Treating intergenerational trauma
Left to right: Nina Krieger (Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre), speaker Mark Wolynn, Richard Fruchter (Jewish Family Service Agency), Nicky Fried (Congregation Beth Israel) and Shanie Levin (Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver). (photo by Rhonda Dent Photography)
On Feb. 15, Mark Wolynn, director of the Family Constellation Institute, spoke to an audience of almost 1,000 people at Congregation Beth Israel on the topic Understanding Intergenerational Trauma: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle. The crowd sat in rapt silence as he unfolded his own story and the stories of some of the people his therapeutic approach has helped.
Introduced by Rabbi Adam Stein, assistant rabbi at Beth Israel, and Richard Fruchter, chief executive officer of the Jewish Family Service Agency, Wolynn quipped upon taking the stage, “The last time I stood at a synagogue pulpit was at my bar mitzvah.”
Wolynn said his work on intergenerational trauma has particular relevance for those who have survived genocide and war, such as First Nations people, refugees and Jews. His efforts to understand the effects of trauma began when, as a young man, he found himself going blind. He had “the bad kind of central serous retinopathy,” he said, “the five percent kind where it can lead to becoming legally blind.”
Plagued by grey blotches and blurs distorting his vision, Wolynn said he was terrified. He tried a litany of alternative medical cures, which didn’t help, and headed off on a quest for enlightenment.
After marathon meditation sessions and audiences with several gurus, Wolynn said he waited for hours for a satsang (sacred meeting) with a swami in Indonesia. When he finally made it to the front of the line, the guru looked at him for a moment and said, “Go home and make peace with your parents.” It wasn’t until he heard the same message from the next guru he visited that Wolynn returned home to begin his journey into healing his relationships with his family.
Years later, after making both personal and scientific study of the impact of family dynamics and inherited trauma (and healing his blindness), Wolynn has emerged with a persuasive vision of the role that unaddressed trauma can have in our lives – even if the trauma happened in previous generations, and even if you didn’t know about it. “Many of us spend our whole lives believing we are the source of our own suffering when we are not,” he said.
Wolynn presents his findings in terms of epigenetics, the study of how life experience can turn on or off certain genes. He points to findings in both humans and animals showing that the children of traumatized parents react with stress, fear or aversion to stimulus that traumatized their parents, even if the children themselves have no previous negative exposure to the trigger. “We think the effects – the alteration in the genes – may last for three generations,” he said.
Wolynn described several case studies in which patients had symptoms that could be addressed only after patients understood their source in something that had been done to (or by) a mother or grandfather. Wolynn challenged the audience to ask themselves what their greatest fear was and to put it into words, explaining that this was a clue to their “trauma language,” which could, in turn, be used “like breadcrumbs” to lead them back to the unrecognized traumas in their past.
Wolynn laid out a series of steps for uncovering intergenerational traumas and healing the brain. He also shared stories of his use of visualization, ritual and family communication to free both adults and children from chains they didn’t fasten themselves.
Alan Stamp, clinical director of counseling at JFSA, a co-sponsoring agency of Wolynn’s talk, told the Independent, “What Mark is doing is putting a new spin on how to get to the heart of it and resolve the difficulty. The past is alive in the present.”
Stamp said he knows of two people who attended a follow-up training session offered by Wolynn in Vancouver after the public lecture, and who have had success applying Wolynn’s method clinically; one of them being a counselor at JFSA. “It works,” said Stamp.
JFSA offers counseling for a wide variety of issues, and Stamp is hoping that attendees at Wolynn’s talk will be inspired to pursue healing, through JFSA or elsewhere.
JFSA, the Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver, Congregation Beth Israel and the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre partnered to bring Wolynn to Vancouver, and the talk was additionally sponsored by the Lutsky families and Rabbi Rokie Bernstein. Banyen Books hosted Wolynn the day after his talk at the synagogue.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.