Does the response to trauma remain contained within the individual? Or do its effects pass down from generation to generation? And, if that’s the case, how can one find healing? This conversation between somatic therapist, Ken Porter and psychotherapist, Randy Flood, Director of the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan is a highly-personal, in-depth discussion about transgenerational trauma. Porter shares the complicated relationship he had with his father—a man he both loved and despised—and the sometimes unconventional path he took to free himself and heal from the pain and trauma. Porter’s life experiences led him to the role he now embraces: that of helping other men work through and heal from the trauma in their lives so as to not pass it on to future generations. Listen to the entire Revealing Men podcast and/or read excerpts of the conversation below (edited for length and clarity).
The Healing Power of Truth and Reconciliation
Flood: Ken, your father passed and you were challenged to write a eulogy. You shared that journey with me and the challenge of doing it honestly, and well, and compassionately. You were anxious about it, but after you delivered it, you got a lot of really good feedback from family members who you thought maybe wouldn’t have responded as they did. It helped us to have a conversation about it and so we decided to do this podcast to help others understand the importance of healing ourselves so that we don’t pass our pain on to others.
Porter: Yeah. The first thing I want to say is I’m feeling really raw and vulnerable just to dive into this in a public way. Just want to name that. I really want to do it. I really want to share this. And I think part of the vulnerability I’m feeling is just imagining how my words might be received, especially by people who might’ve known my dad. Especially people who might be related to my dad. [Both: Laugh.] And, the second thing that I would say is, if you listen to the whole thing and you’re still angry or offended, then please talk to me. I would be more than happy to delve deeper into this with anybody.
Flood: Important caveat, too. Because, even though this is a podcast that has educational value to it, you’re also choosing to be vulnerable on a personal level. And then there can be that circle that is quite different and you’re inviting people to interact with you in that circle and you’re open to that. So, that’s great.
Porter: Right. Yeah. I also want to say that I know I will most likely say some things about my father that are not necessarily flattering, but just to emphasize that this is really coming from a place of compassion, not a place of anger, or vengeance, or anything like that.
An Everyday Kind of Man
Flood: Introduce us to your dad a little bit. Who is this guy?
Porter: He was a, ya know, I guess they called him “the greatest generation.” They called themselves that I think. [Both: Laugh.] He grew up in the rust belt, middle-class family, had worked on farms in the summer. Ended up going to West Pointe and becoming a career army officer and was in the army for twenty years. Retired from the army and went into the ministry and became a pastor and was in the ministry basically until he retired many, many years later. Our upbringing, as you can imagine, kind of a strict fundamentalist ethos and then a very military energy in the house.
Flood: That’s quite the intersection!
Porter: Yeah. It was kind of intense.
Flood: [Laughs.] I can imagine.
Porter: My dad was a complex character. He could be very playful, and very loving, and fun, and funny, and, ya know, tell corny dad jokes, and play ball with us out in the backyard like no other dads in the neighborhood did. So that was pretty remarkable. And then he had another side to him. There was a lot of rage that he didn’t seem to know what to do with and it got taken out on us kids.
Flood: Can you say a little bit about your understanding of where that rage came from?
Porter: I think in general terms it came from where everybody’s comes from. He experienced something similar to what he meted out to us, so that’s a pretty classic scenario. I know my siblings would not necessarily agree with my choice of language here, but there was physical abuse and verbal and emotional abuse that I suffered at his hands. And, I grew up very scared, mostly of him.
And then there was this conflation of my father and of God the Father, because it’s the same word and the same kind of energy, ya know, because there is this God that smites anybody he doesn’t particularly like. And there was just a lot of fear of both of these powerful, patriarchal characters in my life.
I’m 61 now, it took me at least the first half of my life to begin to grapple with the damage that was done to me as a very sensitive soul. [Flood: “That, you are.”]
Internalizing and Externalizing Pain: Doing What You Need To Survive
Flood: So, knowing who you are now—you’re more clear about being this sensitive soul—and being around that kind of energy, what did you do to survive? What helped you survive that?
Porter: So, my earliest survival skills were just like hiding: hiding in school, avoiding making friends—I got really good at that. It didn’t really make me any safer because if you don’t have friendships, it’s an illusory safety. It’s not a real safety, because nobody’s got your back. Nobody understands you. And, later, like my teenage years, I flipped 180 and went into becoming very visible. Turning into the wild child and doing really stupid shit and getting into trouble and being a daredevil.
Flood: How do you understand that today? Like, back then, someone could just look at it like “oh, he’s just a rebel child.” But based on your knowledge—because you’re a somatic therapist so you can look at that—what was that doing for you developmentally at that time? Even though you can look at it now and say “I was doing stupid shit.” What were you doing that was helpful?
Porter: I think it was just a matter of being so incredibly shut down, so repressed, so fearful, that I needed to just break. I needed to bust out in a big way. I couldn’t tip-toe out. There was no tip-toeing out. I was tip-toeing through life already. I needed to explode out.
Flood: Is it because of the container you were in?
Porter: Yeah. The container was too tight, it was too restrictive, it was killing my spirit. This may sound extreme but I don’t think I’d be alive today if I hadn’t broken out of that shell. I think I would’ve, who knows what, become a severe alcoholic or just had a death wish and finished myself off somehow. I don’t know. Yeah, it freed up my spirit. It was very unhealthy for me in a lot of ways, but on a level of experiencing emotional and spiritual freedom, it was like “Yeah. I’m alive! For the first time in my life, I feel fully alive!”
Harnessing the Rage Within
Flood: So, adolescence was kind of a busting loose, breaking out process. How did your dad respond to that?
Porter: He pushed back very hard. He tried to squeeze me back into the container, really hard. And I wasn’t going back in once I tasted my freedom. It’s like I don’t fit in that shell anymore. I just don’t fit. So, that was hard. Things escalated between us for a couple of two, three, four years. I don’t know.
But that was even part of my breaking out. I had something really definitive to push against which was his rage. And then I found my rage and my rage pushed back against his. That was also freeing and empowering and it was a step in the journey. Not ultimately where I’ve ended up, thankfully. I wouldn’t want to still be raging at 61, but I definitely needed to find that rage inside myself.
Flood: And I think your trajectory, your pathway is yours. And some people can resonate with yours and there might be others who had the experience that they break out, and they stay in that rebel state. And then they end up developing a very difficult life and have a hard time being socialized, holding jobs, or following laws, or being reasonable in marriages, and things like that. So that [rebel] state can’t be sustained.
The other thing I think about is that some people, when they break out and are met with this counter-energy saying “you may not be breaking out,” they recapitulate or renunciate their individuation process and then they go back—the container is a little safer than this intensity that I’m getting or this push back. Something inside of you was like, “I’m not going back.”
Porter: The best way I can explain it is that I was pushed too far. And I’m grateful for that now. At the time, I was so angry. Now it’s like, thank you. [Laughs.] Thank you for pushing me out of the shell.
Daring to Dream of More
Porter: So, I had my wild years. And then I had sort of my lost years, you might say. “Lost” isn’t quite the right word because there was kind of a moment of epiphany that I had after a ski trip to Colorado. I had been anticipating this trip for months and then I went and had a great time and then on the trip back I felt this emptiness. Like, is this it? So now I go back to work again? And I work, and I work, and I save up for the next vacation, and then I get a fun vacation, and then I do this the rest of my life? I felt this hunger for something deeper and I had no idea what it was, but I felt it for the first time kind of wake up in me.
Flood: Growing up in your religion, was that confusing? Did you interpret that as a signal that you needed to reckon your soul? Like God is calling you back or something?
Porter: No, by this point, I was 24 or 25. There was no going back to that.
Flood: Did you get a different idea of what spirituality was at that point?
Porter: I didn’t really put much thought or energy into what God might be or spirituality. I was actually an atheist at that point in time. I don’t consider myself an atheist now, but I did then.
Flood: Another developmental phase that you went through. [Porter: “Yeah. It is.”] The God you grew up with; it’s like “if that’s God, then it’s not mine and maybe there isn’t one.”
