More on blood memory.....
Updated: Jul 30, 2021
The Viking ship was enormous, filling the grand hall of the Oslo museum completely. Tourists milled about, marvelling at the size and grandeur, mesmerized by the whale-sized ribs, leaning in to examine the intricate carvings on the prow of the boat. My nine-year old son spied an empty balcony that overlooked the expanse of the ship, and the two of us rushed up the stairs, excited to get a bird’s eye view of history away from the crowds. Peering over the edge of the platform to see the interior of the massive vessel, I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Immediately, my body started to tremble. Shivers traveled up my legs, my spine and out the top of my head. Something was bubbling through me that felt almost other worldly; I experienced wave after wave of what can only be called an odd recognition, almost like a memory. But that was impossible, wasn’t it? I started to cry, but I didn’t know why. My son reached for my hand, and we stood together, a profound awe rising and settling inside us.
The gravity of the encounter was not lost on him; we had been following the path of our Norwegian ancestry, experiencing a strange and wonderful familiarity in the beautiful landscape, a country we had never been to. I was doing research for my debut novel, Becoming Leidah, a story about a mother’s secrets, and her daughter’s magical ancestral inheritance. My gut told me that I had to walk on the landscape of my family, to dig my toes into the same earth to channel what was necessary for the characters. For the majority of the trip, we were held in a kind of altered reality, in a sweeping reverberation of time, the past and present overlapping. As my son so aptly put it, we had found home. Leaving Norway felt wrong somehow; how could I feel such homesickness for a place I had only just met? It wasn’t until we returned to Canada that I discovered more detailed information about my ancestry, which included a treasure trove of old photographs, family letters and postcards, as well as specific DNA results, along with a map of where my ancestors had lived. Not surprisingly but certainly amazingly, intuition served us well; we followed the genetic trail perfectly, infusing my manuscript with the magic I was hoping for.
I have always been fascinated by the concept of blood memory and genetic inheritance, or as the science world calls it, ‘transgenerational epigenetic memory’. From my limited understanding, it’s the idea that our DNA can be tagged or affected by the environment we experience—essentially changing how genome expression manifests—which can impact future generations. Not only do we inherit things like hair or eye colour, we may also inherit behaviours, like an aversion to certain smells, or even an inexplicable phobia. The biggest, far reaching impact on genomes seems to be traumatic experiences of violence and adversity. Horrific events such as the Holocaust can echo through time, hollowing out bodies for generations, even when survivors have passed on, their memories faded or disappeared. Personal trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse, can also echo through lineages, even if the original trauma has never been named.
Genetic memory is not a new idea. It’s been around for centuries, possibly even longer, spanning across many cultures around the world. In our contemporary western society, Carl Jung coined the term ‘collective unconscious’ to speak of the deepest layers of the unconscious, a depth sinking far beyond the personal. Universal archetypes reside here; trauma lives here too. In his new work, Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds, Thomas Hübl explores the trajectory of trauma and ancestral memory. Interestingly, his explanation of how unresolved violence becomes stuck in our shadow consciousness, only to show up later in life, parallels what I have suspected in my own family. When I was in my late twenties, I began having inexplicable symptoms: panic attacks, food aversions, nightmares, sobbing fits. Intuitively, I knew there was something I had been repressing; I also knew that my mother’s avoidance of her own trauma was part of my body’s need to purge. It took years of therapy, art making and writing to dig into what both of us had buried. Even as I turn fifty, I can feel the ground shifting, something still begging to be unearthed. My mother’s dementia, making this archaeological dig the most challenging yet.
Examining the shape of such a burial, our notion of linear time begins to curl and spiral into itself; the past is no longer a distant point on a line, but rather, layers of sedimentary rock, butting up against the present. Akin to an overlapping fold or wrinkle of a quilt, it can change the present, possibly even the future. The quantum physics theory of ‘retrocausality’ sheds some light on this conundrum of time moving fluidly: put simply, events in the ‘future’ can actually impact and even change the past. At first, this may seem impossible, yet research on how DNA is affected by trauma reveals the truth of this.1
The magic of female fertility encapsulates the idea that all times can exist as one. Consider the image of ‘matryoshka’ nesting dolls: each infinitesimal egg inside a woman carries its own precious acorn sack of future eggs, and so on and so on. Truly, this miraculous design must be divine, proof that the human form carries the past, present and future in our bones and blood, in everything we experience now. Trauma can imprint not only on a singular woman, but also her future children, grandchildren, for many generations. On the flip side, perhaps this offers hope. Any healing work we do as individuals can have far reaching, positive impact on our descendants and the collective unconscious.
As I watch my mother decline, sometimes regressing into her child self, I wonder about the still buried traumas that may have caused such a dramatic, tragic fragmentation. What might have happened, had she spoke her truth, and received validation and support? Perhaps her memory wouldn’t be splintering into a million pieces. Perhaps she would still recognize her grandchildren, her children, her husband.
For now, we are content to sit and look at old photographs, holding hands in awe of small treasures.
Thomas Hübl. Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wound. Colorado: Sounds True Inc., 2020.
1 Thomas Hübl, Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wound, 7.