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The Jewish Genealogy Association 

Under the shade of my tree – Psycho-genealogy

by Muriel Goldbaum - (GenAmi no 23, March 2003)

In Dec 2002’s edition of GenAmi, Micheline Gutmann analysed the motivation behind genealogical research and the results it can bring, knowledge, identity, origins and finding relatives....
I would like explain how genealogy and psycho-genealogy merge but also the differences involved in each.
First of all, and it is a major difference, a person who consults me feels a significant discomfort and thinks that this is caused by their family history, possibly a complicated if not tragic history, sometimes the person has noticed a repetition of events which they can not explain. I build and explore their family tree and work together with the person through meetings to discuss, understand and explore their history.

Constructing the tree

Of course this is comprised of the same information as in genealogy research, the names of the people, dates of birth, death and marriage, place of birth and death but also dates that are significant to each persons’ life. Their age when they became a parent, age at the time of a move especially important if they were forced to leave their place of residence, their age at time of death. The tree will also indicate the bonds between the people or that separate them, how close or distant they were, how brides and grooms met, what their social status was etc.
Other essential information will also be added such as terminated pregnancies whether voluntary or not, diseases and causes of death. This work rarely goes beyond the great-grandparents as this is sufficient to analyse what has been passed on from generation to generation.

Individual memory and family memory

During meetings the person uses their memories and that of their family in a very natural way, questions are asked initially about the parents and grandparents, if they are still alive, and also about cousins, more distant relations and their vision of this family history, all this research causes bonds to be formed.
These discussions are a rich personal experience, the accounts sometimes contradict stories that had seemed well known by the family. I also notice that the questions raised by grandchildren often make it possible to speak of the trauma of the Holocaust, often for the first time as survivors could not speak to their own children about it. The drama of this collective history, the wars, the exiles, the migration … add colour to the family story but what is interesting from a psycho-genealogy point of view is how the families lived through these events.


The tree will not resemble any other, it has its own style, its own shape, colours chosen during construction, large and small branches, by example where a lot of information is known about the paternal grandfather but nothing about the maternal grandfather. Certain repetitions become immediately recognisable, repetition of names, ages, dates, situations, having the same number of children, living in the same place. More tragically parents that both lost their mother at the same age, similarity between the maternal and paternal lines, the choice of spouse, repeated diseases that are not known to be hereditary.


Genealogists are often interested in their family history so that they can pass it on to their descendents. It is a voluntary and conscious decision.
But ‘something’ is also transmitted between generations it is not a conscious decision, its not passed on verbally. It is the analysis of this ‘something’ and how it is transmitted that is the work of psycho-genealogy. This ‘something’ can, like a hot potato, cross the generations without many transformations or with each generation take on a slightly different form.
For example the nightmares of certain children show that the have picked up an unknown history; their parents often want to save them from the dramas they themselves lived through by not telling them about it or they were unable to put into words these difficult situations; I am referring to the Holocaust and also other violent deaths, the survivors are silent in their pain unable to express it into words.
The ‘phantoms’ ie a person whose death may have been surrounded by mystery or they may never have been spoken about as though they had not existed called a ‘vacuum of representation, a trace of the suffering of our ancestors which could not be said’ by Didier Dumas the psychoanalyst, (quoted by Nina Canault: How one pays the price of our ancestors). It can also be when a person tragically disappears and the family were unable to mourn; the children of such a family carry the burden of wanting to give life to the dead person (which is of course a ‘mission impossible’); You notice this sometimes when a child carries the same name as a recently deceased member of the family. Also the naming of a child after a recently deceased sibling, marking them as a ‘replacement’ to in an unconscious way comfort the parents and to do better than the idealised child they lost, both Vincent Van Gogh and El Salvador Dali lived this painful situation.

Family truths

The desires of the parents (themselves often reproducing those of their parents) can affect the lifestyle of the child, everyone knows the cases of parents wanting their child to make a success of things they failed at. The child feels this as an obligation, subconsciously answering this unspoken request. Sometimes the messages are completely contradictory and the mission is again impossible to achieve; difficult to live with happily, when a child is pushed by their family to achieve success in their studies while the parents speak scornfully of academics. For example one of my patients had an accident on the day of an important contest; certain school failures can be explained by family history.

Trans-generational therapy

The work is a combination of meetings, questions, assumptions, discoveries, revisiting ancestors and a better understanding. I recall a person who identified to such an extent with their grandmother that they could only follow the same path she had and did not allow themselves to live their own life, by becoming aware of what they were doing they discovered what other possibilities exist. Another patient, who created the same strong relationship with her mother that her mother had with her own mother has been able to continue her studies abroad and to acquire more autonomy. A young depressed patient overcame her inability to think in the future to build a new professional career.
The effect of the work of psycho-genealogy is different for everyone, but it is always accompanied by relief and the feeling of release. This decoding of the family history, the essential words, emotionally charged words are said and heard, the words which allow each of us to (re)find our place and thus our identity within the generations. It can not be forgotten that our ancestors are also the foundation on which the rest advances, a foundation for the living.