Epigenetics, Inherited Trauma, and You: The Ghost of Generational Memory

inherited trauma

The study of epigenetics and generational memory, at least as far as its relationship to trauma, is fairly new. Without going into a poor scientific explanation of what epigenetics is, I will merely quote Dr. Jackie Hackett from the University of Cambridge. He says point blank that “…research demonstrates [that] genes … retain some memory of their past experiences.” This quote is from a book entitled, It Didn’t Start With You, by Mark Wolynn. In this book, he encapsulates quite articulately the most recent research on inherited trauma and epigenetics.

The most basic explanation is that trauma does not affect the DNA sequencing itself, but the actual function of the genes. Have ever bought a car that turned out to be a lemon while other vehicles of the same make and model run just fine?

Then you understand how the same design does not always equal the same function.

Mark Wolynn gives an incredibly chilling example in the case of one suicidal young woman. She suffered from constant anxiety and depression and the desire to “vaporize” herself. Gretchen planned to jump in a vat of molten metal at a plant where her brother worked. In her own words, she described how she would be instantly ‘incinerated’.

Growing up in a relatively normal family, she had no instances of grave trauma in her own life. As Wolynn probed her past, he discovered that her grandmother had been interned in a concentration camp. There she lost nearly all of her family to the gas chambers. She carried the inherited trauma of the Holocaust from her grandmother who literally witnessed her family be vaporized and incinerated. Wolynn theorized that the survivor’s guilt deposited itself into Gretchen’s DNA.

While Gretchen was able to embrace her grandmother’s memories and detach her own life in order to become emotionally stable, the question remains. How many of us suffer our anxiety and depressions, not because our lives are so terrible, but because the lives of our ancestors were? Slaves in the 1800’s and before left a heavy generational footprint in the DNA of their descendants, as studies attest. In fact, inherited traumaDr. Joy DeGruy coined the term, Post Traumatic Slave Disorder, a riff off of PTSD, to describe the increased susceptibility to trauma in the American black population.

Slave owners bear the guilty burden of not only those people they owned but of casting a generational shadow that looms to this day.

In reading this book, my heart was deeply saddened by the notion of generational sin. Usually, we think of generational sin as an Old Testament artifact, no longer valid today. What alarms me about generational memory is not just whatever sins are added up on my cosmic tally, but the sins committed against me have the power to wound those who come after me. My daughters and I have suffered considerable trauma. But as I look at my ex-husband and his mental illness and personality disorder, I wonder too, if he was caught in some epigenetic web.

One of the foundational ironies of our marriage did not reveal itself until years after our divorce. One of my daughters had to do an ancestry project. She discovered that my side had Jewish roots that perished in World War II. On her father’s side, she discovered a Nazi soldier. And so it played out like an old movie reel in our lives. The petty tyrant, the home-bound fascist tormenting his little victims.  Even the words he used towards me echoed the language of the Nazi propaganda on the posters, where Jews looked more like rats than humans.

Could it be that we were playing out our own epigenetic holocaust? One of the terrible truths about torture is that those who engage in torture are as traumatized as their victims. In sending in soldiers to use “enhanced interrogation techniques”, are we then condemning their children and grandchildren toinherited trauma unspoken, unrecognized but life-altering traumas?

We harm the innocent children of both perpetrator and victim in a future that we ignore because we cannot fathom it.

Most adults can point to patterns in their family history. That addiction, as well as talent, has genetic weight is obvious, as well as other types of behavioral patterns. But we are in the habit of attributing these things to learned behavior more than the luck of the genetic crap shoot. Epigenetics and inherited trauma suggest that the interconnectedness between us and our forebears goes far deeper and carries more impact than previously suspected.

Generational curses carried for generations. I can’t help but think that inherited trauma is a generational curse. We mistreat other, traumatize them with abuse or rejection, war or neglect, and then in doing so, we condemn ourselves and our children and children’s children. The current battles of white supremacy echo the sins of the past. Could it be that epigenetics is playing its trump card?

I believe that each of us is responsible for our own actions. The best part of the book, It Didn’t Start With You, is that it gives a thoughtful explanation of how to go prospecting for the generational memories that need to be laid to rest. He shows us how to comb through our core language, the words that crop inherited traumaup in our minds over and over again.

 Looking closely at the stories in our families, we do have the chance to heal the ancient ruins, reestablish the boundary lines of our heritage.

But make no mistake.  Your generational memories, the lives of those who have gone before you, leave their stories in the inherited trauma you carry in your epigenetic scrapbook. Suddenly the decision to live right, to love well, and to face life with courage and faith becomes urgent. The stories that spring from affection and integrity are the ones we hope to write in the lives of our children and their children.



Study of a Group of African Americans Finds Trauma of Slavery Passed on to Children’s Genes

11 Replies to “Epigenetics, Inherited Trauma, and You: The Ghost of Generational Memory”

  1. couchcrumbsllc says: Reply

    Absolutely amazing post! It speaks not only on the power of generational sin, but also on its counterpart: the power of generational faith. As I get older, I become more aware of familial health issues that seem to affect me, despite my efforts to remain unaffected by them. I, too, know that I had a lot of strong people of faith throughout my lineage, and am completely aware of how crucial that is to combat those health issues. Thanks for the wonderful post!

  2. Insightful! We have hope though! The blessings of obedience are much longer lasting than the generational repercussions of sin… “for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

  3. Incredibly fascinating subject. It’s not one I am very familiar with, but it sheds interesting insight into things I have seen and experienced in my own life. Thank you for your research and explanation! I will say it gives even more import to the need for us to parent with intent.

  4. This is absolutely fascinating! I’ve only recently begun to learn about the role epigenetics play in trauma. This is a wonderful explanation and comparison to generational sins–also something I’ve been learning more about and how that might affect adopted children, etc.
    Thanks for this great post! I’ll be saving and sharing!

  5. Definitely an interesting read! Thankful for the hope you offer in your conclusion! Thankful also that the God has the power to transform and give us new life in Him with endless grace and possibility.

  6. That’s intriguing! I couldn’t help but think about Exodus 20:4-6 while I was reading your post.

  7. So good and so true. I had already seen the effects of “inherited trauma” in my own life and spoken to a counsellor before finding this article, but I think it is so helpful for people to understand that many of the things they are experiencing aren’t really their own to carry. Very freeing.

  8. This is a thought provoking read. I do not doubt some truth beyond discovery……. In ALL I trust, in fact cling to “greater is he that is in me, than he that is in the world.” My God has the power to heal. I believe I have witnessed my family be healed from generational sin……

  9. susanhomeschooling says: Reply

    “…the sins committed against me have the power to wound those who come after me.” What a chilling thought! I wonder if when God heals us, if those chains are broken for future generations.

  10. […] Epigenetics, Inherited Trauma, and You: The Ghost of Generational Memory […]

  11. […] Epigenetics, Inherited Trauma, and You: The Ghost of Generational Memory […]

Tell me what you think! (Please use HTTP/HTTPS in all links)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: