Ask Me – Epigenetics and Ancestors, Part II [Free]

In the last Ask Me, we explored how we carry our cultures and our ancestors’ memories encoded in our bodies and I ended with the image of each of as a mosaic of memory[s] – our own and our peoples.

I do feel we are like a mosaic. Fragments of the past in our cells and our consciousnesses. Fragments that can feel like something is shattered but are parts of where we have come from and are each a piece of the whole of us.

For those of us who come from families who have immigrated elsewhere, there is further fragmentation, for the familiar feel of these kinds of memories that are tied to place are disconnected from the place. And a new culture, of the new country, becomes part of our bodies. For me, the American culture is part of my body, young as this country is, mixed with the generations of memory from the two countries of my ancestors [Italy and Ireland].

Mosaics upon mosaics of memory alive and always moving. How our cellular life is like that too – mosaics upon mosaics of cells in relationship to each other and always alive, always moving.


So, here’s the dream that mosaic-ed ancestral and personal memory in me. The dream is an old dream, one that came when I was confronting and working through trauma. [Trigger warning – it is a brutal dream, and you can skip it if you don’t want to read it].

I am in a house and see, in the kitchen sink, a burlap type bag with something in it. My mother tells me it is my brother’s head and that I have killed him. Everyone else in the house is treating me like I am the murderer. I don’t remember anything and I don’t open the bag to see if what she is saying is even true. I believe her story. So, calmly, I decide I must chop off my hands as punishment. I use my right hand to chop off my left hand, then wedge the ax into the ground and through my right arm against the axe over and over until my right hand is severed. I feel nothing.

The dream speaks to something I had been doing my entire life, which was internalizing blame, internalizing violence. In the dream, I am convinced that I have caused my brother’s death [my brother is still alive], my mother convincing me. I am convinced and, in some ways, was always convinced that anything that was wrong in the family must have been my fault. So convinced that there is a way that I did “chop off my hands”, did injure myself spiritually and emotionally, cutting off parts of myself – hands that hold holding and manifesting creativity and touch. Touch. Casually cutting these parts. I did not ever do anything to my body as a kid or an adult, did not cut myself or literally injure myself in some way. It makes the dream even more shocking.

This is how I tried to survive a trauma I experienced with my brother, a trauma with my mother as well. Self-blame, self shutdown, cutting things away from myself. The dream gives not just information about the trauma, which was that afterwards, I blamed myself, but about how I responded to it and was still responding to it.

When I was given the dream, hard as it was, it was a gift – it showed me how shut down I was and how it looked and felt to be so shut down. It was a wake-up call to come out of numbness. It was an experience that worked to shock me awake.

It was also a wake-up call for me around how I had been and could be in relationship, which is cutting it off. Cutting myself off from people I love, carving them out of my life.


Years later, when doing research for a class I was teaching on mythology and fairytales, I remembered the dream and did a search online for stories about a girl with no hands. The story from Grimm’s Fairytales of The Handless Maiden immediately came up. A story I had never read.

It is a christianized story – of the devil tricking a father to give up his daughter in exchange for wealth. Of the daughter warding off being taken by the devil, of the devil insisting on the father cutting off her hands. How the daughter remained “clean” through her weeping and so warded off the devil. Of the daughter leaving her father’s home and being helped by an angel. The story continues with the daughter marrying a king, giving birth and then the devil (or the mother-in-law) intervening via letters to get the daughter and her son killed. Of the daughter’s second flight. Of how the king found them. And how the hands of the daughter grew back because she was so pious. [You can read the whole story here.]

Just as the dream was shocking to me, so was finding the story.

First that there was such a story that echoed my dream. And how it felt that there was some truth in the story for me.

In particular, the sacrifice of the daughter’s body because of the father’s short-sightedness and how she had to leave her father’s house. It made me think of my own father in relationship to my story of what had happened with my brother. For my father, in his trauma, stayed clear of us children in many ways. Left to our own devices. Left to the care of my mother who was also overwhelmed. Who also left us to our own devices. My body sacrificed in the bigger dynamics and trauma of the house.

How my father, too, cut people from his life, including me, including my brothers. How he lived in isolation.

It resonated for me and helped with my healing. It helped me to see that the sexual trauma with my brother was not just about me and my brother, but that there was a terrible dynamic in the house that allowed the hard thing to happen. An absent father, an absent mother who was also jealous.

