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.