Guest Blog: Cinders in her stocking: what my grandmother taught me about transgenerational trauma

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I am delighted to host a guest blog from my Twitter friend Anne Goodwin, who writes fiction, short and long, and blogs about reading and writing, with a peppering of psychology. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, was published last month by Inspired Quill. Like me, Anne is both a psychologist and a novelist, with a special interest in trans generational inheritance, as her blog below illustrates.  Because of  our common interests and experiences, I read Sugar and Snails with particular interest and was soon immersed in this moving story of the painful search for personal identity. Beautifully written, with, as Anne says, a subtle peppering of psychology, I couldn’t put it down.  You can catch up with Anne on on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.

 

My maternal grandmother used to delight in telling us how, growing up, her family had been so poor the children received cinders instead of gifts in their Christmas stockings. As a child, I didn’t understand why I found this so disturbing. But, looking back, the story seems doubly cruel: the original children whose expectations were raised only to be disappointed (why didn’t they do what the March family did in

My maternal grandmother used to delight in telling us how, growing up, her family had been so poor the children received cinders instead of gifts in their Christmas stockings. As a child, I didn’t understand why I found this so disturbing. But, looking back, the story seems doubly cruel: the original children whose expectations were raised only to be disappointed (why didn’t they do what the March family did in Little Women and use their deprivation as a catalyst for creativity and make their Christmas presents?) and the grandchildren whose pleasure in the contents of their own Christmas stockings was diminished by their grandmother’s envy.

The eldest of seven children whose mother died when she was fourteen, my grandmother didn’t have it easy. But she was a survivor, fiercely protective of those she cared for. Yet living through the depression of the 1930s (something I didn’t really appreciate until I read The Grapes of Wrath) left her with little tolerance for the softer emotions. Her kindness came in ensuring she could always afford to put food on the table. Despite the financial security of the 60s and 70s when I knew her, scrimping and saving was the foundation of her personality until she died.

It’s not pleasant to discover these traits, albeit somewhat watered-down, in myself. In my backpacking days, I always came home with uncashed traveller’s cheques in my money belt, subsisting on bread and cheese for fear of running out of dosh. While today I am able to treat myself, extravagance always makes me uneasy.

No doubt my grandmother’s legacy is partly responsible for my interest in how trauma is passed on to later generations. This interest was reinforced by my work as a clinical psychologist, where a client’s difficulties would be easier to formulate if I could gain some understanding of the lives of their parents. It’s also been a feature of my reading choices, so it seems inevitable that the theme of transgenerational trauma would creep into my writing.

Given the importance of mothering in the development of secure attachments, trauma passed down through the maternal line must be particularly powerful in its effects. Someday I might want to write some version of how my grandmother’s traumatic early life has impacted on me but, for my first novel, Sugar and Snails, I was particularly interested in masculinity. Although the novel changed a lot from inception to publication, one strand that remained was the impact of the military on how men take up the role of father.

The character of Leonard, the father of my main character, has been shaped by his experience in early adulthood as a prisoner of war. Thirty years on, he’s haunted by the brutal treatment meted out to his friend, Wilf Pettigrew, a man who couldn’t conform to the stereotype of the masculine ideal:

“He talked about lasses back home like the rest of us and he knew how to dismantle a gun, but it wasn’t enough. There was something that marked him out. Maybe we needed someone who was different. Someone to take it out on, locked up in that prison camp like lions in a cage.” (p302)

Leonard’s subsequent confusion, guilt, shame and fear of repetition influence his parenting decisions, especially those affecting his troublesome middle child. Even as an old man, his mind muddled by dementia, he can’t help trying to pass on a message from the trauma he’s never fully understood. Diana, the novel’s narrator, has always struggled with her father’s anecdotes, wanting to dismiss them the way I’ve tried to shrug off my grandmother’s story of the cinders in her stocking. But, just as I have come to accept that events long before I was born are part of what made me who I am, so Diana comes to a good-enough understanding of how her father’s relationship with Wilf Pettigrew has shaped the woman she has become.

Do you think trauma can impact on later generations? Have you come across any novel that explore this particularly well?

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