The purpose of this article is to embed trauma transmission into attachment learning so that the trauma is not overemphasized. Inna Rozentsvit has provided a useful basis with her discussion of post-traumatic growth at various International Psychohistorical Association (IPhA) and Psychohistory Forum conferences, but the issue deserves expansion to get a fuller picture of the benefits and risks of this powerful learning process. Trauma often highlights but also distorts learning patterns and can exaggerate the negative aspects.

Attachment plays an important role in early learning: We know that when children witness violence against an attachment figure, the effects are very similar to if they had been the victims themselves, indicating a profound identification. This is an important clue to the function of attachment learning in general that allows us to sample a greater range of experiences than our individual history and with particular vividness, as if they had happened to us. It’s as close as we can come to living multiple lives at one time and a reason why being social makes us smarter; social animals learn from each other in addition to their own experience. As a species, we excel at being able to understand each other and synchronize our behavior, which is why we have music and dance as precursors of language. Much of this synchronization is unconscious. It helps us fine-tune our expectations of risks and opportunities by merging with our kin groups.

The result is imprinting with the experiences of the tribe; special emphasis is put on the outstanding experiences of our attachment figures. It speaks to the importance of this that the attachment and emotional learning process starts already in utero, with the early development of the amygdala and some imprinting on the voice and bio-rhythms of the mother. As an analogy, we could say

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that our genetic inheritance has given us a general sketch of what to expect in our lives, but that early procedural learning fine-tunes expectations, allowing us to be more finely adapted to the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Our affects are designed for exactly this learning. Sylvan Tomkins (1995) has illustrated emotional learning in his “script theory,” which is similar to the psychoanalytic repetition compulsion. It is also similar to learning a melody (the song of our people or psychoclass), a sequence of contingencies of risks and rewards, and part of our procedural knowledge. Carl Safina (2020) describes similar patterns in learned animal cultures and their evolutionary impacts (lining up with Jung’s ideas of a collective subconscious). The important point is that attachment learning is a very powerful, and primarily subconscious, way of conveying information intergenerationally.

In this context, learned trauma is only a special case of imitation (attachment) learning (and interestingly already referenced in the Bible). Tomkins and Johnston start from different points about affects and emotions but converge on the functions of emotions as biological investment instructions. Usually, things are too complex for us to reason them out, but our emotions can give us an executive summary and suggest a path of action based on inherited heuristics. They tend to come into play when our learned routines are inadequate.

Let me describe two personal experiences to illustrate emotional transmission. The first is an example of a learned trauma resolution: I am German and my father was a soldier in WWII. At the end of the war, he was shot in the head and expected to die. Fortunately, he was quickly captured by the U.S. Army, received excellent medical treatment, and was fully rehabilitated. I was close to 10 when I first heard the story. When I left my family to study in Munich, I became involved with my first husband, an American, who was instrumental in introducing me to psychoanalysis and bringing me to the U.S. in 1976. Deciding to emigrate made me realize that my going to America was not accidental. My artwork at the time indicated a lack of integration (although I had been a very good student), and I went for a healing opportunity despite the fear of losing my parents’ support.

Let me describe the emotional background of my parents. The childrearing I experienced was normative with little empathy,

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and stories from my grandmother and aunt recollected even more strictness. I believe that this provided the basis for the Nazis’ highjacking; they did not change the basic tune but just exaggerated the dynamics with extra vengeance and sadism. Although my parents detested the Nazis (mostly because they attacked family bonds), they were still steeped in the experience that you were expendable if you did not toe the line (similar to honor killings). My father was afraid of being coerced into a Nazi career at the threat of being killed if he refused. He found an out by becoming a specialist, a courier. The fear of revenge was tremendous; my parents knew people who had killed themselves and their families out of fear of being tortured once Germany lost the war. In comparison with this atmosphere of terror (in which the average citizen was not too far away from a slave), the much more humane American attitude was like a miracle and generated a profound experience of benevolence and healing, literally opening a different worldview.

