Intergenerational Trauma Part 5: Childhood Amnesia

As I learned at the symposium, Inheriting Genocide, and shared with you in the first installment, during the Armenian Genocide in 1915, infants and children were snatched from their mothers and given to Turkish, Kurdish, and Bedouin families.

After the war, adult survivors in the Armenian diaspora and aid organizations sought to ransom and rescue the abducted children. Some children did remember the past—only too well. They didn’t come forward as they feared they would be slaughtered if anyone knew they were Armenian. But many of the children had no memories at all of their early years or even their original names.

Salpi Gharazian told us how her grandmother would read obituaries and repeat “How lucky! How lucky!” When Ghazarian asked, “What do you mean lucky? They’re dead!”, her grandmother answered, “Look. It says here where they were born. They knew where they were born.”

All of us lose conscious memory from the time of birth until around three years of age: “childhood amnesia”. But what happens during those years lost to consciousness does leave its imprint. It may not figure in our autobiography, the narrative we can tell about ourselves, but it all becomes part of our “implicit biography” which Dr. Andrei Novac says includes nonverbal patterns of response, the framework geared perhaps above all to relationships.

For each of us, the implicit biography is a powerful part of identity. As for the lost Armenian children, they didn’t react when read lists of Armenian names. They didn’t react to the Armenian language. But the gates of emotion and memory opened at the sound of an Armenian lullaby.

How deep they go, the childhood memories we are unable to remember!

I thought of a Nigerian I know here in LA. He feels a pain when he sees children at play, reminders to him that he never had a childhood. And I thought of how often Hector has said that when we play theater games, we become little kids again.

Infants at play live in a world of pure imagination. They know nothing of rules or winners and losers. All that comes soon enough as they are socialized through more structured play on the way to adulthood. But in those first years, as Hector often says in ImaginAction workshops, “There’s no right way or wrong way. Whatever you do is perfect.”

Of course, many of us don’t remember ever feeling that way.

We learn about attachment in those forgotten years, 0-3, about whether safety and reassurance will return when we’re hungry or cold or scared or alone. I like to think that when we gather together in an ImaginAction sudden village and play together like little kids we recapture our own perfection and the idyllic days we have forgotten. Or maybe sometimes we can repair the past and experience that perfect grace for the first time.  

 

Love to you all,

Diane

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