The podcast A Kind World tells the story of Julie Lindahl, the descendant of a cruel, Nazi commander. Though Lindahl did not grow up knowing her grandfather’s true identity and crimes, she always felt that something was terribly wrong. In her words“The feeling that my sister and I always had, was that there was this corpse that was lying in the room that was covered over with a blanket, and nobody wanted to uncover it.” She reports that she would write things like “bad” on her face in permanent marker and then stare at herself in the mirror.
The field of epigenetic research has shown that trauma impacts us on a cellular level and is transmitted generationally via DNA. This is clearly shown in the descendants of Holocaust survivors, even two or three generations removed through PTSD symptoms such as panic and anxiety. While there has been more research on victims, Lindahl’s story raises the question of what we carry in our bodies and psyches as the descendants of people who committed atrocities.
Many white people in the United States, carry a legacy of perpetrator. Even if one’s family are more recent immigrants, being read as white comes with privileges won through subjugation, enslavement and genocide. In my lineage, I am the descendent of those who settled, in the Midwest. This was the result of colonialist clearing the land of Native people, for European-Christian settlers. In my maternal lineage, I am the descendent of those who traded people as slaves and may have been the owner of people as slaves (I am still trying to research these roots). Lindahl’s story awoke a curiosity about the transmission of this lineage in my own body and psyche. Similarly, I have been paying attention to this transmission in my clients.
Like in the case of Lindahl, I see this most often in the expression of shame and guilt. What this looks like in the therapy room is people feeling ashamed of their feelings. I will hear clients say,“My problems really aren’t that bad compared to others” and “Who am I to be complaining when there are people without homes, just outside?” Or "I don't feel like I deserve my, new home, new car, etc." While these comments hold some truth in recognizing privilege, they are a shallow and are really about seeking reassurance, rather than true healing or confronting power and privilege. Ultimately, this only serves to sustain the status quo.
If one resists the shame, this often shows up as defensive anger. In example, when confronted by their privilege one might say “Well, my parents worked hard too!” or “I deserve this!” In another act of avoidance, people often speak from their most wounded and vulnerable identities. For instance, A white-gay man may say something like “Well, I understand what that feels like, as a gay person” when confronted with something about white privilege. While there is a way to build bridges across identities of oppression, this only serves to center the pain of the white-gay man rather than the pain of being a person of color.
I do not pretend to know all of the answers on this topic. Though I consider myself on the path, I am no where near personal liberation from the legacies of perpetrator that I inherited. But, I do think that Lindahl’s story offers a possible blueprint for healing from perpetrator legacies. In the three part series, on A Kind World, Lindahl retraces the atrocities committed by her grandfather. She visits the people whom her father harmed. She cries, grieves and mourns her father’s cruelty. Somewhere along the way, in the process of grieving, her shame transforms into responsibility. Responsibility then shifts into action, reparation, repair and true ally-ship with Jewish decedents of the Holocaust. It is here that her world collides with Racheal Cerrotti, a Jewish woman who had been retracing the heroic journey of her Grandmother’s survival, during the Holocaust. These two women forge a friendship that transcend their legacies as victim and perpetrator.
I wonder what Lindahl’s life would have been like without her courage to face the true nature of her history and then begin the process of grieving and transformation. Perhaps self harm? Drugs? Alcohol? Chasing corporate success, but always feeling empty? How many of us white folks are stuck in these patterns of avoidance, addiction and consumerism?
In a recent anti-racism coaching session my coach said to me "Addie, you've been faking your anti-racism." While this was hard to hear, I also felt a sense of relief. I knew she was right. While I have an intellectual understanding of anti-racism, I have been feeling that I am missing or bypassing something.
In the liberal-white world, everybody wants to appear antiracist and progressive, myself included. Racism is no longer in style. However, more often than not, we white folks are faking our progressive beliefs. They are not yet embodied. This is because, personally and institutionally, we have missed some critical steps in this process.
Lindahl’s first step on her healing journey began as a little girl, with a harsh and uncomfortable look in the mirror. She seeks out the truth and then grieves for what her father did. A harsh look at reality followed by grief seems to be the point where antiracist/anti-oppression work moves from being intellectual to embodied. This is not to be confused with the defensive tears that arise when we are confronted with our own biases and racism. Those are the types of tears that are usually followed by "I just feel so misunderstood" or "That is not what I meant." True grief around identities of privilege, as my anti-racist coach April Harter is teaching me, is an undefended recognition of harm and arises from a place of empathy for the other.
White privilege separates us from the rest of humanity through internalized, insidious and mostly unconscious feelings of superiority. Grief from a place of true empathy welcomes us back into humanity. Once we come back into humanity as equals with all beings, we cannot help but act on the behalf of our beloved people. This is the personal work that we, white folks, must do. We cannot look to people of color to make us feel better about ourselves and massage our feeling of shame and guilt. True and authentic relationships and bridges across identities of difference can only exist through this process.
We are living in a time where much of our histories and legacies of sexism, heterosexism and white supremacy are being revealed. More clients are showing up wanting to talk about their identities of privilege. I not only welcome these explorations, but feel that they are a crucial part of healing and living from a place of vitality and wholeness. May we all find deep liberation and reconnection to our basic humanity and truly transcend identities of victim and perpetrator.
Click here to hear the story of Lindahl and Cerotti on "A Kind World"
For more on April Harter's anti-racism coaching for therapists see