Death will not part us again, nearer to heaven than ten thousand ancestors who dream of me… ~ Rickie Lee Jones
The ancestors possess this in-between quality of the flown soul and the hovering presence ~ The Book of Symbols
Until a short time ago if you googled my name, without initials, credentials or qualifiers you would find only text and images of my most infamous and tragic relative. My name would summon a black and white photograph of a lovely blonde woman, posed formally, in a light-colored taffeta gown, with stiff bows and many strands of pearls. To me, she resembled my father, and how beautiful he might have been in drag. I never knew her, and although she lived in a perpetual vegetative state since my early adolescence – since before the internet existed – her life, her story, preempted my digital footprint until I reached the half century mark of my own life.
I often wondered what clients who googled me would make of it, when my name emerged on their screens attached to her story. Would they glean our association, guess that I was/am her namesake? Probably not. I never met her and my relation is distant enough, and further obscured by an adoption – that it is in no way obvious. It is an inconsequential, silly, tangential anecdote, a piece of Martha trivia shared sometimes at dinner parties when I’ve had a glass of wine or two.
Yet, when I realized that I had dethroned the preceding and deceased Martha Crawford in the digital archives, I found myself examining the psychological legacy I had inherited from our common ancestors and my peripheral relationship to her.
The ancestors are those who have “gone before” (from the Latin ‘antecedere’) all the life that has ever been, leaving behind the traces of kinship ~ The Book of Symbols
When clients first come to therapy, the first thing that a responsible psychotherapist does is to “take a history” enquiring about the biopyschosocial events, achievements, traumas, and milestones that compose a clients history from birth to the present:
“When did you first have these symptoms? Who are the people in your family of origin? How old were you when your brother was born? When your parents divorced? When your mother died? What was school like for you?”
Many clients resist, annoyed, wondering why I am asking about stuff from long ago that “obviously” has nothing to do with what is going on in the present.
Others are protective: “Look, I’m not interested in blaming my parents for my problems. My parents were great.”
Blame is not the point – I am scanning for patterns, for repeating themes, for unfinished business, for unexamined loyalties to the way things used to be, that have grown into present day obstacles, or, at least, are no longer useful.
Thorough clinicians often try to reach back before birth: “Do you know the story of how your parents met? What do you know about your mother’s childhood? What was your father’s relationship with his grandfather like?”
Family systemic therapies look back as many generations as possible, creating complex genograms, family trees graphed out, dotted with triangles, circles, and squares.
I remember in social work school family systems class, as we were all asked to chart out our own multi-generational family histories – the students’ gasps of surprise as patterns suddenly seemed to pop off of the page – recurring generation after generation.
I had my own realizations: My paternal great-grandfather had died when my grandfather was nine years old, my grandfather had divorced and abandoned my father when my father was nine years old, and my parents divorced, my own father seemingly incapable of fathering any longer when I turned nine years old.
Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation. ~ Exodus 34:7 King James Version
Working at a day treatment program early in my career, I sat with the aunt of an African-American client who had severe limitations in his ability to communicate about his own history. Together we sketched out a genogram on a legal pad as I asked her about who had married whom, how many children they had. Suddenly she asked me a question, gesturing to my name plaque on my door.
“Your middle name, is that a family name?”
“Yes” I answered, “why?”
“I just wondered…” she drifted off, her brow furrowing. She tapped her pen on my page as she then wrote in the same uncommon family name, my middle name, into her family tree. Surprised, I couldn’t wrap my head around her question.
“What do you wonder?”
“Any of your ancestors live in the South?” she enquired.
My heart froze, as I realized what she was wondering. I suddenly noticed that the naming patterns in her family and in mine were shockingly similar: the client’s mother (aunt’s sister) was named Martha, and their maiden name was the same as my unusual middle name. There were uncles and brothers who had my brothers’ names, and my own aunt had the same first name as the woman sitting in front of me. As I looked over the page I saw grandparents and great grandparents with similar (or exact) and fairly uncommon first names. My mind scrambled, my heart pounded as I rapidly flipped through that branch of my family tree as I knew it:
“No. Midwestern Quakers, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota – many many generations… Its funny, I see not only my name, but lots of my old Quaker relatives names, here, and here, and here, in your family tree.”
“Oh, Quaker names…” she smiled warmly, obviously relieved and took my hand “I suppose that its just some sign that you are the right person to help our sweet boy.”
It was the beginning of one of the sweetest, warmest, most touching relationships I have ever known with a cherished client and his family.
Yet, this exchange about the historical, cultural realities of our lives – of who our people might have been to each other – of an abomination that my ancestors would have been legally empowered to inflict upon their greats and great-greats – served as a reminder of what had, in fact, been inflicted, of what had been survived, of the strengths and losses of previous generations and what had unfolded for this family in its wake. What could have been between us, and what was, and the attending irreconcilable divergences were as alive in our relationship as the synchronicity of our mirror-names.
Our historical context matters. It lives in our names, in our bones, in our privileges, in our genes, in our family stories, and in our strengths, scars, wounds and failures.
How would we have survived had we not been carried on the shoulders of the ancestors? How would we have found our way had we not been guided by the psychic deposits they have left us as signs….They haunt us if neglected. The bother and disturb us if we do not honor their living presence. ~ The Book of Symbols
I’ve had many clients who saw their parents behavior as mystifying, intolerable, oppressive, unjustifiable. And when we looked into their deeper historical/cultural/generational histories – of curtailed freedom, poverty, oppression, famine, war, genocide – “bad” parental behaviors suddenly became acts love from another time, another circumstance. A crying child – while a family hides from a murderous army – must have its emotional vulnerability suppressed in order for future generations to exist and survive. Parsimony appears withholding and unloving until a family history, a generation or two prior, of extreme poverty is understood and acknowledged. Cloying anxiety about a child’s diet can look merely pathological if a deep family history – of not knowing when they might next eat unconsciously conveyed forward into the present – has been overlooked.
Sometimes awareness of the personal aspects of our deeper histories fade away due to simple disinterest, disrespect for what came before, from passivity, or lack of curiosity and empathy.
And we all know what happens to those who forget history.
The unconscious compulsion to repeat can extend well beyond the scope of an individual life.
The dead may be malevolent or benevolent, feared or admired, given bribes to keep them from mischief or gifts to make them happy. ~ Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend
And there are lost and stolen stories, the broken narratives of disrupted bloodlines: Adoption. Death. Family severance.
There are unspeakable, silent legacies: Trauma. Torture. Abuse.
There are intentionally suppressed histories: Secrets. Shame. Lies.
And certainly the stories and mysteries that surround both the Other Martha, and my grandfather, the events that bound them to each other, have been a hovering presence in my life: legacies which could not ever have been predicted, inheritances painful, joyous, and surprising. And that are also in some form, being passed on to my children for good and for ill.
According to traditional Korean beliefs, when people die, their spirits do not immediately depart; they stay with their descendants for four generations. During this period the deceased are still regarded as family members, and Koreans reaffirm the relationship between ancestors and descendants…
But, I have seen too much to believe that anything is ever really lost, even when we do not have conscious access to our inheritance – our bodies speak, the ancestors whisper in our ears, live in our cells, in our genes and come to us in our dreaming.
They cannot ever be taken away from us completely, nor can we escape them.
They are with us always and everywhere,
whether we like it or not.
copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford