Picture credit: KAREN MINASYAN/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

The secrets of familial suffering

Recovering from the burden of generational pain can be a private act

I remember learning about white privilege during my first week as an undergrad over 10 years ago — that it was something I was guilty of and was responsible for “checking at the door.” 

It opened my eyes to the fact that I am rarely the victim of racism (except for that one time a bully in high school hurled an epithet at me usually reserved for Latinos). Things have drastically changed since 100 years ago, when my Mediterranean ancestors were not considered whites, and were the victims of hate crimes by “pure” whites.

And yet, my own identity never fit very neatly into such simplistic “black and white” boxes afforded us by conventional diversity language. I’m the kind of ethnically ambiguous person who at one minute can pass as white, another as Arab, another as Latino (some have even asked me if I’m Chinese or “a little bit” Black). My roots in Italy, Greece, and Armenia certainly distinguish me culturally from Anglo-Saxon folks. 

To that end, my ancestors didn’t propagate systemic forms of oppression like slave ownership or colonization, but rather were subjected to systemic oppression (a fact which Greek actress Irene Pappas and James Baldwin bonded over during their travels in Turkey). My maternal grandmother’s mother — an ethnic Greek living in Izmir, Turkey — narrowly escaped getting raped and mutilated by Turkish paramilitaries in 1922. And the story of my maternal grandfather — whose Greek father and Armenian mother met in the 1930s in Istanbul — remained up until recently enshrouded in mystery. All I knew for most of my life was that they did not leave their home happily, and that whatever the impetus was traumatic enough for him to not want to talk about it for the vast majority of his life. 

As much as I admit to my numerous privileges, especially that of having grown up in a safe, comfortable suburb without any significant financial worries, I always felt jealous of my peers who seemed to be able to automatically win over the sympathy of others by merely mentioning their status as oppressed minorities — whether for their race, gender, sexuality, or ability status. 

Of course, I recognise that there are numerous groups of people that have historically been at a disadvantage, and deserve their dignity to be protected and the opportunity to live better lives. But what about those who are too damaged to even begin speaking publicly about their trauma? What about those who rather keep their trauma private — or whose particular type of trauma was not particularly in vogue to talk about at the present moment?

I tried leveraging my grandfather’s experience of ethnic and religious persecution to my advantage but to no avail. Few of my classmates cared — or even knew — about the Armenian genocide. One of them commented that Christocentrism in the West invalidated my grandfather’s experience of anti-Christian prejudice in Turkey. Another, a Turk, screamed at me that there was no genocide and that it was all propaganda spread by the American government. 

The Armenian genocide is not and might never be the flavor of the month, nor is publicising one’s solidarity with the country that continues to face extinction deemed very cool. Even use of the Armenian flag emoji and #recognizearmeniangenocide in one’s Twitter bio gains little traction — not even for Kim Kardashian, the 13th most followed person on the app. 

My inability to rack up trauma points has forced me to choose between resentfully sweeping my family’s hardships under the rug, or beginning the unglamorous and deeply private work of dealing with it. 

Though my grandfather has always been a warm and caring person, his trauma took a toll on our family dynamic in several ways. Namely, it fostered a variety of unhealthy emotional and interpersonal patterns that my family is still trying to disentangle ourselves from to this day. 

After a major health scare, I decided that I wanted to know my grandfather’s story before he died. Not knowing the details made it difficult for my family to move on from painful experiences we had in the past. But I could also tell that holding everything in made it difficult for him to live — and eventually to die — in peace. 

I always wondered why my grandfather never said much about his upbringing in Turkey and his decision to leave the country — as well as why the only languages spoken in our house were English and Greek, and why he never spoke a word of Turkish or Armenian (both of which he is fluent in) in front of us. On my weekly visits with him, I took it upon myself to start asking him to share more stories about his time in Turkey. But such conspicuous attempts barely got us anywhere. 

I tried showing him photos of his family during their time in Turkey to jog his memory, but he would change the subject when prompted to tell the stories behind the photos. We showed him his mother’s Armenian translation of the Bible which we dug up from a trunk in the basement. But he deflected, saying he didn’t know to whom it belonged to.

I decided to take a more oblique approach, asking him more light hearted questions about his past in Turkey that were not explicitly connected to his trauma — questions about the sports he played, the food he ate, and music he danced to. I managed to find a recording of one of those songs on YouTube. While he seemed to enjoy listening to it, he had little else to say. 

I began to understand that the most traumatic experience was the perpetual state of uncertainty

But the next morning while we were watching the news, he decided to start telling me about the Greek pogrom of 1955, of which he and his family were survivors. Having known nothing of the tragic event (coined by some as “Kristallnacht in Constantinople”), I started researching it online, only to find out that on the evening of September 6th that year, the Turkish government incited citizens to destroy 71 churches, 41 schools, over 4,000 businesses, and over 2,000 homes, as well as killing 28 Greeks and injuring and raping many more.

I decided to start watching movies with my grandfather about Greeks and Armenians in Turkey, which got him more comfortable talking about his story. While he faced plenty of prejudice and life-threatening moments, his time in Turkey also consisted of happier memories, including friendships with Muslim Turks. 

I began to understand that the most traumatic experience was the perpetual state of uncertainty that he and his family had to live in. As he described it, the general climate was tolerable. There were periods during which there was little to no animosity between Greeks, Armenians, and Turks. But at any moment, a Turkish authority figure could spontaneously decide to use Christian residents as a scapegoat, shifting the public’s attitude toward them from friendly or apathetic to antagonistic and at times even violent.

It soon became clear to me how much his methods of coping with such trauma came to shape my own psyche as well as those of my family members. And thankfully his openness about his past has propelled forward our process of healing. Yet there’s still plenty we don’t know as he enters his ninth decade of life, and we as a family still have much to work on.

The fact that my family’s struggles win so little sympathy from others has turned out, surprisingly, to be more of a blessing than a curse. Having to confront our family’s less-than-hip trauma in a discrete and profoundly intimate way forced us to delve deeply into our wounds and begin the hard work of collective recovery. Said work is not easy. It requires a great deal of courage and willingness to take responsibility for oneself. It is my hope that those who have experienced deep suffering of any kind will have the privilege of experiencing real, profound, and lasting healing.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover