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New Thinking on Dealing with Trauma

February 2, 2012 By:
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Members of the team (from left): Peggy Roth; Bea Hollander-Goldfein, director of the project; Judy Levin; and Nancy Isserman, co-director

When it comes to the Holocaust, certain stereotypes about survivors persisted for decades after World War II. It was believed, for example, that in order for survivors to begin a new life, they had to suppress their memories of the war years, never thinking or speaking about them. And because survivors had been badly damaged by their experiences, their offspring would be cursed as well.

These are just two of the negative perceptions overturned by a long-term study of Holocaust victims and their families. The findings are collected in a new book, Transcending Trauma: Survival, Resilience, and Clinical Implications in Survivor Families, by Bea Hollander-Goldfein, Nancy Isserman and Jennifer Goldenberg.

The Transcending Trauma Project began more than 20 years ago, under the sponsorship of the Marriage Council of Philadelphia, now known as the Council for Relationships.

Among the key discoveries that the authors believe can help guide therapists dealing with all sorts of trauma victims:

· Although survivors almost always had lifelong scars from their experiences, they managed to nurture families and have successful careers.

· Faith, whether a traditional or a more personal rendition of Judaism, often helped survivors make their way in the world; and therapists must deal with religion as part of an overall strategy in therapeutic sessions.

· A mediating parent could sometimes shield children from the less-positive effects of a depressed or angry parent.

Hollander-Goldfein and her team of between 15 and 20 social scientists decided early on that the study would be conducted through extended interviews in the homes of survivors. The goal was not simply to accumulate information and anecdotes but to discover what survivors thought and felt about the Holocaust and its effects.

Their definition of a survivor was in line with the broad definition used by European scholars: that is, any Jew who was affected by Nazism post-1933.

"It's broader than the camps," Isserman, co-director of the project, said in a recent interview, conducted along with Hollander-Goldfein at the Council for Relationships offices in University City. "In the project, we have some Jews who fled to the Philippines, and then were persecuted by the Japanese. They lost relatives and the parents were depressed as a result of all this."

The team of social scientists also wanted to look at the individuals within their marriages. That meant speaking to as many family members as possible.

"Ours was a systemic framework," explained Hollander-Goldfein, based on the concept "that individual development is always embedded in the context of relationships -- and that even adult functioning is embedded in the context of relationships."

According to Hollander-Goldfein, "the literature in the past tended to focus on the responses after the trauma, as if the person were born the day the trauma happened with no consideration of what came before. But to understand the impact of the trauma, you have to know what the person's life was like before, what his family experience was like, what type of childhood he had."

For example, she said, it is "not correct to say that those who had the worst camp experiences had the worst responses after the war, and those people in perhaps protected hiding had more adaptation after the war."

What the team found instead was a continuum of human behavior, a mix of both negative and positive, which is not surprising, Isserman said, when you're looking at 300 individuals -- 100 survivors and their children and grandchildren.

According to Isserman, there are at least two very clear patterns that arose from the project that can be helpful for therapists dealing with patients affected by trauma. One deals with the issue of faith.

"Psychologists and therapists many times don't think about faith and religion as a coping device," she said. "So one of the points we hope to make with this study is that religion is an important coping device in peoples' lives and therapists need to ask about it and use it."

As the authors write in the book, "It is important to note that, whether professing unwavering faith, forging new conceptions of God, or totally rejecting their beliefs, for almost all of the survivors we interviewed, the practice of some form of Judaism -- with or without a belief in God -- and a connection to Jewish community, remained critically important components of coping and adaptation.

"The preservation of community and traditional rituals," they continued, "enabled survivors to feel neither their pre-Holocaust sense of self nor the legacy their parents had left them was completely destroyed. They found comfort in the familiarity of the rituals."

Of the 100 survivors interviewed, Isserman said, only two completely turned their backs on Judaism.

Another key aspect of their research focused on looking at families as a unit as opposed to the more usual method of breaking them apart.

"We've actually looked at families -- at survivors and their children, not survivors over here and children over here. And then we looked at their grandchildren," Isserman said.

By looking at 50 intergenerational families, they found four of what they call "mediative families, where there was one parent who was depressed and angry and another survivor who was able to mediate the impact of that depression or anger on the children, so that the children grew up empathetic toward the parent who was less helping. They grew up and were able to create helping, substantial relationships in their adult lives."

The message to therapists, she said, is: "Look at the strengths of each parent separately and what the impact is on the child -- and then strengthen the parent who's the stronger one. That will help mediate some of the negative impact of the parent who's damaged."

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