“… the world weeps, and mortal matters move the heart.”
—Virgil, The Aeneid (translated by Shadi Bartsch)
“Nowadays, I am acutely aware of the power of transgenerational trauma that has come to life in new circumstances. I feel like it’s getting scary to speak openly. This is what was passed down to me from my ancestors from the USSR, what the people already lived during the oppressive Stalin years.” Finding a Voice recounts a special day in the life of Elena Ozerova: her ten-year-old son’s graduation from elementary school. “Last week,” she writes, “my son asked me to explain what is happening between Russia and Ukraine. He wants to know: Are we good or bad? Are we attacking or defending? My son is no longer a small child but not yet an adult. He wants to draw together with his classmates, write letters (to the soldiers), be a good kid and send sweets to the defenders of the country. He wants to feel like a part of something good.”
Ozerova writes from Moscow, but as a mother, she could easily be writing these words from New York, Jerusalem, or Kabul.
“The country he dreams of being a part of is kind and noble, driven by justice and dignity, where people live in peace and travel the world…I love my son very much and I love my country, but to my regret, this ideal country has never existed.” Ozerova’s anguish is being felt the world over.
Cosimo Schinaia also wonders if the country “indelibly fixed” in his mind ever even existed. In Memories of My Vanished Birthplace, he recalls the Ionian shore where, as a small boy, “We saw the beach starting from the top, with golden dunes covered by white wild lilies, and then going down, after the rows of wooden cabins and the mills with roofs of reed, in a large shoreline ending in the transparent seawater.” Now it is a “dead and terrifying place” decimated by pollution. Had he been dreaming? “Was I seeking an idealized beach that was all mine, a place in my mind, an image distorted by the deceptive memory of someone who has stayed away for a long time?” he asks. Is this a “false memory?” or a “negative hallucination?” Schinaia’s essay is a meditation on the meaning of the “imaginary home” we carry in us and of “landscape (as) the most trusted mirror of society.”
It is the landscape of a “rapid psychosocial deterioration of a coherent shared reality” that Lithuanian-born analyst Levas Kovarskis is looking at. In Crimes Against Reality: A Proposal for Action, Kovarskis tells us he is “shocked by the speed with which public information has altered our reality in no less than three weeks.” Returning to Freud, he makes a historical case for how the recent weaponization of speech and propaganda preys upon and perverts raw human desire, culminating in a societal breakdown that “looks similar to the psychotic breakdown of individuals we might see in our psychotherapy offices.” In an interview Reaching Evangelicals and Catholics, Doug Pagitt, founder of Vote Common Good, talks to Elizabeth Evert about the specific ways people can be helped to “detach their political identity from the rest of this cultural shaping.”
The human drive Ozerova, Kovarskis, and Pagitt allude to, the desire that can lead (and mislead) us to want to be part of something larger than ourselves, is taken up by Erin Trapp in her far-reaching essay Climate Breakdown. Trapp looks back to our early sensorial experiences with the environment that “predates understanding and communication and marks our fragility and dependence on the nonhuman world.” Channeling the work of Searles, Winnicott, and Charles, she describes how our primal “longing and anxiety to become one with the environment” is being shaken to the core by the current climate crisis, and (like race) is often excluded from both our psychic life and clinical work. “To not register the psychic conflict evoked,” she writes, “contributes to the powerlessness, deadness, and apathy we take on in relation to the “external” ecologically deteriorating world.” Schiniai’s sensory-laden memories of golden sand and translucent waters are what Trapp, evoking Rachel Carson and Harold Searles, describes as the “felt shape of life.”
The “felt shape” of a childhood spent under a Communist dictatorship comes back to Lavinia Munteanu in three dreams, and to Daniela Andronache in a single word: Afghanistan. Munteanu’s grandfather taught her that “not everything that was discussed at home was allowed to leak out, that words could be dangerous.” The Big Eye is her dream catcher. The gaps in the curtains and walls, the missing and unlocked doors, are harbingers of foreboding danger now leaking out in the shape of her dreams.
All the doors Andronache writes about in The Afghanistan Feeling are locked and offer no exit. The images of women in Kabul “locked out of planet Earth” touch her viscerally. She tells us, “The feeling is like no other. It blocks your nostrils and fills your lungs with unbreathable, scratching flows of air, until you feel like you are bleeding from your trachea, suffocating.” Afghanistan opens an old door. “From the depths of the past, a new stream of memories. This time, I saw myself walking down the street in the sad city, my nose blocked by the stink of the days-old garbage spread all around, taking big steps to avoid debris and holes left by the reconstruction enthusiasm of a totalitarian regime. I remembered deep in my lungs the feeling of the ‘gray-iced air of my adolescent winters in the freezing, unheated apartment we called home.’” Afghanistan, in a word, has become synonymous with the sound of locks snapping shut.
“How am I doing?” asks Mary Mykhaylova, a Ukrainian émigrée in Emotional Resilience in the Time of War. “There is a boulder in my belly, and I search for what else can help me feel a little lighter,” she writes. “I alternate from hopelessness, pride, and reassurance (or is that denial?) to feeling numb. I successfully get distracted and then I remember. Then comes the guilt for getting distracted. Then comes reminding myself that this guilt does not serve me or anyone else. I am processing, processing…” Jeanne Lemkau visited Mykhaylova’s hometown in 1989, just four years before the USSR was dissolved. Six Days in Odesa recalls “a city redolent with memories of dear people and precious encounters.” The news is very close to Lemkau’s heart. “I fear for Odesa, the ‘Pearl of the Black Sea.’ I fear it could become another Mariupol in Putin’s brutal war.”
Mykhaylova is also frightened and grieving. “It is so hard to feel powerless in the face of something so vast. The boulder grows in my belly, up into my chest.” But she notices that each time she writes, she breathes more fully. “I get to let something go, and in doing so, I start to glue myself back together. I find the answers I seek in my writing.” Humor, she tells us, can also be an “act of resistance.” She and her father “keep in contact by sharing funny topical content in the hope that it will bring the other a moment of levity.” And it occurs to her that they get their relationship to humor from their “social context” mother, their “Odesa Mama,” a city known as the humor capital of the world.
But what happens when there are no answers to be found in writing or talking, when black humor takes a horrifying turn, when transgenerational trauma is laid out bare for the world to see? Milk and Poison is the heartbreaking description of Ellen Luborsky’s brief work with a three-year-old Cambodian refugee. Here we are given a close-up view of a traumatized child’s play devolving when it becomes a millimeter too close to reality and how her traumatized mother’s sarcasm was, in the end, enacted to smash the biggest joke of all—the therapist’s hope to help.
What can be done? What can we imagine now? These are the questions that haunt ROOM 6.22. The essays jump from Russia to Ukraine, from Romania to Italy, from the United States to a childhood spent in an unnamed Communist dictatorship. The authors recall worlds gone forever and describe the signs they sense of dangerous worlds reemerging. Many speak to the uncanny impact of transgenerational traumas. Many allude to the perils and possibilities of speech. Some speak to the weight our children are now required to bear and carry forward with them. Their memories, their tears, their voices, their hopes, their courage are breaking through.
ROOM is entirely dependent upon reader support. Please consider helping ROOM today with a tax deductible donation. Any amount is deeply appreciated.