Thursday, 11 January 2018

First, Do No Harm: Playing Political Football With Victims and Survivors

Now that Twitter has replaced politics in Northern Ireland, as one political commentator has noted, it is no wonder that what now passes for political debate has reached new levels of toxicity. The Twittersphere has been running on hyperdrive this past week as the latest ‘political’ row over Kingsmills, in particular, and victims, in general, emerged.  Whatever the arguments around the motivations for Barry McElduff’s crass video, the outcome was that people were offended and disgusted. The MP for West Tyrone has since pleaded his innocence, accepted his “punishment”, and apologised; an apology that has been rejected by many of the people at whom it was directed.  One could easily label some of the reactions from our politicians as faux outrage, but it cannot take away the fact that those who were most affected by the slaughter at Kingsmills, on that cold early January night, back in 1976, felt it hard.  

I feel a certain, yet distant, connection to the victims and survivors of Kingsmills and to the relatives of the Reavey and O’Dowd families who suffered so much in that short window of time.  I, myself, was seriously injured in a gun attack on the 6th of January which left me paralysed and living in constant pain. The turn of every new year is a reminder of the week to come.  I don’t sit at home and count down the days and minutes like Alan Black, the sole survivor of Kingsmills, has recounted, but it’s always there, in the back of my mind. Furthermore, I’m sure it’s there in the back of my parent’s and sibling’s minds, who were also there, in our living room, to witness the shooting and its aftermath.  All victims feel it more, the sense of loss, on the anniversaries.  This is why it’s important to be conscious of their feelings at “their” time of the year.

This was one of the reasons why I decided to intervene on Twitter to ask South Belfast MLA, Christopher Stalford, to remove his tweet which featured a “satirical” cartoon depicting the aftermath of the Kingsmills massacre.  The picture showed a representation of the red minibus that carried the workmen, riddled with bullet holes, with ten streams of blood, representing the lost souls, flowing from the back doors onto the country lane.  

While I am the type of person who is not easily offended or disgusted, this macabre image shocked me to the core.  It immediately made me think of Peter Gibson, a man I have never met, but who, on the new BBC documentary series “Survivors”, spoke of how he had had to wash away the pool of blood in his dead father’s driveway, after his murder by the IRA in 1993.  It brought my mind back to a place where I imagined how my family would have had to dispose of the blood-soaked settee I had been sitting on, when UFF gunmen decided I would be their first victim of 1994.  

The cartoon, as explained by the artist, Brian John Spencer, was intended to be a satirical comment on the Barry McElduff controversy alongside the oft-cited Sinn Fein “red-lines”, supposedly placed on the never-ending merry-go-round of political negotiations at Stormont.  He claimed that he “never intended to cause any hurt” and that his thoughts were “with the Kingsmills families”.  But, what if the picture did cause harm?  What if he caused hurt to the Kingsmills families, or anyone else who has been traumatised by their experiences? 

The artist has made it clear that he has no regrets.  The point of the piece was to make a political point.  To criticise the Sinn Fein position. And he takes solace in the fact that the vast majority of responses he received, from Unionists, were positive.  The political point was the message that was picked up and conveyed by Mr Stalford, when he added the tag line, “Sinn Fein: offended by everything and ashamed of nothing.”  The political point had to be made first and foremost.  The grotesque and macabre nature of the image was secondary.  Calls on Mr Stalford, to take down the image, fell on deaf ears.  He would not be dictated to by the Sinn Fein Twitter mob.  All who objected to his post were lumped into a neat category: themmuns.

In my eyes, these calls were not, as some have suggested, intended to censor the image or to censor the artist, but instead to recognise the potential to cause harm.  This should be the first thought in the mind of anyone who puts up a post on any media platform. Political representatives should know this better than anyone.  They should be more responsible.  They should not be weaponising victims and survivors for their own party-political ends.

For too long have victims and survivors been used as political footballs.  They get kicked around until they are threadbare and deflated; leaving the match to peter out to a bruising no-score draw; the sorry ball kicked into the stand.  Then, when it suits the political players, a little bit of air is pumped back into it: game on for another 90 minutes. 

This is how the political football season goes, year on year.  Many of our politicians are seasoned professionals.  Some bag themselves lucrative transfers to the up and coming teams: instinctively knowing when to jump ship.  They have no issue play on a wet Wednesday night in Fermanagh.  They play to and are cheered on by their loyal ultras who revel in getting one over on their old rivals.  Every tactic, every pass, every attack is decided upon in the changing rooms before the match.  It’s all about building up a good cup run before the big-two final showdown: Election Day.  The key is a solid defence; especially against your closest rivals, your own side.  Keep risky plays to a minimum.  This is something Mr Stalford knows all too well.

When I last asked him and his party colleagues to take a risk, which could make a real and tangible difference to a significant number of severely injured victims, the response was telling.  The occasion was, fittingly, the final session of business of the Stormont Assembly (25th January 2017) before it closed for another election.  I was there with a delegation from the WAVE Trauma Centre giving evidence to the Committee for the Executive Office on the Pension for the Injured.  I asked Mr Stalford if he would be willing to support a pension for all severely injured victims, even those who were involved with paramilitary organisations.  On a personal level, I would consider the implementation of an all-inclusive pension, one that does not exclude anyone, even those who pulled the trigger on me, to be a gesture of true and meaningful grace and reconciliation for our society.   Mr Stalford was clearly of a mind to disagree:

This is where we, victims and survivors, and society in general, find ourselves.  Caught between the ballot box and the ballot box.  Many of our politicians, not all, think in terms of election cycles.  Long term thinking, that could bring a modicum of dignity to some of the most vulnerable people in our society, is worthy of a red card in the Cup Final.  Own goals count as double.  The best form of defence is attack.  Play to the ultras.  Keep them singing in the stands.  Keep them buying the season tickets even though their team never seems to really win.  Season after season.

There must be another way forward.  I would tend to agree with Barney Rowan who has, for a long time,suggested that we take the issues that affect victims and survivors out of the hands of our elected politicians.  Election after election makes it difficult for them to take the hard decisions; to look at their base and be honest with them; to do the right thing and suffer the consequences at the polls. I personally believe that Mr Stalford and his colleagues would not face the same fate that befell the man, to whom so many profess their faith.  Was he not the one who proclaimed: Blessed are the peacemakers?  The same man who asked his followers to turn the other cheek.  Who healed the cripple.  Maybe if these politicians sat back and realised that they have a responsibility to make this society a better place by first, doing no harm. Maybe.

But then again, maybe I am being too hard on our politicians.  They are after all, human beings like the rest of us.  Caught up in the legacy of our many years of conflict and violence.  Hurt and traumatised individuals who lash out against those who harmed our tribe.  Steeped in the bigotry and sectarianism that has permeated our society for generations.  We are all, if we are truly honest with ourselves, in some ways, and at certain times, guilty of feeding into the toxicity.  We try our best but the mask slips now and again.  

We should not be too hard on ourselves though.  We must strive to keep a lid on it and not let it seep into future generations.  It is only through love and empathy that we can do this.  We must try to walk in the shoes of our neighbours.  Try to imagine what it feels like to be the son of somebody killed at Kingsmills. To be the mother of a young girl shot in the head by a plastic bullet.  To be the wife of a man dumped at the border.  To be the carer of somebody who had their legs and arms ripped from their bodies while they sat down for a coffee one Saturday afternoon in spring 1972.  This is how we begin to consider living with ourselves: as human beings: not as them and us.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

A funny thing (and a few not so funny things) happened on the way to the Forum

And so begins another part of my journey as a victim/survivor of our most recent conflict. I have been selected to become a member of the Victims and Survivors Forum as part of a group of ten new members who will join the existing forum of thirteen people who, in turn, will stand down next year. This outgoing group of thirteen will be replaced by an additional group of new members in April 2017.

The Forum is made up of individual victims and survivors from across the region: those who have been bereaved; injured; as well as those who care for the injured. The main function of the Forum is to provide victims and survivors with an opportunity to put forward their views, which should feed into policy, on the plethora of issues facing victims in particular, and society in general, as we ‘deal’ with the ongoing legacy of the Troubles.  

This Forum could not and should not purport to speak for ALL victims but, as a group, which is broadly representative of the population of those who were victimised, we do have an important part to play in tackling the issues; which, so far, have held up the recovery process.  Collectively, we should try to come to some sort of agreement on what can be done to repair our society; and to make sure it never happens again.

This concept of ‘Never Again’ is a recurring theme among those who have been most affected by conflict; both here and around the world.  For me it comes from a sense that I have witnessed the dark side of humanity, at first hand, and I would not wish this upon anyone else: even upon those who perpetrated it. Breaking the cycle of violence, recrimination and revenge starts with people like me.  When we call for no more recrimination, for a better way, our voices seem to be heard.  We become 'moral beacons' who can shine a light on the issues and show a way forward. We should grasp this mantle with both hands and take the rest of our fractured society forward with us.  We must never go back.

Although I sit on my wheelchair in 2016, with all the baggage of someone who was born in 1972 and lived through the Troubles, who was injured in a sectarian gun attack in 1994, and has since embarked on a role in peacebuilding through the resolution of conflict issues, I enter this Forum with an open and honest heart.  I want to listen to those have a different experience of the conflict.  I want to understand their pain and their sense of loss.  As well as this, I want them to hear me too.  I want us all to be able to listen to each other.  To really listen.

I have my own personal views about how legacy issues could be resolved in a way that would benefit victims and survivors but this may not suit everyone.  I have met many other victims over the years, who would profoundly disagree with my views, but I have found that when I appeal to them on a purely human level, we can come to a common respectful understanding of the issues we face. 

One such issue that I know for sure will come up for discussion is the definition of a victim. It is a debate that may never be resolved. Some argue that people who were involved with paramilitarism or their families can never be classed as victims in the same breath as those who were not. This creates a hierarchy of victimhood where some victims are considered more superior than others.  For me, while I understand their concerns, I find this competition is wholly divisive.

This is not the Olympics, or for us cripples, the Paralympics, where we have a range of gold, silver and bronze medal winning victims. We don't need a hierarchy. We should maybe look at the issue through a more linear perspective - where we are all seen as victims and survivors in our own right but where we experience our victimhood at different ends of a spectrum.  There are those of us who may be moving towards the middle of this spectrum and those who wish to stay at the opposite ends.  This is fine. We don't have to be the same in terms of how we feel as victims.  Victimhood is tasted differently by different people at different times of our lives. Victimhood is not fixed.  It is not black and white: it’s a complex grey area.

I look forward to the coming debates.  I hope that the people who put themselves forward for the Forum come to table with a similar resolve to do their best for our society. This is not just about looking after the needs and desires of victims and survivors or, for that matter, certain sections of this group.  This is about attempting to tackle what has been a toxic issue which has dogged our political and social processes. I hope we can add to the work that has already been done by the outgoing Forum in a calm, positive and respectful way. I hope that the work we do in the future will help to heal our fractured society. I hope.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Transgenerational Trauma: A Northern Ireland Perspective


The child is born into a family which is the product of the operations of human beings already in this world.  It is a system mediated through sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, pain and pleasure, heat and cold, an ocean in which the child quickly learns to swim.
(R D Laing, 1971, p.11)

This essay will critically evaluate the mechanisms involved in the passing of trauma from parent to child using the various theories of the transmission of trauma: with a focus on the Northern Ireland perspective (concentrating on the impact of the ‘Troubles’); as well as international experiences (mainly, the long term effects of the Holocaust). 

Trauma, as a concept, is multicomplex and thus its impact can be experienced in various ways by individuals, by families, by communities, and by societies.  Summerfield (2000, p.232) posits that, ‘[t]here is no such thing as a universal response to highly stressful events’; while Douglass and Vogler (2003, p.10) assert that ‘[…] the pathogenic traumatic experience of one person is an interpretive construct that may not be shared in another, even in identical situations’. 

Herman (2001, p.33) characterises trauma as an affliction of the powerless in which the victim is rendered helpless by an overwhelming force: fundamentally altering the ‘systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection and meaning’.  Auerhahn and Laub (1998, p.22) describe how a ‘massive psychic trauma [can] shape the internal representations of reality’.  This is supported by Van der Kolk and McFarlane (1996, p.6) who state that, ‘[...] the core issue of trauma is reality’ and that the ‘meaning [attached] to the [trauma] is as fundamental as the trauma itself: leading to an inability to ‘integrate the reality’, resulting in a ‘repetitive replaying of the trauma’.  Douglass and Vogler (2003, p.42) summarised Freud’s speculation that in cases where the traumatic event is so extreme one does not in fact experience it - i.e. it is ‘not integrated mentally and emotionally into one’s sense of being’.

There may be positive effects after trauma, such as Post Traumatic Growth, but the majority of trauma literature focuses on the negative (Tedeschi and Calhoun, 1996).  This essay will concentrate on the negative effects and psychopathology of traumatic experiences and how these effects may potentially be ‘passed’ to the offspring of those who were initially affected (Weingarten, 2004, p.45).  There are multiple models put forward to explain transmission but due to space this essay will analyse the psychodynamic, sociocultural and family systems theories.

Research into the sequelae of the Holocaust brought the conceptual framework of Transgenerational Trauma (TGT) transmission to the fore.  Weingarten (2004, p.49) posits that the offspring of traumatised people act as witnesses to their parents experiences while stating that it is not the trauma itself that is passed, but ‘its impact’; or as Lev-Wiesel (2007, p.76) puts it: ‘its contagion’.  Herman (2001, p.2) states that, ‘[w]itnesses as well as victims are subject to the dialectic of trauma’.  The DSM-V-TR (American Psychological Association, 2013, p.271) criteria categorises repeated or extreme indirect exposure to ‘aversive details of the event[s] [as a stressor for PTSD diagnosis, usually in the course of professional duties]’This criterion omits offspring, begging the question: Why?  Why are children, who face similar exposure, around the clock, not considered to be affected in the same way as professionals?

Kellerman (2001, p.257), who concentrated on the long term effects of the Holocaust, presents an integrative model to demonstrate how trauma is transmitted and characterises the ‘process’ as a ‘functional relationship’.  This ‘content’ of this relationship can manifest itself in a way that has an adverse pathological effect on the offspring of survivors (Ibid., p.257).  The child is liable to experience problems with: (1) ‘Self’, which would impair ‘self-esteem’ and ‘identity’ development; (2) ‘Cognition’, promoting ‘[c]atastrophic expectancy and ‘stress upon exposure’ [to disturbing] ‘stimuli’; (3) ‘Affectivity’, ‘[a]nnihilation, anxiety, nightmares’ [and] ‘unresolved conflicts around anger complicated by guilt’; and (4) ‘Interpersonal functioning’, involving ‘[e]xaggerated family attachments and dependency or exaggerated independence’ [which may hamper] ‘intimate relationships and the ‘handling [of] interpersonal conflicts’ (Ibid., p.259).  McKenna (2015, p.40) postulates ‘that the children of victims are at an increased risk of experiencing toxic stress’: which has been defined by Shonkoff et al. (2009, p.360) as the ‘strong, frequent, and/or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response’.

Kellerman (2001) puts forward four major theoretical models for the transmission of TGT: Psychodynamic; Sociocultural; Family Systems; and Biological.  Downes et al. (2012, pp. 584-586), who researched families bereaved during the conflict in Northern Ireland, summarise similar approaches including: stress-vulnerability models (in which ‘increased vulnerability to develop psychopathology is [...] transmitted’ [emphasis in the original]); transmission of psychopathology (whereby ‘the parental trauma in itself is not transmitted, but rather that the parental psychopathology is the factor that influences the children’ [emphasis in the original]); genetic and physiological explanations (which posits that the stressor is ‘transmitted physiologically’ to the offspring); social psychological/parenting perspectives (which focuses on ‘social learning and effects on parenting’); psychodynamic theories (through transposition; overidentification; role reversal; and attachment problems); and family system approaches (with a focus on ‘particular interpersonal patterns present in families’).  Hanna et al. (2012) encapsulate a phenomenon of poor psychological functioning in children which may stem from the impact of trauma experienced by their caregivers, leading to a deficit in optimal interactions.

While some of these models may be discrete, others are more intertwined and connected.  Kellerman (2001) argues that any or all of the manifestations of trauma transmission can be determinants.  Weingarten (2004, p.49) echoes this line stating that ‘no mechanism alone is the answer to how trauma passes; none is incontrovertible; and none can be easily separated from the others’ [emphasis in the original].

The psychodynamic model of transmission, according to Kellerman (2001, p. 260), comes from the psychoanalytic tradition where ‘repressed, [unresolved], and insufficiently dealt with’ emotions within the primary victims are passed over to the next generation through unconscious ‘absorption’: which Hesse and Van IJzendoorn (1998, p.304) purport as having the potential to lead to ‘substantial alterations in consciousness’.  According to Volkan (1997, in Kellerman, 2001, p.260) the elder ‘unconsciously externalizes his traumatized self onto the developing child’s personality’: an influence that the child cannot repel; thus it becomes the child’s ‘task, [to] mourn, to reverse the humiliation [and shame]’ [emphasis added].  Lev-Wiesel (2007, p.90) also recognises this dynamic, in that, the 2nd generation were expected to repay a ‘debt […] for the suffering of the 1st generation [Holocaust survivors]’: it became their life’s ‘mission’.  A recent full page advertisement from a local victim-centred NGO in one of the main newspapers in Northern Ireland (The Irish News) echoes this mission mentality being placed upon subsequent generations, to perpetually seek truth and justice for human rights violations, by stating that, ‘[The UK] Government is waiting for us to die off but our families will not go away’ (News Letter, 2015).

Rowland-Klein and Dunlop’s (1997, p. 366-367) Holocaust research identifies this ‘intimate, intrapsychic, and unconscious’ process in the form of ‘projective identification’: in which the parents attempt to self-heal through the children, who reciprocate ‘despite the cost to themselves’; and ‘whereby the parent splits off the unwanted part of the self, which is projected into the child, and internalised by it; becoming [Kleinian] ‘containers’ for the parent [emphasis added].  DeGraaf (1998, in Downes et al., 2012, p. 585) describes a ’bad child’ within the parent being externalised through ‘anger, rage, sadness disappointment and grief onto their child’ [emphasis added].  Themes that arose in Rowland-Klein and Dunlop’s (1997, pp. 366-367) research included ‘overidentification’ and ‘re-enactment’ which involved the child placing itself in an analogous situation to the parent where they would try to find meaning and ‘share the suffering’, in a process of ‘introjection’ and ‘transposition’. 

Overidentification and overprotectiveness are evident when children display similar traits to the parents such as hypervigilance and a pervasive mistrust of others; in which the world is a dangerous place and the family is the only safe haven (Danieli, 1985).  Rowland-Klein and Dunlop, (1997, p.367) posit that this can compromise the child’s ‘own sense of security’.  This observation is corroborated by Black’s (2004, p.104) research into the children of police officers in Northern Ireland, in which ‘[the children] may develop anxiety regarding their parent’s or their own safety’.  The child becomes enmeshed in the reality of the parent in a ‘symbiotic’ relationship; boundaries are blurred; role reversal occurs (‘parental child [vs] adult child’); potentially leaving the child with problems around ‘separation’, ‘individuation’ and ‘autonomy’ (Freyberg, 1980, p.90; Rowland-Klein and Dunlop, 1997, p.366; Downes et al., 2012, p.593).  This type of relationship can be detrimental to both parent and child as they may become entwined in what Karpman (1968) has described as ‘The Drama Triangle’.

