We stumble upon death records that indicate suicide when we’d always been told it was an accident. Or we unearth evidence that an ancestor was molested or abused. Our ancestors may have been enslaved or held in concentration camps.
If you haven’t come across anything like this in your genealogical digs, it’s only a matter of time before you do. Research your family history long enough and in-depth enough, and you will uncover shocking information about the very people from whom you are descended. It’s an understatement to say that we all face difficult choices, we all make mistakes, and tragedy touches us all at one time or another. The good, the bad, and the ugly are part of all of our stories. And we will never know of many of the difficult or emotionally painful experiences of our ancestors.
Some of the troubling events we come across in our family history were undoubtedly traumatic to those ancestors who lived through them. For family historians, learning about these events decades or even centuries later can be upsetting – even devastating.
But the effects of those long-ago incidents on descendants may be more deep-seated than simply the emotional reaction to finding out about them. Recent research has suggested that psychological trauma itself can be passed from one generation to the next through DNA.
Several scientific studies have revealed that in some Holocaust survivors, the gene associated with depressive and anxiety disorders had undergone chemical changes. This sort of genetic adaption is known as an “epigenetic” (which means, literally, “above the gene”) change; in other words, the chemical marker for the gene, not the gene itself, was altered. This same epigenetic alteration appeared in the DNA of the offspring of the Holocaust survivors, implying that the chemical changes that their parents’ DNA had endured in the face of severe stress may have been passed to the offspring’s DNA. This suggests that children of parents who have experienced trauma may be at increased risk for anxiety and depressive disorders; they also may be more likely to have personality traits associated with an increased risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What does this mean for descendants of those who’ve experienced psychological trauma?
It’s pretty much what you decide to make of it.
Many of us know how exciting it is when we learn about how our ancestors contributed to the world. We feel proud when we can say that an ancestor of ours played a part in inventing the fire sprinkler (one of mine did), or invaded Normandy, or risked her life by providing nursing care to patients during the 1918 flu pandemic.
On the other hand, it can be distressing to learn that events experienced by previous generations might increase our risk for anxiety and depressive disorders and PTSD. My three-times great-grandfather Franklin Fogle (whom I’ve mentioned in previous blogs) survived but never recovered from grievous injuries in the Civil War, and based on his pension file, I believe he may have suffered from PTSD as a result. Perhaps one way to look at it is that in researching our family history, many of us are seeking to fortify our sense of identity and connection to those without whose whom we would not exist. If it hadn’t been for our ancestors’ strength and resilience through their difficulties, we would not be here. While none of us relishes possibly carrying DNA altered by horrific experiences, it does provide yet another link between them and us, albeit a bittersweet one.
Unless we participate in a study that examines our own DNA for epigenetic changes to particular genes (as some “Second Generation” Holocaust survivors have), we’ll likely never know if our ancestors’ experiences may have affected their DNA and, in turn, ours. If we struggle with depression or anxiety, it may ease some of our minds to know that our tendencies toward those emotional states may have roots in events that precede our births. Long before the Holocaust survivor studies ever saw the light of day, some scientists asserted that depression and anxiety can run in families; the possibility that such a legacy can, in some instances, be traced to specific events or circumstances is at once shocking and, somehow, comforting.
At best, this knowledge may increase our compassion and empathy toward not only our ancestors but also ourselves and anyone who has experienced trauma or severe psychological stress. It may further open our eyes to just how deep and long-lasting the effects of events and decisions on both the personal level and global level can run.
That’s how I’m choosing to view any information I come across in my family history about events or circumstances that likely would have been extremely stressful or traumatic for my ancestors. I hope that you too can find a peaceful way to come to terms with your own ancestors’ traumas.