The Roots of Our Stories: Family and the Forging of Identity
As awareness increases, so does our capacity for choice and self-direction.
Posted Oct 10, 2020
The preeminent anthropologist and systems theorist Gregory Bateson (1972) once wrote, “People in a family act to control the range of one another’s behavior.” Our families are crucibles in which our identities and narratives become shaped. In our families, for better and for worse, we learn. In family, seeds of perspective and identity, faith and purpose bud forth. We are born into a community of folks that we may have never chosen ourselves. Yet, the course of our existence becomes destined to flow out of it.
As the years go by, we learn the stories and patterns, the myths and expectations, and the minuscule characteristics and habits of these individuals. We don this oddball quilt of kinship, tattered by wear and weather, held together loosely in places by withered threads.
Our families are intricately woven with beliefs and expectations about the world inscribed through time and experience by generations of community. The family unconscious drives identity and understanding. Life etches itself into personality out of the credos of its past and the dance of its members. Customs and rituals learned in childhood shape us. We let the world know our shape, revealing it through our values and choices: how we should believe, how we should act. Knowingly or in ignorance, our families give us both tools and direction for living.
A family is also a maker of meaning. We hear the collective voices of our own family history somehow within whispers from the past when we listen closely enough, echoes of the collective unconscious. As Virginia Satir (1988) noted, it is in how we respond to that heritage that we are uniquely defined—that we write our own stories. The degree of closeness or distance, volatility or peace, abuse or neglect within particular families is a crucial developmental crucible in which we are fired and molded. Depending on our relationships with our parents or closest caregivers, we may be more relatable, withdrawn, or disruptive.
In families there exist beliefs, expectations, and habits that go almost unnoticed, nearly invisible forces that stir thought, emotion, and behavior into pattern. A sputtering flow of formative anxiety is passed along from generation to generation. We need not carry the encumbrances of family forever, but we keep them in our packs long enough to trade them for something more. Keeping them is not an apt description. They keep us.
My own family story, as I know it, begins somewhere in the fog of my grandparents’ generation and in the stories passed down through them. It remains threaded in pattern throughout family lineages in beliefs, expectations, and values.
Families are rivers roaring forth. Sometimes their distributaries cut new paths, but all rivers flow from headwaters somewhere. There is a power in the flow of narrative through the generations. Sometimes in that course, facts are selectively targeted, meanings are attributed, and identity is marked.
Wilse A. Edwards, who was my father’s father, died when my father was only 14 years old, but his status as a community leader, a naval engineer, and a good businessman lived on through stories. Others were held in high regard for upholding a long tradition of being, as my father has told me, “land-owning gentry, successful entrepreneurs, and bargainers, horse-traders of the highest order.”
Dad explained to me that during his childhood, family members emphasized the brand of car a person drove: Packard or Cadillac. No less important was a person’s style of dress or the cliques he was involved in. My father recalls a pride in the family’s ideology—“We were Edwards, you know.”
My father remembers Momma Stella, his grandmother, being predictable in her remarks: “Carry yourself in a stately fashion. Look the part. Dress to the nines. Never go anywhere without looking your best.” Her clichés spoke the standards by which family members were to be measured. Status and success have historically been the driving force in the family’s estimation of worth and meaning.
It is my father’s impression that his father, Wilse, esteemed respect and morality over status and wealth. His dedication to hard work itself, rather than any success or glory that might come through it, represented a branching departure from the family trunk. In my father’s words, “He was a grand fellow, not of the old mold of Edwards. He was a gentleman in the true sense of the word.” Such narratives have ways of infiltrating our sense of value and meaning.
In addition to the stories we inherit and pass down, we are also indelibly shaped by our own early experiences. My childhood surrounded me with extended family community from my mother’s side, in which there was a high value placed on geographic proximity and participation in activities and celebrations together—birthdays, reunions, and graduations; Super-Bowl parties; marriages and funerals. If you didn’t appear at an annual Griffin reunion at the local state park to greet seventh cousins, my grandfather—DaddyTroy—would make it known that you had been added to his list, a list that despite its lack of real consequence, no one wanted to be on.
Values embedded within the family schema included hospitality, sacrifice, trust, relationship, and mutual support. We all lived in relatively close proximity. Gardening, fishing, cows, horses, and pecans seasoned our lives together. We picked up pecans together. Family gatherings revolved around home-cooked meals, and family traditions sprinkled throughout the calendar year kept everyone connected.
When my mother was a child, her father’s mother, Granny Griffin, endured a series of strokes, which left her in old age unable to fully take care of herself. Her sons and their families, including my grandfather and his family, performed many helpful tasks around her house. Granny Griffin’s daughters-in-law would take turns cooking meals for her, packing away enough leftovers in her refrigerator and freezer to last her over a week.
My grandfather—Granny Griffin’s son, DaddyTroy to me—upon the loss of his wife—my grandmother, Grandmommy—was in turn cared for by his three daughters, including my mother, who helped him keep up his home and cooked for him, packing away leftovers in his freezer much like the women of his generation had done for his mother, a history of sacrifice, provision, and generous love.
As the years wear along, we consolidate and integrate memory and meaning. As awareness increases, so does our capacity or choice and self-direction, for personalizing the scripts written for us by family lore.
Adapted excerpt from an article originally appearing in Voices Journal: The Art & Science of Psychotherapy (55) 1 (spring 2019). Reprinted courtesy of the American Academy of Psychotherapists.
Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Satir, V. (1988). The new peoplemaking. Mountain View: Science and Behavior Books.