three characters from Lost in Yonkers sitting on a couch
Illustration by Laura Browning, University of Colorado, Denver

‘Lost in Yonkers’ Depicts the Heartache of Intergenerational Trauma

The play-turned-film offers an authentic example of what happens when pain is passed down through generations.

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three characters from Lost in Yonkers sitting on a couch
Illustration by Laura Browning, University of Colorado, Denver

The play-turned-film offers an authentic example of what happens when pain is passed down through generations.

“Lost in Yonkers” is a film adapted from playwright Neil Simon’s play of the same name. In the film, kids Jay and Arty Kurnitz stay with the harsh Grandma Kurnitz following the death of their mother. They live with her unreasonable rules while their father, Eddie, works as a traveling salesman to pay off their debt and support the family. They also live with their Aunt Bella, who is in her 30s but thinks and behaves like a young girl. “Lost in Yonkers” contains themes of family, endurance, childhood trauma and loss, and it largely touches on the intergenerational effects of war and familial trauma.

The film takes place during World War II. Grandma Kurnitz is a Jewish immigrant from Germany who lived through the First World War. During that time, she and her father were caught up in a riot that left him dead and Grandma Kurnitz permanently disabled. Because of the trauma caused by the incident, the war and her emigration to America, she closed off her feelings to avoid falling apart emotionally. Even years later, Grandma Kurnitz believes that people must “be like steel” to survive.

Grandma Kurnitz’s suppressed emotions had an intensely negative effect on her children. She was conditioned to suppress the grief she most likely needed to process to move forward healthily; she saw any form of weakness as shameful, even in her children. Because of this, she was often insensitive and deprived them of the love and affection children need.

Eddie is a nervous wreck, overly emotional and extremely intimidated by his mother. He is visibly shaken by the idea of asking his mother to let Jay and Arty stay with her while he travels for work and when she initially refuses, he lashes out emotionally. Bella rarely stands up to her mother, her desire for love and independence hampered by her self-imposed obligation to take care of her. Jay and Arty’s uncle Louie, shaped by his mother’s unhindered toughness and buried anger, becomes a gangster. When their aunt Gert was young, her mother punished her for saying something inappropriate while sleep-talking and she began to subconsciously hold her breath in her sleep. Now whenever she speaks, she unintentionally sucks in her breath, making her voice sound raspy and short.

Grandma Kurnitz’s refusal to acknowledge her emotions necessarily means she never acknowledges any positive emotions. When she stops herself from feeling sadness or grief, she also deprives herself of the ability to feel joy or love. Inevitably, when she punishes herself for her emotions, she ends up punishing her children for their emotions too. Her behavior is the direct result of unresolved trauma in her own childhood; when trauma is unresolved, it’s likely to be passed on to the following generations unless the cycle is broken. This is known as intergenerational trauma, which is astutely represented in “Lost in Yonkers.”

Children are often overflowing with different emotions as they find their place in the world. When they are faced with a parent who gives them no room to express their emotions in a healthy way, they will usually come out the other end as emotionally unbalanced, bad decision-makers or a combination of both. All four of Grandma Kurnitz’ children — Eddie, Bella, Gert and Louie — all deal with some sort of emotional irregularity or pathology. Her attempt to suppress her children’s emotional expression ultimately ended up creating stunted human beings.

In cases of intergenerational trauma, the original trauma affects each succeeding generation in its own way, making them susceptible to further psychological damage and preventing them from developing the appropriate coping skills to deal with it. It can also create distance between family members who have shared trauma, which is the case in “Lost in Yonkers.” Louie’s gangster lifestyle means he spends most of his time in the streets and only pops in on occasion. Eddie moved far away from his mother in adulthood, estranging her from Jay and Arty, who practically consider Grandma Kurnitz a stranger at first. Gert and Bella both have strained relationships with Grandma Kurnitz and they’re constantly walking on eggshells, overthinking their words around her.

A child of an immigrant can often be overly worried about the needs of their parents. Bella in “Lost in Yonkers” feels that she owes it to her mother to give up her independence and take care of her full-time; many real-life children of immigrants feel the same way about their own parents. Much like Bella, this can have adverse effects on the child’s mental health.

Psychologist Dr. Lisette Sanchez, who is a child of immigrants from El Salvador and Mexico, expanded on the negative effects this can have: “At a time when they may still be developing their own social relations and skills, children of immigrants must contend with the added weight of their parents’ needs. And while it may seem like a point of pride for a child to ‘grow up fast,’ this process of taking on family obligations and responsibilities has consequences for the mental health of these children – consequences that often persist into adulthood.” Dr. Sanchez identified the phenomenon as parentification.

Dr. Sanchez provided common examples of parentification between children and their parents: “A common example of this is the parent-teacher conference, where the child must act as an interpreter for their parents. In this context, the child must over-function in order to ensure the parents receive the information required to meet the child’s needs. In more complex situations, such as medical appointments, the well-being of the parents becomes the child’s responsibility.” This kind of burden is overwhelming for children because they are meant to be the ones cared for, rather than the caretakers.

“Lost in Yonkers” highlights the effects of intergenerational trauma on the children of parents who themselves have unresolved trauma. By focusing on a Jewish immigrant who fled Germany during WWI, the audience sees examples of how trauma is passed down from generation to generation when not dealt with appropriately.

Writer Profile

Saba Bazzi

Wayne State University
English

Saba is a student and writer who is fueled by coffee and a desire for truth. She navigates the world with a sense of openness and values the power of conversation and written word.

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