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The pros and cons of intergenerational transmission

Barry McNamara
Monmouth professor Jonah Waseberg at Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – In the same week that the world observed International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27), Monmouth College psychology professor Jonah Waseberg had the subject come up in his “Abnormal Psychology” class.

“A student asked me about how the trauma of the Holocaust affected the survivors psychologically and could such trauma be passed on to the present in their family,” said Waseberg, who explained that can indeed be the case.

“It is what we call in psychology ‘intergenerational transmission trauma’ or ‘transgenerational trauma’ – trauma that can be transferred from generations to generations,” said the professor, who, coincidentally, had visited Berlin’s Holocaust memorial while visiting family in Germany over Christmas break. Also a practicing clinician in Chicago, Waseberg focused his Ph.D. research on traumatology from a psychoanalytic perspective. He is in the process of publishing his first book, which is related to trauma studies.

“I think this topic of transmission trauma can benefit us all,” he said. “There are some people who get mentally ill due to a trauma that was passed on by their family, even though such trauma never happened to them personally.”

Waseberg said the condition can affect individuals even more when transgenerational trauma is hidden as a belief in the family’s “collective unconscious.”

“Such trauma is short-circuited in people, who become consciously and/or unconsciously stuck in time, memory and narrative, as an emotional bond and collective solidarity is created in the process. The emotional tie between individuals and their ancestors can be foundational to the development of values. These bonds could become part of our identity, and therefore trauma can become part of our identity as well. ”

Related to that psychological condition is how the views held by a family regarding such topics as gender, race, religion and politics are also passed on from generation to generation.

“We all have something passed on in our family, some of it unconsciously,” said Waseberg, who began teaching at Monmouth last fall. “How can we reflect on those things, and what can we do about it? Discovering transgenerational trauma means coming to know a larger narrative of generations. This requires close listening to the stories of our parents and grandparents. Understanding the main source of our transgenerational trauma is the first step of recovery. Psychoanalysis has been a powerful therapeutic method in treating transgenerational trauma through analyzing, reinterpreting and reframing the historical trauma of families or individuals. ”

Waseberg said that while some of what a family transmits is traumatic or negative, many of the morals and worldviews passed on generationally are virtuous.

“There are also transmitted values from generation to another generation that can be called transgenerational values,” he said. “You also learn good models from your parents or grandparents and beyond.”

Ultimately, said Waseberg, it is up to individuals to reflect upon and discern what they believe and what they value.

Waseberg was moved to reflection after his sobering visit to the Berlin Holocaust site, the full name of which is Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

“At the Holocaust museum, most of the people there were foreigners from all over the world, but they were all as moved as I was by what they saw,” he said. “That kind of human connection, we can feel it together, we’re moved. We all have common ground we can stand on. It doesn’t matter what nationality we are, what race we are, what religion we are.”

Waseberg believes that all individuals can benefit from counseling, noting that counseling is not only for persons with mental illnesses. He also stresses that you do not have to be a counseling professional in order to help those who suffer from certain traumas, an idea he explored in recent articles on the Monmouth College and Galesburg Register-Mail websites.

“It can be as simple as showing support for the person who is struggling,” he said. “Friends or family members can help them find their worth, to find it within themselves.”

Starting Feb. 11, Waseberg will offer a weekly supportive group therapy session called “Wellness Group” for all Monmouth students who are going through mental struggles related to anxiety. The group will meet at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays.