Psychoanalyst Galit Atlas wrote in the NY Times about a 44-year-old patient who obsessively investigated the lives of strangers listed in newspaper obituaries. For much of his life, the patient also felt he had a dead twin that his parents never told him about.
The patient's mother scoffed at that suggestion, but after her death, the patient's father revealed that a brother, one year older than the patient, died at the age of 8 months. The parents didn't want to burden their second child with this knowledge, so they decided they wouldn't tell him about this traumatic piece of family history. The revelation became necessary upon the death of the mother because the parents wished to be buried in plots beside the deceased child.
Discussing the symptomatic expression of intergenerational secrets, Atlas writes:
We all have our phantoms. But as the psychoanalysts Maria Torok and Nicolas Abraham once wrote, “what haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.” They were referring to intergenerational secrets and unprocessed experiences that very often don’t have a voice or an image associated with them but loom in our minds nonetheless. We carry emotional material that belongs to our parents and grandparents, retaining losses of theirs that they never fully articulated. We feel these traumas even if we don’t consciously know them. Old family secrets live inside of us.
The Atlas piece, and the quoted paragraph in particular, reminded me of something I wrote about my own recent discovery that my grandfather had four sisters who died during childhood, a fact that had never been revealed to my mother.
With respect to my discovery about my maternal grandfather, I'm most curious about the psychological effects these deaths may have had on the man, the husband and father that my grandfather came to be. An extension of that speculation would encompass intergenerational effects that might reach down to my sibs and to me. That's far more than I would speculate on publicly, but some aspects of my maternal family dynamics potentially make more sense than they ever have before.
Of course we can't prove the existence of these psychic phantoms or their link to present-day manifestations in mental life, but the story of Atlas's patient is compelling. And as I said in my post, similar secret traumatic losses in my own family could make sense of some dynamics that hitherto lacked compelling explanation.
Time won't allow for it now, but in a future post, I'll have more to say about this subject.