Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The nature of the crime

My oldest brother has written an extended essay, which he describes as a biography of our father, the details, the background to and arrival of our parents in Australia.

It is beautifully written and for me a pleasure to read however disturbing. The disturbing aspect for me relates as much to what my brother writes as to what he excludes.

I do not feel at liberty to write about this essay in detail yet, other than to reflect on Jim Murdoch’s comment that ‘the moment we start selecting we start fictionalising’. As well, I think of Paul Lisicky’s words, that for something ‘to shudder with mystery’ we need sometimes to hold something back. Lisicky uses the word ‘elision’.

My brother has a tendency to write about the ‘we’ of it all, referring to us, his brothers and sisters, as though he is a spokesperson for us all, a dangerous thing to do, given that as a group of individuals we are unlikely to see things the way he does.

But he is the first born and as the first born I suspect he claims that privilege, especially in so far as he is writing about the early years of his own life and the experience of our parents even before any of the rest of us were born.

He can claim that privilege here, but beyond it he sets himself up for challenge.

He reckons that the piece is not yet fully edited yet and for this reason wants me to keep it to myself, namely not to share this knowledge with my siblings, but I suspect that he is as fearful, as I am fearful, of how our siblings might react to any of our writing that purports to chronicle family history.

We see things so differently from one another. My oldest brother is big on ‘facts’ and big on genealogy, whereas I prefer the minute detail that emerges from my memories. My brother occasionally offers the detail of his own memories but mostly he prefers to rely on ‘written evidence’, which he considers to be much more reliable as evidence about what ‘really’ happened.

And so there are these letters that our grandparents wrote from prison in which they make no reference to their alleged crimes and write only about basic necessities or the hope that their children are well.

But I know the nature of the crime. I have the person cards that the historian and researcher, Barbara van Balen, gathered for me from the archives in Amsterdam. The person cards detail exact times of imprisonment and the charge. My brother does not want to talk about the charge, at least not yet.

He does not want to look too closely at the incest that preceded even his birth. Our grandparents were imprisoned around the time our parents were married and around the time this brother first entered the world.

What a legacy.

Here is a photo of my grandparents and father when he was a baby, well before it all happened.

64 comments:

The Elephant's Child said...

Oh dear. Having just discovered that my mama had lied about family history you have hit many a nerve here. And this discovery has affected members of my family very differently. Of course a family biography is selective and equally of course to try and use the 'we' word is fraught with danger.
As always a lovely thought provoking piece. Thank you.

Rob-bear said...

Tantalizing tidbits, but you hold back on the story.
Strange. Very strange.

oceangirl said...

Your grandparents were imprisoned? Both grandmother and grandfather? Paternal? I apologised if I had missed the story Elisabeth.

I wish I have more details of my greatgrandparents. My maternal greatgrandfather was a traveler, from Surabaya, Indonesia. My grandfather told me stories about him but I wish I knew more. My greatgreatgrandfather paternal was from India, my greatgreatgrandmother was Chinese, or half-Chinese, I am not so clear. I will check with my Father.

As for writing, I see your point Elisabeth, no one could know how their siblings felt unless the siblings mentioned it.

I am intrigued by family histories.

John Myste said...

What a teaser!

Elizabeth said...

My mouth is hanging open.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I didn't know until last week that Margaret Drabble and A.S. Byatt are sisters and that each has included a version of family history in their fiction. And they disagree about that history. Shows you how little I knew about them - beyond their names (I've read Byatt's Possession) - it seems the sisterly rivalry (& disagreements about shared relations) have been written about many times - by themselves & others.

I don't think my brother (who also writes) will ever write anything explicitly autobiographical. He writes about ghosts and zombies and giant reptiles.

Birdie said...

I am the genealogist and historian of the family and one thing is for certain, we all have skeletons in our closets. I have a grandfather that was apparently "not a good man". Those words were all I got from my biological father. My great aunt would not tell what it was like for my grandmother when she was a child. She just said, "you don't want to know."

Regarding your last post about the ear worm. I went to the link you provided and I had to turn if off halfway through. That is the creepiest song/video I have ever seen. I can see why you wanted it expunged from your mind. What was even more weird is the comments and how wonderful people thought it was. I felt like I was in the damn Twilight Zone where everyone else is normal and I am the freak. Common sense told me otherwise. That song is WEIRD and the video even weirder.

jane.healy said...

I wrote a short story about my uncle (he was two years my senior), my younger sister told me I had written it through tinted glasses - she had always found him to be a bully and was terrified of him. I thought really hard then and realised that yes he probably had bullied her, but because he didn't bully me I have different memories.
We all have different memories of the same incident - and so much of our memory is tainted by hindsight - doesn't it also follow that everyones hindsight is as different as their original impression?

Ruth said...

Elision is a great word-image here. I also thought of ellipsis for what is left out.

You've left a pretty big hint here, but still plenty of mystery.

