Intergenerational trauma workshop comes to the Yoga Barn

Merissa Nathan Gerson will lead a workshop at the Yoga Barn on Sunday. —Merissa Nathan Gerson

Merissa Nathan Gerson, a freelance nonfiction and fiction writer with a focus on Judaism, trauma, and the intergenerational repercussions of war, will host a workshop at the Yoga Barn this Sunday. The workshop is grounded in the work she did as intergenerational trauma consultant to Amazon’s hit show “Transparent,” centered around a Los Angeles family who learns their father is transgender.

What does intergenerational trauma mean to you, and how does it affect us?

I grew up in a house where the Holocaust was spoken of regularly, if not daily. My paternal grandparents were Polish and survived two years of slave labor camps in Siberia, and later in a Displaced Persons Camp, coming to America on a boat with fake names. The story growing up was of epic proportion, almost too big, like a fantasy — something that was hard to touch, to realize its realness. Eventually I did learn how real the story was, what it meant that my relatives had been slaughtered like animals, and what a miracle it was that I was alive at all. I tried for years to imagine my father’s upbringing in the Bronx, to understand how his parents felt, or to imagine what grief and mourning did or did not look like when almost everyone you ever knew was murdered.

As I realized this story was not just theirs, but also mine, I began to see that it was a story that affected how I was treated, or what I remembered, or what I was afraid of. I realized it was not a story at all, but a root experience that shaped my father, who then shaped me. In the most ordinary but vital ways, the war, through fear, through actions, through so many markers on body and psyche, was still present in hidden ways.

Intergenerational trauma means the pain that is passed from one generation to the next in the form of life-altering fears, violence, psychological ticks, physical malady, and more. It is where the remnants of an unmourned grief or a deeply impacting traumatic experience leaches on to the next generation, folded into the basics of everyday life and thus often undetectable. It affects us in our fears, in the burdens we carry, in addictions and obsessions. It does not mean blaming one’s parents for pain, but realizing their experiences, or their parent’s experiences, might inform how one was loved, how one relates to joy, or to pain, to alcohol and drugs, or to intimacy. It simply means that disasters, violence, war, trauma — the horrors that precede us impact us in all sorts of unseen ways.

What are some of the ways we inherit trauma scientifically, emotionally, and socially?

According to Rachel Yehuda, a scientist in New York who proved the concept of epigenetics to be real, we can inherit traumas through our genetic code. She studied women who were pregnant at 9/11 and tested the mothers and their children finding that the experience did, in fact, alter the genetic code and cellular makeup of the child. Fears were passed from one body to the next. She also studied Holocaust survivors and their children and found, again, that there were shifts in their being, at a cellular level, that were imprinted through the experiences of the horrors of war.

Emotionally, this shows up in fears, in patterns of relating, in a number of basic and simple ways where the thing one might seek to repress returns, comes back, shows itself in new form. A classic example is a person afraid of elevators, remembering cattle cars that they never experienced. Or, for example, the writing of Gayl Jones in the acclaimed black feminist novel “Corregidora,” where she explains the sexuality of a woman as it is affected by the slave/master relationship that preceded her matriarchal lineage. Or someone afraid at the gym of going into the steam showers, because they remind them of gas chambers, or someone else afraid of boats, because of slave ships. These are important examples because these individuals were not in gas chambers, were not on slave ships, but can, through cellular memory, recall fears of this caliber.

This is something that happens, also, to the transmission of tradition. Religious ritual, spiritual practice, writing, and more are all impacted by the way a culture is impacted on a meta level — the way a social system might mimic individual responses to trauma. For example, disembodiment is a classic response. This happens to social systems after major upheaval. Traditions can be lost or mutated by a pause, a receding from reality, a rupture in the pre-existing norm.

Who is the target audience for this workshop? How much of it is aimed at writers and creative types?

The target audience of this workshop is anyone with a curiosity about the topic of trauma inheritance. It is not just for creative types and writers. It is for people who want to begin to pay closer attention to their lineage, or who want to learn to better hold space for their partners or friends. The target audience is the person who secretly knows their family’s troubles affect them, but are still unclear how to understand or recognize the impact.

What was it like working with the writers of “Transparent,” and how did their work in the session help shape the show?

Working with the writers at “Transparent” was a real gift. They are a team of culturally aware intellectuals with a knack for creating meaningful content. I delivered the same workshop to them that I will offer Sunday, only in a faster form. It was a pleasure to watch how their minds spun the information, and took what I offered from five years of graduate education and personal research, transforming it into relevant, palatable pop culture material.

What techniques will the workshop use to understand and explore trauma?

This workshop is a conceptual overview of what trauma inheritance means, looking at and breaking down the concept while offering tools to recognize where one might be impacted by past experiences in their own lives. There will be breathing, writing, lecture, and discussion as means of exploring these themes.

The workshop will take place this Sunday, August 14, from 3 to 5 pm at the Yoga Barn in Chilmark. Admission is $60, $40 with the Island Card, and $25 for teens. For more information, visit