banner ad
banner ad
banner ad

BOOK REVIEW: It Didn’t Start With You by Mark Wolynn

| 19 August 2021 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: It Didn’t Start With You by Mark Wolynn

Penguin Life
July 2017
Paperback, $29.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Psychology / Self-Help

35% Rocking

Depression. Anxiety. Chronic Pain. Phobias. Obsessive thoughts. The evidence is compelling- the roots of these difficulties may not reside in our immediate life experience or in chemical imbalances in our brains-but in the lives of our parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents. The latest scientific research, now making headlines, supports what many have long intuited-that traumatic experience can be passed down through generations. It Didn’t Start with You builds on the work of leading experts in post-traumatic stress, including Mount Sinai School of Medicine neuroscientist Rachel Yehuda and psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score. Even if the person who suffered the original trauma has died, or the story has been forgotten or silenced, memory and feelings can live on. These emotional legacies are often hidden, encoded in everything from gene expression to everyday language, and they play a far greater role in our emotional and physical health than has ever before been understood.

As a pioneer in the field of inherited family trauma, Mark Wolynn has worked with individuals and groups on a therapeutic level for over twenty years. It Didn’t Start with You offers a pragmatic and prescriptive guide to his method, the Core Language Approach. Diagnostic self-inventories provide a way to uncover the fears and anxieties conveyed through everyday words, behaviors, and physical symptoms. Techniques for developing a genogram or extended family tree create a map of experiences going back through the generations. And visualization, active imagination, and direct dialogue create pathways to reconnection, integration, and reclaiming life and health. It Didn’t Start With You is a transformative approach to resolving longstanding difficulties that in many cases, traditional therapy, drugs, or other interventions have not had the capacity to touch


Our relationship with our parent is, in many ways, a metaphor for life. Those who feel that they have received a lot from their parents often feel that they receive a lot from life. Feeling that we got only a small amount from our parents can translate into the feeling that we get only a small amount from life. Shortchanged by our parents, we can feel shortchanged by life.

It Didn’t Start With You claims to take a look at epigenetic trauma, specifically how trauma can cause changes to our own genes, and how that might go on to manifest as an increase of decrease in certain chemicals in our body, such as cortisol, which regulates our ability to deal with stressful situations. 

The first two or three chapters of the book are well-written, well-researched, and easy to digest. Wolynn takes a look at various research that has been carried out on the changes that can be passed on to our offspring after being subjected to stressful situations, and after a return to a safe environment following stressful situations. 

Unfortunately, after these first few chapters, the author seems to veer into an area of the study that he just doesn’t seem to grasp… or he’s cherry-picking the parts of the study that back-up his hypothesis – that understanding trauma that happened to our ancestors will allow us to pass that trauma back to them through time, by process of visualisation and acceptance, and we’ll be almost instantly unburdened. 

The whole thing smacks of a lot of pseudoscience and confirmation bias.

That’s not to say this book isn’t without its merits and unable to help anyone dealing with stressors, but it is rather more targeted towards those who have trauma responses out of proportion to what’s going on in their lives, as opposed to people dealing with their own trauma, though there is something to be said for the underlying message that resolving your trauma will stop you passing it onto your children, too.

The Good Takeaways: 

  • This book looks at the fact that we all likely have trauma of some form or another, which helps the reader feel not so alone, and understand that they needn’t embody the victim mindset. In fact, the victim mindset is more likely to drag them down.
  • Wolynn cites some interesting research which could be helpful to do more independent reading on.
  • The book makes you take a look at the way you treat those around you, especially taking into account that those who have made you feel bad in the past, intentionally or otherwise, probably had some pretty dark stuff in their own past. 
  • Through visualization and looking at your family tree, this method gives you a place to lay your own stress without having to carry it around with you. There have been studies into the fact that visualising a situation (forgiveness, understanding, support, resilience, etc.) can activate the parts in our brain that would react to a similar situation in which external factors were validating our experience.

