Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
~ from ‘This Be The Verse’, Philip Larkin
My old man wasn’t physically abusive. He was absent though (physically and emotionally), and he was psychologically abusive in a way that was common but unacknowledged in the 80s. His belittlement was relentless. He was reticent and humorless, frequently intolerant—I later began to suspect he was clinically depressed. Then he left when I was 8 and my brother Michael was 9.
When we visited every second Thursday, it would always end in tears. Michael would tease me, I would retaliate, and Dad would concur that I was being a sook—I needed to harden up. He broke a wooden spoon on my arse once, but otherwise he wasn’t violent—I was either really pushing it, or he just didn’t know what to do with children.
He was raised during the 50s and 60s in rural Australia among five other boys, where the culture wouldn’t have been especially rich with emotional intelligence or psychologically progressive men who helped raise the children. So I guess he never learned. Instead, he passed on to me what I can only assume were the parenting foibles of his father. And a deep reluctance to ever have children myself.
The passing on of these foibles is a form of transgenerational trauma. As Philip Larkin says at the beginning of the above poem, ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’. Unless you’re lucky enough to find some corrective influence—maybe a relatively enlightened elder, a group of friends, or a decent therapist. In my case it was literature that functioned as the main influence, but it’s yet to be seen whether it was corrective. The most recent example is Paul Mitchell’s novel-in-stories, We. Are. Family.
The book depicts the generations around a 1950s rural Australian family, some of whom are doing their best to heal from transgenerational trauma. I empathized especially with Peter, who didn’t want to have children because he was traumatized by his dad Ron’s abuse, who had been traumatized by his own father Bernie, an alcoholic and violent war veteran. Well into adulthood, Peter heard voices belittling him, which he eventually understood were the criticisms of his father, regurgitating in his mind. He was afraid he would pass the same treatment on to his children, because he didn’t know how to challenge the voices. But his wife was pregnant, so he started talking back to his father in his mind, transforming his self-doubt into a desire to be a better father than his dad. Observing this transformation helped me to parse a few of my own fears about being a father.
The process of empathizing was perhaps especially effective for me because Peter happens to be my dad’s name, and fictional Peter was born around the same time as my dad. So this was the era my dad grew up in, and probably much the same culture. My Peter’s dad was also a war veteran. So here was an author of my generation, using fiction to process and depict the experience of being raised by men who were damaged by the mid-twentieth century. It became a sort of men’s group. I say men’s group because in this case, it was a man reading a
man’s writing about (mostly) men.
The book got me thinking again about how literature can help us to not repeat the mistakes of our forebears, by cultivating awareness and empathy. But to do this, that literature must not be kitsch and sentimental—Mitchell doesn’t pull any punches in depicting the worst of his characters’ feelings and behavior, and the difficult thoughts that motivate them. He tells it how it is. It’s a fascinating process, how literature facilitates this kind of human growth, and to understand it we need to know: what are literature, transgenerational trauma, and empathy? And what on earth is kitsch?
~ ~ ~
In their research about how reading literary fiction cultivates empathy, social scientists David Kidd and Emanuele Castano make the distinction between ‘popular fiction’ and ‘literary fiction’ using literary theorist and semiotician Roland Barthes’s idea of ‘writerly’ and ‘readerly’ texts: ‘although readerly texts—such as most popular genre fiction—are intended to entertain their mostly passive readers, writerly—or literary—texts engage their readers creatively as writers’. Continuing with reference to philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, Kidd and Castano propose that such ‘writerly’ readers enjoy literary fiction because it is polyphonic: they ‘must contribute their own [voice] to a cacophony of voices.
The absence of a single authorial perspective prompts readers to enter a vibrant discourse with the author and her characters.’ Literature, here, is literary fiction that promotes that discourse. That was certainly the case in Mitchell’s book: characters from each of the generations get their own chapters. And it is in the discourse of their interactions that empathy is cultivated, by showing us there are perspectives outside any one individual’s.
Empathy (from the Greek εμπάθεια, ‘to make suffer’) is the ability to experience how another being’s thoughts, feelings and emotions might be motivating their behavior. The word ‘experience’ is key here, because empathy, unlike sympathy, is not an intellectual understanding—recent neuroscience research into ‘mirror neurons’ has begun to show that empathy has a biological foundation: we can feel other beings’ emotions when we experience their story. We don’t have to live through their experience—reading their story can be enough to cultivate empathy for trauma survivors.
Transgenerational trauma occurs when the symptoms of traumatic experience are passed from the original survivors to the descendants of the next generation. These symptoms may manifest from learned behavior, but there are epigenetic explanations as well—the progeny of a depressed and alcoholic war veteran may learn through mimicry that binge drinking is a suitable coping mechanism, but the environmental influence of the progenitor may change the expression of certain genes, leading to a depressive predisposition in their children. The theory was first proposed in the decades after World War Two, part of a century that was so horrifying it might explain our current culture’s preoccupation with kitsch, a cultural aesthetic that excludes the grim realities of a collectively traumatized society.
