Ancestor Research Memoirs Give History a Voice

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

When I was a teenager, in the sixties, I loved to read novels about the previous hundred years. Authors such as Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Ernest Hemingway led me on astonishing journeys through the worlds that existed before my time. Mysteriously, though, it never occurred to me to ask my parents about their own earlier lives, or the stories their parents might have told.

Today, 60 years later, I feel bewildered by my teen preference for the written words of strangers, while ignoring the history living within the people who raised me.

In my fifties, I discovered the Memoir Revolution, a cultural movement that transforms the memory of elders into the engaging form of a good story. The trend has given rise to a whole army of cultural historians, scouring their memories to report the way things used to be. While it was too late to ask my own parents about their past, I could open a book and read about an author who had done just that.

The popularity of memoirs might at first glance appear to be little more than a passing trend in reading preferences. But when viewed as an expansion of our understanding and respect for the past, this trend has the potential for raising our cultural wisdom.

Winston Churchill famously wrote, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Considering our poor track record of learning from the past, it would be easy to interpret his pronouncement more as a death knell than a wake up call. So are we really doomed? Not if the Memoir Revolution has anything to say about it.

The cultural interest in memoirs assigns elders one of the most important roles in their lives. As the keepers of the longer view, their well-written records of actual lives will help our culture hang onto some wisdom. Memoirs are a modern method of crowdsourcing an ever richer view of the past.

Neiill McKee's second memoir Guns and Gods in My Genes

However, while memoirs beautifully reveal the person doing the writing, their value falls off sharply when they guess what went in the minds of those already deceased (unless of course the ancestor left behind a memoir.)

That lack of visibility into the minds of the dead has spawned a subgenre in which the author sets out to wrest the story from their ancestor’s graves. (Literally in the case of genealogists who travel around looking for inscriptions on gravestones.)

Such memoirs regularly show up on my reading list, many from authors whose previous memoirs I already respect. These intrepid personal historians have such a strong desire to know the folks who came before them, they devote whole chapters of their lives to this quest.

My first encounter with the subgenre came from one of my memoir heroes, Linda Joy Myers, the president of the National Association of Memoir Writers. She spent fifteen years writing about her own childhood, resulting in her first memoir, Don’t Call me Mother, an insightful, psychologically-rich Coming of Age story. [I wrote about that memoir here: ]

After publishing that book, she went on another multi-year journey to decipher the emotional history of a family of women who kept abandoning their daughters. She writes about that search in Song of the Plains. [I wrote about that memoir here: ]

Another author who attempted to find the stories of her ancestors was Tracy Seeley. In her book My Ruby Slippers, she travels from California to Kansas to understand her roots. Her book weaves together the history of her family with the role Kansas and the plains played in the history of our nation. [Here’s a link to my article about that book ]

Recently another such memoir pushed me over the threshold from ancestry skeptic to believer. I’d already read and reviewed Neill McKee’s first memoir, Finding Myself in Borneo, about how a gig as a government worker set him on a lifelong career of foreign service. [I wrote about that memoir here ]

In his second memoir, Guns and Gods in my Genes, he travels around North America to visit his family roots across hundreds of years, settling the frontier and earlier still, to the birth of Canada and the United States. The history of his ancestors is fascinating and sobering, drenched in the blood of the people who were already here.

After reading these three searches for ancestry, I’ve drawn a more complete understanding of how the Ancestor-search subgenre works and what it contributes to the Memoir Revolution

Who is the hero of an ancestor memoir?

My love for memoirs comes from their ability to take me inside another person’s journey to grow from some lesser state at the beginning to the wiser, more mature state at the end. But because ancestor-research memoirs spend so much time chasing down insights into the lives of other people, I originally questioned if they have the well-defined, character-driven story that would qualify them as “real” memoirs?

Upon reflection, I found abundant proof that they do indeed satisfy the requirements. The ancestor research memoir expresses the author’s driving curiosity to “know thyself.” That’s a perfect characteristic of the hero of a memoir.

Like any good memoir, each one has an outer story. The hero must relentlessly scour every corner of their history, painstakingly searching for clues. They are detectives!

Each one has an inner story, as well. The main character’s passionate curiosity  shines like a beacon from the beginning of the story to the end. These writers soldier on, driven by some psychological force to get to the bottom of their nagging questions about their ancestral inheritance.

The promise of new information from a microfiche, a gravestone, or a museum sends them flying across the country. It’s a chase, a hunt, and to that end, these authors are true memoir warriors, archeologists, forensic scientists, trying to recreate the knowledge hidden within the ruins.

All memoirs invite us to ponder the truth at the heart of the Memoir Revolution. “Who I am today is an evolution of who I used to be.” In most memoirs, that question of identity is explored through the main character’s own recollections. The ancestor research subgenre poses a somewhat different question. “If I’ve been influenced by the psychological truths of my parents, what psychological factors influenced them?”

Ancestor research memoirs, by their nature, seem choppy

These three memoirs, Song of the Plains, My Ruby Slippers, and Guns and Gods in my Genes, rely on genealogical sources such as research in libraries and interviews, and in precious snips of old letters. Stories reconstructed from these artifacts will of course sound very different from stories created out of a memoir author’s memory.

In fact, so different that they introduce a fault line, in which the reader must across the chasm. Instead of identifying with the hero/author, the reader must jump into the life of the ancestor currently under review.

The resulting attempt to reconstruct the past breaks our attention away from the present and forces the writer to disrupt one of the primary methods for maintaining the story-reader’s attention: continuity. Instead of staying inside the mind of the protagonist, the way most memoirs work, the story must leap back into the world of the ancestor.

This need to jump in time disrupts that hypnotic sense of vicarious identification that is such a lovely aspect of the typical first-person memoir. Of course, no matter how diligently researched, the story that emerges from research cannot be as introspective as it would have been if an ancestor had written a memoir (hint, hint.)

However, despite the inherently choppy story line, these fragments being unearthed by the author really do begin to come together, in their mind and in ours, as a tantalizing visualization of the way life used to be.

So do I wish their ancestors had written memoirs? Sure. Do I wish that the author’s hard work could have magically reconstructed a smooth, introspectively authentic narrative? Sure.

But because this is a memoir, it has to stick with the facts. And the facts are that the hero of the memoir was desperate to know about their past. As we accompany them on that journey, we eventually do reach a point of acceptance, not perhaps that we’ve found a perfect story, but that at least we have done everything in our power to elevate these memories into conscious awareness. There is a satisfaction in that astonishing yeoman service, and I turn the last page and close the book feeling that I too have heard those ghosts whispering from the past.

Ancestors, in our genes, our minds, and in society

These three well-crafted, passionately researched stories, took me on multi-year journeys, attempting to coax stories from cemeteries, libraries, and museums Through this painstaking process, I witnessed tendrils of the authors spread throughout a pre-industrial land. The fact that their findings on the American frontier are so sketchy put me off at first. But then, the ghosts of the past turned into a chorus which informed me of something I should have known all along.

Collectively, they “said” that the stories of our ancestors are important. The revelation sounds somewhat prosaic when I say it out loud. And yet, despite its power and importance, it has largely been hidden from my awareness.

When I was younger, I would have scoffed at the idea that ancestral knowledge has value. Like most American children of my era, I was raised to believe that while grandparents  might be loving, their experience at the dawn of automobiles and phones had very little relevance to me.

But in reading these memoirs, I finally get it. We all not only have childhoods. Our own personal cultural roots stretch far into the past, and even though we don’t think about it consciously, when we pass someone in the grocery store, or encounter them in the news, they have a history that extends far beyond the person we can see with our eyes.

As I contemplate this fact in memoir after memoir, I awaken to a new interpretation of Churchill’s warning about ignoring history. He wasn’t just referring to the lessons we studied in our high school text books. We all have our own personal history. And whether conscious of it or not, the way we envision our ancestors has the potential to inform and influence our self-understanding throughout life.

While most of us probably are not going to embark on the long, difficult road of research traveled by Linda Joy Myers, Tracy Seeley, and Neill McKee, I’m coming to understand that we all have an inherent thirst for our own identities, and even if we don’t know the details of our actual ancestors, we all invent stories about where we’ve come from. I know I certainly did.

I never heard a single story about  life before my ancestors arrived on the shores of the US. I only knew the general outline of the facts. Like so many others who came to these shores, they were seeking protection from religious persecution. So without specific stories, I cleverly filled that vacuum by concocting my own.

One surprising source for my story-of-self came from American history. Because the men and women who broke away from British rule had so much interest in religious freedom, I have always envisioned the founders of the nation personally saved me from persecution.

So even though the events of the American Revolution took place 125 years before my ancestors came to this country, I used to walk around the streets of my hometown, Philadelphia, and imagine them populated by the characters I read about in history books, believing that those shadowy figures were more real to me than my own invisible and voiceless ancestors.

I have these three memoirs to thank for awakening a deeper understanding of the way I conflated my personal history with the idealistic dreams of a new nation. It was a fiction, but it entered my definition of myself with the full brunt of truth.

Allowing myself to feel the pain and curiosity, the thirst for identity shown in these three memoirs, I awaken to the incredible pull these ghostly connections have on all of us. How do the rest of us piece together these ancestral fantasies based on vague, bits of story told over holiday meals, or taught in school, or reflected in the statues in our town squares?

My identity story is one of being lost to persecution and being found and protected by idealism. In these three memoirs I see very different origin stories. Their ancestral identities were shaped by the harsher, more desperate times of the settlers. The stories raise questions about the millions of people in the US who look back and see ancestors involved in the American Indian “wars” (or more accurately the genocide), the slave trade and other harsh realities. These insights offer a new way for me to interpret the divisive news of today. In our fantasies, I suspect many of us are still fighting our ancestors’ wars.

Can we ever fulfill the promises and ideals of this nation? In the second part of this article, I will delve into more observations about pioneer trauma, as I search for glimmers of hope and courage awaiting us among the lessons of history revealed by the Memoir Revolution.

NOTES

Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.

Read about the social trend that is providing us with insights into our shared experience, one story at a time. Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

 

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