The Ghosts of Stanley Part 2 – Across the Generations

The Ghosts of Stanley: Part 2 – Across the Generations

What the father hath hid cometh out in the son; and oft have I found in the son the father’s revealed secret.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

I was watching a video copy of Steven Spielberg’s film of J. G. Ballard’s novel Empire of the Sun, a book that I hadn’t at that time read. The film was released in 1987, so this was probably a couple of years after that. There’s a scene that I think almost every viewer finds powerful: Jim, the boy whose experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese form the main subject of both the novel and the film, runs out into the open during an American air raid on Lunghua Camp in Shanghai.  By this stage, his wartime experiences have changed him radically, and he’s begun to enter a psychic state that is exalted, crazy, disassociated and deeply insightful all at once.  In response to the planes flying over Lunghua,  he rushes out shouting over and over again a phrase that one of his American ‘protectors’ has taught him, ‘B54, Cadillac of the skies’.  The scene shows us that we are to think of Jim as, amongst other things, almost mad in his excitement and indifference to personal risk.

It was not the first scene in the film that made me cry, but this time as I was crying I became aware of something very strange.

I was thinking about my parents’ time as civilian internees in Stanley Camp and I realized that I was experiencing their experience with something stronger than empathy.

I did not believe that I had, in any sense, been in the Camp with them – I would have been insane if I had thought that, as I was born in 1950.  But nor did I just feel the kind of empathy for their experience that anyone might feel about a suffering they did not share. The truth was I felt it as something in between, as an experience I related to not as if it’d been my own but not as if they had simply been other people’s either. The tears I was crying were, in some incomprehensible way, more powerful and more ‘mine’ than anything I’d felt during the time I’d spent in an emotion-based psychotherapy in the early 1980s. I began a search, which is still continuing, to try to understand how this could be.

I began to investigate the question both practically (by deepening my own experience of my parent’s experience) and theoretically – by finding out what others had had to say on this topic.

In the academic study of the transmission of experience across generations there are four main names: the pioneers were two Hungarian psychoanalysts who worked for most of their lives in Paris, Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, whose work was continued by their editor and expounder, Nicholas Rand, and by the French professor and therapist Anne Ancelin Schützenberger.

These writers believed that the experience of parents could, in different ways, affect the lives of the children. In extreme cases, it could even seem as if the children’s actions were being directed by the parents’ unconscious. Such ‘inheritance’ would typically take place where the parents had had experiences that they were not able to fully process or even acknowledge themselves, the traumas of war being obvious instances.

Nicholas Rand explains the crucial concept of ‘the phantom’:

(which)…postulates that some people unwittingly inherit the secret psychic substance of their ancestors’ lives….(that) symptoms do not spring from the individual’s own life experiences but from someone else’s psychic conflicts, traumas or secrets.[1]

So: one of the core theories of ‘transgenerational psychology’ is that a ‘phantom’ consisting of the secrets and the ‘unfinished business’ of the parents is somehow passed on to the children.

Rand puts it clearly and with deliberate provocativeness:

Yes, viewed from any and every angle, the patient appears possessed not by his own unconscious but by someone else’s.[2]

This is what a Polish Professor of Law, who suddenly developed the ability to paint and to write poetry, had to say about the transmission of his family’s Holocaust past:

I could easily imagine that several ghosts inhabit my body and talk through my mouth.[3]

He felt as if his mysterious creativity was the work of ‘someone else’, of the dead ancestors.

How does this transmission happen? Anne Ancelin Schützenberger is admirably tentative in attempting to explain this. She suggests many possible mechanisms: experiences in the womb, family traditions, role expectations, projections that identify the child with ancestors (‘you’re the image of your father’), overt injunctions (‘Be like your mother’) but also things left unsaid – any and everything that communicates to the child messages – ‘in a weighty and secret unspoken language’ – about  how they are to live their life

All this is, of course, extremely speculative, but I find the ‘transgenerational tradition’ stimulating and suggestive. It doesn’t, however, fully match my experience. I didn’t usually feel that I was acting as or for my father or mother. I could see in my own constant replayings of the experience of internment both choice and creativity, albeit of a doomed and desperate kind. I was haunted by Stanley Camp, not possessed by it. Nobody but me ‘talked through my mouth’, even though what I said might sometimes have seemed to be what might have been said by ex-internees. It was my reconstruction, my fantasy,[4] of my parent’s time in camp that was ‘the phantom’. And what I was doing, when from the age of about 6 I began to live within these fantasies was not in the usual sense of the word ‘unconscious’ – not at least as understood by the four writers under discussion, who are all in some way in the Freudian tradition, nor as understood by Wilhelm Reich and Arthur Janov, two psychologists more influential than Freud on my baby boom generation.

Other writers who had probed the psyches of children whose parents suffered in the war had found similar things to the ‘transgenerational’ theorists. Dina Wardi’s book Memorial Candles is subtitled Children of the Holocaust but I believe that some of her ideas apply to other children of ‘the war after’ (I’ll come back to that phrase later). I am not, by the way, suggesting for one moment that the experience of Stanley Camp or even the far worse POW camp at Shamshuipo was in any way comparable to that of Auschwitz or that those of us who grew up in the wake of the Hong Kong war can ever hope to understand what it was like to grow up in the continuing presence of the Holocaust. My point is simply that much of the study of ‘transmission’ has involved the children of Holocaust survivors and that I have found some of the resulting analyses useful in understanding my own experience.

Dina Wardi found that many such children thought they were repeating patterns from their parents’ experience, because they felt a kind of unspoken command to try to encounter the things that had proved too overwhelming for full consciousness in the minds of the generation that actually suffered in the war.[5]

I found Wardi’s work very useful, as I did some of the accounts written by the children themselves. I wish I could put my own early experience half as well as Eva Hoffmann, whose parents survived the Holocaust because they were hidden by Polish neighbours:

But in our small apartment, it was a chaos of emotion that emerged from their words rather than any coherent narration. Or rather, the emotion, direct and tormented, was enacted through the words, the form of their utterances. The memories – no, not memories but emanations – of wartime experiences kept erupting in flashes of imagery; in abrupt, fragmented phrases; in repetitious, broken refrains. They kept manifesting themselves with a frightening immediacy in that most private and potent of family languages – the language of the body. In my home, as in so many others, the past broke through in the sounds of nightmares, the idiom of sighs and illness, of tears and the acute aches that were the legacy of the damp attic and of the conditions my parents endured during their hiding.[6]

A phrase I used above, ‘the war after’ – the way the war continued to affect lives in the post-war years – comes from Anne Karpf, who has written a wonderful book on this subject. Karpf was a respected journalist, and daughter of Holocaust survivors, who gradually came to realize that her parents’ experience was dominating her life:

My life seemed to shape itself inexorably around duress and escape, around imminent catastrophe. Driven by a compulsive need to imprison and then release myself, I made an internal concentration camp of my own, and acted as both commandant and inmate. With an awful involuntary mimetic obsession, I constantly replayed the act of surviving. She discovered that some researchers into Holocaust children found that ‘the children of survivors show symptoms that would be expected if they actually lived through the Holocaust’.[7]

Karpfs’ account of her visit to the scenes of her parents’ suffering is judicious, sensitive and profoundly moving. After her book was published, she received scores of letters that testified to the widespread sense of ‘inheritance’ of war experiences. And its seems to me that sense does not just relate to WW11: Intensive Care, by the great New Zealand writer Janet Frame, has as one of its main themes the effects of the experience of the first World War on the children and grandchildren of the main protagonist.

But in 1996, on that first visit to Stanley Camp, my thinking about the ‘transmission’ of my parents’ experience was changed by a vivid encounter with reality at the site where some of the events had taken place.

To Be Continued

[1] Nicholas T. Rand, editor and translator, 1994 (1987), Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok, The Shell and the Kernel, Volume 1, Editor’s note, 166.

[2] Rand ed., 1994, 173.


[4] I’m using this word in a special sense: nothing to do with sexual fantasies or daydreams. We all construct our image of something or someone out of the ideas and feelings we have about it, never out of complete and objective knowledge of its reality. In this sense, we have a ‘fantasy’ about even our spouse or our best friend. But it’s also the case that although our image of anything is never complete and undistorted by emotion it is not necessarily ‘a fantasy’ in the sense of being fundamentally untrue. Some fantasies (in the sense I’m using the word) are indeed far from reality, while others can be reasonably in accordance with the way things are.

[5] Wardi, 1992, 43.

[6] Eva Hoffman, After Such Knowledge, 2011, 8-9.

[7] Anne Karpf, The War After, 1997,43;  253. For those unfamiliar with the book who would like to get some idea of what it’s about Karpf wrote an excellent short essay in response to a reprinting:


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

One response to “The Ghosts of Stanley Part 2 – Across the Generations

  1. Pingback: Ghosts of Stanley, Part 4: Notes from Visits to the Camp Cemetery on January 18 and 21, 2009 | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s