on breathing and mindfulness exercises. More unusual are the “body practices to do together,” which suggest humming and singing together, rocking, touching, and other ways in which to bring a gathering of people into a harmonized whole (see, for example, pages 184-186).
Most unique and valuable – at least to this reader – are Menakem’s exercises for exploring how racialized trauma may be housed in our own bodies. These exercises focus on guided meditations, awareness of body-based feelings, and reflections on past experiences. They also include “conversations” with dead ancestors and imaginative exercises in which the reader “transports” themselves into a historical context in order to sense what is happening in the bodies of those who were present. These imaginary flights will not be to everyone’s taste, but have the potential to bring tremendous insight into those willing to work with them.
Racialized trauma has to be one of America’s deepest and most tender wounds. Menakem himself told an audience that he thinks it will take “250 years” more before black and white Americans could even do his exercises in integrated groups. I am far more optimistic, particularly when we are given such insightful tools and encouragement.
[i] Menakem’s grandmother’s hands were literally shaped by her glove-less work picking cotton from an extremely young age.
[ii] Kim, M. (2013, December 7). “Study finds that fear can travel quickly through generations of mice DNA,” The Washington Post, accessed at https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/study-finds-that-fear-can-travel-quickly-through-generations-of-mice-dna/2013/12/07/94dc97f2-5e8e-11e3-bc56-c6ca94801fac_story.html?utm_term=.f5e3a064c6a7
[iii] Rosner, E. (2017). Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory.Counterpoint.