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Inherited: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
There are movies that make you cry, and then there are movies that make you ugly cry. In March of last year, I saw two that land firmly in that second category: Pixar's "Turning Red" and "Everything Everywhere All At Once." While on the surface they seem pretty different — an animated film about a girl who transforms into a panda and an action-packed exploration of the multiverse — the two both feature an exploration of the relationships between Asian American parents and their American-raised kids. The tears streaming down my face came from a place of deep resonance. I, too, was raised by a parent whose strictness often felt suffocating, and in a family in which talking openly about feelings was not the norm.

I saw myself in the daughters, Mei Mei and Joy, but I also saw my parents in their parents and my grandparents in their grandparents. There were behaviors, attitudes and perspectives passed down through the generations, and I could see it so clearly in these fictional family stories. What starts as good intentions and survival instincts generations later can become ingrained patterns that no longer serve anyone — inherited trauma that needs to be disrupted.

This is Embodied, I'm Anita Rao.

I am not the only one on Team Embodied who has been thinking a lot about generational trauma. This summer, our own producer, Kaia decided to do some digging in her family — starting with a conversation with her grandmother Jean.

Kaia Findlay
I'm curious what patterns you've noticed by studying our family history and what you've learned about patterns in the family.

Jean
There may be a pattern of depression in the family. It doesn't mean that it's cause-and-effect, but there may be a propensity among some people to be susceptible to depression. And who knows if my paternal grandfather was not also depressed, because men hide it so well. But my father was clearly depressed much of his life, and who knows what the contributory factors are. But one of the things I have learned is that a pattern can exist from one generation to the next. So we have to be a little bit careful about being conscious of the risks that we have in our family.

Anita Rao
The generational patterns in our families are complex and layered. Beyond the physical characteristics and genetic predispositions, we also inherit stories, expectations and trauma. The science behind all of this is fascinating, and we're gonna get to it a bit later. But first, some context.

Dr. Ramona Beltrán
So historical trauma is defined as a collective and cumulative wounding resulting from large-scale destructive events that target communities. Intergenerational is — specifically, it's the way that the trauma experienced in one generation can affect the health and wellbeing of subsequent generations.

Anita Rao
That's Ramona Beltrán. She's a multiracial Chicana mother, scholar and dancer. She first came across the term generational trauma when she was in graduate school, and it was a huge a-ha moment that helped her make sense of her own family story in a way that she never had before.

Dr. Ramona Beltrán
So my family is originally from northern Mexico and are descendants of Yaqui and other Indigenous communities there. I grew up with my mom in a single-parent, low-income household, and what I remember is she was always sick. And many relatives of her same generation were also sick from chronic diseases like she had — diabetes and cardiovascular disease. So I watched my family and communities like ours struggle with these conditions — and also with mental health and substance use issues — and I knew in my bones that it had to be connected to something bigger. So I suppose that my education was really about my quest to find answers.

Anita Rao
There are a number of ways in which communities all across this country experience historical trauma. The precipitating event could be slavery, forced removals or family separation. What's important to remember is that this kind of trauma is cumulative and can lead to responses like poor health, substance use, parenting stress or the loss of cultural traditions. If you're a parent or caregiver for anyone under 5, this might all be sounding familiar to you because of a film that's been on repeat since last November: "Encanto."

Dr. Ramona Beltrán
It's such a good example. I have three small kiddos, so it's on regular rotation in my house, and I think what it does is give us a picture of a family's experience with that intergenerational trauma. We can see how the violence and loss that Abuela Alma endures at the hands of the armed conflict and the forced displacement that, you know, we see at the beginning of the movie — and then in flashbacks — that shapes how the family lives and functions. And each of the characters, I think, is kind of like an archetype of some of the coping mechanisms in response to the trauma.

So Luisa is the strong one, she's there for everybody. Isabela is the perfect one, Bruno is silenced and estranged — nobody talks about him. And I feel like a lot of folks who have experienced intergenerational trauma — myself included — we can see ourselves in the characters and the roles that they play in families. I know for myself, I feel an affinity for Tía Pepa. I look at her as having big emotions, and maybe have been told once or twice that my mood can impact a room like the weather. So if I were to distinguish historical and intergenerational trauma, I would say that if "Encanto" was about historical trauma, we'd see more of the story about the impacts on the village as well as the family and exploration of the forced displacement. Does that make sense?

Anita Rao
That totally makes sense, that totally makes sense.

Dr. Ramona Beltrán
I was just going to ask you if you had a favorite character from "Encanto."

Anita Rao
Yes, I would say Mirabel, for sure. I mean, physically, I think we look alike — curly hair and glasses — but also the way that she's, kind of, the observer and connector in her family and is trying to, kind of, pay attention to where everyone else is with their trauma and their feelings. That's very much the role that I play in my family. So Mirabel is certainly mine. And I guess I want to hear a bit about, and what you've began to understand about, how trauma has been passed down in the communities that you are a part of, and what are some of the manifestations of the way that trauma has been passed down?

Dr. Ramona Beltrán
My mom passed away really suddenly in 2012. She had pneumonia, and I was able to go be with her for the last seven hours of her life. And while I was there, the doctor said, "She hasn't been taking care of her diabetes." And you know, in that moment, I felt like this was such an example of how they were attributing her demise to her actions. But what I learned later was that she had lost her health insurance almost two years prior to that, and she didn't tell me. So yes, part of it was she wasn't taking care of herself, but also, she didn't have access to the resources of support medicine and the system that she needed to care for her as well. Right, so it's that systemic failure.

And the way that it manifested in the way that she communicated, or didn't communicate with me, was that she didn't tell me. I could have helped her. I can't say what her reasoning was, but I believe she probably was thinking she was protecting me by not telling me that she had lost her health insurance. So when we think about how historical trauma is transmitted, you know, it can be directly through lots of stories about traumatic events, or maybe a parent or grandparent overidentifying with a traumatic event — so that's like a vicarious trauma — and it can be indirectly through silence.

And we also know that epigenetics plays a role. It's a very complicated science, epigenetics, but very simply put, we are learning that the context of our environments, particularly high stress environments, can impact the expression of our genes over time and then those get passed down to future generations. And it can look like higher risk for things like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. So for myself, I'm looking out for that all the time. I'm trying to make sure that I'm on top of prevention and staying well and staying healthy, so I can, you know, intervene. Luckily, I've been able to do that, so far. I'm really grateful for that.

Anita Rao
The field of epigenetics that Ramona mentioned is fascinating, and is gonna need an episode of its own at some point. But the TLDR is that scientists are finding proof in the laboratory for something that Indigenous and other communities have been talking about for a long time. And it all relates to the small molecules — the epigenetic markers — that tell our body how to use our DNA.

I heard a researcher named Brian Diaz talking in an episode of another podcast about epigenetics, and he shared a metaphor that I found really helpful. He says, "Think about your DNA as your distinct book of life, and your epigenetic markers as a punctuation mark. So if you put a comma in a slightly different place, or a hyphen somewhere, it can completely change the meaning of that sentence."

We've known that our environment and behaviors change epigenetics all the time, but what we're now learning more about is how our trauma experiences are changing our epigenetics. There's a study from a few years ago of a time right after World War II when there was a severe famine in the Netherlands. The study shows that not only did the children of people who are pregnant during that time have poor health outcomes, but the study shows that the grandchildren of people alive during this famine were also more likely to have poor health — suggesting an inherited trauma for those a generation removed.

There is so much more research that has to be done to help connect all of these dots, and the field of epigenetics is really just getting started. But in the meantime, those of us who are living with generational trauma are working through it the best that we can. One of those people is Brandy Wells. She's a licensed independent social worker in Columbus, Ohio. She gave birth to her first daughter, Kennedy, about 16 years ago, and it was around that time that she started to think a lot about generational trauma.

Brandy Wells
You know, I was a young social worker eager to help children — knew exactly what I wanted to do to change and do my part. I began going into homes, where I was supporting caregivers who were supporting children who are having behavioral issues and challenges in school in public settings. And what I learned is that not only were the children impacted by behavior, but the parents and the caregivers of those parents — and this long story of intergenerational trauma, of healing not taking place, but not understanding why the children today were still being affected by the lack of healing that was taking place in generations before. So then I began to start having my own children and realizing that — what does this mean for me? And so, it was this beautiful dance of me becoming a social worker in my career, but also just raising my own family, and bridging that gap from what I was teaching to others, but bringing it in at home.

Anita Rao
And I think one of the things to point out here is it's not always conscious, right? You're not always aware of what you might be carrying inside of you, and there can be these moments in which you are brought to awareness. And one of those for you happened, kind of, because of watching your husband parent your own kid. So talk to me about that, and what seeing that awakened for you about your own experience.

Brandy Wells
Of course, you know, as a young girl, it didn't dawn on me that I had abandonment issues, right. I wasn't — my father wasn't present in ways that I wish he was. But I had a beautiful marriage, and we were raising our children, and I began to notice all the thoughtful and meaningful things that he was doing for our daughters. And there was a part of me that almost felt a sense of jealousy of a, "Why not me?" Do I remember when my father walked me to school? Do I remember when he helped me brush my teeth, or the small moments when he's reading books for my daughters before bed? And I started to realize that, wow, there was so much grief that I was experiencing through watching my husband be a father to our children. There was so much of that that he was doing that I wish that I had for myself. And it was then that I began to realize that there was still so much pain, and there was a lot of trauma there from not having him in my life.

Anita Rao
As we were talking about earlier, there are so many ways that trauma can ripple through generations. You're mentioning this very particular way that — the way that you were parented affects how you were feeling as you parented your own kids. But you've also thought a lot about, kind of, going generations and generations back, talking about some of that historical trauma some of your ancestors experienced as enslaved people in this country. So talk to me about what you've uncovered about how this type of historical trauma lives in the bodies of African American communities today.

Brandy Wells
You know, what intergenerational trauma and work has done for me is have me have some very intentional questions in seeking of knowledge of my ancestors. So I just began to start with my father and start with my mother by just asking them very open-ended questions about their own childhoods. Can they tell me about a moment in which they were raised? How were their mothers to them? What was the context of the time frame? Was it the civil rights movement? Was it segregation? What did transitioning from Alabama to Ohio look like for my family?

And I began to, just, hear stories of survival. You know, my grandmother who birthed eight children and — because of the lack of birth control methods and, just, large families — and how that left my mom in isolation. Because, as a middle child in an eight-child-family, she wasn't seen or heard and how her siblings raised her. And so just constantly hearing those narratives and sitting down with them and hearing that they were human, and that they did their best. And that there's forgiveness that comes from that, because I'm able to see them for who they are instead of projecting what I believe they did to me. So it was a beautiful, kind of, ebb and flow of, just, questions, and answers, and seeking and understanding, but also, just, hearing that historical context of what has got my family to what it is today.

You know, a lot of part of what my parents and the parents before me did were because they were surviving. I'm not surviving anymore. I can thrive, I can stand on top of their shoulders. So I think once you begin to understand what has impacted your family, you can begin to move forward in a way that, just, becomes more conscious and more intentional.

Anita Rao
What are some of the things that you identified in your own behavior or in your husband's that you really wanted to try to work on to break the generational cycles with your own kids?

Brandy Wells
I think for me, part of conscious parenting is just listening. You know, children become unseen and unheard, you know, they're just there. They oftentimes just don't have a voice. There was times I didn't feel like I had a voice, which is why, maybe, I had forgot that that abandonment even was a part of my story. And so I allow my children to feel. I allow my children to have choices. You know, obviously, my discipline strategies are ones that teach and model the behavior that I want to see for them. I know that in order for my children to be their best that I have to be my best. And so that looks like me taking time for myself, managing my self-care, managing my mind, body and spirit and not feeling guilty for taking time to do that, but knowing that if I am my best, then they breathe a little bit easier. And I hope that that models for them what it looks like to truly put yourself first in order to pour into others. So I, kind of, just, allow them to be. I respect their individualism, and there is no construct, there is no box, they are here to just live freely and for me to help guide and walk alongside them.

Anita Rao
I want to bring Dr. Ramona Beltrán back into the conversation, and have you, Ramona, follow up on this thread of parenting. I know that you've had some particular experiences with your own kids of really trying to think about how generational trauma is informing your parenting style and what you might want to do differently. Tell us about that.

Dr. Ramona Beltrán
I can say that, for me, it is a constant meditation. When my tank is empty, it just sneaks out, right, the trauma sneaks out. And I have to be prepared to acknowledge and name it, then contextualize and apologize to my kiddos. And at the same time, like what Brandy was talking about, it also means that I have to care for myself and be aware that I'm also still in the process of healing. Communication is really key to me, too. It's important to talk to my kids about our history, and to be truthful in a way that they can develop mentally, understand and also to educate them — not only on the trauma — but the beauty and strength of our culture. My goal is that they know who they are and where they come from. And whereas, I've been relearning for much of my life, they are born into knowing, and it's so beautiful to witness them. I just got chills. It's just so beautiful to witness them know what to do with plant medicines, for example, or how to conduct themselves in ceremony. And my hope is that their children will also carry that knowledge, and maybe someday, we won't even need to remember the traumatic history. Imagine.

