Illustration: Kate Hazell

Family stories help forge an identity—even when they're not entirely true

Our own personal costume dramas, they’re vehicles for passing down values, animating our genetic inheritance through accounts of pluck and hard graft
March 31, 2020
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 places and long-ago times. Our own personal costume dramas, they’re vehicles for passing down values, animating our genetic inheritance through accounts of pluck and hard graft—traits that we’re encouraged to think are encoded within us, even as we hope they won’t ever be tested in the way they were in years gone by.  

There is another kind of family narrative, too, one that’s no less formative for being unspoken. When survivors of trauma choose not to reminisce, instead forging ahead, eyes fixed firmly on the future, the depth of their silence tells its own story. It’s a phenomenon that sits at the centre of Esther Safran Foer’s forthcoming family memoir, I Want You To Know We’re Still Here. Her parents each emerged from the Holocaust as their families’ sole survivors, and the undiscussed horror of their experiences left her with what she felt was a void at her core.  

There’s a sense in which you can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve come from, but sometimes, that knowledge narrows horizons instead of enlarging them. If all you hear are stories of forebears whose lives have followed the same particular track, it makes it harder to choose an alternate path. And of course, there are also stories whose impact, whether intentional or not, is altogether less benign: the fond send-ups of a sibling’s clumsiness that cumulatively undermine, the tales of early glory that trap a child in the role of lifelong over-achiever.  

Sociologists have a name for the weaving of tales that explain a group’s defining ethos: sense-making. Despite their much-vaunted superior word-power, pictures—neither evocatively-aged formal portraits nor filtered “live” snaps—cannot fulfil that same profound role. 

Stories weave us together in ways that a photo stream never will. For good or ill, these narratives are a vital part of the nurture that draws out our natures. They don’t remain static, though: as with re-readings of favourite novels, their retelling can yield fresh meanings as we grow older, and there’s always scope to add a new chapter.