Binding Ties: The Stories We Tell

The Family Tree

The Family Tree

My daughter paused in front of a new edition of Anna Karenina at the local  bookstore, enticed by the cover.

“Can you read the first line?” I asked her.

She reached for the book, but I abruptly snatched it away from her, thinking better of having her sound out: “All happy families are the same, but unhappy families areeach unhappy in their own way.”

The topics of story and family is very much in the air and on my mind right now. I think the reason genealogy has become a national pastime is, in part,  due to some vain wish people have to discover vestiges of aristocracy, intellectual superiority, or the aura of victimhood in their background.  (Gwyneth, being such an achiever, managed all three in discovering that her lineage includes a shamanistic Rabbi!)

But the genealogy craze is also in response to a an individual’s need for narrative, context, and a family story.

I am still thinking about a remark in a recent article in the New York Times about the role of stories in family life. Bruce Feiler’s ‘The Stories That Bind Us’, tells us that children’s sense of self-esteem and control over life directly correlates to how much they know about their family history. As in, where their grandparents grew up, where their parents met, or the story of their birth. He quotes Dr. Marshall Duke from Emory University, who advises parents to create a family ‘mission statement’ gleaned from the family narrative, which identifies it’s ‘core values.’

“Mission Statement” and “core values” sound corporate and vacuous to me, but I do recognize that narrative is something that can build cohesion within a family.

Yet there is something that is bothering me about the language of Bruce Fieler and Marshall Duke.

Duke says “The most healthful narrative is… the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ “

All well and good. But there is something disingenuous in these platitudes. The phrasing of the negative aspects from Dr. Duke implies the setbacks are external. These are things that happen to us. We were victims of bad luck.

This works fine if the setback is a tornado that landed on the house. It works somewhat less fine if a tornado landed on the house and the insurance had expired because Daddy forgot to renew. It works much less well if the tornado is that Daddy was an alcoholic. What if the truth is that Dad gambled the mortgage away? Or that Mom was depressed and drank so much she fell asleep with a cigarette and the house caught fire? Maybe Dad got himself fired after sleeping with his secretary.

Then there is the very idea of narrative itself that Fieler and Duke subscribe to — it presumes the story being told is true.

Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina

Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina

I’d jump on the “truth above all else” bandwagon, but then I remember things like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Denial has been part of the human condition since the dawn of consciousness.

It is certainly part of my condition:  If I didn’t employ denial on a daily basis, it would be impossible for me to function. I can instantaneously name 20 of my own character flaws that would keep me hidden under the covers for weeks if I pondered them every day.

So what stories do we tell our our children about themselves and their family?

I suppose if we allow ourselves these not-so-white lies, we can at least give our children a family narrative that, if not exactly Little House on the Prairie, aren’t the Romanovs either. The family narrative is just like the best fiction — taken from real life but with lots of poetic license.

As Joan Didion famously wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” She didn’t specify if all of these stories were true.

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