Elizabeth Rossner writes about the legacy of trauma and the labyrinth of memory in this wide-ranging review of her visits to Auschwitz with her father who came through the camps (she has a chapter on why she does not use the word “survivor” here). She also explores the legacy of trauma for the survivors and their children who experienced the killing fields of Cambodia, the retreat from Hanoi, and the massacre in Rwanda.
Traumatized people don’t feel safe, and parents who feel unsafe create households without a feeling safety, raising children do who not feel safe. The traumatized parents express the unresolved trauma in two main ways:
1. Suppressing all emotion in an effort to suppress the unrelenting, wordless fear trapped in the body. Children can’t play with someone who is numb. Children can’t bond well with someone who is numb. Drugs and alcohol often strengthen the numbness and emotional unavailability.
2. Traumatic rage squirting out uncontrollably in overreactions to upsetting everyday events. Children never know when the traumatized parent is going to beat them for a trivial infraction, or embrace them with understanding. The parent is inconsistent, and blind to the inconsistency.
Rossner quotes Dr. Maria Angeles Morcuenda, “The children of people with unresolved trauma have not learned [yet] to feel safe [even when they are] in a safe environment.”
Esther Perel says “home is the place where you feel safe, seen, appreciated, respected, and wanted.” When trauma in the home is denied, such as physical abuse, emotional abuse (betrayal and the like), or sexual abuse, the dependent child may resort to denial in order to preserve the attachment on the damaged parent upon whom she or she relies.
“Trauma denial is an act of self-preservation,” says Perel. “We employ self-delusion when too much is at stake and we have too much to lose. The mind needs coherence, so it disposes of the inconsistencies (lies) that threaten the structure of our lives. This becomes more pronounced when we are betrayed by those we feel closest to.”
Elizabeth Rossner says, “I hope my book invites readers to consider their own relationship to intergenerational transmutations of grief, trauma and resilience.” In her conversations with Dr. Morcuenda, we learn that healing from trauma is all about getting to feel safe. Dr. Morcuenda’s work focuses on “How do we make this baby, this child, resilient to the inevitable trauma life is going to bring? The work is to give each child what he or she needs, and to recognize what interferes with their ability to do that.”
Healing is seen when the trauma survivor can become fully present in the moment. Resilience can develop when we can interact fully in the moment without numbing out or slipping into the past.