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  • The Vehicle of Transgenerational Trauma: The Transgenerational Atmosphere
  • Tihamér Bakó (bio) and Katalin Zana (bio)

I. The World of the Transgenerational Trauma and the Transmission Process

The transgenerational effect of massive collective trauma is well described in the literature. William G. Niederland (1968) used the term “survivor syndrome” for describing the phenomenon. Later Judith S. Kestenberg (1980) and Milton E. Jucovy (1992) reported their similar observations on, for example, the interlacing between generations and the child’s identification with the parent’s tragic life experience. Both authors described the therapeutic difficulties when working with children of Holocaust survivors: the ambivalent relational pattern and the operation of a strong resistance. Haydée Faimberg (1988) described the characteristics of transgenerational compression, or telescoping, such as the lacunae in transference and counter-transference and the mysteriously negative reaction to therapy. Most authors have emphasized the role of secrets and the lack of narrative in the symptomatology, together with presence of a sense of compunction and feeling of shame and the absence of mourning (see Mészáros, 1990; Szilágyi, Cserne, Pető, & Szőke, 1992; Winship & Knowles, 1996).

Certain authors highlight sociological and anthropological approaches to interpreting massive, humanly created trauma and its transmission, stressing that individual experience of such trauma cannot be understood without social context. Teréz Virág—who in 1982 was the first in Hungary to report on her therapeutic experiences with Holocaust survivors and their descendants—emphasized, “It is impossible to grasp the problem of a child if viewed independently of the parents and [End Page 271] the social conditions” (1996, p. 5). Another Hungarian author, György Vikár (1994), highlighting the social aspect of massive traumas, reaffirmed that social and individual traumas are inseparable. Jeffrey Prager has explored traumatic experience as “the experience of a whole generation, in which individuals collectively share a similar psychology” (2003, p. 174). Such a cohort can become a lost generation, “a social situation in which the children psychologically identify more powerfully with their parents’ harrowing past than with their own separate and distinctive present” (p.174). Due to the overwhelming nature of a collective traumatic experience, the demarcation of generations becomes lost and, in consequence, children lose the possibility to create separate identities. Karl Mannheim recognized the temporal as well as spatial aspects of this process (cited in Prager, p. 175). As the natural distance between generations disappears, time becomes distorted or collapses entirely: real time is replaced by traumatic time, resulting in the freezing of the traumatic moment and the inability to differentiate clearly between past, present, and future. This broader, interdisciplinary perspective, as practiced by Virág, Vikár, and Prager, helps us better to understand not only the experience and symptomatology of trauma but also the transmission process.

Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok introduced a highly useful term to encompass this process: the “phantom” (see Abraham & Torok, 1984). The phantom refers to an alien object that “works like a ventriloquist, like a stranger within the subject’s own mental topography” (Abraham, 1987, p. 290). It is a formation of the unconscious that crosses from the unconscious of the parent into the child by “a yet to be defined manner”—through a type of incorporation mechanism—and that remains radically different in nature later on. Kurt Grünberg and Friedrich Markert, for example, discuss the scenic transmission of experience and apply the term “scenic memory” to the non-narrative, yet symbolic, transmission of the traumatic experience (2012, p. 218). Michael J. Feldman assumes that even patient and therapist communicate similarly, by way of characteristic non-verbal idioms or enactments (2015, pp. 600–602). The above-mentioned elements of transgenerational compression, family secrets, and the lack of mourning, which have important roles in the transmission process, thus [End Page 272] reflect the transgenerational process as a kind of transmission without words and without clear narratives.

II. The Transgenerational Atmosphere and Posttraumatic Intrasubjective Elaboration

Our clinical work, especially our therapy with second or third-generation Holocaust survivors and with survivors of other large-scale social-historical trauma, has led us to apply the term transgenerational atmosphere to the transmission of traumatic experience across generations. Traumatic experience deeply shocks the...


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