Crypt in the church of Cordona hold the history of transgenerational trauma.

Transgenerational trauma: Decoding cryptonyms

Last month we began reading a special section of Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society (2012) entitled: Locating the Psychosocial – Using Klein, Bion, Winnicott, Lacan, and Relational Theory to Treat Transgenerational Trauma. This special section explicitly strives to “bridge the gap” between the clinical and academic “modes of thinking” while straddling analytic approaches to conceptualizing and treating psychic trauma. More specifically, treating the transmission of transgenerational trauma manifested as psychosis. So, with this new series of readings we extend our discussions of the psychosocial and how to think psychosocially about organizations and organizing.

The six papers in the special section engage with the case of Mario, which is presented by Haydée Faimberg (2005) in the book The Telescoping of Generations. Each author re-reads Mario’s case through a different theoretical lens (e.g. relational, Lacanian, Kleinian, Bionian, Winnicottian). This case was chosen for this discussion because it “raises the question of the place and importance of the psychosocial in the clinical [organizational] encounter, and of the ways in which historical and social factors are considered by various practitioners aligned with diverse currents in contemporary psychoanalytic [and organizational] thinking” (p. 54). A description of Mario’s treatment can also be found in a paper entitled The Telescoping of Generations: A Genealogy of Identifications. Mario’s story is powerful and emotionally stirring to read. It is the story of man in Argentina who presented for treatment with “an apparently empty, dead psyche” (Faimberg, 1988, p. 99) – frozen in time and space, living someone else’s forgotten life, carrying a “secret history”.

Our first reading was Psychic Murder and the Asylum of Psychosis, which is Rashkin’s re-reading of Mario’s case with a “psychosocial and intrafamilial” lens. She focuses on “unspoken languages”, highlighting the interplay between aliveness and deadness, and casting enactments as a mode of communication. Rashkin is concerned with what is said and unsaid, concealed and revealed, visible and invisible.

Rashkin counters a purely social perspective (see Layton’s paper) on the trigger for what she calls the “premortem psychosis” (p. 71) of Mario’s father, asserting that an “underlying predisposition or prepsychotic state” (p. 72) is required for a “psychosocial trigger” to have an effect. Transported to the organizational setting, what might this idea imply about some of the unexplainable (in)actions taken by groups and their leaders? Can we make use of this idea in hiring, consulting, and coaching? One might also wonder about preparing to enter the field as a researcher.

Ultimately, Rashkin moves away from either Faimberg’s (1988) focus on narcissistic identifications, the psychosocial event of emigration (in Mario’s family history), or a Kleinian lens of aggression. Instead, she draws together Winnicott’s thinking on the etiology of psychosis and Abraham and Torok’s (1994) theory of cryptonymy to conceptualize Mario’s psychosis, and Faimberg’s anxiety in the countertransference, as a mode of communicating the unspeakable “trauma of psychic murder afflicting his family” (p. 56).

In sum: “Mario’s psychosis is thus a response to the transgenerational repetition of impingements…and a shelter from an emotionally exterminating environment whose psychosocial dimensions are intricately woven into the fabric of his intergenerational familial trauma” (p. 75).

Rashkin introduces a number of ideas that are ripe for use in the organizational context. For example:

  • Crypt – “permits the radical denial of traumatic loss by allowing its carrier or “cryptophore” to live a double life…” (p. 72)
  • Endocryptic identification – “A crypt or intrapsychic vault may form in the ego .. and house within it-buried but psychically alive-the deceased associated with the unspeakable drama… (p. 72)
  • Cryptophores – “may identify with the living dead in the crypt by way of endocryptic identification and live out…aspects of the trauma…” (p. 72)
  • Cryptonym – “word that hides…[that] resist understanding through their various linguistic transformations… but contain traces of specific traumas that can…be deciphered and read” (p. 73)

Some of the questions raised in our initial discussion included:

  • Are there generations in organizations? How do we delineate them and how does doing so help us make meaning with people about themselves and their organizations?
  • How can we listen for the crypts (cryptonyms) inevitably found in organizations and institutions? Where are they heard, but unrecognized?
  • What are the possibilities for intervention and healing? When do our own “secret histories” keep them hidden?

How can an organizational perspective apply to clinical work?

  • Do clients’ experiences at work shed light on their experiences of psychosocial trauma?
  • In what ways to workplace dynamics re-traumatize people?
  • What “secret histories” are carried in stories of the workplace? Is there a place for organizational stories in conceptualizing client material?

As we read the rest of the special section, interspersing some recently published chapters from other authors, we will continue to expand our thinking and attempt to generate some preliminary answers to these questions.

Are you curious about these ideas? Would you like to join us as we play with these questions? If so, please email:

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