Psychiatric Lessons from the Memphis Scorpions: The Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma


Could police brutality be part of a larger legacy of American trauma transmission?

transmission of trauma



In Monday’s column on social psychiatry, I mentioned that intergenerational transmission of trauma may be integral to the Memphis police shootings. The clue to me was that the perpetrators were Black police—not the more common white police brutality towards Black citizens. That suggests a common cultural influence outside of simple interpersonal racism.

The legacy of intergenerational transmission of trauma as a field of study began in the 1960s when the mental well-being of the children of Holocaust survivors was studied by the Canadian psychiatrist Vivian Rakoff.1 It was noticed that their children often had symptoms which seemed related in some way to the trauma the parents had encountered.

Over time, such studies were conducted with other traumatized individuals: descendants of slaves; the indigenous in the Americas; and the children of the Rwanda civil war, among others. Why can these groups have different outcomes over time? That seems due to differences in how they are treated by the powers-to-be and their own recovery strategies.

The mechanisms of the intergenerational transmission turned out to involve both nurture and nature. The nurture was through the parenting about safety. The nature, unanticipated and discovered later, was epigenetic. Social experiences may cause genes to be silenced or expressed before the conception of children, which can then be inherited. That, for example, can leave the next generation more overreactive and vulnerable to stress and risk.

Therefore, applying that to Black police and Black citizens stopped by police, one factor may be how trauma from slavery and the reconstruction era has been transmitted. Given the generations of transmission, the impact can be insidious and hard to recognize. Startle responses and overreaction to danger can be one form of transmission, so both the Black police and the victim could be overreactive in the arrest process. Police culture in general could consist of another trauma process, that of identification with the aggressor.

The promising news is that there are potential interventions, including:

  1. Screening police applicants for violence vulnerability. For those that work in policing or security, hiring can include assessment of what is called “reparative adaptational impacts” in a survivor venogram of ancestors and perceived parenting.
  2. Education of the public. As long as it is allowed, public education of the risks for descendants of traumatized people can bring attention to the challenge.
  3. Enhance resilience. With the help of loved ones and community, support and realistic reassurance that the present can be different, along with a new vision for the future, will allow the descendants to have different epigenetics and stop the transmission process.
  4. Establish a national task force. Given the institutionalization and complexity of the legacy of slavery, indigenous displacement, Japanese internment, recent mass shootings, and other collective traumas, a national recovery act may be required.

There is no simple solution to police brutality—no wonder. Though certainly not the only likely influence, police brutality may be in part a legacy of our country’s foundation of violence and trauma, a deeply ingrained history that needs more processing and a new narrative.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.


1. DeAngelis T. The legacy of trauma. Monitor on Psychology. 2019;50(2):36.

Recent Videos
Dune Part 2
new year
© 2024 MJH Life Sciences

All rights reserved.