Book review

Emotional Inheritance by Galit Atlas

This is a book of client case studies or stories which are based on the silenced experiences of past family trauma. I loved them! We are shown how the emotional pain of our ancestors – parents, grandparents, great grandparents – can live inside of us as an emotional inheritance and the importance of our unconscious connections to the people we have around us.

The first thing to grab my attention was this line, ‘I’m not sure my parents ever realised how similar their histories were, now their bond was silently tied with illness, poverty, early loss and shame’. Often, there’s a family collusion to not reveal any unpleasantness. Yet, we need to search for the truth and hidden realities, piece together the evidence and clues, to understand how our minds operate. As the author says, ‘what was my ‘me-search?’

Much of what Galit Atlas has to say resonated with me. For example, that one child often gets to express the reality of the family – the unexpressed problems and repressed memories. They become the symptom carrier for the family system and re-enact the core issue. Or Freud’s melancholic process where a lost person is kept alive inside of someone through identification with the dead. This keeps the live person captive and causes a loss of life and vitality. Or the implications of suicide for the surviving family particularly the projection of their sense of guilt.

It’s the rip tide below the surface, the unconscious part that may go against our conscious goals, that I find the most fascinating. The conflict that invariably arises with change – loyalty to another family and belonging to someone else or moving beyond entrenched family myths and legacies. ‘The radioactivity of trauma’ and its ability to show itself intergenerationally in the ‘form of emotional and physical symptoms’. A narrative of the past takes shape in the present. A story is relived again and again.

Galit Atlas says, ‘when our minds remember our bodies are free to forget.’ She gives us a case history where an unresolved emotive fact is carried in the body – a brutal death. This can happen to us all and maybe be triggered by certain events – a specific date, at a certain age, a new relationship. Its interesting, this synchronisation does not have to be perfect or exact just good enough and that the matching process is part of our survival make-up. It happens regardless. It happens until we change our circumstances and resolve or release an emotive fact.

This author talks about old injuries. She gives the example of a soldier victorious in battle and says, its ‘never just a triumph’ but also a loss and an injury. An act of reparation is more often a repetition of an earlier trauma supposed to be healed. She considers the notion of a parallel heartbreak. ‘The moment when he and his father became one.’ Likewise, in therapeutic healing we often sabotage our healing when we get close to sensative emotional material. One of her case studies talks about, ‘then you act your feelings, instead of understanding them’ and ‘relive your trauma instead of processing it.’

Galit Atlas gives us potent wisdom. I loved this short paragraph. ‘We tend to assume that what we can see must be known to us, but in fact, so much of what we don’t know about ourselves lies in the familiar, sometimes even in the obvious. Often we realise that it is in fact right before our eyes, and still we can’t see it. This stuff is dissociated, hidden in our own minds. We know but don’t remember.’

My takeaways included. Its usually our relationships (with our parents) we repeat in later intimate relationships. We need another to bear witness to our emotional journey and to accept our feelings and process them. Feelings can be contagious and invasive. We might identify with the aggressor as a defence mechanism or adopt an abuser’s beliefs and behaviours. ‘The loyalty to the people we are attached to often keeps a part of us with them even when we leave’ and ‘in the end, we come to realise that it is the unexamined lives of others that we ourselves end up living.’

Galit Atlas writes from an experienced psychotherapist’s viewpoint. Somehow the learning she imparted lodged in my mind, in an understated way. Her work reminded me of Oliver Sacks and Virginia Axline, both qualified practitioners, who wrote in a similar style. I loved them too!

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