Why we’re not just our neuroses (and how we can transcend the pain from our past)

Neuroses matter to me, because - forgetting the scientific bit for a moment - they damn well frighten me. What's more, they damn well piss me off.

The tired joke

A Hannukah memoryA century ago, Sigmund Freud wrote a monograph on Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. In it, he stated the ‘mass’ is “impulsive, changeable, and irritable. It is controlled almost exclusively by the unconscious.’’

Come to think of it, Freud felt everything was controlled ‘almost exclusively’ by the unconscious.

Though in at least one respect, I’m inclined to agree with him.

In recent months there’s one key area I’ve come to appreciate people can be governed by the unconscious.

When it comes to the intangible influence of past family traumas or the historic hurt caused to our specific communities – yes – I agree with Freud.

I agree that people can act in all sorts of impulsive and irritable ways, and yes, these might best be explained in terms of the unconscious…

…the things that can trouble people can be hard to get a handle on. They’re possibly ghosts from their past – ghosts from their family’s or community’s past, which unbeknownst to them, may be guiding and shaping their behaviour. 

This blog-post – the penultimate post in my season of blogging on the ‘joys and complications’ of my Jewish identity – is but one of many contributions to the discussion on what we transmit across generations.

What exactly is the discussion we’re having here?

The discussion we’re focusing on is whether we can upend unhealthy patterns of behaviour that afflict families as they pass from generation to generation ——– whether indeed we learn patterns of behaviour that first affected our grandparents, great-grandparents and even earlier generations.

It will briefly address intergenerational trauma.

It will consider the value of writing to reconcile ourselves to our damaged family or community stories.

Pointing scribes
Yad, which help a Rabbi or synagogue senior figure to follow the scriptures in the Torah

It can only hope to cover the topic superficially.

And I promise, it will avoid Woody Allen jokes (thank goodness, I hear most of you whispering from the back row).

The director’s jokes used to be rooted in stereotypes that he and other Jews are consumed with self loathing. His jokes were funny, once.

You know the style of comedy…the jokes about neurotic mothers-in-law; neurotic wives; neurotics full-stop. Jokes that were funny when stand-up comic Jackie Mason was telling them, night-after-night, in the 1980s. 

They’re funny no more. Anyone who has had to spend an hour watching Jewish comic, Fran Lebowitz’s, new one-note comedy on Netflix will know what I am talking about.

Being a bundle of neuroses – leaving ourselves insufficient space to evolve as rounded individuals – that’s no laughing matter…

Why neuroses matter to me

The comedy and tragedy of ‘Jewish’ neuroses’ would be a good title for a book, don’t you think? 

When we think of famous Jews, both from history and still living today, we might think about neurotic characters: Woody Allen comes to mind, of course, and so do Moses, a man who sees burning bushes and works with a higher being to part the seas; oh, and Jesus Christ.

He was considered pretty neurotic by his fellow Hebrews.

And what of the father of psychoanalysis?

An Austrian Jew, Freud is commonly recognised as one of the main influences on early 20th century psychology and critical thinking. To be sure, one other persona endures: not that he was individually a ‘neurotic Jew’, but a Jew curiously devoted to people’s neuroses.

What is it about Jews and neuroses?

The Georges et Maurice Levin school set up by the Alliance Israelite. Photo from around late 1950s or early 1960s.

If I were to ever write the aforementioned book about the comedy and tragedy of so-called Jewish neuroses, I would draw on a range of disciplines to explore how the stereotype of Jewish ‘neurotics’ came into being, and how in the 21st century epigenetics and ancestral healing can help to transcend these limiting identities. 

I would draw on insights from literature to explore how collective trauma and shame came to characterise 20th century Jews’ ‘within-group’ psychology

But for now, here’s my cursory comment on the subject…

Neuroses matter to me, because – forgetting the scientific bit for a moment – they damn well frighten me. What’s more, they damn well piss me off.

Grandma in her heyday
A photo of my Grandma dancing

Drawing for the moment on my own culture and community story, I don’t think that Jews are intrinsically neurotic, at least not anymore than any other population, race or ethnic group.

I think we’ve acquired certain characteristics, or we’ve allowed ourselves to acquire these.

Our ‘neuroses’ became our shield and our shelter against a hostile world.

Our neuroses were – still are – a real legacy of the pogroms, Nazism and centuries of forced migration.

The recurring stories of family neuroses

I have been researching my family history. For a long time, I was left wondering why my paternal grandfather’s story gets told rarely.

