I’m always a sucker for a Baba Yaga story. Baba Yaga is a witch and so much more in Slavic folk tradition. Sometimes she’s good. Sometimes she’s bad. Sometimes she’s something in between. She always lives in the forest and is often depicted in a hut that has…wait for it…chicken legs. A house that walks around on chicken legs. How can you not love a woman who lives in a house that’s half-bird?
Thistlefoot by GennaRose Nethercott imagines Baba Yaga’s chicken house arriving in a crate at New York harbor, bequeathed to Baba Yaga’s American descendants, a brother and a sister. There are puppets and magical powers and a creepy dude called the Longshadow Man who can turn us into dangerous lunatics possessed by our worst fears (an especially disturbing metaphor in today’s world).
A big theme that emerges in the book is generational trauma, the way that the horrors experienced by our ancestors become part of our family legacies. I’d just had a nonfiction book on this topic—It Didn’t Start With You—recommended to me, so generational trauma was already on my mind.
In the novel, the trauma of Baba Yaga’s descendants is written into their bodies. Increasingly, the study of epigenetics suggests this might be true not just for magical people. Trauma, research suggests, can alter the genes of our ancestors in ways that are inheritable. Even if you have no knowledge of the trauma your parents or grandparents or great-grandparents experienced, it could be affecting you on the cellular level.
I’m not going to lie, something about this is hard for me to believe in a scientific framework. I got about 30 pages into It Didn’t Start With You before I put it down and took it back to the library. Nope. No, thank you. Maybe it’s because the idea that our DNA can change in our lifetime and that we can pass those changes down to our offspring is a big paradigm shift in our biological understanding of how the world works.
In the context of the novel, though, the idea that trauma is passed down, even when you don’t have any knowledge of that trauma, makes perfect sense to me. Which I guess means that I prefer metaphor to science (is that really surprising?). Or that a truth told slant is easier to digest.
Or maybe I don’t want to believe the scientific version of generational trauma because of the implications for my own life. Now I’m responsible not just for my own trauma, but my parents’ traumas and my grandparents’ traumas and my great-grandparents’ traumas? Just from the sliver of knowledge I do have about my family history, that’s a big heap of trauma. I much prefer the fictional version where the burden of that trauma at least comes with some magical abilities.
I don’t know, this is one of those things I’m still thinking my way through. Trying to figure out.
What do you think? Do you think our trauma gets passed down in our DNA? If that’s true, how do you stop the cycle? And can our trauma give us magical abilities (please say yes)?
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Good post and we all need our Baba Yaga's. Do I think trauma is passed down in our DNA? NO! If that were the case don't know how we would survive at all. Trauma is handed down to others by direct actions which perpetuate the cycle of trauma endlessly. For a great movie series which illustrates how we perpetuate trauma in the modern world or choose to overcome it see "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo."
If you are interested in learning more about epigenetics, check out Bruce Lipton's work. I just wrote about Baba Yaga for my November newsletter since her feast day is next month, so it was interesting to see this pop up in my mail.
I just bought a Baba Yaga book by a woman I met at a recent writing conference! https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/709718/the-witch-and-the-tsar-by-olesya-salnikova-gilmore/
There are some studies around the grandchildren of holocaust survivors that seem to show that generational trauma is indeed a physical reality. I suspect it’s true - and doesn’t really change anything. There are so many factors affecting gene expression we will never know them all.
I believe sperm are the big site for epigenetics, because they get replaced every 48 hours or sooner, creating the window for chromosomal alterations due to 'current events' that doesn't exist in female eggs.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I always go for the magical thinking view. I do think we're affected by our parents/ grandparents trauma. I was thinking how I was influenced by the depression although I was born much later but it certainly had major impact on my parents and then on me.