Inherited Trauma and Coping with Trump

CN: description of suicide, addiction, intergenerational trauma

Obviously, I’m struggling to come to terms with the implications of Trump for our nation, especially the most vulnerable among us.

One of the ways I manage my anxiety is by working on my family tree. It is similar to working a jigsaw puzzle, but more conducive to working with cats nearby – ha. I’ve been plugging away since 1996 and have nearly 13,000 people in my tree. Honestly, it is genuinely fun to use the software, find the new information and integrate it into my larger tree.

But there’s more. It has also proven a useful tool to work through some of the horrible legacies of my extended family history. Growing up in a traumatic environment often creates this existential need to know ‘Why?’ – specifically, where did the abuse/alcohol use/violence start? I’m not immune to that curiosity, seeking to find a rationale to explain why our lives have been so fucking hard.

I don’t have a lot of specific explanations. A few such as this recent discovery of my great-great grandmother Sarah Campbell Rice (1871-1907) and the means of her death. Sarah was married at age 17 to John Rice. She was from Pittsburgh’s Northside, then Allegheny City. He was from the Hill District where they would set up house and have five children. There is virtually no record of their lives together that we’ve found. We didn’t even know their names until last month. And there’s a reason why their daughter, Jane Rice Remley, my great-grandmother probably never told us. In 1907, Sarah drank arsenic and died a few hours later in a neighbor’s house. Her daughter Jane was 14 years old.

sarahthe_pittsburgh_press_wed__jul_3__1907_

I’ve found Jane’s mother in the history books, but have not yet identified how or when she died. I don’t know the names of all of five children. I found Sarah’s death certificate which claims she was experiencing ‘temporary insanity’ when she died, but I don’t know if that means depression, anxiety, postpartum depression, grief over her mother or what. Her children spun out into the world with this unspoken tragedy as a primary determinant of their courses of action. Margaret married at age 16, then divorced, abandoning two families and dying alone of alcoholism. Arthur’s sign died in an industrial accident at age 30. John is lost to the ages. And my great-grandmother, Jane, was on a quest to leave the experiences of poverty in the Irish section of the Hill District long behind her, leading her to make her own morally dubious decisions for the sake of propriety.

What Jane probably never knew is that her second cousin, Rachel Carson, would become a great icon in this City. I don’t know if they even knew one another (they were related through the Rice family, not the Campbells), but irony can be a true bitch.

Sarah’s death was probably not the only terrible experience in their family, but it is reasonable to assume that her untimely death and the mode of death were traumatic and triggering experiences for her survivors. Her struggle with suicidal thoughts, temporary or not, were not isolated experiences in my family. Jane’s future mother-in-law would spend seven years in a psychiatric unit in the 1930’s. I can’t imagine that being remotely therapeutic. What’s more is the legacy of not talking about these things which also means not getting proper treatment or understanding that we are experiencing a genetically transferred disease.

But in most cases, there are no specific answers just enough generalized data to create some reasonable attempts to explain. Life was harsh, dirty, and dangerous. Things that we learn in school, such as large families losing some children at young ages, take on a new meaning when it is your great-great aunt losing six actual children who share your surname and not surviving to adulthood.

The ‘greatness’ of the American industrial workplace is tempered when you read death certificates of relatives killed in industrial accidents in the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Gory, horrible deaths of young men with even younger children at home. In the late 19th and early 20th century, this usually resulted in families ripped apart as children were sent to live with aunties, cousins, grandparents and whomever could care for them. My grandfather’s sister Ruth was five when their father died (he was a drunk and caught pneumonia stumbling home from a bar.) Ruth went to live with her father’s second cousin, Clara, and her husband who had no children of their own. They kept her and raised her as their own. But while she knew she was adopted, she didn’t know that she wasn’t really ‘given away’ at all – she was kept by her family and grew up knowing them, albeit in different relationships.

So we have this dual legacy of the actual genetic disorders such as alcoholism, mental illness, cancer, heart disease as well as the legacy of the silence and anxiety of keeping the secrets and maintaining appearances and pretending everything is okay. The trauma of the initial incident (or the ongoing incidents) doesn’t heal and carries forward. And what may seem like a private matter – the specific death by suicide of one woman in 1907 – is a shared reality with thousands if not tens of thousands of other people struggling to integrate a similar horrible experience into their lives as they move forward.

Trauma can be hereditary and create more barriers to treating the underlying source of the trauma. It is a horrible, vicious cycle. We inherit the trauma and anxiety.

What does this have to do with Trump?

He’s certainly the essence of an inherited trauma given his longevity as a national institutional disaster. But it is more than his personal reputation serving as a giant trigger for survivors like us. It is both what he represents (the excess of capitalism) and what he has revealed (the failures of neoliberalism) and our collective shudder as we face that of which we have no spoken for so many years.

Any expectation that we can fix this by fixing him is misplaced. It is similar to assuming that if an alcoholic stops drinking, that’s all that needs to happen to address the impact of the drinking. Granted, that is an important thing to happen. But children, spouses, parents and siblings also need support and a willingness to explore the causal factors as well as the dysfunctional coping mechanisms we all adapt to survive the environment.

We can and must wear the pink pussy knit hats, show up for the marches, make the calls and sit-in on the offices of the elected officials. We must read the articles and work hard on the mid-term elections. We must engage in the critical analysis.

We must rage and grieve and mourn. There’s no time limits on any of this. It is a process, but not an inherently linear process.

But what we can’t do is just pretend that the system isn’t broken and has been for a very long time. We have to more toward a solution rather than back to a state of denial. And while I still think electing Hillary Clinton as President would have left us with a healthier, more just and sane world, I am not short-sighted enough to think we just snap our fingers and fix things in the next election.

I hope you will continue to resist and stand up in defiance, but I urge you to remember that there are real victims of these tragedies whose lives are forever altered and who need support. Living in a new collective nightmare isn’t easy when your day-to-day life is defined by anxiety. When I start to think about it, I feel pretty terrified. It is tempting to run away.

With the decades of anxiety comes a learned resilience, but not easily and not always accessible. We have to keep talking about it.