A Trip Home: A Lesson in Transgenerational Trauma

I recently had the opportunity to train an amazing group of professionals at a hospital in eastern Oregon, and it had me driving right through the town where I grew up! I decided to take a little detour through the main drag (about a 5-minute endeavor) to enjoy a little nostalgia. When you drive through my hometown in the Columbia River Gorge of Oregon, you will see murals of the local tribe which used to dwell and thrive in the area. However, the plethora of murals around this small town can be confusing: There is always a majestic waterfall with which these traditionally dressed Native Americans are pulling in Salmon by the net full. Always stoic, always proud and always set against a beautiful waterfall with which this tribe is literally named after. Their provider. Their great spirit.

Fast forward about 65-years and that waterfall is nowhere to be seen. It’s now buried under a mountain of water after a giant dam was constructed to provide electricity as far south as Los Angeles. The local tribes numbers are dwindling dramatically and their reservation, a small plot of land off of a major highway and railroad, looks upon the gravesite of their former namesake and provider. Those murals… Well, they have become a morbid reminder of what once was and never will be again. Like many Native American tribes, they struggle with problems that were once never an issue prior to white European settlers: Physical and sexual abuse, high incidence of domestic violence, addiction rates far above national averages, and a devastating cultural genocide leaving many lost and struggling to find their way. Even though it’s been many years since the dam was put in place, a horrific domino effect seems to be occurring and new generations who have never even seen the falls, let alone cast a net into it, seem to pick up the same grief, fear, pain and loss of their ancestors. Those insidious and destructive behaviors seem to pass seamlessly to new generations.

New research from Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta, is showed that certain information can be inherited via chemical changes in DNA during stressful or traumatic events. For example, laboratory mice would inherit their parents conditioned aversions and fears to completely neutral and benign stimulus, such as the scent of cherry blossoms. Dr. Brian Dias reports that the results of this new research, “allow us to appreciate how the experiences of a parent, before even conceiving offspring, markedly influence both structure and function in the nervous system of subsequent generations. Such a phenomenon may contribute to the etiology and potential intergenerational transmission of risk for neuropsychiatric disorders such as phobias, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Advances in science such as these really illustrate the importance of understanding our clients unique story… All of it: Past and present! Much like the new generations of Native American’s inheriting the darkness of their ancestors, at The Refuge we have understood for years that the grandchildren of holocaust survivors will often display neurosis consistent with their grandparents or that the children of rape survivors may carry the fears and phobias of their parents, despite never experiencing such an attack! To not understand these generational pieces of the puzzle means we do not fully understand our client and their unique story. In his newest book, “The Body Keeps The Score”, Bessel Van Der Kolk writes that “trauma recalibrates the brains alarm systems.” How true this is, and our clients alarm system may have been calibrated in the womb. No wonder they are so hardwired!

A few years ago, officials in the state of Oregon determined that if they opened certain dam spillways at a lower portion of the Columbia river and closed dam spillways at a higher portion of the river, they could expose the before mentioned waterfall again for 24-48 hours without causing any flooding. The tribe said no; they pleaded that brining it back only to take it away again would be too painful. However, it seems that new generations may still very much experience its loss regardless, and while we cannot change the injustices done throughout history, we can strive to really understand the trauma story and no longer ignore it. Only then can we really understand behavior and the deep layering of pain that may be driving it. Only then can we promote real, lasting healing!

Gray, Richard (2013). Phobias may be memories passed down in genes from ancestors. The Telegraph. Retrieved from

Van Der Kolk, Bessel (2014). The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Publishing.