When legends die – false family history

Judy Bolton-Fasman wrote an intriguing op-ed for the New York Times relating her family history stories to Massachusetts Senate hopeful Elizabeth Warren’s claims of American Indian heritage. (Thanks to online memoir-writer friend Gene Bodzin for this.) Bolton-Fasman, in All My Mother’s Stories, says Warren’s ads countering opponent Scott Brown’s questions say, “What kid asks her mother for documentation?”

In her op-ed piece, Bolton-Fasman says her own mother lied about parts of her past. When Bolton-Fasman discovered this, she then questioned the family history of royalty her mother had passed on to her. She never did any genealogical research, though—why bother, she thinks, the point is that the family believed this for generations and therefore their lives were shaped by it. She thinks the details of Warren’s family history don’t matter either:  “It’s a family legend that has inspired her to identify with the dispossessed and work on behalf of the marginalized.”

As a proponent of lifewriting and memoir, I agree with this to a point. Family history can shape descendants’ perspectives of who they are, even if parts of the history later become exposed as legend. It would be quite sad if you were proud to be descended from an Indian tribe and discovered you were not. Maybe it would affect your love of attending Indian tribal gatherings or collecting Indian jewelry, but maybe it would not. The question is what do you do with knowledge of the truth?

I think genealogy fans would argue the truth should be dug up and verified if possible. It would be wrong to blindly or, worse, deliberately pass along falsehoods. As a lifewriter, I would argue the legends should be included in the family history not only as a point of interest but because legends can shape beliefs and values. Also of interest is the family reaction when beliefs are found to be untrue.

And now for a personal story. My sister and I long treasured a photo of a round-faced, big-eyed little Japanese girl standing barefoot, captured in a black-and-white studio photo. It is one of only two childhood photos of our mother. Except it is not. Several years ago, before dementia had a firm hold on her, my mother said, no, it was of her older sister. I think my sister and I are still crushed by that. I know I’m still clinging to the hope she is wrong.

Not my mother

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About moonbridgebooks

Co-author of Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, a WWII Japan memoir of her mother's childhood; Co-author/Editor of Battlefield Doc, a medic's memoir of combat duty during the Korean War; life writing enthusiast; loves history and culture (especially Japan), and cats
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7 Responses to When legends die – false family history

  1. Winfred Cook says:

    This is a very touching post. I agree that we are shaped by the stories our parents tell us, and of course as innocents we don’t ask for works cited!

    I got into writing seriously about 8 years ago, and after writing several short stories, I decided to try novels.

    I really wanted to write about my family, my uncle in particular, but they had all passed away, so I couldn’t ask them for more stories or clarification. That’s why I used my imagination and research of the time period to create a speculative historical fiction novel. It was a way to flex my creative muscles and still convey the personality traits I knew from those individuals.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Winfred. Plenty of writers decide to write their life stories into novels, not only for the reason of not having enough information, but because there is the freedom to direct the story to tell bigger truths or to send home a message more clearly. From listening to many writers, I find they often include storylines and characters based on real life. Congratulations on your creative endeavors.

  3. In writing a short story for a creative writing class, I just finished a piece about my great-grandmother. She used to live with us when I was younger and I shared a room with her. I remember many nights getting ready for bed while she would tell me all the stories about her life that she could remember. I wish I had known as a child to take notes! LOL But I didn’t and so when I wrote about her, I remembered the feelings I had so vividly and some of the dialogue was what I think she could have been saying, but may not be exactly right. The point of the story was to show how much her life had touched mine in such a short time and how much I missed her. Even though the dialogue wasn’t perfect and hadn’t happened exactly, it did not take away from the point or the feelings of the story nor did it detract from how I viewed my great-grandmother either.

    • There you go, Stephanie, good for you! Almost nobody remembers the exact words anyway, often not all the details, and it doesn’t really matter. You explained very well how to capture what’s really important. If we use historical detail usually we’d need to make sure we get that right. Sounds like you had a precious great-grandmother.

  4. Winfred Cook says:

    When I wrote my first novel, Uncle Otto I had no real information about his past. What I did have was my relationship with my aunts and uncle, and their relationships with one another before they passed away. They were close. Of course at the time I didn’t know that I would be writing about them someday. One of my aunts and my mother were best friends. I simply took them back a few decades, kept the personalities in tack, added a few anecdotes from my mothers bedtime stories to me and voila, I had the Green siblings as they were when they were kids. I used my own adolescents experiences for the teenaged Otto. Putting those characters into that period was like creating another world, and I was the fly on the wall.

    • Clever, Winfred, using what you know of your family to speculate on the past. I have even seen something like this done with nonfiction family history to create a more readable story.

      • Winfred Cook says:

        One thing that makes a fictional memoir seem real are the current events happening during the period. In Uncle Otto there was Madame C. J. Walker, Prohibition and a few other events indicative of the perion. You must be accurate with details when you use current events of the period.

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