I had never given much care to genealogy, thinking it a form of navel gazing into a distant past that has no bearing on me, and my life, now. That changed after my mother died. My father’s family was Dutch and my mother’s was German and Scots-Irish—solidly Christian, White, and Northern European. Checks all the boxes. However, my mother’s father died in 1934, when she was 12, and she told us she thought he had a family secret, but didn’t know what it might be and didn’t want to find out. After my mother died, my sister did a genealogy of my mother’s family and discovered my grandfather’s secret—he was Jewish. He changed his name when he immigrated to the U.S as a 16 year-old.
I was stunned. At a subterranean level, I felt very vulnerable. I certainly understood antisemitism and abhorred it, but from a position with my feet firmly planted on the “mainland”, waving with empathy at those on a close, but offshore island (e.g., Jews and the other “outsiders”). Now I share not only a past with some of those offshore, but given the long history of parsing ancestry to sniff out Jewish ”blood” for extermination, it changed my understanding of myself, my identity. The low rumble of antisemitism was now quite audible and personally menacing. The living power of the past, its relevance for my life in the present, and its possible consequences for my future—pile-driven home.
The seismic power of the past is also the engine of effective psychotherapy. We all construe stories about our identity; who we are, what formed us, who influenced us, what memorable events mark our lives. These stories compose our identity and are distilled into habits, assumptions, and reactions that reflexively govern much of what we believe, say, and how we act. The past is relived at the visceral level, guiding our present lives and our expectations for the future. When these guideposts falter or breakdown we can find ourselves unmoored; anxiety, angst, anger, and despair become our companions. Therapy, in its various forms, focuses on changing the visceral assumptions, and this often involves reexamining the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
Therapy for trauma evinces this in its most stark form. Trauma therapy must directly confront shocking past experiences to forge new narratives, new habits, new reactions about the trauma’s meaning and its bearing on who we are. This therapy can be destabilizing, painful, and terrifying, requiring great courage. This is a major reason therapy is often avoided; the pain we know is less frightening than the destabilizing unknown pain that awaits. But the courage to confront the horrors of the past is rewarded with a reclaimed life and hope for the future. The only way out is through.
A similar process to therapy occurs at the national level. Our narratives about our past, which is the history that we tell ourselves about ourselves, forms our identity. These narratives, typically, are heroic; obstacles faced, challenges met, and adversity overcome at great odds. They are morality plays where, after grappling with demons for 40 days and 40 nights, virtue and righteousness triumph over evil. Our national pride is, after all, pride about our past, which defines who we are now and what we hope for our future; it shapes our political landscape and national conversations, our laws, institutions, legislation, and elections.
Slavery is a 400-year indelible stain on American history. It was integral to our country’s founding, essential to its economic viability and vitality, and intrinsic in its social structure. Unimaginable cruelty, brutality, suffering, and murder of slaves, and their descendants, have been routine in American life for centuries. The presence of the progeny of slaves in our midst—in their very appearance—is a stark reminder of the horrors of our past, evoking reflexive, habitual reactions conditioned by the longstanding narratives about race; about Black and White and what they mean.1
The current upheaval in our country about racism is a challenge to the dominant stories of our history, of our identity. As with therapy, and genealogy, our past is complicated, filled with facts—known, unknown, avoided, denied, and ignored— selectively highlighted and given structure and meaning by our narratives. Was Robert E. Lee the hero of the “Lost Cause”, fighting for “States Rights” and a “Noble Defender of the South?” Or was he a traitor leading a rebellion to preserve slavery and destroy the Union? The struggle over the narratives about our past is not simply an esoteric debate among academics; it is a struggle for our nation’s soul: Who were we? Who are we? Who do we want to be?
The Abolitionist movement, the Civil War, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Constitutional Amendments, and the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s are all landmarks of progress toward equality; achievements certainly worthy of note. Our narratives, however, only highlight these accomplishments, avoiding the 400 years of murder and misery. We comfort ourselves with hagiography to avoid honest history.
The power of the trauma at the very heart of our national identity—slavery— threatens the foundations of our body politic, our civil life, our personal engagements. We, collectively, face the same onerous challenge as many combat vets: Do we choose to continue with the pain we know, or do we have the courage to face the searing hard truths of our past, our moral failings of great consequence, and endure the disturbing uncertainties and disruptive pain that will result?
Germany offers a model of what this might look like. Monuments to their Nazi past are scattered throughout Germany, with an especially dense concentration in its capital, Berlin, marking the sites of momentous dark happenings, egregious atrocities , and homage to the victims who were tortured and murdered. These monuments testify to this past and bear witness to grievous moral failings. They also, however, are bold statements of Germany’s values, now, and their commitment to a future informed by this past. They display a unique kind of heroism worth emulating: moral courage.
National monuments to the past are values we hold, now, about ourselves, made visible.2
Do we have the courage of the Germans?
- Our history and narratives about race, of course, encompass more than Black and White. Various immigrant groups have endured difficult times and our treatment of Native Americans is another especially dark chapter in our history.
- This is paraphrase of a line from a book by Susan Neima, What We Can Learn from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil.