One of the most complex alienation scenarios is that of trans-generational haunting, a concept explored by Abrahams and Torok in their book published in 1994 entitled The Shell and The Kernel. For anyone who does this work, the possibility that a child is being influenced by the inter-psychic relationship with a parent to whom they are strongly, anxiously and defensively aligned, should be a key aspect of any assessment.
I read somewhere recently, an indignant thread by mothers who were making fun of the idea of unconscious alienation, not knowing in their defensiveness, that they were giving clues to the reality of their lived experience. The atmosphere of trans-generational transmission of trauma is defensive, it is angry and indignant and it is thick with denial. The idea that children who are in the care of parents who are carrying trans-generational trauma which is unknown and unresolved, cannot become alienated, is like telling the world that Covid 19 cannot be transmitted between parents and their children. This is how unresolved trauma passes in such cases.
Case History (based upon a real case which is heavily disguised to protect the children and parent to whom they were eventually moved)
Anna, Louis and Leanne were three children who lived with their mother in a farmhouse in the countryside. Their grandmother and her fourth husband lived in a converted barn on the property. Their mother and father separated after four years of marriage. Anna, the first child, was born two years before her parents got married. Louis was born the year of their marriage and Leanne was born in the year that the couple got divorced.
When their parents separated, their father left the farmhouse to live with members of his family some seventy miles away. He didn’t own the farmhouse, it was owned by the children’s grandmother, who had allowed the family to live in the property whilst they were together. The mother stayed on after the father left and the grandmother moved in leaving her husband to live alone in the barn.
On the three occasions that the children left the farmhouse to stay with their father at his home seventy miles away, the mother and grandmother were extremely disturbed. The grandmother wanted to find out where the children were going and tried to persuade their father to stay in a hotel close by. When he said no, she tried to get him to stay in the barn with her husband but the father was determined to take the children for weekends at his new place.
After the second occasion, the children came home with stories of the father’s drunken escapades. He had left them alone and gone drinking in a local pub with his brother. The mother and grandmother were horrified and drew together to discuss the situation. The grandmother stopped going to the barn to see her husband completely and the whole family began to live in a state of locked down anxiety.
On the third occasion that the children went with their father for the weekend the eldest child telephoned her mother to say that their father had attacked them in the night. The mother, grandmother and grandfather, now recruited by the grandmother to assist them in retrieval of the children, drove the seventy miles to collect the children.
When they arrived the children were not there and a state of heightened panic set in. The grandmother called the police to say that the children had been abducted. A search of the area ensued.
The children were eventually found playing on the beach with their father and some of his friends and their children. A game of cricket was underway which was spoiled by the police arresting the father for abduction. 48 hours later, with the evidence of his paternity and the arrangement for his care of the children, the father was released. He did not see his children again for 36 months. What occurred during that time was little short of horrific.
A case of trans-generational trauma transmission in divorce and separation can cause enormous damage to children and to parents. To the parent who is rejected it can cause immense harm and life changing psychological injuries from which it may not be possible to recover. This is because this kind of alienation of a child is undertaken at such deep inter-psychic levels of interaction in families, that it can be impossible to detect without awareness. The reality is that this kind of alienation is not about brainwashing the child, it is not about bad mouthing or alienating strategies and it has far more clinical markers than the ordinary cluster of signs which denote psychological splitting is present in children.
Bako and Zana (2020) describe the core experience of individuals carrying unresolved trauma thus –
The damaged self cannot shift the individual out of this state. The traumatised person is unable to reflect either on himself or on the external world: he exists as if this sudden, unexpected event could repeat itself at any moment. He lives in this self made intra-subjective space, and it is here that he operates his relations. It is through this space that he perceives, interprets and reacts to the world and events around him.
Bako and Zana go on to say that the risk factor for a trauma becoming trans-generational is the silence that surrounds the original traumatic experience. If that has not been spoken about it cannot be symbolised, (language gives symbolic meaning to experience) and thus it cannot be digested as part of an experience which happened but which is no longer happening.
When the event is silenced and the victim cannot digest it, the splitting off of the unutterable suffering is left unmourned. In these circumstances the trauma victim can only perceive the world through the felt sense of this defence and the trauma hibernates in the unconscious. This is the concept of the crypt which Abrahams and Torok (1994) speak of and which Bako and Zana (2020) describe as a capsule which resides in the unconscious. What happens in these circumstances is directly pertinent to what we see in trans-generational trauma transmission in cases of alienation – (page 15)
In the intrasubjective psychological space, robbed of some of his feelings and experiences, the traumatised individual is lonely and feels that he cannot share what has happened to him. To resolve this loneliness, to be able to take unspeakable experiences and share them with others, he chooses a more concrete form of sharing the experience. He is able to share the internal world he inhabits, the atmosphere he lives in, by creating an extended intrasubjective state or field of experience, through which is able to relate to and communicate with others. This extended intrasubjective field can be called a trans-generational ‘atmosphere’. This internal space – in which the trauma survivor lives out his important relationships – is safer for him than the threatening outside world. The survivor draws his environment, family – including yet to be born children – into this atmosphere and it is mainly within and through this atmosphere that he is able to communicate with them.
This trans-generational ‘atmosphere’ is described by Haydee Faimberg (2005) as being the ‘telescoping of generations‘ which is a presentation which is all too clearly seen in these cases of alienation of children. In such families, there is no hierarchy between the generations and the past appears in the present and infects the future through the family holding a defensive position, in relationship to the unutterable suffering of the traumatised victim. Such a person is seen at the heart of the family with the family members each holding protective positions between that person and the outside world. Often spoken about as being the ‘rock’ of the family, collective identity coalesces around the idea of that person holding the family together. In reality, that person’s unresolved trauma is that which has created the tightest of silences around the trauma capsule and which has created the over exaggerated defensive coalition seen in such families.
Case History – putting the pieces together
For Anna and Louis and Leanne, their involvement in the defensive coalition with their family extended to escalating and serious allegations of sexual abuse against their father. Unchecked, these allegations spiralled out of control to fantasy like proportions. All three children were examined but there were no signs of sexual abuse. All three children were ABE interviewed but there was nothing in what any of them said which was externally corroborated or even considered by the police to be possible. Horrifically, the children’s father was on bail for the period of time that all of this unfolded, even though he was not with the children when the sexual abuse was said to have occurred. Eventually the conclusion was reached that the allegations were emanating not from the mother but from the grandmother. Investigation of her life showed the source of the trauma which was being projected into the present.
For this grandmother, loss of children from her first marriage was an unspeakable trauma from which she had never recovered. After her husband left her to return to France, he took her three children with him and she never saw them again because they died in a fire at their home with their father aged 6, 8 and 12. This grandmother, had gone on to have five more children with her second and then third husband. Those five children were clustered around her even though they were all over the age of thirty. Two lived at home with her, one lived in the farmhouse and the other two lived just five miles down the road in the nearby village. All of these children had had children of their own. All of those children were clustered around this grandmother who was considered to be the heart of the family. Most of the grandchildren had mothers and fathers who fell in with the expectation that close to home was how this family lived and home was where this grandmother was. Only Anna, Louis and Leanne had a father who did not conform to the unspoken expectation that staying close to home was the correct way to live. He suffered significantly for this.
Anna, Louis and Leanne became the living representations of three children who were taken to France, never to be seen again. The tragedy for the original trauma victim in this story is that the unresolved encapsulated loss led to another loss in the here and now as the three children were moved to live with their father. Sadly for the family, the return to the silencing of the trauma, via the belief that the children had been telling the truth about the sexual abuse and that the Court had got it wrong, meant that the children had to be protected from their maternal family. Despite all of the evidence, the children’s mother had still wanted to subject them again to examination for sexual abuse. Even when the facts were put in front of them, denial and focus upon the father as perpetrator continued.
I would like to say that these cases are rare but in my experience they are not rare, they represent a significant percentage of overall cases of alienation. This is why the recent Appeal Court Judgment in Re S is so welcome because it clearly sets out the reality that unconscious alienation of a child is as serious as conscious manipulation.
With the growth of campaigns which deny alienation and which themselves appear to be refuges for parents involved in this kind of harm to children, it is all the more important to clearly set out the routes by which unconscious alienation of a child can occur.
Instead of encouraging denial and continued blame projection, families where this type of alienation of a child is present, need clear routes out of the dense fog that hides the multiple layers of defensive splitting that hides unresolved trauma.
If we cannot do that, then we are merely condemning those who suffered trauma in the past, to replay it out in the present and future using as yet unborn generations of children as pawns in that re-enactment.
The way of the unconscious alienator is not difficult to understand if you know where to look for the dynamics which occur in such families. Healing the problem relies upon making the unconscious conscious and addressing splitting, denial and projection behaviours.
Children are sovereign beings who have the right to live their own lives, freeing them to do so is the most important task of all for anyone who is working in this space. These children are suffering from a non accidental injury to their mind and they need urgent protection. Dealing with the splitting and denial that children can be haunted by a past they have no knowledge of, is an important part of that work.
Abraham, N., Torok, M. and Rand, N., 1994. The Shell And The Kernel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Bakó, T. and Zana, K., 2020. Transgenerational Trauma And Therapy. London and New York: Routledge.
Faimberg, H., 2005. The Telescoping Of Generations. London: Routledge.
Thank you for this explanation. Could it be that the father aswell as the mother have unresolved trauma? To unravel this is multidisciplenary I guess, if not so unduable. Healing for the children is only possible when both parents are able to open up the vault of their trauma.
Many people wish to consider that both parents have a similar unresolved issue which contributes to the problem of alienation. In this case there was no unresolved trauma in the father who came from a normal family with healthy relationships throughout the generations and a healthy hierarchy. The problem for the father was that he could not spot the risks because he did not come from an unhealthy family background – he knew that his in laws were ‘odd’ but he didn’t know what the risks were. Healing for these children occurred on removal from the maternal family and the placing with the father and his healthy family system. I know it is very tempting to see both parents as contributory but in many cases this is simply untrue. This is one of them, there are many more. Being able to understand this is the first big step that those who do this work can take towards becoming alienation aware.
Is it true that the parent where the children want to live, is the one with the unresolved trauma? This parent places the unresolved trauma on the children and so to speak covers the resolving of the unresolved trauma.
Sometimes people say children when forced to split in reaction to the loyalty conflict, go for the weaker parent/ choose the weaker parent?
They go for the one who is putting the pressure on them and/or the one with most control and/or the one they perceive as needing them most and/or the one who is projecting trauma – all of these things should be evaluated in assessment to reveal the route into alienation in order to build the route out of it.
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Is there a way out for these children? If no judge helps, how can you help these children. The parent who is not willing to see his or her children are harmed are not cooperative to heal her or himself for the sake of the children. Not aware or not willingly to cooperate. How can children without the cooperation of this mom or dad be safed by a route out of it.
The route out of it for these children is for the rejected parent to remain well and healthy and present. Most children will seek out the parent they have rejected at some stage, most have done that by the age of thirty or just beyond. If the parent can keep signalling to the child that they are there and that they can be contacted, the child will usually come back, when they do, the work of therapeutic parenting needs to begin, this is what heals these children over the longer term.
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Most of the time the child is anoyed by the contact the alienated parent tries to get. All is blocked (e-mail, social media etc) and it is called stalking by the child.
Signalling by the parent that they are ok (well and healthy) could also mean a confirmation of the thought that this parent has abandoned the child and is ok without them. The alienating parent can also show the child, point out to the child that the alienated parent is ok without them.
What kind of present do you mean and to what extend should the being present being presented?
I mean present in the world Caroline. No matter what it looks like on the outside, the child’s inner world contains the rejected parent. A parent cannot be erased completely in the psyche though many children try their hardest to do that. The parent must simply remain present and well and healthy and where possible must focus their lives upon something meaningful and healthy that is beneficial to them and which allows them to continue the personhood of who they are instead of being destroyed by the projections. If you try too hard the child WILL interpret this as stalking if they are still in the split state of mind and so the rhythm of signalling has to be right, which is why it is very useful for parents to learn about therapeutic parenting. If you focus all the time on the control of the alienating parent you will simply keep banging your head against that parent’s control wall and so you have to step back, consider your own life, think about how the child can receive signals and do it differently. Hope that helps.
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I see alot of especially mothers wanting to send cards at birthdays or other festivities. If I understand you correctly, this could be precieved as stalking.
Can you be more specific about your last sentence? ‘….think about how the child can receive signals …’
They can still send cards Caroline, I am not saying they should not do that, but if they are persistent and send too many that can lead to allegations of stalking. The child is identifying with the aggressive parent (even when that parent is wrapping up abandonment threats with love) and so you have to understand how the child’s experience of the outside world is turned upside down. Signals have to be covert, they have to appear in the child’s life or be available to the child without anyone else being aware of this – for example a facebook page which is open to the public which posts things which are healthy and positive about life and which occasionally wishes the child well. I have written a lot about this kind of signalling on here, if you look around you will find many articles about how to communicate with a child. K
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Thank you ❤️Karen, I will investigate in this matter more deeply!
Oh yes – I knew they were “odd” also, but that would be their issue to deal with, it would never impact “us”. I was just mistaken about who “us” was…
“Bako and Zana go on to say that the risk factor for a trauma becoming trans-generational is the silence that surrounds the original traumatic experience. If that has not been spoken about it cannot be symbolised, (language gives symbolic meaning to experience) and thus it cannot be digested as part of an experience which happened but which is no longer happening.”
And this leads me back to one of my favorite (sic) quotes, that became a perfect fit for so much of the “oddness”:
“When truth is replaced by silence,the silence is a lie.”
― Yevgeny Yevtushenko
That is the problem – you do not realise that ‘us’ is the family system and that you are only an invited guest into that system whilst ever you behave yourself, as soon as you don’t – you are out.
