Angela Findlay, UK

Artist, blogger, public speaker and author

Angela Findlay has spent much of her career teaching art in prisons. Her time ‘behind bars’ in Germany and later as Arts Co-ordinator for the London-based prison charity, Koestler Arts, informed her research into her own German roots and the intergenerational consequences of unresolved trauma, guilt and shame. For over a decade, she has been lecturing and writing about Germany’s process of working through its Nazi legacy – on political, psychological and personal levels – and the wider topics of post-war remembrance, resolution and reconciliation. Her first book, In My Grandfather’s Shadow, was published by Penguin Transworld in July 2022.

Angela has a BA (Hons) in Fine Art, a Diploma in Artistic Therapy (specialising in colour) and her paintings have been widely exhibited both nationally and internationally.

As an Anglo-German artist and writer, Angela’s book, In My Grandfather’s Shadow, was published by Penguin Transworld in July 2022. She and I discussed how the topics in this book, her own family story and career all led her to understand how trauma and pain get transferred from generation to generation. We also talked about our parents and how we can make peace with them when they themselves had traumatic childhoods.

Unresolved trauma goes to the next generations

As an Anglo-German artist and writer, Angela’s book, In My Grandfather’s Shadow, was published by Penguin Transworld in July 2022. She and I discussed how the topics in this book and her own family story as well as her career led to her to understand trauma and pain get transferred from generation to generation. We also talked about our parents and how we can make peace with them when they themselves had traumatic childhoods.


I.E: Hello and welcome back to another program of ‘We can find a way’ – a podcast about conflict resolution. My name is Idil Elveris. This is a podcast that pioneers a culture change in handling conflict because conflict is everywhere. It is also the only bilingual podcast that addresses conflict on an international scale.


We can find a way’ is sponsored by ‘Koc Attorneys at Law’ the Istanbul and Antalya-based boutique law firm. Founding partners of ‘Koc Attorneys at Law’ are staunch believers of using dialogue and finding common ground to resolve conflicts. They’re very happy to be supporting this podcast in the hope that it will help advance the much needed discussion on de-escalation and reduction of polarisation in conflict situations within the legal practice, as well as in the public discourse.

Let me now turn to my guest in this episode who is Angela Findlay who is an Anglo-German artist, blogger, public speaker and author who has spent much of her career teaching art in prisons. Her time behind bars in Germany and later as arts coordinator for the London-based prison charity Koestler Arts informed her research into her own German roots and the intergenerational consequences of unresolved trauma, guilt and shame. For over a decade, she has been lecturing and writing about Germany’s process of working through its Nazi legacy on political, psychological and personal levels and the wider topics of post-war remembrance, resolution and reconciliation. Her first book ‘In my Grandfather’s Shadow’ was published by Penguin Transworld in July 2022. This is in fact how I got to know her. I read the book with enthusiasm, excitement and tears. Not only because of the story involving her grandfather, but also having worked in prisons with inmates myself.

Angela Findlay has a BA in Fine Art, a Diploma in Artistic Therapies specialising in colour and her paintings have been widely exhibited both nationally and internationally. She and I discuss how trauma and pain get transferred from generation to generation, what can be done to raise awareness about this (since there are so many families that have been through these kind of things) and we also talked about our parents and how we can make peace with them when they themselves had traumatic childhoods. I also sought her advice as to what to do in Turkey where there are many atrocities of past and present. So let us proceed to the interview that took place on 23rd May 2023.

Angela, thanks for agreeing to talk to me today.

A.F: You’re very welcome. It’s more than a pleasure to be here.

I.E: So please tell us how trauma and pain gets transferred from generation to generation. I know you’re not a psychologist. How was it the case, at least in your family?

A.F: Well, it’s a big subject and I’ve discovered it operates on many, many levels. On the one hand, it can be an emotional transference on a kind of psychic level, or in the psyche, or as I like to call it, the soul, where somehow the soul sounds softer. I don’t mean that in a religious way. It’s where our emotions happen and where we feel things, and I think anything that is unresolved in one generation then it’s got to go somewhere. When you just think that emotions or experiences are kind of energy. They are energetic and energy just doesn’t disappear. It doesn’t disappear with death, it doesn’t disappear with silence or time even.

I sort of see like an unresolved trauma or crime or any kind of experience, if it hasn’t been dealt with, processed, it kind of gets pushed down, suppressed or wrapped in silence or something, and then it kind of, the only word I can come up with is sort of it squelches, it squelches out into like water. If you push it, it’s got to go somewhere and that goes into the next generations. That’s my understanding of it as an artist and as a sort of non-scientist. But then on another level you have also got the kind of on a genetic level that can also happen through the generations and there’s a very interesting albeit contentious science called epigenetics which some people might have come across.

