Transparent and Epigenetics

Gaby Hoffman in Transparent

Ali Pfefferman’s (Gaby Hoffmann) discovery of epigenetics in season 2 of Transparent hooked me. In fact, I thought the idea that stress and trauma from generations before yours could be passed through the generations was the most interesting thing in season 2 of Transparent. It certainly would do a lot to explain why the Pfefferman clan are such a bunch of dysfunctional, self-centered, commitment-phobic assholes.

Assholes we love, of course.

Here’s how epigenetics is defined (your eyes may glaze over a bit, but stick with me):

Epigenetics is the study, in the field of genetics, of cellular and physiological phenotypic trait variations that are caused by external or environmental factors that switch genes on and off and affect how cells read genes instead of being caused by changes in the DNA sequence.

My curiosity got me. I read several articles about epigenetics.

An article in Discover Magazine confirms what Ali suspected about her ancestry. Here’s a quote:

According to the new insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. Jews whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; Chinese whose grandparents lived through the ravages of the Cultural Revolution; young immigrants from Africa whose parents survived massacres; adults of every ethnicity who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents — all carry with them more than just memories.

Then I found fast-talking Hank and his SciShow on YouTube. He explains it pretty well.

To me, the important part of this science is that changes are not permanent. Your actual DNA isn’t changed, simply the way it’s expressed. And changes in expression can be reversed. As Discover put it, “…for those unlucky enough to descend from miserable or withholding grandparents, emerging drug treatments could reset not just mood, but the epigenetic changes themselves. Like grandmother’s vintage dress, you could wear it or have it altered.”

Still of Emily Robinson and Hari Nef in Transparent
Emily Robinson and Hari Nef in Transparent

Ali is moving toward finding out that her grandmother Rose (Emily Robinson as young Rose, Shannon Welles as older Rose) had a transgender sibling. We see flashbacks to 1933 Berlin and Rose with her sibling Gittel (Hari Nef). From the flashbacks, we learn things that no one in the Pfefferman family seems to know now.  Gittel was left behind in Germany when Rose and her mother escaped to America. Rose is elderly now, and isn’t talking. But she responds to the sight of Gittel’s ring when Ali wears it on a chain around her neck.

About this time, Ali happens across the idea of epigenetics. If she continues to inquire into her history, she may find Gittel.

Gaby Hoffmann and Carrie Brownstein in Transparent
Gaby Hoffmann and Carrie Brownstein in Transparent

Ali owned season 2 in several ways for me. She had a lovely but brief romance with her best friend Syd (Carrie Brownstein). She promptly screwed it up – she’s still a Pfefferman – but it was beautiful for a bit.

Ali also has a brief fling with a professor, Leslie (Cherry Jones), with whom she is hoping to study.

Ali seemed more grounded than the others in season 2. She was really flighty and scattered in season 1, but seems to have a direction at last. If she stays on this path in season 3, she may succeed in finding Gittel and her family’s history from Germany. Is there an epigenetic reason for some of the family dysfunction?

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