Inter-generational trauma.


 Yiska Dubrae.

Daphne and her younger brother were adopted after their parents were killed in the Second World War.  Neither Daphne nor her brother were told they were the children of Jewish parents or that they had been    adopted by a Gentile family.  The children went to a State Christian school and had no contact with the Jewish community.   Daphne only discovered that she was Jewish after meeting a young Jewish man whom she eventually married.  Daphne struggled through her education because she always felt she was different.  She also suffered from physical pains, mainly in her muscles and joints and complained of burning sensations and an inability to breathe, a condition which no doctor could explain.   Daphne was generally quite distant, she had little trust in people and was reluctant to make close friends.    It was as if her outward self was lived on a periphery of existence, while her inner life was the reality she wished to embrace.  Daphne saw her inner life as a protection from the harshness of school life and the world in general.  After Daphne had left school she and her boyfriend went to see a Rabbi as they planned to get married, it was then that Daphne discovered that she was the child of Holocaust victims.

Daphne’s feelings are not an unusual manifestation of trauma.  The events of trauma cause distinct absences in the mental framework.  Distance separates us from the atrocities and painful memories that might otherwise penetrate consciousness.  Today, we have come to know a little about this process.  In the words of Gerard Fromm:

      To know something is to process new information, to assimilate and integrate an experience into one’s own inner world of representation. It is essentially to build a new construct inside ourselves…What, specifically overwhelms the process of construction, and, therefore, the constructor himself resulting in a total loss of capacity to participate in one’s own reality?

The answer is symbolization.  Freud saw the formation of the symbol as something created in the context of an internal narrative, which is replayed to ourselves as part of our inner world. We might call this our inner voice, Other or soul. Reality, or the events of the external world can only be fully grasped when the inner world and the outer world are attuned.  Extreme trauma causes this process to be interrupted, both at the external and internal levels.  The inner world which is generally focused on one’s needs is faced with an emptiness and a terror of the abyss.  It is this state of fear or loss that causes the subject to internalize the only other object available, that of the external other, often the perpetrator/representative/object of the fear being experienced by the subject.


In psychoanalysis symbolism is associated with ego formation. Sigmund Freud described ego formation in his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1916-1917). Freud wrote:  There can be no doubt that the source [of the fantasies] lie in the instincts; but it still has to be explained why the same fantasies with the same content are created on every occasion. I am prepared with an answer that I know will seem daring to you. I believe that…primal fantasies, and no doubt a few others as well, are a phylogenetic endowment. His suggestion that primal fantasies are a residue of specific memories of prehistoric experiences follows Freud’s interest in archetypes, which he withdrew from after his split with Carl Jung.  It was jung who developed the notion of archetypes as an influential component in human behaviour.   Laplanehe and Pontalis point out that all the so-called primal fantasies relate to the origins and that  like collective myths they claim to provide a representation of and a ‘solution’ to whatever constitutes an enigma for the child.[i]  

According to Melanie Klein not only does symbolism come to be the foundation of all fantasy and sublimation, but more than that, it is the basis of the subject’s relation to the outside world and to reality in general.[ii]  For Klein trauma is associated with an internal rage that serves as an antidote for the preservation of the good object. Klein argued that the introjection and identification with a stable good object is crucial to the ego’s construction.  The concept of introjected objects‘, or the term ‘internal object’ means a mental and emotional image of an external object that has been taken inside the self. A complex interaction continues in the mind between the internalized world and its figures and objects   and their replicates in the real world.   According to Klein this happens in repeated cycles of projection and introjection. The primary internal objects are those derived from the parents, in particular from the mother. The main component is the bodily contact, which allows the infant to feel and project a loving instinct or a disparaging (death) instinct.   These objects, when taken into the self, are thought to be experienced by the infant concretely as physically present within the body, causing pleasure (good internal part-object…) or pain (bad internal part-object…). The processes involved in these early experiences are believed to colour the ongoing outlook the infant has of the world as well as the fluctuations between pain and pleasure.

Kleinian theory suggests the introjection of and identification with a stable good object is crucial to the ego’s capacity to cohere and integrate experience. Damaged or dead internal objects (sometimes referred to as the dead mother) cause enormous anxiety and can lead to personality disintegration, whereas objects felt to be in a good state promote confidence and well-being. Internal objects can exist on several levels. They are generally unconscious and   primitive. Infantile internal objects are experienced initially concretely within the body and mind and constitute a primitive level of the adult psyche, adding emotional influence and force to later perceptions, feelings and thoughts. Internal objects may be represented to the self in dreams, fantasies and in language. [iii]

