"Family History" by Robert Kehlmann. Sandblasted hand-blown glass, mixed media. By Rkehlmann (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“Family History” by Robert Kehlmann. Sandblasted hand-blown glass, mixed media. By Rkehlmann (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 If you like to write but lack the gift of unbridled imagination, I have just the thing for you. Family history combines the richness of fiction with the veracity of your daily paper.You don’t have to imagine characters. You don’t have to worry about plot. Just write down those family stories and mix in some genealogy or social history. The stuff practically writes itself.

In practice, writing family history isn’t so simple. Solid fact can be surprisingly scarce. Your unheralded kin might not have left a public record. You might have trouble finding personal records, such as diaries, letters, and photographs.

Even if you find these documents, they will only pose further questions. How do you follow up on the clues revealed by letters and diaries? What do these documents mean to the living?

Your curiosity aroused, you will naturally want to interview your relatives. So go ahead. Ask your mother about her childhood. Ask your father about his coming of age struggle. Ask your uncles about their jobs, schooling, or military service. Then you’re collecting oral history.

But oral history can be problematic. Memory shapes the stories we tell, as Arthur Shimamura demonstrates. Yet its very faultiness enhances its narrative value, as Charles Fernyhough writes in The Guardian.

Your relatives’ narratives may be riddled with gaps, but good luck filling them in. If you ask one relative to corroborate another’s story, they will probably contradict each other. In the end, you’re left with a store of unsubstantiated fragments. How do you distinguish fact from rumor or gossip? How do you account for motive and perspective? What do you do when every story is apocryphal?

I find it helpful to take memory down from its pedestal and accept it for the frail and faulty thing that it is. Parties, friends, weddings, and journeys—these figments we store are not immutable, but rather have an independent existence that is separate from the phenomena that created them. Memory is not a literal recording. It alters with time. My childhood memories have grown hazy. Even the adventures of my youth and young adulthood, which took place when my mind and brain were fully formed, now appear to me in a flickering half light that I don’t completely trust. Some of my memories might even be fake.

I’m not unusual in this regard. If my memory is fallible, so is everyone’s.

So what use do we make of oral history?

I start with the premise that every story holds equal value. It doesn’t matter how closely it hews to objective truth. Objective truth is not my goal. Family history is more than a chronicle of people and events. It’s an exploration of relationships, interconnectedness, and memory. The types of stories that are told, the manner of their telling, even those tantalizing gaps—all these are part of a family history.

I also hold that every storyteller has equal standing. To privilege one account over others would be unethical. My goal is to bear witness impartially, to include perspectives that have been excluded in the past. In my family (and maybe in yours), it’s always possible that one relative will dismiss another’s account, perhaps vehemently. For this reason, I rarely share their tales among them.

Oral history makes memory an actor in family history. It brings us face to face with the full complexity of the enterprise. How do we account for the way memory shapes identify? How do we gauge the motives of the storyteller? How do we regard the structure that memory imposes on the past? What allowances must we make for the vagaries of transcription?

The only solution I know is to embrace the complexity of memory and oral history. The literal past is often beyond recovery. The remembered past is what we seek instead. If memory and oral history introduce error, they also introduce richness and a different sort of truth. For memory, as Tobias Wolff reminds us, has its own story to tell.

© 2015, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.