The Role of Narrative in one Case Study
Ancestral trauma across generations, a qualitative study
Posted January 2, 2020
Traumatic external events, such as war, exile, and political strife, embed themselves in communities and individual psyches. Mental health professionals have resisted considering such external events with equal weight given to personal and familial ones.
Yet, a new book illuminates how external political events impact individual psychology. It also shows how narrative and the reconstruction of a life story is central to therapy. It documents one case history, a qualitative study that describes a patient in Turkey, “Mert,” an affluent businessman in his late 40s living in Istanbul.
The patient came to treatment troubled by a fear of ghosts and graveyards, a phobia suffered since childhood. He complained of sexual dysfunction as well: panic attacks during intercourse with his wife and, at times, loss of his erection and premature ejaculation. Mert grew up on the Black Sea coast in a rural village and recounts a childhood with no electricity or indoor plumbing. The patient says he was born in a toilet after his mother got up one night in a dream state to go to the bathroom and gave birth.
As the patient’s graveyard fear developed in latency and adolescence, Mert’s mother took him to the “village hodja,” a kind of Moslem priest who gave him a Muska or holy amulet for protection. At 17, the patient left the farmhouse where he grew up in his village and moved to Ankara to apply to the university, where a classmate helped him cheat on his entrance exam. After graduation, Mert used some family money to open a factory that made bricks in a poor section of Istanbul. Mert identified himself as a “Muslim-Armenian,” a Hemşinli who had assimilated within a majority of ethnic Turks within the general population.
The author builds on the work of Selma Fraiberg, Edna Adelson, and Vivian Shapiro and their classic essay “Ghosts in the Nursery,” which elaborates on the relationship between a parent's fraught early experience of the way they were raised and their own approach to parenting in later life. These psychoanalytic authors describe the transgenerational transmission of trauma, arguing that “in every nursery there are ghosts." They describe how "in an unguarded moment, a parent and child may find themselves reenacting a moment or a scene from another time with another set of characters.”
In a dream, the patient sees an unknown person catching a big snake and squeezing it, producing poisonous juice that the figure forces into Mert’s mouth. Through his free associations, the patient recalls a place he knew of as a child, one that the Hemshin people called the Canyon of Hell. This was a missing graveyard he had heard stories about and believed was the burial ground for Hemshin Christians, where they settled around 1700. It was also the site where they later fought a neighboring ethnic group, the Laz people, who forced thousands of the Hemshin over the edge of a mountain, pushing them to death in a ravine below. This hellish chasm is understood to represent the patient’s anxiety over the humiliation and shame associated with his Hemshim heritage, as well as the unconscious fear of being feminized and swallowed up.
Through the patient’s narrative, we learn that his ancestors would wrap their gold and jewelry in organic cyanide, which released noxious fumes to kill or deter any thief and bury these valuables in their cemeteries, gardens, and mountainsides. The therapist intuits that by telling the story of buried treasures, the patient was expressing deep ambivalence toward his past with its both glorified and troubling aspects. Mert recalls that some of his Hemshin forebearers referred to the Canyon of Hell as Sesli Kaya, Rock with a Voice. Through therapy, he, working alongside the clinician, continuing the reconstruction of his family history.
Much of the patient’s difficulties emerge from confusion around his large-group identity. The patient confides to his therapist that he thinks of himself as a “fake Turk” since his ancestors were Hemshin. He impregnates a widow, a woman who came to represent the patient’s humiliated self, his shame felt belonging to the Hemshin people: “Mert could be a man with an erect penis at the widow’s house since the humiliated self was externalized onto the woman. On the other hand, at his own home, he was a Hemşinli while his wife’s people were the ‘real’ Turks.”
Secrets emerge about the intertwining of ethnicity with masculinity and, through the patient's free associations, become linked to his persistent phobias. Research cited in the book shows a culture of domestic violence in certain regions of the Black and Caspian Sea, where the patient grew up. As a boy, Mert was taught to cut the heads off chickens in order to be manly. He recalls choking a puppy to death when he was a child and the honor killings that were frequent in his rural village. He begins to realize how his phobia of graveyards is tied to his childhood fantasy of being pushed into the Canyon of Hell and certain cultural assumptions about masculinity.
Mert comes to realize that he did not have good-enough parenting and that “as an adult, he became rich in order to ‘buy’ some ‘good-enough things,’ but still felt that he was not entitled to have them… He was both a ‘fake’ Turk and a ‘fake’ rich man, doomed to search for entitlement for ‘good-enough’ things.” Yet having a therapist, one replicating a loving child-mother relationship, allows the patient to make developmental advances and accomplish certain structural changes in his psyche: the integration of his self-representations and internal object images. The treatment goes on to explore the contamination of the patient's personal identity with his ancestors’ history, and the necessity of choosing what he wants to keep and to discard for improving his self-esteem and sexual relations with women.
The closing chapter called “Unexpected Ending” details how one day, government officials arrive from Ankara to “inspect” one of Mert’s building projects. This at a time when Turkish national identity had shifted to a religious and authoritarian regime, one recreating old Ottoman customs, such as building new mosques and requiring women to cover their heads and faces. The patient abruptly stopped coming to treatment and was never heard from again due to the corrupt workings of the government, which insisted the builder support party politics. The therapist is left wondering if the ruling party’s interference with the patient’s business and personal life would result in a return to his self-perception as a “fake Turk.”
Ghosts exist not only in the nursery but also in public squares and rural landscapes. This book calls attention to a form of deep listening attuned to how story reveals identity conflicts, large-group dynamics, and the transmission of trauma across generations.
Fraiberg, S., Adelson, E., & Shapiro, V. (1975). Ghosts in the nursery: A psychoanalytic approach to the problem of impaired infant-mother relationships. Science Direct, Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 14(3): 387-421.
Volkan, V. (2019). Ghosts in the Human Psyche; The Story of A “Muslim Armenian.” Phoenix, Oxfordshire, UK.