PTSD and Intergenerational Trauma as Expressed in the Arts
For many artists, content can be inspired or prompted by many internal and external factors. Generally, though, art is created following a moment of emotional charge. Much of my art, therefore, is generated as a response to deep-seated trauma. Artists who have experienced trauma often use these experiences to inform their work. My experiences with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are a large part of my body of work, and PTSD as well as intergenerational trauma have deep ties to contemporary art.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is categorized under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, as a trauma- and stressor-related disorder. It occurs when a patient “was exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence” (Diagnostic). Symptoms of this disorder include persistent psychological effects, such as depersonalization and flashbacks, as well as physical effects such as chronic nausea and increased startle response. With this disorder, the sympathetic nervous system gets “stuck” in the fight-flight-or-freeze response for a prolonged period of time, causing “depletion and disruption of the normal functions of our system” (Davis).
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder refers to acute, severe instances of trauma that continue to affect patients for a prolonged period of time. However, many individuals experience traumatic events in their lives without crossing the “threshold” of PTSD. Trauma, simply put, “occurs when we reach a point where we can’t cope” (Davis). Trauma can shift an individual’s perceptions and beliefs about safety, trust, and intimacy, whether subtly or severely, for any amount of time (Baldwin).
The PTSD diagnosis is not necessarily the be-all and end-all of trauma. Some researchers consider it to be an “arbitrary boundary which almost says that the truly traumatized people are on one side and the rest of us are on the other” (Davis). According to one researcher, this boundary should not exist, as “trauma is carried within us all in varying degrees. Each of us is on a sliding scale that goes all the way up to and past the line that tips a person to being diagnosed with PTSD” (Davis). Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD, so is there any indicator as to whether a trauma victim will develop the disorder?
Many psychologists say yes. Various factors, from the size of the hippocampus to genetic indicators of cortisol levels, may have an impact on a person’s response to traumatic experiences (Tucker). In one study, it was found that a large percentage of women who endured sexual abuse had mothers who were also victims (Rose). In addition, folks who experience trauma as a child, especially repeated trauma, are more likely to develop PTSD as a result of a trauma experienced as an adult (Baldwin).
One of these indicators is of particular interest to me -- inherited, or intergenerational, trauma. It is a well-documented theory that trauma responses can be passed down through up to three generations, possibly more (Castelloe). According to one researcher, “psychic legacies are often passed on through unconscious cues or affective messages that flow between child and adult” (Castelloe). Legacies of cultural groups predispose many for PTSD -- for example, the history of oppression of Jewish people leads some Jews to feel trauma as relayed through cultural artifacts and artwork. Through another lens, the descendent of a Holocaust survivor may feel a physiological response to their grandparents’ unresolved trauma.
Through collective history, trauma can be transmitted within cultures. Through DNA, it can be transmitted within families. In my particular instance, for example, I may or may not be predisposed to PTSD due to my culture (I am from a highly privileged cultural group, but face gendered violence as a woman). It is very likely, though, that I am predisposed to PTSD due to my grandfather’s traumatic experiences in World War II and his failure to process this trauma properly.
Processing trauma is imperative to surviving with Post-Traumatic Stress. It is no surprise, then, that many PTSD patients express their pain through art. Artistic endeavors, from writing to painting, provide an outlet for reflection and resolution of trauma. Through creativity, patients have the freedom to explore their psyche and relieve stress. Art therapy is a very effective treatment path for some PTSD patients.
According to a Greek artist and trauma survivor, Dumith Kulasekara, contemporary art can represent traumatic experiences in a variety of ways, but there are a few common themes. In their article in the Athens Journal of Humanities and Arts, they explain: “Sometimes it has to do with the content or the subjects of the works in which trauma could be both directly and indirectly present. Sometimes it has to do with the history and the background or the context of the works that could exist as underlying reasons for the origin of those works” (Kulasekara 35). What this means is that the traumatized artist may sometimes intentionally depict their trauma in the work, while other times the work may simply be inspired or informed by the trauma.
