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The Healing Power of History When Family Memories Collide

A daughter vividly recalls the moment decades ago when her mother learned that her own father had suffered a stroke. Every detail is clear, down to what her mother was wearing and where they were standing in the driveway of their home. Yet the mother does not remember the moment at all.

Should we care about differing or absent recollections of family events like this? And in cases where family members’ memories actually contradict each other, is there value in studying these stories alongside each other, and — when possible — consulting outside evidence to establish what actually happened?

As a recent Wall Street Journal article notes, the answers to these questions can be complex, bound up with family members’ psychological needs and the specifics of each case. Helping families work through the most painful of these conflicting memories is often the purview of a family therapist or counselor.

Many families, though, turn to a historian for help. In doing so, they are able to unearth a nuanced master narrative of their past: one that is sensitive to memories that continue to diverge, but that also identifies and dispels harmful misperceptions and affirms each person’s role in the larger family story.

Take the case of an adult child whose memories of a family crisis — a parent losing a job, for instance — are overshadowed by mundane recollections of what was important to her at the time, like her involvement in sports. Perhaps the woman feels ashamed that she was not more aware of her parents’ troubles, while the parents feel guilty about how the crisis must, they assume, have affected their children.

In such a case, having an outsider interview each generation, then place the narratives alongside each other within a larger narrative, can be illuminating for everyone involved. It can quell feelings of guilt while giving a fuller, more complex picture of what each individual experienced during the same period and why it matters. In the above example, the woman’s vivid sports memories, while minor compared to the crisis her parents were facing, may actually underscore the formative role of sports in shaping her identity and how she now contributes to the family.

Other times, memories may be less emotionally fraught but more overtly contradictory. Family members may disagree, for instance, about minor details – the time or location of an event or who was present – or about larger questions, such as the role of a parent or grandparent at a critical moment in the family story. In these cases, historians can draw on their detective skills — consulting the documentary record, researching context, and conducting other interviews — to resolve a nagging family mystery. Even if there is not enough outside evidence to know what really happened, historians can help family members understand the significance of these divergent memories and what they mean for family identity.

Of course, conflicting memories must be handled delicately, if at all. As the Journal notes, an adult child may resent parental recollections of his youth that cast him in a particular role — such as a slacker— that he has worked hard to repudiate. Still, when the process is approached empathetically by historian and family members alike, working to reconcile these narratives can be healing and even strategically valuable. It may help parents recognize that, alongside those challenging child-rearing memories, a longer-term story of the child’s growth into a responsible adult was unfolding. This, in turn, might aid succession choices for a family business.

Whether or not a family business is involved, collaborating with a historian to create a family narrative has many applications — from identifying shared values that will inform philanthropy or estate planning, to affirming individual family members’ roles in creating a larger legacy. By using this history-writing process to identify, understand, and reconcile divergent memories, families can weave seemingly contradictory pieces into a complex but cohesive, meaningful, and valuable whole.

Arielle Gorin, a Saybrook consultant, specializes in the history of the US and Canada. She is currently researching a history of the Ford Foundation.


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