Ancestry.com. 23andMe. MyHeritage. Genealogical research is all the rage right now. I love genealogy because I value knowing where I come from. It’s also fascinating. The stories of our ancestors are full of fortune, misfortune, dreams, tragedy, strokes of luck, strength, and pure grit. Spiritually and biologically, I am my ancestors. I carry the soils of their homelands in my bones, their kinship in my blood, their courage in my chest.
I utilize the databases and software available to me to learn about my family. I also engage my body as an archive of information.
Here is one story illustrating what I call embodied genealogical research:
About a year ago, I began to sense a vault of sexual and reproductive trauma in my family lines. The images and sensations I was noticing in my body (specifically in my right side shoulder girdle, in my right side middle abdomen, and in my transverse and rectus abdominis muscles) all had a similar tone of pain and loss. At the same time, each body memory and sensation had a distinctness to it, which I’ve learned to discern as something like a signature or fingerprint of someone outside of my own first-hand experience.
These sensations were reminiscent of an experience I’d had a few years prior. I had been feeling a dense and dull energy in my abdomen that was creating an overwhelming sense of sadness. Through a contemplative body awareness practice, I focused attention on my uterus and accessed a memory of my great-grandmother, Golde (after whom I am named). Growing up, I had learned that Golde and her husband Benim had four children – two daughters (Ida and Sonia) born in 1905 and 1906, followed by two sons (Sol and Sid) in 1921 and 1925. In my body meditation, I saw Golde in a cemetery in Poland. The scene was sad and grey, overcast with gentle snowflakes falling on a fresh blanket of snow. Golde was accompanied by two children and the specter of a third. They had just buried someone and were leaving the cemetery; I knew in my belly that it was a child.
I asked my aunt (Golde’s granddaughter, who herself was nearing death), “Do you think it’s possible that Golde gave birth to a fifth child who died young?” Her eyes widened and she exclaimed, “You know what?! I think you’re right! No one ever talked about it, but somehow I’m remembering that now. I think after Ida and Sonia, and before Sol and Sid…”
Several months later, I got in touch with another relative and asked the same question. His response? “You know what?! I think you might be right!” Two days later, I found a document in the JRI-Poland database: a 1920 registration card from Lodz, Poland, listing Golde and Benim, their parents’ names, birthplaces, occupations, and children’s names – including the baby who had died. His name was Hersz.
This is embodied genealogical research: I acknowledged a body memory, I trusted my body’s wisdom, and I followed the breadcrumbs to the corroborating evidence.*
I have had other memories like this come through my body, some with documented proof or oral confirmation from relatives, others without corroboration thus far. Through this embodied genealogical research, I have experienced in my own tissues and nervous system ancestral memories of the torture during Holocaust sterilization experiments, the grief of child loss, the shame and secrecy undergirding molestation, and the rage of women trapped in rapacious marriages. My uterus, my fallopian tubes, my ovaries, my lower abdominal muscles…every part of my vulva and surrounding body structures carry intergenerational trauma.
I am writing about particular anatomy and reproductive organs because these are the body parts in which ancestral trauma has lodged inside me. Golde’s memories passed through my grandfather and then my father to get to me. My dad did not have a uterus, but he did have a low sperm count. There are many possible reasons for why this was the case; I wonder if intergenerational trauma is one of them. Regardless of gender, and regardless of what body parts we do or do not have and for what reasons, the experiences of our ancestors are with us.
The Healing & Transformational Potential of Embodied Genealogical Research
We know that the body transmits trauma across generations, for example through epigenetics and hormonal dysfunction during gestation. We also know that intergenerational trauma can cause mental health issues, cancer, chronic pain, gut disorders, and so much more. (See resources below.)
Carrying my ancestors’ sexual and reproductive trauma was heavy. It contributed to chronic back pain, to anxiety and depression, and to severe menstrual distress.
From the time I started bleeding around age 13, I had VERY intense periods. Emotionally, I would become easily agitated and break out in tears or anger for no apparent reason. Physically, my bleeding was heavy, painful, fatiguing, and debilitating. Coaches and co-workers would tell me to go home because my face looked green. Since I had a short cycle, I spent 5 out of every 24 days unable to function in professional, social, and sometimes even home spaces.
I got screened for endometriosis. Not the culprit. I got checked for iron deficiency or anemia. Still no answers. My ob-gyn suggested I try hormonal birth control, but I wasn’t comfortable with the idea. I tried herbal and homeopathic remedies. I tried specific yoga postures. I popped ibuprofens, which alleviated pain for a few hours at a time but did nothing to address my emotional roller coasters or the underlying cause of my menstrual distress.
In my late 20s, I began seeing a functional medicine doctor. We tested my hormone levels and started me on a regimen of bioidentical progesterone. Within a few months, I was feeling WAY better. I imagined my emotions, fatigue, and physical pain as volume, base, and treble controls on an amp; each tone of my experience slid into a new position where the three were balanced – not completely gone, but in sync and no longer blowing out the amp. I still needed to rest for a day or two when I started bleeding, but this felt normal and integratable into my life and routines.
I stayed on progesterone for about 4.5 years. When I came off it this year, I was surprised to find that not only did my amp levels stay steady, but I actually felt more able to exercise and be active around my bleeding time. This was amazing! I had spent decades bleeding heavily, writhing on couches in pain, being stuck in bed for days, yelling at people when they’d done nothing wrong…and now I was fine. If progesterone supplementation had been what alleviated my distress, why was I doing so well now without the supplement? What had caused such a dramatic change in my body?
During the time I was taking progesterone, I did not make any significant changes to my diet, my sleeping habits, my exercise routines, or anything else physiological. I grew a little older, and it’s certainly possible that between ages 31 and 35, my hormones changed so dramatically that my periods changed.
What was definitively different from pre- and post-progesterone phases, however, was that I had been actively healing intergenerational trauma. Through bodywork, ritual, therapy, and myriad body-based practices, I had excavated and released many of my ancestral memories of sexual violence and reproductive loss.
I no longer need hormone supplements to manage the ancestral pain that my womb has carried because I have healed so much of the pain. I like to think that my healing has brought some healing to my ancestors, as well.
The next chapter of my embodied genealogical research? Accessing the memories of my ancestors falling in love, laughing by a river, and looking into each other’s twinkling eyes with excitement about their next adventure. My body is an archive, not only of trauma but of pleasure and delight.
[*Added 4/19/21: Depending on what my goals are, I may or may not need corroborating evidence. If my goal is personal healing, trusting my body’s wisdom is enough for me. If my goal is to publish information on a widely used genealogical database or shared software, then I need to verify my body’s information in the same way that I need to verify any bit of data and/or I need to note how I came to the information. People who are adopted or whose cultural erasure has hidden historical information may not have genealogical information available to them. Approaching the body as an archive may be particularly useful in these instances.]
Some resources for learning about the science of intergenerational trauma transmission and how the body holds and expresses trauma:
- My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakam (2017) – See p. 37 for a bit about trauma transmission during pregnancy.
- Rachel Yehuda – Read any of her academic articles on epigenetics and intergenerational trauma transmission; see “Biological factors associated with susceptibility to posttraumatic stress disorder” for more about cortisol dysfunction during gestation. Take a listen to this On Being interview with her and Krista Tippet.
- The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk (2014) – Provides neurobiological research about what happens when people experience trauma and how the body stores, reacts to, and processes trauma.
- The Politics of Trauma by Staci K. Haines (2019)
Some practices that help me connect with my ancestors:
- I tend an ancestor altar with fresh flowers, photographs, and items that belonged to my ancestors. Don’t have photographs or items? Create an altar with objects that remind you of them, or questions you wish you could ask them – artwork, poems, stones, letters, etc.
- Before lighting Shabbat candles, I light candles on my ancestor altar and burn cedar or rosemary, which help me to communicate through the veil between living and ancestral realms.
- When I need guidance, I talk to them. I ask for wisdom, clarity, or discernment.
- I wear their jewelry and consciously feel their presence in my adornments.
- I invite connection with what Taya Ma Shere calls “bright and benevolent” ancestors. If their spirits are too wounded or otherwise unable to show up in support of my wellness and healing, I put up a boundary. (Boundary work is a whole other topic.)
Stay tuned for a future post about how I orient to the Hebrew months of Elul and Tishrei as a major ancestral portal space in Jewish cyclical time.
Some resources for exploring ancestral resonance/trauma/resilience in your own body:
- A Tool for Transcending Jewish Trauma by Jo Kent Katz
- Jewish Ancestral Healing website, resources, and podcast with Taya Ma Shere
- Wounds Into Wisdom (2019) by Reb Tirzah Firestone
While these resources focus on Jewish ancestry, many of their practices and frameworks are translatable to different cultures and spiritual or religious backgrounds and/or pose questions that will support anyone in exploring embodied ancestry.
Some resources and practices for developing body awareness and exploring body memories:
- Resource yourself in advance, particularly if you have or suspect you have a trauma history. Try out Lauren Parnell‘s techniques (no materials required), talk to a therapist about your interests and concerns, and explore principles and practices of trauma-sensitive mindfulness.
- Breathe, sit, walk, or move with as much awareness as you can. Feel your feet or body in contact with the earth. Pay attention to every shift and engagement of your body, no matter how small. Be curious. Play. Imagine that you are shining a light inside your body, going deeper and deeper from outside to inside – flesh, fascia, muscle, bone, organs, cells. Notice sensations such as heaviness, levity, pressure, warmth, coolness, tension, ease, tingling, numbness, or no sensation. Don’t force anything. The goal is not to discover anything in particular, but rather to learn to inquire. If you discover a sensation or place in your body that brings up fear or emotional activation, unless you are confident in your own trauma-informed personal practice, create distance from that spot by opening your eyes, sending your attention elsewhere, lightly stamping your feet several times to feel present where you are, placing your hand with a soothing amount pressure over your heart, exhaling long and slow, and/or counting 5 things you can see / 4 things you can touch / 3 things you can hear / 2 things you can smell / 1 thing you can taste.
- Patty Townsend’s Embodyoga website, workshops and YouTube channel – If yoga is not your thing, check this out for the content around getting to know your tissues, organs, bones, and cells.
- Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen’s books, workshops and YouTube channel – She is Patty’s teacher.
- Shadow Work – A form of non-clinical therapeutic practice based in Jungian psychology that allows the client to externalize “parts” of their psyche and somatically and psychologically transform one’s relationship to these parts. See https://shadowwork.com.
Stay tuned for future posts about what my embodied awareness and somatic inquiry practices look and feel like.