Can we start recognising the different qualities of lived experience and logic… and valuing them equally?

July has provided many rich and interesting stories I could write about.

There was the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer’s ill-judged campaign video in which he and Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, are filmed walking thoughtfully through the grey corridors of the Holocaust Memorial in central Berlin, ‘a massive faux-pas’ in Germany where such a carefully choreographed and blatant political usage of the site would be a complete and passionate no-no. 

Sir Keir Starmer in Berlin

Or the contentious mural by the Indonesian art collective, Taring Padi, deemed unacceptably antisemitic and therefore quickly removed from this year’s Documenta international contemporary art fair in Kassel, the director quitting soon after.

And my personal highlight, the three wonderful book launches that celebrated my arrival at the summit of my endless mountain. July has buzzed with the tangible excitement of people starting to read In My Grandfather’s Shadow and a string of radio interviews (all available here) and future invitations to talk about the themes and questions it raises.

Book Launch at Daunt Books, Holland Park

But two other experiences left me reflecting once again on what I see as a fundamental fault line in our troubled world. One was a recent review of my book, In My Grandfather’s Shadow, in the Observer. The other, the National Theatre Live broadcast of Suzie Miller’s award-winning play, Prima Facie in which an outstanding Jodie Comer (the BBC’s Killing Eve’s notorious assassin) plays a young and brilliant barrister who, after an unexpected event, is forced ‘to confront the lines where the patriarchal power of the law, burden of proof and morals diverge.’ 

In different ways, both the article and the play illustrate the age-old dynamic of ‘feminine’ versus ‘masculine’ perspectives in which the feminine experience is ignored, interrogated until it no can longer stand up and finally overridden, often with catastrophic consequences as the play demonstrates. For example, just 1.3% of rapes end in prosecution. Why? One reason is clear: the clunky measuring tools employed by the law to establish ‘proof’ are wholly inadequate when it comes to female trauma.

On a far less serious level, the Observer review by Matthew Reisz, former editor of the Jewish Quarterly and a staff writer at Times Higher Education, created a similar tension. I am hugely chuffed to have a got a review in the Observer. And there were compliments, like ‘strange and powerful.’ And Reisz was convinced by my hypothesis that a parent’s PTSD can have an impact on a child. Science after all accepts that as real and it’s now mainstream thinking, though it wasn’t always. What Reisz clearly doesn’t give any credence to is the reality, let alone the possibility, of the very premise of the book.

‘Much less plausible,’ apparently, is my belief that I am ‘in some sense haunted by the grandfather she never knew.’ As for the techniques I develop to find an “improbable epiphany” that will help me understand what kind of man he is, well, they are clearly the same “esoteric claptrap” that I suggest my grandfather might have seen them as! 

Matthew Reisz has every right to think like he does, and many will agree with him. I am well prepared for this kind of critique. I knew the ‘woo-woo’ stuff (as one or two of my editors called the more weird occurrences) could be problematic for some readers. But I insisted on keeping it. Without it, it was neither my story nor my book. And certainly not my truth. Including a ‘feminine’ perspective on the largely masculine arena of war and traditional fact-based history was for me essential. And I use ‘feminine’ here not as in female, but as in that inner dimension within all of us. That inexplicable world of instinct, intuition, serendipity, dreams and the invisible whisperings of the dead; often the source of creativity or vision, yet also the areas of human experience so often dismissed as ‘dippy-hippy nonsense,’ not ‘real’ or valid because they are ‘unprovable,’ or apparently just ‘wrong’. For it was these things – not clever science or psychologists – that provided the clues to solving the mystery of what I was experiencing. 

The book is intensely personal. But the issues it explores – addiction, shame, trauma, inherited guilt, forgiveness, reconciliation – are not. As Prima Facie so dramatically shows, they require a different approach to the logic and plausibility of left-brain thinking. This is what I feel Reisz unfortunately misses. In his final sentence, he reveals the source of his unsettledness in the apparent contradiction of ‘a woman who has dedicated her book to “all those whose lives are affected by discrimination, oppression or war” searching so desperately for redeeming qualities in a decorated Wehrmacht general.’ Is he suggesting there couldn’t possibly be any while misunderstanding my desire to comprehend a relative as wanting to exonerate them?

It’s going to be so interesting hearing different responses to In My Grandfather’s Shadow and coming into dialogue with others about their own relationships to the darker corners of their heritages, which is what frequently comes up. Like the prisoners in my art classes, like audience members at my lectures, people begin to talk when you make it safe for them to do so. That’s what I hope telling my difficult story will encourage: conversation. Not about provable facts, but fears, feelings and experiences. Conversation. Not with a goal of judging or a need to be right. Certainly not doubting or questioning the reality of what is being said. Just from a genuine desire to understand others. That’s how we can find our shared humanity.

So just to finish with a bit of undiluted ‘woo-woo,’ I found a 4′ grass snake in my hall a week or so ago. A Stroud friend told me that when animals come into our houses, they have a message. I thought no more about the symbolic significance of a snake. But then yesterday, without me mentioning the snake, another friend reminded me of the questions asked in Goethe’s beautiful story, The Fairytale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily in which the snake sacrifices itself to bridge the divide between the land of the ordinary senses and the land of the spirit or soul. It roughly translate as:

‘What is more precious/glorious than gold?’ asked the King. 

