Confusion of Tongues

Confusion of Tongues

by Galit Atlas
Therapists working with abuse survivors will learn invaluable lessons about the intergenerational transmission of trauma in this powerful excerpt from Galit Atlas’ Emotional Inheritance.
Filed Under: Child Abuse, Trauma/PTSD


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Confusion of Tongues

I’m not surprised when I get an email from Lara, who was my patient nineteen years ago. Lara was only ten years old when her parents suddenly ended her treatment and moved the family to the West Coast. In the years since, I have thought about her often, remembering her unusual story, wondering how she is doing. When I see her name in my inbox it is almost as if I am expecting it.

Lara was only ten years old when her parents suddenly ended her treatment and moved the family to the West Coast
“I’m writing to see if we could meet,” Lara writes. “I’m twenty-nine years old now and there is so much I would like to talk to you about. Do you even remember me?”

It is hard not to remember Lara. She was one of my first child patients when I opened my private practice in New York City. I saw her for two years and often felt uneasy thinking about her unresolved family situation, which I have revisited in my head over all these years.

Lara’s was one of the most confusing cases of sexual abuse that I have treated, and as time passed and I studied the nature of the intergenerational aspect of sexual abuse, I felt that I was able to make better sense of it. Maybe it was my ongoing desire to share those thoughts with Lara that made me hope that she would contact me.

I was researching the topic of sexual abuse in childhood when I started seeing Lara.

Beatrice Beebe, one of my mentors and an infant researcher at Columbia University, is known for saying “Research is me-search.” By that she means that all psychological research, even when we are not aware of it, is our quest to understand and heal ourselves and the people who raised us.

Starting this research, I was not sure what I was looking for. What was it that I really needed to know about myself and about the world around me? What was my “me-search”?

That is the question I have asked every student I have mentored since, with the genuine belief that deep inside we continuously try to resolve the mysteries of our own minds. Feelings are always the motivations for intellectual investigations, even as we rationalize the world around us. I started my research interested in what the Hungarian psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi called “the confusion of tongues.” Borrowing from the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, Ferenczi refers to the confusion between the language of tenderness that children speak and the language of passion that abusers introduce.

The paradox of affection and exploitation is one of the most prevalent confusions related to sexual abuse, one that leaves children bewildered and tormented
The paradox of affection and exploitation is one of the most prevalent confusions related to sexual abuse, one that leaves children bewildered and tormented. Abusers don’t just threaten and scare children; they often provide affection, promise security, and make the child feel special. I focused my research on what children’s play could teach us about their emotional experiences and vulnerabilities, and I was particularly interested in documenting the playing out with children of fairy tales, stories that contain emotional material that carries universal meaning. I chose one fairy tale to research with my young patients: “Little Red Riding Hood.”

About a week after my research proposal was approved, Lara walked into my office. She opened the session by saying, “Today I have an idea of what we could do.”

She and I usually played “family” together. She would ask me to play the daughter so she could be the mother, and through that role-play I not only learned but also felt how painful it was to be a daughter in her family. Playing a daughter who, like herself, lived with her parents, Hanna and Jed, and with her half brother, Ethan, who was nine years older, allowed me to know what no one could tell me in words: that they were all confused and scared and that Lara was holding a family secret for all of them.

“What is your idea?” I asked, and Lara surprised me with the answer: “Can we play Red Riding Hood together?”

I was stunned by the coincidence. How did she know that this was the fairy tale I had chosen for my research and that I had gotten the approval to start only the week before?

The more experience I have with patients, the more I learn how unconsciously connected we are to the people around us. With Lara, it was the first time I’d experienced that, but it wouldn’t be the last. Since then I have had many uncanny coincidences with my patients. Through our dreams, reveries, and synchronicities we realize that we know more about one another than we are aware of.

Lara smiled. “You are the daughter and I am the mother,” she said.

I opened the closet. There were the new puppets I had just gotten: a girl with a red dress, a mother, a grandmother, and a wolf.

“What about the grandmother and the wolf?” I asked. “Who plays them?”

Lara paused. “We don’t need a wolf,” she said. “There are no wolves in our story.”

A few weeks before my first session with Lara, I had met with her parents, Hanna and Jed.

