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Schwab, G. (2009). Replacement Children: The Transgenerational Transmission of Traumatic Loss. Am. Imago, 66(3):277-310.

(2009). American Imago, 66(3):277-310

Replacement Children: The Transgenerational Transmission of Traumatic Loss

Gabriele Schwab

Interweaving a close reading of Philippe Grimbert's memoir, Secret, with an autobiographical narrative, this paper examines the psychology of the “replacement child” as a widespread response to the traumatic loss of a child after a violent historical event. The death of a child is always a wound and an outrage, an improper death, a death that haunts parents, siblings, and sometimes entire communities. Parents are unconsciously compelled to try to undo for themselves and their affective life what should not be. But there is more at stake—namely, a culture's specific relationship to loss, death, mortality, and mourning, especially in cases of a traumatic collective history such as that bequeathed by World War II and the Holocaust. Drawing on the work of Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok, the author shows that family secrets and taboos placed on traumatic histories haunt the children like unknown ghosts of the past and condemn them to become the carriers of another person's or another generation's unconscious. She argues that this dynamic is at work in both children of victims and children of perpetrators, and utilizes a psychoanalytic perspective to trace the effects of violent histories on both sides of the divide. The analysis of several related literary texts illustrates the dynamic of transgenerational haunting while at the same time exemplifying how the powerful work of mourning and integration can be performed.

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