Do you know where your parents met? The story of your birth? Can you recite a tale of suffering from you ancestral archives? It turns out that possessing those answers may help you develop resilience. A recent New York Times article proposes that knowing family stories helps people, especially children, face life's challenges. Doctors Duke and Fivush asked children 20 questions and found that sharing family narratives yields greater health and happiness. By this standard, I should be a paragon of health and happiness. I write about family narratives on a daily basis as I work on a memoir about the trans-generational transmission of trauma. As I tell the story of two cousins during the Holocaust, I focus on how we hear and pass along stories of family suffering.
So it's a relief to hear that despite the burdens such learning may carry, passing along family narratives yields benefits. WNYC's host Brian Leher asked callers to respond to the Times' story. Callers disclosed conflicts about sharing aspects of narratives. Some were not sure how to tell past encounters with tragedy and violence. One mother described the difficulty of telling her child how he was born in New York on 9/11. Another wasn't sure how much of her own exposure to violence in Bosnia to share with her children. I was reminded of the struggle experienced by some trauma survivors. Some parents kept their painful pasts secret in order to try to protect their children. In her wonderful book, After Long Silence, Helen Fremont tells about being raised a Roman Catholic only to discover as an adult that her parents were actually Jews whose families had been killed in the Holocaust. Her parents had suffered so much tragedy that they came to believe in the false narrative they had told to survive, a history that erased their Jewish roots. As Fremont shows, family secrets can create their own forms of pain.
Other callers discussed conflicts around narrating birth stories. A Catholic mother confided that she grapples with how to disclose the fact that her first child was conceived out of wedlock. Brian Leher started his program with a clip by parents who adopted a child after finding him in the subway. They turned their family history into a children's book and read it repeatedly to their son, who eventually took pride in recognizing that the story was his own. That child shared his adoption book in kindergarten and it, in turn, helped other adopted children in his class. Whether our parents or caregivers share our genes or not, we join together through our shared narratives.
As Sophocles and the Greeks (and Freud) knew, stories of origin fascinate, bewilder and haunt us. What if Jocasta and Laius simply told Oedipus the prophecy about his birth? If they understood the value of sharing family narratives could Oedipus have avoided his tragic fate? Fortunately, the puzzle of origins that most of us must solve is not nearly as shocking as the revelations in Oedipus Rex. That said, secrets persist.
My family is full of writers and talkers. Nevertheless, dramatic family secrets were unlocked during my childhood. I can't post all of the details here, but they revolved around topics discussed on Leher's radio show. In two cases, the parents thought that hiding the truth of origins and birth from their children would protect them. I consider both to have backfired.
As for the case I unlocked, I remain mute. But as for the other, cousins were adopted but never told. The extended family outside of than the children themselves knew about the adoption. Only as adults did these cousins piece together the story. One of these cousins had brown eyes while both of his parents had blue eyes - a genetic impossibility. Do I need to explain the sense of betrayal when he discovered his "birth story"?
Lest you get the wrong impression, my family does tell plenty of shared stories. When I read about the "Do You Know" test, my first response was, "Yes! I know, already! I know!" I tease my mother when she tells stories from her past. When she begins to recite one from her repertoire, I call out, "Here comes #702!" Even at age 46, I can be an annoying daughter. I could write a novel about my father's dramatic childhood, full of the names of his terrible teachers who hated his Commie-leanings, or the boy with whom he surprised my aunt while wearing an Air Raid Warden's helmet and goggles, or the time he caught a bank robber (for real!). I know so many details of my mother's history that sometimes I have a hard time separating my own story from hers. (Mother-daughter issues -- lines between us can become blurry in my mind.) My memoir answers the question, "Where did your parents meet?" I describe how my father and his grad school pals pre-arranged a sighting of my mother. Hannah Arendt was speaking at Mandell Hall at the University of Chicago on her controversial "Eichmann in Jerusalem" and the culpability of the Judenrat in the Holocaust. My father arranged for one friend to accompany my mother to the lecture while he and another friend went to the lecture so he could check her out. My dad liked what he saw. The story makes me feel happy and strangely connected to Hannah Arendt. If the Holocaust slips into virtually every blog post I write, then perhaps it's due to this part of my family narrative.
Before I lose all of my readers with too many family stories, I close with a reflection on the value of sharing these narratives with an extended family. Every summer my husband, kids, and I travel to Cape Cod with my parents, brothers, and their families. Inevitably, with siblings, cousins, in-laws, spouses, parents, and children, some strife ensues. There's always a point at which I am about to declare: "not next year!" And then I realize that despite family conflicts, we join together for the deepest belly laughs I have all year, such as when we tease my mother for reading Never Again: Echoes of the Holocaust As Understood Through Film while relaxing at the beach. From competitive kids lunging at one another with mini golf clubs to sharing perfect wave rides on boogie boards, we create new chapters of our family narrative.