by Janet Curley
Is it okay to try to create family stories about people who lived more than a hundred years ago? What do I really know about them? Nothing…But I always start telling myself stories as I come across new pieces of information. I wonder sometimes if this is fair to them, or to me for that matter.
In my career as a therapist, the past and family stories were critically important in helping someone make sense of their present circumstances. A focus in therapy is to help patients understand the nature of their relationships with their family of origin. Who were the people who nurtured them? Who were the people who challenged them? Who were the people who hurt them? Who were the people they could count on? And who amongst all those people did they most identify with or have the closest ties to? If our emotional ties are strongest with the people who hurt us, we are likely to remain in pain and struggle with our relationship with others. If our ties are with those who nurtured us and who truly helped us to become healthy adults, we are likely to have more satisfying lives and loves. Of course it is never that simple and the emotional ties are tangled and complicated. Hence, we can easily spend years trying to untangle the Irish knot that was created before we could even walk and talk.
As a genealogist, I often don’t know the stories. And I don’t know where the strongest relationships were. I know the names and dates. I know where and sometimes even how someone lived, but I don’t have their own account of their lives. Who nurtured them? Who challenged them? Who hurt them? Who did they count on? And who did they have the closest ties to? I look for clues among the hidden facts that I find for the emotional decisions. The census reports tell me who lived with who. They tell me what they did for a living and how many children they lost. They tell me when they left their family of origin, the country they knew and threw caution to the wind for new opportunities. All of these facts have emotional decisions associated with them.
I am always trying to put together a family story with all these pieces of information. I can’t help it. After 25 years of helping patients try to make sense of their family ties, I am constantly building relationships between family that I have found but don’t know. I have no idea if my guesses are right or even close.
Of course, the family stories we tell from our own lives are often close to fiction. What a child understands about their parents’ motivations is often flawed and incomplete. We carry those ideas into adulthood and they affect our relationships with our parents until we become parents and begin to understand why they might have done what they did. Sometimes we never get to that understanding. So if the stories we tell ourselves about living relatives are guesses at best, then why can’t we develop stories about our ancestors long dead? Without the emotional baggage, perhaps the stories are more accurate? Yet I know it is impossible to look down a long telescope without our own lenses, without our own assumptions.
As a therapist, one of the lessons I learned early was not to assume I knew how someone felt about their relationships. A patient could recoil from a loving relationship and remain loyal to a harmful one. A parent’s love could be smothering and their abandonment could be the best thing for their child. I had to hear about the tangled web of emotional ties before I could really understand why my patient was there in front of me suffering because those ties were in a strangling and paralyzing knot. I will never be able to do that with my silent ancestors. I will never hear about their contradictory relationships or what parts of their lives meant the most to them.
I can only create my own flawed and incomplete stories with the innocent understanding of a genealogist trying to know her family. I suppose this is as good as it gets for anyone trying to understand their family, living or dead. And I believe that most of us can’t really help ourselves. The stories will develop whether we wish them to or (k)not.