as a man i carry this anger it is
untraceable yet i know my father taught it to me
with his blood with his stories he loved
all of us enough to teach us not to trust
even so his eyes have in them the dark well of mercy
this vine of flower is watered by fire and it is my life
~ Aaron A. Abeyta, from Why We Don’t Mention My Great-Grandfather’s Name
So far we’ve been talking about the ways that family members may experience trauma differently. This is to explain why your aunt and uncle might not agree with your dad about what went on when they were kids. And to help us understand why your mom might have handled things pretty well while her brother or sister have struggled. But what about those of us who grow up in traumatized families? How does this impact the way we experience the world?
There are, of course, different kinds of trauma. In generally healthy systems, a single traumatic event can be startling, even earth shattering, but if the system is resilient — if the connections are good, if the general outlook is positive, if there is open acceptance of feelings — the system will recover. But if the system is continuously traumatized, it will shape itself to the trauma. This is true for individuals, too.
Let’s look at the Youngs again.
Extreme poverty is traumatizing and the Young family was extremely poor even before their father died. From what we can tell, the family was generationally poor, which means the parents came to their relationship already stressed and already carrying some culture of trauma. That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t have done a good job (I want to be very clear that poor parents are not automatically inadequate parents) but it does mean that the loss of one of the main breadwinners taxed what was already an overtaxed system. Losing a parent is always traumatic but remember, in a resilient system people will have a tough time but they will heal. The Young system didn’t have room for resiliency.
So the father dies and the family moves, which is another stress, and they children (who likely were already working in the fields) move to the mill. Eddie Lou told her children that the area they moved to wasn’t very safe. “She talked about kids carrying knives and that kind of thing,” reports her son, Earl Parker. The mills, too, were unsafe. That was trauma.
Finally the biggest trauma of all, the disruption of the family. The Youngs lost more than half their children to the orphanage.
We know that these events impacted each Young differently but we can see that in each of their families, the legacy of this trauma was passed on in different ways. Traumatized families who have not dealt with the trauma have cultures that reflect these traits, which are often intertwined and feed each other:
Traumatized families keep secrets from outside but from each other, too. Several of the descendants Manning interviewed had only a vague idea of what happened to their parents and grandparents. Seaborn Young‘s granddaughter Claudie Suggs echoes many of the interviewees.
“We didn’t know anything about my grandfather’s childhood,” she says. “It will be interesting now to know how he grew up, and learn about his family and everything.”
Secrecy comes from the shame surrounding the traumatic events but it can also be a coping mechanism. Many people deal with trauma by not dealing with it. They change the subject or insist that those things are in the past and don’t need to be discussed. Family members who push for answers may be ostracized or otherwise punished for breaking the family code of secrecy.
People who have lived through unaddressed trauma are dysregulated especially if those traumatic events happened in their childhood. We’ve discussed how trauma actually changes developing brains and if that child does not receive trauma-informed support they will grow to be a dysregulated adult. Dysregulation looks like anger, irritability, fear, depression and anxiety.
Here is a very simplistic example of the way families pass on dysregulation. If a parent always startles when someone slams the door (because door slamming preceded a beating when they were a child) then their children will learn to startle when a door slams. The parent may not even realize they startle because the reaction is so ingrained in but they will pass it on to their children.
People who are continuously dysregulated may turn to alcohol or drugs or work or sex to self-medicate and this further traumatizes the family.
Many traumatized families isolate themselves because of shame or because of reasonable fear of what might happen if people learn about what’s really going on. Looking at the Youngs again, there are some children and grandchildren who were told that Catherine Young was forced to take her children to the orphanage when other people in their community became concerned about them. Sometimes it makes sense to distrust people outside of the family.
Traumatized families also become isolated because people in the community may shun them. Outsiders may blame family members for their trauma or feel concerned about their own family’s safety if they should become involved. Or there may be racism, xenophobia, classism or other prejudice at play.