In terms of content, themes in depicting trauma include notable absences, repetition, and use of the human form in unconventional ways, usually used to create tension and discomfort for the audience. Distorting the human body, in physicality or in concept, “produces a sense of trauma” (Kulasekara 43), as does leaving prominent holes or absences. In addition, psychic closeness “is able to create a sense of confrontation to the viewer with the thing that is indescribable, creating a sense of trauma” (Kulasekara 47).
Sometimes, an artist will intentionally approach a piece with the goal of processing trauma, as in art therapy. This trauma may be personal or cultural. In Kulasekara’s article, for instance, work influenced by gender-based violence is explored. These means of processing widespread trauma adds to the discourse regarding that trauma in the modern art world (Kulasekara 50).
Works influenced by cultural trauma can sometimes depict the trauma, as a means of coping or adding to discourse. This can be seen in Kiki Smith’s “Tale” -- see above. This sculpture expresses trauma metaphorically, but shows it directly to the audience. She does this to make a very explicit statement about the intergenerational trauma experienced by women as a marginalized group. In contrast, other works influenced by trauma may not depict the traumatic experience or the abstract idea of trauma, but may be created by an individual who is influenced by their traumatic experience. This includes the work of Alex Janvier, a First Nations painter from Canada. He creates mostly abstract art, but sometimes depicts life as a First Nations student who was subjected to abuse in residential schools. See the image below for one of the less abstract pieces by Janvier, “Okanda.”
According to the artist statement on Janvier’s website, he is “a First Nations person emerging from a history of oppression and many struggles for cultural empowerment. Janvier paints both the challenges and celebrations that he has encountered in his lifetime.” His approach to processing trauma through art is different from the one taken by Kiki Smith, but both have precedent in contemporary art. Both speak to cultural and intergenerational trauma, though they do so in different ways.
When trauma is transmitted between communities and families, the challenge of processing the trauma is as well. As noted in “How Trauma is Carried Across Generations,” “The next generation must grapple with the trauma, find ways of representing it and spare transmitting the experience of hell back to one's parents. A main task of transmission is to resist disassociating from the family heritage and "bring its full, tragic story into social discourse."” Here, Molly Castelloe, PhD, is quoting Gerard Fromm’s book Lost in Transmission: Stories of Trauma Across Generations. These stories can be brought into social discourse through art.
As an artist with PTSD, I use my creative work to process my trauma. However, it is rarely something I do consciously. My audiences may look at my work and see me as a product of cultural trauma due to gendered violence, but the concept of trauma is rarely depicted directly, whether literally or in metaphor. Understanding the scientific and physiological impacts of trauma, as well as the factors that may have made me more likely to experience PTSD, will inform my work going forward. The story of my trauma, both cultural and personal, deserves to be told, and I deserve to free myself and the next generation from my trauma.
Baldwin, David. “About Trauma.” Trauma Information Pages,
Castelloe, Molly S. “How Trauma Is Carried Across Generations.” Psychology Today, Sussex
Publishers, 28 May 2012, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-me-in-we/201205/how-trauma-is-carried-across-generations.
Davis, Jonathan. “Can Trauma Be Passed on through Our DNA?” UPLIFT, 1 Sept. 2017,
Diagnostic And Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders : DSM-5. Arlington, VA :American
Psychiatric Publishing, 2013. Print.
Janvier, Alex. “About the Artist.” Alex Janvier, www.alexjanvier.com/aa1.html.
Kulasakara, Dumith. “Representation of Trauma in Contemporary Arts.” Athens Journal of
Humanities and Arts, vol. 4, no. 1, Jan. 2017, pp. 34–59.
Rose, LindaJoy. “Generational Trauma: How We Can Heal Our Selves Through Our
Ancestors.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 4 July 2017,
Tucker, Patrick. “Predicting PTSD.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 13 Aug. 2014,