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.”
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:
- 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.
About Biff and Nancy Barnes
Nancy Barnes is the founder and managing editor of Stories To Tell, a team of editors and book designers who help authors to prepare their books for publishing. She is also the author of Stories To Tell: An Easy Guide to Self Publishing Family History Books and Memoirs. Building on a career as an award-winning teacher, she has specialized in the “creative nonfiction” of memoir and family history. Nancy also has experience in graphic design and commercial publishing, coordinating projects with marketers, designers, and printers. Her successful career path was recently featured in Starting Your Career as a Freelance Editor by Mary Embree.Biff Barnes, an Editor at Stories To Tell, is a writer, educator, and historian. He earned his MA in History from the University of San Francisco, and was a William Robertson Coe Fellow in American History at Stanford University. He taught history and writing for 28 years. His work appears in California Publisher, California History, California Living, and American West. Biff has extensive experience with historical research, oral history, and interviewing techniques. He provides editing and coaching to fiction and nonfiction authors as they gather and prepare their stories for publication.