I remember my sister-in-law saying once, about some family concern that she wanted to go her way, "We all feel . . . " and I felt outraged instantly. Even if I tended to agree with her point of view in that case, I cringed that she wanted to control the family that way.

Frances said...

Our limited choice: writhe around in issues that are 40 or 50 years out of date, or get on with it and be concerned about the future, and choose what bits we choose to hand down the line and empower and inspire the younger and those who come after. Or not.

And, maybe, to lighten their load, we tell lies. As, perhaps your brother inadvertently has done.
What do we inherit from previous generations? You, Elisabeth, appear to have inherited much of the physical appearance of this grandmother. Does she/they have weaknesses/strengths/determinations/desires that you have also inherited?
Does it matter?
What matters, as far as I am concerned, is what burden you pass on to the younger generations. And, in that I am on your brother's side.
He has facts: you have memories, but you have demonstrated here again and again and argued, that memories are totally unreliable.

Elisabeth said...

I'm pleased to say I don't think anyone is telling lies here, Elephant's Child, but some are more comfortable with certain idea than others. And that's okay. It is now, but it may not have been so then I imagine, not when these things - the nature of which I still do not know - took place, but who's to judge?

Thanks, Elephant's Child.

Elisabeth said...

I hold back on the story, Rob-bear, because I do not feel free to write more yet.

I've written about these things before and in time I'm sure I'll write more but for now tidbits is all I can manage.

I hope I don't write this way simply to tantalize but more to show what it's like when you're a child and can only glean little bits of information and no one will offer more of an explanation that might satisfy your need to know.

Thanks, Rob-bear.

Elisabeth said...

Family histories are the bedrock of most of our stories, Ocean Girl. No wonder you find them fascinating. There's something about the way our ancestors behaved that leaves us puzzling about how we come to be who we are, at least that's the way it is for me.

Of course there are many others who prefer to get on with it and not to hark too much back to the past, but for me, 'you ignore your past at your peril'.

Thanks, Fazlisa - I hope I've spelled your name right. Your blog title, Ocean girl is so much easier.

Momo Luna said...

A very intruiging story Elisabeth, and therefore an intruiging photo as well. I love old photographs like these, fantasizing about the people on it.
As always, your words say so much more then only the words, i love that in your writings. Thoght provoking....
Sweet greetz!

Elisabeth said...

I hope it' not too much of a tease, John. There are earlier references to aspects of this situation throughout my blog, and in time I'm sure I'll fill in more of the gaps. For now, I'm sorry for the allusiveness of this post.

Thanks, John.

Elisabeth said...

Again, Elizabeth, I hope you don't feel too aghast. My writing here comes as a function of that thing called internal - and perhaps external - censorship. I hope I hope I do better next time.

Thanks, Elizabeth.

Elisabeth said...

I've been writing about the squabbles of rivalrous siblings for some time now, Glenn. In some ways the rivalry fuels their writing, at least that's my take on it.

You're lucky to have a brother who writes only about ghosts and zombies. You might be spared until of course you find yourself transformed into some such character. Then again, when I reflect on some of your writing, it's filled to the brim with possible representations of siblings and the like, at least to this reader here, and given the so-called 'death of the author', your intentions as a writer may well not count.

Thanks, Glenn.

Elisabeth said...

The idea that 'you don't want to know' is an anathema, isn't it Birdie, especially for someone like you, the family genealogist and historian?

If only those allegedly in the know might offer more in response to our questions, the world as we know it might be a better place.

Of course, that knowledge will be biased and therefore flawed but it's better by far than being told 'you don't want to know', when in fact you're desperate to know.

Thanks, Birdie.

Elisabeth said...

I agree, Jane, everyone's hindsight is as slanted as their initial impressions. In some ways it's what makes for our glorious diversity, as much as it also fuels our conflict.

Imagine how dull it would be if we all saw things in exactly the same way as each another. How dull it would be.

And of course you have to trust Your own impressions but it also helps I think to consider the impressions that others might have of the same event, especially those who like our siblings went though the same experience but from a different angle and personality.

Thanks, Jane.

Elisabeth said...

The larger the family, the greater the potential for conflict I suspect, Ruth, but equally when there are only two or three siblings, the conflict can be intensified.

None of us likes to see our siblings 'go their own way' if it leaves us feeling excluded, and yet we have to respect the desire that one sibling might hold, namely to free himself/herself from the others.

Thanks, Ruth.

Elisabeth said...

I agree Frances, memories are unreliable, tough perhaps not 'totally'. Memories can hold some kernel of dare I say 'emotional truth', however much the facts of the memories may be wrong.

I'm sure like you there are others who might side with my brother here, and to some extent I'm one of them.

I may have polarised this discussion in my writing but I hope not too much. My brother's perspective is understandable, his father's son, his grandfather's grandson. With which parent do you identify, especially for sons with such flawed fathers.

My mother has her struggles too, and often times I worry about the similarities I share with her. And my resemblance to my paternal grandfather, my sheer physical resemblance, Frances, has not escaped me.

