The Ties that Bind Us: A Recipe for Addressing Trans-generational Haunting

 NONIA Handknits

Genesis 37:1-4; 12-28

(For audio of this sermon, click here)

In seminary I had a brilliant professor, Dr. Su Pak, who shared a story[1] that I have found myself revisiting again and again. It revolves around her experience living with her mother who had Alzheimer’s related dementia, and how that dementia radically altered long-held family communication patterns. Each day when Su would get home from work, her mother would be there with her bag packed and shoes on, ready to “go home.” And each day Su would have to re-explain that this WAS home. But her mom just didn’t buy it. Su writes:

Trying to remedy the deep longing for home, she waits for me every day to take her home. Home. Where is home? Is it her ancestral home, Ui-Joo, way up north in Korea where she spent her affluent formative years under Japanese colonization? Or is it Busan, way down south where she fled to from the North and where she experienced extreme poverty and dislocation? Or is it Seoul, where she gave birth to her four children, worked hard to make ends meet in the post Korean War economy and the place where her mother died tragically? Or, is it New York, where she began her life as an immigrant, speaking a different tongue, eating different food? When I ask her where home is, she simply says, “You know, home, over there… let’s go![2]

The other thing that Su did most days after she got home, was sit with her mother and untangle yarn. Yes, yarn- like the spun thread one uses for knitting. You see, Su’s mother had been an avid knitter throughout most of her life. But as the Alzheimer’s progressed, her memory of the movement and pattern was lost and her needles created only knots. So, each evening Su would come home from work to find her mother’s crazy tangles. And each evening she would sit with her mother and meticulously un-tangle foot, after foot of snarled yarn, rewinding it back into a neat ball. This image, for me, is heartbreakingly tender—embodying all of the love and patience of caring for an aging parent. But it is powerful on another level too. As anyone who has ever had a family member with Alzheimer’s might know, one of the primary markers of the disease is the presence of neurofibrillary tangles[3]. These tangles are literally twisted protein fibers that form inside a dying cell and block communication. So Su’s mother’s mind, like the yarn she tried to knit, was literally in tangles. And for Su, these tangles meant that her mother’s mind just kept looping down the same paths over and over again.

Thus, not surprisingly, a related sign of Alzheimer’s is the need to write and copy things over and over again. One day, when cleaning out her mother’s stuff, Su found page upon page of writing that told the same four stories over and over again in an attempt to get these stories “right”. One story was about the day Korea was liberated from Japan. Another was about the family’s journey across the 38th parallel as they fled their home. The next was about the day the Korean War broke out; and the last was about the day the family landed in the US as immigrants. These four pivotal life moments kept replaying in her mother’s mind again and again—communicating something about the experiences that had shaped her.

Which brings me back to the yarn, and yet another level for understanding the metaphor of Su working to untangle it for her mother. She explains: “This (act) connects with the way that Koreans talk about ‘han’. Han is a Korean word to describe the depth of human suffering. Koreans talk about the ‘untangling the han’ to describe healing from suffering.”[4]

So Su came to know her mother more intimately as she untangled the yarn—both the physical fiber that her mother had labored to make sense of—and stories that her mother struggled to perfect—as if getting them right would somehow free her from the ghosts of the trauma she had experienced. And Su came to realize that the ghosts that haunted her mother also haunted her, though she hadn’t lived through many of those events. She didn’t share her mother’s memories, but she DID inherit certain coping mechanisms and communication patterns that her mother had developed as a response to those events. And if she didn’t work to untangle those patterns, she would blindly pass them down to her children as well.

Okay, so what does Su’s story have to do with our strange text for today in which Joseph’s jealous brothers chuck him into a cistern and then sell him into slavery? I guess I would argue that to understand this tragic moment in the life of these brothers, we have to untangle the family yarn. We have to unearth the ghosts that haunt Joseph’s generation, but did not start with them. But in order to do this, we are going to go into some major family history and genealogy—so BEAR WITH ME.

