Maybe you’re a fan and haven’t missed a single episode of NBC’s TV Show Who Do You Think You Are? If not, the complete episodes from season two are available on NBC’s site.
My favorite is Gwyneth Paltrow discovering that she’s related to a long line of famous rabbis. She also uncovers the tragedy that scarred one of her grandmothers, making her withdrawn, described by her son as “an ambivalent mother.”
Every episode uncovers surprising emotional material but not necessarily material that is storybook nice. Steve Buscemi finds an ancestor who deserted the army during the Civil War also abandoning his wife and children, leaving them to think he’s dead, while starting another family in another state. A dentist, he eventually dies of tuberculosis–an occupational hazard for dentists of the day.
The episodes center on a celebrity going in search of his/her family history with the help of experts and a camera crew. However, within the stories are suggestions that can apply to anyone interested in discovering his/her family stories. Near the end of her segment, Gwyneth Paltrow turns to the camera and says, “There’s energy in your ancestors, not just facts.”
Most people remember events tied to a strong emotion, smell, or some other sensual detail. That’s especially true of first memories. Mine is a box of kittens my father brought home. I was two and a half, maybe three-years-old. I don’t remember why he had a box of kittens, where they came from, or whether we kept them. What I remember are the sensations–the fur, the claws, the smells, the sounds, and how they squirmed when I reached in to touch them. I remember laughing.
My whole life I thought I was a cat person. Dogs annoyed me. A cat purred and snuggled. Dogs jumped up on you with dirty paws and needed to be taken outside regularly. Unfortunately, I married a dog person. He grew up with dogs, loved dogs, always wanted one. I delayed and delayed, but that only works so long. Eventually he got his dog, which quickly turned into two dogs, both Great Danes. When people ask how that happened, I tell them I made him wait too long–the dogs grew larger and multiplied. You know, like unattended problems.
Turns out I’m a dog person. The bed is never empty. The house is never lonely. Bring on the slobber and the face-licks.
Question is: Would I have been a dog person earlier if my first memory was a puppy? That’s not an idle thought. We shape our sense of self from the stories we tell about the things we remember.
Want more examples of first memories. Check out www.yourfirstmemory.com, a blog featuring videos of people telling their first memories. Interesting project.
I was teaching a class on novel-writing. One student was writing about three generations of women who all married men they didn’t love. The book was largely autobiographical. For that reason she was unwilling to make many changes. As I continued to listen to her, I realized that her family seemingly encouraged stories of my-misery-is-worse-than-your-misery. That meant marrying a man you didn’t love was a prerequisite and the novel was actually a one-up in those tales of woe.
In my family, we tell love stories. My husband and I polished a small incident from our courtship as our contribution. Also unlike my student, as a child, I was never allowed to tell an oh-dear-me more than once. I could get it off my chest, so to speak, but not repeat it.
Who decides how the family stories will be told?
I never got my student to see the pattern in her book, but I’ve been haunted, ever since, with the idea that family stories shape us. We expect our lives to turn out like the stories we’ve heard.
“All of the great mythologies and much of the mythic story-telling of the world are from the male point of view. When I was writing The Hero with a Thousand Faces and wanted to bring female heroes in, I had to go to the fairy tales. These were told by women to children, you know, and you get a different perspective. It was the men who got involved in spinning most of the great myths. The women were too busy; they had too damn much to do to sit around thinking about stories.” —Joseph Campbell
This is also the excuse that is often given for why there are few great women painters or composers before the 20th Century. We were too busy fixing dinner!
Fairy tales? I assume Mr. Campbell never thought to ask his mother, aunts, grandmother, etc. about his own family stories. Most families have a foundation myth, a story about how they came to be where they are, and those stories are largely preserved /retold by women.