I have seen a similar pattern on a smaller scale in my practice; I had some abused patients who were profoundly moved when I treated them decently and grateful to excess. A simple fair transaction translated into a big favor because it was so different from their conditioned expectations. It can be tempting to fall for that idealization, but it is important to analyze it to help the clients to break out of the repetition compulsion where victimization is normalized. The U.S. may be struggling with giving up this idealization after WWII, having to get over an especially tempting high given its own brushes with bigotry and violence (racism).

My main point in this story is that I learned a solution to a crisis by the same mechanisms that trauma is transmitted intergenerationally just by picking up my father’s emotional reactions nonverbally. He did not praise the U.S. overtly and passed on an opportunity to spend two years there for business purposes, yet I got the message.

The second story is a traditionally repeated trauma centered around my mother’s family history of bipolar disorder. My maternal great-grandmother spent most of her life institutionalized. My grandfather was able to stay out of hospitals. I only knew him from my mother’s description as very moody and fearful without much empathy. My mother was not manic; when she was happy, she showed artistic ability and a good sense of humor. But she could be driven by her fears into a state of quasi-manic intensity and then she resembled her father.

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My problems with my mother started because I resembled her mother, who had been hostile to her and also very bossy. Trying to keep me from dominating her as she projected, my mother undermined my confidence and made me very shy. Still, I had a pretty good grasp of the dynamics, as shown in my artwork where I appear as a giant dog, becoming troublesome for my parents because I am so completely oversized (healthy and energetic). My mother identified with my sister, who was initially less aggressive than I. She treated me like an alien, which made me miserable.

I did not rebel against my parents until choosing psychology as a profession (interestingly enough, my sister became a social worker, although on the surface we were opposites). My initial rebellion set off a wake of change. I met my first husband and decided to emigrate with him to the U.S. During this time, after seeing The Exorcist (1973), I experienced a severe anxiety neurosis that lasted for more than a year. My artwork from that time captures attempts to protest but also panic even in superficially “sunny” situations.

Unbeknownst to me, at the end of WWII, when my mother met my father, she had a short psychotic episode during which she was able to express some of the terror she felt toward her mother related to her struggle to individuate. My repetition forced my mother to see our similarities. It did not lead to a fairytale catharsis, but she became more sympathetic in her attitude. This helped me a lot, although I still did not feel close to her. That only happened after my father died because he could be oppressive. My mother had started to visit people in the hospital and described her experiences. I realized that as a volunteer she was doing something similar to my therapeutic work and it made me happy because we were in synchrony, something I had never expected.

The important point of this experience is that the repetition of a trauma became a signal for similarity and connection that I had been denied before. As I learned more about my mother’s family history, I saw her as more human and understandable. I also learned about the profoundly paradoxical nature of progress. On the one hand, my grandfather was immensely more successful than his mother by being able to stay out of hospitals and work productively and have a family. On the other hand, his scars did make my mother’s life miserable. She witnessed him dying and her first reaction was relief (an understandable but sad comment about the relationship).

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Because I was so anxious, I did not like fairy tales; they tend to exaggerate emotions. But I got my relatives to tell me stories of their lives instead, which were more down-to-earth and gave me some comfort because they talked about a world away from the one with my mother’s trauma, and the emotional messages were more benevolent. The sense of being part of a clan was also comforting as it counteracted my chronic loneliness. Initially, I heard the reminiscences more like fairy tales, but over time, they became helpful in seeing the repetitions of dynamics and not being panicked by my own ups and downs. It was an introduction to the patterns of evolution where themes repeat with varying intensity and in a safe enough environment gradually get worked on and integrated. The spoken family saga finally explained and resolved the family trauma.

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  • Safina, Carl (2020). Becoming wild: How animal cultures raise families, create beauty and achieve peace. Henry Holt.
  • Tomkins, Silvan S. (1995). In V. Demos (Ed.), Exploring affect: The selected writings of Silvan S. Tomkins. Cambridge University Press.


Dorothea Leicher

Dorothea Leicher, NCPsyA, emigrated from Germany to the U.S. in 1976 and worked administratively as well as in private practice both in mental health and addiction treatment. Her special interests are epistemology and evolution as an economic system. She can be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Leicher, D. (2023). Putting intergenerational trauma in context. Clio’s Psyche, 29(2), 193-197.

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