Sunday 23 September 2012

Second-generation trauma, by Leslie Wilson

mural at Savignyplatz S-bahn station, Berlin.
Photo: David Wilson
When I was a child, in the Fifties and early Sixties, industry still used sirens - maybe they were even old air-raid sirens, because it would have been a shame to waste them. They sounded like air-raid sirens to me, and every time the siren went at the quarry on the other side of Kendal, I would be completely terrified. My heart would race and I'd listen anxiously to hear if there were any planes coming.

My mother, my brother, and me, 50s

Years later, when I was researching Nazi Germany, I discovered that the people who lived through the war and endured air-raids, blocking out their terror, often began to relive it years later, going through post-traumatic stress disorder. I mentioned this to my mother who said, quite casually. 'Oh, yes. I went through that when I was expecting you.'

Recently, research has been done into the offspring of mothers who have lived in war zones when they were pregnant, or went through trauma, such as 9/11, and it has been found that the children have raised cortisol levels. I think I've got the terminology right. They go through life with that extra level of stress, and this isn't completely pointless and stupid, because if you're an animal living under stressful circumstances, it’s not a bad idea to have offspring whose reactions are a bit quicker and can get themselves out of nasty situations.

In any case, I can imagine that if, every time my mother heard a siren, or fireworks, or thunder, her heart rate sped up, thus constricting the oxygen flow to me, I would learn to be afraid of the same sounds - and I do still find fireworks an unpleasant noise, though I've learned to tolerate them, and also not to be afraid of thunder.

I used to hear my grandmother talking about her family, who were expelled from their homes in Silesia 'in the snow, just with the things they stood up in,' or talking - endlessly, my brother, who was older at the time, tells me - about the Nazis and concentration camps, and about what my grandfather went through when he was persecuted for being a leftist in 1933, and about her own fear of being 'picked out' for looking Jewish (she had auburn hair). What I took in was fear, dread, shuddering, associated with certain names. 'Hitler' was the chief of these, because my grandmother - not unreasonably - believed he was Antichrist, something that wasn't a healthy thing to believe during the Third Reich, especially not if you screamed it aloud, as she did, when you were taken into psychiatric hospital because you had a nervous breakdown. I knew Hitler was dreadfully evil before I ever knew the details of what he had done.
When I was somewhere between eight and ten - it's hard to remember the exact age things happened in childhood - my mother started to talk about the time the Russians captured her. She was a teenager in Austria, and they wanted to rape her. She managed to get away and escape the soldiers' pursuit, but was too terrified to go back to Graz, so she escaped into the mountains - this was in April - where she had virtually nothing to eat - she was eating tree-bark - and finally came down into Carinthia, where she collapsed on the first road she came to, was picked up by a British Army patrol, and taken to hospital in Velden. If she hadn't got so far, she would very likely have died up there, and maybe nobody would ever have known what had become of her.

She talked to me about these things, because she had nobody else to talk to, and I tried as best I could to comfort her. She told me about children as young as twelve being raped to death by Russian soldiers (I used to lie awake, brooding on those raped children) and how, when the Russian officer shut her into the room where he intended to have first go, she could hear a woman screaming upstairs, and knew what was happening to her.

But my mother would always end by assuring me that my brother and I were secure - that was the word she used. In my childhood, there was the Atom Bomb and the Cuban missile crisis, but I didn't live in a war zone. Very true. Later, too, when I began to want to write about Nazi Germany, she was angry with me, saying none of this was anything to do with me. Other people have asked me why I write about these things, and the same implication is there, that it was not my issue, because I was born in England with an English father, and didn't experience it.

Of course, fiction would be pretty impoverished if we all only wrote about what we've experienced, as my co-authors in this blog and their many readers know well. But actually, I did feel as if I had experienced these things, and the research and reading I have done, as well as the fiction grounded in that research, are the result of a deep compulsion to give a shape to inchoate horrors in my own psyche, to find out what these internalised terrors represented. What was behind my grandfather's temper, for example, his shoutings and rigidities, and my grandmother's shudder when she said 'concentration camp.'

photo: David Wilson
Since then, I've talked to other people whose parents had experienced the traumas of World War 2, and it has been a tremendous relief to me, and, I think, to them, to realise that we were not alone. Second generation trauma is a very real thing. A rabbi said to me once, about the Holocaust: 'What one generation can't cope with, they hand down to the next generation to deal with as best they can.' And I read, somewhere, about children whose parents had been partisans during the war, in Yugoslavia. They had never been told about this, and the parents were staggered - and probably appalled - to find their children disappearing into the woods and playing games that recreated their own lives and experiences as partisans.

