Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men and Women and Children

There is a dramatic difference in the way researchers and most therapists see the world and the people of the world. For very good ethical reasons researchers generally do their magic with mice and correlate that to the lives of people. Well, I am very excited about the study of epigenetics and its impact on the understanding of intergenerational trauma, its impact on behaviors and coping skills of succeeding generations.


In Discover Magazine May 2013 ( discover ) the author Dan Hurley, wrote with great simplicity and humor about the exciting research that describes what many therapists have recognized for years….”the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”, ” like father, like son”, ” it’s all Mama’s fault”, the history of the proceeding generations often affects the present.

“The research indicates that changes occur in the DNA through methyl groups, which can be described as placeholders, attaching to each cell to select those genes necessary for those cell’s proteins… Methyl codes reside beside but separate from the double helix DNA code, the field was dubbed epigenetics, from the prefix epi ( Greek for over, outer, above).”

And this is all Greek to me, but what I do understand is that these folks have discovered that traumatic events change DNA and that impacts the generations that follow.

When I grew up with overwhelming shame and could not identify “my shame” it created an energy in how I viewed myself and my place in the world. What I now understand is that historical events in the lives of my great-grandparents, grandparents and parents affected my DNA, the Epigenetics of who I am. That what happened to my mother and what she felt while I was in the womb affected who I became.

Those world events that we discussed last blog, WW 2, the potato famine, the “troubles” in Ireland, The Holocaust, Apartheid, the Depression and so many more traumatic events, affect the DNA and behaviors, change the course of the lives of children born into families who survive trauma.

The adoption story…. Is also a more universal story as it relates to all survivors of abandonment and neglect. Even when an adoptee is raised by loving, nurturing parents there is most often a Soul wound, described as the Primal Wound by author Ruth Francisco. We see our adoptees with great anger, grief, sadness and pain as a result of their perception of not having a relationship with their biological Mother.

I have been privileged to remind the “abandoned” that they had a 9 month relationship with their mother. Often an experiential piece of work… An in utero body map or collage describing the “possibilities” that in 9 months has created a dramatic shift in the course of treatment. Being able to give a potential meaning to the relationship and abandonment…an understanding of what might have transpired in utero can shift the negative to a positive.

It is vital for us as clinicians to gather as much anecdotal history as possible to assist trauma survivors to understand how the generational trauma has impacted their lives. The Refuge community invariably has at least 10% of its community as adoptees and in addition a wider percentage, perhaps. 30-60% survivors of abandonment and neglect. When we can bring the families together enormous healing can happen. Trauma work is like a Rubics cube, a huge puzzle, a labyrinth… Our job is to assist our clients in Unraveling the Trauma story and that begins, often before the present generation.

The good news is that when we Unravel the trauma story we can impact in a positive way the Epigenitic make-up of our children and grandchildren. I see that begin with the families that work so hard at The Refuge to change the direction of their Trauma story. Many of our most successful clients who struggled with attachment and relationships but found healing and purpose in their trauma stories are now having children and they have changed the attachment story to a healthy, nurturing relationship…the relationship they needed as children, they are now providing to the next generation.

Epigenetics is exciting to me because it is proof that the story can be changed….that Nature and Nurture can synergistically change the direction of our very Traumatic world environment…that the healing of one individual can create healing for a whole family and then a whole tribe, and then a whole nation and then we can change the world.

Am I naive? Probably, but I believe in Dreaming Big. Science has shown us the way and little mice will lead us.