Our emotional inheritance shapes our behaviors, our perceptions, our feelings, and even our memories. From a young age, we learn to follow our parents’ signals; we learn to walk around their wounds, try not to mention and absolutely not touch what mustn’t be disturbed. In our attempt to avoid their pain and our own, we blind ourselves to that which is right before our eyes.
In “The Purloined Letter,” the third of Edgar Allan Poe’s three short detective stories, a letter is stolen from a woman’s boudoir. The reader doesn’t know the contents of that letter, but we know that it is secretive and forbidden. The police enter the house where they believe the letter is kept. They look everywhere, but they can’t find it. As it turns out, the letter is not hidden at all; it is in an ordinary card rack in plain sight and this confuses the police, who expect to uncover a secret truth.
We tend to assume that what we can see must be known to us, but in fact, so much of what we don’t know about ourselves lies in the familiar, sometimes even in the obvious. Often we realize that it is in fact right before our eyes, and still we can’t see it.
When I meet my patient Dana for the first time, I don’t know that her family traumas touch my own. My family trauma is unveiled and brought to life in the space between us, one ghost awakens another, and without awareness that brings us to new places.
My mother’s older brother drowned in the sea when he was 14 years old and she was only 10. In our family this was not a secret, but it was something we never talked about. We all knew that my mother was unable to speak about that part of her childhood. We understood that for her, remembering was a form of living through something that she couldn’t live through. The 10-year-old girl that she was had broken into pieces and never recovered. A part of her was gone with him, and only a picture in my grandparents’ living room hung as a reminder that many years ago, something was different.
We, her children, were vigilant, trying never to touch what was clearly an open wound, and what became a sensitive spot for all of us.
Once in a while, when someone whistled on the street, we all stopped breathing, waiting for my mother to briefly sigh, “My brother Eli,” her voice turning into that of a little girl. “He knew how to whistle, and his were absolutely the loudest.” Then she would pause for a moment and change the subject.
In our attempt to protect the people we love from pain, we manage to keep those memories, stories, and facts forgotten, dissociated, hidden in our own minds. We know, and still we do not remember, our unconscious minds are always loyal to our loved ones and to the unspeakable fact within their souls. So, while something familiar lives inside us, we treat it as a stranger within.
Of course I knew that my mother had lost her brother. Of course I remembered every detail that I had ever learned. At the same time, I didn’t know and never remembered. That part of my mother’s childhood lived inside me in an isolated capsule, unintegrated with every thing else, and when my patient Dana enters my office for the first time and tells me about her dead brother, I look at her tears and don’t remember, don’t realize in that moment, that she is my own mother who fell apart. I just know I can’t breathe.
Dana tells me she wants to start therapy. “But it’s not about my dead brother. I’m just too emotional and I need to learn how to control my emotions,” she says.
Like my own mother, Dana was ten years old when her brother died in a car accident. Now she is twenty-five.
“How many years can one grieve?” she asks, frustrated that she is crying again.
She tells me that she hated herself all those years for not being able to live like a “normal girl,” unable to stop her tears, to ignore the finger-pointing and whispers of “the girl who lost her brother.”
She moved to New York City in order to forget, to become someone new. “And besides,” she says, “I’m not even sure I cry because of him. I’m just this whiny girl and I need therapy so I can start my life.”
“Start your life,” I note.
“Maybe I started, but then I had to pause and I’m not sure I know how to unpause,” she answers. I see how her fingers tap on the chair as she asks in a childish tone, “Do you know how to unpause a life?”
My mother’s brother drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. She admired him; she loved his whistles, his jokes, his brilliant ideas.
Dana tells me about her brother. “He was the funniest person in the whole world,” she says with a smile, “and I thought I would marry him when I grew up, or at least someone like him.” Her eyes fill with tears. It is clear that her pain is still so profound that she can’t finish a sentence without a sense of agony. Loss can never be fully processed, but at this point, for Dana, it is an open wound, and every time she thinks about it, the pain is intolerable. I am aware that she needs me to hold her hand and slowly guide her through this land of pain and devastation, but at this point I don’t recognize that I am also visiting my own family’s devastation.
For 15 years Dana has been alone with her pain. She has refused to talk with anyone about her past, and that refusal has been a way to protect herself from falling apart. But it has also required her to pause her life. She is frozen in place, a 10-year-old girl who has just lost her brother.
After her brother’s death, both her parents became depressed and were unable to function. Her father had to leave his job, and her mother couldn’t get out of bed. As is typical with loss, Dana didn’t only lose her brother; she in fact lost everything—her family and her life as she knew it. She couldn’t bother her parents with her own confusing and overwhelming pain. She tried to make believe everything was as usual and focused on her schoolwork. But she couldn’t concentrate, and she failed in every class. “I am stupid,” she concluded.
