Ever since I discovered Family Constellation work in 2005, I have been paying attention to the more mysterious side of my family — Dad’s French Creole ancestors. While Mom used to regale us with delightful family stories– like the tale of her prim Scottish great-grandmother setting her new husband straight on their wedding night: “Na-na, Matthew, none o’ that.”– Dad told no stories, and there were obviously plenty to be told. After all, his ancestors were adventurers, “voyageurs” making their way down the Mississippi, or statesmen whose vague connections with a Civil War general gave us bragging rights.
In April, 2014 I visited New Orleans to try to flesh out some of the mystery. It was about time. I hadn’t been there since I was four years old, and had barely met my first cousins. Besides spending delightful hours with them, I pored through donated family documents at the Historical Society, hungry for personal letters written by some of the women whose energy I had experienced in constellation work.
But my eager library search led me nowhere. It seemed all I was going to know of the typically long lives of those once-vibrant women was their pretty French names and the dates of their births, marriages, and funerals. Had they all left the world without a single record of their thoughts, their experiences, their joys and struggles and heart-aches?
I felt so saddened that, even though these were literate women who must have written letters, and maybe even diaries, nothing had been deemed worth keeping. How much space had they felt they could take up in the world? Had it even occurred to them that their own lives were significant?
Yet these women live on in me, genetically, energetically, and perhaps especially powerfully in the legacy of their taboos! The fear and shame I feel when overstepping irrational boundaries of “too-much”ness– haven’t they been handed down from generation to generation as surely as silver soup ladles? My ancestors would recognize too well the part of me that still hangs back tsk-tsking behind my fan (so to speak) when others express themselves unabashedly or delight openly over an accomplishment.
All of this was much on my mind during my trip to New Orleans because I was struggling at the time to get up the nerve to publish my memoir. I was fiercely wrestling with my ancestors’ internalized commentary ” Why would you want to do such a thing?” “Watch what secrets you reveal!”, “Your personal experiences should be kept to yourself!”
I have been wondering, as I mark the one-year anniversary of my book’s publication, if underlying all this fear of revelation is a universal taboo against disturbing a family’s dominant narrative, the one everyone’s stories have to fit into. How rare it is for families to listen to, and take in, the personal experiences of each member. Each individual’s narrative is forever shrouded in mystery, and all that is left is the family story, so amorphous that it is certainly more myth than history.
In family constellation work, we observe that the family’s survival needs typically take precedence over the needs of its members. Individuals’ stories are bound to endanger the family myth, disturb the family’s sense of purpose and cohesiveness through the generations, and disorient everyone in the system. They threaten to expose that the family is not entirely as it believes itself to be.
My need to tell the story of my own childhood as revealed in psychoanalysis would have been frowned on by past generations, who surely could not imagine it is a good thing for children or women or maybe even a good man to “take up space” by exploring, let alone revealing, their own personal truth.
However, I went ahead and published my memoir because I had internalized other voices, ones that were more expansive and enlivening. So it was that a year ago I went about eagerly planning a book launching celebration that would fully and unreservedly express my joy. I boldly scheduled my celebration for a Saturday evening — how nervy was that?– reserving a large space at Women Writing (for) a Change. I invited friends from every era and arena of my adult life, past and present, not knowing who would be thrilled for me, and who would be chillingly indifferent.
Over fifty people gathered that night. I was exhilarated. My spirit was wide open, my soul luminous, my hugs unrestrained. When, after a few moments’ sheer terror, I began to read a chapter from my book, I caressed every word, and delighted in people’s resonance.
Afterwards, fielding questions, I spoke without any anxiety at all, and I heard my own words for what they were, loving and warm and straight from my heart. This energy flowed into the signing of each person’s book, such a personal, soulful connection. Seldom, in all my life, had I felt such grace flowing within and without in a situation which could have been entirely nerve-wracking had I not been momentarily freed, by sheer grace, from constricting taboos.
I believe my ancestors, who I imagine are now enjoying full knowledge and freedom, were blessing that event. I like to think that they have had a hand in showing me that taking up space is the only way to live.