This Blows My Mind

Do you ever get that feeling when a whole bunch of synapses in your brain connect in a new way? You have a breakthrough moment of understanding that changes everything? Thanks to Resmaa Menakem’s NYT groundbreaking bestseller My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies this is happening to me right now. There’s a lot to it that I want to unpack with you, but here’s a headline: the genocide that my ancestors lived through passed down through the DNA, could have actually created my Bipolar brain.

Explaining racial trauma in new ways, the author — who is known by his first name, Resmaa — speaks of white bodies, black bodies, police bodies, and “bodies of culture.” He explains how trauma passes down through generations of perpetration to all of us, even white people. Millions of white women for example, were put to death by fire during the witch trials. The terror of those times, Resmaa says, lives on in the DNA.

I’m Jewish; my people have been on the receiving end of genocide many times over in the past 2,000 years. Hitler, the Pogroms, the Spanish Inquisition, the blood libels during the plague and more. My own grandmother described being chased by rocks on Easter day in Poland when the town priest blessed his flock to murder Jews. Fifty years later my brother a sweet, chocolate-eyed, third grader was beaten up every day on his way to school by a gang who called him a kike and Christ killer. He grew to be a 6’3” and 180 pounds athlete, successful businessman, and community leader. Still, he carries the scars perpetrated by his childhood terrorists to this day.

Resmaa who is Black writes with compassion and witness to the Jewish genocide. I find it particularly honoring and healing to have our story of oppression be “seen.” Even though I am privileged and white in America today — that was not the case for eons. And as Resmaa describes, the terror and trauma of that perpetration lives on in the genes. He writes:

The transference of trauma isn’t just about how human beings treat each other. Trauma can also be inherited genetically. Recent work in genetics has revealed that trauma can change the expression of the DNA in our cells and these changes can be passed from parent to child.

Resmaa then goes on to quote an epigenetic study by Rachel Yehuda and colleagues entitled, “Holocaust Exposure Induced Intergenerational Effects in FKBP5 Methylation” (Biology Psychiatry 80, no 5, Sept 2016 pp 372-80). He continues:

Epigenetics has transformed the way scientist think about genomes. The first study to clearly show that stress can cause inheritable gene defects in humans was published by Rachel Yehuda, referenced above. Yehuda’s study demonstrated that damaged genes in the bodies of Jewish Holocaust survivors – the result of the trauma they suffered under Nazism—were passed on to their children. Later research confirms Yehuda’s conclusions.

My body receives the terror my grandparents and theirs lived through, even though I have lived a relatively safe life here in America. 

In this country Black people, descendants of the unspeakable terror of slavery and Indigenous people who were nearly erased through genocide, have it qualitatively and quantitatively much worse than me and other white people. Full stop. I focus on my story here as it is the only one my body knows. And because I want to make a further connection, one that Resmaa shares that blew my mind.

Resmaa points to research that suggests that these ethnic trauma-induced DNA changes can create mutations that impact the brain. He connects brain diseases like depression and Bipolar to these changes. 

Trauma can alter the DNA expression of a child or grandchild’s brain causing a wide range of health and mental health issues including memory loss, chronic anxiety, muscle weakness, and depression. Some of these effects seem particularly prevalent among African Americans, Jews, and (Indigenous) Americans, three groups who have experienced an enormous amount of historical trauma.

The implications of this are stunning. And bear repeating here: The genocide that my ancestors lived through passed down through the DNA, could have actually created my Bipolar brain. 

This truth helps me dissolve the stigma of my disease. It’s not about my individual psychology or dysfunction. It’s not something I did wrong. It’s actually a connection to my ancestors and this link lifts the shame. In an ironic twist, I am proud to carry their badge of courage. I am a survivor.

The gift of Resmaa’s teaching validates an experience I had in a Shadow Work® session I did in 2008. It was just after my diagnosis of Bipolar II and thanks to that and the right medicines, I was feeling healthier than I had in twenty-six years since I was walloped with my first brain breakdown at age twenty-one. Shadow Work® is a kind of role play based on Jung’s concept of the human shadow, where – with the help of skilled facilitation – we choose people to play different aspects of our psyche. The goal is to understand, break through, and heal trauma, so that we may live into our full potential of joy and power.

