The Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma Part 2: The Conspiracy of Silence

“When survivors first arrived,” said psychiatrist Andrei Novac, himself the child of Holocaust survivors, “they didn’t want to talk about it. When they did want to talk, therapists didn’t want to listen.”

At the February symposium on Inheriting Genocide and the intergenerational transmission of trauma, he called this the Conspiracy of Silence.

The conspiracy certainly affects the Armenian community today. As clinician and researcher Christie Tcharkhoutian recounted, as many as 300,000 Armenians were killed under the Ottoman Turk regime in massacres in the mid-1890—and that’s decades before the extermination campaign carried out in 1915. Before 1915, two million Armenians lived in what is now Turkey; as many as 1.5 million were killed. First the intellectuals (as in Cambodia) and nationalists, then any men encountered were slaughtered and (as the world saw later in places like Bosnia and Rwanda), rape became an instrument of genocide. Armenian women and children were sent on a forced death march into the Syrian desert. Babies, infants, and young kids were abducted and handed off to Turkish, Kurdish, and Bedouin families.

The Turkish government has never acknowledged any of this. Armenian survivors and the second and third generation are haunted by words: “It never happened” or, if it did? “It was more than 100 years ago. Get over it.”

Tcharkhoutian calls this “psychological genocide”: “How do you explain who you are to others as well as to yourself when no one acknowledges the reality and validity of your past?” Under these circumstances, Dr. Selina Mangassarian suggests that Armenians don’t experience survivors guilt, but rather “anger, pain, and sadness.”

Does that make you think of African Americans living with a legacy of slavery and everlasting racism? Or peoples around the world burdened by a history of colonization. It’s a lot like what Dr. Natan Kellermann called the “radioactive genocide effect: You can’t see it, can’t smell it, can’t prove it – but it’s in the air.” I think of Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, who says “anti-black racism is a public health crisis.” She has declared “A therapist should be a part of every Black person’s reparations packet.” Though, just like many Holocaust survivors, Black people sickened by the effects of racism often find therapists unwilling to hear them.

I think of indigenous people in the US and around the world. In the aftermath of genocide, they continued to face criminalization of their cultures and suppression of their languages. Dr. Carol A. Hand, social worker and professor and enrolled member of the Ojibwe Community, has blogged about how her culturally informed suggestions and objections have been dismissed or ignored and unheard. Silenced.

I think of the conspiracy of silence around sexual abuse, only recently broken (and now, shamefully, implicating aid workers). I think of armed conflicts today when 90-95% of war deaths are civilians. In many countries of the world, who addresses the trauma of survivors of terrorist attacks? With so many atrocities and war crimes globally on a daily basis, how are people affected when their suffering goes unnoticed or is distorted by the media or when, after a momentary outcry, the world’s attention moves on to someone else’s plight?

In the face of such enormity, it’s daunting to imagine what an outside witness can offer.

We can’t pretend to know what an individual’s suffering and survival truly feel like, but we can be nonjudgmental listeners who validate experience and encourage people to tell their own stories. We can create a supportive community when we share these stories through the collective art of theater.

Symposium panelist Cally Clein calls the Holocaust survivors she works with “historians and teachers” rather than “clients” or “patients”, treating them always as the experts in their own lives. At the Program for Torture Victims, I work with “storytellers”. Asylum-seekers, staff, volunteers—we are all “PTV brothers and sisters”—in spite of the organization’s name. (I was recently surprised and pleased to find out that many PTV storytellers have no idea what the letters T & V stand for.) It’s a dilemma many of us face: having to use dehumanizing language for legal purposes or grant applications or other interactions with the world of official bureaucracy. Person-to-person, we can still choose affirming and loving language.

From Cally Clein I also got the idea of giving storytellers control by offering them a container with a lid. They open the lid when they are comfortable narrating their experience. They can shut it at any time when they want to stop. To survive, Clein said, “they may have had to cross religious or ethical boundaries and if they need to keep it secret, OK.” I would give a storyteller a third option: Open the lid just a little and whisper the secret. Put it into words and get it out, but so quietly that no one else can hear.

Maybe someday the whole story can be told without shame or fear. When that happens, I hope we all know how to listen.


See you back on the website with the next installment soon.