While listening to the radio yesterday, I heard an interview with a man who was telling the story of how his father had been murdered. I was struck by the way in which the man remembered the incident, which happened when he was 9 years old: “It was dark. They were kids. He was killed.” Then, he would take a breath, collect himself, try again. “It was a gang. He tried to stop them. They shot him.”
His story seemed raw, unprocessed, fragmented.
As I listened I remembered something I had read some time ago. Developmental psychologist Daniel Siegel has explained the relationship between trauma and storytelling. “Stories are our mind’s attempt to make sense of our own and other’s rich inner worlds,” wrote Dr. Siegel in Parenting From the Inside Out. Those who can’t tell a cohesive story have not fully integrated the experience.
Interestingly, Dr. Siegel says, if adults could create a coherent, emotionally rich narrative about their own childhoods, they were likely to form a secure relationship with their children.
If they couldn’t… well, that is how trauma is transmitted to the next generation.
It wasn’t what happened to the parents as children, but how they made sense of what happened to them that determined their emotional health as adults and the kind of parents they would become.