Recognizing the weight of generational trauma

Journalist: Arpi Bekaryan


Sitting on the couch in my room, I dive into my thoughts and try to go back to the past, 108 years ago, to the six – year – old boy hidden in a pile of grass watching his family being killed in front of his eyes. And I try to imagine a different scenario than what happened that day: what if he shouted out or cried? What if he didn’t freeze from what he saw? A shiver goes through my body. 

I could see everything in my room slowly disappearing: my books on the shelves that had the stamp of my grandfather’s library, the little stones I took from other countries I lived in, my jewelry, my photos, the vinyl disks, the coffee cup on the table that has a blue sky and clouds on it, and finally the mirror in front of me and my whole existence.

After my last day of therapy, amid thoughts of an alternative past in which my great-grandfather might have not survived, I was walking down the street, disconnected from my body, needing material proof for my existence, I picked a leaf from the nearest tree to touch it.

The forget-me-not flower has popped up from every corner, every shop and market, every building, every yard since 2015, the 100 year anniversary of Armenian Genocide (physical annihilation of estimated 600,000 to 1.2 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire, either in massacres and individual killings, or from systematic ill treatment, exposure, and starvation. This took place during WWI from spring 1915 through autumn 1916). The purple flower “trend” didn’t end that year. It became the symbol and “I remember and I demand” became the slogan.

“At least USA recognized the Armenian Genocide, congrats,” said an Israeli friend. That was two years ago, on April 24, 2021. “And how should I be feeling about that?” I thought back then, and I think of it now. I scrolled through social media and saw gratitude and recognition join the mourning. I agree with those who say we have mourned too long, it is time to move on, and the Armenian identity should not be about genocide.

But I believe what we are trying to move on from and what we held on to all these decades is the politicized understanding of the genocide, not the multigenerational trauma it left. How can we move on from a trauma as huge as this when we haven’t tried to heal? At some point, our trauma became too political to be healed.

In the photo are my grandfather, my elder sister and I in my grandfather's library. In the background is my grandfather 's book stamp with our surname. After his death, I use it for my books.

“Something is not right when you blame others for selective compassion, but you also behave the same way,” an Azerbaijani acquaintance wrote me a few days after the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, blaming me for not posting anything about the earthquake and only sharing the location in Yerevan where people collected first aid to send to Syria, but ignoring Turkey. To me that was not the case: I was only trying to stay away from the news and take care of my mental health. 

“There is no one in Yerevan collecting help for Turkey, if there was I would share,” I answered. But the conversation went on for hours, ending with my frustrated “okay.”

Would it even be fair to expect people in Yerevan to be collecting help for Turkey in the streets, I thought to myself. 

“The state sent help to Turkey. What else do they expect from us? Why should I be blamed for this? How is this fair?” I asked my therapist, looking to her for validation for my rhetoric questions. And just like that the very last day of my therapy suddenly became all about generational trauma and Armenian Genocide, a topic I didn’t think would come up at all during my sessions, let alone on the very last day when we should naturally sum up months of work on my mental health.

To explain how this happened, I should go back a few months, when I was struggling to deal with events and patterns that happened in my childhood. I knew I couldn’t wait for acknowledgement or apologies from my parents. Opening up those wounds, putting the blame on them would only hurt them. So I would go to therapy and take out all the anger inside me, until I started thinking of my parents’ childhoods. I realized that to forgive them without waiting for apologies, I had to acknowledge their own traumas, and maybe the shortcomings of my grandparents … At some point I had to go back even more, to understand my grandparents, to think about what they have been through. On my journey to put together the lives of my parents, grandparents and their parents, I came across a speech from a famous physician and a trauma specialist, Gabor Mate. I started listening to his interviews, podcasts and books, one after another. One of those days while I was multitasking and listening to him talk about trauma, I had to pause for a moment as I heard him saying: “In the nations that survive genocide, five generations of the survivors are affected by it.”

“Yes, one can see the effect of that kind of a trauma even on physical appearances of the generations of survivors: physical posture, the way of walking and feeling in your own body …” my therapist said.  I felt my body, pinched and crooked. I wanted to dive deeper into the chair and not be seen.

I grew up listening to the stories of my grandfather’s family. The story of how my great-grandfather survived the genocide was told dozens of times in my family, since I was a kid. Growing up I had a silent fight in my head with my family, with school and society, for not having the chance to live free of genocide stories in the background of my childhood years. Little did I know that even if I managed to grow up without hearing any of these, in a way I was already affected by the events that had happened to my great-grandparents, 80 years before my birth: their traumas determined how they raised their children, and thus how their children raised my parents.

A photo from my childhood․ 

And here we come back: sitting on the chair in front of my therapist, I see my great-grandfather Karapet as a kid in the village of Tokhat. Karapet’s father manages to grab his hand and throw him on a pile of grass, out of sight. There, from that pile of grass, my great-grandfather, a six-year-old boy, sees all his family being slaughtered. But he is under strict instructions: he must not make any noise no matter what he sees. Later that day, the Turkish neighbors come and find the bodies, noticing that the youngest in the family, Karapet is missing. They look around, and find the child, fainted on the pile of grass. 

When six- year-old Karapet froze and fainted, he saved not only himself but his generations to come.

My great-grandfather Karapet, the town of Tokat where his family had a summer house and the city of Sivas where they lived.

The town of Tokat where my great-grandfather’s entire family was killed.

That day freezing and numbness becomes a self-protective mechanism for the child. I then see my grandfather trying to shout for help and run toward  me when the chair I was standing on slips under my feet and I fall on a glass shelf. His voice doesn’t come out and he falls down.

I see myself in various incidents in my life: freezing and shutting down, an automatic reaction that I thought was ruining my life. 

Following therapy I get to the point of not wanting any apology or even acknowledgement of my own childhood traumas. “I can work this out myself,” I think. I remember Gabor Mate saying “There is no use in blaming parents for the traumas,” hinting that parents also have childhood traumas that shape them and later their behavior to us.

But what if somewhere in the past that chain cuts and instead of the usual or unusual shortcomings of your parents, it restarts with a genocide and your ancestors who survived it. Is it possible to forgive that and reconcile without recognition and apology?  

This feature story was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES.

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