Tuesday, 30 October 2012

THE THINKER: Ancestor Syndrome

In the preface to her book The Ancestor Syndrome, the psychotherapist Anne Ancelin Schutzenberger cites an entry from Roman Law to explain the theory and practice of transgenerational psychotherapy:  “The dead pass down to the living”(xii). 

The approach is historically rooted in Sigmund Freud’s study of the unconscious and its manifestations.  On “the archaic heritage of human beings” Freud said, “not only dispositions but also subject matter” such as “memory-traces of the experiences of earlier generations” can be transmitted transgenerationally (Schutzenberger ,5).  It is, then, the work of the transgenerational psychotherapist to go beyond what is transmitted consciously in a family from one generation to another and to bring to light what is transmitted unknowingly (Schutzenberger, 3-4).  By discovering and expressing a repressed family secret, for example, the patient can be freed from a neurosis that has been inherited. 

In an article for The New York Times, Dr. Darold A. Treffert explains the phenomenon of genetic memory with the following analogy:  “In the animal kingdom, we accept without question migration patterns that birds are born with which they never learned.  The monarch butterfly makes a trip from Canada to Mexico to a 23-acre spot, and they take three generations to get there” (Carvajel, 3).  Essentially, the author of the article goes on to say, “genes have memory” and the “lives of our grandparents --- what they breathed, saw and ate --- can directly affect us decades later” (Carvajal, 2). 

According to Transgenerational Theory then, present day behaviours can be linked to ancestors in an individual’s family tree.  By discovering those links, the individual uncovers the source of impelled repetitions that continue down the generational chain.  Through understanding an individual’s ancestral past, the theory argues, the individual acquires ownership of both their experience of that past as well as their own present.

"My ancestors were gentry...All I'm hardwired to do is ride horses and the occasional housemaid!"

Carvajal, Doreen. “In Andulalusia, on the Trail of Inherited Memories.” 
            The New York Times, 17 August 2012. Early Ed.: Science. Online.

Schutzenberger, Anne Ancelin.  The Ancestor Syndrome: Transgenerational  
            Psychotherapy and the Hidden Links in the Family Tree. London:
            Routledge, 1998.

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