In the context of politics and pop culture, ‘kitsch’ denotes the gaudy appropriation of exotic cultures by industrial producers for mass consumption, and a denial of the horrible subtext of that which is appropriated. (Think, wearing sombreros on Australia Day: appropriating an iconic symbol of a colonially oppressed people on Australia Day should speak for itself in terms of bad taste.) As Czech-born French novelist Milan Kundera says in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, about defecation, ‘Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable to human existence.’ Even referring to shitting as ‘defecation’ is a form of kitsch. Euphemisms are kitsch—if we can’t just say it, there must be some shame we are trying to hide.
In the context of literature, kitsch is the refusal to depict the unsavory thoughts and emotions that sometimes motivate us—it is deference to sentimentality, in lieu of unpalatable holistic truths. In Mitchell’s We. Are. Family., it would be kitsch if he was to depict rural Australia without reference to the anti-intellectual bigotry, alcoholism, mental illness, domestic violence, and other shitty behaviour he witnessed and experienced—these are ‘unacceptable’ aspects of the rural Australian experience that must be acknowledged if we are to learn through empathy how to prevent them from cycling through the generations. Because he does depict these realities, I was able to get a glimpse into the culture that informed my dad’s way of being. It helped me understand his behavior toward us kids, which helps me to see his influence in my own behavior.
I think I somehow always had a sense of this power in literature—I’ve been an avid reader since childhood, and I started to understand in early adulthood that I had gained more and better moral guidance from books than from either of my parents, especially from Kundera, who became my first uncle-by-proxy. The main moral theme I got from The Unbearable Lightness of Being is that it’s okay to make mistakes in life if we’re willing to learn from them. It’s one thing to learn from our own mistakes, but literature helps us learn from the mistakes of others, and how they experience them—how they were motivated, and how to avoid the recurrence of similar motives. Reading about fictional Peter transforming the internalized criticisms of his father raised my awareness of how I could do that too.
~ ~ ~
I’m 35 now and helping to raise my partner’s 10-year-old son, who calls me Dad. I have managed to become a father, without having kids myself, because I see fathering as a behavior and an attitude, not a biological condition. I love him, and I care deeply about guiding him toward well-rounded adulthood. I do my best as often as possible to not repeat the mistakes my dad made: I try to understand what the experience of a 10-year-old must be like, though I’m hamstrung by having repressed a lot of my childhood memories. I try to remember that he’s a person, not just a child. But I make mistakes.
I tell him to stop fidgeting when I’m talking to him, even though I understand a 10-year-old is naturally a bundle of irrepressible energy, and that movement supports comprehension and retention in learning children. I get frustrated with his backchat, even though I understand it’s just him flexing the skill of negotiation. (We want him to question our authority because an emerging adult must know how to do that in a culture where democracy is frequently under assault.) And sometimes I respond to his banal questions with sarcasm, like Dad, who would answer, ‘Pumpkin! Ask a silly question, get a silly answer.’
But I relish the opportunity to learn from these mistakes, especially when I see them as my dad coming out in me—I resolve to be more patient, more accepting of how Zane’s developing brain works. And when he cries, I don’t tell him to stop crying or I’ll give him something to cry about. Why on earth my dad thought such a threat was appropriate, I may never understand, no matter how much I read about mid-century rural Australia. If he had read more, maybe he’d never have said shit like that.
From such belittlement, I always got the impression that my existence was a mistake Dad regretted, and I want Zane to never feel that. He’s a good kid: kind, intelligent, loving, and funny sometimes. He’s also a shithead sometimes, but I’m not always on my best game either, and I try to not be kitsch about it by suppressing my foibles or hiding them from him. When I make mistakes, I apologize and try to change the patterns of my behavior, in the hope that I’m showing him it’s okay to make mistakes if we try to learn from them. We use positive reinforcement to acknowledge changes in his behavior when we notice them.
He came out to my desk as I was drafting this. He smelled like my poppa, which I told him, then we chatted a bit and I sent him away so I could work, reassuring him with, ‘I love you too.’ My dad didn’t say that to me until I was 33. According to Mum, he had been worried all those years that if he did I would turn out gay. As I said, he was raised in the country during the 50s. When Zane goes to school, most days we give each other a kiss on the lips, which weirded us out at first—me because Dad barely knows how to hug with abandon, and I’ve certainly never kissed him; Zane because he’s never had a dad to kiss before. It’s the sweetest thing, to show love and affection to a child who looks up to you as a source of guidance through the emotional turmoils he will face in life. I don’t want to hand on Dad’s misery to my son, so I make myself emotionally available to Zane, and I read literature as a study of the human condition in the hope that I can show Zane how to improve that condition for himself.
Alford, C. F. (2016, May 11). ‘Epigenetic transmission of trauma: Gene or meme?’ About Trauma. Retrieved June 7, 2019, from https://www.traumatheory.com/epigenetic-trauma/
Mitchell, P. (2016). We. Are. Family.. Adelaide, SA: MidnightSun Publishing.
Keen, S. (2006). ‘A theory of narrative empathy.’ Narrative, 14(3), 207–236.
Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). ‘Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind’. Science, 342(6156), 377-380.
Kundera, M. (1984). The Unbearable Lightness of Being. London: Faber & Faber.
Larkin, P. (1988). Philip Larkin: Collected Poems (A. Thwaite, Ed.). London: Faber.