I never knew Arthur J Kaye – he passed away before I was born: on January 29th 1976, at the age of 77. He was born at the tail end of the 19th century, when Queen Victoria was still on the throne. But he’s more than the dates he was born and died.

Tracing his story through the archives, it seems little wonder to me that he ended in one of the Victorian-style institutes for the mentally unwell.

He changed his name at least half a dozen times – or the authorities changed it for him by misspelling his name. He was born Israel Kaufman, and later was Israel Kaufmann, Israel Kauffman, Isedore Kaufmann, Isadore Kauffeman, and finally, he anglicised his name to Arthur Kaye.

He never seemed to live anywhere for very long. The best thing I could say is that for a long time he seemed mysterious. At times, his story seemed seriously shady. Ask the few relatives who remember him what Arthur was like and they’re not complimentary.

So, I’ve been trying to piece together his story for myself.

Arthur was old enough to be conscripted, but didn’t fight in the First World War. He disappeared from the family home for long periods of time, on board boats as a ‘commercial traveller’ to Durban and Madeira.

He ended up living alone after a tough divorce in the late 1950s, and my Dad recounts how his father ended up restrained in a straitjacket. By the time that happened it was the late early 1970s, and yes, people with severe mental health disorders were still getting straitjacketed.

He was a serial gambler and ended up in the pub opposite his flat in Manchester Street most afternoons.

On one level – and I suppose here I’m referring to the subconscious – I’ve feared what his story means, if indeed it means anything for me as his grandson.

I’ve worried that my paternal side of the family is stuffed with stories of people experiencing acute stress, chronic anxiety and, on occasion, full breakdowns, requiring in my great-great grandmother’s case, electric shock therapy.

What might repeat itself, I wondered as a young man in my early twenties when I too experienced ill mental health.

Grandma with a new book

What inevitably recurs throughout families, was one question I used to ask.

What is inherited in terms of acquired characteristics or faulty genes?

I could refer to Lamarck’s theory of acquired characteristics, which doesn’t have a precise application here, as it was a predecessor theory to Darwin’s theory of evolution, but it still has a resonance in terms of how we as humans adapt to external environments and stimuli. Do check out the science.

But I am not going to quote science at you. I’m no scientist.

I’m going to quote stories…

Guides to getting lost and finding our way again

If this blog gets at all ‘factual’, that bit comes later.

For now, I want to share what I’ve been reflecting on this past couple of weeks as I read Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh and nonfiction writer, Rebecca Solnit‘s, spare but affecting book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Finding a way through

In the books I’ve been reading this past fortnight, I’ve been reading about people whose past threatens to overwhelm them.  

Hardly fun reading. But sometimes you learn a lot reading authors who’ve coped with unrelenting misery.

Kerri ní Dochartaigh grew up in ‘The Troubles’ in the conflict-ridden city of Derry.

In her teens and twenties, she isn’t allowed to find peace. Half-Protestant, and half-Catholic, she’s bullied and tormented on both sides of Belfast’s sectarian divide.

She discusses the years of addiction, alcoholism and emotional harm that have plagued her family and community. She didn’t ask to grow up against such a backdrop but she resolves she’s sure as hell going to try and break free.

Somehow or other she finds ‘a way through’ as ní Dochartaigh refers to her experience of getting lost in nature. She envelops herself in the ‘thin places’ of her story.

Solnit’s is a different story, not about her personal misfortunes as such, but about her East European Jewish family and the imprecise quality of their collective memory, a memory she establishes her last remaining older relatives have moulded so that, like clay, it hardly has a structure.

It’s a memory that had to be suppressed at times, which means her family’s historic accounts of her grandmother arriving as a migrant child at Ellis Island in New York, or a relative ending up in a hospital for the mentally unwell have collapsed in on themselves: hardly piddly little details, but they end up imperfect and unclear.

Solnit states and I quote “I think sometimes that I became a historian because I didn’t have a history, but also because I was interested in telling the truth in a family in which truth was an elusive entity.”

I like how she goes on to describe her own means of finding ‘a way through’: “…not by claiming an authoritative and disinterested relationship to the facts, but by disclosing…desires and agendas, for truth lies not only in incidents but in hopes and needs.”

Ultimately, I take her argument to be that we’re better off embracing uncertainty and the prospect of loss, because it will surely come; it always does. And that getting lost isn’t in and of itself something to fear.