Wow Karen, you have yet again reinforced my gut feeling (belief) that my husband’s childhood and his relationship with his mother (and his very deep sense of loss of his whole family) is the key to what happened within in my marriage and led to my daughter being separated from me by him, because of his very deep need for the family he lost and his deep need not to lose his daughter because she was and is his ‘blood’.
Background: His parents (he told me after we married) were always rowing. All his teenage years had been spent under the cloud of suicide attempts by his mother and he had, to my knowledge, returned home from school on at least three occasions to find his mother lying on the floor. It was always he who found her and was always going to be him. Fifty years ago there was no help for trauma. No counselling. His father was silent, so silent I never knew him even though I lived in their home for six months before we were married. Even then, before I ever knew about the rows, the suicide attempts and the admissions to the mental hospital, I sensed there was something about the relationship his mother had with my then boyfriend. She told me “blood is thicker than water” almost as soon as I met her.
His father died suddenly a year after we married. His mother remarried in secret (my husband was livid) and not long after made another unsuccessful at attempt at suicide. Within the year she jumped from a holiday apartment in Spain and four days afterwards his older sister hung herself.
Other than saying that his mother was ill, my husband has refused to ever speak of that time. He refused to believe that all that trauma had ever had any affect on him. When our first child died aged five he couldn’t even tell his workmates so none of them knew she’d died until I told them much later. He refused to ever talk of our daughter again and never went with me to her grave (though he often went to his parents’ and sister’s grave). He ignored my grief and walked away from me if I cried. His life never changed but inwardly, who knows. I didn’t know because he didn’t acknowledge pain, other than the pain of having no family. (he never saw me as his family)
Your words ring so true.
Quote: The traumatised person is unable to reflect either on himself or on the external world: he exists as if this sudden, unexpected event could repeat itself at any moment. He lives in this self made intra-subjective space, and it is here that he operates his relations. It is through this space that he perceives, interprets and reacts to the world and events around him.
The transgenerational trauma atmosphere is like no other Willow. If you are in it and welcome in it then it feels safe, if you are not welcome in it it feels weird and claustrophobic. So much death in his family and his early experience of repeatedly finding his mother is the transmission point – his father’s silence points to the secret and his mother’s mental health issues are likely her repeated confrontation with the capsule she was carrying. The death of your child aged five is likely to have caused him to bind your daughter to him for safety.
Your role has to be to provide the healthy ‘other’ life that your daughter can live and you have to live it to the full because she will at some corner of her mind, be aware of you.
The real issue that I have with the groups who want to make alienation all about domestic violence by proxy is that they want to ignore the reality of the problems that cause alienation (which are largely mental health issues in a parent) in favour of just calling that parent a bully and a bad person. Your story is so clearly about more than domestic abuse although power and control over your daughter is clearly present. How can anyone help a family to heal unless they work with all of the elements present in the case.
Sending you my love Willow, you must keep living the best life you possibly can for your daughter’s sake as well as your own x
A sad read because this is what has happened to my children. I was not accused of such terrible things when they were in my possession, but this trans generational alienation is at the heart of my beloved children being gone forever. The clustering, the lies that are now “truth”, the ‘rock” of the family…all of this is prevalent. Anyone reading this needs to take immediate action before it is too late, My children are all grown, but all continue to be influenced and damaged by their mother. It haunts me to dwell in this head space. It’s so hard to believe, but all of it makes sense due to the work Karen Woodall is doing in her research and blogging here. It has been liberating for me to know what happened and why. All those years ago, long before I married her, I wish I had known how deeply everyone would be impacted by the poor relationship my ex (and all her sisters!) had with her (their) father…If I wrote a book about this, it would be titled “RUN!!!” God bless you Dr Woodall and anyone suffering due to this terrible, terrible disorder.
Those who spend too long in the trans-generational atmosphere do become themselves unable to see through the fog Michael. I find myself having to step outside of these families when I am working on such a case because it is disorientating to be inside of them. What looks like love clustered around the rock of the family is actually not love, it is a fear based, anxiety driven defence which holds the secret in place. Sending you my best, this is a terrible disorder and we will continue on an on until more people know how to understand and treat it and until we can get to the point where education can protect children from it. K
Karen, thank you for your reply and I COMPLETELY agree with you on every point you made!
And I guess I will continue to attempt to put that side of the coin to those you speak of because ,in my own mind, I see it and believe it. I have always felt very sorry for the traumas my husband suffered as a boy and there are layers of me that still feel sorry for him now, but you are right when you say “if you are not welcome in it, it feels weird and claustrophobic” Weird and claustrophobic hardly cover it. I thought I was going literally mad! Thank heavens for people like you Karen who tell it like it is and chip away relentlessly because even now, I still need confirmation that what is in my head is not the crazy he made it out to be. More power to your elbow!
Thank you, Karen.