I found myself in a tense conversation this evening, with someone who spoke of alcoholism as if it were a choice—and as if that choice was akin to selecting a pair of pants to put on. But alcoholism has played a prominent role in the trans-generational violence my family inherited by virtue of the Holocaust, and as such, I understand it a little differently. I understand it (alcoholism) as evidence of liquid genocide (alcohol).
My parents were born in the same year, exactly two months apart, within five years of the end of World War II. All of my grandparents had been living in Europe prior to the beginning of the war. One even experienced his coming of age during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. They all came overseas either during or shortly after WWII, and through the processes of immigration, lost their identities (especially the Slavic side of my family, some of whom are also ethnic Jews). No one talked about when they came here. Only my paternal grandfather even obliquely mentioned this part of his past. I grew up, two generations later, in an extraordinarily abusive household, left wondering what the hell is wrong with my family and what I ever did to deserve how I was treated. I have since learned that alcoholism ran rampant through the Slavic side of my family, and when my mother decided not to pick up the bottle, that put me at dramatically increased risk of becoming an alcoholic myself.
Anyone who has ever spent enough time with the adult child of an alcoholic will understand why the risk of alcoholism increases when it skips a generation. For those who don’t, I can only provide insight that gives you the potential to begin understanding.
I try to put myself in my grandfathers’ and grandmothers’ shoes, walking about day-to-day in nations whose lands I have never felt under my own feet, struggling with meagre resources during a global economic depression. I can remember a lot about what it was like not having enough to eat or adequate clothing and footwear, for instance, because I grew up poor. The difference between my experience and that of all four of my grandparents during the Depression is that while I was growing up poor, I was surrounded by middle-class rich white folk who kept pools or tennis courts in their backyards and sent their kids off to extracurricular activities with abandon. I knew I was poor and that I had done nothing to deserve this, because I could and did measure myself against the wealth I was surrounded by. But if I worked hard enough, or so I was told, I didn’t have to live in poverty for the rest of my life (I didn’t have ambitions of becoming a billionaire, either — I simply didn’t want to struggle in abject poverty indefinitely). But my grandparents couldn’t measure their poverty against another person’s wealth because there was none.
I’ve heard stories of how the Depression actually traumatized many people, primarily from the people who inherited obsessive-compulsive traits from their parents, as they struggle to become aware of and work to undo the psychological harm that it caused them. I’ve even heard about how the Depression and the war has permanently altered the metabolic activities of many people born in Eastern Europe in the Summer months, because their brain development was severely impacted by conditions of starvation during the Winter months while they were in their mother’s womb, causing them to spend their entire lives hard-wired on starvation mode in a time when there has never been more food available. I can only begin to imagine how being born into the Great Depression in Northern or Eastern Europe, and coming of age in the middle of World War II, would influence a person’s psychological development. I should think it would seem entirely predictable that a lot of people in this specific demographic would develop a heavy dependence on alcohol to just to keep their wits about them. And given the entire known history of a majority of alcoholics, it seems very likely that turning to booze during such a traumatic part of one’s life, all while going through so many changes, would be a reasonable indicator of chronic alcoholism. When I didn’t understand this because I had no context with which to frame it at 15 years old, I would never have predicted that I would be able to say I forgive my grandparents for finding any coping mechanism they could (including liquor), and for not knowing how to get help for it much later when the coping mechanism stopped working, such as when a baby was on the way or a child had already become an adult who was becoming engulfed in drug addiction or swallowed up by alcoholism.
In my grandparents’ generation, a lot of the helplessness and turning to alcohol as a coping strategy sort of makes sense, in a weird sort of way like taking a fucked up half-completed puzzle apart and putting it back together again. At least, it makes enough sense until there were children in the picture: my parents, my aunts, and my uncles. Whereas most parents live for their children, an alcoholic only lives for him/herself, and this is the only sense I can use to navigate through what I know of my parents’ childhood and coming of age, which is masked in the same silence and mystery as my grandparents’ always has been. And unlike with my grandparents, I can put myself directly on the earth where my parents once walked. It is where I am still walking today.
