In the light – or should I say pitch darkness – of the horrors and tragedies that have been unfolding in Afghanistan as the USA, UK and other countries withdraw, my recent visit to the National Army Museum in London felt strangely apposite. One of its current exhibitions – Foe to Friend: The British Army in Germany since 1945 – covers the final withdrawal of British troops from Germany in 2020. It traces Britain’s 75-year military presence there, first as occupiers and administrators of a destroyed country, then as reluctant but necessary Allies confronted with escalating Cold War tensions, and on to its current relationship as friends.
I can’t stop thinking about what is happening in Afghanistan. It feels beyond catastrophic, beyond imagination, but of course, I am in no position to comment. Except maybe to point out the contrast of our withdrawal from Germany, which passed effortlessly and without incident. Presumably that is the mark of an original mission reaching its intended positive conclusion and outcome, though I have to say I was surprised when I first learned that we even still had a presence there! A second exhibition in the foyer of the museum makes one realise, however, just how alive that period still is in many people’s lives.
Long Shadows of War has been created by the German photographer, Susanne Hakuba. Susanne lives in England and has been a friend ever since she invited me to participate in her brave and on-going examination of how the Third Reich still casts shadows on Germany, its people and her own life. Any person who is familiar with my blogs or talks will be all too aware of how much Germany has already done to deal with its Nazi heritage at a national and political level. But this exhibition shows how the personal level can be another story, quite literally.
Susanne’s haunting photographs, quotes and poems draw on the testaments of others to reveal the differing attitudes between three generations: those who witnessed the times, those who lived in their parent’s and grandparent’s trauma- or guilt-filled silences immediately after the war, and those who carried the heavy contents of that silence with its ensuing emotional absence without realising it.
The third generation – born in the sixties and seventies – have been gradually and carefully breaking through the silence to discover what lies behind familiar narratives that don’t quite add up. It’s no longer about uncovering the facts, many of which will never be known or knowable; it is more about the emotions attached to them. For it is these that coloured and flavoured most German childhoods, often leading to inexplicable symptoms, confusions about identity and self-destructive behaviours as they advanced towards adulthood.
This phenomenon is called inter- or transgenerational trauma. It describes the transmission of unresolved issues from one generation to the next; a form of emotional inheritance seeking resolution. I talk about it in my TEDx talk and it is widely acknowledged in Germany. For all sorts of reasons, however, we don’t know much about this in Britain. But seeing the interest visitors to the exhibition display, Susanne is hopeful – as am I – that her/our work can be a catalyst for people – of any nationality or history – to look at the gaps in their own family stories in order to discover what is lurking there unrecognised, unspoken but potent.
What is happening in Afghanistan will leave many people traumatised and many others guilty. The impact of both so often gets buried in silent withdrawal as people try to cope. But suppressed traumas and wrongdoings can lead to misery, dysfunction and, all too often, to devastating actions and crimes. I sincerely hope that growing coverage of this subject through exhibitions, talks, books and the media will raise our collective awareness of how important it is to acknowledge and treat trauma before it is allowed to fester and pollute the lives of generations to come. As Afghanistan will no doubt teach us, it is in everybody’s interests to do so.
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 byAbram 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 talk – Facing the past to liberate the future – need science to prove they are ‘real’?
The legacy of trauma: An emerging line of research is exploring how historical and cultural traumas affect survivors’ children for generations to come
The news that I had been selected to speak at TEDxStroud came on what can only be called a day from hell. It was August 2020. The brick gable end of my mother’s old garage had just collapsed in a storm leaving live electricity cables strewn across the driveway. She was unadvisedly trying to tidy them away while sinking into a diabetic low when we received the news that my brother-in-law’s father had died of Covid. In the flurry of activity and phone calls that followed, the email plopped into my inbox: CONGRATULATIONS! You are one of nine people selected from 84 applicants to deliver a TEDx talk on the theme of Emergence…
I had totally forgotten I had even applied and my heart simultaneously raced and sank as I realised this was another gauntlet I had to take up. TED is the mecca of public speaking platforms. The iconic red spot on the floor has hosted some of the world’s very best speakers and lured over 3,600 people with a good idea to share. There are strict criteria: No more than 18 minutes per talk. No selling or promotion of a product or business. No profit or pay to speakers or organisers… just a good idea that is worth spreading.
