As I write this, states are beginning to reopen. And yet there remains an almost universal sense that this pandemic is far from over. And behind even that, in the shadowy crevices of so many psyches, I sense we also know that even when this is over it’s far from over. There’s still the trauma to come.
That trauma first came to me in a parking lot outside my grocery store, where I sat crying because no one in the store seemed to care about social distancing and I spent the whole time dodging people as best I could. It was a disturbing and destructive mix of fear and anger and panic. Not long after I joked to friends (well, half-joked) that we can expect a second pandemic of PTSD-induced agoraphobia. Just today I was texting with a friend as we wondered when either of us would feel safe in public around people again.
And I’m privileged; I’m layered in privilege. I can’t imagine the trauma of those without work or income (especially those here in Florida with a hostile unemployment system, one that some believe was designed to fail). I can’t imagine the trauma of frontline healthcare workers facing the pandemic and then facing down protesters. I can’t imagine the trauma of someone who’s lost a loved one to COVID-19. My race, class, gender, age, able-bodiedness, and more limit the kinds of trauma I’m facing. So if I’m feeling traumatized, what must others be going through?
There are two good readings in Emerging to get students thinking about the long term impacts of trauma: Sharon Moalem’s “Changing Our Genes: How Trauma, Bullying, and Royal Jelly Alter Our Genetic Destiny” (which looks at the epigenetics of trauma) and Sarah Stillman’s “Hiroshima and the Inheritance of Trauma” (which looks at the lingering cross-generational trauma of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima).
What makes Moalem interesting for this discussion is his focus on epigenetics, the ways in which the same genes are expressed in different ways based on external factors. One such factor is trauma, and the experience of something like bullying or the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Moalem shows, can alter genetic expression in ways that influence inheritance.
Stillman’s essay develops this idea, starting out with the timely claim that one of our least understood pandemics isn’t COVID-19 or some other coronavirus but wartime trauma. Trauma is now recognized as something can be trans-generational, transmitted from grandparents and parents to children. Stillman’s essay provides personal narratives that help ground and contextualize Moalem’s more abstract discussion.
Together, they suggest that the impacts of COVID-19 will be felt not just in all of us but in generations to come. I think to the quirks of my grandparents, who survived the Great Depression—the stores of canned food, the jar of pennies, small hoards to stave off the memory of utter lack. I think too of my experience of 9/11. I knew the world changed that day but it took quite some time for me to realize just how. I feel the same now. COVID-19 has changed everything. My rational mind thinks it and knows but I can’t plumb the depths of what that means or tally yet all I’ve lost.
So much more for our students, the generation to next lead. Having them think about the long-term impact of trauma, having them talk about their own trauma from the pandemic, may not change the genetic destinies encoding themselves epigentically even now but it may give them, and us, more tools with which to navigate the world to come.