Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma across Generations, edited by M. Gerard
Fromm, Karnac Books, London, 2012, 228pp.
A close-up of a vintage radio adorns the cover of this remarkable collection of
essays on traumatic transmission. The authors explore how the trauma of one
generation is carried by the next. Such emotional handoffs may be particular to a given
family suffering a loss, or they can exist as a shared response to societal trauma. The
book is divided into three sections, the ﬁrst exploring the transmission theme in legacies
of the Holocaust, followed by the analysis of its enactments in clinical vignettes, and
ﬁnally in relation to events of collective injury in contemporary America.
In the introduction, Gerard Fromm recalls overhearing his mother hum the Joan Baez
song “I Still Miss Someone,”in unconscious reminiscence of her ﬁrst baby who died in
infancy. When Fromm was born a year and a half later, he was given the name of his
mother’s obstetrician, also that of St. Gerard, the patron saint of pregnancy. Fromm
describes his own “mission borne of trauma,”to thrive and help repair his mother’s
injury. Fortunately, Fromm’s mother could sing her loss. But what if one can’tsingit?
The opening essays elaborate how trauma typically disrupts the process of
symbolizing feeling states and renders the subject “affect-lame”(p. 56). Dori Laub
argues that in the wake of massive trauma “death drive derivatives”annihilate the
internalized good object, what he gently calls the “inner thou.”Traumatic experience is
dissociated from the narrator who has endured it and thus cut-off from social discourse.
The dead mother complex extends beyond the realm of maternal deprivation, Laub
suggests, and applies to catastrophic injury where the internal good object is destroyed.
Following up on these ideas, Peter Loewenberg recalls the years of hunger of the
German civilian population during the WWI when the physical health and stature of a
generation was stunted due to prolonged malnutrition (1914–1918). The transgenera-
tional impact of famine was transmitted through the oral tradition of his parents who
described a once-a-year indulgence as children: an orange segmented and apportioned
among the entire family. Loewenberg further identiﬁes a causal link between physical
privations of the German people during WWI, which culminated in the Great Depres-
sion, and the Nazi appeal to the children of Central Europe. To what extent did “the
passive experiences of childhood starvation”lead to a reversal and fantasized “undoing”
through the hunger regimen and cruelty of the concentration camps (p. 61)?
Traumatic transmission hijacks not only the process of discursive symbolization
but often listening and comprehension within the clinical context. Several writers
remark on the resistances analysts have to engage with the effects that wars and war-
like situations have on their patients’internal worlds. Melanie Klein ignored the
inﬂuences of WWII in her treatment of a 10-year-old boy, named Richard in 1961.
And how many Jewish analysts, working in the United States after that war ignored
The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 2014, 74, (90–114)
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Holocaust-related external realities in their work with patients without being aware of
it? Mention is made of double blind countertransferences, in which both analyst and
supervisor neglect the transmission enactments of their patients due to denial of their
own group traumas and fear of external threat.
In a pivotal essay, Vamik Volkan remembers his childhood in Cyprus during the
Nazi bombings of the island, fear of his father’s death, and death wishes related to
Oedipal guilt. Of importance is how external factors, such as wars and other social or
economic upheavals, mirror Oedipal and preoedipal issues. “Chosen trauma”is
Volkan’s term for events of collective injury that become mythologized and handed
down through a line of descent. In his words, it is the “unconscious ‘choice’to add a
past generation’s mental representation of a shared event to its own large-group
identity”(p. 83). These transgenerational scripts are sometimes used by malignant
leaders to justify ethnic and religious violence. Such was the case when the Serbian
President, Slobodan Miloševićreactivated the collective memory of the Battle of
Kosovo from 1389, during the years of the Yugoslav Wars in the 1980s and 1990s.
What social responsibility do psychoanalysts bear for identifying group transmissions
in the public realm when the road leads to genocidal hell?
