In My Words: How to tell family stories that make a positive difference

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor of Political Science and Policy Studies Laura Roselle offers insight into how to explore your family's narrative. The column was published in the Greensboro News & Record, the Burlington Times-News and the Lexington (N.C) Dispatch.

By Laura Roselle

In the midst of bad news and a political landscape that is polarized and negative, you may feel as if there is nothing you can do to counter the gloom.

But you can make a difference for yourself and others by recognizing that stories shape our world and that you have your own important stories to share.

Laura Roselle, professor of political science and policy studies

Certainly stories from our cultural and political realm can affect how we see the world, but so, too, can stories we tell about our own families.

Work in the realm of narrative psychology has shown that family stories are crucial to how people construct their own stories. You might have seen news stories a few years ago that reported that children who know about their family history have higher levels of psychological well-being. We know that sharing family history stories can be good for kids.

As a professor of political science, I’ve researched the political narratives of global powers including the United States and Russia. On a personal level, I’ve spent 10 years engaged in seriously researching my own family narratives, work that compelled me to co-found the Family Narrative Project to assist others in exploring their own stories.

This work, professionally and personally, has convinced me that there are a number of ways your family stories can have a positive impact in the world today by enhancing a deeper understanding of how people live within structures or systems of power.

Here are four.

Develop complex characters

Sometimes it is difficult to think or talk about our own faults or the faults of our ancestors, but knowing that someone made mistakes, had hard times, or even committed crimes is a much more honest way to present family history. After all, no one is perfect — and it’s hard to live up to perfection. Glorifying a hero ancestor or romanticizing the past does not help us or our children.

Developing complex characters acknowledges that all people are complex — and that the best and worst of all of our deeds do not define us. This may enhance empathy for ourselves and others.

Context matters

To understand complex characters, it is important to understand that political, social and cultural context matters in our family stories. Telling the story of a family without acknowledging the world they lived in doesn’t really tell the whole story. This might mean you have to learn more about that world.

Include the answers to some of the following questions in your own family history stories:

  • What political events were happening when your story took place? For example, it would be important to note that your grandfather left the family to find work because of the Great Depression, not just that he did not live with the family.
  • How did expectations about gender, class, race and ethnicity work during this time? If you are telling the story of an ancestor who owned a mill or a plantation, it is important to recognize the other people who made those operations work — laborers and enslaved people. Divorcing the people in your family from the system in which they lived does not help acknowledge the interconnectedness of people in the world. This is especially important if you have or your ancestors had power over other people, or a relationship to those who did.

Pay attention to heroines

Making sure that you tell stories about the women in your family and the strength they demonstrated is another way to strengthen your family storytelling.
Telling the stories of women helps counter the erasure of women from traditional histories. It also may highlight how societal expectations can affect what is possible or even imagined. Knowing that an ancestor could not vote or go to school because she was female is important to acknowledge.

Don’t go on and on

Finally, your stories don’t have to be long. You don’t have to sit down and write a memoir. You don’t have to give long lectures as your relatives’ eyes glaze over. The best stories are those we can remember and retell.

You can tell stories a bit at a time. Pull out one photo instead of 100, for example, and tell or write its story. Talk about one time period in one place and the life of one person in that context. Share events from your own history with some reflection on the political, cultural and social forces of the time.

Take away

You can use your family stories to shift the way we understand and talk about people, families and systems of power. That can make a difference to you, your family and your community.

Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.