For the last few months I’ve felt the urge to start researching my family history & herstory. It’s to do with roots, becoming more pro-active in my family, being 30 and taking an interest in such things, and is connected to the documentation, research and journalistic aspects of my work. I also find family stories, characters and everyday tales (mine and other people’s) an incredibly rich source of inspiration for creative output.
After a few months of brewing thoughts, my Dad and I kickstarted this project over Christmas. I know a little more about my maternal side so it seemed a natural starting point, along with the big envelope stuffed full of photos and bag of documents at my parent’s house. We began sorting the material, Dad talking through who was in the photographs and where they were taken, then through birth, death and marriage certificates and other documents such as driving licenses and newspaper clippings. My questioning and our conversation filled in some of the gaps, and identified some to be filled.
I was delighted to find out that my Dad’s ancestors were makers. My granny’s father was an engraver for pottery and silver, and that my great-grandfather was a master potter. Less delightfully, but still fascinating it turns out that my paternal grandparents met whilst working in a gun factory (she inspecting guns and he making them). I had already known that my great grandparents (Eliza and Alfred) on her side were both deaf and dumb, but I hadn’t seen this lovely news article about how my granny (Emily-Anne) as a small girl acted as an interpreter in court:
Top: Eliza & Alfred. Bottom: News clipping about Emily-Anne.
We also talked about the tough stuff, such as the great aunt who fell down the stairs aged four and ended up brain damaged, spending most of her life in horrific mental institutions. My dad read me the speech he wrote for my granny’s funeral, which I was too young to attend. We talked freely about other family difficulties and shadows. It was both joyful and moving to spend time together in this way, and then to share our findings with my sister and her partner.
As we went along we scanned, labeled and filed the photographs, whilst organising the documents into appropriate categories. The whole lot was given a new home in a big red metal filing box; a little more respectful to the ancestors than a scrappy envelope and dusty old bag.
After just a couple of hours focused effort and sharing, we now hold many more family stories. Apparently most of my family don’t know too much about their roots! This makes the importance of this research more pressing – if someone doesn’t take responsibility for harvesting this information (and facilitating/inspiring other family members to join in) then the stories of our ancestors will be lost. These are the storytellers within a family, or perhaps what Clarissa Pinkola Estés calls herself – a cantadora (keeper of the old stories). What choice and power do we have in the way we choose to tell these stories? Can the way we weave narratives heal?
Ancestral research as a creative form of family and personal therapy
From an ongoing interest in Shamanism, I have been inspired by the principles of honouring/healing your ancestors, and recognising the patterns originating from your family. In getting to know these traditions and other forms of healing, psychology and therapy, I learn that the root of much that needs to be healed is often found in the family. This is not necessarily one’s parents but understanding the roots of trauma that filter down through generations and how they have affected us, in order to relate better to past and future generations. This is an important part of intergenerational wellbeing and communication.
Family archaeology is a fun, interesting, mildly addictive and creative way to discover the past, which you can’t do alone. This kind of inquiry requires collaboration, spending time together and intimate dialogue with our closest relatives (as well as external research). It can also challenging in some respects – you can’t block out those skeletons in the closet, and digging up the past can be emotional and hard. However by by talking about them we open the door so they can breathe, and in doing so connect more closely with our families.
Identifying past and present stories to create our future narratives
Taking action on my musings about starting some kind of project was sparked by an image that came to me in meditation. I had been sitting for about 20 minutes when this idea came back to me, along with the image of a family tree with roots. Suddenly, the tree flipped with me in the centre and the roots trailing behind me. I then began to visualise my future stretching out in front of me.
This future connected to storytelling works on both personal and collective levels. In this dialogue Jeppe Dyrendom Graugaard talks to writer, publisher, editor and narrative therapist Sharon Blackie about transforming stories. Sharon references Laguna storyteller Leslie Silko:
(Stories) ‘aren’t just entertainment/ Don’t be fooled/ They are all we have, you see/ All we have to fight off/ Illness and death. You don’t have anything/ If you don’t have the stories.’ For Native Americans like Silko, a story is an intricate part of a web that cradles all the past, present and future events, ceremonies, beliefs and traditions of their culture. In the centre of this web is the land. Each story is part of another story which is linked to yet another one, and all these stories are connected back to the very origin of creation. That’s very powerful stuff!
However, to change meta-narratives, Sharon points out that we need to take our time, approaching “the process with reverence. As an apprenticeship. Stories are magical. They have to be seduced, cajoled. Stories are the basic constituents of the world – at least, of the way we perceive the world and our place in it. They deserve to be treated with respect.”
I agree that change through storytelling is no quick-fix process, and stories must be collected and evolved over years, lifetimes even. However, it seems to me that the effects of telling transformative stories can bind us together in a way that plants subtle seeds – but like all good relationships we have to keep nourishing them. If we are aware of the embodied roles stories play in our lives, deep down we can start to feel the binding effects of tender growth from their telling – long before we can begin to articulate it in words.