Children frequently express the reality of the family and become what we call the 'identified patient'
When working with children I always meet first with the parents, to gather information about the child and the family and to discuss the goals and process of therapy. Although the child is the one in therapy, very often it is the parents who need the most help. Children frequently express the reality of the family and become what we call the “identified patient,” which means the one who seems like the “sick” member of the family. Those children usually carry and express the problems of the whole family as a unit. Most families have one member who is unconsciously assigned to carry the symptoms, that is, the family member on whom the family projects the pathology. That person, often one of the children, will be the one sent to therapy. When treating families as a system, we explore the role of the child as the symptom carrier for the family.

Lara was the “identified patient” in her family. She was in second grade and would wake up in the mornings nauseous, holding her stomach and crying that she didn’t want to go to school. Her parents believed she suffered from social anxiety. After meeting with Lara, I understood her anxiety a little differently, realizing that she was worried about her mother, and therefore it was hard for her to separate from her. It wasn’t that Lara didn’t want to go to school, but rather that she wanted to stay home with Hanna, whom she experienced as distressed and felt she needed to protect.

A Frightening and Unusual Story

During that first session, Hanna and Jed told me an unusual and frightening story. They explained that when Lara was only five years old, her grandmother, Hanna’s mother, Masha, filed a complaint against Ethan, Jed’s son from his first marriage, for molesting Lara. Ethan was fourteen years old then, and social services were called to the house to investigate. But no signs of sexual abuse were found and the file was closed. Since then, Masha had filed eight more complaints against Ethan. Each time there was an investigation but no evidence was found and no charges were filed.

“Our family is torn. We don’t know what to do and whom to believe,” Hanna told me during that first session. “I haven’t slept well since it happened.”

Jed looked at Hanna and told me that Hanna was the one who had raised Ethan. Jed’s first wife had died when Ethan was only seven years old, and when Hanna had married Jed, she had become a mother to his son. Hanna loved Ethan.

“Since her mother accused Ethan of molesting Lara, everything in our family has changed,” Jed said. “We all became suspicious of one another, not sure who lies and whom to believe, whom we need to protect and whom to blame.”

Hanna started to cry. “I don’t believe he did it,” she said. “I really don’t believe it. I know him so well and I know my mother; when it comes to these things she can be a little crazy.”

“What are ‘these things’?” I asked.

Jed reached out and held Hanna’s hand. She didn’t answer.

“This situation has created a lot of tension between us,” he said. “Hanna became depressed. She blames herself.”

“What are you blaming yourself for?” I asked.

“I’m her mother,” Hanna said, sobbing. “I’m the one who should know what the truth is.” She grabbed a tissue from the box and looked at me. “I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong and my mother is right and something terrible happened right in front of my eyes. I don’t know how to protect my daughter.”

I realize that maybe it’s my mother that I should protect my daughter from
There was a long silence and then Hanna said, “I realize that maybe it’s my mother that I should protect my daughter from. My own mother, whom I love. But why would she blame him? Why would she do that?”

Hanna and Jed hoped that someone would tell them what had really happened. They yearned for the truth.

“What does Lara know about this situation? Is she aware of anything?” I asked before we ended the session.

Jed looked at Hanna and they were both silent for a long minute.

“About a year ago, my mother came to visit and told Lara that Ethan had sexually abused her.” Hanna sighed.

“She told Lara that all those years she had been trying to help her, ‘to scream her scream’ she called it. But that no one listened to her. She told her that she should never be alone with Ethan.”

Jed nodded. “From then on, Lara didn’t want to go to school anymore. We thought she had become afraid of people and that’s why we decided to bring her to therapy.” The first session ended and my head was spinning. I felt nauseous and realized that those were exactly the symptoms Lara’s parents described Lara as having. I was curious to meet her.

The next day Lara arrived at her first session accompanied by Jed. She held her father’s hand, her long black hair tied in a ponytail, and didn’t look at me. “I like your office,” she said quietly, looking around, a shy smile on her face. I liked Lara from the first moment. In that initial session, Lara told me about her family and described nonchalantly how Ethan was accused of touching her inappropriately.

“My grandmother doesn’t like my brother,” she said. “Maybe she even hates him and she wants him to go to jail.”

Lara talked about these facts without emotion, as if none of this was about her. She turned to look at the dolls in the corner of the room and asked if she could play with them.

For a year, during every session we played while we talked. I observed the play and tried to listen to what she was teaching me about her world, her emotional experience, and her vulnerabilities.

Since it was not clear whether Lara had in fact been sexually abused, I decided not to include her in my research. It was surprising then when she suggested that we play Little Red Riding Hood. “It’s my favorite fairy tale.” She smiled. “Except there are no wolves in our story, remember?”

Years before it was adapted by the Grimm Brothers, “Little Red Riding Hood” made its debut in a version written by Charles Perrault in 1697. Perrault’s story was adapted from the folktale, and in it he described the moment the child met the wolf, referred to as “Mister Wolf,” implying that the wolf stood for a human being.

In Perrault’s version, when Little Red Riding Hood arrives at her grandmother’s house, the wolf is lying in bed and asks her to undress and join him. Little Red Riding Hood is alarmed to see his disrobed body and says, “Grandmother, what long arms you have,” to which the wolf replies, “The better to hug you with.” Perrault’s version ends with the wolf devouring Little Red Riding Hood, followed by a short poem that teaches the moral of the story: that good girls should be cautious when approached by men. As for wolves, he adds, these take on many different forms, and the nice ones are the most dangerous of all, especially those who follow young girls in the streets and into their homes.

Perrault presented his readers with a somewhat refined version of the popular folktale, which was originally filled with sexual seduction, rape, and murder. His version speaks to the deceiving nature of nice wolves, who hurt their victims while pretending to offer something special, presenting sexual perversion as a form of love. It was to become even more highly refined over the years to the point where the sexual innuendo was entirely omitted and the story transformed into a children’s fairy tale.

While fairy tales usually differentiate between good and bad people in ways that help children organize their world and feel safe, “nice wolves” leave children confused, unsure of what is dangerous and what is not
While fairy tales usually differentiate between good and bad people in ways that help children organize their world and feel safe, “nice wolves” leave children confused, unsure of what is dangerous and what is not. Abused children end up feeling that they themselves are bad, that they have done something wrong. That confusion of tongues between love and perversion will haunt them for years.

“You are Little Red Riding Hood,” Lara says, and hands me the puppet of the girl with the red dress.

“She is going to visit her grandmother,” she says and then whispers, “The girl thinks the grandmother is an old lady but she is actually a wolf.”

“A wolf?” I repeat her words and remember how she kept stating there were to be no wolves in our story.

“You will see.” She smiles as if hiding something. “You will see what I mean soon. The grandmother has a lot of secrets.”

But we don’t find out what the grandmother’s secrets are, nor do we ever get to her house. Instead Lara instructs me, as Red Riding Hood, to sit under a tree and wait for her to come pick me up.

“I will be back soon,” she says firmly.

She turns her back to me and starts playing on her own. I am left to sit there for a long while, knowing that I have been assigned to be the girl that Lara has been, lost alone in the woods, overwhelmed by the secrets of others. Sitting there in silence, waiting for Lara to come back, I feel like the little girl I used to be, when I was left to wait for my parents to come pick me up from the candy store. My “me-search” enters the room and I realize what I am looking for. I suddenly remember what I always knew.

I was seven years old, younger than Lara. I had started second grade in a new school far from our home. During the first week of school my parents had told me that we were planning to move to a new apartment, closer to the new school, but until then I should wait at the candy store after school and they would pick me up from there.

Every day, I walked to the candy store on the corner and waited, exactly as they’d told me to do. Moses, the owner of the store, was a kindly old man with a white mustache and a big smile. I liked him. I believed that he liked me too, and I especially liked that he gave me candy.

As a little girl, there was nothing I loved more than candy. My mother, in an attempt to feed us healthy food, did not allow it in the house. She used to serve us plates with sliced apples and dried fruit. “Candy made by nature,” she called it.

When Moses offered me candy for the first time, I was thrilled and ate it as fast as I could. He looked at me and smiled. “I see that you really love it.”

The following day he offered me ice cream that he kept in a freezer in the back of the store. “What kind do you like?” He had a cone in each hand. “Vanilla or chocolate?”

I pointed to the vanilla one.

“Why did I know you would choose that one?” he teased, and then asked if I wanted to come pick out something from the back of the store.

“I will let you choose whatever you like,” he said.

Moses always smiled, and his kisses were ticklish and wet. Once in a while his wife would come to the store and he would put a little chair for me in the front and ignore me until she left.

When my dad arrived to pick me up, Moses would tell him what a good girl I was and wave goodbye. “See you tomorrow.”

I liked waiting for my parents there, but as time passed I started feeling nauseous.

“Moses gives you too much candy,” my mother would say. “That’s why your stomach hurts.”

But that wasn’t the reason. I wasn’t sure why; I just knew that I didn’t like it when he hugged me so tight. I still liked him even when I didn’t.

Only years later was I able to put it all together and understand what had really happened in the first few months of second grade
In third grade I stopped liking Moses. We moved to our new home and I tried to avoid walking near his store. Only years later was I able to put it all together and understand what had really happened in the first few months of second grade. I never told anyone, and I wasn’t always sure if it had actually happened or if I’d imagined it.

Freud viewed memory as a fluid entity that was constantly changing and being reworked over time. He referred to this dynamic as nachträglichkeit, translated into English as “afterwardness,” which means that early traumatic events are layered with new meanings throughout life. Freud was especially focused on sexual abuse as an event that would be reworked retrospectively as the child got older and reached certain developmental phases. Sexual abuse in childhood isn’t always registered by the child as traumatic. The child is overwhelmed with something they cannot process or even make sense of.

As time passes, the traumatic experience is reprocessed. In every developmental phase the child will revisit the abuse from a different angle and with different understanding. When that abused child becomes a teenager and then an adult, when they have sex for the first time or have children, when their child reaches the age they were when the abuse happened — in each moment the abuse will be reprocessed from a slightly different perspective. The process of mourning keeps changing and accrues new layers of meaning. Time will not necessarily make the memory fade; instead, the memory will appear and reappear in different forms and will be experienced simultaneously as real and unreal.

Nineteen years after I first met Lara, it is a gloomy day in mid-September and I’m about to meet her again. It is also my birthday. In the intervening years, I’ve had three children. I have stopped working with children and am now only seeing adults. My office is in the same neighborhood as it was nineteen years ago, in downtown Manhattan.

'I grew up quite a bit.' She smiles as if reading my mind
I open my door and look at the tall young woman who stands there. I do not recognize her.

“I grew up quite a bit.” She smiles as if reading my mind. “Thank you for answering my email so quickly, and for agreeing to see me.”

She sits on the couch and looks around. “I like your new office.”

I recognize her smile and these first words.

“Those were your exact words when I met you for the first time,” I say, trying to learn something about her from the way she looks: the black T-shirt, the black long silk skirt, her sneakers and blue nail polish, and her long straight hair, which I think used to be curly. I’m trying to read what has happened to her in the years since then. Where has she been? Is she happy? Did she find out what really happened?

“I know it’s your birthday today,” she then says to my surprise.

I nod and smile. Some things don’t change. She still knows more about me than I expect.

“Don’t worry, I can’t read your mind,” she adds as if reading my mind. “When I tried to find you, I googled you, and one of the first things I found on your Wikipedia page was your birthday. I was happy you scheduled our session for today. I really wanted to give you a gift.”

Traditionally, therapists do not accept gifts from patients. The contract with our patients is clear; there is no dual relationship, no exchanges other than our professional services for an hourly fee. Psychoanalyst and patient share a joint goal of trying to explore the unconscious; therefore, it’s interesting to understand when and why a patient brings a gift and what that gift represents. But in reality nothing can make a gift feel unappreciated and dismissed more than analyzing it.

Lara opens her bag and hands me a small puppet. It is a girl wearing a red dress. Our Little Red Riding Hood.

She surprises me again.

“Do you remember?” she asks, and she suddenly sounds like the little girl she used to be.

“Of course I do. I never forgot,” I say.

We look at each other. I like her as much as I did all those years ago, and I wonder what has made her look for me now.

“I came to see you because I need your help.” She answers the question I haven’t yet asked out loud.

We start where we stopped years before. Lara tells me about her family’s move back then to the West Coast. It was sudden; she didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye. “In retrospect maybe we were running away,” she says. “Running away from the unhappiness my family lived in. But the unhappiness followed us and in fact only got worse.” The tension between Lara’s parents, Hanna and Jed, became intolerable, and four years later, they got divorced. Jed lost his job and had to move to work in Denver. Hanna grew even more depressed and was hospitalized. Lara found herself alone, and at the age of fourteen she had to move yet again, this time to live with her grandmother Masha.

Lara talks and I feel sad and worried. How was it for her to move again, to separate from both her parents? To live with her grandmother, whom she used to have mixed feelings about?

“At that point things actually got better,” she continues. “My grandmother was wonderful and my life with her was so much easier. I realized why my mother loved her so much. She supported me and understood how hard this new living situation was for me. She was caring and gave me everything I needed. Once a week we traveled together to visit my mother in the hospital, and once a month we visited my father. At some point, after my mother was discharged, I made the decision to stay and live with my grandmother permanently.”

I listen to Lara and remember the way Hanna used to talk about her mother, defend her, describe how in spite of the fact that she believed her mother was responsible for the break in their family, she loved her and could never fully blame her. When Jed expected Hanna to cut her mother out of their life, she refused. Now Lara expresses the same feelings about her grandmother. Something has changed since her grandmother was our bad wolf.

'My grandmother grew up in Russia with eight siblings,' Lara tells me
“My grandmother grew up in Russia with eight siblings,” Lara tells me. “She is the youngest and the only one who is educated. She values education and encouraged me to go to graduate school. In fact, she’ll be paying for my doctoral degree,” Lara says and then smiles shyly. “I decided to study psychology. I was just accepted into a PhD program.” Then she starts giggling. “Maybe I want to be you. I mean, as a child, therapy was the only time I didn’t feel alone. I felt that you really wanted to know me.”

Lara takes a deep breath. She looks tired and I see how hard she tries to be likable, easygoing, not depressed like her mother. She was always tuned in to others, making sure she was not a burden on them and instead taking care of those around her.

“You said you needed my help.” My voice sounds softer than usual as I ask, “Tell me, what brings you here today, Lara?”

Lara stares out the window for a long time.

“Your old office used to have big windows looking at Grace Church, I remember,” she says, still gazing outside. “There was a coffee place across the street and I used to sit there with my father every week after therapy. He would order fresh mint tea and a croissant, and I would get a baguette and use all the chocolate spreads that were on the table. Every week we would sit there silently, eating and not looking at each other. He never asked me how therapy was. Maybe he was too afraid to know. And I didn’t think about anything else but the sweet spreads that my mother didn’t like me to eat and that made the end of a session less bitter. I never liked separations."

“I remember sitting across the street, staring at the entrance of your building, hoping to see you walk out and wave to me. I didn’t want you to meet anyone else after I left. I wanted you just for myself. And I wished that my father would say something, ask me something, it didn’t matter what. Even one question would have been enough, so we wouldn’t have to sit there in silence. I wished that he would wonder out loud if I liked the spreads and which one I liked most. I would point to the hazelnut chocolate, and maybe then I could tell him about Little Red Riding Hood’s basket that we packed just before the end of the session and how I put unhealthy candy in it and nothing else. I wished that he would smile and say that he knew I loved sweets because he noticed that I ordered the spreads after therapy every time. But he didn’t ask anything, and I wasn’t sure that he noticed what I was eating or anything else about me.”

Lara pauses and looks straight into my eyes.

“There are many questions from my childhood that were never asked. There was no grown-up who could know the answers. There is a mystery that I wasn’t able to resolve on my own,” she says, and I know what she is talking about.

Lara and I start meeting again once a week. She begins her doctoral program, trying to find the topic for her dissertation, her “me-search.” Her mind will lead us to the questions that were never asked. Her research question will be born in that void and so will the truth.

It is a winter day when Lara comes in holding an old picture; in it she is thirteen years old, with a backpack on her shoulders. She is wearing gym clothes and is smiling at the camera.

“This is from the time before my parents got divorced,” she says, and I recognize the girl in the picture; she looks very much like the girl I knew. “I will never forget that day; it’s when I got my period for the first time. My mother took this picture and then called my grandmother to tell her that the ‘aunt was visiting’ or something funny like that.” She pauses.

“I heard them fighting for the first time. My mother was crying and yelling at my grandmother. I couldn’t hear what my grandmother was saying but I knew it was bad. I knew she made my mother very upset and I felt terrible. I thought it was all because of me.

“It was the one time I remember asking directly: ‘Mom, what happened?’ “‘It’s nothing; it’s between me and Grandma,’ my mother said, but I didn’t give up. ‘What did she say? Why are you crying?’”

Hanna told Lara that her mother had asked her to cut Lara’s hair short.

“My mother told me that and started crying again. She thought it was the meanest thing one could do to a girl. She thought it was crazy.

