“The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance and Healing” – In Conversation with author Adam P. Frankel

“The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance and Healing,' now available from Harper Books.

Last month when an e-mail about The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance and Healing by Adam P. Frankel (Harper Books) landed in my inbox, I was immediately intrigued. The book, which is in part about his grandparents and their experience during the Holocaust, as well as the revelation that the man who raised him was not, in fact, his biological father and the impact that revelation had on him and his family, is one of the most compelling I’ve read this year. Read on to see what he had to say about how he decided to write the book, epigenetics and the impact of intergenerational trauma on families, the impact that keeping secrets had on his family, and much more. 

Andrew DeCanniere: To begin with, how and when did you decide to write this book?

Adam P. Frankel: In a way, this was a book that I very much needed to write. Writing about a  lot of things I write about — namely the revelation of my identity, and learning that my dad is not my biological father, the secrecy around that revelation, the fact that I kept that truth from my dad for nearly 10 years, the difficulty of the way that secret played out in my family and how it affected different family relationships — helped me process it. So, in a very real way I felt like I needed to write the book to find my way through that experience, and to move forward — both for my own sake and for my family’s sake. That was the impetus for it. It was the book that I needed to write as much as the book that I wanted to write. 

DeCanniere: And while the entire book is not about the Holocaust itself, you do talk a bit about your grandparents — who are Holocaust survivors — and their experiences, which does seem to provide some background or context. Personally, I think that was also an important portion of the book — especially since, as you say within the book, there are fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors who are still alive today. Unfortunately, in the not-too-distant future, we will be looking at a time when there aren’t any at all. So, I think that part was very important as well. And, in a way, that history does seem to figure fairly prominently — at least from my perspective.

Frankel: I totally agree. We’re living in a time when the last Holocaust survivor will pass away in the not-too-distant future, and then it will be on all of us — the families of those survivors — and on everybody else to remind people about what happened, and to make sure that we are learning the right lessons from how that catastrophe happened, so that we don’t head down a similar road. You’re absolutely right. The broader story of the book is about the way that not just the trauma of the Holocaust has reverberated through my family but, more broadly, the way in which trauma can play itself out from one generation to the next. We know so much more about intergenerational trauma now that we’ve ever known before — both in terms of epigenetics and the way that trauma can have an impact on us at the molecular level, as well as the way traumatic experiences can affect us as parents and the family lives we create. I think that understanding those ripple effects of trauma could be helpful for all of us to grapple with — whatever our families’ experiences are — and move forward. 

DeCanniere: You also talk about how while certain skill sets, if you want to put it that way, can serve you well in a time of war — like, for instance, keeping secrets — those same skills, if carried over in daily life, can actually be detrimental to you and, it seems, toxic to your relationships. 

Frankel: Yeah. I think that psychologists and researchers will sometimes reflect on this notion of what makes a certain behavior maladaptive. Certain behaviors may be maladaptive, depending on the context. So, one behavior can be a positive thing in one context, and the same behavior can be a potentially harmful thing in a different context. I believe that to be the case with my family’s experience. Some of the behaviors — and ways of thinking and approaching life — that served my grandparents well during the war, like secret keeping, this fierce family loyalty, an insistence on projecting strength and on not showing any signs of weakness to anybody at any time, were helpful for their survival. However, in the context of peacetime in post-war America, those were not always helpful attributes. In fact, I think they probably did my mother and our family a disservice. 

Adam Frankel (Photo: Victoria Will)

DeCanniere: All of that said, you also say that the legacy is not all negative. For instance, you also speak about the hope and resilience that has been passed down as well.

Frankel: That’s exactly right. I would never want to give the impression that I feel that the legacy of the Holocaust and our family is purely negative. The Holocaust was a cataclysm for the world. The way it has played itself out in different families is complicated. The way it played out in our family is that there were damaging consequences, but I think there are also ways in which it has played itself out that can be a source of strength — as in some of the ways you’re talking about: drawing strength from the example of my grandparents’ survival, the resilience that was required, their will to live and their determination, the sense of hope that they had for a better life. So, there are instances where I think something positive can be drawn from it, in the way that our family had processed the experience. 

DeCanniere: You also talk a bit about how, within families, the Holocaust also impacts relationships between parents and children, as in your own family. You say, for example, children can be extremely protective of their parents.

Frankel: Absolutely. I think a lot of children of survivors were very wary about expressing disappointment or sadness. They didn’t want to trouble their parents. That’s not always healthy for these family dynamics. It’s very understandable, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. I think that different families have to work through these issues in their own ways.

DeCanniere: Right. Obviously, the issues created by an experience as traumatic as the Holocaust are going to manifest themselves in different ways. That said, it does seem that there are some commonalities, as well. Speaking of which, you also discuss epigenetics, and the ways in which these kinds of traumas may not only impact those who went through these traumatic events, but also future generations — which I thought was an extremely important point.