In Memory of Memory

As a Jew, I feel Rebecca Solnit writes with the baggage of a specific Jewish history, much like Maria Stepanova, a Russian Jew, whose book ‘In Memory of Memory’ was recently shortlisted for the International Booker prize.  Stepanova is drawn to the ways in which the past resists being uncovered. In this fabulous review by Tessa Hadley, we see Stepanova:

‘Rescuing her family from the totalising narrative of history, she doesn’t mean to reassure us of the past’s solidity, or its continuity with ourselves. History pretends to make sense of the past in the present. What she wants to recover is rather the strangeness of what’s past, and its lostness…’

I recognise the worlds Solnit and Stepanova evoke, not intimately, but they’re not alien, either.

I recognise how families can see stories pass from generation to generation, doubtedly, not at all excitedly. All the while, in the telling of these stories, families lose the hard currency of detail. The truth suffers as the stories age.

Jewish people are by no means unique in suppressing or forgetting our stories – or indeed, vaulting to the other extreme, obsessing over them and exhaustedly trying to trace every last detail, much like me.

There’s something universal in Solnit and Stepanova’s tales.

Fiddler on the Roof

But there’s also a Jewish specificity, I like to think, in their writings about being lost, fearing loss, and losing our grip on the truth. This fear is at the root of some of our neuroses living in diaspora for thousands of years. It’s the constant fear our home is not our home, that we cannot be complacent, that we’d be stupid to ever imagine we’re safe. Or drawing on Solnit’s logic, we’re the wandering Jews, we’re damn well going to get lost, we’re programmed to experience loss.

It’s the sentiment underlying Topol and the villagers’ last song in Fiddler on the Roof, as they’re forced to leave their home, Anatevka:

A stick of wood. A piece of cloth.
What do we leave? Nothing much.
Only Anatevka.

Calculating our losses, largely

Reading A Field Guide to Getting Lost, I am reminded of my own neuroses, which to a degree, are ‘Jewish’ neuroses.

Wearing a kipper

It makes me think how there are things we simply cannot be aware of in life, let alone prepare for, and this has long troubled me.

It’s the mindset which says ‘In life I’m better off steeling myself for the losses to come because the losses of the past so blindsided and wounded me. I can’t allow myself to be so vulnerable next time loss occurs. I must be vigilant, I must watch, I must prepare myself…’

And they say Jews are paranoid? Well, for good reason.

Solnit quotes Edgar Allan Poe: “in matters of philosophical discovery … it is the unforeseen upon which we must calculate most largely.”

For those of us with damaged nerves, call it what you will – neuroses, anxiety, OCD, ——- we’re always calculating the unforeseen. Largely.

As a kid, I used to have peculiar rituals, childlike stuff, but nevertheless disruptive enough that I’d have to perform them at bedtime every evening.

If I didn’t? I’d worry my family wouldn’t be safe. That the plane we were due to catch to fly the next week on holiday would crash.

Where does such an impulse come from? Such disturbing fears?

Trauma, and breaking free

In recent months I’ve been referred by friends, loved ones and colleagues to a wealth of information on cross-generational trauma, sometimes referred to as ‘intergenerational trauma’.

My immediate disclaimer here is that I don’t think of myself as someone who has personally experienced trauma. I haven’t.

But perhaps some of my ancestors did, as forced refugees: always on the move.

Perhaps their neuroses have percolated down the generations, and everyone in between my great-great grandparents and me had an influence, all the while dealing with their own alien anxieties, which osmotically wrapped themselves around their necks.

Arthur, my Grandpa, seemed a restless man, always on the move, never quite still, until a straitjacket forced him to be.

My great-great grandmother, May, lived to a good age but she was miserable, relatives tell me, living a life she wasn’t meant to and ending electronically shocked to wake her to her senses.

Whatever the origins of these mental illnesses, whatever their triggers, whatever my own difficulties as a young gay man coming out a year after Mum passed away, I make no comparison between our ‘difficulties’ as a family and the difficulties experienced by distant relatives, whose loved ones died in the Holocaust, or indeed any family that has experienced ‘actual’ trauma.

Transcending trauma

But what is trauma, really?

And what might we do to confront, and ultimately overcome it?

My sister referred me to this wonderfully reassuring podcast on transcending Jewish trauma from Jo Anne Katz, an ancestral healer. It made me think expansively about all the quirks in my personality I can’t explain, and where some of these idiosyncrasies may be linked to my ancestry.

For one, why I hate, —— seriously hate ——— moving home regularly. Moving home brings a lethargy and sadness I can’t easily explain. I need to feel rooted in a particular home or else, yes, I feel lost. Something perhaps to do with my ancestry?

This podcast took me to a great piece in The Atlantic by Olga Khazan, another Jewish writer of Russian ancestry.

