You are on page 1of 7

We may have no choice in having the events and traumas experienced by our

ancestors visited upon us in our own lifetime: Eva Hoffmans Lost in


Ann Ancelyne Schutzenberger, a leading figure in transgenerational psychoanalysis,
summarizes her research findings by claiming that as mere links in a chain of generations we
may have no choice in having the events and traumas experienced by our ancestors visited
upon us in our own lifetime (202). She argues that traumatic events of the past that have
been left unprocessed tend to resurface again in the present. A distant family member may re-
enact the trauma, mostly in different guises and modes, around the same time as the traumatic
event. She adds that the syndrome could [] manifest itself through a link in dates or
periods, so that particular symptoms such as nightmares or panic attacks will occur or begin in
the same month as the original trauma sustained by an ancestor (Health and Death 284).
In her compelling work The Ancestor Syndrome: Transgenerational Psychotherapy
and Hidden Links in the Family Tree Schutzenberger documents many cases from her own
practice in support of the argument that unprocessed past events find ways of manifesting
themselves in subsequent generations. One of these cases is about a woman comes to therapy
because her daughter repeatedly suffered from nightmares and had asthma attacks. This
condition set in right after she was born. Schutzenberger asks the woman to provide her with
detailed information about the family history and produce a family tree testifying to traumatic
happenings over many generations. In therapy she realizes that her daughter was born on
April 26, the same date around which the Germans attacked France, and used poison gas for
the first time. After doing some research into the family history, she finds out that one of her
ancestors lived near Ypres where the Germans attacked the French on April 26. As there
seemed to be a connective link between the birth of her daughter and the attack,
Schutzenberger then asks the child to produce a drawing of her nightmares. When the child
arrives in therapy, holding the drawing in her hand, she explains, This is a drivers mask with
an elephants trunk on it. This is the monster which tortured me every night (Ulsamer 50).
This example is worth concentrating on for a moment. The dream of the daughter
contains an imagea drivers mask with an elephants trunkthat stands in communication
with a family trauma. The clients grandfathers brother was gassed at Ypres. Her own great-
grandfather was wounded at Verdun in 1916. The last attack on Ypres happened on April 26,
her daughters birth date. This example, which is quite striking in its narrative elements as it
conveys a series of accidental features that almost seem beyond credibility, suggests,
nevertheless, that the phenomenon of transgenerational haunting can manifest itself by means
of seemingly random dates, names, and places.
Marianne Hirsch (The Generation of Postmemory) confirms the assumption that
traumatic events can bring forth memories that clearly testify to earlier happenings. It is
possible that offspring of trauma survivors or what she calls postgeneration or hinge
generation may experience with varying degree of severity the effects of traumatisation even
though the initial event occurred generations earlier (Hirsch 103). Hirsch writes,

Postmemory describes the relationship that the generation after those
who witnessed cultural or collective trauma bears to the experience
of those who came before, experiences that they remember only
by beans of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they
grew up. But these experiences were transmitted to them so deeply
and affectively as to seem to constitute memories in their own right.
Postmemorys connection to the past is thus not actually mediated
by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation. (106/107)
Her work on Holocaust survivors reveals that photography oftentimes serves to commemorate
traumatizing events and, as such, constitute a chief linker by which, in the midst of family
members, these memories are kept alive and passed on. What the work on secondary or
vicarious traumatisation has brought forth is that distant offspring may be vulnerable to the
effects that traumas have caused in the first place and generate, in their own right, symptoms
that are either directly or associatively connected with these events. If the assumption proves
correct that traumatic events can resurface again, thereby curbing the chronology of events in
drastic ways, as Schutzenberger's research has shown, the notion of what an human being is,
and what allows for the creation of self must be subjected to substantial revisionism.
Eva Hoffmanns autobiography Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language is a
wonderful literary and historical document, which recounts, from the perspective of the
narrator, the story of her family over some decades. In 1958 they emigrate from Cracow to
Vancouver where they start a new life. Like Richard Rodriguez, for example, who, as the son
of Mexican immigrants to the United States, learns a new language and excels at school, or
Nathalie Sarraute, who leaves Russia with her father and appropriates French as her new
language, Hoffman, too, gradually works her way up the academic ladder, attending the best
colleges in the country, before she receives her doctorate in English. The rest of the narrative
is a kind of Bildungsroman taking the reader, chronologically, to different places and
offering insights into the personal world of the narrator: her first love affair, her talent for
music, her work in New York. That's all there is to it, it seems, if there were not this latent
feeling of unease flaring up, a kind of undercurrent of meaning, as if some events had not
been fully disclosed.
In fact, it is not the explicitly narrated events which make this autobiography so
appealing. Rather, from the perspective of transgenerational studies, the reader gets
acquainted with some narrative episodes, en passant, which precede the text and thus lie
outside the boundaries within which the narrative is cast, that are of particular interest.
Precisely because the silence that enshrouds these episodes creates in its absence of explicit
information a vital source for creative reshaping in the form of rewriting, rethinking, and
reacting that this narrative has much appeal. Hoffman explains,
[S]ometimes, I think of him and Zofia and myself, and others likes us
I know as part of the same storythe story of children who came from
the war, and who couldnt make sufficient sense of several worlds they
grew up in, and didnt know by what lights to act. I think, sometimes, we
were children too overshadowed by our parents stories, and without
enough sympathy for ourselves, for the serious dilemmas of our own lives,
and how thereby couldnt live up to our parents desireamazing in its
strengthto create new life and to bestow on us a new world. (230)
In this passage Hoffman describes the impact of war on herself, her relatives and
friends with much poise, sensing, however, that something had gone amiss in her world,
anticipating what she later interprets as a world that returns all my sense of loss like a sudden
punch in the stomach (92). What emerges from these lines is a profound sense of alienation
and dislocation from one world to another affective, bodily and psychicwhere words go
beyond the descriptive power they hold. In fact, the reader never finds out what the parents
have experienced, but can only conjecture by the enumeration of fragmentary episodes what
the past might have looked like when they escaped to Ukraine to hide out. It is precisely this
openness of narratable logic that imposes a profound incertitude about what had actually
happened before the narrative sets in. Not being able to make sufficient sense of the worldis
a key statement in the narrative because it recaptures the conditions under which Hoffman
grew up; a condition which can be best characterized as absence of explicit meaning in the
aftermath of trauma.
Citing Nicolas Abraham, Schutzenberger recounts the story of a man who knew
nothing about his grandfather. In his pastime he loved chasing butterflies and collecting
stones. As a geologist, this leisurely activity was nothing out of the ordinary. This man sought
professional help. Abraham suggested exploring the family history and identifying hidden
links by going back several generations. The patient then found out that he had a
grandfatherhis mothers fatherwhom nobody had ever mentioned. After seeing the
grandfathers family, he learned that this grandfather had purportedly done shameful things
(bank robbery) and was sentenced to forced labor, to break rocks (casser les cailloux); a
term for forced labor in French. The grandfather was then executed in the gas chamber. The
non-figurable fate of the grandfather comes into view at the moment it transposes the very
dislocation it has brought forth into the life of a distant offspring. Schutzenberger, quoting
Abraham, writes, What does our man do on weekends? A lover of geology, he breaks
rocks, and catches butterflies and proceeds to kill them in a can of cyanide (47). Precisely
because the traumatic disappearance of the grandfather has been left unprocessed, hushed up,
as it were, it resurfaces in modes that are not causally, but associatively, bound to the initial
event, whereby it transposes itself into the present in modes not immediately recognizable.
Who would believe that the geologists pastime and his grandfathers death would be
associated with each other?
The non-figurable fate of Hoffmans father, who experienced massive dislocation and
the danger of extermination, comes into view precisely because the narrative goes beyond
what is explicitly narrated and creates an organizing principle that lies outside its textual
confines. The power of this organizing principle can be gleaned from the following example.
Hoffman writes, Everyonethis is common wisdomis involved in an illicit activity of
some kind (15). What kind of illicit activity it was remains an open question, and whether
this illicit activity is associated with survival strategies is not answered either. Howe ever, if
this illicit activity served to ward off personal danger in the face of terror because it allowed