The term ‘symbol formation’ is used in psychoanalysis to denote a mode of indirect or figurative representation of a significant idea, conflict or wish. The ability to move on from relating concretely to archaic objects to relating symbolically to substitute objects (symbols) is both a developmental achievement and a move made because of the anxieties involved in relating to primal objects. Klein extended the ideas of both Freud and Jones on symbols, showing in particular the symbolic significance of play and how sublimation depends on the capacity to symbolise. Others further developed Klein’s theory of symbols, distinguishing between the symbol proper formed in the depressive position and a more primitive version, the symbolic equation, belonging to paranoid-schizoid functioning. In the symbolic equation, the symbol is equated with the thing symbolised.[iv]   Melanie Klein believed in the idea of unconscious phantasy, which is closely related to Carl Jung’s archetype. as Both involve the notion of an a priori mental construction composed of images and patterns based on real and mythological experience.   For Jung these experiences form a universal collective unconsciousness that extends over time and many lifetimes. The manifestation of these archetypes are counterpart to instincts. They are autonomous inherited potentials rather than inherited types, which can be transformed and/or expressed in the ideas, behaviours and cultures of individuals.  History, culture and personal context shape these manifest representations thereby giving them their specific content. These images and motifs are more precisely called archetypal images. However, it is common for the term archetype to be used interchangeably to refer to both archetypes-as-such and archetypal images.[v]

Following the Jungian view it would appear that these objects can also be inherited, whereby they present a subtle underlying current in the care-giver’s emotions to which the primitive, instinctual infant is sensitive to.

      Jacques Lacan: Lacan went beyond the proposition that the unconscious is a structure that lies beneath the conscious world; the unconscious itself is structured, like a language. This would suggest parallels with Jung. Further Lacan’s Symbolic and Imaginary orders may be aligned with Jung’s archetypal theory and personal unconscious respectively. The Symbolic order patterns the contents of the Imaginary in the same way that archetypal structures predispose humans towards certain sorts of experience. If we take the example of parents, archetypal structures and the Symbolic order predispose our recognition of, and relation to them.[19] Lacan’s concept of the Real approaches Jung’s elaboration of the psychoid unconscious, which may be seen as true but cannot be directly known. Lacan posited that the unconscious is organised in an intricate network governed by association, above all ‘metaphoric associations’. The existence of the network is shown by analysis of the unconscious products: dreams, symptoms, and so on.[19]

For Lacan trauma is the real non-assimilated experience that resists symbolization and language, experience that has not become speech and thus has not been historicized within the symbolic network of signification.[vi]

What is striking about the Kleinian and Lacanian models is that they are diametrically opposed in the way they conceptualize the subject’s development of the capacity to form symbols: while for Klein the experience of concrete objects exists from the very beginning of life and the symbol is a product of “object-relating”, for Lacan, on the contrary, the experience of objects is an effect of the symbolic order. In Klein we start with the object/object-relation and work through different stages of symbolism eventually ending up with language, so that linguistic thought develops from the experience of the primal object. In Lacan, on the other hand, integration into the world of language produces lack/absence, which, in turn, is the necessary condition for conceptualizing objects: the experience of objects develops as an effect of language/symbolization. The article begins with an account of Freud’s two main theories of the symbolic – one based on images, the other on language or “word-presentations” – and traces the Klein-Lacan divergence to this theoretical duality. It then argues that a Klein-Lacan dialogue on the symbolic can open new directions for theoretical development by examining how different theories can accurately correspond to empirical observations of psychic functioning, as well as effective clinical interventions.[vii]

      Wilfred Bion: According to Bion, thoughts precede a thinking capacity. Thoughts in a small infant are indistinguishable from sensory data or unorganised emotion. Bion uses the term proto-thoughts for these early phenomena. Because of their connection to sensory data, proto-thoughts are concrete and self-contained (thoughts-in-themselves), not yet capable of symbolic representations or object relations. The thoughts then function as preconceptions – predisposing psychosomatic entities similar to archetypes. Support for this connection comes from the Kleinian analyst Money-Kyrle’s observation that Bion’s notion of preconceptions is the direct descendant of Plato’s Ideas.[19]


[i] Andrew Samuels, Jung and the Post-Jungians ISBN 0415059046, Routledge (1986)

[ii] M Klein 1930 The importance of symbol formation in the development of the ego. In Contributions to Psycho-Analysis 1921-1945 London Hogarth, p238. Also in Gerard Fromm 2012 Lost in Transmission UK. Karnac, p52.

[iii] Internal Objects Melany Klein Trust. and The New Dictionary of Kleinian Thought  Elizabeth Bott Spillius, Jane Milton, Penelope Garvey, Cyril Couve and Deborah Steiner.

[iv] Internal Objects Melany Klein Trust. and The New Dictionary of Kleinian Thought  Elizabeth Bott Spillius, Jane Milton, Penelope Garvey, Cyril Couve and Deborah Steiner.

[v] Stevens, Anthony in “The archetypes” (Chapter 3.) Ed. Papadopoulos, Renos. The Handbook of Jungian Psychology (2006)

[vi]   M. Gerard Fromm (2012) Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations. London, Karnac Publishing. p42

[vii] A Theoretical Impasse? The Concept of the Symbolic in Melanie Klein and Jacques Lacan.

Posted by Nikolay Mintchev Vol 33 (3) 2015 Gent University Retrieved 10th May 2017.