It’s disputed by some people, not disputed by others, but this is whereby marks which are left by the experience of one generation and older generation, they’re marks on the genes. They don’t change the DNA but they do change how genes read the cells. The genes become either active or dormant, according to what is kind of sitting on top. Epi means on top. So again, in my sort of non-scientific artist’s way of looking at it, I see it like – a traumatic experience. Is like a little rucksack, which sits on top of a gene and influences the way that that gene reacts. So, if you’ve got one big, massive trauma from one generation, that can be handed on to the next through the (not necessarily the next because they might have been born already, depends when you’re born in relation to the trauma or to whatever this is about) because a lot of people talk about this emotional inheritance or transgenerational transmission of trauma. But in my experience, it wasn’t only a trauma, but it was also the shame and the guilt, which are related to trauma as well but in the case of Nazi Germany and the perpetrator nation, you’ve got a hefty lump of not victimhood but perpetrator shit. So this epigenetics it then influences how the gene responds.

So again, simply put, you might have somebody who’s carrying one of these sort of traumatic imprints and they might respond as if they’ve been traumatized. They might find a hypervigilance, they might find a kind of numbness or irrational fear of something, or something might haunt their dreams that they cannot explain what it is, and then they might respond accordingly. So, they might have this irrational fear of being hungry, ever being hungry, so they might eat a lot or save food, store food, gather it in a time of plenty. But that might come from a epigenetic inheritance of the famine in Holland or something the Dutch famine, or from the Holocaust, or even from Germany post-war. You know there’s all sorts.

And then of course war has got all its traumas and everywhere there is trauma. It’s actually from the Greek word ‘dramaticos’, which is wound, and so it is like a sole wound or a wound to the psyche. It kind of festers if it doesn’t see -just like a wound on the physical body. If it’s wrapped in bandages and bandages it might well go septic. If it doesn’t see the light of day, the fresh air, if it isn’t treated, it can go really, really bad, and that’s when you get secondary symptoms and problems as well. And that’s, I think these inherited traumas can or guilt, whatever it is unresolved experiences can also lead to potentially can be behind addictions, depressions, anxieties. The transference that they’re discovering, there was one, it’s a very famous experiment that these scientists in America did with mice and the cherry blossom plots. So they exposed one generation of mice to the scent of cherry blossom and every time they were exposed to the scent, they were also given an electric shock. So the mice associated the scent of cherry blossom with electric shocks. What they discovered was when these mice had offspring and subsequent generations going down quite a few, when these mice who were never electrocuted, were exposed to the cherry blossom scent, they too reacted as if they had been electrocuted, reacted with fear. So that’s mice aren’t humans, obviously, but there are relationships between the make-up and certainly there are many other experiments sort of like that, which are suggesting the possibility. And I think it’s a very exciting possibility that this transference can happen on quite a few different levels.

And all I know from my experience is that whatever anybody says or argues against and says that’s not possible, you can’t prove it, you can’t measure it. You can’t weigh it. It is still real. And maybe we haven’t found the language or the tools to measure it yet, but it is still real and I think it was even alluded to in the Bible. You know the sins of the fathers will be transferred. So, there are all these different angles. You know that’s a religious angle that you can look at the fact that sins and wrongdoing and trauma doesn’t, just doesn’t go away.

I.E: Okay, so I read in your book actually that you felt you inherited it from your grandfather’s doings or actions, feelings, shame and all sorts of things you describe. But please elaborate.

A.F: Yes. So, this is where trauma is very difficult to articulate. It doesn’t kind of fit nicely into language and words. You know when you are being traumatized, you’re often speechless, you can’t make a noise and that sort of sticks and trauma kind of freezes and it numbs and often the experience is just frozen in time. In my book, I describe it it’s a bit like the potency of when you pluck berries off a bush and instantly freeze them. They maintain all the potency of fresh berries, actually more than fresh berries that are picked and then left and eaten days later. So, there’s this potency to a traumatic experience, but it’s wrapped in silence, numbness and other responses.

For me the idea of inheriting something from my grandfather came way before I knew anything about the Second World War. I knew anything about my grandfather. It was as a child. My grandfather died a week after I was born and I, even as a little child, had this very, very strong vision of him going up and out of life. I saw him sort of going to heaven in my naive childhood vision and me coming down into life and where our paths crossed, he handed me a baton and like a baton in a relay race. And now that I know, now that I’ve unpacked my whole family history, or as much as I can, this baton couldn’t be a clearer picture of this unresolved task, that he was handing this unresolved package of stuff that he couldn’t resolve. And he was handing it to me personally. Possibly by the nature of the timing of my birth, I see that picture as clearly today as I did as a child. So that’s got this sort of very real but unreal quality to it, and I think that’s the nature of our psyches. The language of our souls is often pictorial or experiential, and trauma is held in the body. That’s where it can be triggered, that’s where we feel it as well. So these things, I feel, are really important in identifying it. Yes, and then as I learned more, I just saw this picture as being so perfect, as handing something on that he couldn’t deal with or didn’t know how to deal with, which is what was so common in the first generation of perpetrators or victims, really.

And then, of course, there was the timing of my birth, that my mother, as she was breastfeeding me, she would have been going through a whole load of different emotions because, you know, her father had just died, but she would have also had this kind of ambivalence towards her own father about what he’d done in the war, who he’d been, she would have had a whole cocktail of emotions. The whole sort of relationship would have been present in her system and I think those emotions also infuse the milk. These hormones go in, the emotions say sort of flavour or colour the milk. So that was another way that maybe something got transferred. And then later on, my whole mother’s trauma and relation as a young child fleeing the Soviets from Berlin, losing her home, being separated from her mother for a while, and all, and the bombs of course, and all the sort of widespread usual war trauma that was all wrapped in silence and frozen and numbness. So that could have also played into this potent cocktail that I feel I know I’ve inherited in some way.

I.E: You’re talking about such a personal level, but also a generational level, and there are so many histories in many families. But, as you said, trauma causes numbness if you don’t know how to deal with these things. So how can we raise awareness about the effects of trauma on us, on our children, on our parents? Like, how can we contribute through the know-how, your personal know-how, your generational, your family history, all these things that you have generated? How can we tell this to people and spread this know-how basically?

A.F: But that’s such a good question and not easy to answer.

But I think trauma awareness is really really important to spread and I think it starts in the education, in schools. And what’s certainly happening in this country is that art departments, all the arts are being cut and replaced with more focus on academic subjects and I think that is about the worst thing you could do because, like I said, trauma needs in a way to be articulated in a non-verbal way, first. It isn’t a linear. You can’t sort of go and then this happened and then that happened. It’s fragmented, chaotic kind of memories that can appear, for example, all at the same time on a piece of paper and they kind of make sense. It’s a bit like a dream when everything happens at the same time and somebody’s really large and somebody else is really small. But all the language that’s used in dreams or on the paper, in the case of painting or drawing, that’s all relevant. All of it is giving clues to what somebody has been through, the colours that they use or in music, the notes which they play, whether something is fast or slow, whether it’s deep or high, panicked or kind of depressed. You can also see it in the dance or the way somebody moves, where is their weight, where is their block. All these things are the language of trauma and give access to the trauma. And what’s so good about all the arts is that you can kind of work with the trauma without naming it. The naming can be re-triggering, re-traumatising, so you can actually work on the paper or with the body or with the instrument, whatever medium is most suitable for an individual person, and change it slightly.

That’s sort of the work that I was doing in prisons, because there, of course, they are often perpetrators of crimes or people who have been found guilty or being tried for crimes. But when you listen to their stories which incidentally often began to be told through the art, through doing artistic exercises, that’s when they began to open up. You just heard these stories of trauma, of deep, deep childhood, horrifying childhood trauma, often, not always. Then there’s the trauma of actually being a perpetrator. You know, actually committing a crime is traumatic in a way. And then there’s the shame, the guilt and the dynamics of shame, which are also associated with the trauma of victims and of perpetrators and the guilt. These two are so destructive, leading to people being isolated, wanting to hide away, wanting to self-destruct. So when you look at so many of the psychological problems we’re dealing with today, the mental health issues everywhere and they are growing. Behind them, if you don’t just try to sedate them or get rid of them with drugs, which sometimes is really important and lifesaving.

But that was one of the things that I really am grateful for was that I didn’t actually take drugs because I knew something was there that I had to find out. I just knew it, I could feel it and I think if people can become curious about what is going on inside them, if we can become curious about people. Compassionate curiosity is what Gabor Mate, the big kind of addiction and trauma specialist talks about in his books this compassionate inquiry, where you have compassionate curiosity for why somebody is behaving like they are what we’re seeing and often on the receiving end of bad behaviour or, instead of judging it, let’s try and find out what is behind that. What’s behind ADHD, what’s behind an eating disorder, what’s behind all these temper tantrums or something. There is a reason and that’s where I think trauma-informed work is really, really important and, yes, we all need to become more trauma-informed.

I.E: This podcast is about conflict and trauma really affects how you act in conflict..

A.F: Yes

I.E: …through many ways. So…

A.F: Yes. That is the fight. You know, literally one response of trauma is to fight or flight.

I.E: Or freeze

A.F: I haven’t really talked about the fight aspect, but that is where, when somebody and I learned this again in prison when you hear the stories of the degradation that somebody felt, the humiliation that somebody felt and you can look at it in terms of Germany after the Treaty of Versailles you know, the real humiliation, that leads to wanting to redress this feeling of being put down, of being lesser, and then you box your way out and we can see it in many of the conflicts today around the world. It’s often people who are feeling inferior or seen as inferior that they want to rise up again. So yes, conflict is absolutely a result of potentially suppressed, unresolved trauma.

I.E: So at what point family conflicts stop making one angry or frustrated, especially if you think of your parents. Like how can we learn to make peace with them?

A.F: It’s not necessarily easy, but I think one of the big things is links to what I’ve just said in terms of understanding where they are coming from. So the minute I began to understand my mother’s story better, I didn’t really have conflict with my British father, but with my German mother. The conflict I was hitting up against all sorts of things which I found really, really challenging, and often it was this numbness around the feelings and I just thought “you’re just cold” or “you just can’t feel anything” or “you’re just this”. But on another level she so wasn’t. She was a very warm person, she was a very loving mother. She wasn’t a nasty person in any way. But it was only when I began unpacking her childhood and the context of her childhood that I began to understand her psyche, how she’d put together these defences and this numbness actually wasn’t her fault. It was something that she had developed as a protective, as a necessary, as a good adaptation to the situation.That was her response. But she’d never then grown out of it, because it then becomes a sort of vicious circle. You can’t come out of it.

And then the more I learned about her father in the war and the war itself and German trauma altogether and shame and everything. It all began to make sense when I began to understand the dynamics of emotions, what they do to a person. And then I was faced with, really the decision quite a long time ago where I decided I can either keep fighting with her and try and make her see that I’m right or that she’s doing something wrong to me, she’s doing something that’s harming, or I could walk away forever because at one point it got very, really difficult and really, quite destructive, or I could forgive her. I could just forgive her for just not being able to be quite the mother that I wanted in some ways. In other ways she was. And I chose the third option because the idea of walking away was horrific and the idea of going on fighting was horrific.

And this forgiveness was a lot of work. I really did have to work hard at it, but it came through again, this understanding and acceptance and realizing that parents aren’t perfect and that your own parents, they will have done their best under the circumstances, and this might be under very, very compromised circumstances due to something they’ve experienced or learnt. With my mother, as I later learnt, you know, the whole Nazi upbringing had, which I found horrifying was that it had taught children to be hard as Kupfstahl, hard as steel, that’s so. All their own emotional life was snuffed out before it had even developed and you were not allowed any demonstration of emotions was weak. Any sign of weakness was weak. Any sign of vulnerability was weak. So that’s what my mother had learnt at school and that wasn’t her fault. So I think it’s understanding and acceptance and again, this kind of compassionate inquiry, interest in their lives and what’s happened to them.

I.E: I sometimes ask my dad: “so how was your childhood?” And he talks about the ships, his friends, and I’m just like what? Where’s your parents? Like, where’s your mother, where’s your father? And he never talks about them. He only talks about his elder sisters and his friends and how he spent his childhood on the Bosphorus. But then that made me understand. The guy is missing his parents like he never learned how to be a parent himself.

A.F: Exactly.

I.E: Stop being angry with him for not being the father that you expect him to be.

A.F: Yes, anger. I think anger at a parent is also a necessary process. I think it’s like a justified anger. If they are doing something that is really wrong it’s kind of a healthy response, I think to fight against that, to box against it. Or it might be better, there are no rights or wrongs here but it might be better than passively accepting it, absorbing it and basically going under yourself. We do a mixture of all of those things. You just absorb it and you sort of give up and then that leads to depressions or you blame yourself. You want to protect your parents and by protecting them, you’re sort of doing yourself down. So it’s a very difficult, complex sort of path to navigate. But I think the kindness as a general rule to try and keep some kindness in there, knowing that they will also have a story behind their actions.

I.E: I was very curious. I sent you this question. Where have you ever been approached by anyone from Germany about this book but please answer the good news.

