Psychologists have known for a long time that serious trauma, such as that imprinted through violence and in wartime, can create mental and physical illness that can be passed down genetically through generations. But how this happens is still being understood. Just this week new research was released that shows that certain molecules, altered by traumatic stress and in turn causing depression and other effects, are transferred via sperm.
I became interested in inherited trauma while researching and writing my own memoir, which explores a legacy of being interrogated and my Jewish ancestors’ experience being hunted. How much is remembered in the cells? I have wondered, feeling many times as though I am wandering a kind of wilderness of loneliness, where that came from?
Lars Jan, with his Early Morning Opera lab and the versatile and emotionally sharp performances of Andrew Schneider and Sonny Valicenti, is hunting this ambiguous inheritance of trauma, too. In his multimedia memoir-on-stage, The Institute of Memory (TIMe), Lars is hot on the trail of an epigenetic mystery that centers around the mythology of his father.
Lars’ father, a Polish immigrant named (maybe) Henryk Ryniewicz, is an enigma: a survivor of the Nazis, a Cold War operative, a body of secrets, a paranoid shadow of a man. To access the heart of his father, and therefore the heart of his own identity, Lars must rely on archives—those found in filing cabinets and computers and those in his own mind.
And so we enter a moving, at times jarring, exploration of what is memory. How is it altered by our now limitless digital archives? How is it limited by our own brains’ soft tissues and ultimate ambivalence?
“Whatever the truth is, this telling of it is inadequate.”
There lies the pain of any memoirist.
Lars, oh Lars. (Exposing his search for belonging, his yearning to interrogate his own mythologies, made Lars so attractive to me that while I watched his story unfold five rows from the stage I felt a disturbing physical and emotional desire for him, an artist I have never met nor laid eyes on.)
To a backdrop of typewriter keys slicing, Communist wiretaps humming, and cells gliding, Lars tries to piece together a family portrait. What came before me—don’t we all want to know?
He tries to recall his childhood home and instantly, magically, horribly, we are in the basement apartment near Harvard with him, with the random objects we remember, which push through the fog of memory in relief, the puncta of our childhood photographs: red wool blanket over twin bed, wheeled metal office chair, map of USSR, used paperback by Gore Vidal.
Yet all this remembering, or striving to remember, might be in vain. “There is a picture of a thing, and then there is living it,” Lars says.
We are reminded: what seems picture-perfect one moment can erupt into an unimaginable hell in another. One moment you are living, the next, you are hunted.
Throughout the performance Lars pushes down the neon white walls that recreate the boundaries of his father’s life and his own, metaphorically, cathartically perhaps, knocking his family’s house down. Toppling mythologies—the relentless hustle of an unsatisfied son.
He probes his father’s “darkness,” trying to break the code.
“Perhaps, here I am, as Pandora, opening what I shouldn’t,” Lars confesses. (Oh, Lars.)
And in the end, where is Lars’ father? He is in files, in folders, in between sheets of paper and blankets of dust. He is in the soft tissues of a son’s body. The son cannot locate the father, but he rifles through the cabinets and gigabytes and tissues; he looks and he looks and he looks.