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Book looks at how ‘inherited trauma can be passed down from one generation to another’

Health and Mental Health

Book looks at how ‘inherited trauma can be passed down from one generation to another’

I Hate You, Mary Sullivan: A Memoir of Inherited Trauma…

In her captivating book, I Hate You, Mary Sullivan: A Memoir of Inherited Trauma, author Barbara J. Williams offers a vivid depiction of her evolving relationship with her grandmother, Mary Sullivan, and explores the process by which inherited trauma can be passed down from one generation to another.

Williams was 22 when Sullivan died in a New Jersey nursing home, far from her family and the town she’d settled in as an immigrant. Williams felt one emotion: relief. She’d never liked the mean, critical woman she called Nana.

More than 50 years later, that death suddenly and inexplicably began to haunt Williams, who felt compelled to heal their relationship and learn more about the stoic, tight-lipped Nana who never discussed her past. Who was she? What was her life like in Ireland and then in a strange new country? Why did she make the choices she made?

In I Hate You, Mary Sullivan, Williams begins by retracing Nana’s footsteps in Oldcastle, County Meath, Ireland, and learns that her ancestors, the Kenny family, were farm laborers. For the first time, Williams imagines the poverty and hardship her grandmother likely endured as a child and young woman. When the second famine of 1879 struck, Nana was only 2 years old. Williams wonders how hunger may have affected her grandmother. She also visualizes how the threats of forceful evictions and violent uprisings might have traumatized the young Mary Sullivan.

As Williams walks the land Nana walked and learns the cold hard historical facts, she feels compassion for the woman she once hated.

But that’s not all. Williams, a retired psychiatric nurse and researcher, infuses her narrative with scientific insight. Using her story, she shows how unearthing and understanding the denied stories of the past, Irish or not, can resolve painful inherited emotional patterns. In Nana’s narrative, for example, Williams finds keys to her own otherwise inexplicable adolescent anxiety and intense fear of home invasion and death by enemy bombing. When she learns that trauma may be transmitted epigenetically, she thinks, “That fits!”

Williams further learns that the silent communication styles of trauma survivors like Nana can inadvertently project unspoken trauma onto descendants. Recalling her own family’s interpersonal patterns, she thinks, “That fits, too!”… “If not faced, unresolved traumas can lodge themselves in a family’s psyche and cascade through generations,” she writes.

Braided with personal, historical and psychospiritual threads, I Hate You, Mary Sullivan is nuanced and deep, carrying with it Williams’ message of intergenerational healing, even beyond death.

Barbara J. Williams, Ph.D., was raised in a New Jersey neighborhood of Irish immigrants and their first- and second-generation descendants. She went on to have a long nursing career, primarily in psychiatry and then research. Her articles, including research studies, have been published in several professional publications. Williams, who lives on the Jersey Shore, is a member of Irish American Writers and Artists. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys Zumba dancing, reading psychological thrillers, and traveling with family and friends. I Hate You, Mary Sullivan is her first book.

I Hate You, Mary Sullivan: A Memoir of Inherited Trauma

Publisher: Cape House Books

ISBN-10: ‎ 193912915X

ISBN-13: ‎ 978-1939129154

Available from, and other online outlets

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