A.F: Yes well, I have been approached by a German publisher and they have just finished translating it and it will come out in Germany in September this year. So that is very, very exciting and interesting. I have no idea how it’s going to be received. It could go any way.

I.E: I can tell you, as a reader, I think it’s going to be received very well because it’s so human.

A.F: That’s what I really, really hope. In the book I’ve slightly laid myself down on the line. I’ve opened up my own internal and ex-family world to readers to in a way encourage people to dispel shame. Shame can’t really exist when it’s out in the open and so I’ve sort of done that. I’ve made a pathway which I hope will encourage people to be open. And of course it does help that I’m half German and half English, so I can sometimes, when the going gets really, really rough, I can just seek refuge a little bit in the knowledge that half of me was on the good side or the you know, on the winner’s side or something stupid like that. But it also has meant that I can look at both sides critically. But also I can give the Germans credit in places where they sometimes don’t feel that they can give credit themselves. Because of course Germans find it incredibly uncomfortable to talk about their own trauma and their own suffering, which was not comparable remotely with anything that they inflicted on others as a nation. But there was considerable trauma and suffering, particularly at the end of the war with the flights and the expulsions and the rapes and the suicides, and so every family carries masses of losses as well. Every family will carry quite a lot of trauma as well within their families, but it’s difficult to speak about the suffering of people who also were perpetrators or bystanders, and that makes it a very cocktail, and I hope that I’ve been able to talk about both sides in a kind of neutral way because I’m all of it. I’m both sides of this horrible story in terms of the war not obviously the Holocaust, but of the world war, I’m definitely both sides. I hope that’s an advantage for German readers or for any other readers.

I.E: So last question in Turkey there are many atrocities of the past and present, and you know I’m from Turkey, so your book is about self-reflection, finding out, remembering. So what do you recommend to people in Turkey, especially when there is not much democratic sphere for discussion? Is it something that the civil society can help to or any other thing you can tell us?

A.F: That’s obviously very, very difficult to have the kind of national conversation which Germany did. Turkey, I imagine, is also this mixture of, you know, there are sides and there’s conflict and very opposing views and a lot of control as well. I think the work there is potentially on a much more personal level and within safe spaces genuinely to find a way to create safe spaces to discuss this kind of thing, safe spaces where people can be vulnerable themselves without judgment. And that’s very much a thing that I’m trying to create in Britain, because of course, there are many people who still are very, very anti-German and my whole book is extremely challenging. But by being open, by bringing vulnerability into spaces with protection of course you’ve, you really have to there’s a lot of not just self-reflection, but self-care and to really notice in your own body or psyche where you are personally being triggered or personally being wounded or affected by something. So there’s a lot of self-nurturing to go with it, but also nurturing each other and trying to get to that human level where it actually goes beyond which side you’re on or which approach you’ve taken or what’s happened to you or what your family has done or not done and what’s happened to them.

It’s this openness to just let’s explore these questions and live without being satisfied that there are no black and white answers, that there is no right and wrong, that there are just increments and nuance and shades of grey and all these different combinations within each person. There are infinite good and bad decisions, right and wrong turnings, yes, and can we just accept them in the room? And I think just maybe one useful tip that again I learned in my prison which was almost like the best training I could have had to write my book and do my research was I learned that you can actually separate the deed, the action, the crime and the person, and in that way, you can condemn and come down as hard as you like on the crime without completely condemning the person, the whole person, who of course, is also a father, a cousin, a brother, a teacher, a wife, a mother you know that all these other identities as well and that way you can really really deal with the horrors of the action but also let the person have an element of dignity as a human being which is actually in the best interests of everybody not to humiliate and blame too much. So I think that’s how I would possibly proceed in Turkey.

I.E: Thank you very much. Is there anything you would like to add?

A.F: I’ve loved talking with you. It’s so interesting these kind of crossing national boundaries and hearing other people’s stories. It’s infinitely interesting and it always enriches the picture of something that you think you know quite a lot about and suddenly realized no, there are just so many more perspectives and stories to hear and be told. So, it’s been a total pleasure talking with you.

I.E: So I hope you enjoyed this episode. If you did please follow the podcast, it’s website, like and share it. You can also write a review and please like the excerpts I share in my YouTube channel as well or the Instagram account of ‘We can find a way’. I would like to now close by thanking my sponsor Koç Attorney’s at Law, my Marketing Manager Julia Nelson. and musician Imre Hadi and artist Zeren Goktan who allowed me to use their music and photo in the podcast. Thank you and see you next month.