Sculpture of Grandfather Telling Story to Grandaughter

Why Narrative Family History Is Best

New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler asked himself, “What is the secret sauce that holds a family together? What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?” The answers he discovered appeared in a piece in the Sunday Times titled The Stories That Bind Us. It should be required reading for genealogists and family historians.

Feiler consulted Emory University psychologist Marshall Duke who had explored myth and ritual in American families. What he learned was that, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”

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Family historians and genealogists must be onto something. The large majority of people I talk to about writing their family history say that their goal is to create something to pass on to the grandchildren. Writing a family history will, they hope, help those grandchildren have a greater sense of identity.

What’s the best way to do that? As we have discovered recently in areas as diverse as business, the military and political campaigns, identity is often forged by telling a good story. So the key for family historians is discovering and relating their family’s story.

Feiler offered some valuable insights about how to do that. He wrote:

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  • Psychologists have found that every family has a unifying narrative, he [Duke] explained, and those narratives take one of three shapes.
  • First, the ascending family narrative: “Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked. We opened a store. Your grandfather went to high school. Your father went to college. And now you. …”
  • Second is the descending narrative: “Sweetheart, we used to have it all. Then we lost everything.”
  • “The most healthful narrative,” Dr. Duke continued, “is the third one. It’s called 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.’ ”

What is the essential narrative in your family? It might be one of the three above, but there might well be other themes running through your family’s history. Here are some examples:

  • Volunteerism and service to the community
  • Entrepreneurial spirit
  • A tradition of military service
  • The importance of religious faith
  • The value of education

Finding the theme in your family’s narrative will help you to connect with the next generation by demonstrating that they are part of an ongoing story.

Unfortunately, many family historians focus solely on creating a factual record of their ancestors. Discovering and documenting the facts is important, but looking beyond them to discover the story they tell opens up the family’s identity. This is exploring family values in their true sense, without the political spin so often attached to the term.

If you are writing a family history, seek to blend the facts into a narrative that will provide your reader with some insight the values that have carried through the generations. Your children and grandchildren will thank you for it.

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