A few years later, again when researching for a class, I decided to look up Italian fairytales – in particular, Italian fairytales about handless maidens. And found this – Penta of the Chopped-Off Hands. This is a synopsis:

A king lost his wife and fell in love with his sister, Penta. He implored her to marry him. When she refused and he continued to implore her, she asked what attracted him, and he praised her beauty, but most highly, her hands. She tricked a slave into cutting off her hands, and the king had her put in a chest and thrown into the sea. A fisherman caught the chest in his nets and brought her home, but his wife, Nuccia, was jealous of Penta’s beauty and threw her back into the sea. The king of Terraverde saw the chest and rescued her, making her his queen’s lady-in-waiting. Shortly thereafter, the queen fell ill and asked him to marry Penta. He agreed, she died, and he married Penta. He had to go on a journey, and while he was gone, Penta gave birth to a baby. The king’s servants sent a message, but the ship was thrown by a storm on the shore where the fisherman had rescued Penta, and Nuccia got the captain drunk and substituted a letter that said she had given birth to a puppy.

What stories/fairytales/myths have arisen in your dreams? I would love to hear from you. If you have a dream like this and want to know a little more, send it to me here and I will answer your question here on the blog.

The king received this message and sent back a letter that the queen should not be distressed, such events were determined by heaven, but Nuccia substituted a letter ordering that the queen and her son were to be burned. His councilors concluded that he had gone mad and sent Penta and her son away. She traveled to a kingdom ruled by a magician, who gave her shelter and promised a reward to whoever could tell him the most miserable tale.

The king returned home, heard all the stories, and concluded that Nuccia had caused the problems. He went to her home and had her burned. He heard of the magician’s offer from Penta’s brother and was certain that he could win the prize. They both went, and Penta’s brother recounted his wickedness and how he had thrown his own sister into the sea. Penta’s husband recounted his tale. The magician showed them Penta and her son, and declared that her husband had suffered the most miserably, so that Penta and her husband would be his heirs.

This story is told in a book written in the 17th century by Giambattista Basile called The Pentamerone. A book that the Grimm brothers brought from obscurity and used when they were gathering their tales.

A sister, a brother. A girl who wanted to make herself ugly so that the brother would not desire her.

Part of the mosaic of my Italian blood carries this story. So specific, the connection of the dream to the story.

Specific, I believe, because this old story speaks to my experience not just as something that happened to me but that has happened before in other families, to other sisters.

I recently heard Pádraig Ó Tuama [a wonderful Irish poet and theologian] say this about myths/fairytales; “Myth is not something that’s false; myth is something that’s so true that we find fantastical ways to tell it.”

I love this because I believe it. We look to stories to help us find our own place in our own lives. Finding the story of Penta, of how it is a story told in the place of my ancestors, helps me to be with my story. That this is a story so hard and so true and that it has happened with other people. It happened in the culture of my people.

Maybe [probably] it happened even in my own family’s stories somewhere. Some sister, some brother.


Another layer of healing for me comes from finding this Italian version, for it speaks to power and beauty, to how a woman did not own her body, to how the only way to have agency was to separate from the body that is specific to Italian culture and history, including the catholic church and even back to Roman times. Penta does not have the power to say no to her brother. He is the king. Women often did not have the option to say no to the power of the males in their clans, families. They were considered owned by the family.

Both stories also helped me to understand something else I carried about “purity.” In the story memories of my body, there were two ways for a girl to be – either pure like Penta, like the handless maiden, like the Virgin Mary or ugly like all the ugly step-mothers or jealous wives like Nuccia or Eve who brought about “sin.”

How I lived in those unworded stories that make part of the mosaic that is me. Unworded, unknown in me, they helped build beliefs I carried in my body about my body and about my life. If I am not pure – like Mary or Penta or the Handless Maiden – then I am impure. Then I am the one who causes bad things, me and my body, me and my sensuality; I am like Eve or Nuccia. Or worse.

How easy, then, to blame myself for many things. What happened with my brother, my mother’s jealousy and anger at me [and many other women]. What happened with my father leaving the family, cutting us out of his life. How easy, then, to feel that it is my job to be punished, to make it better.

With all this context, it is not a big leap to my actions in the dream. To the blame, to the self-punishment. To the place where I could casually through myself against the blade of an ax over and over again. The dream telling me how I was living inside that fairytale. Ancestral and current, past and present.

All this possibility for context and healing encoded not just in the dream, but in the story the dream used to teach me. In the layers and layers of stories the dream showed me I was living.

So I could have a wider view of my own story within the context of history, both family and culture.

So I could no longer be isolated with my experience.

So I could begin to heal and leave living those stories.

So I could begin the process of discovering my own story.

So the magic, that is the dream, could help grow back my hands.

This is the why dreams bring unworded stories we carry into our consciousness, into our experience. To awaken us. To open us to all possibilities of healing and reclaiming, letting go and discovery.

What stories/fairytales/myths have arisen in your dreams? I would love to hear from you. If you have a dream like this and want to know a little more, send it to me here and I will answer your question here on the blog.