The power of the narrative is incredible. If a story is told often enough, it becomes what people believe. It becomes the truth. It serves as the truth until a new truth emerges but even then most people are resistant to the revision of history, their own or others.
“No, it wasn’t really like that. It was like this.” It can be crazy-making, changing the narrative of one’s country or town or family. Right now I’m reading a book titled Everyday Klansfolk, White Protestant Life and the KKK in 1920s Michigan, in which the author, Craig Fox, uses evidence gathered painstakingly from local newspapers and membership records to make the case that the Klan in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana in the 20’s was really more like the local Elks Club than the vicious white-robed, cross-burning, lynching mobs described in the testimony of thousands of people. A meeker, much less scary, and more palatable Klan was created for the Upper Midwest palate.
This means that while we’re riding through Michigan seeing in our minds eye where the Klan might have ridden, feeling guilt or sympathy for people who may have been terrorized by the Klan, we’re imagining things that probably weren’t there.
Families are like that, too.
A family’s narrative is the great unspoken story of how things came to be. When we were in our twenties and thirties, my sister and I spent vast quantities of time weaving and re-weaving a family narrative in which our father was a selfish, business-obsessed man who was uninvolved with his family and our mother was stoic and long-suffering. Our blame for the family’s shortcomings was heaped on our father, he could do so little right even while we had to sift through the tiniest piles of his offenses to find sufficient evidence to label him a bad father.
My mother, on the other hand, was cast as a saint. Her chronic unhappiness, her many illnesses, and her other-worldliness was part of a person defined by the misfortune of her marriage. We, my sister and I, were definite and cruel in the creation of the family narrative. There was a villain and a heroine. We all but tied our mother on the tracks and watched for the train coming over the horizon.
But then, one night, not so many years ago, as I sat on the plaid couch in my 89-year old father’s TV room and he sat in his old brown leather recliner, he let out little hints about my mother. Nothing he said was intended to counter the damsel in distress narrative my sister and I had created because he never knew about that. He assumed, I think, that all along, I had understood the real truth.
My mother’s depression had started almost the day they were married, deepened after every child was born, and stayed a constant in their life together until the end. He said this matter-of-factly without accusing or reproach. He didn’t blame her. It was just reality. It was what happened. It was the truth.
Every day had been lived as a chore. Even though they clearly loved each other and made no effort to hide their affection, happiness was a foreign concept. People weren’t happy, they were quiet. Silent. He lived with that, the silence for sixty-four years. He never left. He never raged or blamed, at least not where we could hear him. He just lived his life the best way he could never knowing that we, his daughters, would later assign him the antagonist role in a very bad play.
Sometimes, I wonder what narrative my own children are constructing about their lives growing up in our family. What assumptions are they making? What truth do they believe? It is probably impossible to replace whatever narrative they have developed with the truth until they are ready to hear it, until they are sitting on the plaid couch like I did listening to my father. Things aren’t always as they seem is the lesson I learned that night. It’s a lesson to pass on if I can figure out how.
Photo: Josh Applegate