Abigail Shrier: Letters to the Editor

A conversation about kids and mental health prompted some interesting responses from Honestly listeners. We want to share a few of them with you.

By The Free Press

March 11, 2024

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We were thrilled with the reaction to Bari’s conversation with Abigail Shrier about her new book, Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up, on last week’s episode of Honestly. If you haven’t listened, you can catch up here. (And read the excerpt from Bad Therapy we recently published here.)

As those who have listened to the pod—or read the book—will know, Abigail is critical of mental health professionals, and argues that many have done more harm than good when it comes to the mental well-being of young people. It’s a provocative argument—and clearly one that has resonated. Abigail’s book hit the number-one spot in the Amazon lists last week. It also prompted some interesting responses from Honestly listeners. We want to share a few of them with you. 

Jakob Lundwall writes to us from London. He shares his thoughts on the idea of intergenerational trauma, a concept Abigail is skeptical of: 

At 18, I volunteered at Yad Vashem in Israel, where I had the honor of spending time with Holocaust survivors, documenting their stories and confronting the harrowing actions of my own Austrian ancestors during the Holocaust.

While they were initially reluctant to speak about it, many survivors gradually crafted narratives—I called them “memory scripts”—that allowed them to share their painful memories while maintaining a protective emotional distance. Among the hundreds I interviewed, only a few shed tears during our sessions.

But when I engaged with their children, I noticed a stark contrast. They lacked a narrative framework for their own indirect yet deeply felt experiences, often perceiving their own childhood stories as less significant or unworthy of attention. Although they weren’t born in Europe, the majority of testimonies conveyed an overwhelmingly strong sense of connection to the events of the Holocaust and their physical places in Europe. They would tell me they felt “contaminated” and were aware of that link to that past, even if they weren’t ever in Belzec, Sobíbor, on the fields of Latvia and Estonia, in the ghettos of Terezín and Lublin, or on the snowy roads of the death marches. Many had nightmares about barbed wires, dogs, and guards.

This insight led me to focus my master’s thesis on the second-generation Israeli and British Holocaust survivors in the fifties and sixties. My research explored how these individuals grew up in a “post-Holocaust” environment, which shaped the intergenerational transmission of memory not through genetics but through actions, and notably, silence. I recorded the nuanced ways this legacy manifested: the visibility of concentration camp tattoos, a mother feeding her child with a spoon from Auschwitz, a child instructed to keep a packed suitcase under her bed.

They were separated linguistically, culturally, temporally, and geographically from the Holocaust. Yet, many conveyed a palpable connection to their parents’ pasts. This sense of inherited trauma was a recurring theme in my findings. It led me to conclude that these individuals, surrounded by remnants of their parents’ pasts, experienced their own form of trauma from it.

Mimi Kahn, a therapist in Orange County, California, writes: 

Like Abigail’s grandmother, my Argentinian father grew up in poverty, with six siblings and a mom and dad who had no time to do “gentle parenting.” He went on to be the only doctor in a small town. Besides delivering babies and fixing broken bones, he saw mostly individuals with vague symptoms like stomachaches and headaches. He soon realized these ailments had more to do with their emotional lives than anything physical. After reading a book about the emerging field of psychosomatic medicine, he got further training in psychiatry, as he felt the way he could most help more people was by easing their mental pain or “trauma.” He spent the next 50 years doing just that, and if you spoke to any of his past patients you’d know that he was one of the “good therapists” who changed people’s lives for the better.

Of course, there are bad therapists too, like there are bad dentists and bad plastic surgeons. But bad therapists aren’t what’s causing today’s huge increases in rates of teenage depression, anxiety, and suicide. In fact, many people depend on therapists and medication to live their lives with less pain. And when I say pain, I mean both mental and physical, because unlike Abigail, I agree with my father that “the body keeps the score.”

As a therapist with forty years’ experience working mostly with families of little means, I can tell you that the depression and anxiety I saw in kids did not come from parents being overly concerned with their feelings. It came from parents not realizing their kids had any feelings at all. 

Gwyneth, a fifteen-year-old high schooler from Atlanta, writes: 

Thank you for hosting Abigail Shrier on Honestly. I listened to the conversation with my dad at my mom’s suggestion. I’m part of the generation Abigail’s new book is about, and your interview with her brought me so much sanity. I felt so seen, both by you and Ms. Shrier and by my parents who listened with me. Finally, some adults were naming my frustration, acknowledging my discomfort. 

I am a fifteen-year-old high school student—one of “the kids”—and I want you to know that everything Abigail said is true. You guys spoke about so many things that I have complained to my parents about. Things like emotionally manipulative class discussions, mind-numbing “social-emotional learning.” Sometimes it feels like we spend more time discussing “learner profiles” and “approaches to learning” than we do actually learning anything. 

Abigail spoke about kids struggling because they are not finding purpose in serving others. I know that feeling of hollowness. It arises from constantly focusing on myself and being encouraged to do so by teachers. I’m sick of thinking about myself, or really, having to generate thoughts about myself in school settings for a grade. I don’t want to spend my precious school hours learning who I am and how I feel. No one can really teach me that, and I wish they wouldn’t try. I want to be shown the world—and not just the ways it has supposedly damaged or shortchanged me.

Thank you so much to both Bari Weiss and Abigail Shrier for verbalizing my unease and my agitation about how my generation is encouraged to fixate on ourselves to an extent that has left us worse off, both emotionally and intellectually. 

In short, thank you for the validation. Consider this letter some verification in return.

And here is Abigail’s response:

Thank you, Free Press readers, for these beautiful letters. Dr. Lundwall writes movingly of the children of Holocaust survivors who had nightmares of things they did not personally experience: barbed wire, guards, dogs. He reports having observed that the children of survivors were palpably connected to their parents’ pasts in ways that manifest “intergenerational transmission of memory not through genetics but through actions, and notably, silence.”

These children were deeply affected by the stories their parents told them and the ways their parents raised them. But even those of us who did not have parents or grandparents or great-grandparents who survived the Holocaust still remember being haunted by nightmares about the Holocaust. That is what it means to be educated about an atrocity: the mind processes the knowledge of horrors both via conscious thoughts and even through dreams.

The slippage between metaphor and rigorous claim that characterizes much of our talk of “trauma” makes it very difficult to evaluate many of the claims. But suffice it to say: yes, children of parents who suffered famine, poverty, and the Holocaust will no doubt be shaped by their parents’ stories and habits and fears. The vast majority of such children will still be able to hold down jobs, form strong relationships, and even thrive. Will the trauma of their ancestors imprint themselves in their genetic code? The burden is on those making that claim, and they have not yet fulfilled it. One hundred percent of living humans have ancestors who experienced what today is called childhood trauma: violence, hunger, abuse, the death of parents and siblings. If PTSD were genetically transmissible, would we not all suffer from it?

And here is the most important point: nothing good is accomplished by telling children they have inherited trauma from their ancestors. For the majority (if not all of them), it won’t be true, and there is very good research showing that those who believed they experienced trauma as children are more likely to suffer adult psychopathology even when their belief is false.

Ms. Kahn writes that her forty years as a therapist working with low-income families leads her to the conclusion that anxiety and depression in kids comes from parents “not realizing their kids had any feelings at all.” Though that may have been true for her patients, it has nothing to do with the experience of the current generation. There has never been a generation whose feelings have been more heard and honored and validated than the one now calling for mental-health days off of work.

Finally, Gwyneth, your letter was, of course, my favorite. You are so far ahead of the game. Thank your parents—and keep charging!