Members Clinical Corner

Multigenerational Dissociation: A Framework for Building Narrative

In the following commentary, Deirdre Kramer offers a fascinating account of Sally McCollum’s compelling narrative approach to the healing of multigenerational dissociation. Noting that intergenerational transmission of trauma `features significantly in the therapy room’, and referencing the themes of betrayal blindness, reenactment, and revictimization, Deirdre discusses McCollum’s powerful work with the great grand-daughter of the youngest survivor of an Indian massacre of the late nineteenth century. In the course of so doing, she depicts how ‘attachment to the family narrative may create not only a blindness to the danger, but an unconscious attraction to recreating it, in order to retain symbolic attachment to the parents’. This is decidedly a commentary on which to reflect!’

Dr Pam Stavropoulos
Editor, Members Clinical Corner

Deirdre Kramer,* commentary on:

Sally E. McCollum (2015) Multigenerational Dissociation: A Framework for Building Narrative, Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 16:5, 563-576.

The link to this article:

Sally McCollum (2015) deftly explores intergenerational transmission of trauma and the ways victim and victimizer roles become entangled in the process. Her objective is to demonstrate how construction of an intergenerational narrative can be useful in the healing of complex trauma in the therapy setting. She demonstrates this with a case from her practice. Recurring themes in the client’s family narrative include physical and sexual violence, terrifying confinement, unspoken horror, denial, dissociation, and substitution of idealized mythologies for much more complicated realities.

The narrative begins at a tragic juncture in our nation’s history and is complicated by how its protagonists situate themselves psychologically in that space. The topic immediately captured my interest, as intergenerational transmission of trauma features significantly in the therapy room. Nevertheless, I struggled with the case material. The chosen starting point of the collective family trauma was the massacre of a group of white settlers in the American West by Native Americans. The case material is but a small piece of the larger human struggle in our hemisphere but one in which my identity as a privileged White person makes me complicit. This case was disturbingly reminiscent of the Eurocentric narrative prevalent when I was growing up. Could I in good conscience write about it?

In the end, I chose to write about it. It is instructive and provocative. It provokes us wittingly or not, by placing the “starting point” of this particular intergenerational saga in the hands of one of the most traumatized populations in our country’s history. Paradoxical–and apt. For we see in the therapy room the ways victimization and perpetration are so often interwoven. The disavowed rage and helplessness resulting from unprocessed trauma is too often unleashed onto others. In addition, as McCollum shows, perpetration and neglect go hand in hand: neglect is essential to conditions in which perpetration thrives.

McCollum shows how trauma can be transmitted from one generation to the next, all the while “forgotten” from one generation to the next. A central theme is that only when dissociation is challenged can we untangle those webs.

Her construct -Multigenerational Dissociation (MGD) – is “a family pattern of revictimization and reenactment of traumatic themes and modalities…from one generation to the next that is based on a dissociative response of failing to acknowledge a history of trauma, either by being partially or completely unaware that it happened or by denying that it was painful.” (p. 564)

McCollum explores how the use of in-depth clinically-based narrative reconstructions aid the client in developing a greater sense of “clarity and coherence” as s/he grapples with seemingly inexplicable symptoms. It aids in rendering the incomprehensible at least somewhat comprehensible through symbolization of contradictory strands and fragments of experience.

She discusses the code of silence that predisposes the victim to reenacting the trauma. She notes children’s active agency in trying to survive “by learning how to tolerate, rather than escape from, dangerous situations…to endure the stress of extremely frightening, confusing, or painful events perpetrated by a trusted caregiver” (p. 568). McCollum notes: “Sometimes the risk of exposure is interpreted as heroic…and can go on for several generations before a family member notices that such terrifying and dangerous circumstances are neither normal nor necessary.” (p. 569). I would add that attachment to the family narrative may create not only a blindness to danger, but an unconscious attraction to recreating and mastering it in order to retain symbolic attachment to the parents.

McCollum’s case material begins with 15-year-old Thomas, who is the youngest survivor of a brutal massacre by a local Indian tribe in Wyoming. After the massacre, Thomas returned to St. Louis, where he dissociated his fear and rage and “immersed himself in Indian affairs, becoming a U.S. Indian Agent who administered government policy and, at times, insisted on personally negotiating with hostile Indian chiefs.” (p. 569). By then married with a son, he returned to Wyoming to ranch–where, in time, he had great success and developed friendly, seemingly cooperative relationships with local Indian Chiefs.

