Psychologist and author Mick Cooper grew up hearing stories about his great-grandfather, Moishe, a young Jewish boy from Ukraine, who was kidnapped by the Russian empire and forced to join the army and convert to Christianity. He was one of tens of thousands of children known as the Cantonists. 

Mick’s father had written down his grandfather’s experience and always hoped to turn it into a film. Years later, Mick’s daughter, Maya, a film-maker and actress herself, is bringing the story to the screen. Exploring the family history has led both Maya and Mick to contemplate the impact intergenerational trauma can have on a person and the role that religion can play in shaping a person’s identity.

Maya tells her great, great-grandfather’s story: ‘Moishe was about 12 years old when he was taken from his home to an institution. From what we know, they tried to force him to convert; for instance, by only giving him food that wasn’t kosher, and salt water to drink. It’s really horrible, most of it too horrible to describe. They would suffocate the children in these steam rooms.’

Although many did convert to Christianity, due to their young age, Moishe never did. He went on to be a musician in the Tsar’s band during the Crimean war and eventually returned home, moving to the UK in his later years.

‘It’s something that a lot of the children never did, because they were taken when they were so young, and they had no idea how to get back,’ Maya added.

A loss of identity

Like a lot of the Cantonists, Moishe did however lose a lot of his Jewish identity, culture and mannerisms. Mick and Maya carry a sense of this loss having passed down the generations.

‘We still celebrate Jewish holidays, but we are not religious, and I think probably a lot of that has to do with losing a bit of that identity,’ Maya said.

Researching such traumatic content about her ancestors with a view to turning it into a film has been a long and sometimes difficult process for Maya.

‘The whole history of the Cantonists has been buried. There is hardly anything out there. I had to translate papers from Yiddish and Hebrew and find books that I had to get shipped over from America.’

Maya explained that she was able to connect with her grandfather, who died when she was one, through his writing: ‘I had never delved that deeply into my family history and, because it is such a horrific story, it was really difficult to think that this is what someone in my family went through.'

The experience also proved to be therapeutic: ‘I looked back and thought, “Maybe this is why I think of things the way I do now”, or “Maybe this is why I have certain characteristics”,’ she said.

She explained that her research provided a fresh understanding of family traits such as anxiety: ‘These communities had to be scared. If they weren’t scared, then their children would be taken away. They had to constantly be on watch. There was no rest,’ she said.

‘There’s a part of the story where Moishe is hiding in a pipe, and someone calls for him to come out and says it’s safe for him to do that. He recognises the language, so he emerges, only to be met by the kidnappers. So, there’s that sort of distrust of anyone, including people you think you might know. I think that is passed down.’

Biological impact of family trauma

As a psychologist, Mick can see the value in offering clients a space to talk through family stories in order to understand the wider context.

‘Obviously, you can’t assume that a person is the way they are now because of something that has happened in their past; but it can be very important to understand that that might be part of the person’s narrative and to recognise the influence it can have,’ he said.

Pointing to epigenetics, he added: ‘The very core of our biological embodied being can be affected by life experiences. The idea of intergenerational trauma is not “airy fairy”, it’s very grounded in what we know about how people’s psychologies are shaped. I think for people of all cultures, the past can have a really powerful impact on how people see and experience the world that we need to be open to.’

Therapy can provide a space to explore these facets of a person’s history.

‘Having a relationship at depth is a way that people can share and open up to things in themselves that they may find very difficult, shameful, uncomfortable, frightening – because they feel safe enough in that relationship of care and trust,’ Mick said. ‘I think some of these intergenerational things are often cloaked in shame, or in guilt even, that mean you need that deep relationship to allow somebody to begin to talk about it.’

Re-establishing trust

The healing power of being with another person can help to work through these feelings.

‘Where you have trauma, or situations that are based around a deep distrust, then relational depth allows for the possibility of a depth of connection and for the trust to be slowly, potentially re-established, or at least a door to that, a door to another possibility in therapy,’ he added.

This can also apply to clients who have family histories in which their ancestors may have been involved in oppressive regimes, or done things that have hurt others.

‘Those things can be a heavy burden and an issue in terms of how people make sense of them for their own lives. That guilt can be very present and it’s often not as easy as saying “It is separate from me and not something that I did”. It’s a complex process to make sense of these things. And it’s not just the narrative or cognitive knowledge. It’s an embodied sense. We carry our families in our bodies,’ he said.

Maya and Mick both feel that their family history has played a part in their own relationship with faith and spirituality. As someone who is non-religious, Maya has found herself interested in her great, great-grandfather’s enduring connection with his faith. Mick said that the impact of Moishe’s story had resulted in a scepticism about organised religion.

‘My family came out as very hardened atheists,’ he said. ‘But I think there is something very different between organised religions and the hypocrisy that can be there – it isn’t always there of course, but it can be – and spirituality, which is something very different.’

Pluralism and organised religion

As he watched Maya’s project develop, Mick also noticed a connection with his own work. Mick helped to develop the ‘pluralistic approach’ to counselling, based on the assumption that different people are helped by different processes and activities at different times, and that the client should be invited to engage in a process of shared decision-making.1

‘I’ve been thinking about how pluralism is, in many ways, an attempt to get away from “organised religions” in the psychotherapy field. It’s an attempt to find a way of engaging with clients that comes from a position of being genuinely client centred rather than putting our own therapeutic dogmas or religions first – whether that’s psychodynamic or person centred or CBT,’ he said. ‘I have been thinking about how that probably comes out of some of the scepticism and questioning of organised religions.’

Mick describes connecting with one’s spiritual aspect as a journey, and a challenge, but says he finds meaning in Buber’s work: ‘I think I have always found it difficult to understand what spirituality or religion are and to feel an embodied connection with them, but I do find it in the concept of relational depth. For Buber, spirituality emerges through our connections with others, and I love that idea.’

Humanism and spirituality

Hasidic Judaism was prevalent in the part of Ukraine that Moishe came from and, when Mick visited the area a few years ago, he discovered that there was a Rabbi there who was famous for his humanism.

‘When you listen to what he said, it’s a bit like reading Carl Rogers. He was an advocate for the people, and he would argue with God that he should not give people such a hard time. He said people have two eyes: a good eye and then another good eye. I find enormous depth, and something spiritual, in Carl Rogers, as I know so many of us do in the counselling field,’ said Mick.

When it comes to talking about a client’s own spirituality, Mick stresses the importance of working within a client’s frame of reference and ensuring that any discussion comes from the client’s agenda.

‘I have heard stories sometimes of therapists praying for clients when clients aren’t religious, and that seems deeply problematic, but I think it’s about trying to align and understand where the client is.

‘I know from the research that where clients do hold strong religious views, having a therapist who is attuned and understands and is accommodative of those views, can be really important and it is associated with better outcomes,’ he said.

The intergenerational thread

For Mick, a person’s spirituality and religion can connect them with the past and provide another dimension to the work. This too has an intergenerational component.

‘In previous generations, spirituality and religion were really important to people, so that is going to inform and affect us. The idea that we are part of a larger whole, of an intergenerational thread, is a spiritual perspective in itself.

‘We are more than this immediate life and these immediate experiences: we are part of a community that stretches back in time. Giving our clients space to talk about it, as part of the greater whole that they are, can have a really important role in therapy.’

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1 Stoll M, McLeod J. A pluralistic approach to student counselling. University and College Counselling 2019; March: 4–9.