Kellerman (2001, p.261) shone a light on the ‘sociocultural and socialization models of transmission’ in which it is postulated that social norms and beliefs are passed down from ‘generation to generation’; whereby children ‘form their own images through their parents’ childrearing behaviour’.  This contrasts with psychodynamic theories of the unconscious to more direct and conscious learning.  In Holocaust literature, according to Kellerman (2001, p.261) survivor parents have been described as ‘inadequate’: as their extreme suffering was ‘assumed to create child-rearing problems around both attachment and detachment’.  Difficulties with attachment have been posited as a prominent conceptual framework for the transmission of TGT (Liotti, 1992; Bar-on et al., 1998; Kellerman, 2001; Downes et al., 2012; McKenna, 2015).  Attachment is a psychological model which describes the bonds and interactions between a young child and its primary caregiver and it is believed to be an important determinant of the child’s successful social and emotional development (Commission for Victims and Survivors, 2015, p.23).  Bowlby (1982) describes how we are born with a strong tendency to seek care, help, and comfort in times of danger or when suffering from physical or emotional stress.  Bar-on et al. (1998, p.318) assert that ‘[...] a primary function of attachment relationships is to serve as a source of security [...] in situations that induce fear or anxiety’.  Ideally, in an optimal relationship, the caregiver gives a positive response to the child: problems arise when a negative response is offered.  These problems may manifest in children as ‘disorganised’ or ‘insecure-ambivalent and preoccupied attachment strateg[ies]’, which could lead to an increased vulnerability to ‘dissociative disorders’ (Liotti, 1992, p.196; Bar-on et al., 1998, p.330).

McKenna (2015, p.37) asserts that ‘parental trauma exposures interfere with interaction patterns within families’.  Bar-on et al. (1998, p.319) postulate that ‘parents who are unable to monitor their discourse and thoughts [around traumatic experiences] appear to have children who show a lack of consistent attachment strategy’; adding that it is the ‘lack of successful coping, rather than the loss/trauma per se that contributed to this relation’.  Main and Hesse (1990, in Bar-on et al., 1998, p.320) propose that this ‘lack of resolution [...] is characterised by parental fear [...] perceived by the child as being either a frightened model or as directly frightening the child’; and that the attachment figure is ‘at once the source and the solution of the infant’s alarm, and this leads to a paradox of fright without solution’. 

McKenna (2015) posits that communication within families can be a detrimental determinant of TGT transmission.  McNally (2014, p.32) asserted that traumatic experiences could lead to the development of ‘unhealthy methods of communication’ within the family: ranging ‘from silence to intrusive attempts to discuss the events and imposing their interpretations [onto their children]’.  This type of communication can be either intentional or unintentional: verbal or non-verbal (McNally, 2014).  Bergman and Jucovy (1982) signal the importance of how the narrative of the trauma is relayed to children, in what spirit, or whether the information is used to educate or employed as a threat. 

Danieli (1985, p.298) highlights this ‘Conspiracy of Silence’ as a major factor in the transmission of TGT.  The problems with a frightening narrative explained above are seen in contrast to how silence around trauma can be even more insidious to the next generation.  Many of the families who survived trauma employed silence as a way of coping with their extreme experiences; and also to protect their children.  Their Holocaust experiences were too horrifying to recount; there were no words; they were dealing with feelings of shame and guilt; and at the same time their audience could not or would not listen to or believe them: which led to problems with intrapsychic integration and healing (Ibid.).  Nevertheless, many of their offspring ‘attested to the constant psychological presence of the Holocaust at home, verbally and nonverbally [and] reported having absorbed the omnipresent experience [...] through osmosis’ (Ibid., p.299). 

However, Bar-on et al., (1998, p.331) stress that the conspiracy of silence ‘cannot be total’.  The offspring may hear partial facts and use their imagination to complete the narrative which may result in a more pervasive interpretation; where the ‘made-up story may be even more frightening than the real one’ (Dekel and Goldblatt, 2008, p.285).  They are left with an emotional story without an actual narrative to make sense of it.  Bar-on (1995, in Bar-on et al., 1998, p.326) asserted that, ‘the “untold story” of the past was [transmitted] with greater intensity [...] than the “told” story’; and that the children became sensitive to their parents’ need to keep silent responding with a “double wall”: [t]he parents did not tell and the children did not ask’. 

Danieli (1985, pp.299-304) described four categories of post-Holocaust survivor families to give a sense of the systems they employed: (1) Victim families (characterised by a victim identity, pervasive depression, worry, mistrust, fear of the outside world, and symbiotic clinging); (2) Fighter families (characterised by an ‘intense drive to build and achieve’, mistrust, overinvolvement and overprotectiveness, contemptuous of dependency on others); (3) Numb families (characterised by ‘pervasive silence and depletion of all emotions’, role reversal, children grew up on their own and taught themselves how to live); an observation supported by Becker and Diaz (1998) who argue that such children had to mature rapidly in order to become protectors of their parents; and (4) Families of ‘those who made it’ (characterised by a ‘desire to make it big’, children were emotionally neglected, denial of impact of Holocaust).  All of these families have a commonality in that the past is ‘taboo, excluded from open discussion, [which] cannot then become [an integrated] history (Becker and Weyermann (2006, p.28).

Downes et al. (2012, pp.590-595) located this theme in their research of families affected by the NI conflict: whereby families hid ‘aspects of the traumatic experiences and engage[d] in cognitive and affective avoidance’; where the ‘unspoken’ was prevalent; and the children ‘invented [their] own explanations; a place where the ‘truth [was] dangerous’; where facts were ‘hidden but not hidden’; where the children attempted to ‘block out their feeling for fear of the consequences; upon which one child developed the ‘propensity to be the “good girl” [in] a conscious attempt to avoid causing her own mother any more stress’.  This echoes Dekel and Goldblatt’s (2008, p.285) observations where ‘sensitive subjects are avoided’ to prevent the intensification of stress. 

