The phenomenon is called the intergenerational transfer of trauma and
was first recognized in the 1960s in the children of Holocaust
survivors. It has since been identified in lots of groups, including
kids of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees. But while the Jewish mode of
managing trauma is commemoration and remembering, in some Buddhist
cultures people cope by letting go of things that can’t be changed or
focusing on the future.
For My-Linh Le’s family, the kids were the future.
“When I was in high school, my parents decided for me that I was
going to be a pharmacist,” Le remembers. “I was given no say in this.”
As Le got older, her parents became more controlling. Because they
had lost so much, they were obsessed with her safety. Le says they would
listen in on all her phone conversations, and wouldn’t let her walk
anywhere. She never learned how to ride the bus, because her parents
insisted on hiring drivers to take her to school.
“Even my friends and my friends’ parents felt bad for me,” she says.
“They would actually lie to my parents for me sometimes so that I could
go to the movies or something.”
Le got really good at suppressing her own anger and frustration, so
she wouldn’t set her parents off. But now, as an adult, she’s started to
notice little ways that this family habit is catching up with her. She
was on the phone with her boyfriend recently.
“And he didn’t do something that I thought he should have done by a certain time,” she says. “And this rage just suddenly came out of nowhere, just like totally bubbled up within me.”
She wanted to throw the phone across the room.
“It was this really depressing moment of realizing that I’m just like my mother,” she says.