Why I’m Doing a One Woman Show about Inherited Family Trauma

The playwright with her mother and grandmother, 1977.

I was raised by Jewish grandparents who grew up during the Great Depression. (I guess this makes me an honorary Baby Boomer, even though I’m technically Generation X.) My grandmother loved to tell me stories told to her by her father, my great-grandfather Max Schumacher, who emigrated to the US from Poland in 1914, and died before I was born.

“Your great-grandfather was sitting on the stoop with this little girl, and a Cossack rides by on his horse and pop! shoots the little girl in the head, killing her. He never forgot that day. Soon afterwards, he emigrated to America. If he hadn’t, he most likely would have been killed in the Holocaust.”

“Grandma, what if the Cossack had shot great-grandpa Max instead of the little girl?”

“Well,” she’d say, “none of us would be here.” It made my head hurt to think about it too much.

As a child, I would sometimes get annoyed at my grandmother, because she told the same exact stories over and over again. I could recite them by heart. But today, I am grateful for my her storytelling. Our family stories are firmly implanted in my consciousness. They have formed the seeds for my creative work delving into the nature of trauma and memory.

The reason I was raised by my grandparents was because my single mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young adult. She suffered a breakdown in 1969, after she ran away from our family’s middle-class Milwaukee home to join the Hippie movement in San Francisco. From the early 1970s until the end of her life, she was swept up in a draconian mental health system that institutionalized her and drugged her into oblivion, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest style. Her life was never the same after that.

Her psychotic “delusions” involved invisible Nazi oppressors that only she could defeat. While she loved me fiercely, she was unable to raise me, so haunted was she by these visions. After one too many mother-daughter voyages into the streets to hunt down Dr. Mengele, I was removed from her custody at the age of five. This abrupt separation represented a deep trauma for us both, from which she never recovered. From which I am still healing.

At the time, her visions were explained to me as “symptoms of her schizophrenia.” And for many years, I believed that. But then I began to wonder if there was more to it. After all, we are Jews, and Nazis were legitimately our historical oppressors. What if there was meaning in my mother’s “madness?” Some unspoken family sorrow, some universal Jewish sorrow, that was finding its expression in her? These questions haunted me.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned about the nature of psychological trauma and the cutting-edge science of epigenetics. Could my great-grandpa Max’s experiences of growing up amidst the violence of anti-Jewish oppression in Bialystok, Poland have created epigenetic changes in the expression of our family’s DNA, leaving subsequent generations more vulnerable to stress? I began to systematically trace the lines of trauma, distress, mental health issues, and various forms of addictions throughout my troubled family.

And thus, my play Aliens, Nazis and Angels was born: a one-woman show where I explore our family’s twisted tree through the lens of my childhood and early adulthood memories and experiences. In doing so, I hope to shed light on the effects of our family legacies. These legacies are not just found in the stories we tell one another, but in our very DNA.

The good news is that trauma, including inherited family trauma, is not destiny. Our brains are neuroplastic. And we are deeply resilient beings. There are so many ways to heal — mind-body modalities, trauma-sensitive yoga, martial arts, or trauma-focused therapies such as Somatic Experiencing, Family Constellations or EMDR.

Turns out that expressive arts, storytelling, and theater are also ways to heal that are empirically validated by research conducted by psychiatrist and trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk and others.

But I tell this story not just to heal myself. This show is primarily a vehicle to raise awareness about inherited family trauma, so that others can find their unique pathways to healing, too.

Aliens, Nazis and Angels is written and performed by Leah Harris and directed by Regie Cabico. The play runs July 9–23 at the 2016 Capital Fringe Festival in Washington, DC. Tickets are available here.