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How we can develop an understanding of the multigenerational self? Ancestral Voices, healing, witnessing and social action.

By Nigel Williams, author of Mapping Social Memory: A Psychotherapeutic and Psychosocial Approach in the Palgrave Series Studies in the Psychosocial

How does an academic book get written? What lies behind it? I had already researched and published on a significant moment in history that my own family lived through (Williams, 2015) and had discovered how much social events and family dynamics intertwine. I wanted to find out more. Mapping Social Memory grew out of an extended research project into how people engage with their ancestry, and how they experience and think about social memory in their families, friendship networks and workplaces. The research work finished in 2018 by which time I had met and interviewed a wide range of individuals and groups and presented findings in public events and conferences.

The key findings that emerged from the research are that there are distinct patterns in shorter- and longer-term memory and that these intersect and trouble each other. The role that the generations play in remembering and forgetting emerged very strongly as did the ways in which social memory can be both extended and foreclosed. These gains and losses in memory have social and psychological consequences. These complex issues are well addressed in a new anthology on the generations (Bristow & Kingston, 2023). Just as individuals have fewer resources with which to solve problems without access to family based social memory, so societies that have little reliable sense of history are vulnerable to repeating patterns and exacerbating conflict. Neither has a very good capacity to “learn from experience”. By contrast individuals and societies who do have access to social memory are more adaptive and better at managing conflict. These types of society are represented by first nations peoples who hold many of the answers to our current day malaise (Atkinson, 2002).

My research tracked - or ‘mapped’ – the impacts of events like war and migration, at an individual or group level on subsequent generations. For instance, individuals referring for trauma treatment found that without the understanding of the social context it was harder to make sense of what troubled them. They also discovered that they were lacking that understanding due to a parental and generational decision not to speak about what had occurred. Just like very young children who are traumatised but lack an actual memory of the event, people suffering from the intergenerational aspect of lost or distorted social memory feel “haunted” by something. Psychic detective work is needed to find out what happened in the previous generation that means they have ended up carrying or being affected by an experience that is essentially passed on rather than known about and able to be worked with.

“Normal” social memory provides the resources needed to grieve losses and then reach for creativity. It is not unlike the process of bereavement but happening in generations so that it may take a family or social group two to three generations to come to terms with a loss or trauma. 

One respondent, John, said he had felt haunted by the name he carried from his grandfather who was killed in WW1. Heroes leave shadows, they can be hard to live up to. His father had never spoken about it, yet something about his pervasive feeling of inferiority that his father had also felt got passed on. This can be complicated by the PTSD that soldiers often bring home with them making it hard for them to be parents and partners again. They may also suffer the moral injury of having made a sacrifice that it turns out isn’t valued or acknowledged by the society that sent them to war. (Beal, 2019).

In this type of three generation pattern, I make the distinction between an issue that can be resolved during the overlap in lifetimes of the individuals involved and those that cannot because of social conflicts, loss, and secrets. I call this intergenerational or shorter-term social memory. However, memory beyond the 3rd generation often has a cultural or historical element in it, although it may also have a currently less well understood epigenetic or psychologically “generation hopping aspect” (Yehuda, 2016 &Abraham & Torok, 1994).  This transgenerational (longer term) memory can be foreclosed and therefore not available in a way that is helpful. In the example of John’s haunting name, it wasn’t until until the late 1980’s that moral injury or social aspect of PTSD was fully recognised so that a cultural memory of shame and brutality could lift and reveal otherwise unspoken and unwitnessed suffering of individuals and families trying to cope with the hidden injuries of war (Hunt, 2011). John (and his therapist) needed a shift in the transgenerational and cultural understanding before he could better address his generationally transmitted trauma.   

The patterns observed speak to the deeper more specific background of each individual engaged in the research. These were often the vicissitudes and consequences of migration, traumatic loss and dislocation, and exposure to sudden and rapid social change. These powerful human stories underpin our capacities to be well and creative as well as unhappy and destructive. They are at the heart of social memory and how it works.   
As academics we hope that our work pushes the boundaries of what is known but also how it gets thought about. Here, I brought together complexity theory, psychosocial and attachment-based concepts to provide the unique tools necessary to explore the inter-generational storytelling and transgenerational witnessing collected within the research. It allowed me to develop the idea of ‘a multigenerational self’ as a way of describing an ancestry informed and future focussed way of approaching social problems.

There are concrete lessons here for how mapping social memory as an activity can help psychological practitioners and social activists better orient their approach to working with issues of identity, relationships, social solidarity, conflict and belonging. For counsellors and therapists who often work with trauma a key finding is to hold the question in mind as to whether their client’s difficulties are their own or an echo of someone else’s from another generation. For longer term transgenerational issues understanding perpetrator/victim dynamics is important. These powerful dynamics may otherwise block anyone from a disadvantaged group gain any sense of safety or positive recognition (Hirsch, 2012). Therapy for someone in this situation may avoid the need to find support through group/family solidarity and social action. Therapy where racism is a key feature may encourage further internalisation of the problem or be a way of trying to “fit in”. The dominant culture including aspects of race and class have long and powerful histories and are a significant part of our transgenerational heritage.  
In writing the book I began to think about a new sort of role or “job description” for this type of work: that of a psychosocial practitioner. This could be someone who if they were primarily a psychological practitioner would be strongly socially aware and in mirror image someone focused on social action who would be deeply psychologically informed.
In summary ancestral voices and their role in our present and future form a novel ethical standpoint to think about therapeutic and social interventions in a world increasingly riven with conflict and disrupted by social, psychological, and ecological trauma.

Nigel Williams is a Visiting Fellow at the University of the West of England. He has had a career in counselling and psychotherapy training and research. He is currently involved in further writing about transgenerational issues and the role of the generations in social change.


  1. Abraham N & Torok M (1994) The Shell and the Kernal Trans Rand N T. Chicago University Press.  
  2. Atkinson J (2002) Trauma Trails, Recreating Song Lines: The Transgenerational Effects of Trauma in Indigenous Australia North Melbourne: Spinifex Press.
  3. Beal, E.W (2019) War Stories from the Forgotten Soldiers Koehler books, Virginia Beach. 
  4. Bristow, J. and Kingstone, H. (Eds.) 2023 Studying Generations: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Bristol: Policy Press. 
  5. Hunt, N (2011) Memory War and Trauma Cambridge University Press
  6. Rothberg, M. (2019) The Implicated Subject, Beyond Victims and Perpetrators. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  7. Williams, N. (2015) Anglo-German displacement and diaspora in the early twentieth century: an intergenerational haunting. In: O’Loughlin, M. (Ed.) The Ethics of Remembering and the Consequences of Forgetting: Essays on Trauma, History and Memory. Lanham: Rowan and Littlefield, pp. 125–142
  8. Yehuda et al (2016) Holocaust exposure induced intergenerational effect of FKBP5 methylation Biological Psychiatry (online) pp 372-380.