Saturday, May 23, 2015

Musings on writing a family history . . .

This month, I'm still musing about how to write a family history.  Writing about family -- even a family history that sticks to the facts -- presents some chilling challenges. 

How close do we write the truth? How do we put what happened into a context that either entertains or brings insight?

If I were famous or knew those famous, what to write about would be easier. But, the closest I came to meeting anyone famous was serving coffee at a bank meeting to one of the stars from the well-loved TV series, M*A*S*H. 

I wasn't a secretary, but I was the only woman at the meeting to discuss our loans/investment portfolio. I got grumpy because it was the 1970s, and I knew I was asked to serve coffee because I was a woman. What added insult was later my boss insinuated I would love to go out with this 'famous actor'. No less than four or five times that day, I was reintroduced to this guy as someone who'd really like to know me, ensuring my disdain.

If there were no trauma or drama, no hidden little secrets, no teen-aged mind-blowing experiments with drugs, no sex before marriage, no child given up for adoption, no affairs, no lies, no bank robberies, not a moment that stepped outside propriety, what is left to write about?

I did think seriously about robbing a bank for maybe a full minute.

Back to the seventies. I was a trusted bank officer, and one of our clients needed some fully negotiable stock certificates (anyone off the street could cash these in) stowed away in a safe place overnight. My boss (different boss, different city) asked me to put them 'somewhere safe and to not tell him where.' 

I knew instantly what to do.

I took these beautiful certificates worth several million dollars in my hands, fantasized briefly about running away to the Bahamas, sealed them in a plain, manila envelop, and took them to Jack, who worked the back room and was responsible for the bank safe. 

"Can you lock these papers up for me overnight and give them back to me tomorrow, no questions asked?" I asked. Jack didn't know what they were, but he didn't hesitate. He trusted me. I trusted him. End of story. But the real story played out on the front pages of The Wall Street Journal for the next several years.

Such an anecdote may be amusing. With more detail, it might be litigious. But, similar to fiction, the story telling of a family history serves a point, a theme, a sense -- even unwitting -- of moral purpose. We want to know why someone acted in a certain way.

But to the point, how do we balance the truth with privacy concerns? Even a family history presented as a gift will be read by a wider circle than we might expect.

Kerry Cohen suggests beginning by knowing your purpose. So IF I were writing about those years with the bank in the early 1970's, I might really be writing about the beginnings of the feminist movement and how it changed our social landscape irrevocably for many.

And IF I were writing about some terrible secret family history, Cohen again suggests we should write with compassion. For we do not know what motivates others to act as they do. Unless, perhaps, they write it all down.


"Time" by Vincent Huang (Flickr)

Just finished reading Kerry Cohen's article, "Writing About Family in Memoir." in Writer's Digest (November/December 2014), 60-61, excerpted from her book, The Truth of Memoir (2014).