family history and genealogy

Finding a Mythical Framework for Family History

Prodigal son by Rembrandt (drawing, 1642)

Sometimes we reflect on our lives, and sometimes we don’t. Self-reflection is a natural human trait, but there are limits to its usefulness. If the unexamined life is not worth living, the overly examined one can be a real drag. That’s why we usually rush through life headlong and leave it to memoir to make sense of the past.

But whether we reflect or not, and regardless of our conscious intentions, we live within a cultural framework. You might even call it a mythical framework. Certain archetypes are present in our family histories, whether we see them or not. I’m talking about the black sheep, the prodigal son, Cain and Abel—whatever trope you hold dear, it’s probably visible in some real person’s story. Perhaps even in yours.

The power of myth acts on writers and non-writers alike. In many cases, the myths in question spring not from our shared cultural heritage, but from a family’s own store of fables and tropes. Theresa Hupp makes this point in “Writing Memoir: Family Myth Defines Us, Unless We Define Ourselves,” where she talks about the roles assigned to us within a family: the good daughter, the crazy one, the workaholic, and so on. A writer named SWQM60, linking to Theresa’s post, echoes this point, adding “… our personal mythology explains our lives. And like all myths which contain more fiction than fact, we may live by the fiction of our lives.”

The Parable of the Prodigal Son has especially widespread appeal. The arc of this story—rebellion, loss, and reconciliation—is easy to grasp and has great consolatory power. Shannon, a missionary in La Ceiba, Honduras, made especially good use of this template recently—once to reconcile with one of her charges, who had run off and returned, and once again in telling the story of her prodigal’s return.

Locating our stories within a mythical framework is a useful technique for memoirists and family historians. Doing so lends power and cachet to our narratives. But we ought to be careful in how we use these frameworks. Shannon’s use of the prodigal son parable is a little too neat to my mind, a little too instrumental. With the complications of her life so easily disposed of, the prodigal in this vignette becomes less compelling, her story less interesting. Better to let the rough edges show. Our job as writers is not to simplify a story, but to complicate it.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should be strive in every instance for complexity. If Shannon is too simplistic in her use of the prodigal son analogy, modernists may be overly adroit in their use of similar formulae. I recently read Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep and found myself unmoved by its stylistic and formal inventions, annoyed at the thick layer of artifice encrusting its characters. In the afterword, where Hana Wirth-Nesher of Tel Aviv University compares David in his agony on the streetcar track to Christ in his agony on the cross, I felt positively manhandled, and my annoyance only deepened.

But my quarrel with Roth over his treatment of an archetype doesn’t lessen my conviction that such archetypes have a place in nonfiction narrative. How you treat them is up to you. We live in an old world where ghosts flicker among us, murmuring in voices we can barely understand. These ghosts are part of family life. They are also part of the cultural inheritance that we, as writers, assume every time we take up our task. We may as well allow them into our work. Literature thrives on ambition. The greater its embrace, the greater its power to elicit wonder.

© 2012 – 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.


  1. Theresa Hupp

    Thank you for the link. Nice post.

    • Andy Kubrin

      Glad you liked the post, Theresa. I thought yours was pretty good, too.

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