I jokingly tell others that my grandmother looks like me on a bad day. Her jaw is too square but the length of her face is like mine as is her hair. When I was younger I also wore it up as she does in the photo.

Thanks, Frances.

Ms. Moon said...

This is so similar to the dynamic in my family. My brother, younger than me but the oldest brother in the family, HATES it when I write about the insanity that happened in our family. He accuses me of all sorts of things, mainly bringing up things that don't matter any more. And yet he is such a history buff. For him, history is genealogy and wars and who fought where. For me, history is yes, those small details that formed the whole and informed the whole.
So very odd.

Elisabeth said...

Ah Monica, how lovely to see you here. The Dutchness of my story might appeal to you, however cryptic.

My ancestors may well have lived close by yours in that small country called Holland.

Thanks for your kind words here, Momo.

Elisabeth said...

To me also, Ms Moon, history can be so so dry. It needn't be of course. There are ways of bringing it alive but focusing on the so-called facts to the exclusion f all else does not help.

And how do we define insanity and all those other difficult processes if not to describe them through those minute details.

To give my brother credit here, Ms Moon, I think he is trying to go beyond the purely factual and to acknowledge the complexity of experience and how we interpret it, only he seems afraid of distressing those who would rather certain aspects of the past remain hidden from view.

Thanks, Ms Moon.

Art Durkee said...

My sister, who is eldest, writes short stories, and an occasional poem, and has kept a journal since she was a little girl. I only started writing a journal in my early 20s, in college. I'm quite certain we have differing views of family history, because we've talked about it.

But we're four years apart, so we have a different experience altogether. She's eldest, I'm youngest, and I've read more than one book that indicates that birth order DOES seem to make a difference, not only to personality but to narrative. Narrative in this case being the linear myth we tell ourselves about ourselves. I'm well aware that family narrative is a construction of memory, and not everyone in a family has the same experiences. This doesn't invalidate any of them, but it can make a collective narrative contradict itself at times.

I've also got cousins who have tried to rewrite family history because they want to clean up the past. It seems to me, based on observation, that family members who want to clean up family history, or revise the family drama, do it because they have a personal agenda. It's not about history. It's about being ashamed of something in the past.

I've found with all the spiritual work I've done to get myself into the present moment, especially lately, and not let my energy be locked up in the past, that I now find family history fascinating, but I like it as it was, rogues and angels both. I feel no shame about someone in the past being a rogue, because they're not me, and I'm not them. So it can actually be a fun story, not a shameful one.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I do agree Elizabeth that we all see our histories in a different way. Perhaps I am lucky that my siblings are a long way apart - 22 years and 11 years, so that our views of the family differ greatly. You are right to hold back and let things happen in all good time.

Kath Lockett said...

Another thought provoking post that has left me wanting more....

Clearly the grandparents' history is a mysterious and shocking one and you mentioned in comments above that you've aluded to their 'crime' before. If so, I'll confess to having the perception of a blind man wearing oven mitts because I have no idea...!

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

You posts are so intense and detailed like this latest Elisabeth.
I hope you have read my poem "Simple"in my blog, it is actually for people like you so straighforward about life's stories or, like Kate Atkinson would say, "Case Histories".

Jim Murdoch said...

I come from a family of black sheep. There is only supposed to be one and, in my arrogance, I had always assumed it was me. It came as a great surprise to discover that both my brother and sister regarded themselves as the black sheep and assumed I was the favourite. I was the favourite. I never realised that at the time having been such a disappointment to my parents – not that my siblings did not find their own unique ways to disappoint in turn – but having waited twenty-one years to have me I suppose it’s not that unreasonable when you think about it. The last time I saw my brother (which was coincidentally the last time I saw my sister and the last time I expect to see either of them) he told me, “Of course, Jimmy, you had it the worst of all of us,” which came as such a surprise to me because although none of our childhood’s were exactly beds of roses I would have thought that, all things taken into consideration, he might have thought his childhood was the worst when, if the truth be told, my sister can probably lay claim to that dubious honour.

I am the oldest of my parents’ three children. My brother is three years younger than me, my sister three years younger than him; it wasn’t planned but the planned fourth child never happened because my mother who was in her late forties by that time went on the change. I don’t often play the I’m-the-oldest card but at each of my parents’ funerals I did and I could see that the others were content to let me get on with it. I took change and I made sure that the estate was split up as equitably as possible and there was never any argument that I wouldn’t do the right (or at least the right-est) thing.

When we met last there were too many others present to really talk. I got a few minutes with each of them but none of us really wanted to get into anything. All said and done what remained unsaid didn’t need to be said. We parted on good terms and apart from a single phone call from my brother concerning a financial matter that needed my involvement we’ve none of us spoken since. I cannot imagine either of them writing a history of our family. They both moved down south and I’d be surprised if either of them has been back up since.