Choosing a Path of Self-Discovery
Porter: There was no pull to go back to God but there was like a sense of okay, I was given this arbitrary, what I would consider arbitrary, spirituality—like, “here’s the meaning, it’s all in this book and you just read it”—given that as a very young child. And that was what I was taught to think of as the meaning of life.
But this was not that. This was like something deep in my soul that was like rising up and saying, “Hey, you’ve never actually listened to this. You listened to some externalized version of what this is, like a symbolic version of what this is, but you’ve never actually listened to this.” And I had no idea what to do with it, but I just started reading, I started meditating, I started bumbling my way down this path of, I don’t know, path of spiritual, or personal, or emotional discovery, self-discovery.
Flood: You sought out a lot of teachers, too. [Porter: “I sought out a lot of teachers.”] There’s that phrase: where there’s a student, a teacher arrives. And you became quite the student and a lot of teachers entered your life.
Porter: Ultimately, the various teachers in my life are what lead me to the professional path that I’m on now, of being a somatic therapist. I did lots of psychotherapy, I did lots of body work, and I just started really getting how much information there was in the body, just dying to reveal itself in my conscious awareness. I’m still learning, and healing, and growing. But I would say my mid-20s to early 40s were huge years of intense growth and of revisiting a lot of the pain and working through that and allowing myself to access and release the emotions.
Flood: That you had to, you think, suppress to survive?
Porter: Absolutely. I did a lot of anger work, a lot of anger release work, a lot of crying, a lot of hitting a punching bag, which was a lot better than … [Flood: “Getting in bar fights.”]…driving twice the speed limit.
Flood: I mean, you think of the typical male behavior, this way of expressing emotionality whether it’s rage or power through these behaviors, acting out, and it’s connected to sometimes these deep wounds. It’s like I’m driving 120 mph, I’m feeling invisible, or I’m feeling on top of the world. This exhilaration when you’re trying to outrun something. [Bruce] Springsteen calls it chasing something in the night.
The Transforming Power of Forgiveness
Porter: There were two really key moments in my relationship with my dad.
One was in my mid-30s where, after years and years of trying to tell my dad how badly he messed up my life and trying to get him to apologize and his being extremely defensive, and me not understanding why he’s being defensive (as I’m telling him he screwed up my life).
Flood: When I’m doing therapy with guys and they want to do what [you did], I say, “don’t do that!” Because you’re going to him—you know this now—as a wounded little boy looking for him to heal you. [Porter: “Exactly. Exactly.”] If you’re going to go to him, you gotta go to him as a man, you don’t need him to heal you. You might want to try to have some reconciliation but his awareness or accountability, you’re not enslaved to it, you’re not dependent on that. Anyway, you figured that out.
Porter: I figured that out in the moment.
One time I was with my mom and dad in their living room, having the same old tired conversation, and him having the same response, and I think, just out of sheer frustration or exasperation, or something, this just came out of me [long pause] …I’m feeling the emotion of it right now. It just came out of my mouth. I said, “Dad, I came here to forgive you. How can I forgive you if you don’t know what I’m forgiving you for?”
Porter: And when I said that to him, he just broke down and just sobbed like a baby. And I did, too. And the two of us held each other and sobbed in each other’s arms for a long time. And then, after that had quieted down, we blew our noses and then he turned to me with a very peaceful face and he said, “So what do you want to talk to me about?” And then I went through my list again and he was like, “oh yeah. I can see how that would’ve been hurtful,” and “Yeah, I’m sorry that I did that.” And it was astounding to me.
Flood: That’s climatic. That’s really powerful.
Porter: I would like to say that then everything was rosy, but old patterns die hard. Some old patterns kind of crept back in I think for both of us. We never went back to the old days where [there was] kind of a smoldering-like tolerance of each other. It was much more opened up after that. But we also never talked about that again. I do feel remorse about that, that I wasn’t able to bring us back to that. But things did open up a lot more.
The Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness
Porter: A lot of the work that I have done through body work, through therapy, through meditation, has been in non-ordinary states of consciousness; sometimes people call it “altered states” of consciousness. And usually, when people hear that term—altered states—they immediately think, “oh, psychedelics.”
Flood: That’s coming back. That’s going to be part of therapy, whether people like it or not.
Porter: It is going to be a part of therapy and I think that’s a good thing. [Flood: “In a controlled setting, and very scientific.”] I think we’ve learned about what to do and what not to do with that very powerful tool. But there are also many ways to enter a non-ordinary state of consciousness. Meditation is one. Mindfulness is a different state of consciousness. [Flood: “Breathwork.”] Breathwork can get you into a non-ordinary state, absolutely. Very powerfully. Strong emotion is an altered state of consciousness.
Flood: There’s spiritual. Paul on the road to Damascus was hit by something quite overwhelming and there are different stories like that. Some religions have speaking in tongues and different ways of entering in some kind of non-ego state. What you’re saying is there are many pathways.
Porter: What I came to, in a non-ordinary state, was a deep, like really, surrendering. I like your word “non-ego state.” My ego has all kinds of ideas about how something is supposed to go or how my healing journey is supposed to go, or whatever. But, in a truly non-ordinary state, all of that is gone and there’s a fresh, I don’t know, like a fresh influx of information that’s not typically available.
Ending the Cycle of Transgenerational Trauma
Porter: What happened in this particular experience, my intention was to get out of my head and get into my body—which is what I’ve been working on for decades—I wanna really dial this in, the ability to stay in my body more. And so, I did.
I had a long session of being in my body and I felt my trauma from the physical—I guess the verbal and emotional abuse was a part of it—but it was primarily the physical abuse that I experienced at the hands of my dad; the hands and the implements. I didn’t feel it as a visual memory, like remembering a particular event. I felt it as my body was carrying it. Like, as my body has been holding it for my whole life.
I don’t know if I even have words to explain that, but it was like a state of being. It was a state of being, and it involved a lot of restriction. It involved a lot of fear. It involved a lot of like, bracing—bracing might be the best word—like a deep internal bracing that’s so hidden on the outside, but I was deeply connected to it on the inside.
Because I’ve done this work for so long, I knew that I just needed to stay with it. I wanted to stay with it. I wanted to see where it was gonna take me. And my body started tremoring. Which—for anyone who is aware of trauma work—often is a very important piece of trauma healing. It’s like the body physically releases the held—like the bracing—or the reaction to a trauma.
Flood: Which is probably what your body did preparing for spankings or something, right?
Porter: Yeah, for sure. Exactly.
Flood: Letting it loose.
Porter: That’s how the body releases it. It shakes, it tremors. Fortunately, I knew that’s all my body was doing, shaking off the trauma, so I just let it shake and tremor and jerk. And I did that for quite a long time. And then, in the midst of that, I just had this sudden knowing. It was like I was now in my dad’s body and I was feeling the exact same thing. Like through his awareness. Feeling his trauma that he carried his whole life from getting physically abused by his father, and something just absolutely exploded open in me when I realized that.
I could feel nothing but compassion for my dad. Like “oh, okay,” he was carrying the same exact thing as me. Of course. He didn’t go through the last 30 years of his work like I have. I’ve learned what to do with this. I’ve had extensive therapy, and extensive body work, and extensive meditation. I know how to stay with this and hold it and give it permission to go through what it needs to go through to release itself. And he had no idea. How could he? He had to take it out on me. He had to take it out on something. He had to do something. He could’ve become an alcoholic or … ya know?
Flood: Right, there are many things that he could’ve done. One of those is to transmit it, that intergenerational, kind of, the sins of your father will go seven generations. People pass on the pain they can’t transform and heal; they are at risk of passing it on to others or killing themselves with it.
Porter: Yeah. Ya know, his father had no idea what to do with it so he passed it on to my dad. It’s like it all totally made sense in that moment. There was nothing else in me but love for my dad at that moment, like pure love like I have never felt. I have never felt love like that for anybody in my life. And this was for the person that I spent much of my early life actually despising.
