Warning dire consequences, family skeletons dangle in the closets of our minds. Unlike animal bones bleaching white and pure in the prairie grass, family skeletons rattle and molder in the dark. Writing about our skeletons may trigger closeted clanks and moans, which threaten to destroy the life story we have worked so hard to research and organize. When do we heed the bony finger tapping us on the shoulder and warning us to pull back from the depths, and when do we open the closet door even wider to reveal its undiscovered treasures?
In tackling the closet’s depths, we face multiple views of reality. A bank-robbing ancestor may horrify some, and amuse others. Members of the family may be sensitive about an out-of-wedlock birth, even several generations ago, or may point with pride to the way the mother supported herself and her child. Instead of viewing history as a gray-bearded scholar’s decree of absolute truth, we begin to see history developing from the threads of individual perspectives woven together through time.
Each unique view gains importance in its addition to the whole. If a life story merely recites names, dates, and facts verifiable in the written record, history loses its vitality as an on-going force. Writing a life story means dealing with the discomfort that past episodes and people may bring. Because the task requires us to face our own embarrassment and even the censure of our family, we need to thoughtfully and critically analyze the bones of the past.
These questions can help in the task of writing about a family skeleton.
1. Does the episode fit within my life story’s boundaries?
Living doesn’t occur in a vacuum. However, if everything is interrelated, what is relevant, what should be included and what should be excluded?
Ask if the episode furthers your purpose for writing the story. Discovery lies at the heart of a life story. Focus on describing the past, instead of manipulating it to create an acceptable picture.
Ask if the episode explains a family dynamic or merely gossips. Because memoirs can further understanding of the present, an event that gives insight is of greater importance than if it solely titillates.
Develop criteria for what to include or exclude. Include episodes that expand current knowledge, reinforce existing information or add new evidence about the family. Include information that refutes commonly held belief, but omit what repeats the already-known.
2. Does the episode fit the thematic statement of my life story?
By focusing on causes, solutions or consequences, a thematic statement helps in dealing with a family skeleton. Issues and concerns that result from differing opinions about values, such as Cousin Susie’s alternative lifestyle or Uncle Charlie’s marrying “that woman” can be analyzed in terms of such a statement.
Look for recurring patterns to confirm that the episode fits the story’s focus. Weigh the story’s credibility. Consider the event’s uniqueness and if it will add interesting detail. Decide if the story’s inclusion shines light on other unexplored recesses of the closet. Ask yourself if the timing is good to include the story.
3. What’s my strategy for uncovering additional information?
Hours of deciphering primary documents, travel to distant relatives or pressing reluctant sources for more information may become necessary once the closet door is opened. Try adding information bit by bit. Inch into the unknown, looking for confirming patterns.
Use a bridging technique to fill in blanks from uncooperative sources. Starting with reliable sources, build sets of known information and then span the space between. A reluctant individual may even help you build the bridge between the knowns, for cross-referencing can draw information from even the most uncooperative sources.
Decide when to stop. If a pattern has emerged, if all sources have been exhausted or if the information becomes repetitious, you may want to stop. You may decide that one more source is not worth the bad feelings that could result from pressing too hard.
4. Can I corroborate the authenticity of my story?
Proving a story true is not the issue. How you convince your reader of the authenticity of your interpretation is also important.
Utilize triangulation. Researchers use this method to test one source against another until satisfied of the interpretation’s validity. You can do the same when writing about the family skeleton because more mention of it increases the chances of its truth. Weigh new information against established knowns. If a person raises concerns, get input from him or her by asking, “This is what I have found so far, what do you think?”
Use multiple sources of information, such as oral histories, contemporary interviews, documents, newspapers, books and diaries, to double-check what you have learned.
If you can’t confirm every detail, remember research theorist Egon Guba’s words, “Tolerance of ambiguity is a virtue.”
5. Who is my audience for this memoir, and when will they read it?
Publishing a memoir means a different reading audience than if you write for yourself or your immediate family.
Consider not releasing the story. Instead, donate it to an archives, stipulating that it be sealed until the story’s subjects die. Ask if the episode will make the individuals in your life story more real for future readers.
Remember that you are writing the story for the future. Life stories enlarge our families to include past and future, filling voids that have appeared with the weakening of the extended family. Family stories give us role models or generational perspectives for handling crises.
6. Have I maintained objectivity in the way I’m sharing the information?
Although bias is part of life, unconscious bias, conscious prejudice, or downright gullibility may threaten your objectivity about the family skeleton.
Remain open to other perspectives that aren’t the same as yours, remembering Guba’s words, “Having an open mind is not equivalent to having an empty one.”
Strive for fairness in telling a story, asking yourself, “Is it free from distortion and bias?”
Ask if including the story is humane and handled with respect. Does it reflect respect for the person in the story?
7. Have I maintained a view of the whole picture, not just one side?
A holistic approach to writing a life story puts skeletons in a context, for who is to say what is right and what is wrong? Beware using the word “should” either implicitly or explicitly. Avoid dwelling on the problem, emphasizing instead solutions. Signpost the reader that you are writing your perspective. Episodes that may raise concerns can be introduced with, “From my perspective .”
Remind the reader that the episode is drawn from family oral tradition if that is the case. However, avoid allowing the multiple viewpoints to fragment the story.
Because each situation is unique, there is no formula for safely handling family skeletons. Opening the door for your skeleton is a learning experience whether or not the episode is written into your life story. And you may find that what felt like a warning was really a bony finger tapping out a message that the key to a well-written life story lies in focusing on how the world is experienced.
Edrienne L. Kittredge is the executive director of the High Plains Heritage Center in Great Falls, Mont., and has taught numerous personal history writing workshops in Arizona and Montana. She holds a doctorate in adult and community education.