It's odd, really, that many people find it so hard to comprehend how profoundly the next generation can be affected by the things their parents went through. Perhaps it's just too unsettling a concept. As far as my mother was concerned, I think she wanted to achieve for us what she had never had for herself, a safe, whole world to grow up in, and with her own anguish and trauma so vividly alive - till the end of her life she had nightmares of hiding in the undergrowth while the Russians searched for her, poking among the bushes with a stick, which at one moment came within inches of her face - she couldn't cope with our pain and anxieties - and I can see how they must have felt insubstantial to her.

I'm writing about this, not in any spirit of complaint or because I feel unfortunate - I don't, and neither did my mother; she knew she'd been lucky compared to many - but because I do think it is important to understand the phenomenon. Not least because that passed-on trauma is surely an ingredient in the long-standing, protectively-nursed hatreds that send nationalities and ethnic groups to war with each other; the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.

It's like the gut bacteria that are passed on to the infant from the mother via the birth canal, which science is discovering are far more significant to us than has ever been guessed; we are habitats, actually, populated by ideas, impressions, emotions from the past. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty good reason for writing historical fiction.


Michele said...

Thank you for sharing such a thought-provoking post.

Frances Bevan said...

An incredibly powerful post. Thank you for sharing such personal memories.

Joan Lennon said...

Oh my, Leslie, powerful indeed. Thank you.

catdownunder said...

And I am glad you can write about it - because the rest of us need people to do it. Thankyou.

JO said...

Great post. There is also research to show that the families of someone suffering Post Traumatic Stress can take three generations before the children are born without a heightened probability of mental health problems. (Makes you wonder about the children of those fighting in Afghanistan ...)

Linda B-A said...

What an arresting post. And what affecting images. The instinct to share and pass on is such a strong one, isn't it? Often, as you so beautifully put, the sour grapes consumed by the parents set the children's teeth on edge, but sometimes, as with your post, the offspring do something positive with their inheritance. Thanks, Leslie.

Jane Borodale said...

A humbling post to read, Leslie, thank you very much. To say how sorry I am to hear about your mother's suffering doesn't really seem enough, that's the trouble with words - I suppose that's where the crucial nature of storytelling comes in - to cut through platitudes and give us some emotional comprehension of the suffering of others.

Also really like your final image. I always think of the personal, human interior past as a more strandish thing; those threads of DNA and experience gathering and twining together as we go on - but I much prefer your image of us as habitats.

Ilona A said...

Interesting discussion. I'm not sure trauma is the right word for the second generation, but children are affected by what happened to their parents, because they feel their pain and grief. If parents are too traumatised to deal with the tragedy in their lives, its bound to affect the next generation. However we need to beware when personal tragedy affects politics, and perceptions of national identity. Children should know about loved ones who have been lost by their parents, and from my own experience, it can also be lovely and important for both, to tell the stories of normal life, pranks and fun which was part of their family life before tragedy.

Sue Purkiss said...

Goodness, how powerful. Your poor mother.

Anonymous said...

The sirens get me. Before you mentioned it in this article, I'd never thought of it, but they are absolutely horrific. I was in Memphis a few years ago and they have a siren over there to warn of high winds. I heard it on the television from where I was in the kitchen and it was.... for a moment, everything just stopped in me. I've no idea if this is related to past trauma through several generations (I suspect not, knowing me!) but I find the notion intriguing and I hadn't thought of that moment before until you started your article with it. Thank you for making me think! :)

Incidentally, I've never before read of another English person talking about their family's experiences in wartime Germany and Austria before. I was beginning to think I was some sort of rare breed - someone who knew that their family while German, was not Nazi. Certainly I know that my family's history has affected me and the way I see the world, even if it's not necessarily directly relevant to me two generations on or if it's a result of trauma and chemical changes in the body during that. You're absolutely right about us as habitats - my parents and older relatives either lived through the war or were told stories of it by people who had done so. As Germans living in England post-war, it was important to them to remember. And I grew up hearing the odd story here and there about so and so during the bombing etc. The infrequency of the stories made them more important, I attached meaning to them, and as a result even though I'm only part German, German heritage is immensely important to me, especially as my family seems to be at odds with everything I learned about Germans and Nazis at school. I need to remember all this the next time someone gives me the shuttered look when I mention my family's German - they could well have also heard stories passed down through their parentage, or have chemical trauma in their DNA that makes their reaction equally as valid as my own.

