Prisoners of Azkaban: Understanding Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma Due to War and State Terror (With Help from Harry Potter)
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Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society 8.2 (2003) 200-207



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Prisoners of Azkaban:
Understanding Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma Due to War and State Terror (With Help from Harry Potter)

Maureen Katz


The note of hope is the only note that can help us or save us from falling to the bottom of the heap of evolution because, largely, about all a human being is anyways is just a hoping machine.

—Woody Guthrie

I grew up forty years ago in a section of Los Angeles, the Fairfax Area, that was overwhelmingly Jewish—mostly working class, with a smattering of professionals. At the time, that part of LA was filled with adults who, fifteen years before, had survived the Shoah and resettled in California. Their children were my classmates, high school friends, and roommates in college. The holocaust was historically close enough so that in my tenth-grade afternoon Hebrew school, our young teacher, himself a child of survivors, passed around soap made from Jewish fat and a lampshade made from Jewish skin.

Events like that were part of what came to be second nature for me: a recognition of who these children of survivors were, through a marker so prominent that even now, when a clinically depressed adult recently came into my office seeking analysis for difficulties he was experiencing with intimacy and love, I found myself waiting for him to say (which he eventually did), "By the way, my parent was a survivor of Auschwitz." The mark on his psyche seemed as concrete as if he had stuck out his arm and showed me a number.

I have worked with patients whose communist families lived through the period of American state terror known as McCarthyism; with Vietnam war vets and the children of veterans; with survivors of state terror and torture in Bosnia, Iran, Africa, and South America; and with children of survivors of the Shoah. In each of these instances, one recognizes the legacies of psychic and physical trauma. There are striking similarities in the generational transmission of those terrors through psychological structures, which preserve a relationship to the traumatized parent, affecting the individual's memory and development. The patients with transmitted trauma find themselves occupied with states of dread and worry. Personal and professional successes often coexist with inexplicable states of despair and avoidance. Tragically, the tyranny of history is perpetuated through these transmissions. These marked generations need to move into their own skin.

There are fundamental differences in the "traumatic" experience of the first generation and those to whom it is transmitted. The first generation, the individual who experienced the trauma—for instance the Bosnian who has been tortured and imprisoned—is unable to put the events of his past together. He literally cannot tell me his history, cannot tell me the order in which things happened to him; it troubles him that he cannot make sense out of these events; he is surprised when I have a temporal sense about the order in which things occurred. His memories are jumbled and chaotic; he is easily affectively overwhelmed by them so that he cannot utilize cognitive and ego processes to make sense of the past. However, he can make limited sense of the present. When he began treatment, he told me that he remained alive now to raise his children and to protect them, and he added that he could only function in that capacity. He is distressed that when his two-year-old kicks him during tantrums he confuses it with the physical and real time sense that a prison guard is assaulting him.

By contrast, the next generation, the patient who is the child of holocaust survivors, has a ready made sense of the past: an affective sense of the past which is not from his or her subjective experience of the world but borrowed, on longterm loan, from the traumatic experience of his parents. The sense of the past is sharp and distinct. The relationship with...