Rediscovering the Lost Ones; Transgenerational Haunting and Alienation

Truly the universe is full of ghosts, not sheeted churchyard spectres, but the inextinguishable and immortal elements of life, which, having once been, can never die, though they blend and change and change again for ever.

–H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines

This week I have been concentrating on thinking about the area of my work with families that is truly the most fascinating, the most tragic and the most compelling in terms of developing therapeutic responses.  The issue is transgenerational haunting and the way in which alienation in children is so often, in my experience, linked to this phenomenon.

Transgenerational haunting is a psychoanalytic concept which was first advanced by Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok and is best described as unresolved trauma which becomes passed down through generations.  These ‘encrypted secrets’, can cause children to ‘act out’ areas of their parent’s unresolved griefs, often exactly at the age that a parent experienced them.  A good example is that of a child whose father dies at the age of 11 and who grows up to become a parent, only to find that when their own child is 11, their relationship with that child is lost in some way.  It is as if there is some compulsion to repeat the past, perhaps in order to try and resolve the original wound, but in doing so, the next child is affected and the next and so the original trauma ‘haunts’ the family system.

Transgenerational haunting passes trauma through the family narrative in the form of secrets and lies and half truths.  It consists of knowing and unknowing and of unspoken things which are seen and heard but half forgotten or buried, like treasure, or ghosts, in the unconscious.  Haunting of this nature can control a family system and can cause children to carry burdens which are not theirs and it can put at risk the next generation if trauma is carried through without resolution.

For many families affected by the loss of a child through separation, one or both of the parents will, themselves have been affected by divorce and separation in their own childhood.  We are now four generations from the 1973 change to the divorce laws and the same distance from the way in which our social policy was changed forever by the Finer Report in 1974.  Two distinct but interlinked policy changes that created a dynamic that changed family life forever.

From the early seventies onwards, men and women who entered into marriage, (then the framework into which children were born), were free to leave it and women, who had been unable to take their children with them up to that point, were now free to do so without having to depend financially upon the father of their children.  During the seventies, the first wave of children affected by divorce grew up and scant regard was paid to the impact of that experience upon them.  Organisations such as the National Council For One Parent Families (now known as Gingerbread) began to grow their services and the stigma, which had faced unmarried women previously, began to be rolled up with the issues facing women generally.  As new cultural norms were established, so were new political and legislative frameworks and soon, the idea of marriage as the precursor to family life was eradicated and made unfashionable.  As Harriet Harman said, in her paper ‘The Family Way

“it cannot be assumed that men are bound to be an asset to family life or that the presence of fathers in families is necessarily a means to social cohesion”

And whilst the erosion of fatherhood began to be an accepted part of our social and cultural experience, the impact on children of this loss remained largely ignored.

The world of alienated children is a strange one to inhabit but it is one that I walk in most days of my working life.  As I meet children affected by this phenomenon, I wonder what their lives would have been like had the legislation been different.  In short, I am always aware, always alive to the fact that in a different time and place the issues that face alienated children would simply not have existed, or, alternatively, would exist in a different way. This is because the alienation of children has only really become a problem since the divorce rate rocketed.  Now, the issues facing families through generations, that are linked to divorce and separation, are simply dismissed or overlooked.  There are not many therapists who are willing to step into the difficult spaces and name the problems that are wrapped up with generational family separation.  Perhaps this is because of the powerful demands, made by organisations such as Gingerbread, not to look too closely, the accusation being that in doing so we stigmatise single mothers.  Confronted by this dilemma, in which the adult choices are said to outweigh the consequences for children, many therapists may back away.  And yet it is in this arena that the therapist must be brave enough to work, if change is to be brought about and transgenerational haunting is to be addressed.

When I work with families affected by alienation one of the first assessment tasks I undertake is a comparative family tree and an analysis of the family narrative.  What I am looking for in doing this work are the ‘encrypted secrets’ that cause the alienation, the unresolved trauma that lead to compulsion repetition.

It is often not long before I find these secrets, in fact they are often shouting off the page before I even get beyond one generation prior to the family I am working with.  Most of these traumas are to do with the loss of a parent through divorce and separation.  Most of the parents that I work with have, themselves, as children, lost a parent or experience themselves the withdrawal from a parent.  I have lost count now of the number of times, in one of our parental alienation workshops, a parent will say, with utter disbelief upon their faces, ‘I have just realised that I was alienated from my own mother/father.’  That this could remain unknown on a deep feelings level, even when it is consciously known, is something of a mystery.  But it is clear to me that this is to do with the way in which we do not, as a society, yet pay enough attention to the damage that divorce and separation does, not only to our children as children, but to the parents that our children will one day become.  Unravelling this narrative, digging up these encrypted secrets and sitting with an alienated parent as witness, is one of the key elements of the work that I do.  And when it is done, it is astounding how swiftly resolution can take place, even to the point of spontaneous reunification with a lost child, seemingly unrelated to the resolved trauma but too coincidental to ignore.

There are at least four generations now of lost children and lost parents, all of whom have been affected by divorce and separation, the trauma impact of which is missing from our cultural narrative.  It is this lack of attention in our culture which is, in my view, the cause of those ‘encrypted secrets’ and generational trauma.  It is as if, without speaking of the impact of the separation on children, we hope to expunge ourselves of the guilt and shame that can be caused when one looks closer.  But our lack of words, our lack of attention to the impact has, instead, driven the trauma underground.  Only to have it  erupt again and again in our children’s lives when they become parents and then our grandchildren’s lives as generation after generation struggles with divorce and separation.

Our lost generations of children,  are scarred by divorce and separation from a loved parent and those scars  are, in my view, our responsibility.  We may not be able to put the genie back in the bottle and return to the times when marriage was a lifetime’s commitment, but we can (and in my opinion should) take responsibility for recognising and understanding the ways in which our adult freedoms have impacted upon our children’s life chances.  And most of all we should be big enough and wise enough to carry our own burdens, so that our children do not have to.

Learning to take responsibility for the way in which our own decisions to separate affect our children and protecting them from the loss of a parent after divorce requires us to understand and accept the impact that such actions have.  And in accepting that we take responsibility for it and in doing so we give voice to the reality for children instead of scarring them by driving their experience underground. Unspoken wounds fester and unresolved loss and trauma returns, generation after generation until it is resolved.

Until our legislation is changed so that those who govern our lands accept the state sanctified damage that has been done and makes reparations, it is incumbent upon those therapists who work with transgenerational trauma to speak up and speak out.

For children who have no words, our voices may be the only hope they have.