In 1977, after I completed my residency in psychiatry, a colleague referred a “difficult patient” to me for treatment. Mary was soft-spoken, intelligent, and pretty, but so suspicious that she could not maintain a relationship, and so angry that she would yell at strangers if she caught their glance. Because she was sensitive to the undercurrents in any conversation, I found myself talking to her as if I were Humphrey Bogart playing Sam Spade—truthful, direct, tough, unambiguous. Mary blamed her parents for her suspiciousness and her fear of letting others get close to her; but her chief injury had occurred before she was born:
It seemed clear to me that if Mary could learn to sympathize with the bind her parents had been in, she would be able to understand the errors they made, why they had failed her. To move on with her life, Mary needed to picture the hurt, frightened little girl her mother had once been and had continued to be while raising her own family. I challenged Mary to imagine herself as a child being raped, and to imagine herself growing up, still frightened, and then trying to shield her daughter. Mary was stunned when she realized how her own vulnerability as a little girl must have reawakened her mother’s fears. She began to see the absence of physical intimacy in her childhood as her mother’s desperate attempt to protect her rather than as a cruel failure.
When I prompted other patients to learn their parents’ stories, patients who had previously been in therapy for years with little progress suddenly showed signs of substantial healing. When they were able to look at their parents’ pain with compassion, their own pain gradually diminished, along with damaging patterns of expressing hurt and anger. Their intimate relationships improved, and they were better able to love.
Fascinated, I searched the psychiatric literature and could find no books or articles that similarly focused on the experiential world of patients’ parents. For example, Swiss therapist Alice Miller speaks for abused children with force and sympathy, but she does not speak for their parents, who were also once children. The books that deeply explore the generational effects of trauma tend to examine the effects of specific traumas, such as the Holocaust’s effect on the second generation. Books examining the broader effects of trauma on the generations, such as the literature on genograms and family systems, do ask that we take note of trauma in past generations, but in a way that leads to an intellectual rather than an emotional understanding. We hunger for narratives with true explanatory power.
Great novels, such as The Bridge of San Luis Rey and The Brothers Karamazov, or the works of modern novelists such as Anne Tyler and Pat Conroy, explicate character in vivid, multigenerational portraits, widening and deepening the reader’s understanding of family events that shape character and action. Unfortunately, psychotherapy as it is usually practiced does not ask us to learn, much less feel, the events of our parents’ and grandparents’ life stories. Instead, overlooking the lessons of literature handed down to us from the earliest written civilizations, psychotherapists usually encourage us to tell our life stories with ourselves at the center, rather than as a descendant laden with stories of the previous generations. Over time, the meaning behind the Fifth Commandment—the commandment to “honor your father and your mother,” which I’d begun exploring with Mary—became central to my work.
Some patients resisted, asking, “Why should I learn about my family’s history?” Some denied problems in the family, seeming to fear unearthing them, as if looking too closely would be an act of disloyalty or as if they were themselves too fragile to see their parents’ ordinary humanity. Others acted as if grief or some other dreaded emotion might overtake them. But people condemn themselves to pain by trying to avoid it. In hiding from ourselves, we are fugitives from our own feelings; and in hiding from others, we play-act our lives.
My parents and I arrived in America from the refugee camps of Europe in 1949 with twenty-two dollars, one good quilt, family photographs, and a set of sterling silverware. Our new country was magic, rich with wonders. A few months after our arrival, we went into a five-and-dime store filled with marvels, where I was entranced with a toy airplane. Not quite five years of age, I begged for it, crying till I shrieked, and was elated when my father bought it for me. Then when we got home, he put the airplane under his foot, crushed it, and angrily spanked me for the first time in my life. Later, my mother patiently explained the economics of our survival. I never threw another temper tantrum and rarely asked for anything afterward.
I was seventeen when my father hit me for the second and last time. At the time, I thought he was a raving lunatic. I had borrowed a pair of his socks without asking permission. When I told him, he raged at me: “You have everything and appreciate nothing. You have it too good. Everything comes easy, like money grows on trees. . . .” And on and on he went, with no sign of stopping. Yet, when I’d totaled our car a few months before, all he’d said was, “Thank God you’re all right!”
My father had billions of socks. How was I supposed to know borrowing one pair would bother him? Finally, I couldn’t take his harangue anymore. My voice dripped with contempt as I said, “Drop dead!”
His face turning white, he slapped my face, spun around, and walked away. I turned and marched off in the other direction. But in seeing his ashen face, I felt terrible for what I had said. My mother said, “Talk with your father.” I argued my grievance. She repeated, “Talk with your father.”
I tried, but he wouldn’t talk to me. For three days, he was silent. I begged and pleaded and apologized, and my father finally relented. But at heart I still considered him a lunatic.
Years later, I asked him to take a walk with me on the beach. He said he didn’t want to get sand in his shoes. When I suggested that he take them off, he said, “I don’t like to go barefoot.” I insisted, “Come on, Dad, the sand will feel good on your feet.” He then began telling me of a winter he’d spent in Europe when there was no food and people were starving. He sold his shirt and then his shoes in order to survive. All winter, he had to go around with bare feet or rags tied to his ankles. Years later, his feet were still sensitive: going barefoot could never again be a pleasure to him.
Suddenly, my father’s earlier words came back to me. “You appreciate nothing! You don’t know how good you have it. You have it too easy!” I realized he was right: I’d never done without. Everything necessary to survive had always been readily available. The desperation of starving was and is beyond my experience. For a few moments, even as I recoiled from the image, I saw my father that long-ago winter, half naked and starving, his bare feet freezing on the snow of a Russian winter in wartime.
I think if I went further and really imagined being my father that winter, I would understand more than I’d want to. I’d have too many regrets. There were too many times that I had judged him and not understood, times when I lacked compassion and did not listen; too many moments lost in anger and misunderstanding when we might have talked. Had I become more aware of his vulnerability, I’d be much too aware of how I had hurt him over the years.
In the chapters that follow, you will hear the voices of those who have suffered. Each day for over thirty years, I have heard the confessions of wounded people and been privileged to hear many of their previously untold secrets. I relay the knowledge others have given me, passing on their wisdom so we may better understand ourselves and what others have endured. The stories I recount are distillations, with the speakers’ identities disguised or combined but with their essence unchanged. This book will examine the repercussions of traumatic events throughout life, and the reverberations of those events through the generations.
“Preface” excerpt is from Hidden in Plain Sight: Getting to the Bottom of Puzzling Emotions. Copyright 2007 by Barry Grosskopf, M.D. Published by VanderWyk & Burnham. All rights reserved.