The Confusing Elements:

  • Wolynn talks about epigenetic trauma, specifically the inheritance of traumatic events and memories from your ancestors. At times he forces a link so hard that the reader can’t help but wonder if the author understands how genetics work. Specifically when dealing with clients who lost aunts, uncles, and grandparents in situations where they didn’t live to pass on anything genetically… but the book claims the trauma was passed directly from those relatives, not via the parent who survived that ordeal and then went on to pass on genetics to the client.
  • At times throughout the book, the epigenetic trauma seems to follow the subject family around as though it is a sentient being, crying out for someone to hear it and fix it, rather than a trauma that changes the way a parent treats their child, and that child treats their own child, and so on.
  • He spends so much of the book insisting that trauma is not our own and is inherited, but the last few chapters focus on specific ways our parents interacted or failed to interact with us, and how that manifests in our own fears, but offers little in the sense of dealing with our own traumas.
  • Wolynn rattles of a list of possible causes and connections you might look for, until you find something he can direct your trauma towards, rather like a cold-reader claiming to communicate with your loved-ones from beyond the grave.

The Downright Concerning:

  • The core message of this book is that you must reconnect with your parents if not in contact or close with them. That you must forgive them for any perceived wrongdoing, which may have actually happened, but if they were abusive, they weren’t abusive all the time, and you’re predisposed not to remember the good times because they weren’t crucial to your survival… but if they were abusive and you are remembering correctly, then it’s not their fault, and it’s on you to fix the relationship.
    When an adult child decides to end a relationship with their parent, they rarely do it lightly, and this is akin to telling a person they need to hear their abuser out, in certain circumstances.
  • Most of Wolynn’s clients were “fixed” after one session, and didn’t struggle with those feelings anymore. Yes, the blurb does suggest this is a way to work with struggles where other therapies and medications haven’t helped, but this seems largely invalidating to people with mental health concerns. It wasn’t you, it was your ancestor, and now that you know that, you can move on and live a happy life without further issues. This puts a certain amount of extra pressure on someone who finds themselves falling back into old thinking patterns, and finds themselves questioning what is wrong with them that they aren’t magically fixed. 
  • The long laundry list of things that could have happened to you or someone in your family ensures that almost everyone who might approach Wolynn for sessions would fit his mould, and if they don’t, he’ll find a way to make them fit… which does make one question whether the motivation behind his work are coming from the right place. 


A life completely devoid of trauma, as we’re learning, is highly unlikely. Traumas do not sleep, even with death, but, rather, continue to look for the fertile ground of resolution in the children of the following generations. Fortunately, human beings are resilient and are capable of healing most types of trauma. This can happen at any time during our lives. We just need the right insights and tools.

The author is right, healing trauma does depend on having the right insights and tools, but I would posit that the reason trauma travels through generations is not because it’s “searching for fertile ground” like a sentient being, but rather because as humans reproduce and perpetrate their own traumas on their children (sometimes, not always, and not always intentionally so much as a subliminal message conveyed to our children that carries with it our own fears), that trauma continues, we gain access to more resources, and people start to look into the mechanisms behind trauma, enabling that generation to be the one to stop the cycle.

I think it has a lot to do with timing and resources, and not so much to do with that sentient trauma crying out to be heard, looked at, and healed. 

In the end, trauma varies from person to person, and working through that is not a one-size-fits-all kind of deal, as much as this author might seem to think it is. We must heal our own trauma so it doesn’t get passed down to the next generation, validate the traumas of others, but not excuse the trauma bestowed upon us by them because they also have a past.

That said, your experience may vary, as your traumas will be different from my own, but if this book doesn’t help you in the way its author suggests his method should, maybe the error isn’t with you, but with this magical psychological cure that inevitably feels all a bit “woo-woo”.




Tags: , , , ,

Category: Book Reviews

About the Author ()

Leave a Reply

Please verify you\'re a real person: * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

banner ad
banner ad