Last week[5] we talked about JACOB and his worldview based in a fear of scarcity, and how that worldview led him to behave as a trickster, stealing his brother’s birthright and family blessing through deceit and clever manipulation. This act of betrayal drives deep and JACOB ends up running away from his homeland. It takes him 20 years to wrestle with his fear and to come home and face his brother. But while Jacob’s behavior was terrible, he did not create the tension with his brother single-handedly. The division between Jacob and Esau began in their mother’s womb during which time God explained to Rebekah:

Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other, but the elder shall serve the younger.[6]

Talk about family drama! And as the twins grew up, their parents deepened the divide by picking favorites. Dad loved Esau, because he was fond of (hunting); but Mom loved Jacob—the scholar and homebody. So when she heard that her husband was about to give Esau his final blessing, she colluded with Jacob to trick and steal that blessing. And years of pain sprang forth from that single decision. I know that many of us have heard this story a million times—but really try to wrap your mind around what a huge betrayal this would be, if your brother stole your inheritance from you with the help of your mother! Many families stop talking to one another over much less.

Which leads us to this week’s story[7], where we learn that though Jacob has made amends with his brother, he still REPEATS the family pattern of choosing a favorite child. All of you have siblings know what a terrible idea this is—both for the children who are NOT favored AND for the golden child! In addition to having a favorite, Jacob favors his youngest son—going against the dominant cultural tradition, but following in his mother’s footsteps. And while, as an eldest child, I am certainly familiar with the special treatment the “baby” of the family often gets, this is much more overt! Jacob elevates Joseph above his brothers… even gifting him with special clothes to make him look the part of the favored child.

Now on the other side of the family tree, we know that Jacob’s sons were born of four different mothers—two feuding sisters and their respective maids. But the divide between the sisters wasn’t their own doing either. That divide was cultivated by their father, who tricked Jacob into marrying his older daughter though he was in love with the younger one. As far as memorable life events go, I can imagine feeling pretty scarred if my father TRICKED someone into marrying me, only to have to spend my life as the less-valued wife—in a losing competition with my own sister. This leads to an obvious hierarchy among Jacob’s offspring based on whether their mother is the wanted or unwanted wife, or a lowly servant girl. In THIS hierarchy Joseph is AGAIN favored as the lone son of the favorite wife. So, while the Bible is preoccupied with material inheritance, these stories also give us an account of the family patterns and coping mechanisms that are passed down from one generation to the next. And in this case, our main character, Joseph, has a DOUBLE legacy of sibling rivalry and traumatic deception.

Add to that Joseph’s behavior: In one story the teenage Joseph goes out to help his older brothers who are tending the family’s herds… only to come home and report to his dad that he didn’t think his brothers were doing an adequate job. In another story Joseph has a dream in which the family is out binding sheaves of wheat and everyone else’s sheave bows down to his—including those of his parents. That’s awkward. And in yet another dream he envisions even the sun, moon and stars bowing down to him… Now I am not into blaming Joseph for his dreams—but I also don’t think that all dreams are worth sharing. Anyone paying attention to the family dynamics would know that these dreams would not be well-received and should probably remain “inside thoughts.” But Joseph didn’t just inherit a legacy of being the favored son. He also inherited his father’s sense of entitlement, the same entitlement that allowed Jacob to believe that he deserved his brother’s birthright—now makes young Joseph SO sure that his whole family will one day bow to him that he needs to rub it in their faces. Seriously, I want you to imagine how you would respond if your younger sibling—or even your own child—told you that you would one day bow down to them…

And the family communication patterns don’t stop with Joseph. As our story progresses, we also see the a legacy of deceit and trickery as Joseph’s brothers plot to get rid of him—to chuck their baby brother into a cistern and then sell him into slavery—and that was their HUMANE option. Then, after committing this terrible crime, they trick their father into believing that his youngest child is dead. Just as Jacob used animal hide to trick his dad into thinking her was his hairier brother, Josephs brothers use animal blood to lead their father into think that Joseph is dead and gone, having been torn apart by wild animals. Let that sink in!