I would never presume to say what they might write if they did decide to commit their memories to paper. I know as soon as I start the words I choose are never the right ones. I illustrated that with the couple of paragraphs I wrote about my dad’s drinking that I posted on my blog. The words contain a semblance of truth, that’s all. The young man and boy I was back then was so self-centred that it would be idiotic to think I had any insight into what any member of my family was going through. I joked once (it wasn’t much of a joke then and it’s not remotely funny to me now) that I didn’t realise I had a sister until she turned fourteen and only then because my parents dropped her on my doorstep and told me I was looking after her for a week to give them a break; she was quite a handful at that age. I felt much the same when after I got married for the first time my brother came to visit me; I had never imagined he would want to do that.

There exists no ‘written evidence’ of anything much from my parents’ life. I have a few letters from my dad, a couple from my mother, one from my sister and that is about it. When they died there was nothing of anything left; my mother had gradually emptied the place and there was little left even in her wardrobe bar a nice dress to be laid out in. In a few years there will be no one left who remembers anything that happened and it will be as if nothing ever did, nothing that changed the world anyway.

who said...

one of the saddest occurrences in life according to my view of it, is the act of lashing out at family. When any act it is done out of spite it does no good.

Truth used as a weapon is wrong in some circumstances. The problem with family is that so many have extremely painful events that are swept underneath rugs. And sometimes there is a definitely victim and perpetrator, but those two are not always the ones who "go at it" seeking some sort of justice for an unsettled past.

The dysfunction often is the root cause for two relatives who get pitted against each other simply because it's convenient or the only way as they see it to resolve issues that they feel need to be addressed.

Dealing with even minor feelings of being wronged can be damaging when one feels they are alone or worse;feeling alone and having to deal with others who have grossly inaccurate knowledge of what happened.

nothing is more therapeutic than having another person understand the pain felt and why the pain is felt to the degree that it is.

nothing can be more damaging than a moment of desperation from feeling alone, when it used justify vengeance from a magnified place of mal intent.

Those who have suffered sexual abuse are often the most devastated. Mostly because not until just recently (and still not fully) is that abuse of power even recognized for what it is. They suffer alone and for some it only gets worse when the subject is brought up, as they are sometimes seen as selfish and inconsiderate as in "how could you even think about bringing such shame and embarrassment to our family." It's hard to deal with something that everyone else refuses to acknowledge. Everyone else wants to forget but it's not always forgettable to the person abused. When all they want is for someone to acknowledge that what happened was wrong, without falsely assigning blame to the victim when they were not in any way at fault.

After all of that talk though, I should let it be known that I have never suffered abuse like that (covered up or abuser not viewed as such for that incident) But sadly the majority of women my age and older that I am close with were victims of sexual abuse by a family member or family friend who is still in good standing with the family.

A Heron's View said...

I believe that every family has 'skeletons in the cupboard' somewhere in their past history.
I also think that perhaps it is best not to enquire, unless the information can be used for personal growth.

Elisabeth said...

I'm with you on not bearing our ancestor's shame, Art, at least not directly, as though we too are guilty. Still I think there may be some merit in acknowledging the connections.

There are things I've done about which I feel ashamed, but I cannot hold anyone else responsible, either in the past or the future. I cannot expect someone else to take responsibility for my actions here.

On the other hand, it does not sit easily with me when I consider that some of my ancestors in the far distance were colonizers of the most brutal kind -the Dutch were terrible invaders.

And yet, as you know, it's always dangerous to judge the past by today's standards, which is where taking on our ancestors' shame becomes tricky.

It might sound as though my energy is locked up in the past because I tend to write about it as I do, but I think I may well be more like you. I enjoy the energy that comes from exploring the past, you know, that 'foreign country', and like you I prefer not to wear blinkers when I do so.

Thanks, Art.

Elisabeth said...

Gosh, in your family of origin it sounds as though there were three 'only' children raised together somehow, with all those years of difference.

I don't suppose sibling rivalry could possibly be the same in a chronology like that, not with all those years between. As you say, you'd all have such different perspectives.

Thanks, Pat.

Elisabeth said...

The mystery of the crime might indeed make it seem more awful than it was, Kath. I write mysteriously here because I too am still mystified.

That's what happens with family secrets. And the problem with having only a little bit of information is that our imaginations tend to stretch our interpretations of it to the extreme possibilities. We might then imagine that things were worse or perhaps even better than they were, depending of course on the context and the nature of the snippets of information available.

Thanks, Kath.

Elisabeth said...

Yours is a beautiful poem, Davide and to my mind, you say it so much more exquisitely than I could ever find the words to say something of the pain of loss that I think we all struggle with.

That's a rambling sentence Davide but hopefully it reflects my awe at your work. Thank you.

Elisabeth said...

I know about those strange riddles that run in families, Jim, About who is the favourite and who the black sheep. How strange it is that these positions might move and sometimes even overlap.

You write as though you're fine about this distance from your siblings, but I sometimes wonder, Jim, whether you might not relish just one more time together, or is it again the stuff of the so-called oldest to rise above the rest of the pack and go it alone.

Families become the blue print of our lives together in later years and what we learn within them, however much we try to move beyond them, can hold a powerful pull, even if the pull is into distancing ourselves.

