We Are Our Parents’ Children: Fear and Family Traits

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[image credit: Lucasfilm, Indian Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989]

I have a slight fear of heights.  While far from being my only insecurity, it stands out further than the others by virtue of its mysteriousness.  In addition to being an apprehension that has been with me for as long as I can remember, it stems from a depth of my being that I have yet to fully comprehend.  This is to say that when I try to fathom from where this fear originates I cannot find it amidst my childhood memories.  Instead, there are only moments I can recall in which my disdain for heights is already an ingrained part of my personality.  I should explain that I am not completely acrophobic.  I can look out the window of airplanes or ascend to the top floor of skyscrapers with no problem.  I have flown countless times, including across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and have enjoyed the view from the Empire State Building and the Sears Tower.  However, if, say, I were to attempt standing on the edge of a cliff without any support, such as a guardrail, I would suddenly feel a rush of adrenaline that would make me feel unbalanced and compel me to retreat to safer ground.  This is how it has always been with me.  So, when I have stopped to reflect on my predisposition, as I have stated, it is nowhere to be found among my youthful experiences.  I have never accidentally fallen from a tree or rooftop, nor have I ever been threatened with being thrown from a dangerous elevation.  At one point, though, when no other explanation availed itself to me, I concluded that I must have perished in my previous life as a result of plummeting to my death, and somehow that memory was encoded into my genes upon my rebirth into this life.  More recently, however, my wife and I were having dinner with a friend who spoke with me about historical trauma.  We spoke of these things, not because I had told my friend about my fear of heights, but because of our common interest in American Indian history, which is replete with episodes of historical trauma.  “The trauma can get into your blood,” my friend said, “and be passed onto your children.”  My friend illustrated his point with examples of traumatic episodes with which he was personally familiar from his work in behavioral health.  The trauma becomes intergenerational at two levels: first, when the traumatized parent raises their children in a household in which the parent is living with the effects of their trauma; second, when the traumatic effects are passed onto their children like a genetic trait.  It was the second point that my friend referred to euphemistically as “getting into your blood.”  “Even modern doctors check your blood for signs of health and disease.”  If this is true, then what was my inherited trauma?  In the case of my fear of heights, I now believe that I got it from my dad.  During 1950 as the Korean War broke out and American troops were deployed overseas, my dad became a member of the first detachment of Army Rangers sent behind enemy lines.  In fact, my dad distinguished himself as a platoon leader, the stories of which were an important part of my childhood.  Yet, despite how proud my dad was of his military service, which included parachuting into enemy territory, he never rode in an airplane again after he was discharged.  As I grew and matured I eventually learned about post-traumatic stress disorder, in addition to learning from my mom that my dad was going through a very dark time when they met in the late 50s, and how she was the only one to whom he opened up about his wartime experiences.  So, the way I see things now is that my dad must have been so traumatized by his experience as a combat paratrooper that he passed some of that trauma to me.  It was in my blood from birth.  My fear of heights, especially when there is nothing to hold onto, is my dad’s fear of dying as he was jumping from the back of a C-82.  My dad was my hero.  He still is.  He is also the reason I am the way that I am.

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