Over the following months, Covid threw curveballs at the original visions for a live event with an audience of 400, sending each one flying like skittles in an alley. Lockdown even forced a postponement from November’20 to March’21. The organising team were undeterred in their commitment. With each new restriction, they adapted, delivering changes of plan with supportive sensitivity and unwaning optimism. Meanwhile, we speakers met in Zoom rooms hosted by other talented volunteers where we would listen and feed back to each other while witnessing amorphous blobs of chosen subjects being honed to their essence. Not ‘just a minute‘ without ‘hesitation, deviation or repetition’ as on BBC Radio 4, but 18 minutes!
Sounds easy? It’s not. The techniques to memorise our talks ranged from falling asleep to a recording of your own voice droning its way into your memory, (nothing has ever sent me to sleep faster, all insomniacs click here if you’d like a copy!) to delivering it in a silly Texan accent. We had to practice talking to the barrel of a camera lens while smiling at some imaginary audience member sitting beyond it. We even had to choose proper clothes to wear as opposed to our baggy lockdown jumpers and leggings.
Kind friends tried to assuage the terror that gained momentum over the final two months until it clenched my chest in a vice and froze my brain. “But you speak so well… it’s no different from the talks you already give… you can do this with your eyes shut.” But a TEDx talk isn’t the same at all. It will be uploaded to YouTube and made available to a global audience… potentially forever. You have no slides or prompts to jog the memory. And what’s more, my ‘great’ Tedx idea isn’t an easy one to talk about, let alone sell as a ‘gift’! Because I am basically asking people to get really uncomfortable; to follow me on a journey that descends into the dark underbelly of human experience, where prisoners, Nazis, unspeakable atrocities or war experiences fester like wounds marinated in silence, pain and shame.
I sometimes feel I should apologise for bringing such things into the light of awareness. But I won’t, because the rewards are too great to ignore. And because it has become clear, not just to me but to neuroscientists, geneticists and psychologists, that we have to go there if we want to break the cycle by which toxic, unresolved past traumas and wrongdoings persistently disrupt the present. Now more than ever, it is important to recognise the link between the past and so many of today’s symptoms of violence, division, discrimination, inequality, addictions, injustices, racism…
It is not easy to face unacknowledged past harm, not least because it will have been buried for a reason, often a good reason such as protection or avoidance of pain. But I promise you, it is ultimately easier than schlepping it around with us, patching it up and handing it on to the next generation to deal with.
As I write my February blog, Sir Anthony Beevor, historian and bestselling author of epics such as “Berlin” and “Stalingrad”, is talking on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. I am humbled by his ongoing questioning of the facts in spite of his already huge achievements in bringing World War 2 to life in extraordinary detail. And I’m grateful for his admission of how hard it is to research this horrendous episode of history. His voice wobbles as he talks of reading the gruesome accounts of the rapes, murders and infinite human suffering. “We write to understand,” he says, emphasising the necessity for us to “learn the lessons of history”.
Last week a Chinese schoolboy approached me after my talk The other side: The Second World War through the eyes of an ordinary German family. Slightly trembling and in broken English he asked me if I had been frightened looking into my family’s past. In my talk I describe the journey I started 10 years ago, of peering deep into the darkest episode of modern history to discover what role my family, above all my German grandfather, a decorated Wehrmacht General, had played, or may have played. I knew the boy was asking this question for a personal reason, the shadows of his own family demons were almost visible, passing like clouds over his terrified face.
My grasp of Chinese history is woefully thin. I wracked my brains for atrocities or events that this boy’s family member(s) could have been involved in. Tiananmen Square in 1989 sprang to mind along with the general sense of horrors perpetrated by Chairman Mao’s regime. But actually it didn’t matter whether I knew the precise what, when, where and who of his story. What mattered was the impact it was having on his life.