In traumatized families there isn’t enough of something — money, time, safety, attention, love — and they pass that sense of scarcity on. It’s like those grandparents who saved every rubber band because they grew up in the depression. To grow up with lack is to grow up afraid and sometimes suspicious. Are there not enough rubber bands in the world? Or are there just not enough rubber bands for me?
The scarcity in traumatized families shows up in arguments when people are fighting about mundane things like who’s hosting for the holidays and who’s going to inherit grandpa’s cuff links. It’s not about holidays or cuff links, it’s about there not being enough to go around. In healthy families this kind of conflict is low grade; in traumatized families it can destroy entire relationships.
In the This American Life episode Duty Calls younger brother David, who grew up in an alcoholic family beset by violence, makes the point that the people who were a part of his life helped perpetuate the dysfunctional family culture:
At that age when you’re going through all that you know it’s not right so you try to act like your life isn’t bad. You try to act like your life is normal. You hide that away from the rest of the world. I was scared to have friends of mine over to sleep at the house because the average kid is going to be freaked out. … The kids who do end up coming over and become regulars, they’re the ones who are just as f*cked up as you.
This normalization can make it incredibly hard for other family members to break out for two reasons. The first is that we cannot become the things we cannot imagine. Remember that one of the traits of resiliency is initiative. In order to initiate change, we have to believe that things can change. We have to see another way to be. When I talk to individuals who have successfully broken away from the traumatized norms in their family, they talk about how they knew things could be different from visiting other families or reading books or watching television shows and realizing that not everyone lived that way.
The second way that normalization keeps families trapped is that to reject the family culture is in some way to reject the family. Which leads us to the next lesson learned.
In traumatized families all of these cultural lessons get meshed into codependency masked as loyalty. In healthy families, loyalty is earned through care and attention. In traumatized families, loyalty is coerced. Families shaped by trauma tend to be all or nothing; you are either inside the circle or out. If you are unmasking or telling family secrets, that is a betrayal. If you are looking outside the family for support or information, that is betrayal. If you are speaking out against ingrained family behaviors, that is betrayal.
In Mary’s family, we can see this play out in the way that her daughters won’t hear her speak against her mother. It is a trauma that perpetuates itself. Catherine’s act is the central trauma on which Mary focuses her life but speaking out against that trauma goes against the family code of loyalty, learned from Mary herself. (Remember, she’s the one who keeps the family together as a reaction to her mother’s need to send her children away.)
Breaking away from the culture of trauma often means losing access to the family itself. The cost of interrupting the cycle is very high.
I’ve enjoyed writing about the Young family and appreciate you coming along with me. I’ve touched very lightly on some very big topics so if there are questions or thoughts you have, feel free to share them in the comments or contact me. I will answer on blog if I can (I’ll keep your questions or thoughts anonymous and won’t quote anything personal if you share something). Thank you for reading!
The other day I talked to Harriet Brown, author of Brave Girl Eating and Body of Truth. She’s working on another book project about estrangement and reconciliation. Here was her call for participation on Facebook:
For my next book, I’m looking to talk with people who have been estranged from family members or are currently estranged. The book is about family estrangements and reconciliations. Please pass the word! Message me for more info.
(If you would like to be interviewed by her, you can contact her via her website.) It was timely for me because I’d been thinking about my last blog post in the context of support clients in setting compassionate boundaries with family, which is oh so much harder than setting them with friends.
We tend to give our family a lot more leeway because, well, because they’re family and we privilege those ties above all others. We have a lot of cultural stories about the importance of family: Family is where you’re supposed to find unconditional love and acceptance. Family is where you’re supposed to find people who know you best and love you anyway. Family is meant to be the people who are always rooting for you.
That’s the ideal but most of us have to make compromises in our expectations.
All of us need to grow up and step away from our families in practical ways (by moving out) and in emotional ways (by choosing our own values and goals). In healthy families this may be painful but it’s supported. Healthy families want you to be your best self — even when it doesn’t jive with their own idea of best self-ness. Healthy families may grumble about the things you do differently (“But we always have turkey on Thanksgiving!”) but will accept your choice anyway (“Oh well, pass the tofurkey. I’m game to try it!”).
In unhealthy families the adult child’s growth and move away from their family of origin is seen as threatening. If the adult child is serving toforkey, the threatened parent might project a whole lot of critical meaning on it. “Are you saying I’m an unhealthy cook?” “Are you saying you’re too good for your grandmother’s roast turkey recipe?” And because it’s family, it’s somehow OK to say that out loud. A parent who would never complain at a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner table might think nothing of criticizing their adult child.
The adult child, who might have few issues with setting boundaries with such a rude friend, is stuck wondering what to do. They might start an argument. They might internalize the criticism and feel bad about themselves (“Maybe I am a big snob, maybe I am unreasonable, maybe my values are dumb”). They might avoid the discussion and be resigned to having a lousy Thanksgiving every year.
Many adult children twist themselves into knots to try to accommodate the dysfunctional parents’ demands and struggle with anxiety and depression as a result. It’s hard to love yourself when the person who’s supposed to love you best is so critical (or cruel).
When clients come to my office with dilemmas like this and ask me what to do, I say, “What do you want to do?” Because we can’t control how our family reacts to our decisions but we can control our decisions. The long hard work of healing from harsh parents starts with figuring out what we want separate from our unrealistic expectations. We can bring our best selves to our decision-making and then we can let go of the outcome.
Letting go of the outcome starts with confronting and grieving the ideal we’ve been hoping for. In the video below (go ahead and scroll down to watch if you have 15ish minutes), brother Phil has a wonderful, full and accomplished life away from his family. He’s an award-winning journalist with best-selling books and big deal magazine covers but his family has nothing but criticism because his accomplishments separate him from them. Instead of celebrating with him they ignore him, tell him he doesn’t look good, and advise him to consider a career change. If Phil has been holding on to hope that winning the Nobel prize is finally going to get him the love and acceptance he craves, he’s going to leave the house feeling pretty low. But if he’s worked to recognize family patterns and realized that his family’s reaction is theirs, he may still grieve that his family is not supportive but he won’t internalize their negativity towards his accomplishments.
Instead of thinking to himself, “What’s wrong with me that my mom doesn’t love me like I want her to?” He can think, “My mom is incapable of loving me the way I want her to, this is not my fault and I get to choose how much time I spend with her.”
Sometimes in our work together, when we start talking about families of origin like this, clients will feel like they’re betraying their parents or siblings by being critical so please understand that this is not about bad mouthing our relatives. I believe both that most of us are doing the absolutely best we can (compassion) and that good intentions don’t negate toxicity.
Our families may love us the only way they know how, but that doesn’t mean that we are required to ignore the hurt they cause us.
For some people setting boundaries means estrangement. It means visiting less or not visiting at all. It means Thanksgiving at the vegetarian co-op instead of with our family. It means making decisions designed to support your own needs instead of trying to do things to make other people happy.
These are things I didn’t know about food or cooking until I was an adult:
- I didn’t know that you didn’t need a box of Jell-O instant pudding to make pudding.
- I didn’t know you could make pancakes without Bisquick.
- I didn’t know the difference between butter and margarine.
- I didn’t know that American Cheese slices were not actually cheese.
- I didn’t know the difference between Non-Dairy Creamer and cream. (Seriously — I must not have read that “Non-Dairy” part too closely.)
- I also didn’t know the difference between whipped cream and Cool Whip.
- I didn’t know that you could make salad dressing without an envelope of pre-mixed spices.
- I didn’t know there was any kind of lettuce besides iceberg.
- I was eleven before I found out you could make cocoa without Swiss Miss (my mom shocked me by making it right on the stove with a wooden spoon and a tin of Hershey’s cocoa).
- I was thirteen before I knew you could cook a hot dog by boiling it instead of putting it in the microwave.
- I was fourteen before I knew you could make mashed potatoes out of potatoes instead of out of a box. (We loved the lumps and embarrassed our stepmother by going on and on about them.)
