Gerry Rafferty knew better than he sang. In his song, “Get It Right Next Time,” he sang, “And if you get it wrong, you’ll get it right next time .” But he knew better than that. As a deeply talented and sensitive man who hated fame but whose immensely talented songs, like “Baker Street,” “Stuck In The Middle With You,” and “Right Down The Line,” earned him a massively popular career that he proceeded to flush down the drain with the same alcoholism that his abusive Irish father suffered from .
He was talented, he was successful, and he had the love of a sweet daughter and his childhood sweetheart, but none of it mattered. He drank himself into oblivion, destroying rooms in five star hotels, going on benders on transatlantic flights, claiming that he fell down stairs and so injured himself he had to go to the hospital. Eventually he died of liver failure. His alcoholism destroyed his career, his marriage, and eventually his life. He is far from alone in that. And yet there is something deeply moving in his enduring signature song “Baker’s Street,” where the narrator says, “He’s got this dream about buying some land. He’s gonna give up the booze and the one night stands, and then he’ll settle down, in a quiet little town and forget about everything .” But he couldn’t forget, or settle down, or give up the booze, and so he lost everything.
There are a few elements that make the story of Gerry Rafferty particularly notable. For one, he knew the effects of alcohol on his family, on his own life, and he was aware of its destructive effects. But even as he tried to avoid the limelight, even as his bands and relationships fell apart because of his quarrelsome nature and his tendency to self-medicate via alcohol, his insight about himself didn’t give him any ability to overcome the force of habit. As another band that struggles with alcoholism sang, “As the needle slips into the worn out groove, maybe you’ll feel it too. Maybe you’ll feel it too. And maybe you’ll find life is unkind and over so soon .”
All too often in life we ponder about the relationship of nature and nurture. We wonder whether to blame the genes we inherited from our family or their bad example. And yet there is a subtle way that scientists are just beginning to understand of how nurture becomes nature through the epigenome, in the way that our actions on this earth cause the expression of genes to change and pass along that “cell memory” onto our offspring . In short, the mistakes we make can be passed on directly to our children because our body’s cells remember what we did and are changed accordingly.
There is a troubling saying in the Bible, in the third commandment, which comments about taking God’s name in vain, where God says that he “visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation (Exodus 20:5-6, Deuteronomy 5:9-10).” Even though within this commandment there is an immediate reference to God showing mercy to the thousands of generations of descendants (essentially forever) of those who love him, there are many people who are still troubled by a vision of God punishing innocent children and grandchildren who did not sin in the first place. Why should the innocent have to suffer for the sins of their fathers. It would appear, if we have understood epigenetics at all, that this law has been hard-coded into Creation, such that our actions carry consequences for our offspring, and their children, and so on.
I have often wondered not only at the direct consequences in which offspring share the exact sins of their fathers and mothers, which is common enough, but also less direct causes. For example, it has struck my attention, as I reflect upon my own digestive woes, that the people I know who suffer the worst with terrible digestive systems come from families where alcohol abuse runs rampant (like mine). Though correlation does not prove causation, it would seem to be a worthy subject of inquiry that possibly the long-term abuse of alcohol leads the body (in trying to survive being poisoned) to stop metabolizing or digesting what the body intakes as well in order to lessen the damage, and that this trait may be passed on epigenetically (or genetically, if the alcoholism itself causes a degradation of the genetic code), leaving children (even those of us with no inclination to abuse alcohol) with a lessened ability to digest foods and increased digestive troubles starting from childhood, as colicky babies or as young people afflicted with Krohn’s disease or other related problems. I had not been familiar with such research previously, but my own anecdotal experience suggests that it may be a profitable area of research in the future, and it appears as if some researchers are exploring this precise connection .
In short, it would appear as if there are ways in which our own behavior digs ruts in our bodies that are passed down to our children after us, who then face the struggle not only to avoid wrong patterns of behavior that are learned automatically from parents, but also to deal with the physical consequences within their own bodies from the sins of their fathers and mothers. Epigenetics suggests that there are no victimless crimes. Every thoughtless indiscretion or abuse of our own bodies may pass along consequences to our offspring, and their offspring, to the third and fourth generation. Thus others pay for our own sins, and we are responsible for it.
This suggests, that Gerry Rafferty’s singing about “getting it right next time,” was only self-serving advice to keep from despair. It was necessary advice, in light of his own frequent failures, but it was still self-deceiving. All too often, though, like the late Gerry Rafferty, we are both sinned against and sinning. We suffer from the sins of our fathers, and our sins cause our children to suffer. May we get it right this time, in the hope that we may pass along blessings and not curses to our beloved offspring.
 Keane, “Perfect Symmetry”
 I have seen some research in the relationship between alcohol abuse and digestive troubles in the alcoholics themselves, see, for example:
And also some evidence showing that children of alcoholics show greater digestive problems than children of “normal” families: