Mike Muller is on the Advisory Board for Thuy Smith International Outreach. He is a Vietnam Veteran and has been a Psychologist counseling veterans for many years. He writes novels under the pen name of Michael FitzGordon.
I remember when I was in graduate school in the 1970s after I had returned from the war in Vietnam. I knew almost nothing about PTSD—it hadn’t been formally recognized yet! Nor did I know that I had some symptoms of PTSD. In retrospect I can see them. I remember reading an article about the children of survivors of the Holocaust, and how the children were damaged and depressed because their parents, the Holocaust survivors, were damaged and depressed. Despite having no knowledge of PTSD as a formal entity (neither did the authors of the article), I remember feeling somewhat incensed at the attitude that these survivors, both generations, were somehow damaged because they did not fit into society. Yet even at that time the research was also clearly showing that “depressed” people often had a much more accurate perception of themselves than did other people. “Normal” people (normal meaning that they fit into society) consistently had self-perceptions that were distorted in a positive direction. It seemed to me then, and still does, that the Holocaust survivors were the ones who had the more accurate perception of humanity, society, and human nature. They knew what people were like. It was the “normal” people who were fighting to deny or dissociate from the truth. So it is that the survivors of the Holocaust know that they need to keep fighting for people to remember what happened, and for people to know what people are capable of doing so that history does not repeat itself.
It seems to me that the children of the survivors were caught in the middle between these two warring perceptions of reality. On the one hand their parents probably feared their children were being drawn into the same “normal” mindlessness that leads to so much misery in the world, while on the other hand the children’s “normal” friends thought they needed to have a more cheerful, positive attitude, and join them in the happy land of denial and illusions. I would hope that all of us would work out our own view of the world, and not uncritically (and most often unconsciously) adopt the world views of others. Having an independent world view can get you in trouble with your friends, who become uncomfortable when your views seem to contradict or challenge theirs. This dynamic does seem to be prominent in the history of humanity, in which groups of people feel they must compel others by force, war, torture, and imprisonment to think the way they do. Historically it seems that human migration is often caused by the need to escape from those who would kill us or otherwise compel us to think the way they do. People seem to feel very threatened when others do not think the way they do. We can only wish that each of us would treat with respect those who disagree with us, and that others would treat us with respect also.
So when we speak of “intergenerational” PTSD, I think we are speaking of children who are caught in the middle of these warring perceptions. On the one hand their parents’ “normal” assumptions and illusions have been shattered and replaced with more accurate perceptions of reality that are not shared by society. On the other hand they hear the siren call of society drawing them into their happy illusions.
Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, did not write that the ones who survived in the concentration camps were those who maintained a cheerful, optimistic outlook. That would be absurd. He wrote that those who survived were those who had a reason and meaning to survive. The ones who had something they wanted to accomplish, or someone they were yearning to be with again, survived. Given this reason or meaning to live, they could endure all the pain and suffering that was heaped on them. I do not believe that people should whine, complain, moan, and cry out about how terrible life and human nature are. But I do think that people should probably weep, moan, and cry out in pain much more than they do. Then they should listen to their own cries and pay attention to what is wrong and what needs to be changed. They should also be able to be pleasant, joyful, and thankful when life presents its kind beauties and tender mercies.
Often the children of those with PTSD will criticize their parents for not being more like “normal” people. I wish that these children could gain some perspective, and see both of sides of these warring perceptions. They do not need to say that their parents are wrong and society is right, nor the reverse. And sometimes the intensity is heightened still more when children are also caught between the perceptions of warring parents, each of which is putting terrible pressure on the child to think the way they do, and to choose sides! Of course, by being independent thinkers they will nonetheless always be to a degree outsiders. Sometimes independent thinking will be rewarded and honored by others, but most often, almost by definition, it will not be honored and rewarded.
Related Posts by Mike:
- Inter-generational PTSD, Another Perspective (Part Two)
- The Stigma of PTSD
- The Puzzle of PTSD
- Writers and PTSD
Mike Muller- MACV CORDS operations advisor, Binh Chanh District, 1970. Briefing officer for DEPCORDS Ambassador Funkhouser to CG & staff, III Corps Vietnam, 1971. In addition to briefing the staff I briefed visiting officials such as the Secretary of the Army. I was in Vietnam for one tour.
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