‘Light’, answered the snake.

‘What is more refreshing/quickening than light?’ asked the King.

‘Conversation’ said the snake.

When it comes to human experiences, is ‘following the science’ always the right way to act?

For just over a year now, the world has been focused on ‘following the science’. And no doubt rightly so in many instances. Science is brilliant, in too many ways to list here. But… when it comes to human experience, its tools are often blunt, clunky or inadequate.

Sometimes, science lags behind human instinct or common sense. Sometimes, its microscopic focus loses sight of the macroscopic whole. Objective rationale overrides simple solutions seen by subjective understanding. Symptoms may be treated in isolation rather than as part of a highly intelligent organism. Other times, a phenomenon is too mind-boggling to be explained by logical process; love, death, black holes… That’s where art or religion, with their different toolset, have a go with varying degrees of success.

My recent TEDx talk – you can watch it here if you haven’t seen it yet – presents my experience of the transgenerational transmission of trauma or guilt. It’s an example of subjective experience gradually making its way to objective explanation. It is not a new idea. Way back, in Exodus Chapter 20, the bible talked of “…visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation.” In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Launcelot says, “Yes, truly; for, look you, the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.” And over the past fifty years or so, symptoms of inherited trauma/guilt have been documented in descendents of a wide range of people exposed to traumatic events. However… because science doesn’t have the ability to prove it happens – not yet at least – some dismiss examples of such transmissions as being impossible, coincidental, imagined, nonsense.

But does that mean that it doesn’t happen? Is science right… or simply behind?

Take Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), for example. Traumatic incidents have always been part of the human experience. And no doubt people all over the world have displayed symptoms of PTSD long before it was given a name. Yet the term ‘trauma’ only started to be explored at the end of the nineteenth century when Freud and his fellow pioneers of neurology and psychology considered it a diagnosis worthy of specialised treatment. When thousands of men returned from First World War fronts with psychological symptoms and medical conditions that had never been seen before, let alone explained, the British came up with the diagnosis of “shell shock.” Those who suffered from it were entitled to treatment – often hypnosis – and a disability pension. The sheer numbers, however, led the British General Staff to forbid the use of the term. Instead, “NYDN” (Not Yet Diagnosed, Nervous) was to be used and the afflicted were deemed undisciplined and lacking moral fibre. It wouldn’t be until 1941 with the publication of The traumatic neuroses of war by Abram Kardiner that it was recognised that any man could be affected by the atrocities of war and that traumatic symptoms were a normal response to an unbearable situation.

During the Second World War, psychiatrists continued to use hypnosis as treatment for trauma and veterans were offered improved practical and economic support. Psychological scars, however, were left unrecognised and untreated. From 1947, traumatic neuroses all but disappeared from official psychiatric language. 

The interest in trauma reignited in the seventies with the return of Vietnam war veterans who had such incapacitating symptoms that they were incapable of coping and functioning in civilian life. Many behaved violently towards their partners or became homeless and unemployable. But their symptoms continued to be labelled separately: alcoholism, substance misuse, depression, mood disorder or schizophrenia and treated accordingly, frequently without success. It was only when clinicians and mental health professionals working with Holocaust survivors, battered women, abused children and victims of accidents or rape collated their reports and discovered overwhelming similarities in their traumatised clients, that the range of behavioural, emotional and cognitive symptoms were combined into one psychological trauma diagnosis: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In 1980, after several rejections, this term would finally be included in the bible of psychology, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (third edition; DSM-III). 

For us today, it probably feels obvious that exposing men and women to abuse, war or anything that evokes extreme fear and helplessness would leave traumatic markers. And to a large degree science can now explain the mechanisms behind the process. That sense of ‘obviousness’ is how I have come to feel about the possibility of unresolved trauma or wrongdoing being passed onto the next generations, even though we don’t know how it happens. As I suggest in my TEDx talk, “our roots don’t just run backwards to our ancestors, but forwards to our children and those who come after. And if those roots are damaged or severed, what we hand on will also be impaired.

Many people have written to say my talk has resonated with their own experience of their forebears. But none of us can prove anything. And science will need time to develop the tools that can. Which probably means that the legacies of past familial, societal or historical traumas will not be taken into consideration when helping those afflicted by the often debilitating symptoms of depression, addiction, mental health… 

I think we need to be careful that this new emphasis on ‘following the science’ doesn’t pervade all areas of life. Even if we don’t yet understand the many complex ways in which transmission can occur, let’s give credence to the insights of people who have an innate or formally trained capacity to feel into a situation and ‘know‘ what’s right in the same way maternal instinct so often does. We have two sides to our brains for good reason. Currently the sceptical-until-proven logic of the left side largely prevails. But the non-verbal, intuitive right side has an equally valuable place, especially when it comes to imparting knowledge about our shared humanity. That’s an area where science often trails far behind.

I’d be interested to hear whether or not you think the experiences and insights I reveal in my TEDx talkFacing the past to liberate the future – need science to prove they are ‘real’?  

Related links:

The legacy of trauma: An emerging line of research is exploring how historical and cultural traumas affect survivors’ children for generations to come

Understanding and healing collective trauma – Thomas Hübl

Dr Gabor Maté: Transgenerational trauma, stressed environment and child’s diagnosis