She told me that when she was about my age and got her period for the first time, my grandmother took her to the barber and without further explanation had her hair cut short
She told me that when she was about my age and got her period for the first time, my grandmother took her to the barber and without further explanation had her hair cut short. She remembered looking in the mirror and the tears running down her cheeks. ‘I look like a boy,’ she sobbed.

“‘Why did she do that?’ I asked, but my mother didn’t answer. I asked again, ‘Mom, why did Grandma do that to you when you were my age?’

“‘Sometimes it’s hard to understand Grandma,’ my mother answered. ‘She brought strange traditions from her country, from her own childhood, who knows.’”

Lara and I are silent. I wonder if she has the same thought I have. Does she realize that her grandmother was trying to protect her daughter by making her look like a boy and not a girl? Did she try to protect her daughter, and now her granddaughter, from sexual abuse?

No one wanted to know. No one ever asked.

I remain silent, asking myself if Lara is ready to question her family history.

Our wish to know everything about our parents is a myth. Children are in fact often ambivalent about learning too much about their parents. They don’t want to know about their parents’ sexuality and often try to avoid knowing intimate things from their history.

“I need to know what really happened,” Lara says decisively and points her finger at the girl in the picture.

The girl in the picture smiles a fake smile.

“My grandmother,” she says, touching her long straight hair, “was always so protective of me
“My grandmother,” she says, touching her long straight hair, “was always so protective of me. She accused Ethan of abusing me, but then after my parents got divorced that was all forgotten. No one talked about it anymore. That was strange.”

Lara looks severe. She suddenly seems much older than her twenty-nine years. She takes a brief glimpse at her watch, calculating how long we have until the end of the session. I know she needs time to think through her history.

“When I lived with my grandmother she used to scare me,” she says. “She used to repeat that I had to be careful. She would tell me strange things, for instance, that I needed to wear underwear to bed, other- worms would get into my vagina. She would whisper it and I remember feeling nauseous. Every time she talked about my body she would start whispering. When it came to sex her boundaries were strange. She talked about inappropriate things as if they were normal and about normal things as if they were perverse. Her whispering made me feel dirty, as if she had dark secrets that came out at night, and then in the morning she would be my loving grandmother again.”

“When you were ten years old and we played Little Red Riding Hood, you told me that the grandmother in the story had a lot of secrets,” I say. ‘You will see,’ you used to repeat, ‘you will see.’ But we never found out what those secrets were. Maybe you are ready now to ask the questions that were never asked.”

Lara travels to meet with her grandmother Masha. She wants to learn about Masha’s childhood and hopes to find her own answers there.

Masha grew up in a chaotic household with very few resources. Her parents went to work early in the morning and came back late at night. Her oldest sister, who was thirteen, became her main caretaker. Masha told Lara that she always felt her mother didn’t want her, that deep inside, her mother regretted having so many children. Masha was a shy girl and a good student. Excelling at school was her way to feel special and worthy.

One night, when Masha was ten years old, she had a bad dream. She often had bad dreams but knew she couldn’t wake her parents up or they would be upset with her. She sneaked into her fifteen-year-old brother’s bed. Her brother was the smartest; he was funny and brave and the one she admired the most.

He kissed her.

From then on her brother came into her bed every few nights. She would make believe she was asleep and wouldn’t make any noise. He would touch her gently and never hurt her. In the morning they behaved as if nothing had happened.

It was when Masha was about thirteen and got her period for the first time that her mother told her in a very matter-of-fact way that she shouldn’t let her brother in her bed anymore.

“Do you mean her mother knew?” I can’t stop myself as I interrupt Lara, who is still shaken by what she learned.

Lara nods. “Yes, but they never talked about it. She never told anyone.”

Unprocessed experiences always find ways to come back to life, to reenact themselves again and again. Masha’s repressed memory came to life in the typical way repressed memories do. It snuck into the mind unexpectedly, triggered by later events. For Masha, Ethan and Lara were a reminder of her and her older brother. That close relationship between a brother and a sister awakened her own repressed memory, and she felt the urge to give Lara the protection she never had, to be the parent she herself had always wanted. Her request that Lara’s hair be cut short was an attempt to protect Lara, in the same way that Masha believed she protected her daughter, Hanna, when she became a woman. Through Lara, Masha relived her own sexual abuse, which she could never fully process.

The intergenerational aspect of sexual abuse is unique in the way that each generation overwhelms the next
Sexual abuse is one of the most confusing traumatic experiences that we know. The intergenerational aspect of sexual abuse is unique in the way that each generation overwhelms the next and inflicts on it the drama of their sexual trauma.