Frankel: Absolutely. The research is powerful. It’s a new field. It’s a new science. I think there’s still a lot we don’t know. One of the major unknowns being how the epigenetic impact of trauma gets transferred from one generation to the next, but we do know it can have an impact. The trauma can have an impact on our DNA, and we know that children of Holocaust survivors are three times more likely to display PTSD when confronted by a traumatic event than [those who are] demographically similar to them but who are not children of survivors. There is very powerful, intriguing research about this new field, but I think there are still a lot of questions that need to be explored further. 

DeCanniere: And you touch a bit upon the potential for that trauma to impact not only the second generation, but even potentially the third generation as well.

Frankel: Yeah. There’s limited research on the third generation, and even the research that has been done on the second generation is mixed. The truth is some studies will say children of Holocaust survivors are more likely to display mental health issues, and there are plenty of studies that say that’s not the case. It’s the same thing with the third generation. It’s sort of mixed. I think the evidence is not conclusive. There would not appear to be as strong of a consensus around it. I will say there are people who have looked at this closely, for many years, like Yael Danieli — who is an editor of what still remains a reference textbook on intergenerational trauma. What she will say is that the issue is not whether children of survivors display mental health issues more than others do — it’s a matter of who and how intensely, and that depends on a variety of different factors. The farther you get out from the traumatic event, the more complicated it is to try and tease apart the different threads of causality. 

DeCanniere: Right. I could see how it would be difficult to figure out what, if anything, is attributable to that trauma and what isn’t — especially, as you say, being that far removed from something like the Holocaust itself.

Frankel: And I certainly don’t claim there’s a direct one-to-one explanation, where my grandparents’ experience necessarily led to everything else that happened in our family — from my mom’s mental health issues to my own experience. I would never claim that. I do think that it contributed, and that understanding their experience helped me understand that broader family story.

DeCanniere: And while I would not compare the two events, it does seem like the revelation that your dad was not your biological father was, in and of itself, something of a traumatic event — albeit a trauma of a very different sort. It seems like it was this significant, life-altering thing. 

Frankel: It was. Absolutely. It was a life-altering revelation. One of the things a trauma expert that I interviewed for the book said is that the definition of trauma is that it divides your life into a ‘before’ and an ‘after.’ That’s certainly what the revelation did for me. It changed my life and made me look at my life differently — one part of it unfolding before the revelation, and then one part after. I sort of see my life broken up and divided that way, but I would never claim anything I’ve experienced is remotely on the same spectrum as what my grandparents experienced. It’s not about comparing traumas. It’s about understanding the ways in which traumas can manifest themselves from one generation to the next. 

DeCanniere: Of course. And speaking of traumas, it does seem like it was a hard thing for you to work through, once the truth came to light.

Frankel: Yeah. It took years. My initial reaction was not to work through it at all, but rather to deny it and pretend it had not happened. It was just too much to focus on and too much to think about, so that was my initial response. It took some years before I decided to try and grapple with it.

DeCanniere: Not to play amateur therapist or anything, but it does ultimately seem like it ended up being an overall much healthier thing to get all of these secrets out in the open and to work through everything — and to share your story.

Frankel: I think so. That’s certainly where I came out. I think everybody has to grapple with these sorts of revelations or pieces of information in their own way, but the way that I’ve found healthiest is to face it squarely and talk about it openly. Doing that allowed me to move forward with my life, rather than to be caught it in and unable to move forward. That was certainly my experience, and I would encourage others to consider it — although, as I say, I think the best path often varies so much from person to person, based on their own circumstances and priorities.

DeCanniere: You also talk a bit about how what made the revelation that the man who you thought was your father was not, in fact, your biological father is how much you identified with his side of the family — that identifying so strongly with them made it even more jarring.

Frankel: Absolutely. I drew a lot of my identity from my dad’s side of the family. My grandfather on that side had been a speechwriter for various political leaders, from Adlai Stevenson to Hubert Humphrey, and made me want to be a speechwriter myself. I was also very close to that side of the family, and I still am. So, that’s a big part of what made the revelation so painful for me — coming to find out I was not genetically related to them. It threw my identity into a tailspin. I do think that other people may have different responses, based upon their own family dynamics and experiences. If I had wanted to be different from my dad and his side of the family — if there had been alienation from them or a different dynamic at play — I think it’s possible I would have found the revelation less painful. I would’ve potentially been relieved to know I was not biologically related to them. I think a lot of the ways that these disclosures can play themselves out really are dependent on the nature of the families themselves. 

DeCanniere: And speaking of your mother, in your book you are also pretty open about the various issues that she has faced in terms of her mental health issues, which I think is a good thing, because that hopefully encourages others to also be more open about their own issues. And, in turn, the more people talk openly and honestly about these kinds of things, that will hopefully de-stigmatize various mental health conditions. 

Frankel: Yeah. I think that my mother has struggled with depression and mental health issues her whole life, and I think for a long time she went without the care she needed, in part because her parents and family didn’t really want to deal with it directly and openly. This isn’t about blaming them. It was a different time. They had a profound experience that nobody else who hasn’t been through it can possibly understand. They were doing the best they could as parents. I certainly don’t doubt that, and I don’t think my mother doubts that. That doesn’t mean the best they could do was what my mom needed. So, it’s not about finding fault, but it is about understanding some of these behaviors and parenting practices — some of which may have been informed by their own Holocaust experience. Ultimately, it did not serve my mom well. In an effort to not tell anybody about her depression, and in an effort to not have her talk about it even within the family — almost as if it didn’t exist, instead of openly addressing it and making sure that they were overturning every rock to get her the care and support that she needed — I think that ultimately didn’t do my mom a service. It was not helpful for her.

