On family histories – a third kind

Few subjects excite as much interest but lead to the rapid glazing over of eyes than family history. I think that there is a role for genealogy, which can indicate details of social mobility and other insights for statistical analysis. Much family history is about this, tracing the names and details of people that you have never known. Why this should lead to you knowing “who you are” is a mystery to me, but it makes good television.

Personally, I am more interested in a different form of family history – details of lives of family members that I knew; even my own memoirs. I have created a site to reflect on memories of my own father. I imagine the interest in this is only to those who knew the people involved, but perhaps their story – mostly of a middle-class family in my family’s case – may interest someone else.

But it has occurred to me that there is a third kind of family history – that very personal process, often informed by family politics, that re-creates events and experiences that may never have existed, or at least are related with extreme distortion. Stories and myths abound in such “history”, sometimes amusing and harmless, sometimes entirely fallacious, misleading and malicious. Each account by each family member varies so greatly, that it must require a form of psychoanalysis to establish what might be the reality of events. Postmodernist doubt might have been invented by students of such family history, wherein maybe there really is no truth apart from what varied parties believe. Oral history, once seen as the way to an “authentic” history, may suffer from a surfeit of imagined events and experiences; what people wish had happened, a truth they wish applied to them. In attempting an account of my own history and that of my father and his family, I am conscious of these sources of distortion. Perhaps for that reason, memories and stories need to be labelled as such, and documentary evidence, such as it is, interpreted with care.

I have not explored the literature of this third kind of family history, although I have read much about oral history. The former is something that I will try to explore; the results should be revealing.

April 21 2014


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