Titled Inherited Trauma Shapes Your Health, Khazan writes about a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

They found that the sons of Union Army soldiers who endured grueling conditions as prisoners of war were more likely to die young than the sons of soldiers who were not prisoners. This is despite the fact that the sons were born after the war, so they couldn’t have experienced its horrors personally. In other words, it seemed like the stresses of war were getting passed down between generations.

She highlights the science of Epigenetics – remember, no science here – but essentially Epigenetics is  is the study of how your behaviours and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work, and this can have cross-generational impacts.

The great news about Epigenetics? While some of the scientists debate the true potential for behaviour and environments to change our genes, it at least flags it’s an area that warrants further investigation.

As Khazan writes in her piece in The Atlantic, whenever there’s trauma, the possibilities offered by epigenetics mean trauma won’t inevitably be transmitted.

We can break the chain of our ancestral histories. We need not experience what our ancestors did, nor live out their past transgressions, mishaps and misshapen identities.

Dora Costa, the lead author of the Civil War study and an economist at UCLA, told Khazan. “The epigenetic story is optimistic because it allows for the possibility of reversibility through maternal nutrition.”

Fascinating.

I’ve recently heard it said that regular singing to babies growing in the womb can potentially minimise the likelihood as children they develop certain conditions later on in life.

That is to say that singing’s just as good for the baby as the mother, (well, we already knew that), but it can specifically lead to long-term benefits for the child’s mental health. Again, fascinating.

Non-conformity and being plain weird

Returning to Olga Khazan, it hardly surprised me when I read about her Russian Jewish history and why as an outsider in West Texas, she was motivated to write the new book, ‘Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World‘. In her book she considers ‘the science of non-conformity’.

Why wasn’t I surprised that Khazan wrote this book? Much like Solnit and Stepanova, she’s processing her past – her shadowy, Russian Jewish history. A past not so different to my own.

She talks to outsiders.

Am I an outsider? Not obviously.

I am a white, middle class, British cis-man, aged 39. Hardly a minority!

I also happen to be gay, Jewish Ashkenazi with a family history rooted in the old Russian Empire, in a relationship with a man who is of Muslim faith, and I’m living with OCD.

What’s visible to others rarely paints the full picture of how we see ourselves and understand our individual personalities.

Family Constellations

While I’m not saying our ancestry, or genetics for that matter, determines everything about our lives – luck, free will and sheer force of personality also explain our fortunes and our fate – I am struck that trauma from the past can play its role.

Hebrew script - or is it?
Hebrew script

Unresolved past pain can have an outsize impact on our lives today.

That’s why I am interested in the work of Mark Wolynn at the Family Constellations Institute, located in San Francisco. His stories are extraordinary.

Listen to his recent interview, ‘Do we inherit trauma?‘ for some of these devastating and hopeful stories of individuals transcending family trauma and histories.

His book, It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End The Cycle is my next read.

One story concerns a young person who unfortunately kept on cutting themselves. They couldn’t explain why. As a therapist, Mark asked his patient what might have occurred in the relationship between them and their parents. Nothing bad, the young person answered. Then Mark asked what might have taken place years back in the young person’s grandparents’ lives. I won’t reveal what they said here, but my gosh, what a startling revelation – it sent shivers down my spine. Listen here.

I plan to soon start looking into Family Constellations therapy, as it promises exciting and far-reaching results for those open minded enough to explore it.

Essentially, I want to explore how the traumas of our parents, grandparents, and even great grandparents can live in our unexplained depression, anxiety, fears, phobias, obsessive thoughts and physical symptoms—what scientists are now calling “secondary PTSD.”

Documenting the latest epigenetic research—how traumatic memories are transmitted through chemical changes in DNA—and the latest advances in neuroscience and the science of language, It Didn’t Start With You seems an accessible and pragmatic guide to breaking inherited trauma. Do let me know what you think if you get to read it.

Next steps – back in the autumn

Keen followers of the blog will have noticed I have been a lot more active here lately.

I’ve had lots of things to share!

I am now taking a break from the blog over the summer. I am writing a book and need to make progress.

I am also planning to revamp this website with lots of new products and services as part of my plan to launch a ‘Your family story, your personal story’ offer. You will hear from me again around late September/early October.

In the meantime, please get in touch with any questions or feedback at andrew.j.kaye82@gmail.com

I am still accepting new coachees for my coaching work.

All that leaves me to say is thank you for your interest.

See you soon.

If you are interested in reading more of Andrew's blogs and other published work, do take a look here.