DeCanniere: Right. I know that there certainly have been these long-standing stigmas attached to mental health conditions. Personally, I don’t understand it. I think that it’s just really unfair and unnecessary. We don’t stigmatize someone who has cancer or heart disease or diabetes, so why do we do so when someone has these kinds of issues? 

Frankel: That’s exactly right. Especially when you consider the numbers of people with mental health issues. So many of us — or our families — are affected and touched by it. The stigma makes even less sense and it is so damaging. It fills people with shame, and I think it hampers the ability to get the care that a person needs. If we all dispelled that stigma, and addressed this like the illness that it is — without anyone having to feel shame or guilt or anything else about it — I think a lot of people would live happier, healthier lives. Quite frankly, lives would be saved, because that stigma contributes to an inability to get adequate care. In some instances, it’s the difference between life and death for people who are suicidal.

DeCanniere: And hopefully, now that we know better as a society, we will do better. There really isn’t any reason not to.

Frankel: I hope so. It’s important to understand that all of this stuff — everything I write about in terms of my mother and her mental health issues — is an illness that she had no control over that she developed and was born with. To your point, if we can start thinking and talking about this stuff, as if it is any other kind of illness — as if it were a form of cancer or anything else — I think we would go much farther toward helping the people who are struggling with it. 

DeCanniere: You also talk a little bit about your mom’s experiences growing up and how there is a parallel between some of what she experienced and the #MeToo movement. You talk about some of her previous relationships and how, for instance, this guy she was with abused his power. So, I thought that was also very timely and relevant, with all of these stories having come out recently.

Frankel: Yeah. Look, it’s a part of my mom’s story, and a part of my family’s life story — and my own life story — that my mom has, in my view, been a victim of men who were exploiting positions of power and authority over her for their own purposes, in ways that did my mother no favors. I think that understanding those dynamics and the way my mom had been victimized, in my view, gave me a deeper appreciation, understanding of, and sensitivity to my mom’s struggles. 

DeCanniere: And speaking of your relationship with your mom, you also touch on a couple of concepts that I thought were very interesting. You talk about forgiveness — actually, how there’s this model that you came across, in which there are these phases of forgiveness, and how you sort of used that. The second thing that you mention is this notion that everything we do has effects seven generations out from us — which I had actually heard of before, though I can’t say I know a whole lot about it. 

Frankel: Yeah. The phases of forgiveness was a helpful model for me to understand the process that I was going through — of ultimately understanding my mother’s life and story, and understanding why and how she made some of the decisions that she did, which were playing themselves out in my life, and the ways in which they were. It did help me forgive her as I sort of came to understand her life better, and her story better, and could empathize with her more. And yes, you know, you’re right. There is a powerful tradition in Native cultures about how everything we do affects seven generations. It’s often talked about as seven generations forward, but in some cultures it’s also thought about as seven generations backward, and that a healing in one generation can help the healing of people who came before — not just people who come after. I thought that was a beautiful and compelling message and idea. That perhaps by bringing about healing in my family’s life, in my life, and in my children’s lives — and my mother’s, maybe even — that, in some way, could contribute to a bit of healing in our broader family, after all the pain our family had experienced so many years ago.

DeCanniere: Obviously, I just feel that your book, and your family’s story, are so important. Is there anything else that you wanted to add?

Frankel: I think we’ve covered a lot of important ground. There are a lot of people who are grappling with family revelations, with the explosion of 23AndMe and ancestry.com at-home DNA kits. It’s often very tough to figure out how to process some of these revelations, and so I hope that the book can offer at least one path through those kinds of disclosures, and through that kind of disorientation and pain and confusion. I hope it’s useful in that way, and I hope it’s useful for anyone else who is grappling with their own family trauma — whether it’s invisible war wounds, or mental health issues, or addictions, abuse, racism, or any other profound trauma. I hope the book offers them some understanding of the ways in which these things can play out over time, and perhaps even help them move forward. I guess, lastly, one of my overarching lessons from this whole experience of understanding the revelation that my dad isn’t my biological dad, and coming to understand how this whole thing has played out in my life, has been that family is not built on biology. It’s built on love. I think that is a truth all of us can appreciate. 

Adam P. Frankel was a senior speechwriter for President Barack Obama from the early days of the 2008 presidential campaign through Obama’s first term in the White House. Since then, he has served as executive director of a national education nonprofit and worked in the private sector. He is currently a senior advisor to Emerson Collective, a social change organization, and to Fenway Strategies, the communications firm founded by Jon Favreau and Tommy Vietor. Adam is a graduate of Princeton University and the London School of Economics, where he was a Fulbright Scholar. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children. For more information regarding Adam and his work, please visit his website.

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