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Sitting in the Cricketers pub, I listened as Grandma asked me whether I typically experienced difficulties “passing stools.” She seemed disappointed when I told her, “No, I didn’t.” I was thirty-one years old.
She fiddled with her food. Was there any means of release – an exit over my shoulder? That’s what her eyes seemed to be asking me. Later, she let me lie next to her on her single bed. I had experienced a relationship break-up. She was in mourning after losing Syd, her fourth husband. Grandma stared at the care home’s low ceiling and white gypsum arch mouldings. Soothing her stomach with her hands, she agonised over her abdominal cramps.
“It’s painful,” she repeated.
What Grandma didn’t comment on when we lay there in her bedroom in Sussex was how odd the situation was, me and her lying next to one another, complicit in our abandonment, like two rusty trains cushioned in a disused rail station. She wanted to share her pain. She wanted her widowhood to be acknowledged.
In Ill Feelings, their book about developing the same chronic symptoms as their mother, Alice Hattrick states “Illness makes gaps. If illness has its own kind of time, it also has its own spaces: the sickroom, the bedroom, the living room, and treatment room, all at once private and public, at once confining and protecting.” In curling up with her in that single bed, I didn’t want gaps to emerge between me and Grandma.
I remembered the anticipation I used to feel visiting her apartment as a child in Hove. There was the promise of crooning seagulls, and in her trail, the comforting smell of a bonfire. She used to puff on Montecristo cigars. Elaine Paige once sang about memory, “I can smile at the old days for they remain ‘burnt-out ends of smoky days.’” I smile now, knowing Grandma was recently boosted with a fourth vaccination against the coronavirus. I smiled lying next to her in her care home because I had a memory of Grandma wearing a golden-syrup fedora hat, her jewellery jangling, not yet a frail pensioner.
In June 2021, I was convinced I was covered in lice. I scratched my beard; I felt teasing threads of energy in my hair. There was no visible proof of lice eggs, neither in the comb that I bought from a pharmacist nor in my underpants. I knew my symptoms were likely to be a psychosomatic reaction, but to what, I kept on asking myself. Is it for hereditary reasons I’m such a hypochondriac, or out of some tie of kinship to Grandma that I ache, itch, and ruminate?
I think of myself as a hyper-empath. I sponge up other people’s pains and irritations. The Centre for Research on Pain at McGill University found that people with higher empathy felt pain more intensely than their lower empathy counterparts. That doesn’t stop me from excessively searching Google. I might self-diagnose any number of conditions. Pruritus would make sense, but I’ve been known to spend hours on websites about allergies to household dust and sexually transmitted infections.
When I was small, an afternoon with Grandma was an antidote to the swirling motions of cross country runs, vaulting over the pommel horse in PE class, and our busy life in north London. Time slowed down sitting in one of her sink-in armchairs. I’d casually observe her, watch her flecks of green and brown in one eye, and tar-black in the other, her central heterochromia an endearing and eccentric detail. She’d study me, not reservedly, but with seventy years of life glinting in her eyes.
I like to think I understood Grandma, or better still, that she understood me. I’m clinging to the idea amid so much incertitude. Dad’s unwell, and I won’t be surprised if he passes before she does. I keep on returning to an extract from a letter of hers to her sister-in-law in the 1970s.
“With advancing age, I have developed phobias about my own health. Whilst never being actually ill, I always seem to have an ache or pain somewhere, and for years also have been plagued off and on with stomach trouble, although nothing has ever been revealed on investigation and I’ve been told it’s anxiety. I tend to worry so much over everything and a constant fear is that I might become unable to work at any time…”
I turn to a Jewish sage. Jo Kent Katz shares her “map for transcending Ashkenazi trauma” and, in the advertising blurb, “speaks to how legacies of intergenerational trauma impact the body, and to the possibility of unwinding these impacts toward healing.” I’m not traumatised. Grandma and my closest ancestors didn’t live in Nazi-occupied Europe, but ever since a grandfather of Grandma’s emigrated to Britain from Imperial Russia and was categorised as an “alien” on his Home Office papers, my forebears have proven anxious souls, fuelled by a querying, shifting sensibility. They could never quite settle, or take pride in what they had accomplished.
I’m trying to understand Grandma’s idiosyncrasies because at the age of forty, soon to be a father, I want to soothe my mind. I’m looking to overcome the flaws I imagine are inherited, constantly looking at what can go wrong in life. My “pivot point” was undoubtedly the summer of 2001, when I was nineteen. Mum had died, the wicker basket of my guilty gay secret had opened, and I was dizzy with dubiety. My GP referred me to a psychiatrist. I walked down the leafy lane that took me to The Priory, passing dangerously anorexic women. I wondered whether a dip in my mental health was an inevitability. Soon enough I was diagnosed with OCD.
In a comment piece for The Atlantic in 2018, Olga Khazan considered a new study on American Civil War prisoners, which she argued added to the evidence suggesting that our parents’ – and even grandparents’ – experiences might “affect” our DNA. She writes:
“Often when I complain to my therapist about how stressed out I am by a problem I’m having, she says a variation on the same thing:
‘Well, like all Ashkenazi Jews, you have a lot of intergenerational trauma. You know, because of everything that’s … happened.’
Of course, you’re anxious, she seems to say; you’re Jewish! I think it’s meant to help me feel more at peace with my emotions, but I must admit I find this response deeply unsatisfying.”
Khazan goes on to reflect that maybe her therapist has a point. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a study by researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the sons of Union Army soldiers who endured gruelling conditions as prisoners of war “were more likely to die young than the sons of soldiers who were not prisoners. This is despite the fact that the sons were born after the war, so they couldn’t have experienced its horrors personally. In other words, it seemed like the stresses of war were getting passed down between generations.”
In It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are And How To End The Cycle, Mark Wolynn highlights how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by a grandparent can also affect succeeding generations. “Traumas,” he writes of events to affect our forebears, “not only from war but from any event significant enough to disrupt the emotional equilibrium in our family – a crime, a suicide, an early death, a sudden or unexpected loss – can lead to our reliving trauma symptoms from the past.”
Olga Khazan’s book, Weird, is a manifesto for how to live a life as an “outsider” in an “insider” world. Why was Khazan an outsider? And what did Grandma “lose” that was significant enough to lead to a lifetime of stomach pains? One premise appears to be connected to their Jewishness.
Were I asked to write a eulogy – Grandma is ninety-eight – I imagine my first task would be to open the dusty curtains of Miss Havisham’s metaphorical front room. I could light a cigar of my own, and remember Grandma as she truly ought to be remembered: problematical and complex. I’d remember her fondly as Shirley Crystol, born to parents Reuben and May in Ilford in 1924, the year André Bréton published the Surrealist Manifesto, a text fitting to be printed in Grandma’s era-defining birth-year. The avant-garde collided with Berlin’s colourful cabaret bars and Viennese coffee houses. 1924 was the year Sigmund Freud published Neurosis and Psychosis.
According to Freud, there is a difference between neurotic and psychotic individuals: while the first do not repudiate reality (they only ignore it), the latter not only repudiate it but try to replace it. By that definition, many of the individuals enjoying the pleasures of the rollicking 1920s were proud neurotics. Shirley, however, came of age in the starved 1930s, and while she certainly wasn’t psychotic, she was desperate to change her reality.
Consumed with the same self-hatred as her mother, May, who I’m told received electroshock therapy, Shirley intensely disliked the protuberance in her curved Semitic nose. When I was a teen, I’d consciously swivel and turn on entering a restaurant, party, or classroom so as to avoid strangers observing me from my side. My nose marked me as an outsider. What else, though, troubled me about my visibly Jewish identity? There were Grandma’s constant lamentations, and her inability to live lightly. There were Dad’s heavy sighs. Being Jewish was a protuberance I wanted to remove, for it seemed intimately connected with pain and shame.
“It runs in the family.” “It’s all in the genes.” These are some of the pedestrian observations we’re offered on why we become the people we become. On Ancestory.com and down other genealogical alleys I’ve travelled, on fact-finding missions to Kraków and Vilnius, to establish why Grandma was the way she was, why she was born into a family dispositionally so taut. The stories I’ve pieced together through research suggest Grandma’s maternal grandfather escaped poverty, and pogroms too, when he fled Eastern Europe and headed west. As a consequence of half a lifetime of chronic illness and pain, he was angry. It’s also said Joseph was an aesthete, overly concerned with his daughter May’s looks, urging her to accept any half-decent man’s proposal to get wed. She needed to assimilate into English culture. As an outsider, she couldn’t be choosy.
Are there third or fourth generation Jews, or indeed any descendants of refugees, who aren’t fixed on survival, competing, looking their best, and avoiding slip-ups? Don’t I spend too much time obsessing about such things, whether I’m a “success” for instance? A fevered brain spins like a roulette wheel, and as often as not, it will land on red.
Grandma didn’t appear to lose anything in her younger years. Perhaps she only feared she would, but losing is habit-forming. First, came her husband, and then came her sense of safety, and sure enough, her sense of health.
Philippe Sands has written how there is “a singular form of communication that exists between grandchild and grandparent, not necessarily in a spoken form. It was explored by Maria Torok and Nicolas Abraham, two Hungarian psychoanalysts who sought to understand how secrets skip a generation and are transmitted from the first to the third generation.”
“Give me a grandparent,” Sands suggests, “and I will tell you about the grandchild.”
I have my own take.
We skip a generation – we burrow ourselves in our family histories – because in fraught times we find the solace we need in romanticising our oldest relatives. We can choose, however, to stop romanticising.
A task for this spring afternoon is to snuggle on the sofa and listen to an episode of This Jungian Life. I can settle in the knowledge we don’t have to take after our parents and grandparents. Much as I love my grandmother, I need not share her neuroses. Come to think of it, a Google search could aid me.