Howard Stein takes up the topic of collective trauma in American society in a
memorable chapter. He imagines all the possible directions that trauma can be
transmitted in organizations, ethnic and religious groups. Trauma can be transferred
in a “vertical”direction, for example, in the brutal downsizing of corporations since
the mid-1980s. Stein articulates “horizontal”transmission as the circulation of injury
among people in more equivalent powers relations. This is often the experience of
mental health professionals working with victims of large-scale disaster, for example,
the Oklahoma City bombing (1995), who suffer the empathy of witnessing second-
hand. Vertical and lateral transmissions may happen concurrently, in relation to the
same event. A main point: traumatic transmission ferries out unacknowledged grief
along multiple vectors. Stein describes how mourning is “short-circuited,”groups
become “stuck”in time, and collective solidarity is created in the process. The term
“disenfranchised grief”is invoked to convey the kind of emotional repository that, if
unanalyzed, leads to traumatic reliving.
Barri Belnap asks us to consider how transmissions occur, not only in dreams and
acting out, but in turns of phrase that express a family’s“life lessons.”Such words are
often the signature of a primary relationship such as a game with a wooden spoon called
“It doesn’t hurt”that Belnap describes between a child and mother. Emotional ties
between a child and their ancestors are essential to the development of a sense of right
and wrong. Unrecognized transmissions frequently lead to a repetition of the ethical
failures that accompanied the original trauma. Of particular signiﬁcance to the analyst
and patient are questions such as “Who am I?”“Who am I to my family?”“What ties me
to them?”“Of these ties, which do I reject and which do I keep?”(p. 127).
Transmission is the giving of a task. Often one child within a family is nominated to
represent the anxiety of their predecessors, have it witnessed, and spare transmitting the
affects back to the parents. As a child unconsciously chooses to repair the loss, the rest
of the clan can allow the feelings of tragedy to sink below consciousness. Fromm
describes a man who entered a Holocaust Museum requesting that the institution keep
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the remains of the tattooed serial number taken from his arm. Analogously, the
designated child is charged with the mission to become the keeper of familial heritage,
an uncanny “holding environment.”Feelings of having a “special”role in the family
compensate for assuming the responsibility of some other person’s purgatory.
In a dynamic and humorous essay, Françoise Davoine elaborates transmission
transference as a “quixotic”call-and-response akin to psychosis. How does the
clinician help discharge this mad hallucination, a terrain littered with giant, ancestral
windmills? Fromm suggests that therapists take interest in the life stories of patients’
parents and grandparents and develop an understanding of the social and historical
context in which they lived, especially its moments of disorder. The working through
of transmission experience may entail an unbearable process of separation, a crisis
of identity, and a sense that “something life deﬁning and deeply intimate is over”
(p. 109). The child learns to speak something their caregiver could not. He or she is no
longer authored by a mission to which they have been profoundly faithful, but freer to
create something new.
This exciting, emotionally vibrant project is critical to the growth of psychoanalysis
and the healing of future generations.
Molly S. Castelloe, Ph.D.
Candidate, Institute for Expressive Phychoanalysis, New York, NY.
Working with Trauma: Lessons from Bion and Lacan, by Marilyn Charles, Jason
Aronson Inc., Maryland, 2011, 130pp.
Let me begin by stating that I assigned Marilyn Charles’s book to a class of clinical
psychology doctoral students, all of whom very much appreciated the facility with
which she introduced complex concepts from the theories of Bion and Lacan, two
writers not known for the clarity of their prose.
Charles begins explaining how Lacan believed we are all presented with a notion
of the world through the eyes of others, what he called “the subject caught in the
desire of the Other.”Among other things, psychoanalysis, for him, entails the way the
analyst helps his patient become “uncaught”in the Other’s desire in order to cultivate
desires of one’s own. What does Lacan mean when he proposes that the unconscious
is structured like a language? Like language, the unconscious mind creates connec-
tions and makes meaning. There are gaps in meaning, gaps that become the focus of
analysis. Some gaps can be ﬁlled but others refer to the inevitable “lack”of awareness
of our limits, the acceptance that we cannot be or have it all.
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