Insider: Galit Atlas and “Emotional Inheritance: A Therapist, Her Patients, and The Legacy of Trauma.”(2022)

Galit Atlas, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst in New York , who has just published a new book about emotional inheritance. She has brilliantly and elegantly shared stories of various types of intergenerational trauma of her therapy patients mixed with some of her own life experiences, particularly growing up in Israel and being part of the Israeli army. I have written about case studies or case stories as part of my post on “fictive healing”. I have also posted reviews of Irvin Yalom’s work, some of which include “Love’s Executioner”(1989) and “Momma and the Meaning of Life” (1999), and Lori Gottlieb’s “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone” (2019). There are also plenty other collections of case stories by other therapists. What distinguishes Atlas’s book from others is that she has followed the thread of intergenerational trauma throughout her patients’ stories while sharing an intimate glimpse into a psychoanalytic therapeutic process and the relationship between a therapist and her patients. She does this without obvious use of analytic jargon. And she shares her own experiences not to highlight them but to help contextualize how she works to help her patients move through their dilemmas. I had written about Lori Gottlieb’s clear explanation of therapy terms, such as transference and countertransference. Atlas has explained what these terms mean without ever using the terms but telling the story of each therapy session and the dynamics of the therapeutic relationship. Another distinction between Atlas’s book and most others, to include those of Gottlieb and Yalom, is that she keeps the focus on her patient’s stories without displaying the cleverness of her analytic interpretations or interventions. She almost always supports her patients in their interpreting and moving through their own conflicts.

During a time in the U.S. when psychoanalysis has been falling out of favor for several decades (though as I have written elsewhere psychoanalysis is still popular in Argentina, Israel, France, and possibly a few other countries), Atlas has been able to sneak into her stories the depth and effectiveness of a psychoanalytic process without announcing it as psychoanalysis, and any particular school or approach of psychoanalysis. Her own approach is relational psychoanalysis and she mentions this but only briefly. I believe she has done a great service to the psychoanalytic community by featuring the process in an engaging storytelling manner to a general audience. Along the way there are a number of terrific, almost throwaway, comments with profound meaning. Here are some examples:

Summarizing one of her patient’s journeys as an illustration of emotional inheritance, she states “In the end, we come to realize that it is the unexamined lives of others that we ourselves end up living” (p.262).

“Sex and money are two topics that people usually try to avoid, not only in their lives, but in therapy too.” “Any unwelcome feeling can be expressed through sex or money: aggression, hostility, the need for domination and power, as well as fragility, narcissism, and trauma.” (p. 243).

“Unprocessed abuse keeps the intergenerational cycle going”. “Healing – breaking the cycle of abuse- is often filled with resistance to the possibility of change. That possibility intensifies the conflict between the part of the self that strives for future liberation and the part that is connected to the past and to previous generations.” (p. 223).

“Paranoid thoughts are a result of our aggressive feelings, feelings that we couldn’t tolerate and needed to get rid of by attributing them to another person. the more aggression is disowned and projected onto others, the more frightened we become of those people.” (p.215).

“Confusing the therapist with intense feelings, evoking fear, or even presenting intense erotic fantasy can serve as a defense strategy to make sure the therapist is unable to think, and therefore unable to know anything real about the patient.”(p.209)

“Heterosexual culture often overvalues solidness, which is associated with erection, masculinity, independence, and activity, while it devalues fluidness, which is associated with femininity, vulnerability, passivity and even contamination.”(p.164).

“A dynamic communication evolves that includes moments of mismatch and potential misunderstanding, followed by moments of re-attunement and repair.”(p.142)

“When our minds remember, our bodies are free to forget.” (p.119)

Referring to Freud’s writing about melancholia and mourning, Atlas says: “melancholia, according to Freud, is an unconscious process in which, instead of detaching and withdrawing the emotional investment from the lost person, the melancholic preserves and keeps that person alive inside them through identification with the dead. If the person is me and I am them, then there is not loss. Keeping the lost person caged inside denies the loss, but at the same time it holds the melancholic person forever captive to it. As a result she loses parts of her own investment in life and vitality.” (p.75)

All of the above quotes are imbedded within case stories, thus they relate directly to what is going on between the therapist and her patients, yet, as can be gleaned from each quote they convey significant insight into the various conflicts, issues, insights, and possible resolutions of the knotty human behavior conundrums we can all relate to.

For various reasons, trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a topic in its many manifestations, has become almost too familiar to a general population. One of the benefits of this is that those who have suffered from PTSD or other related trauma symptoms are more likely to seek help from therapy, since social stigma about this and other psychological illnesses has been somewhat reduced. A possible downside of such broad social references to trauma and PTSD is that there may have become an over interpretation about what trauma is and who has been traumatized by whom. There is ongoing debate among psychologists about what might constitute trauma, PTSD, types of trauma, various treatments for various types of trauma symptoms, etc. Current research indicates that one size (trauma and treatment) may not fit all (types of trauma and types of treatments). As more people who have experienced various types of trauma in their lives share their stories in memoirs, documentary films, fictional representations, and in undergoing serious therapy, such as that of Atlas’s psychoanalysis or other treatment modalities, we will likely be able to parse particular kinds of trauma which will be responsive to particular kinds of therapy. As in some of my other posts, I have indicated that a systems approach will be the most successful in the long run. Allopathic drugs have not been particularly helpful, and certain CBT treatments are not the answer, but MDMA (Ecstasy) has shown some promise and a combination of careful clinical use of MDMA plus various alternative healing modalities, such as yoga, meditation, and so on, plus talk therapy (psychoanalysis) may be the most effective.

Atlas has helped us understand the inner workings of how one’s parents, grandparents, and other relatives who may have experienced some trauma can manifest in each person who continues to experience traumatic symptoms, and how we might be able to seek help from a psychotherapist who can accompany us in navigating the challenging journey of recovery.

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