In conclusion, it becomes clear from the evidence that there is a case to be made for the existence of mechanisms which may pass trauma from one generation to the next; and in certain cases to subsequent unborn generations. However, they are not mutually exclusive and they may not always pass on pathological consequences.  There can be recovery; missions can be accomplished; and growth can occur. 

The main focus of this essay was concerned with transmission inside families however wider society and political responses can have a profound effect on traumatic sequelae (Becker, 2004; McNally, 2014).  From this comes a view that trauma is a biopsychosocial issue that should not be seen through a purely pathological diagnostic lens; ‘in which the basic focus is not so much on the symptoms […] but on the sequential development of the traumatic situation’ (Becker, 2004, p.6).  This point is echoed by McNally (2014) who argues that TGT should not be given a clear diagnostic criterion as this may steer any responses firmly in the direction of the medical model to the detriment of other treatment modalities, and of the individuals and families themselves.  Until the wider issues, that pervade societies affected by protracted conflict, violence, and trauma, are addressed the chances of seriously dealing with the long term legacy of traumatised families are diminished.


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Herman, J.L. (2001) Trauma and recovery: from domestic abuse to political terror. London: Pandora.

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Liotti, G. (1992) ‘Disorganized/disoriented attachments in the etiology of the dissociative disorders’, Dissociation, 5, pp. 196-204. Main, M. and Hesse, E. (1990) ‘Parents' unresolved traumatic experiences are related to infant 34 disorganized attachment status: Is frightened and/or frightening parental behavior the linking mechanism?’, in Greenberg, M.T., Cicchetti, D. and E.M. Cummings, E.M. (eds.) Attachment in the preschool years. Chicago: Chicago University Press, pp. 161-182.

McKenna, A. (2015) ‘The impact of the conflict’s legacy on early years’ development of children and young people’, in Commission for Victims and Survivors, Towards A Better Future: The Trans-generational Impact of the Troubles on Mental Health. Belfast: Commission for Victims and Survivors, pp. 36-49.

McNally, D, (2014) Transgenerational Trauma and Dealing with the Past in Northern Ireland. Belfast: WAVE Trauma Centre.

News Letter (2015) ‘Troubles victims use newspaper ad to attack Government over legacy issues’, [Online] Available at: (Accessed: 11 December 2015).

Rowland-Klein and Dunlop’s (1997) ‘The transmission of trauma across generations: Identification with parental trauma in children of Holocaust survivors’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 32(3), pp. 358-369.

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Van der Kolk, B. and McFarlane, A.C. (1996) ‘The Black Hole of Trauma’, in Van der Kolk, B., McFarlane, A.C. and Weisaeth, L. (eds.) Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society. New York, NY: Guilford Press, pp. 3-23.

Volkan, V. (1997) Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism. New York: Basic Books.

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Wednesday, 6 April 2016

‘Trauma is experienced not only by the individual, but by communities and future generations.’

Some more blog for any of you who are interested in how we 'treat' the effects of our troubled 'past'.  For many, the 'Past' is not 'past' it is continuous.  

(Warning) The following is a recent essay I submitted for my Psychological Trauma Studies Degree, so its a bit academic and long-winded.

‘Trauma is experienced not only by the individual, but by communities and future generations.’

This essay will critically analyse the above statement with a focus on the current treatment modalities available to practitioners: taking in the milieu of the period of protracted violent conflict in Northern Ireland, colloquially known as ‘The Troubles’, and the legacy of trauma which has emerged.

In recent years the ‘Peace Process’ in Northern Ireland has been lauded as an international success story (CIPCR, 2015).  With the signing of the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ (GFA), in 1998, the hope was that the violence would finally end and a new political process would flourish.  It could be argued, to a certain extent, that this was achieved, but ‘subsequent years have witnessed continued sporadic violence’ and the political process has been mired in deadlock and recrimination (Bunting et al., 2013, p139; Rowan, 2015).

Another remnant of the Troubles is the long term legacy of unresolved trauma and injustice: its impact or ‘contagion’, as Lev-Wiesel (2007, p.76) puts it.  A pervasive legacy of violent loss and bereavement; of serious injuries; of a perpetual fruitless quest for truth and justice; of socioeconomic deprivation; and the unresolved and unintegrated traumas of individuals, of communities, and of society in general.

This concept of complicated trauma will be the focus of this critical analysis, in how, it has affected the population of Northern Ireland; and what interventions are available in order to prevent it adversely affecting future generations.  Herman (2001, p. 33) characterises trauma as an affliction of the powerless in which the victim is rendered helpless by an overwhelming force: fundamentally altering the ‘systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection and meaning’.  Many of the victims were subjected to this overwhelming force of bombs and bullets which ripped families and bodies apart.  They lost trust in society because society could not protect them nor provide justice.  This is outlined by Kirshner (1994, in Eagle and Kaminer, 2013, p.94) who posits that any damage to the social order can produce ‘numbing, withdrawal, alienation, and disillusionment’.  They had no control as the threat was ‘largely faceless and unpredictable, yet pervasive and substantive’; powerlessness and helplessness were prevalent features in Northern Ireland (Eagle and Kaminer, 2013, p.89).  For many the traumatic event was random and unexpected; finding meaning was problematic.

