The Revisionist

Argument of the Scholars by Bernard Trębacz (1869-1941) (http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/21388/lot/8/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When I began writing family history, I knew that I might come into conflict one day with relatives objecting to my account of our shared past. That day has apparently arrived.

Our mini-controversy began when an online journal published a small excerpt from my manuscript. When the piece appeared on the web, I printed out copies and mailed them to two of my uncles, who do not use computers. One uncle called to acknowledge the piece. A few weeks later, the other one called and left a message, indicating his displeasure.

We have spoken twice since then, and my uncle’s displeasure runs deep. He objects in the first instance to the way I recounted a quarrel he had with his sister at their grandmother’s funeral. I checked my notes after we spoke and found that I had indeed made a significant factual error. I’ll revise my manuscript, of course. I may have to excise the scene altogether, but this one error does not undermine my confidence in the work as a whole.

It’s harder for me to answer my uncle’s other concerns, and I don’t think I will be able to allay them. He does not like the way I imagined the funeral scene or the style of my writing. He has every right to hold these opinions, of course, but I don’t plan on rewriting that scene to please him. (Except to correct that factual error.)

My uncle is annoyed with me for sharing some information I uncovered about my grandfather, but the information comes from a document that he placed in my hands. My uncle knew when he gave me this document that I was researching our history and planning to write for publication. He has also discussed some sensitive episodes from our familial past (and his own past) with admirable candor, so I am puzzled about his current objections.

My uncle is also angry with me about the way I portrayed my grandfather in a recent blog post. Apparently some of my other relatives also share his feelings. They are displeased with comments I made about my grandfather as parent, but others who knew him well shared these opinions with me, and I see no reason not to relate them. It’s not my method to select only the flattering stories and discount the rest. My relatives are also displeased with my discussion of my grandfather’s and father’s business dealings, but these matters are part of the public record and material to our family history. I’m not going to bury them.

It’s always risky to speculate about another person’s state of mind, but I will hazard a guess that my uncle objects to my family history (at least to the small part that he has read) because it is foreign to him. Not the contents of the history per se—after all, it is based in part on stories that he told me—but rather the way I’ve rendered it. That he recoils at the manner of my telling does not entirely surprise me. Stories are personal, almost intimate. The ones we carry assume a familiar shape in our minds. Hearing another person tell such a story is a little like wearing someone else’s shoes. The experience can be disconcerting.

There may also be other reasons for our disagreement. My uncle and I have different ways of seeing and thinking. His style of thought is more intuitive, mine more analytical. He judges character. I analyze behavior. Uncle prefers to see our family history as light, colorful, and funny. I agree that it is all these things, but I can’t help noting its darker elements as well. Which, I think, are part of every family story.

It would be misleading to attribute this conflict to a mere difference in storytelling styles. There is more to it than that. Uncle tells the stories that he knows, with perhaps some inadvertent transformations imparted by his biases and the quirks of memory. There is nothing wrong with this method. We all follow it.

I relate the family history in a different way because I seek out other sources—his siblings, other relatives, and in the few cases where they are available, documented facts from public records. And even when we draw on the same facts and fables, I often interpret them differently. The result is that my account of our shared past often stands in conflict with his account. That doesn’t make me wrong, or right. It just makes me a revisionist.

© 2015, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *