Selective reading of history -- words crossed out

Is there a selective reading of history in your family? How do you deal with it?

As southerners have debated whether the Confederate flag represents hate or heritage, several articles have addressed the idea of a “selective reading of history.” Which is, when you think about it, something families are really good at doing.

A selective reading of history isn’t quite a revision of what happened. It’s an intentional focus on some facts and a brushing-under-the-rug of other events. As storytellers, we play a role in selecting what’s told and what’s kept mum. Admittedly, sometimes the selective reading of history is appropriate. There’s a “truth” of the story that needs to come through loud and clear, unobscured by complicating details and the noise of side stories

However, other times, those of us recounting the family’s history slowly become aware of the crumbs lurking under the carpet. We feel uncomfortable as we sense them crunching under the family footfalls.

But, sweeping them out into the light of day is an intimidating prospect.

Particularly when the family is comfortable with the version of events they’ve heard and propagated over the years, presenting an alternative account is a tricky issue for the family storyteller or historian. We can employ various strategies when it comes to deciding what version of family history we want to preserve and share.

Don’t Rock the Boat

Many times, it’s a question of the order of magnitude of the particles swept under the rug. When it’s family spats, less than proud moments, and rocky relationships that have long since healed, highlighting those bad times really won’t serve the family legacy. Moreover, though historically accurate, exposing every flaw might taint the truth of the story. Most family has arguments and misunderstandings now and again, without it interfering in their long-term relationships. If family members have learned to accept, forgive, and forget, in my opinion, think hard before you stir things up.

Paint the entire picture.

To make sure you’re not missing the point by exposing the selective reading of history, paint the entire picture. Don’t select stories out of context.

For instance, one of my uncles was, on occasion, a tad ornery. But to tell that part of the story in isolation would leave a false impression. He was also funny and loving—he just loved to argue. And no one took his orneriness seriously.

We all understand that any frustration with him was tempered with great love. In fact, his kids and grandkids love the stories of his “crusty” expressions of love. A favorite is of the day several of them came over to move things around to make life easier for him as he fought liver cancer. After a few hours, my uncle expressed love and gratitude for all they had done for him, but finished with, “but I’m ready for you all to get the hell out of my house.” To me, the crux of the story wasn’t that he said something so blunt. The point of my uncle’s story is that he was so loved he could say whatever he wanted. The kids and grandkids weren’t offended. They kissed him goodbye and drove home howling with laughter despite spending the day with a terminally ill loved one.

Anticipate the fallout

There are times when the selective reading of history is not just a way to make the family look better. It’s the denial that allows them to continue as a functional family. When that’s the case, it behooves the storyteller to think carefully about their own motives and the probable aftermath of their revelations. Once they’re out, Genies don’t go back into bottles.

Whose story is it to tell?

A genealogist friend is grappling with that question. It recently came to light in her family, that one sister of several was born before her parents’ marriage. In addition, several clues as to her aunt’s paternity have also surfaced—a WWII soldier that never made it home. As a genealogist, my friend believes it be easy, through research, to establish whom her aunt’s biological father was.

The other sisters beg my friend to keep her ideas of research to herself. The truth they’re comfortable with is the truth they have known for over sixty years. All the sisters had the same loving, happily married parents. Why mix it up with information on a long-deceased biological parent?

What would you do? In my opinion, if her aunt has asked for help in identifying her biological father, she has a right to that information. Whether or not she chooses to broadcast what she learns to the rest of the family is a different matter. In this case, while the other sisters are still living, it’s not the genealogist’s story to tell. That story belongs to her aunt.

Your Turn:

When have you encountered a selective reading of history in your family? How did you decide to handle the hidden nuggets? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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