- I was fifteen before I knew you could make a grilled cheese sandwich from actual cheddar cheese. (And my boyfriend impressed me even more by making it on homemade bread and even added sprouts.)
Sometimes I think about this as a very clear metaphor for the baggage we haul around from our family of origin. Some of it is good stuff, some of it is bad stuff and some of it is just plain wrong stuff. Fortunately you can start to correct the bad stuff just by being out in the world and being open to noticing new things.
I’ll admit that I was a 23 years old before I learned the difference between whipped cream and Cool Whip. Doubly embarrassing since I’d spent a couple of years working the retail counter at Katzinger’s, where knowing about food was part of the job description. But we never used whipped cream there that I can remember so when my co-worker asked me to go grab some for the strawberry shortcake she was bringing to our lunch potluck I headed to the frozen food aisle. Meeting up at the check out line she gasped at my blunder and marched me back to the dairy aisle to grab a spray can. (Later I learned to make whipped cream myself with an ice cold mixing bowl. Miracle of miracles!)
As time went on, I learned to pick and choose from the things I learned from my family and the things I learned as I went along. I only made homemade pudding once — the results were good but not worth my boredom stirring over the stove. But I never use margarine. My kids like their grilled cheese made with “Grandma Cheese,” so-called because I kept our ‘fridge stocked with actual cheddar until they discovered those creamy individual slices at my mom’s house and insisted on putting them on the shopping list. We don’t have a microwave and I never make mashed potatoes out of a box but I do use Bisquick to make these particular chocolate chip cookies my kids love and my husband likes to mix Hazelnut Non-Dairy Creamer with his half-and-half in his morning coffee.
We pick and choose. We learn things, we discard things, we pick new things up and we keep some old things close.
I’ve written before about how change can feel like betrayal to friends and family. What happens is that sometimes it feels so scary that they drag you back and you find yourself in that same rut you’ve been trying so hard to leave. They like you there because having you there is familiar, it makes sense to them. If you change then they have to change (or at the very least change their ideas about you). And they didn’t sign up for that; they don’t necessarily want to change.
Sometimes their need for sameness will be so great that they will refuse to see that you are different.
Let’s say that when you were a little kid you hated birthday parties. Maybe you were shy and hated being the center of attention while everyone sang you happy birthday. Or say you’ve never liked frosting and dreaded the inevitable first bite of birthday cake. I don’t know but let’s just say that’s how it is — you didn’t like birthdays parties.
That became your thing as you grew up. That’s what your friends and relatives would say about you.
“Now that one over there?” they’d say, jerking their thumbs your way. “That one hates birthday parties.”
They would tell all the stories of you sitting in a corner scowling while everyone else made a fuss about presents. They’d pull out pictures that would show you wailing over the birthday cake your grandmother made, even though she’d hand drawn a beautiful frosting design showcasing your favorite characters from Sesame Street across the top.
The more they said it, the more you believed it. Besides there’s proof in everyone’s stories and in all of the photo albums; you are a person who hates birthday parties.
Only one day you start figuring out that it’s all more complicated. Perhaps you went to a birthday party where there was no singing and everyone made their own sundaes. You thought to yourself, “That’s not so bad, that’s pretty good. Maybe I don’t hate birthday parties — maybe I just don’t like getting sung at and eating frosting.”
So you go back and tell your friends and family, “Hey, I’m throwing myself a birthday party this year! Do you want to come?”
And they scoff, “You? You, hater of all birthday parties? You who threw up all over my birthday party when I was eight because we generously gave you a corner piece of cake with a big blue rose on it?”
“Well, yeah,” you say. “I hate frosting but I love birthday parties.”
“No, you don’t. You hate them.”
“Turns out I love them when they get thrown a certain way.”
“Oh so now you’re criticizing the way we throw parties? Now it’s our problem? And now you expect us to accommodate all your new fangled ideas about sundae bars when you know that in our family we eat cake! See, that’s you all over again — ruining birthdays for other people because you hate parties!”