I am trained as a Shadow Work® leader, and at the annual gathering with my peers in ‘08 it was my turn to be on the receiving end of a piece of Shadow Work. When my facilitator Chrissy, a fiery redhead with a deep heart asked, “What do you want to have happen here?” I said, “I want to understand the relationship between my big powerful successful self and my Bipolar disaster self. I want to breakthrough that dichotomy. Heal it.”

What ensued was this. I first chose someone to play my power self. Standing tall, capable, brilliant, ready to take on the world. 

“What gets in her way?” Chrissy asked.

“The Bipolar depressed part. It’s been with me since my twenties.”

Shadow Work is an embodied practice, and when I chose someone to play that part, I had her laying down, facedown, holding the ankles of the big powerful role-player in front of her. Holding her back. 

“What else do you see?” said Chrissy.

“Well, there’s another one holding her back”

“Can you show us what that looks like?

I proceeded to place role players on the floor in a long line of folks facedown, holding the ankles of the person in front of them.

“Let’s get some perspective on this,” Chrissy said, inviting me to take a step back and view the whole scene. “What do you see from here?”

What I saw made me gasp in horror and recognition.

“Well, that’s my mother holding my ankles, and her father holding hers, and his mother holding his. They all had severe Bipolar depression, though in the generations before they didn’t know to call it that. My grandfather was a beautiful man in every respect who was revered by his family and his community. Yet he died in the midst of a Bipolar breakdown thinking he was worthless. A world of heart break for all of us who loved him.

“So, it represents my family line. But there’s more.”

“What’s that?” Chrissy asked.

“Do you see it? All these people strewn across the ground. It’s like the killing fields. It’s like the holocaust and genocide of my people. I never saw it before. Could they be related?”

Could they? Could my personal line of Bipolar people be related to our ethnic line of Jews massacred? Na, that’s too crazy, I thought at the time. Just my imagination. And I put the thought away.

Until now, thirteen years later, reading Resmaa and the research he points to. He says, it’s not just possible, it is actually the truth. And I’m kind of blown open by that. It is surprisingly empowering. There is a way to break through it. Because as Resmaa explains, the trauma that we’ve inherited from our ancestral line does not have to be our destiny, nor that of our children. And the way out, is through the body.

One of the best things each of us can do for ourselves and our descendants is to metabolize our pain and heal our trauma. When we heal, we may spread our emotional health and healthy genes to later generations. The human brain always retains the capacity to learn, change and grow. 

This helps explain why the Shadow Work practice I’ve been doing since 1993, including the process I described in 2008 has been so helpful in healing trauma. It is centered in the body, it releases feeling, engages new insight, and lands in love and blessing. It is what Resmaa might call a “pain metabolizing” technology. And it works.

Resmaa’s theory got me to dig a little deeper into the question, can healing trauma impact epigenetics? Turns out there’s a ton of research emerging that supports the answer “Yes.” In an article in Psychology Today, for example, Grant Brenner writes, “In addition to traditional biological and genetic factors, in the last couple of decades, the importance of epigenetic factors have received great attention. Epigenetics is the study of how gene expression is changed by environmental factors. The underlying code may stay the same, but the way DNA is read and translated varies.” He then goes on to describe the encouraging results of research studies with Vets who have PTSD.

“This research is important because it is a step toward understanding how therapy may reverse epigenetic changes caused by trauma. It further clarifies which genetic regions are involved in the development of trauma and resilience (and possibly posttraumatic growth), and it also establishes that psychotherapy can change gene expression.”

This radical assertion answers my prayer that my ancestral inheritance of suffering can end with me now. My biology is not my kids’ destiny.  The genetic potential that I pass on to my children and theirs can be a renewed lineage of healthy brains and bodies. And that changes everything.

Yet there is more to celebrate: healing our ancestral trauma has the potential to go beyond the individual, to the collective. When I have the privilege to do Shadow Work with people of a different heritage – where they witness my story and I witness theirs – our hearts blast open.  If we go deep enough together, we find that the trauma of our people and the trauma of your people connect at the source. A connection — once we see it, hear it, and feel it — that can heal the historical pain between us, move us beyond purely tribal alliances, and allow us to expand into a new whole. Creating what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr might have called a “beloved community,” built on compassion, empathy, and trust.

Here’s the unpacked story: we can now understand and connect ancestral trauma, tribal wounds, epigenetic expressions, and the impact of all that on our brains. And we have the tools, through embodied practices like Shadow Work, to transform all that: heal ourselves, heal our communities, heal our world.

And that’s what’s blowing my mind.