Thomas’s simplistically idealized view of the Indians as Noble People wronged by US officials sets the stage for his placing of his family in harm’s way. In a time of such epic turbulence, he may also have underestimated the ability of the Chiefs to control the actions of the Indian men who terrorized his family. Either way, his neglect, complicity, denial of powerlessness, and disavowed horror trails the family through the next several generations.

One can surmise that Thomas, left on his own after the tragedy, was free to create a new narrative in order to reinstate a sense of predictability and control in his world without co-witnesses/detractors. If he showed respect to the Indians, he could elicit their Noblesse, which would allow him and his family to live safely within their (beleaguered) community. Unfortunately, he underestimated his own capacity for self-delusion as well as the full humanity (i.e., in their own capacity for both cooperation and rage) of those in the tribes around him. This would have catastrophic consequences for his wife and son, Ben.

During Thomas’s long absences on cattle drives, hostile members of local tribes would terrorize his family. On multiple occasions, they brutally raped his wife while Ben, at his mother’s insistence, hid in a small room accessible only through a door in the bedroom closet where he sometimes heard the harrowing scene unfold outside his confines. Ben would grow up to continue the pattern of dissociation, denial, and idealization. During alcoholic rages, he became the perpetrator of physical and sexual violence as well as terrifying confinement against his granddaughter and at least one of his own children, while his wife silently endured and enabled this.

This family dynamic persists until Ben’s granddaughter, Edith, entered therapy with McCollum to address symptoms of anxiety, depression and difficulties with self-assertion. Guided by McCollum’s therapeutic acumen, Edith began to process dissociated memories and trauma states. This became the starting point for McCollum’s inquiry that unfolded the intergenerational violence in Edith’s family. Edith would also learn that her own son, too, was molested by a trusted coach who boarded in their home. Over a long therapy, Edith was able to integrate her experiences into a coherent whole.

From our earliest ancestors and pre-ancestors, danger is built into living.  It often becomes encoded in our genes. So the cycles of its transmission undoubtedly start among earliest humans and their predecessors. How that trauma is handled is one determinant of whether it is recreated through the family line. This is in large part a function of whether and how it is acknowledged, processed, and absorbed. McCollum poses the question (to which she offers no answer) “What determines when the wall of dissociation will weaken to the point that the abuse can be disclosed and the wounds begin to heal?” (p. 573; ital. added)

Socio-cultural factors play a role in this process. In the late 19th and early 20th century, women were not empowered to speak out against male violence.  Nor did they have legal or financial recourse if they did. Life was harsh in the Western territories. Stoicism aided survival. There was also geographical isolation; many women lacked social support of any kind. Alcohol abuse also featured heavily in the reenactment of rage and abuse in Ben’s family.

Another likely socio-cultural factor in the case is lack of support for “noticing” contradictions in one’s experience and seeking help to process them. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, children were to be “seen and not heard’ and corporal punishment was the norm. Family skeletons (often a stand-in for emotional problems) were “kept in the attic.” Even in the mid-20th century, children were strongly discouraged from talking about family issues outside of the family and from seeking professional help for emotional problems (“intelligent people can solve their own problems”).

A poignant, acclaimed 1980 film reflective of these walls starting to break down is “Ordinary People,” directed by Robert Redford. It portrays an upper-middle-class family’s attempt to come to terms both with the death of their elder son in a boating accident and subsequent suicide attempt by their surviving son. The dictates of stoicism, rigid secrecy, and enforced normalcy feature prominently, as the mother gradually falls apart in direct counterpoint to her son’s progress in therapy. This was at a juncture where baby boomers were increasingly challenging the walls of silence around the family system.

Taking an intergenerational approach, such as MGD, in my view has an added advantage of helping trauma survivors address their own shame about neglect and abuse they may have unconsciously perpetuated. They weren’t alone in their victimization or their reenactment of the trauma; it was a process set in place by strong unconscious psychological, biological, and socio-cultural forces. By knowing their fuller family narrative and their connection to it, they may forge a new, healing path.

Such an approach may also help clients to overcome the splits in their internal representations of their parents. This allows them to view their parents as victims themselves who, in their flawed humanity, became silent bystanders and/or perpetrators (i.e. fully human, encompassing a spectrum of desirable and undesirable – even despicable – qualities). It thereby allows survivors to hold to a more realistic internalized representation of their parents as they move forward in charting a new narrative.


*Deirdre Kramer is Professor Emerita, Rutgers University and in private practice in Highland Park, NJ. She received her doctorate in Lifespan Developmental Psychology from Temple University in 1983 and later did Postdoctoral Respecialization in Clinical Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University (1999). She has been in private practice for 12 years. She works with adults of all ages, and her work is informed by relational psychodynamic, humanistic/existential, and trauma-informed models of psychotherapy.