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Intangible and transgenerational legacies: the other side of heritage transmissions

Charles-Henry Tournaire
December 21, 2021

Have you ever wondered about your family history, or where you come from?

There are different reasons to be interested. Perhaps you have already established your family tree to find out about your great-grandparents or your great-uncles and aunts. However, exploring your family system is much more complex than simply describing biological connections, and can have reasons that go much deeper than the desire to gain factual knowledge about our family.Understanding our family helps us understand not only where we came from, but also who we are and, in some cases, where some of our wounds come from.

 Psychogenealogy is the therapy that helps us take that journey through time to our origins and history to better understand who we are.

Marie-Adélaïde Debray, art therapist and psychogenealogist, agreed to tell us a bit more about this fascinating topic.

PaxFamilia: Psychogenealogy is a therapeutic method which takes family history as its starting point. How can the knowledge of our family help us in the present? Why is it that so many people are interested in psychogenealogy?

Marie-Adélaïde: Very often it is current concerns or a desire to know oneself better that prompts people to explore their family history. If you are facing difficulties, crises, illnesses, and want to know the cause of those problems, getting to know your family system can be a good starting point. The thing is, we inherit a lot from our parents and ancestors and, although we often forget it, these are not just material things.

Understanding where we come from and knowing more about our family system often can often give us a sense of freedom and even inner peace. For this, we must at least go back to our great-grandparents.


PaxFamilia: You say that we do not only inherit material things from our parents. Can you tell us what this intangible heritage includes and how you analyze it in psychogenealogy, knowing that it is something quite abstract and probably difficult to identify?

Marie-Adélaïde: First of all, you should know that in psychogenealogy, we distinguish two types of transmission: intergenerational transmission and transgenerational transmission.

Intergenerational transmission is a conscious, voluntary transmission: it includes everything we have received from our parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, etc. It can be goods, objects, stories, but also values, education, codes, a whole lot of things that are passed on from one generation to the next. As it is a conscious transmission, we can only keep and adopt the things we identify with.

More complex is the transgenerational transmission. Indeed, it is an unconscious, unvoluntary transmission.

Here we are dealing with the unspoken, with suffering, trauma and tensions that are passed on in a hidden way, but which can generate difficulties, shame and discomfort over several generations, without the people who suffer from them being aware of it.

It is this type of transmission that psychogenealogy, also called "transgenerational analysis", deals with.

But beware, of course we do not only inherit traumas from our ancestors, we also inherit a lot of positive resources. These generally involve less difficulties, so people are less inclined to bring them up during therapy sessions, which is normal. However, I consider that an essential aspect of psychogenealogy is to become aware of the innumerable resources that we inherit. First of all, on the genetic, biological level: we are descended in a straight line from the physically strongest individuals who adapted successfully to their environment, survived and reproduced in turn. Secondly, on a psychological and moral level: let's not forget that our ancestors lived through wars, epidemics, mourning, cold winters, precarious situations, etc. Most of them showed incredible resilience, to use a fashionable term. And then, in every family tree, you will find individuals who are creative, intelligent, courageous, engaging, daring, etc.

We are all descended from inspiring people. And realising that can sometimes be an enormous boost to your self-confidence.


PaxFamilia: Why is it that a trauma to one of our ancestors can have such an impact on the next generations?

Marie-Adélaïde: Children are sponges who often pick up and adopt the behaviour of their parents, at least in part. Take the example of a great-grandparent who had suffered a very serious loss and who was traumatised by it. The mourning remained stuck in a way. That wound still manifested itself generations later in the form of behaviour, symptoms and even diseases in some of the offspring.

Each of them had adopted and sometimes reinforced the behaviour of their parents that was unknowingly linked to the trauma of their ancestor. This way, we can receive difficulties or traumas from someone we have never even known.

This is where a psychogenealogist intervenes to help the persons concerned become aware of the systemic aspect of the problems they are experiencing by examining their family history.

For example, the place we occupy among our brothers and sisters is a very important element. Being the oldest, being the youngest, being born after a deceased child, being born as a girl while the parents wanted a boy to pass on the name, being the one who is implicitly called upon to heal wounds, being given the name of a grandfather who died too soon:

The place we take within the family system as a child often unconsciously influences the way we position ourselves in society. And that can sometimes lead to blockages or suffering.


PaxFamilia: How do you specifically help the people who come to you with these kinds of difficulties? Do you apply a particular approach that helps them to discover whether the cause of their problems can actually be found in their family history and, more specifically, where?

Marie-Adélaïde: As these are very personal issues, there are no set rules. In general, people who want to go into therapy come back 5 to 10 times for individual consultations. But they may also visit only 2-3 times or participate in group workshops. A technique typical of psychogenealogy is the genogram. Like a family tree, a genogram is a schematic representation of a person's family structure. However, it differs from the traditional family tree in that the maker of the genogram draws his family situation as he experiences it himself.The genogram is thus a subjective representation and visualisation of the emotional and psychological factors that a family member experiences and that break down the biological relationships within his family.

When drawing a genogram, a person may express feelings or findings that were previously intangible. Therefore, for many people, it is a good starting point in the search for truth or meaning.

PaxFamilia: May we say that your approach is similar to that of a psychologist? And if so, from when can a person under treatment consider themselves "cured"?

Marie-Adélaïde: In a way, you could say that my approach is indeed similar to that of a psychologist. But many people who come to me don't want to go to a psychologist, they want to do research on their family without feeling that they are being "treated". I then help them to write down their family's story, the history of what they have been through, in a small book ora syllabus. Sometimes we also conduct interviews or make a family photo album to find out who is who and add anecdotes.

In all cases, it is important that the process has a beginning and an end. At some point, we have to be able to conclude the sessions. Of course, this does not prevent people from continuing their research and discoveries outside of the therapeutic setting.


PaxFamilia: Finally, can you give us an example of a striking case that has stuck in your mind?

Marie-Adélaïde: I can give you an example of a woman who was half-Belgian, half-Polish. She had never lived in Poland, did not speak Polish and had no contact with her Polish relatives. At the beginning of our sessions, it was not very clear what her search was about, but as the treatment progressed, we discovered that she needed to reconnect with her Polish origin. During the therapy period she scheduled a Skype call with her grandparents whom she had never seen, began to learn Polish and drew up her complete genogram. In fact, she was a young woman who was completely cut off from her roots and did not feel legitimate inBelgium, either in her private life or in her work. At the end of our sessions, she even resigned.

Now you may say that this woman did not need therapy to learn Polish or to call her grandparents. But I often notice in my work that when emotions and feelings are locked up inside, it is very difficult to move forward.

Very often, when the therapy is over, I see how much the person before me has changed. You see them evolve through the sessions and open up new spaces in their lives. Whatever the case, a "journey to our ancestors" is always a positive adventure and very often a source of pleasure!

   Marie-Adélaïde Debray

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