Walking into my office was frightening and unfamiliar for Dana. Her friend’s therapist had referred her to me. She had kept my phone number in her bag for almost a year before she called.
For so many years she had tried not to think, not to know; she had disconnected when she felt too much. It was as if she had been locked in a dark basement, and now we are trying to slowly turn on the lights without blinding her eyes.
It is hard not to feel alone when it comes to pain. To some extent all feelings are isolated, enigmatic, and we transform them, through words, into a form that we can share with others. But words do not always capture the essence of our feelings, and in that sense, we are always alone. This is especially true when it comes to trauma and loss. In order to survive, we disconnect not only from others, but also from ourselves. And we cry for the losses—of the people we love, of the life we used to have, of our old self.
Mourning is a private, lonely experience. It doesn’t necessarily unify people; it often splits them apart so that they are isolated in their pain, feeling unrecognized, misunderstood, or invisible. We need another mind to help us know our own mind, to feel and digest our loss and everything that we are too anxious to connect to: our shame, rage, identification with the dead, guilt, and even envy.
Dana needs me to know her suffering from the inside, unaware, though perhaps she senses, that in fact I know her feelings better than both of us realize. I don’t need to remember my own history; I am living it. I am her therapist, I am my mother’s daughter, and I am a mother myself with a daughter and a son. And I witness and identify with my mother and with Dana—a dead sister to a dead brother. All of those roles—some more conscious, some less so—accompany us on our journey.
“In some ways, we mourn forever,” I say. My words are an emotional reminder of the fact that the process of loss continues across decades and generations, and that my children and I live with that unprocessed loss, which my mother, still alive today, survived more than 60 years earlier. That grief lives inside each of us, and in that sense, it is part of our family’s heritage.
Dana remembers the moment vividly. It was just a few days before summer break. Although everyone had showed up for class, it was clear that even the teachers had given up on school. The kids were planning the end-of-the- year party when there was a knock on the classroom door. My own mother was sitting near the dining room table, doing her homework, staring at her notebook. She was an excellent student and always finished her homework on time. Suddenly she heard a scream. It was her mother’s voice, sounding like a wounded animal.
Dana was gazing out the window when she heard the knock. The teacher went to open the door, and Dana saw the nurse whispering something in the teacher’s ear. They both seemed serious and then the teacher said, “Dana Goren, the nurse needs you in her office.”
My mother heard her own mother yelling, sobbing, screaming, “My son, where is my son? Bring me back my son.” The whole neighborhood heard her and people came over and gathered in the house, crying and praying to God that this was all a big mistake. Suddenly, her mother was lying on the floor.
Dana walked silently with the nurse to her office, and as the door opened she saw her parents. They asked her to sit next to them.
“From there I don’t remember much. I remember that I didn’t really understand what was going on. Everyone was upset, and I was invisible. I knew that something terrible had happened.”
Dana is crying. I cry with her, and it feels as if this is the first time I have heard something so terrible, so painful, so devastating. It is the first time I have had to think about a younger sister losing her brother, and, in so many ways, it is indeed the first time I have allowed myself to imagine the unimaginable.
Like my mother, I had never let myself think about that experience, to live through it or to feel it. Dana took me to a place where a family secret was buried. Not remembering allows us to keep things “far from home” and to avoid wading into territory that might otherwise be too dangerous. I went there with Dana without fully realizing where I was going, silently following her to visit a hidden grave.
Dana weeps for days, for months. She cries, and I sometimes cry with her, explaining to her what she is crying about, how confused and scared she is, how it makes her feel guilty and ugly and dirty. How she had watched her parents fall apart and couldn’t do anything. How she had died with her brother.
Slowly, she begins to feel less overwhelmed and starts reengaging in life.
During the last year of Dana’s therapy, I give birth to my third child, Mia.
“She will have an older brother,” my mother cries when she hears the news. I know she remembers herself as a younger sister, and I find myself thinking about Dana.
A few days later I get an email from Dana.
“Welcome, baby girl,” she writes to my new daughter. “I’m writing to you, new sister, as a younger sister who has been brought back to life.”
Excerpted from Emotional Intelligence by Galit Atlas. Copyright © 2022 by Galit Atlas. Used with permission of Little Brown, Spark, an imprint of Hachette Book Group.
Illustration @ Illustration Source/Adam Nikleqicz
Galit Atlas, PhD, is a psychoanalyst, creative arts therapist, and clinical supervisor in private practice in Manhattan. A faculty member at a number of analytic institutes and clinical assistant professor at the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy & Psychoanalysis, she’s published widely on issues of gender and sexuality and contributed to the “Couch” column of The New York Times.