Our own personal costume dramas, they’re vehicles for passing down values, animating our genetic inheritance through accounts of pluck and hard graftby Hephzibah Anderson / March 31, 2020 / Leave a comment
Family stories are as varied as their tellers. They can beguile and they can bore, inspire and puzzle, but whether they leave their audience in stitches or cringing with embarrassment, they all share a crucial function: helping to forge identities.
That goes for the identity of the family as a whole as well as its constituent members. Whenever it’s said of my daughter “She’s such an Anderson girl!”, volumes of family lore are being footnoted. Each clan’s canon has its own motifs and ours is female independence—a determination to go it alone that’s not always meant for emulation: the story of when my mother had to use Latin to get out of a dicey situation while hitchhiking in Sicily springs to mind.
In the tales she’s handed down are healers and midwives, women who knew when it was time to pack up and cross continents and those who rooted themselves by planting spinneys of saplings. The men are dandies and violinists, big brothers waltzing their sisters around tiny kitchens.
Children sometimes possess an innate feeling for what’s best for them, and what child doesn’t love to hear the story of who they are? In the past 30 years or so a growing body of research has emerged to show how critical a strong family narrative is when it comes to instilling resilience. Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University’s Family Narratives Lab have developed what they call the “Do you know” scale, which plots wellbeing against awareness of family history: children who can answer questions about where their grandparents grew up or how the family weathered tough times acquired more robust identities, a stronger sense of control over their own lives, higher self-esteem and less anxiety.
The benefits don’t end with childhood, either. When the prickliness of my relationship with my sister was exacerbated by a soggy family holiday last year, it was stories of childhood togetherness that tugged us back to amicability. There’s nothing quite like a “Remember when…?” to shore up emotional bonds, even if nobody can agree on exactly who was there or what was said.
Truthfulness is not always a major component of the family story, especially when it comes to intergenerational narratives, that trousseau of tales we receive, set in far-off…