One Leg of One Family’s Multigenerational Transmission Process
Yesterday I promised to give an example from my own life of how the multigenerational transmission process works, so let me tell a story of the patriarchal side of my father’s family. Keep in mind that I say nothing here of my mom’s side of the family or of that transmission process here, but the multigenerational transmission process combines both sides. Perhaps I’ll connect some of the dots with that story tomorrow.
Three Generations Ago
Three generations ago, the family patriarch, Samuel, was a successful businessman, politician and store owner. All seemed to be well enough until his wife, Anne, died, leaving him with two young children: Samuel, Jr., age 3 and Mary Anne, 9 days. Samuel, Sr., never remarried, and no one knows who cared for the children until their father died 6 years later when he fell from a pear tree in their yard.
It seems that the tragedies of life took a significant toll on little Samuel, Jr., whose adult life was also peppered by tragedy. When he was 21, he married Isabelle (age 16), and the couple bore 8 children, until Isabelle died pregnant at age 35 after 14 years of marriage. Samuel, Jr., himself died of heart trouble 14 years later at age 51.
Two Generations Ago
The family losses tragically impacted Sam and Isabelle’s children for life, half of whom (four out of eight) spent many years in psychiatric institutions in their adult life. At least two of those four were diagnosed with schizophrenia, three died in mental wards, and one died on a park bench after leaving his wife and three small boys to drift around for years, a charmer whose life of womanizing, alcohol and illegal drugs eventually cost him his life.
One of Sam and Isabelle’s children who died in a mental institution was their son Lee, my grandfather. By the time Lee’s son, John (my father), was 6 years old, Lee had been inciting the authorities in various altercations for years. In the year before his arrest, Lee sent his oldest son, Sonny, to live in the woods to escape the draft as a conscientious objector, until Sonny was found and taken to jail.
One day, Lee’s wife, Kathryn (my grandmother), got fed up with his violence and walked with her youngest children to somewhere she could call the police. When they arrived, he lined up several of his children in front of him and came out of the house with a loaded gun, shouting Bible verses and the wrath of God upon the police. They shot into the crowd, wounding one of the children, Jess, who was never able to have children as a result.
Kathryn, unlike Lee, came from a solid family of teachers, classical musicians, public activists and businessmen. When she married Lee, perhaps in an act of rebellion, her family cut-off from her almost completely. She had just delivered the 14th child when Lee was taken into custody and placed in the mental ward of the local hospital where he died 17 years later.
A Generation Ago
For years after her father was taken away, Lee’s oldest daughter, Ginnie, visited him in the mental ward, taking along the four youngest children, including my father. The four little ones would sit on a bench while Ginnie and her Dad studied the Bible together, and I suspect that this had a profound impact on my dad. One of his sisters tells me that Dad was most like his father of the 14 children, in that he was most extreme in his distorted religious thinking, even though his father had only been a direct influence in his life for six years.
It seems to me that whatever projections have come through the generations have landed most squarely on my brother’s lap. He, too, displays extreme religious thinking and tendencies toward violence, although the effects are somewhat muted compared to previous generations.
Some would argue that my sister bore the greatest weight of the multigenerational transmission process, evidenced by her death from the diabetes that had been diagnosed when she was 4 years old. Deb and I had only begun to have a closer relationship when she died at age 36, so I’ll never know her perspective on these matters, but she was much more reasonable than my brother.
As for me, you know enough of my story by now to know that while my own dysfunction from the family chaos has been significant, I’ve managed to make choices that have steered me in a very different direction from my brother. The family cut-off I made when I was 18, an automatic survival strategy that became outdated and less necessary over the years of doing my own healing work, is now in a bridging process that I expect will continue for the rest of the developmental life cycle of my family. I don’t expect miraculous healing, but I think that over the next few decades the trajectory can turn in a different direction, as I (and hopefully others) make healthy changes in our contributions to the family emotional system.
The Next Generation
As my brother gets older, however, his extreme religiosity seems to be increasing, and I have concerns about how this will impact the child of his second marriage, a daughter who is now just four years old. I’m hoping that his older boys, now in their mid-20’s, will experience fewer impacts from such a crazy family line. Only time will tell, but completely escaping the impact of the mess is impossible.
My job is simply to become more and more solid in my own identity and in how I interact with family members across the generations. There are only three of fourteen children left in my father’s family, and I maintain what contact I can with them. I’m also in contact with one of my father’s cousins, Emma (now 86 years old), a daughter of Sam and Isabelle’s, whose mother, Bessie, also died in a mental institution. Her dogged work on the family genealogy has been invaluable to me as I’ve tried to make sense of the multigenerational transmission process.
Thanks to Facebook, I also have contact with a few cousins, although there are far too many to know, and who live a good distance away. I plan to attend the family reunion each July 4, however, and I’m sure I’ll see more of how this multigenerational transmission process has played itself out over the years in their lives.
So that’s how the multigenerational transmission process impacts a family line, and how the most projected-on children will do less well in life than their less-projected on siblings. Perhaps you know enough about your own family’s generational story to identify which members received more of the family projection than others.
Because we choose partners at the same level of our own functioning, the multigenerational transmission process makes a significant difference in how a person goes about dating and in whom they ultimately choose as a partner. More on that coming up in a couple days.