I really didn't expect to be thinking about this in so much detail! Thank you!

Michele said...

I remember, about 3 years ago, explaining how the attitude of older Brits might affect a young German woman who was coming over here to work temporarily. She was startled when I told her that she might get abuse from total strangers purely because she's German. I don't think she had any idea how much the two Wars has affected the British psyche even down to the third generation.

Myself, I got interested in WW1 when I was in my 20s, having grown up with the stories of my grandparents and uncles (my mum was born in '48 so missed out on it) about their WW2 experiences, and the turning point in my attitude towards the Germans (which until then had been fairly in line with most British attitudes, I'm sure) was reading Remarque's 'All Quiet on the Western Front'. I suddenly realised that the German soldiers were actually not much different to the British ones - and it was only people like Hitler & the Gestapo who were the monstrous ones. Since then I've done my best to educate myself by reading accounts of the Wars by Germans as well as the British.

Anonymous said...

A powerful and beautifully written post. Thank you for sharing.

It would be hard to over-estimate how much the world of children born in the 1950s was shaped by their parents' experiences in wartime; a relatively trivial example compared to your own experiences, but I can still recall my mother-in-law's obsession with saving food, pursued to the point of near-anorexia at times, which I'm sure went back to severe poverty in childhood followed by years of rationing.

Susan Price said...

A superb piece of writing, Leslie - thank you for the thought and work you must have put into it. Both impressive and appalling, and very moving.
It makes me glad that my parents were very young during WWII and largely unaffected. Your post makes me realise how precious their childish nonchalance to it all truly was.

Ann Turnbull said...

Thank you, Leslie, for this moving and powerful post. As someone who was born during the war I have always felt that I belong to that time, even though I remember nothing of it. The family stories are there, and are part of me. And the nervousness and strange fears I suffered as a child are no doubt connected to the stress my mother endured. Given your background and the trauma your mother suffered it's inevitable that you feel a need to write the books you do - and thank goodness you do, because they are not only great stories but they need to be heard.

Jenny Alexander said...

What a thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Leslie - thank you so much.

Juliette said...

Thank you for this, it's fascinating. I'd never really thought about how my mother's experiences (she lived in Belfast at the height of the war in Northern Ireland) affected me, but I guess they have in other ways than just being sensitive when someone brings up Ireland (though she wasn't pregnant until much later, so I probably don't have any physical symptoms).

Leslie Wilson said...

Thank you all so much. It wasn't an easy post to write - shook me up quite a lot. Your comments have been both heartening and thought-provoking. 'The shuttered look' that Anonymous mentions, is such a good way of putting it - though I have to say that not everyone is like that about one being half German, especially not of late years. I felt really happy that the schoolchildren so loved my books about Germans in Nazi Germany, it healed a lot of the hurts that the attitudes of my contemporaries, at school, dealt to me.
And of course, it must be true for British people, too - I thought that, Ann, when I was writing the piece. Mefinx - my mother was also obsessed with saving food, and also starved herself, as did my grandmother. Audrey Hepburn had the same problem, having starved after the war, as my mother did. Of course, some people - and some Germans - had the opposite attitude, and ate too much to compensate. Or tried to fill the wounds with food? Who knows.
This is not to say that I am in favour of wasting food, however! But my mother used to say, about things that made me sick, like liver: 'You would eat it if you were starving.' This is undoubtedly true, but irrelevant when one has a choice of food. Also, whereas my friends were told to eat up their food because there were people starving who'd be glad of it, my brother and I were told to eat up our food because our mother had starved during the war. As if we could retrospectively fill her starving belly.
It does focus one's mind on the issue of sexual violence against women, though. It's not just one generation that suffers it.
Incidentally, I remember reading in Marika Cobbold's 'Guppies for tea' - a character had a nervous breakdown and the psychiatrist said about her: 'if people have nothing to upset them, they invent things.' But this character's Jewish father had survived concentration camp. I was furious with the psychiatrist. Fictional he may have been, but representative of far too many people's attitudes.
I have so much appreciated your comments.