Watchmen and Generational Trauma

November 14, 2019

Watchmen: Episode Two – “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship”
By Chris Gearing and Dr. Sylvia Gearing

Welcome back, Mr. Phillips / Ms. Crookshanks! A quick word of warning that the following article contains spoilers for the entire second episode of HBO’s Watchmen “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship.” It also discusses some nasty subject matter like historical violence. Please be advised. Now, on with the show!

Watchmen is obsessed with history. Not ancient history like cavemen and dinosaurs. Instead, the focus is on how the last 100 years brought us to today and shaped the world we live in. Even in the original graphic novel, there was almost as much material covering the past 50-60 years of caped crusaders as there were pages dedicated to the 1985 storyline unraveling the murder of the Comedian. Alan Moore, the original author, understood how the past informs the present, both in subtle and obvious ways. History and culture are passed down one generation to the next, informing and shaping bright young minds who listen to their parents and learn the lessons of the past. However, new research suggests that parents may be passing on much more than just family stories and holiday customs. However deliberate or unintentional, parents may be passing on trauma and the symptoms of trauma to their children and maybe even generations to follow. As Adrian Veidt and ‘Doctor Manhattan’ remind us in this very episode, “Nothing ever ends.”

Around the midpoint of this chapter, Angela (Regina King) sits down with her adopted son, Topher (Dylan Schombing), and explains that Uncle Judd (Don Johnson), the chief of police has been murdered. She starts with a little monologue saying:

“There are people who believe that this world is fair and good, it’s all lollipops and rainbows. I remember what happened to my parents, you remember what happened to your parents. You and me Topher, we don’t do lollipops and rainbows. Because we know those are pretty colors that just hide what the world really is – black and white. Your Uncle Judd is dead. Somebody hung him from a tree.”

Keep in mind that Topher is no more than 10 or 11 years old. He already seems cynical and bitter for his age, and it feels like this isn’t the first time he and Angela have had a straightforward conversation. In addition, his parents were murdered during the White Night massacre three years before the events of the show.

This isn’t the only time during this episode that a parent shares history or beliefs with their child. We open the episode with a young Will reading a pamphlet his father kept from his time in World War I regarding the hypocrisy of black soldiers serving in the army of a predominantly white nation who treats them as second class citizens. This is immediately followed by a scene between Angela and Will (Louis Gossett Jr.) where he begins to question her life and the people she chooses to trust. Spoiler Alert: we later find out that Will is Angela’s grandfather. When Angela is snooping around Judd’s house, she finds a picture of him with his father, the former chief of police in Tulsa, before discovering an old Ku Klux Klan outfit in a secret compartment In a final conversation near the end of the episode, Angela asks Will why he’s here to which he replies, “I wanted to meet you. And show you where you came from.”

The past informs the present, quite literally in these instances. Nothing ever ends.

Starting in the late 1960’s, psychologists began to notice the widespread effects of the Holocaust on the children of Holocaust survivors. The next generation were displaying similar trauma symptoms as their parents even though they weren’t alive during (let alone directly experiencing) the Holocaust. In fact, similar patterns have been observed in other instances of historical genocide, injustice, and oppression such as the Khmer Rouge killings in Cambodia, the Rwandan genocide, generations of displaced Native Americans, and even in the descendants of enslaved African Americans in the American South.

Researchers call this phenomenon “Transgenerational Trauma” and it appears that the effects are not just a scary story about our family members. Transgenerational trauma has demonstrated effects on the psychology, cultural beliefs, social habits, family systems, and even the genetics of the descendants of survivors of great trauma. By sharing their stories with their kids, they teach them to think and behave like a trauma survivor. Without proper therapy, intervention, and treatment, these patterns can survive for generations and inadvertently transfer trauma to countless generations.

You may be wondering why this is even that big of a problem or how it’s different from any other family. After all, don’t we all learn from our experiences and the wisdom of our ancestors? The problem is that a traumatized brain is largely compromised, and what were perhaps intended as lessons from the past have become full-fledged traumas for the next generation. If they aren’t careful, they will forever alter the hearts and minds of their children.

Trauma has different degrees of effects based on factors like what time of life it occurs in (childhood vs adulthood), the frequency of the trauma, the intensity, and the type of trauma. A traumatized brain is unable to tell the difference between imagined danger and real danger. Once traumatized, brain chemistry begins to shift to keep the danger hormones and chemicals constantly surging. It’s not intentional or even conscious most of the time. When we are dominated by a traumatic past, we simply cannot calm down. Anxiety is no longer an “on / off” switch; it’s more like a volume knob that turns up and down depending on what is going on around them. They are almost always anxious and feel unsafe – it’s more a matter of how much.

Much like the graphic novel, the characters of the Watchmen TV show are obviously a product of their history and environment. Angela’s current circumstances are directly linked to Will’s trauma in the Black Wall Street massacre in 1921. Judd was obviously influenced by his father’s involvement with the local KKK. Will’s beliefs were shaped by his father’s experiences in World War I. All of these characters are bound by their family trees and shared history, and each of them have inherited belief systems and anxieties from their ancestors. We will see how Transgenerational Trauma will shape the events in the weeks and episodes to come, but it certainly appears that trauma will remain at the forefront of Watchmen’s gaze. Nothing ever ends indeed.

Sources:

“The Legacy of Trauma” by Tori DeAngelis, (https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/02/legacy-trauma)

The Work of Dr. Judith Beck

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