The violence of the shootings, the bombings and the sectarian strife were common recurrences for certain sections of the population who experienced the conflict with more intensity, and with a more prolonged frequency than others, (Fay et al., Morrissey, Smyth, & Wong, 1999).  Smyth, Morrissey and Hamilton (2004, in Ferry et al., 2010) reveal that ‘40% of the deaths from political violence [occurred] in [Belfast], and 75% of these deaths [occurred] in North and West Belfast’.

Ferry et al. (2010) highlight the aftermath of the conflict by claiming that Northern Ireland has the highest levels of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the world with a 61% adult population lifetime exposure to a traumatic event.  PTSD symptoms include: re-experiencing of the event through intrusive memories; avoidance and numbing; and hyper-vigilance.  The presence of PTSD may bring with it a range of comorbidities such as mood, anxiety or substance abuse disorders according to Shalev and Yehuda (1998).
Due to the nature of the conflict during the Troubles there was an inherent fear of the other (which fed into the poison of prejudice and sectarianism); a fear of entering certain areas; a fear of revealing personal information (which manifested in anxiety, especially among security force families): fears which may or may not have been based in reality (McKenna, 2015; Stewart and Thomson, 2005; Black, 2004).  Van der Kolk and McFarlane (1996, p.6) assert that, ‘[...] the core issue of trauma is reality’.  However, for many, a ‘real’ fear and anxiety still exists in this society.  It is not yet a society that has fully emerged from conflict.

Healey (2004) argues that the term ‘post’ traumatic minimises the effect that such continuous violence has had on individuals and communities: as ‘post’ implies a discrete event, located in the past.  Healey (2004, p.177) describes Northern Ireland as a ‘pre-post-conflict society’.  Straker (1987, in Stewart and Thomson, 2005, p.105) conceptualise a phenomenon of ‘continuous traumatic stress syndrome’; while Eagle and Kaminer (2013, p.85) have expanded upon this with the concept of ‘continuous traumatic stress’ (CTS).

The nature of the violence in Northern Ireland markedly changed after the GFA: from that of daily bombings and shootings to paramilitary and sectarian intimidation in the form of punishment beatings, expulsions, and the targeting of family homes with petrol bombs.  Dissident republican have continued to attack the police and State apparatus (, 2015).  Eagle and Kaminer (2013, p.90) posit that the symptoms of CTS may be consistent with PTSD but they occur ‘in a context of realistic ongoing threat and therefore cannot be characterized as a maladaptive “false alarm” response to a past event’.This focus on CTS does not, however, take away the severity of how a single event can affect individuals who previously had minimal or no trauma exposure at all.  Summerfield (2000, p. 232) postulates that, ‘[t]here is no such thing as a universal response to highly stressful events’.  Vogler (2003, p. 10) affirms that the ‘traumatic experience of one person is an interpretive construct that may not be shared in another, even in identical situations’.

Nevertheless, it is this pervasive everyday violence still that plagues many communities in Northern Ireland.  It is with this severity, frequency, continuity and proximity to traumatic events in mind that one can envisage how, not only individuals, could be adversely affected, but also how this could ripple out into communities, and even into future generations.  It could be argued that certain sections of the NI population displayed characteristics of collective trauma, in that, hypervigilance and avoidance were common features of daily life responses: primarily utilised as ‘protective’ mechanisms (Stewart and Thomson, 2005, p.105).  Eagle and Kaminer (2013) expand on this observation by affirming that people experiencing CTS are preoccupied with thoughts about potential future traumatic events rather than on the thoughts of a previous unresolved event.

The concept of transgenerational trauma (TGT) has been put forward as a way of explaining how trauma can be experienced by future generations.  There are a number of theoretical models posited in the TGT literature such as: psychodynamic; sociocultural; family systems; and biological (Kellerman, 2001).  Within these models lie transmission mechanisms: with silence considered as being most pervasive.

McKenna (2015) postulates that communication within families has become a determinant of trauma transmission: echoing McNally (2014, p.32) who asserts that traumatic experiences could lead to the development of ‘unhealthy methods of communication’ within the family: ranging ‘from silence to intrusive attempts to discuss the events and imposing their interpretations [onto their children]’.

Danieli (1985, p.298) pinpoints this ‘Conspiracy of Silence’ as a major factor in the transmission of trauma.  An insidious silence within individuals, within families’ within communities: and within the NI statutory sector - which led to a vacuum in services that could have potentially addressed trauma (Healey, 2004).  Silence hinders attempts to employ psychotherapy as a model of treatment.  If the trauma is severe and continuous there may be no words, no narrative based in reality for the client to integrate.  Psychotherapy requires a conversation, one that is ‘co-created, one that enables meaning and understanding to develop, a process [where] a coherent narrative can develop: [where] the hearing and witnessing [is important]; [a virtual impossibility in] a context of silence’ (Healey, 2004, p.168).

