Give Up the Ghost (Free Spirit)
Reflections on inheritance
In a famous 2013 study at Emory University, it was shown that a learned response to trauma can be passed down through multiple generations of mice. In this devious experiment, male mice were exposed to the smell of cherry blossoms while receiving a mild electrical shock, so they learned to associate that smell with physical pain. When these mice were later allowed to breed, their pups exhibited the same fear response to the cherry blossom smell as their fathers, no electric shock required. When those children had pups of their own, this third generation of mice also responded in fear to that smell — raising provocative questions about the way in which trauma can travel through families. A subsequent 2017 study of nematode worms suggested that such environmental memories may persist for as many as fourteen generations, twice the “seven generations” of traditional indigenous belief.
If trauma is indeed something we inherit — along with money, land, houses, and objects — how can we learn to handle that particular dimension of our inheritance? How can something that lives and hides in our body be consciously exorcized from within us, and what kind of tools can help with that process?
In this fifteenth ritual of In Fragments, I work with the inherited patterns of my grandfather’s alcoholism — patterns apparently passed down to my mother, whose own secret alcoholism was in the mix at the time of her death as well. According to a letter I received from his older brother, my grandfather carried traumatic memories from his time as a transport pilot in World War II, plagued by vivid nightmares of wounded troops crying out in pain from the back of his airplane. He’d wake from these dreams in the middle of the night, put on his old war uniform, make himself a drink, and walk around the house, alone. His attempt to escape from his trauma through alcohol created a spiraling cycle of divorce, depression, isolation, and ultimately death.
When my mother died in 2016, leaving me and my sister as the stewards of High Acres Farm, I felt the gravity of these historical patterns calling to me — seductive siren songs taunting me with their dark messages: “You too will become depressed. You too will become ensnared in addiction. You too will die alone.” Haunted by these old ideas, I felt that some kind of exorcism was needed — to free myself and the others who gathered at High Acres Farm from repeating these sad stale patterns.
In this ritual, I temporarily become my grandfather’s proxy — donning his old uniform, drinking his alcohol, and utilizing his personal objects — in order to grapple more directly with his demons. Because this ritual is one of the more elaborate in the series, I thought it would be helpful to walk you through its narrative structure one step at a time, focusing on a set of fifteen specific tools that it uses, each an inherited family object charged with historical power.
The family letter mentioned above, from my grandfather’s older brother:
My grandfather’s monogrammed cotton pillow case, which I used to recreate his nightmare, awakening in his bed:
His World War II Air Force uniform, borrowed from the collection of a local museum that was founded by his mother:
His gold belt buckle, used to complete his outfit, which fit me more or less perfectly:
His collection of miniature liquor bottles, taken from his old “bar closet” — a kind of open wound at the center of our house:
His bottle of “Old Grand-Dad” whiskey, used to initiate the ritual:
His monogrammed silver cup, used to take a swig of that whiskey:
My childhood collection of “G.I. Joe” action figures and their plastic weapons, one figure for every bottle, linking my experience of war with his:
My grandfather’s red parachute — his “life-saving” device from World War II:
My grandfather’s canvas hunting bag, used to carry his personal objects:
A fox-hunting trophy from my grandfather’s collection, used as a witness:
A “liquor solution” of my grandfather’s alcohols, used to bring his spirits inside me:
His monogrammed silver lighter, used to set the liquor solution to boil:
His silver bowl, used to hold the boiling liquor solution, while an upside-down liquor bottle dangled above, collecting its evaporated vapor:
The bullet casing from the rifle shot that shattered the bottle holding the evaporated vapor the next morning at dawn — finally releasing the “spirits” (as per Carl Jung, who helped to inspire Alcoholics Anonymous) into the landscape:
And finally, here is a glimpse of the various tools in action inside my grandfather’s “Trophy Room” at High Acres Farm:
The full ritual is worth watching — it offers a vivid example of how inherited objects, places, stories, and situations can be worked with holistically to enact the transformation of trauma.
Wishing you a happy spring, and hope you’re enjoying the cherry blossoms.
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