Sunday, September 26, 2010

Masks, Myth, Memory and Family History

An Actor Considers the Mask He'll Wear
Driving back from conferences usually provides ample time for reflection on “the big picture” that all genealogists grapple with from time to time.

Here’s a thought or two that popped up on the drive back from the Maine Genealogical Society Conference this weekend.  (Note: it’s an eight hour drive, so there’s lots of time to think about things.)

It’s all about masks and family history. Here’s the story:

Several years ago, I was far from home, in a major archival repository, up to my elbows in white archival boxes, researching family history in one of those massive “So-And-So’s Personal Papers” collections that had been donated by “So-and-So’s” widow.

“So-and-So” (the individual under study) was, in his time, a well-known writer and journalist. Today, he would be considered a media “personality.”

The archival collection I was working through consisted of more than 60 tightly stuffed document boxes, each containing neatly foldered and labeled material – literally tens of thousands of pages – most of it dating from the second quarter of the 20th century (1925 – 1950 or thereabouts). The core of the collection included letters, personal and professional, both to and from him, plus his passports, telegrams, tax returns, awards, book contracts, book drafts, real estate documents and other highly personal information.

Every box had new surprises. "So-and-So" had lived in Europe, covered the Spanish Civil War, knew Hemingway and Churchill and survived the London Blitz, so every box hinted of history, romance and adventure.

Even though my time at the archives was limited to a single day, I was able to work through six of the  boxes, extracting and documenting from the collection much useful and otherwise unobtainable first-hand family information about his parents, grandparents and distant cousins on three continents.  This was all possible because of the well-prepared finding aid, which described much of the collection - and much of his life - down to folder level.  Good archival finding aids, prepared by skilled archivists, are both a thing of beauty and wondrous to behold!

As I was packing up after an intensive and exhausting day of research, I was feeling grateful to the archivists who had taken the time to process and describe the huge collection so carefully.  Because of the finding aid, I was able to zero in on the specific part of the collection I thought would be most rewarding.

However, I was also greatly disappointed that they were unable to do more.  Still, even the best processor-cataloguer can’t describe what’s not there. And, to anyone who had more than a passing familiarity with the twists and turns of this man’s life, it would be obvious that the collection had been thoroughly “sanitized” before it reached the archives.


No bad times, no manuscript rejections, no record of the end of his first marriage, no “dark night of the soul” musings reflecting the self-doubt that most writers have.  There were plenty of documents detailing the foibles and failings of his sibs and co-workers, but none of the nasty bits about himself. It wasn’t as though some items had been restricted for, say, fifty years after death by the deed of gift (archivists usually note that in the finding aid); sadly, they just weren’t there.

Maybe he purged those things himself before he died.  However, another possibility is much more likely.

Consider the possibility that the widow wanted future researchers and historians to see him as she preferred, wearing those bright unblemished masks of public and private success.  Perhaps she wanted to protect his story – his myth – by removing the documents that didn’t quite measure up to the man who wore the mask.


The point of all this?  Simply put, it's a question that all family historians need to face.  How do we deal with those less-than-perfect, less-than- savoury bits that are part of everyone’s family story? After we –the family historians - do the basic “born-married-died” part of genealogy, we’re left with all those voids in our ancestors’ lives in between. Some of those voids are chaotic and frequently, they are neither pretty nor happy.


Do we ignore those things or "tidy them up"?

Most families weave carefully constructed myths to cover those cold, dark voids. In those myths, our ancestors often wear masks, like the actors in ancient Greek theatre. Our family memories and our family traditions percolate up out of these myths and then get passed from generation to generation, with the players in the family story often hiding safely behind their pretty or heroic masks.

What we see is not necessarily what was.
Actor Contemplating His Mask

As researchers, we need to realize the importance of being able to separate family fact from family myth and ancestral faces from ancestral masks, not only for ourselves but for those who come after us. Those life stories that record failure along with success and those portraits that show the cares and ravages of time are much more interesting and make for much more accurate family memories.

Frankly, every family deserves to know the truth about its history, no matter what it might be.

Bottom-lining it, that’s what we as family historians should do best – we should create, write down and pass on the true family memories, thus saving them from oblivion. We have an obligation to do it without creating more myths and masks, no matter how attractive they may be.

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