The best books that explore ancestral trauma

Michelle Grierson Author Of Becoming Leidah
By Michelle Grierson

Who am I?

I am a Canadian writer, teacher, and mother with Norwegian and Scottish ancestry. Since my twenties, I have been fascinated by ancestral memory, what Martha Graham (a late great dance pioneer) called ‘blood memory.’ Having spent many years in dance and therapy, diving into my own unique somatic symptoms, I started to realize that my mother’s (and grandmother’s) traumas were entwined and entangled with my own and that my body was holding on to all of it. What a relief to discover the research of transgenerational epigenetics! This curiosity fueled the narrative of my debut novel, Becoming Leidah, allowing me to explore Norse and Celtic mythology, as a way to speak about very personal truths. 

I wrote...

Becoming Leidah

By Michelle Grierson,

Book cover of Becoming Leidah

What is my book about?

In the hinterlands of old Norway, Leidah Pietersdatter is born blue-skinned, with webbed hands and feet. Upon every turn of season, her mother, Maeva, worries as her daughter’s peculiarities blossom—inside the root of the tiny child, a strange power is taking hold.

Maeva tries to hide the girl from the suspicious townsfolk of the austere village of Ørken, just as she conceals her own magical ancestry from her daughter. And Maeva’s adoring husband, Pieter, wants nothing more than for his new family to be accepted by all. But unlike Pieter, who is blinded by love, Maeva is aware that the villagers, who profess a rigid faith to the new God and claim to have abandoned the old ways, are watching for any sign of transgression—and are eager to pounce and punish.

The books I picked & why

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By Toni Morrison,

Book cover of Beloved

Why this book?

The first time I read this book, I was a 22-year-old university student who was voraciously eating up feminist literature. Beloved not only shattered every notion I had about female narratives, voice, and the emotional impact a story could have on a reader, it also ripped me open on an inexplicable somatic, visceral level. Given it's a slave narrative with descriptions of dehumanizing violence against many of the characters, this is not an easy read. But bearing witness is what the book requires. For me, the mother-daughter relationship between Sethe and Beloved is one of the most tender and horrifying I have ever read, and thirty years later, it still haunts me. The echo of trauma resonates on every page, its reverberation, gutting for the reader.  

Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds

By Thomas Hübl, Julie Jordan Avritt,

Book cover of Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds

Why this book?

This non-fiction book is so well researched, combining a scientific approach with poetic explorations. Hübl’s writing is so satisfyingly clear, with the latest research in epigenetic theories on trauma. For anyone who doubts the impact of ancestral inheritance, this book offers concrete evidence that the past, present, and future exists in the spirals of our DNA.

A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War

By Susan Griffin,

Book cover of A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War

Why this book?

A memoir that blends science and history with myth and memoir, Susan Griffin’s writing is like sinking into deep water to find buried treasure. Every time I pick this book up (again and again), I find relevance, for my own family and the world around me, particularly related to the earthquake that truth-telling has for individuals, families, and nations. It reminds me that interconnectedness is not just an image or an idea; the web of our lives is created and held together by the secrets we keep, and the truths that inevitably surface after years of denial.

The Choice: Embrace the Possible

By Edith Eva Eger,

Book cover of The Choice: Embrace the Possible

Why this book?

So poignant and personal, this memoir had me riveted with each chapter. Dr. Eger’s retelling of the traumas of war and violence felt so close, as though she were whispering secrets in my ear, Reminding all of us to deal with the terrible demons that cling to families for years, claiming our children, even when we do our best to protect the ones we love. 

What the Body Remembers

By Shauna Singh Baldwin,

Book cover of What the Body Remembers

Why this book?

There are only a few novels that I like to re-read, and this is one of them. Layered with descriptions of jarring political and sexual violence occurring amidst separatist tensions in 1937 in India, this narrative allows for the usually silenced (girls and women) to speak, through the voice of Roop. The complicated relationship between Roop and Satya (both wives of a rich landowner) is only one layer in this richly woven novel. Ancestral trauma, truth, silence, atonement, sacrifice, love, and memory, themes that continue to ripple and resonate for me. 

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