bookREVIEW: Lost in Transmission

Studies of Trauma Across Generations

M Gerard Fromm (Ed.)
Karnac Books Ltd, 2012.

Reviewer Beth Glanville

‘Transmission studies’ encompasses the study of intergenerational trauma as well as the lingering effects of local and global events on both individuals and societies as a whole. Field transmission studies became renowned in the 1970s with the increasing awareness of the effects of the Holocaust on second-generation survivors, including the psychological suffering and familial dynamics developing from children as a result of introjecting the residual psychic effects of the era.

In Lost in Transmission a host of progressive, innovative contributors revisit this topic. They extend their research to consider trauma resulting from a myriad of sources, from the World Wars and 9/11 to colonisation and dictatorships, from political succession and ‘managed social change’ – including restructuring of the workplace – to studies of firefighters in the New York City Fire Department (FDNY). In addition the perpetuation of the cycle of trauma is considered regarding domestic abuse and the Columbine school shooting, as well as in relation to the large-group psychology that underpinned Chinese military action in the twentieth century, the growth of the Third Reich and Milošević’s Yugoslavia.

As well as the methods and schools regularly used in trauma treatment, Lost in Transmission highlights some specific theories for working with clients presenting with intergenerational trauma. Such clients will need specially honed and delicately balanced interventions that take into account the reservoir of trauma that has culminated unconsciously, but the text does not go into details regarding employment of techniques.

Taking the premise that trauma relates to ‘states of extreme arousal, both sudden and sustained, in which the adaptive coping mechanism of a person shuts down,’ (p102) the writers extend this definition into the realm of inherited trauma. Collectively they develop the notion that an experience which has been too overwhelming or unbearable ‘cannot be contained, mourned, and worked through in one generation [and] is transmitted, for the most part unconsciously, as affect, mission, and task to the next generation.’ (p173)

Lowenburg writes about the need to break the cycle of trauma that perpetuates itself as it passes from one individual to another. He highlights the need to ‘restructure’ individuals to repair trauma and change reality at a fundamental level in order to allow them to move beyond their generational inheritance. Fromm references the work of Freud and Burlingham that demonstrates the importance of mediation through human relationships in trauma work. Clients presenting with trauma symptoms will have distorted perceptions of reality combined with, in the case of transmitted trauma, dissociated history. Fromm and Laub draw our attention to the countertransference when working with this client base.

Stein highlights the element of grief work – including disenfranchised grief that has been disavowed and thus left unprocessed – that connects to the field of trauma. Laub reminds us that the reparative work necessary to counter the effects of clients having grown up with parents who were emotionally unavailable to them through dealing with their own trauma is entwined within the phenomena of grief, loss, mourning, mis-attunement, disavowal, attachment and separation.

Lost in Transmission is an incredibly useful book, both professionally and for general interest (although writing as an ex-historian I may be a little biased…) that encourages readers to ‘think outside the box’ when considering the longevity of the legacies of events and happenings on the psyche. The book encourages consideration of the wider psychological implications of historic and current events, while reminding us of the significance of past happenings as a whole in shaping the family and the individual as the cycle of trauma is perpetuated through the ages. Easily readable, Lost in Transmission is organised into three parts: ‘Shadows of the Holocaust’, ‘Inside the Consulting Room’ and ‘Contemporary America’, but application of the findings and conclusions is easily transferable.

The text highlights the fact that trauma is defined less by the event itself and more by the effects of the event on the individual. However I can’t help wondering whether we should develop a term that would distinguish between trauma per se and trauma-like symptoms resulting from a given situation. Maybe I’m unempathetic, but I can’t help questioning the comparison of the transmission of political power in a peaceful democracy to 9/11 and the Holocaust. And are the effects of a new boss at work comparable to those of the Columbine shooting? My residual thoughts lie with the need to differentiate between trauma and trauma-like symptoms to avoid the overuse of the word. A lingering concern from this book is the development of an all-encompassing label for a myriad of very different situations, experiences and phenomena that could end up lumped together into a generic, diluted or de-personalised category.

Lost in Transmission remains informative and thought-provoking, but I would like to see a practical section focusing on tips and techniques for useful interventions when working with clients with transmitted trauma. This is certainly not a clinical handbook but nevertheless I would highly recommend the text to readers who want to learn more about transmitted trauma as a phenomenon, and about the significance and implications of the wider world and global events on the human psyche and familial inheritance.


Beth Glanville is a senior trainee on the MA in Integrative Psychotherapy and Counselling at the Minster Centre, NW London.


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