The ACEs Course Examines Intergenerational Trauma through the Film Wrestling Ghosts

April 25, 2021

This March the ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) course, taught within the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health by Virginia Rauh, ScD, Maureen Allwood, PhD, and Danielle Kassow, PhD hosted documentary filmmaker and director Ana Joanes to discuss her film Wrestling Ghosts, an intimate illustration of intergenerational trauma that focuses on one woman's experience to heal from her own trauma and become a better parent to her children. Though the ACEs course regularly examines childhood trauma and provides Mailman School students with a deep knowledge base and training in ACEs and trauma-informed practice and policies, this particular lesson offered students, faculty, and staff an opportunity to discuss the role intergenerational trauma plays in public health discourse and practice, as well as how it informs their own lives and approach to care. 

Wrestling Ghosts follows the journey of a young mother, Kim, for two years as she unravels with her counselor the impact of childhood trauma on her brain, and how it affects her relationship with her children, who are at risk of inheriting her trauma themselves. Through deeply emotional and raw moments, the film turns an individual battle to heal into a story with connections to many viewers’ own experiences and understanding of trauma.

“Stories are really the medicine for human function. So, in order to make changes, we have to focus on a story. As we were peeling back the layers [of Kim’s story], digging deeper, it was like a lightbulb went off when we got into childhood trauma and how much it really can affect your adult life.” Ana Joanes described to the class how following Kim and filming her counseling sessions and interactions with her children transformed into a learning experience of her own, illuminating her understanding of trauma’s effects on the brain and our relationships with others.

Joanes, whose film credits center on examining complex health issues such as mental illness and food systems, provided an artistic perspective to the attendees of the ACEs course on approaching trauma-informed care. She relayed that ultimately her experiences with her film subjects have made her realize a key to successful public health practice should be incorporating community and resiliency: 

“An issue with psychology and public health is the focus on the problem versus the resiliency – at a community and individual level. We need to stop going into places and problems as if we know better. Because the ‘we’ is usually white people, people who are wealthy, etc. We need to give these communities the power to inform their own change and to believe their truth.”

Many of those in the discussion shared how their own experiences with trauma and working in public health have informed how programming and care approaches to trauma-based issues can incorporate a more holistic approach. Wanda Garcia, MHA, a Program Officer at Columbia University, shared that from her practical experience, she has learned that “as public health professionals, fostering community support is something that needs more attention.”

To learn more about Wrestling Ghosts and the director Ana Joanes, visit the film website here. You can read more about research in line with the ACEs course via the Heilbrunn Department portal on child and adolescent health research here.