Intergenerational Trauma

Written by on July 7, 2020 in Conversations on the Journey with 0 Comments

I used to think my mother’s story was time and culture specific, and most certainly in relation to America, a unique experience. But I was wrong. I’m beginning to understand not only how much a part her society played in her trauma, but how widespread the practice of sacrificing children for an agenda is in many cultures. The devastating impact of this societal abuse lingers through intergenerational trauma.

My mother was born in China somewhere along the Yangzte River in the mid 1920’s. She was sold to another family at a very young age. In a single, unexpected moment the trajectory of her life changed. The shock of losing her home, and the grief of waiting for her brothers to rescue her, haunted her for the rest of her life.

My mother and I at an unknown beach in Japan

Mom and I at an unknown beach in, I think, Japan, maybe near an air force base late 1950’s.

Societal Abuse

She told her story so often, it was easy for me to think it was uniquely hers, but it wasn’t. Assaults against families, specifically children, are unfortunately par for the course throughout human history. This includes American history from the founding of this country to today.

We often think of abuse as personal, toxic behavior happening in an individual’s home, and in my own healing journey, I’ve mostly focused on that. But there is societal abuse, systemic violence codified into laws or religious/social mores and practices.

Today, in the United States, we have policies set in place that harm children, acceptable sacrifices for a perceived and rationalized greater good. It’s the old, psychologically twisted virus mutating itself to fit the current time.

A Slow Dawning

I first became aware of intergenerational trauma, when I learned of the soul-shattering practice of ripping Indigenous children away from their families. Indigenous children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools in America, Canada and Australia to make them, essentially, White. They called it “assimilation”. What it was was a horrific form of abuse, a genocide against Native identity and culture.

Intergenerational trauma is the passing of the effects of trauma from one generation to another. Where familial trauma, trauma within a family, can be passed on to descendants of that family, intergenerational trauma impacts entire generations of a demographic of people.

Seeing the similarities between Indigenous children being wrenched from their homes and my mother’s experience in China, even with the significant differences between them, made my heart ache with empathy. But I still couldn’t grasp the enormity of large scale abuse specifically against children as racial or ethnic warfare couched as social policy.

Until it slowly began to dawn on me.

These experiences weren’t grotesque aberrations in their respective societies, a blot on an otherwise clean cloth of human decisions. Among other atrocities, of which there were many, this type of horrific abuse upon children and families had been inflicted upon people throughout our history, as a weapon of choice.

Whitewashing the Truth

I had bought the Whitewashing of history scrubbed clean of the horror; the tepid references in a paragraph or two in textbooks — if at all; the immediate rushing to place this shameful story, as much a part of America’s legacy as the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, into a tidy little box of a one-time or span-of-time-but-everything’s-better-now-let’s-move-on phase of history.

Indigenous people and other marginalized groups have consistently lived realities that are not acknowledged in history books or curriculum taught in schools. Before the internet, and until just recently, these human beings were all but invisible except as exceptions, stereotypes or caricatures.

The largest societal abuse against children and their parents in the United States occurred from 1619 through 1865, from the earliest colonies until the 13th amendment was passed freeing Black lives from slavery. During this time period, children of enslaved people were torn out of their mothers’ arms, amidst the screams and pleading of the mothers and children, and sold off.

That is almost 250 years of wrenching children away from their families, in addition to the subsequent years of concerted efforts to keep Black lives oppressed through laws, practice, social pressure and red lined poverty.

That’s a lot of trauma, intergenerational trauma, passed down, and reinforced through society.

Haunted by the Truth

Evil that inflicts incomprehensible harm on human beings out of entitlement, fear, profit or sadistic gratification doesn’t go away with proclamations or amendments. It prowls the halls of governments, the homes of families. It stands behind pulpits and on street corners. It crawls into the directives of agencies. And it does all these things because it finds refuge and lives in the fears and insecurities of people. These, in turn, are stoked by those who profit from them.

Today we don’t rip children out of parents’ arms to sell them and make them other people’s property. We rip them out of parents’ arms to cage them and make them prisoners.

Like incest, it’s right here in our own home, in the very fabric of our society, and we pretend it didn’t happen, isn’t happening or that in looking at it, it’s not what we see. We don’t see the trauma, because we don’t want to accept responsibility for the assault.

My own pain, as a survivor of incest and inheritor of my mother’s trauma, made it difficult to come anywhere near this level of suffering in others. In its presence, I could not hide from my own. But I’m ready to feel it now.

I Will Let the Tears Fall

On this Seventh Day of the Seventh Month, a significant date for you, Mom… and as I’ve gotten older for me, I share the song I wrote in honor of the child you were. I offer it now in honor of all the children.

I know I have a right to my anger and sorrow for the harm inflicted in my childhood. I claim it. I also have the right to love you, and I claim that too. I don’t know how to right now, but I think finding you requires me walking through, not running from, this pain.

If you were still alive today and knew of the children waiting for their families to rescue them, as you had waited for your brothers, I think you would weep.

I will not be so protective of my own tears. I will let them fall. In their sound I will find my voice and I will use it.


Years ago… seven years ago actually, I wrote and recorded a song, “Miyasan”, from a scene from my mother’s life. It’s a story she told me over and over throughout my childhood. Her grief was palpable, an overwhelming force in her life.

You can find the original post here, Miyasan – Forget Me Not and its place in the River of Heaven project, here.



Miyasan (Forget Me Not)
Melody based on 1868 melody
written by Masujiro Omurao to the same titled song, “Miyasan”

© Demian Yumei
Arranged and recorded by Stacey Young

Looking out… on the wide river
Flowing by river
I sail to you
And the sun calls your name

Boats drifting by… on the wide river
Hear me cry, river
Let me sail to you
Drift home to my brothers
Wait for me
Drift home to my brothers free

Waters run… under bridge rainbow
Walking home rainbow
From this balcony
But it’s only reflections
In my eyes
Only colors through tears I cry

Still I wait for my two brothers
Take me home, brothers
I sail to you
And the sun calls your name


Though the sun’s setting down
I will be true
Through the sunsets I’ll wait for you
Though the sun’s setting down
I will be true
Every sunset I wait for you….

Looking out…

About the Author

About the Author: Demian Yumei, author, singer/songwriter and artist activist, using spoken, written word and original songs in her human rights activism. Demian is a traveler on the healing journey with a lifelong love affair with the creative process. .


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