My grandfather, Attilio Ciliotta, was born in the Italian Alps, near the Austrian border. At the start of World War I, his older brothers applied to join the elite Alpini Corps. Only Mario, the oldest, was accepted. Attilio, at nine years of age, carried provisions up the mountains to the soldiers.
On an expedition to defend against the Austro-Hungarian army, Mario’s unit was hit by an avalanche. He was the only survivor, living for a week on the mountain, eating lemons, until he was rescued. (The soldiers carried lemons to prevent scurvy, according to my aunt.)
The three brothers emigrated, married, and raised families in the Bronx, where my father was born.
I’m reading the book History Beyond Trauma, by Françoise Davoine and Jean-Max Gaudillière, French psychoanalysts who have found evidence that emotional crises in the present can result from traumas of past generations. They write of how such events as wars break social links and social contracts, and reference points vanish. “People said to be crazy…show us what it was necessary to do in order to survive,” they remark.
The analyst’s role in treatment involves bringing her own past to meet and acknowledge the patient’s inherited trauma. Davoine describes her work with a client she calls Gilda, who was born in the Italian Alps, just over the border from Davoine’s own birthplace in France. Gilda’s father was in the bersaglieri, Italian mountain troops, during World War II. (Wikipedia reports, “When the Alpini Corps were created in 1872 a strong rivalry arose between the two elite corps.”) Both Gilda’s father and Davoine’s father were the sole survivors of separate massacres by the enemy.
During Gilda’s psychotic breaks, she identified herself with “mother goddesses of the entire world.”
Davoine later learned that “in the regions adjacent to the Alpine Arc, which joined Gilda’s province and the analyst’s on either side of the mountain, ancestral cults had led to witch trials undertaken by the Inquisition in the sixteenth century. The historian Carlo Ginzburg (1980, 1989) has detected here the traces of cults of a Mother Goddess and shamanistic practices coming from Asia.”
When my aunt told the story of Mario’s avalanche, it did not occur to me that the Ciliotta brothers might be subject to the same sense of survivor guilt that I suspect my great-great grandfather felt after his escape from Andersonville Prison during the Civil War. But reading Davoine’s account, I wonder how much buried pain is transmitted from both sides of my family.
I invoke the goddesses and the ancestors—may they help us understand our fate and find strength in knowledge.