Is it possible that your brother and sister read your blog. It's readily identifiable. Maybe that's one way of staying in touch.

If they had a blog would you read theirs? I know that among folks of our generation, apart from the writers and poets and the like, there's a tendency to avoid online communications.

Your sibs might not be this way inclined, but imagine if they wee. I sometimes imagine one or other reader of my blog, even a commenter might be a sibling in disguise. It's a scary thought. Then again, I imagine if my siblings were to object to my writing they'd tell me as much quick smart, but, then again, maybe they wouldn't. Maybe they'd let their resentment fester unspoken even through the occasional face to face meeting.

I wrote my oldest brother a letter once in which I asked all sorts of questions about our family of origin given that he was the one who had travelled overseas and collected all the details.

To this day I don't know whether he received my letter. I wrote another to follow up. He has never spoken about either letter and although we have met several times since I haven't had the courage myself to mention it either. It's as if this communication went into the dead letter department. No wonder I prefer to blog. At least I get a response here.

Thanks, Jim.

Elisabeth said...

I agree with you Dusty and repeat here your words:
'It's hard to deal with something that everyone else refuses to acknowledge. Everyone else wants to forget but it's not always forgettable to the person abused. When all they want is for someone to acknowledge that what happened was wrong, without falsely assigning blame to the victim when they were not in any way at fault.'

A fellow called Jeffrey Masson - who has a troubled reputation within the psychoanalytic world - has written something similar, though in another context where he challenges the tendency of psychoanalysts who in his view 'have always shown a greater interest in the fantasy life of a patient than in real events. I'm not sure about al analysts and certainly not today, but certainly there are some, were some who prefer to ficus on fantasy.

Anyhow Masson writes:

'To tell someone who has suffered the effects of a childhood filled with sexual violence that it does not mater whether his memories are anchored in reality or not is to do further violence to that person and is bound to have a pernicious effect. A real memory demands some form of validation from the outside world. Denial of those memories by others can lead to a break with reality, and a psychosis. the lack of interest in a person’s store of memories does violence to the integrity of that person…'

Masson says this so beautifully, I think it's worth the inclusion. His words feature in a book called 'The assault on Truth: Freud's suppression of the seduction theory'.

Speaking of truth I also agree with you that sometimes an insistence on truth and honesty can be destructive, rather than helpful.

Sometimes it is better to leave things out. Of course, it's harder when people are in dispute about what should be included and what excluded.

Thanks for all your wonderful thoughts, Dusty.

Elisabeth said...

I'd agree with you Mel from your Heron's view, up to a point. I doubt that it is ever useful to search things out for the sake of stirring up trouble per se, or out of idle curiosity. But as you say if it leads onto personal development and all that this entails then it's probably justified.

The only trouble os that one person's development might seem sometimes like another's sticking point or downfall. As in what you might want to know more about I might want to hide from view, and vice versa.

Thanks, Mel.

Isabel Doyle said...

Elisabeth,
Someone famously said that history is written by the victors. Possibly family history, and the control over 'facts' and what is allowed to be known, is even more susceptible to the victor's programme. Perhaps your brother is stamping the ground, marking territory?
My family is corroded with secrets. What can and cannot be mentioned. I think my mother has severed any ties she once had with truth. But who am I to judge?

I particularly liked Jim's reported comment about the fictionalising process.
Best wishes, Isabel

Elisabeth said...

I think there's truth to that comment about history being written by the victors, Isabel or by the first borns or the most articulate or the Andrew Bolts of this world who can attract the attention of those who most fear change, and prefer the lowest common denominator, like your mother perhaps.

Thanks, Isabel.

Frances said...

Yes, Elisabeth: writing a factual history, as your brother has done, seems quite a good idea to me. But certainly not the be-all and end-all.
Jim's comment that omittting things turns a work into fiction, appears to have some superficial truth, but, in practice is nonsense: how can everything be recounted, like a day in the life of Leopold Bloom? Every historian selects. That is why we read a variety of texts.If your parents were in gaol because of a traffic fine, then .. If they were in gaol for betraying Anne Frank, then..something else: definitely worth mentioning.
Facts, as one person gathers them, get a tick from me, flawed tho they might be.
Impressions, memories: flawed, faulty, childish and absolutely wrong, as they may be, get the tick from me. Many of your posts speak of this.
The above, with a fictional add on - is absolutely of no interest to me at all.
What is inherited?
Your father, and presumably at least one of his parents, felt that his own needs and wants overrode the interests of other people, particularly if they were children.
Can this personality strength and determination be inherited? Have you inherited any of these qualities?
Isn't this the only point of examining the past?

Jim Murdoch said...

The point I wanted to make when I talked about black sheep and favourites, Lis, is that we delude ourselves when we imagine we know what things were like for others. Even if they’ve told us, and tried to be honest in the telling, we’re still getting a summary of the truth and so much is lost in the translation. I remember the first and one of the very, very few times I ever heard my father swear (I’m actually struggling to think of a second occasion). I’d done something wrong and he used ‘bloody’ in his rage, only because of his accent his never pronounced it ‘bluddy’ it was more like ‘bluedy’ and I couldn’t help but laugh and that just got him even angrier and I got a worse smacking than I probably would have got because I couldn’t stop giggling. The problem here is trying to communicate to others what I mean when I say ‘smacking’. No implement was involved – my dad’s hands were so solid he never needed a slipper or a belt – but people who have been brutalised by their fathers or indeed people who have never received any form of corporal punishment will imagine all sorts of things. Amongst the living only my siblings will know exactly what I’m on about. I suppose the word most people would use would be spanked and I imagine that’s what he did but it’s not a word that either of my parents used. To be honest I can’t remember the details. And that’s nothing to do with repression, they just weren’t that memorable: you were bad, you got smacked, end of story. That said when my brother became a teenager he was far more openly rebellious than I ever was and I know that both he and my dad got far more physical than Dad ever needed to be with me but I only know what my brother told me; I was never witness to any of it so I really can’t comment.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss my brother and sister just a little but I am fine with it. I will never make any attempt to contact either of them. If, however, either of them contacts me my sense of duty will kick in and I will do whatever was needed, as happened with my brother, and then things will revert to the way they are just now. We have made different life choices and that’s that. The same happened with my best friend. I noted that every time we met all we talked about was the past, all we had in common was the past and so, one day when it was my turn to phone to arrange a visit, I didn’t and he never called to see why I hadn’t and that was that. I ran into his mother a few years later, passed on my regards but never heard from him after that and never expected to. Again, life choices.

I sincerely doubt if any member of my family reads my blog other than my daughter occasionally. Unlike you I rarely talk about my family or any aspect of my life that’s not connected to my writing and neither of my siblings was much of a reader. When my brother learned I’d written my first novel he asked for a copy but I never heard what he thought of it and I’m not sure if my sister even knows I wrote one unless he told her. I suppose she must. I can’t imagine how my brother would know and my sister not.

A sense of family is not something I grew up with, by that I mean an extended family. I have met none of my relatives on my father’s side and the only one’s on my mother’s side are those who made the trip to Scotland to see her. We never visited them. If they made the effort then fine, they were treated like family but once they left that was it. After my mum died I heard once from my Uncle Harry. I did look for contact details but couldn’t find any. He’d phoned my mum only to be told by the people who’d bought her house that she’d died and they passed on my contact details; I felt a bit bad about it but, again, I feel that that’s me done with all that and I would never think to try and contact any of them again.

Elisabeth said...

I'm not too sure about the point of examining the past, Frances. Maybe it is to reflect on aspects inherited from parents but to me it's more than that. Why am I so interested in the past beyond the degree to which it has shaped me?

I suppose it goes back to that basic curiosity so many of us encounter when we are very small. The way a little person, a three year old for instance, asks again and again, why.

Why is such a powerful question to me. Why is this the way it is. I'm interested in the when and the how as well, but for me mostly it's the why of things, even as I know I will never know exactly why, I will only ever be able to glimpse something of it.

Thanks again, Frances.

Elisabeth said...

That's sad, Jim, about the distance between your family members, at least those still living from your family of origin, that is.

I complain about my lot, but I'd far rather have then than not. I suppose growing up in a large family with the vast extended family on my mother's side has led me to be comfortable with crowds, again however much I might complain.

My husband also comes from a large family of six. He is to varying degrees in contact with all his siblings, as am I with my eight sisters and brothers.

My mother maintains/ed close contact with all her siblings, all seven of them, two of whom, only two of whom I might add are now dead, and I have occasional contact with the odd cousin and with my several nieces and nephews. My mother has 23 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren. I've never done a count but its vast.

On the other side, my father like you had almost no contact with his siblings in adulthood except for his one sister who lives in Switzerland, the only one of my fathers immediate family from childhood left.

As far as I know my father totally disowned his parents after he came to Australia and although one, his father died in 1962 when I was old enough to know and his mother died in 1972 when I was a young adult I had no idea. I'm not even sure that my father knew at the time. He had so disowned them.

My father had one brother, who died in his forties and two sisters but when we were little I clearly remember him telling me he had no family at all. 'Look into my eyes,' he said. 'They are black. They are evil.'

I remember it still. I was distressed and ran off and my mother told my father off. I must have been about five, six or seven. It's one of those clear memories I have and one I trust.

All this is to say that families matter to me, as clearly they matter to you. Sometimes the ones we don't see almost matter more than the ones we see.

Thanks again, Jim.

Anonymous said...