Flood: What a transformation!
Porter: It was like night and day. It was incredible. I will never be the same. Never be the same. And it’s not like every now and then some anger might not flare back up from something from my childhood, but it’s not anything like it was before. I don’t latch onto it and go “arrrhhhh.” I come back to this place, and I’m like “well, of course, of course, he did that, what else could he do?”
Flood: Some fathers who experience trauma and injury did something else with it and didn’t do what your dad did to you. [Your experience] helped you greater appreciate that your dad didn’t just wake up one day and say, “well I think I’ll just give my son my pain that I can’t carry.” You have a deeper understanding of this transgenerational, this intergenerational, process that you and your dad were characters in, if you will.
Porter: And I guess that circles us back to my wild years when that’s what I did with it. I had to do something with it. I wasn’t consciously doing anything like, “I gotta get rid of this pain,” but that’s exactly what I was doing.
The Healing Power of Release
Flood: Do you mind if I read something? You’re familiar with Pat Conroy? He’s a novelist, grew up in an abusive family, and wrote a lot of intense stuff. This is from Beach Music. I thought you’d appreciate this if you haven’t heard it before:
“So, I began to study other men and was comforted to find I was not alone. I tried to come up with a theory that would explain my extreme stoicism in the face of my wife’s suicide. Each explanation became an excuse, because she deserved my tears if anyone on earth ever did. I could feel the tears within me, undiscovered and untouched in their inland sea. Those tears had been with me always. I thought that at birth. American men are allotted just as many tears as American women, but because we are forbidden to shed them, we die long before women do with our hearts exploding or our blood pressure rising or our livers eaten away by alcohol. Because that lake of grief inside us has no outlet. We men die because our faces were not watered enough.”
Porter: Wow. I totally resonate.
Flood: And he talks more about internalizing the pain in this kind of description, but what we know is that you can externalize it, too. Which is just passing it on through violence, aggression, domestic violence, you name it. There are many ways of passing pain that we can’t carry. Of course, it’s a Patrick Conroy way of saying something that we know to be true, and I thought it was powerful.
The Importance of Inner Work
Flood: So, you had this moment of being able to do a eulogy for your dad and you were able to honor him in a way that was honest because of all of this work that you’ve done.
Porter: Yeah. It was actually a real deep honor to be able to give that eulogy and honor him. And I know, I have decided, that he is as sensitive a soul as I am, but he had to keep it in the shell. I just can’t, well, I can imagine how painful that is, but I can’t imagine how painful that is to carry that for 90 years.
The thing you said about the seven generations, ya know, this just feels so monumentally important. Not just that I’ve been able to do this but that I know that many, many other men and women—people— will need to do this and, I think, will. People are learning the importance of this work.
Flood: You and I are in the business of this work. We sit with a lot of courageous men who come in with their life broken, with hurting others, or having addiction problems, or lack of meaning, whatever, and then they come in and do the work that you talked about, with us. With us shepherding them and guiding them. It’s beautiful work to sit here and watch men get in touch with their pain and get in touch with their feelings and then learn to be better men in their relationships and in their life. It’s spiritual work, soulful work.
Porter: It truly is. It truly is a beautiful thing.
Ending Transgenerational Trauma
Men, in particular, are trained to “suck it up” when it comes to recovering from a traumatic experience. Or, they’re taught to believe that a “real man” is strong enough to endure traumatic or difficult events; so, to be emotionally impacted is tantamount to inferiority or weakness. This can lead to episodes of abrupt anger, rage, hypersensitivity, anxiety, conflict in relationships, and addictions. The physical and emotional effects of trauma can be passed down for generations.
The Men’s Resource Center works to engage men in an alternate, courageous, and real path to recovery; facing the realities of trauma in a safe and welcoming space. We provide remote, online counseling and in-person therapy programs. If you have any questions about somatic therapy or healing from transgenerational trauma, please contact the Men’s Resource Center online or call us at (616) 456-1178. In addition, if you have questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast, let us know.