So he family rift continues to deepen, in this generation, just as in the last. And the repeating nature of the family’s story only continues when Joseph is forced to live far away from HIS homeland, separated from his people, just as his father was., and learning to get by on his wits alone. And I give you all of this background simply to show the way that family patterns and family trauma are transferred from one generation to the next—almost invisible to those living it, but frighteningly obvious from an outside perspective.

How many of you know families like this? Families where the same patterns and roles keep repeating: the golden child who can do no wrong, the scapegoat in each generation who bears the brunt of family derision, the person who hated their parent—only to end up marrying someone just like him or her, the culture of icing someone out or cutting them off when they hurt you only to end up isolated and lonely, or the pattern of marital infidelity, or secrecy and shaming around mental illness, or the many repeating stories of addiction, violence and abuse. These stories are all too common. (Pause) Perhaps some of you have even experienced some version of this phenomenon personally. That awkward moment where you open your mouth and your mother comes flying out—saying something that she said to you and you SWORE you would never say to your own child? Or that family fight when you get a glimpse of your behavior and know EXACTLY which aunt or uncle’s role you have fallen into? No matter how clever we are, family patterns are hard to run away from – and even harder to work through. That is, until we untangle the han and arrive at the root of the original suffering.

Which brings us back to Su. As she probed more deeply into her relationship with her mother, she explored the notion of “transgenerational haunting”[8]—the idea that the ghosts of past trauma continue to impact each generation until they have been seen and heard. But unfortunately where there is trauma, there is often secrecy and shame. And so the actual events get buried, while their energy lives on—like ghosts who “’affect everything (while) never appearing explicitly on the surface.’”[9] These ghosts are often experienced in the way that survivors of trauma, “have an unarticulated compulsion to repeat traumatic events.” And so Su’s mother wrote and re-wrote the stories of the traumatic events in her life. As the Alzheimer’s finally overrode her secrecy and shame it allowed her to speak her pain again and again and again. And though the tangles in her mind mean that she may never leave that endless loop of memories, the more she wrote and spoke these stories, the more insight she gave Su into the visions that had haunted her for the last 40+ years.

Now I know that at the end of the sermon I am supposed to tie everything up into a neat little package for you to take away. And believe me… I really did try. But this topic is just too big and I have already been preaching for far too long. So what I will leave you with is simply and invitation to go out and fearlessly ponder the patterns in your life and your larger family narrative. Perhaps we will never truly know the original traumas that started our family patterns. But for as long as we have breath in our lungs, we have the opportunity to talk with those who are still alive—in the generations above and below us (or if that seems impossible, we can talk with a therapist whose job it is to listen to us!) And in these conversations we can begin to untangle the han—the suffering—in our family history. Only then can we break out of patterns of secrecy and shame, letting the old ghosts be seen and heard, so that they no longer have the power to haunt us. In this way we untangle and re-wind the yarn—so that the next generation has the opportunity to knit something new—something so warm and beautiful that they can pass on to those that follow. Amen.

[1] Pak, Su Yon. “Coming Home/Coming Out: Reflections of a Queer Family and the Challenge of Eldercare in the Diaspora” special issue on Queer Asian Theology in the Journal of Theology and Sexuality TSE 17.3 (2011) 337-352.

This article can be read in its entirety at:

[2] Pak, pp. 338-339

[3] For a more detailed description, please see go to the foot notes on page 342 of Dr. Pak’s article at:

[4] Pak, p.342

[5] To read or listen to this sermon , please visit:

[6] Genesis 25:23

[7] Genesis 37:1-4; 12-28

[8] Pak, p.343 (where she uses Grace M. Cho’s book, Haunting the Korean Diaspora:

Shame, Secrecy and the Forgotten War)

[9] Pak, p. 343 (where she uses a quote from Serene Jones book, Trauma and Grace)


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