This post has again tugged at a string in my heart, Elizabeth.
Family history and what is truth? Rather like the 3 blind men asked to describe an elephant from the perspective of where they are standing and what part of the anatomy they are able to touch.
I also discovered a family 'secret' a week after my mother died and it has hugely shifted my perspective on so many things.
I have been told many times that I should commit the story to paper, but how to do it? Is it my story? Is it my mother's story, her mother's story, the family's story?
I have also discovered, like yourself that each member of the same family holds different memories and perspectives. I was devastated when my brother told me he had no memory of our paternal grandmother who I thought we both loved dearly. But then I realised he was only 12 months old when she died, a fact that had never occured to me before.
Sometime after my in-laws deaths, my SIL (who was an executor)presented her siblings with a copy of pages from a diary their father had written about his wedding and honeymoon. I was deeply touched, firstly that my FIL had written so poetically about something that meant so much to him, and secondly that my SIL wanted the family to see it.
But my husbands reaction shocked me. He was very quiet throughout the time we were altogether, then on the way home when I raised the subject, he said "Hmm. I can't help wondering what else of theirs she has that I don't know about." He was not referring to anything of monetary valuable, he was thinking specifically of personal items and memories that he would never know of because one person is keeping them 'safe'.
Families. Stories. Secrets. Emotions.
Mine-fields.
Karen C (no blog, sorry)

Sangu said...

Wow this sounds like a deeply intriguing story - but you're so right that the moment you try to select or tell, you end up fictionalising, so it's so hard to know what's fact and what isn't.

Elisabeth said...

Hi Karen of no blog fame and therefore anonymous, I realise I've yet to respond to you. Sorry for the delay. Family history and who keeps it safe is powerful stuff as you say.

Why not write your story/your mother's from your own perspective and get a blog going? It's a good way to share ideas with others as you do here. You can keep your so called real identity relatively to yourself, if need be.

Have you read Drusilla Modjeska's Poppy? Her mother's story but equally in many ways her own.

Frances said...

Hi Elisabeth: Interesting that you have once again brought up "Poppy", which I loathe.
In the book I got quite sick of a list of certain spurious Anglo "refinements" that the family indulged in,... such as tea being always and constantly being served on a tray (50 times? 100 times in the book?): it certainly marketed well into the then current Australian preoccupation with what was "U"pper class or "non U". Tea on a tray! These are not ordinary people here! They are refined!
But, I particularly recall Poppy asking her ex husband, as they left his mother's burial, as to how long it would take for her body to decompose.
Articulating the grief and horror, the fear, the knowledge of reality, the regret and sadness that anyone burying a beloved feels, but cannot utter, is the most crass, the most bald-faced and insensitive, the most ignorant, unfeeling and cruel comment that anyone could possibly make.
Is that the impression of Poppy that the book was supposed to leave me with?

Dave King said...

Families are a fascinating source of material. Memory puts its own spin on them, even if we don't.

jabblog said...

We each have our own version of truth according to and dependent on our experience. Families are endlessly fascinating - the ones in my family who interest me most and about whom I shall probably never learn anything are the two uncles, one maternal, one paternal, who disappeared off the radar early in their adult lives.

Olga said...

This is definitely a family dilemma when one of the relatives is trying to describe a story from their point of view, because each family member has their own version. Your post has completely astounded me.

Elisabeth said...

Sometimes it's hard to sort the so-called facts from the fictions as you suggest, Sangu, but it certainly keeps the mystery alive.

Thanks.

Elisabeth said...

I very much doubt that the impression you took away from reading Poppy is the impression that Drusilla Modjeska would have wanted to leave you with, Frances, though I can't speak for her.

Certainly yours is not the impression I was left with, but then again we are different readers and it seems to me for every book written there are as many interpretations of the book and impressions rendered as there are readers. And sometimes when we read a book for a second time we get other impressions ourselves of the same book.

Your comment here though reminded me of a story Elizabeth Jolley once told of how at a writer's talk she gave somewhere once a woman in the audience asked her about the lesbian references in one of Jolley's books. I can't remember which one, maybe Mr Peabody's Inheritance.

Elizabeth Jolley was taken aback and asked what gave the woman this impression. Jolley did not think she wrote explicitly about lesbianism anywhere.

The woman pointed to a scene in which Jolly had two women talking together and somehow interspersed a scene of white crumpled sheets on a bed. The woman read this as a direct hint at their lesbian relationship.

I did not notice the frequent references to tea on trays in Poppy, Frances but then again my mother often carried tea around on trays as one of the pictures I've posted in a blog above demonstrates.

I don't go in for trays myself anymore, maybe people in Australia did not unless as you say they were refined but my family did.

I'm sorry that you loathe Modjeska's writing, but it need not drive a wedge between us here. I hope it doesn't.

We can each have our opinions and experiences however much they might differ. That's one of the joys to me of books and reading, especially in the blogosphere, so many diverse and sometimes even clashing views.

Thanks, Frances.

Elisabeth said...

Memory is wonderfully unreliable Dave, as you suggest. It offers plenty of spin and it keeps on changing.

There's that wonderful quote from Timothy Garton Ash to which I often refer: 'Memory is like a rewritable CD' .

Thanks, Dave.

Elisabeth said...

We all seem to have these invisible or fast disappearing relatives, Janice and like you they fascinate me the most. Why the distance? I wonder.

And when no one will fill the gaps with details and so-called truthful 'facts', we often wind up having to use our imaginations to fill them instead. And so perhaps family myths are born.

Thanks Janice.

Elisabeth said...

It is a strange thing that goes on in families and yet inevitable I think, Olga. I'm glad you found this post astounding but I hope not too strange. I suspect it happens everywhere, only the details change.

Thanks, Olga.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Elisabeth, for both your suggestions. A blog maybe a safe way to document a version of history and I do love reading autobio's.
However, I wonder if I have the discipline for blog writing as I suspect my mothers alcoholism has resulted in possible ADD for me as I have spent a lifetime jumping enthusiastically from one project to another as I eventually forget why I was so enthusiastic about it initially.
At the moment I am debating about resigning from an editorial committee because I have so many other 'projects' that are singing to me like sirens.
(no answer necessary, just a bit of background) Karen C

Elisabeth said...

A blog does take some dedication, Karen, but it is good because you write to your own time framework for it. No one else needs dictate the terms.

Therefore if I miss a post one week I can make it up a few days later or not at all as the case my be.

The most difficult part is the sense of information overload I get when I go out of my own blog to visit others. Then it can become fairly overwhelming. But I like to honour other peoples efforts in the blogosphere by reciprocating visits when I can but there's so little time.

I'd enjoy visiting your blog, Karen should you ever get to start one up. I think I can understand your reservations about ding so.

Thanks.

Frances said...

I don't loathe Modjeska's writing, Elisabeth: I loathe Poppy...which was not, as I understand, the purpose of the book.
Poppy was a deeply flawed woman, in my reading, who was also deeply loved by her daughter. Poor girls like Drusilla: trying to redeem, because they loved them, these flawed figures. Evidence 1: her name. In the book she is called "Lalarge": a charming, unusual, delightful name. In real life her mother christened her "Drusilla": an unusual, ugly, repellant name. The kind of name that you would give to a witch,no?

I won't go through the rest of it.

But, I am a little taken aback by your Elizabeth Jolley recount. "She was a snake, a viper, " says x... and Y...names that I won't give, but are of those who are prominent in the arts, and that you would recognise.
There are the ignorant and loonies that pop up all over the place: that Elizabeth Jolley chose to try to get mileage out of this one says nothing, except about her.

Elisabeth said...

I'm glad you don't loathe all Modjeska's writing, Frances. But I can understand you don't like the character Poppy. She has her flaws.

As for the real Modjeska, her mother and the real Elizabeth Jolley such people and writers are complex beings and I feel I know too little to judge them, as people.

I suppose we're safe only to judge the texts. The rest runs the risk of being based on hearsay.

We all tend to do it though: to judge our writers as people we know intimately.

If you read Helen Garner's obituary of E J you'd find a much more positive interpretation of Jolley, but then again HG also has her detractors. It's a tough world, the literary world.

Thanks, Frances.

Frances said...

I'm not interested in judging these people whom I don't know, Elisabeth... I'm interested in having an opinion about their public persona as it appears in print.
.
Drusilla tries very hard to justify her love and admiration for her mother, a woman she acknowledges as being unloveable even as a child: the fault always lies in others, or in the past. That obviously rang a bell for a huge number of women, who adored her book:
we should have been loved and valued, but we weren't.

I admire greatly and enjoy Helen Garner's faction enormously...not so keen on her fiction. If her obituary of Jolley said that some people loved her and some people hated her, then perhaps it was accurate.
If Jolley used the words of some bizarre lunatic who suggested that rumpled sheets suggested homosexual encounters, it speaks poorly of her, but speaks much about her desire for publicity and her attitude towards the public, which includes all of us.
Oh, and tea on trays? Almost obligatory when tea consisted of the teapot, cups and saucers, perhaps milk jug, sugar pot. Now - alas, mug + teabag. So, why mention it? And mention it so often? Creating an atmosphere of gentility? Rather as your mother was doing? What do you think, Elisabeth?

Elisabeth said...

I may not have represented Jolley's comment well, Frances. It's based on memory and you know how fickle memory can be.

Thanks for reminding me that your comments here are not based on so-called 'real' people but on writers and their public persona.

As for my mother, you may well be right. Her efforts towards a certain gentility still apply. She is a creature of her generation. Needless to say I don't bother with trays or even tea pots. I'm a great one for tea bags, much to my sisters-in-law disgust.

They come from country folk and have a deep respect for tea from pots. But they too do not bother much with trays.

Thanks again, Frances.

Jennifer said...

I think your labels tell some of the story.

Memory is a strange thing. Our stories are our own, but they are not at the same time (because they always include other people). I think it can be dangerous to assume that we work from facts when dealing with our memories and family histories.

(And I am sorry it has taken me so long to visit in person!)

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Jennifer. I found your comment after all, not quite where I thought it was.

I agree that memories are such strange beasts, and certainly we share them in some ways with others and yet our perspectives can differ so much it's hard to call a single memory a fact however much it might be grounded in so-called 'reality'.