her father to survive, then, this seemingly insignificant phrase draws on a subtext the content
of which is too traumatic to be broached. Hoffman brings the non-figurable into view by
recreating a glaring absence of explicitness in an elegantly crafted narrative and making it part
of its very structure. I come from the war. It is my true origin. But as with all our origins, I
cannot grasp it. Perhaps we never know where we come from; in a way we are all created ex
nihilo (23), she adds, yet this origin lies beyond what she knows or has experienced herself.
The absence of explicitness is also what causes the transmission of transgenerational
haunting to operate in the first place. Serge Tisseron argues that children who are exposed to
traumatic events through indirect or secondary exposure relate to what he calls une vacuole
(a psychic inclusion) of anxiety-provoking and incomplete fragments (127). The parent
becomes the mediating link through which the traumatic experience is kept alive or
reactivated. Tisseron suggests that the presence of anxiety-provoking fragments makes it
impossible for the child to fully symbolize what has factually happened. The parents most
often refuse to talk about a traumatic event, yet, as studies about family secrets have shown
(Bradshaw), these events do not lose potency even if or just because they are silenced and
hushed up. While an earlier generation fails to assimilate the trauma, the next generation will
take up on it and try to assimilate it by generating fantasy scenarios of what might have
happened earlier. Hoffman writes, And as I listen, I lower my head in acknowledgement that
thisthe pain of thisis where I come from, and thats useless to get away (25). The silence
which is cast over the war is significant precisely because it is potent enough to create room
for the emergence of scenarios that fit what the protagonist has heard or assumed to be true.
It would be erroneous to assume that Eva Hoffmanns narrative details the
transmission of traumatic happenings over several generations. She only provides allusions to
horrific events, as mentioned earlier, that remain outside the textual boundaries. The
organizing principle outside these confines comes close to transgenerational haunting. When
Hoffman is born the idea of inheriting something which she has not experienced first hand
comes about when her parents give her a name, Ewa Alfreda, which is clearly indebted to and
marked by people of an earlier generation. She is named after her grandmothers, of whom,
Hoffman says, I have only the dimmest memories (16), but, who, most likely, died in the
concentration camps. The daughter thus starts life by inheriting a legacy which is too
burdensome to carry and too difficult to integrate in life. Her activate a wishful thinking so as
to commemorate the loss of close and dear family members.
Hoffman perpetuates the legacy of significant relatives of an earlier generation to
whom she is bound by her first name. Christian Flavigny ascribes the choice of first names
particular power. Through the identifying referent (rfrent identitaire) the child is
irrevocably marked with a reference, phantasmal and/or mythic (120), to something that has
occurred in the past. The name given to a child represents the name previously given to other
family members and contains in it the echoes of a stranger. This stranger remains connected
with a distant offspring through the first name they share. The name thus functions like a
seal (121), Flavigny asserts. Although the reader does not find out precisely what happened
to these women, it can be gleaned from the authors own remark (my parents honored the
dead) that they must have died during or shortly after the war.
To make matters more complicated, Hoffman adds that her father out of an excess of
happiness mistakes herself, the first born, for a son. The question arises who is who, and
what do the ones who are named actually represent? Would it be fair to speculate, along the
same theoretical lines, that through wishful thinking on her fathers behalf the daughter
represents another family membera brother, a father, or an uncle?whose absence and loss
have furrowed the psyche of the survivors so as to commemorate them at unexpected
moments? Again the text remains silent. What the reader is left with is a feeling of unease and
disquiet because the text in its richly layered fabrics of allusions clearly moves beyond that
which is explicitly narrated. What other family members died, and how they died can only be
reconfigured speculatively by means of allusions, first names, and historical events. It seems
highly probable; however, that the father had lost close family members whose absence
fundamentally altered the fabrics of his family history.
Although her stay in Canada and success in the United States as a scholar are highly
fascinating, paralleling narratives, such as Agate Nesaules A Woman in Amber: Healing the
Trauma of War and Exile or Loung Ungs First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of
Cambodia Remembers, making apparent that Hoffman has found a new identity, it is the
sparsely articulated war stories, the events that preceded the narrative, which gives it a
richness that comes from afar, sustained by the dead to which this autobiography is dedicated.
The lack of explicit information constitutes this undercurrent of meaning which subtends the
narrative, imposing through its subsidiary structure a kind of reading that makes an opening
into the outside from which place the narrative is secretly organized. This kind of subsidiary
structure has a framing function and parallels, in many regards, the transmission of
transgenerational mandates that may surface to haunt the living. Hoffman wonders, How will
I ever pin down the reality of what happened to my parents (23), the forces of which are
beyond her control.

Works Cited

Flavigny, Christian. Le Prnom comme illustration de la Transmission psychique.
Filiations Psychiques. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2000.115-121.
Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory. Poetics Today 29.1 (Spring 2008):
Hoffman, Eva. Lost In Translation: A Life In a New Language. New York: Penguin, 1990.
Tisseron, Serge. Le Chien et le Parapluie. Les Processus de Symbolisation entre les
Gnrations. Filitations Psychiques. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2000.
Schtzenberger, Anne Ancelin. The Ancestor Syndrome: Transgenerational
Psychotherpay and the Hidden Links in the Family Tree. Trans. Anne Trager.
London, New York: Routledge, 1998.
. Health and Death: The Hidden Links Through the Family Tree. Psychodrama with
Trauma Survivors: Acting Out Your Pain. Eds. M. K. Hudgins and Peter Felix
Kellermann. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1988. 283-299.
Ulsamer, Bertold. The Healing Power of the Past: A New Approach to Healing Family
Wounds: The Systemic Therapy of Bert Hellinger. Nevada City, CA: Underwood
Books, 2005.