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (2005) guidelines recommend a range of psychotherapeutic treatment models to deal with the pathological effects of PTSD, for example, Trauma Focused Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (TF-CBT).  Most conceptualisations and interventions aimed at treating traumatic stress assume that the experience is firmly rooted in the past yet, as discussed above, for many in Northern Ireland the traumatic stressors are in the present, and potentially in the future.  Eagle and Kaminer (2013, p.92) emphasise that a central facet of CBT interventions is ‘exposure’ to the previous event in an assumed place of safety with the intention of reducing ‘anxiety associated with [...] the past experience, [again assuming] that the danger is now past’.  This essay will now expand upon a selection of models that may be more suited to the ongoing effects of CTS: systemic family therapy; psycho-education; and therapeutic witnessing.

Healey (2004) who worked as a therapist in The Family Trauma Centre, in Belfast, promotes the value of systemic family therapy: a model which takes into account not just the trauma within an individual but one that is culturally sensitive; which pays attention to the whole system within which people exist i.e. their families; their communities; and the socio-political context.  With this in mind, Healey (2004, p.168) attempted to help the parents to find ways to ‘break the silence’ in the hope that this would aid communication and interaction within the family; and also between the therapist and the family.  Healey (2004, p.171) described families ‘at war’ with themselves that needed their own ‘peace agreement’, reflecting the context of the ongoing peace process outside the therapy room at that time.

Healey (2004) posits that psycho-educational material can be useful as a client can develop an understanding of what is happening and can learn some coping mechanisms.  This is in line with Feltham (2000, p. 10) who asserts that psycho-educational guidance can ‘enhance cognitive, behavioural and interpersonal functioning’ by teaching personal skills such as ‘parent effectiveness training, relapse prevention programmes, [and] stress inoculation training’. However, Healey (2004, p.178) concedes that it is ‘difficult to provide effective treatment for continuous trauma by virtue of [it being continuous]; real honesty is required; and the language used must reflect reality and be meaningful.  Straker and Moosa (1994, p.457) highlight these difficulties by asserting: that as the trauma is continuous, ‘the survivors are at great risk of being retraumatized’.  Healey (2004) claims to have witnessed retraumatisation between sessions.

Therapeutic witnessing is another model promoted by Healey (2004, p.180), from her work in the Family Trauma Centre, as being beneficial to ‘families subjected to continuous trauma’: in that, it is ‘important [to] bear witness to the “story lived”’.  Blackwell (1997, p.87) highlights the importance of the therapist in this dyad: as the therapist bears witness ‘to who the client is and what their experience has been [by providing] a recognition of what has happened, how the client’s life has changed and how they come to feel about their lives and themselves’.  Janoff-Bulman (1992, in Eagle and Kaminer, 2013) asserts that trauma shatters the core beliefs, which form our foundations; of what we inherently assume about the world i.e. that it is benign and meaningful.  Blackwell (1997, p.87) posits that recognition helps the client to ‘piece together the shattered parts of [their] subjective continuity and recover [their] sense of integrity as a whole person’; by integrating the ‘past with the present [and the] possibility of the future’.  Furthermore Blackwell (1997, p.87) claims that bearing witness can ‘change the shape of the world in which we all live’ by recognising how organised violence can disorganise and fragment whole communities, cultures, belief systems, and ideas.

Eagle and Kaminer (2013) emphasise that they are not seeking to propose that CTS becomes a new diagnostic category which may colonise a group of individuals as pathological or disordered.  Instead they view CTS from a phenomenological perspective: to be addressed by systemic political and social interventions.  They posit that people who are embroiled in a climate of ongoing political violence and oppression are wise to temporarily employ protective coping mechanisms such as hypervigilance and avoidance in order to survive: citing the work of Martin-Baro (1989); and Samayoa (1987) which points to the need to cling to ‘prejudices’; ‘absolutism’; ‘rigidity’, [and] ‘paranoid defensiveness’.  Lahad and Leykin (2010, p.695) emphasise that constant threat causes permanent arousal leaving such populations with ‘[no] time for respite and are thus constantly governed by [fright or flight responses], or employ avoidance [techniques to dampen these reactions]’.  Nonetheless, Kesebir et al. (2011, in Eagle and Kaminer, 2013, p.96) warn that what may be ‘good for the individual’s control of anxiety […] may sometimes have harmful consequences for society’. 

Eagle and Kaminer (2013, p.96) offer a context-driven ‘idea that trauma-related responses may remit, consequent upon removal from a threatening environment’.  Until the ongoing threat is lifted it may be difficult for conventional treatment models, as recommended by the NICE guidelines, to be efficacious.

In conclusion, this essay has provided a critical analysis of how certain treatment modalities could be utilised, in the context of the impact of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the ripple effects of violence and threat that remain to this day: upon which the concept of Continuous Traumatic Stress was explored.  The effect of CTS on society was viewed as being harmful until ongoing threat was removed through political and social intervention.  The transmission of trauma through a culture of silence was given as a possible mechanism.  It is within this context that one can claim that ‘trauma is experienced not only by the individual, but by communities and future generations.’

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