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!
At the beginning of this series I said we would be trying to answer these questions:
- Why do some family members sail through hard times while others get stuck?
- Why does adversary cripple some people and give others heroic strength?
- How can different people from the same family remember things so differently?
In the previous entries I explained answers to the first two: How traumatic events impact us depends on our developmental age when they happen, our connections to other people, (which will matter more the younger we are), and our own natural resiliency.
To look at number three, we’re going to examine how things might have looked to Mattie Young. Mattie is the second oldest child in the Hines picture. Consider her place in the family story as we know it. Her two oldest sisters marry after their father dies and the loss of their income devastates the already poor family. Her next oldest sister (Mell) also married six months after the younger children were placed in the orphanage. Mattie stayed with her mother for another three years before marrying at seventeen. That’s three years as the only child in the home, left with a mother who was surely grieving and struggling with guilt. (There is some discussion that Catherine was forced to place the children in the home after the authorities saw Hines’s picture and the children lost their mill jobs. We will never know for certain but it’s safe to assume that it was a bitter act for Catherine.)
Mattie maintained a relationship to her mother all of her life and also seems to have had some contact with some of her other siblings.
If you asked Mary (the oldest of the children sent away, the one who never forgave her mother) about the children’s removal to the orphanage, you’d have one version. If you asked Mattie, I’m sure you would get another one. They’re both probably right. I’ve written before about truth and Truth, we have facts about the Young family but we don’t know what really happened.
June Jordan’s essay “On Listening: A Good Way to Hear” begins with the following:
If you want to know how somebody feels or thinks, ask him. If he can’t tell you in words you understand, ask someone else. Not anybody else, but somebody else. A relative of the man. A close friend. Somebody who seems to you very similar. And when you resort to these sources of information, qualify the value of your data: call it secondhand or worse.
If we want to know how Mary experienced her family, we have to ask Mary. If we want to know how Mattie did, we have to ask her. In families, we tend to think that how we experienced events is how they happened but siblings — even without the stark differences that Mary and Mattie had — have completely different perspectives.
Mattie is 14 in the picture; Mary is 11. We know this means they experienced things from different places developmentally. We can assume that they had at least some shades of differences in their temperament. And we know that what they experienced — their perspectives as well as the actual events — were very different.
Even if we looked at the two older girls Mattie and Mell (they were both 14 at the time of the picture although by the time the family split up Mell was 15) they would tell us different versions of the same event. Mell married soon after; Mattie stayed with her mom for another three years. What would they say about their lost siblings? What would they tell us about Catherine? Whatever they say, they would both be in some way right.
When you ask your family about traumatic events expect to hear differences. And, as June Jordan writes, qualify the value of your data. Understand that what you are learning is truth, not Truth. When you argue with another family member about what “really” happened, understand why we don’t always agree.
“You were always mom’s favorite!”
“No, I’m just the only one who didn’t walk away!”
“Dad was mean as a snake!”
“Only when he was drinking! I remember lots of times when he was good to us!”
In traumatized families the stakes are higher to own the narrative. One of us wants validation for our hurts, the other wants to deny that bad things happened. One of us is ready to move on, and one of us is still trying to make sense of the damage.
This is a good segue to how we’ll finish up; in the final post tomorrow, I’ll talk about how trauma shapes family culture across generations.
Look at that grinning girl on the right up there! That’s Eddie Lou Young, 8 years old, taken in the mill where she’d been working since her father died a little over a year before. Joe Manning, whose wonderful research inspired this series, didn’t track down the child on the left but it was Eddie Lou’s charismatic little face that led him to discover the Young family. It’s also what led me to click through to her story before I clicked on any of the others.
It’s her smile that illustrates another protecting factor in family trauma: temperament. Some of us are simply born with a more resilient temperament than others.
Temperament, as defined by researchers Stella Chess, Alexander Thomas and Herbert Birch, is made up of the building blocks of personality. We are all born with certain temperament traits. How we live out those traits (nature) will depend on our experiences (nurture). There’s some flexibility and adaptability in our responses but we all start with traits that influence how we experience the world and — importantly — how the world experiences us.
Some of us are naturally more negative (cautious, careful, looking out for potential problems) and some of us are more positive (open, careless, ready to take risks). In some circumstances having a more negative emotionality will keep you safe. (If you cheerfully assume that all the cars will stop for pedestrians, you may not be as diligent about looking both ways before crossing the street.) But when it comes to drawing people to us, positive emotionality is the way to go.
Babies and children have two ways to get people to meet their needs: crying and whining is one. The other is being so appealing that people want to take care of you. It’s not hard to guess which way Eddie Lou leaned.
In the pictures that Manning shares of an adult Eddie Lou she is always smiling. This is in stark contrast to her older brothers and sisters who kept the same serious — even dour — expressions as they aged. It’s no wonder then that her daughter-in-law says, “It’s my understanding that when Reese Parker [Eddie’s adoptive father] first saw her, he immediately fell in love with her. He could’ve adopted a boy, who could’ve helped on his farm, but instead, he chose Eddie Lou.”
That charm that got Manning’s attention and got my attention got Reese Parker’s, too. It got her out of the orphanage and into (by all accounts) loving home and it stayed with her for the rest of her life. Eddie Lou’s daughter-in-law describes her as “a very loving person” and “one of the happiest people I ever knew.”
Research tells us that resiliency is built out of three protective factors:
- Attachment and Relationships: Our connections to the people around us (and our ability to sustain those connections)
- Initiative: Our ability to identify our needs and take action to get them met
- Self Regulation: Our ability to express emotions in healthy ways
From what we can tell, Eddie Lou was naturally likeable. Her children describe her as being very involved in her church and in her community, which addresses not only the relationships but also her initiative. Finally the good cheer her family ascribes to her speaks to self regulation skills.
In other words, Eddie Lou hit the resiliency lottery.
If you are interested in learning more about stages of child development and trauma, I encourage you to read about the work of Dr. Bruce Perry and the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics. Perry’s research examines the way that traumatic events change brain development. Our experiences early in life actually shape our neural system; we adapt ourselves to the patterns with which we’re presented. From the time that we are born we depend on our social relationships to help us build our neural pathways.
Our first relationships — and that’s usually with our parents — prime our brains to expect more of whatever they give us. Babies are designed to elicit loving, responsive and connected relationships with their caregivers because this is how they grow best. If caregivers can’t give this, the baby’s brain structure will reflect it.
Our brains develop from the bottom (most primitive) to the top (most complex) so we can actually predict where the deficit will be in traumatized brains if we have a good trauma history laid against the trajectory of how brains grow.
Let’s go back to Mary and Elizabeth. We don’t know much about their earliest years so we’re going to have to do some guessing. Likely neither of them had an ideal infancy (the family was too poor and stressed for ideal) but it sounds as if Mary had more consistency of care than Elizabeth did. Grown up Mary has some good memories of the time before her father died and she did have older sisters so even if her mother was overwhelmed or unavailable, her sisters were there. On the other hand, Elizabeth’s father died when she was not even two. What did this mean for her caregiving relationships?
When you see a baby smile, your brain actually lights up and encourages you to reciprocate. That’s why you likely can’t help grinning back at an adorable 6-month old while you’re waiting in line at the grocery store. This is especially true if the baby belongs to you; we are most responsive to the babies that we spend time with and love. But if a caregiver is grieving then her ability to respond will be depressed, too.
Little Elizabeth likely did not get the same level of attention that her older sister Mary had. After their father died, the family was unhappy, perhaps less patient and more reactive, certainly less engaged in the emotional care of the second-youngest.
Remember, relationships are what very young brains rely on to learn about the world. If those relationships survive the trauma — if the caregivers are still able to spend time smiling back at the baby, responding to her cries, and helping her calm when agitated — she will have the fortitude to withstand the event. But if those relationships suffer — if the caregivers are too depressed to smile back, if they are too overwhelmed to pick her up when she cries, and if they are themselves too agitated to comfort her — her brain will bear the stamp of that dysregulation.
Let’s imagine that Elizabeth’s adoptive parents (she joined them at around age four) are loving, warm and tuned in caregivers. They smile back when she smiles, they offer hugs and cuddling, and they are quick to respond appropriately when she is upset. Why wouldn’t this have fixed things?
It’s because our brains lose flexibility as they get older; our neural pathways become more fixed. Elizabeth’s higher brain — the more complex brain — may continue to grow and allow her to seem more mature, but her limbic system — the more primitive part of her brain — will still reflect the chaos and disruption of her early years. She will act younger emotionally. She will be more prone to tantrums, more impulsive, and quicker to anger. She may also shut down and become closed off. This is because her early brain is still stuck in the fight, flight or freeze of her first traumas.
No wonder then that Elizabeth spends the rest of her life leaving; it was one of the very first lessons she learned.
The holidays bring a lot of this up for people because they’re seeing family of origin more or they’re confronting “what might have been” grief and loss. People find themselves revisiting difficult memories or trying to ignore intrusive thoughts about their self worth or worries. Plus with all of the running around and high expectations of this time of year, it can be even more difficult to stop and breathe or to take care of yourself.
But if you’re serious about breaking the chain, then a first step is letting go of how you think things ought to be and taking measure of the way things are. The holidays are a good time to take stock because it’s so out-sized that underground feelings tend to make themselves known.
People who grow up in chaos react to chaos in one of two ways: they either crave it and go towards it; or they shut down as soon as they see it coming. (Sometimes they have a little bit of both — the chaos feels lousy but it also feels familiar and we tend to be drawn to the things that feel familiar.) Notice when you’re inviting chaos in and notice how it affects you.
Are you over scheduling yourself because it feels somehow right to run yourself into the ground during the holidays? It might feel like your duty or like you have no choice. But is it good for you?
Self care isn’t selfish. For those who grew up in homes that were less nurturing than they ought to have been, self care is part of what’s going to break that chain. When you feel calm and cared for then you will have the capacity to be calm and care for other people.
So how do you start to do things differently?
- Acknowledge that this can be a difficult season because validating your own feelings is an essential part of healing.
- Say no to what you can say no to.
- Say yes only when you really want to say yes.
- If you have to power through a painful visit, schedule time with a loving friend after (even if it’s just a phone call or a quick check-in by text).
- Set boundaries and create breaks. Long visits can be broken up by running errands, walking the dog alone or otherwise giving yourself time away to regroup.
- Less is more during the holidays. We tend to get caught up in continuing traditions that may be more of a burden than a pleasure; it’s fine to take an easier way out. Don’t fret about doing elf on the shelf AND gingerbread houses AND caroling AND a white elephant exchange AND latkes for the neighborhood AND AND AND. More passive traditions are fine like using holiday glasses at dinner during the month or serving peppermint tea before bedtime.