At this point you might start feeling a little crazy. Are they right? Are you fooling yourself? Do you owe it to people to continue on your birthday party-less way because you’ve been such a trial to them throughout your life?
See, there’s a birthday-party-hater slot in their lives and you’ve been filling it for however many years. If you don’t fill it, it means they have to change and while some people can handle change pretty well (perhaps your Aunt Leonie and your best friend from fifth grade handle your new-found love of birthday parties with equanimity) everyone else might freak out.
This can be because
1) they don’t want to think critically about their own creation of your birthday party myth (your grandmother might not want to feel guilty about that Sesame Street cake); or
2) because they need you to fill that slot to avoid their own birthday party hatred (it might be that your little sister hates frosting, too, but needs you to stand in for her so she doesn’t have to suffer the consequences); or
3) they like the story they’ve been telling themselves and don’t want to stop telling it.
You can’t know, really, why they don’t want to let you out of the rut you’ve been in but every time you try to climb out, they push you back in. You throw yourself the party, you invite them all and they stand around and smile sympathetically at you, “Look at you trying to pretend you’re enjoying yourself!”
“But I am,” you say. “This Goat Cheese with Red Cherries ice cream from Jeni’s is to die for.”
“Sure,” they say, nodding and winking at you. “Sure thing.”
Because sometimes that’s how it is.
That leaves you with three choices:
- To sigh and let yourself get pushed back into the rut and give up on birthday parties.
- To argue with them until it becomes a big old thing and you’re all crying with frustration.
- To go on with your bad birthday party loving self anyway and not worry so much about how other people take the Brand New You.
There is a reason there’s a whole genre of television and movies about how you can’t go home again and it’s about growth and change and figuring out how to be the person you’ve become when the people who have been part of your life from the beginning can only see how you were. It’s painful for everybody and certainly for the person trying to grow into something different.
Change is hard but it’s worth it. There are birthday parties out there just waiting for you to show up.
And here’s Whitney Houston’s live cover of “I Am Changing” from Dreamgirls.
The parental voice, it’s like the voice of God. It spoke to us with such power when we were small and so we carry it with us for good or for bad.
“Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” And we learn that our sadness is not true sadness.
“How can you be hungry? You just ate dinner!” And we learn that we can’t trust our own appetites.
“Come on now, Santa’s not scary; sit on his lap and tell him what you want for Christmas!” And we learn that we can’t believe our instinctive fear.
“You do not know yourself as well as I know you!” That’s what those things say to children. That’s what was said to many of us and so we don’t know. We don’t believe ourselves. We try not to cry because our problems are not worthy of our sorrow. We eat when the clock — not our bodies — say. We ignore that sinking feeling that something is very wrong and stay with the person who hurts us.
We parents, we sometimes have a hard time remembering that our children are fully their own people. It’s understandable because for such a very long time they do seem to be completely of us. The infants we carry, the babies we know, the toddlers who need tucked in to sleep even though they want to keep running — no wonder we have a hard time believing them when they insist that they’re full or that they are truly afraid of the bathtub drain. We know them best; we knew them before they knew themselves and those first breaks away are painful and hard.
It takes practice to separate on both sides. It takes practice to say, “I end here and there you begin.” We’ll make mistakes and insist on coats when they don’t want them and buy them gifts they don’t like because we’ve read them wrong. Generally, if there’s love and respect and (importantly) a willingness to acknowledge that we may be wrong our children will thrive in spite of those mistakes. But when we insist, when we tell them that our filters have to rule their worlds, we do real harm.
Some of us do that harm because harm was done to us. We grew up believing that we could not know anything because we were so small. We believe that our parents ignored our wants, wishes and needs for our own good. We repeat the damage because confronting our own losses is just too hard. To acknowledge that our children are separate if we were not allowed to be is to confront the loss of the self-awareness we were denied.
This is one reason parenting is so dang hard. We’re not just parenting our children; we are re-parenting ourselves.