When my parents were growing up and coming of age, psychology was just catching up to the idea that when a person endures war, it fucks them up something fierce. New understanding of direct trauma was just becoming known to modern science, as people tried to rebuild their lives and move on. I don’t know how much or how little either of my parents learned about what my grandparents went through, but I would guess that it’s very little, if anything—what little I learned directly was from my grandparents, and the rest has been pieced together from tracing the legacy of trans-generational violence through my bloodline back to WWII. For instance, my mother once reported to me that she does not remember even a single day of her childhood for which her father was sober, even while driving. I know nearly nothing of her mother, but one thing is for certain: if she was ever anything like mine, her father was an alcoholic too, which would make her husband’s alcoholism seem normal. Though my mother never admitted it, I can be confident that she inherited the psychological profile of an alcoholic by being raised by one. She rationalized that she can end the trauma in her generation by simply not taking to drink, but she passed on the same alcoholic psychology to me and my two sisters because she never sought help. She is not sober but a dry alcoholic, and it is in that sense that I am the adult child of an alcoholic, just as much as she is. Had she married someone who practices sobriety, perhaps I would be at risk because I had not directly witnessed the effects of alcoholism. But she married someone who is not unlike her father, and has spent a great deal of time openly criticizing her younger sister—who very nearly lost her life to her alcoholic husband on Easter a few years ago, when he pointed a loaded shotgun in her face during a psychotic break.
My paternal aunt also once informed me that when she came of age, she became a heavy drug user for several years. From what I can tell, this was during a time that non-confrontational fellowship and help that was available to people in her state of distress was already well-established. At some point, she sought it out and began her recovery. My father, on the other hand, became a high-functioning social alcoholic—at the very latest by the time he entered a codependent marriage with my mother, although I have no doubt in my mind that he was even long before their two eyes met for the first time. My father liked to drink with company around, and having had three daughters, that often meant we were the company he kept around him when he drank. His drink of choice was beer, but when he would have company over, his drink of choice suddenly became any drink left even momentarily unattended. He would get completely shit-faced in front of his friends, reaching behind their backs to polish off what remained in their glasses the second they set them down, and relying on my mother to take care of him after he blacked out and couldn’t function independently. The reason I describe myself as not having witnessed directly the effects of alcoholism is largely due to the fact that other than my father’s drinking, a few fleeting memories in between, and distinct memories of abuse from both of my parents, the vast majority of my childhood memories are simply blacked out. I suspect the day will come that they begin to return to me, and I’ll find out what it was like to witness alcoholism first-hand when it happens.
There was a point in my early adult life that, like most young adults, alcohol suddenly became an available option. But unlike most young adults, I quickly became intimately involved with adults who had the advantage of half my life’s experience to wield over me, and yet still drank. Had I experienced primarily good intimacy with these other adults, who became older every time I moved on to a new one, I might have taken to drink myself, because I would have associated drinking with positive reinforcement. That is perhaps the only reason I could ever have for being grateful for what I’ve been through, including horrendous sexual violence followed by callous indifference at the hands of many of these men. Alcohol became associated in my mind very immediately with rape and sexual assault, exploitation, extortion, manipulation, and at times even battery, among other direct threats to my life, in the same time period of my life as both previous generations experienced forming their most powerful associations with alcohol as a coping strategy for all of these things rather than the cause of it.
Alcohol takes the parent away from the child, generation after generation. Before long, that child is themselves a parent, but they are still living in a child’s world in their own mind, unable to be a parent to their own children, and again being taken away from the child. Alcohol is the means through which trans-generational violence is transmitted—leading to loss of culture, languages, traditions, integrity, and family; and leaving incest, domestic abuse, resentment, broken families, and a ticking time bomb in its place. Alcohol is liquid genocide.