The next generation’s world is often sexualized in the same way that the victim was sexualized as a child. They feel flooded by the parent’s unintegrated sexuality and perplexing boundaries. As Lara describes, innocent, trivial things, such as the underwear she wore when she went to sleep, were filled with sexual meanings. The adult — in this case Lara’s grandmother — who tries to make sense of her own feelings often communicates to the child the confusion about what is safe and what isn’t. The original confusion between innocence and perversion is played out through the next generation, with seduction, promiscuity, and prohibition all intermingled. The next generation usually describes growing up with a constant, vague feeling of violation that only later in therapy is understood to be related to the original break of boundaries in their family’s history of sexual abuse.

As in Lara’s case, our challenge is to hold all generations in mind — grandmother, mother, and child — as victims of either sexual abuse or the intergenerational inheritance of sexual abuse
In her article “Enduring Mothers, Enduring Knowledge: On Rape and History,” Dr. Judith Alpert describes how sexual abuse can present itself in the mind of the next generation. Using her own childhood experience, she discusses the way traumatic thoughts and “memories” can be transmitted from parents and grandparents and present themselves in the child’s mind as their own. That phenomenon leaves everyone, the child and her caretakers, with the confusion that is at the core of sexual abuse. As in Lara’s case, our challenge is to hold all generations in mind — grandmother, mother, and child — as victims of either sexual abuse or the intergenerational inheritance of sexual abuse.

Masha, who was reliving her own unprocessed trauma, devastated her family with the idea that Lara’s brother sexually abused her. Lara became more and more overwhelmed. It was as if she were reliving her grandmother’s repressed feelings. Through the family’s ongoing rumination and the premature introduction of sex, Lara felt the intrusion into her body and thus the scene of sexual abuse was reenacted.

“When I was sitting with my grandmother last week and she told me about her childhood, I cried. She didn’t,” Lara says, and tears drop down her cheeks. “I tried to listen to her the way you listen to me, and to help her understand that she could tell me anything and I wouldn’t judge her, that I really wanted to know her.

“At some point she stopped and said she didn’t want to talk about it anymore. But she kept talking and I didn’t say a word. She started blaming herself, saying it was she who went into his bed first. Then she started to question her memory and said that it all sounded much worse than it actually was, that things were different then.

“Before we went to sleep she made me a cup of tea and served it with a slice of the chocolate cake she had baked for me.

“‘I know how much you like chocolate,’ my grandmother said, and hugged me. Then she held my shoulders, making sure I looked at her. ‘Lara, please don’t take my problems on you,’ she said. ‘I don’t want you to be sad because bad things happened to me. Worse things happen to people. That’s life; my life isn’t so special.’

“‘You had to keep a secret for so many years, Grandma,’ I said, and hugged her as tight as I could. But she just kept nodding. ‘I didn’t keep a secret. It was something I didn’t always remember. The secret kept itself.’”

“I think I found my ‘me-search,’” Lara tells me as she wipes her tears.


Demons tend to vanish when we turn on the lights
She will go on to study the tormenting and deceptive impact of incest and sexual abuse on the next generation, those aspects that are hard to research, as they are seemingly irrational, puzzling, and unformulated experiences, but that Lara lived through in her own childhood. We both recognize that one way to face that transmission from generation to generation is to process those experiences and help others process and own them, too. Demons tend to vanish when we turn on the lights.

Excerpted from Emotional Inheritance by Galit Atlas, PhD. Copyright © 2022 by Galit Atlas, PhD. Used with permission of Little, Brown Spark, a division of Little, Brown and Company. New York, NY. All rights reserved.
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Galit Atlas Dr. Galit Atlas is a psychoanalyst and clinical supervisor in private practice in New York City. She is on the faculty of NYU’s Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis as well as a faculty member of the National Training Program and at the National Institute for the Psychotherapies. She has published three books for clinicians as well as chapters and numerous articles. She was a contributor to The New York Times column, “Couch,” and her New York Times publication “A Tale of Two Twins” was the winner of a 2016 Gradiva Award. She is a leader in the field of relational psychoanalysis, a recipient of several awards and is a sought-after lecturer here and abroad.

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • Describe what the author means by "me-search"
  • Discuss how trauma is passed down through the generations
  • Plan your own clinical interventions around generational trauma

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here