Anita Rao
That's really, really beautiful. And I mean, brings me to this point, Brandy, of, kind of, existing in a — in a both/and space where you're trying to create these experiences for your kids that are so different from what you might have experienced, but also acknowledge that we're still living in a world where they may not be seen the same way inside the home as they are outside the home. So I'm curious about how you raise your kids in a way that you want them to feel safe and heal, maybe, some of those wounds that you had, but you also want to prepare them for existing in this world that is still filled with so much racism and discrimination.

Brandy Wells
Yeah, I think that's really why my motto is, like, trying to impact the world starting with mine, but really guiding other children to do the same — and other parents. I know that I can't do this by myself. And so for me, when working with families and communities in which I am supporting more conscious living, I'm able to bring along a whole generation, because I know that that is what true change looks like. And so for me, allowing my work to manifest into what my — what I really want the future to look like for the world that my children live in, is, kind of, what — what my goal is.

Anita Rao
I know that in my own life, there was a very particular moment in early adulthood when I began to see my parents as full people beyond just mom and dad. That realization helped me begin to pick apart family patterns that existed long before I came along. One of our listeners has been moving through a similar process.

Evy Gonzalez Ronceria
Hi, my name is Evy Gonzalez Ronceria. I'm from New York City, and I'm Muisca — which is Indigenous to the land that is now Colombia. I learned something really important from my therapist a while back, which is, you don't have to forgive, forget or love the people that hurt you in your life. This is the thing that is super important while you're going on your journey with healing and breaking generational cycles from trauma.

I do love my parents, I genuinely do, but I've endured an insane amount of abuse from both of them — verbal, emotional, physical. But this story isn't only mine. It's also my cousin's, it's also my aunt's, it's also my grandparents', my great grandparents'. This story isn't new, this story is old as hell, it's been repeated through generations. And I know this because, when I figured out that I don't have to forgive and forget, I realized what I had to do is stop holding on to that resentment — to that pain. And once I stopped doing that, I was able to speak to them and learn my history, my history with them, my history without them and their stories. And I learned that these stories have tended to repeat themselves constantly. And it sucks, but knowing these things have helped me understand my family, my ancestors and the things that they have gone through and how important it is for me to heal from this and not forget that this happened.

Anita Rao
Thank you so much to Evy for sharing that story. Negotiating what and if to forgive and forget is never on the table for some families grappling with their ancestors' history.

Merissa Nathan Gerson
This idea of forgiving and forgetting was the antithesis of my childhood. We were literally given a repeat thing that my father even wrote — "never forgive and never forget" was what he wrote on his middle school research paper — the front of it, writing about the Warsaw Ghetto.

Anita Rao
Merissa Nathan Gerson is an author who comes from a family of Holocaust survivors. And in her household, those experiences were talked about openly and often. But acknowledgement of the emotional toll of those horrors wasn't a frequent topic of conversation, which meant that before she started to really process her inherited trauma, the weight of what she was holding on to could catch her off guard.

Merissa Nathan Gerson
I was at Naropa University, which is a Buddhist school in Colorado, taking this experimental dance class, and she asked us all to let go and be totally free. And everyone else was running around this room like, sort of, children, and I curled up into a ball like a potato bug on the ground and couldn't move. And our homework — I ended up, actually, getting kicked out of the class, which was a sign that I wasn't ready to even be in my body, which woke me up to a lot of what was going on. But our homework, before I got kicked out, was to, sort of, be at home with our bodies and write down what came up after we did different exercises. And I would just fall over in grief, and I started to, just, think about war and think about the stories I was told. And while they were told to me my whole life, they were never told to me as if they impacted me. And I think that was the moment where I realized that they were living in my body. That when I danced or moved, these stories were, sort of, stuck in me. And it began a, sort of, 20 year path of trying to unveil all of it.

Anita Rao
As you began to unveil it, you're also becoming a real student and scholar of Jewish texts and Jewish faith, and I'm curious about how those two things ran parallel to each other and informed one another. How did learning about the history of Judaism impact how you thought about inherited and embodied trauma?

Merissa Nathan Gerson
Well, I think coming from a Holocaust family, we talked about the war constantly. And we talked about murder and Nazis, and really, sort of, created this vision that life began and ended, sort of, in 1939, and that everything else is the hereafter that we're living now. And part of my Jewish history helped me see that this is a repeat thing for Jews, that over and over again, they got harmed and kicked out, or extricated, and then they would find themselves in a new place. They would create a printing press, they would create a new congregation, they would create a new movement. You know, the whole idea of Kabbalah and a lot of the mysticism in Judaism, much of it was a trauma response to a group that had been displaced. And I started to see that the story was repeating and repeating, and that much of the Jewish ritual and practice that I was being taught as, sort of, Christian or normalized in an American context, was actually — when done properly — a trauma method of bringing people back into their psyches and their bodies and their communities after extreme horror.

Anita Rao
I know that you don't believe that we can heal fully from inherited trauma. You have thoughts about, kind of, what it means to — to sit with it, and not necessarily forcefully pass it on, but deal with it in our bodies. Talk to me about that.

Merissa Nathan Gerson
The concept of healing is often very cute. And it's very, like, we got over that hurdle, and it's gone. And I think that my, sort of, vision of healing is more abrading and more of an attention to, like, how alive can I be? And much of, like, what war does to people and what trauma does is shut parts of us down psychologically, emotionally, interpersonally, physically. Like that example of me in that dance class was an alarm letting me know that my body had been not engaging fully in this life, that I had a lot of waking up to do — literally, like my muscles and my organs, like, there's a piece of me that was shut off. So, so much for me is about just coming back into the body, into this life, into what it is to be here and not stuck in remembering the horrors that came before.

Anita Rao
Merissa writes really beautifully about her journey with healing and grief in a number of published essays that we'll link to in our show notes. Another theme that she talks about often is sex and sexual trauma. Merissa is also a sex educator, and has worked in sexual violence prevention for a long time. She sees a distinct connection between this type of violence and generational trauma.

Merissa Nathan Gerson
I think when it comes to sexual violence, and the way that sexual violence works, is it's — in so many ways, and so often — a product of inherited trauma. And a product of the person who's perpetrating upon another has an unresolved history, has a pain that was induced upon them, has a story they were taught that it's normal to abuse women, or it's normal to have sexuality be about power. And all of that is an inheritance of trauma. And so much of inherited trauma is the normalization of suffering, the normalization of worldviews or mindsets that cause, like, a constriction rather than expansion of the self. And when it comes to sexual violence, it's the same thing. It's someone's very constricted self impacts another and constricts them. And that, to me, is the ultimate bearing and marking of inherited trauma, is that you take this thing that was unresolved, and you put it upon another person. And that work is so exciting. I think this, sort of, uncovering of, what is the story we're not telling? How do we honor that story? How do we hold that story? And how do we stay alive in ourselves, in relationship to the world around us, in relationship to others without constricting and pulling away from what it is to be alive?

Anita Rao
I would love to end with, kind of, an acknowledgement that some of the people listening to this show may — this may be their first time thinking about inherited trauma, or thinking about how it is living in their bodies. And I know that you do workshops to open up conversations about recognizing and healing around the country. And I'd love to close with, maybe, just one or two tools or strategies you introduce people to who are at the beginning of this journey of reckoning in their own families.

Merissa Nathan Gerson
The workshop I usually do offers these four lenses for how to look at inherited trauma. We look at the emotional impact from our own networks, families. The ways in which someone might've called you fat as a child over and over again when they felt badly about themselves, and it was about something else or something more complex than that. But that's, like, a great little example is, just, noticing how you were spoken to, or looking at collective emotional messaging from churches and synagogues and community centers and television shows like "The Bachelor," which all contain, sort of, marks of our collective trauma.

And then we also look at physical trauma — the way in which somebody might have hit you or harmed you in another way. That's one or, just, simply what you inherited through your blood and what was passed down. And so I often just challenge people to notice little things, like, if you ever go to the beach, or you're walking in the woods, or you sit somewhere where it's a beautiful skyline, and you can't notice waves, or you don't notice the trees — I know everyone's been in that state where you're so caught up in your own head, you're not in this world. That's sort of like a great beginning, is this moment of, "Okay, am I even here?" I think that my goal always as a practitioner is for to get someone to peel back just a tiny, tiny layer to reveal that there's a bigger story we're holding. And the more we know that we're holding that story, and the more we honor it, the more we can see the stories of others, and so that intercultural work of inherited trauma and cultural repair, it means we see ourselves, we witness ourselves, and then we're able, in turn, to witness others.

Anita Rao
Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, a listener-supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org now. Storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you.

This episode was produced by Kaia Findlay and edited by Amanda Magnus. Audrey Smith also produces for our show, Madison Speyer is our intern and Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer. Quilla wrote our theme music.

If you enjoyed this show, share about it on social media and tag us. It helps new people find us, and will give us a great start to this new year.

Until next time, I'm Anita Rao, taking on the taboo with you.

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