The Legacy of Family Trauma: Part 4

legacy of family trauma part 4At the beginning of this series I said we would be trying to answer these questions:

  1. Why do some family members sail through hard times while others get stuck?
  2. Why does adversary cripple some people and give others heroic strength?
  3. How can different people from the same family remember things so differently?

In the previous entries I explained answers to the first two: How traumatic events impact us depends on our developmental age when they happen, our connections to other people, (which will matter more the younger we are), and our own natural resiliency.

To look at number three, we’re going to examine how things might have looked to Mattie Young. Mattie is the second oldest child in the Hines picture. Consider her place in the family story as we know it. Her two oldest sisters marry after their father dies and the loss of their income devastates the already poor family. Her next oldest sister (Mell) also married six months after the younger children were placed in the orphanage. Mattie stayed with her mother for another three years before marrying at seventeen. That’s three years as the only child in the home, left with a mother who was surely grieving and struggling with guilt. (There is some discussion that Catherine was forced to place the children in the home after the authorities saw Hines’s picture and the children lost their mill jobs. We will never know for certain but it’s safe to assume that it was a bitter act for Catherine.)

Mattie maintained a relationship to her mother all of her life and also seems to have had some contact with some of her other siblings.

If you asked Mary (the oldest of the children sent away, the one who never forgave her mother) about the children’s removal to the orphanage, you’d have one version. If you asked Mattie, I’m sure you would get another one. They’re both probably right. I’ve written before about truth and Truth, we have facts about the Young family but we don’t know what really happened.

June Jordan’s essay “On Listening: A Good Way to Hear” begins with the following:

If you want to know how somebody feels or thinks, ask him. If he can’t tell you in words you understand, ask someone else. Not anybody else, but somebody else. A relative of the man. A close friend. Somebody who seems to you very similar. And when you resort to these sources of information, qualify the value of your data: call it secondhand or worse.

If we want to know how Mary experienced her family, we have to ask Mary. If we want to know how Mattie did, we have to ask her. In families, we tend to think that how we experienced events is how they happened but siblings — even without the stark differences that Mary and Mattie had — have completely different perspectives.

Mattie is 14 in the picture; Mary is 11. We know this means they experienced things from different places developmentally. We can assume that they had at least some shades of differences in their temperament. And we know that what they experienced — their perspectives as well as the actual events — were very different.

Even if we looked at the two older girls Mattie and Mell (they were both 14 at the time of the picture although by the time the family split up Mell was 15) they would tell us different versions of the same event. Mell married soon after; Mattie stayed with her mom for another three years. What would they say about their lost siblings? What would they tell us about Catherine? Whatever they say, they would both be in some way right.

When you ask your family about traumatic events expect to hear differences. And, as June Jordan writes, qualify the value of your data. Understand that what you are learning is truth, not Truth. When you argue with another family member about what “really” happened, understand why we don’t always agree.

“You were always mom’s favorite!”

“No, I’m just the only one who didn’t walk away!”

“Dad was mean as a snake!”

“Only when he was drinking! I remember lots of times when he was good to us!”

In traumatized families the stakes are higher to own the narrative. One of us wants validation for our hurts, the other wants to deny that bad things happened. One of us is ready to move on, and one of us is still trying to make sense of the damage.

This is a good segue to how we’ll finish up; in the final post tomorrow, I’ll talk about how trauma shapes family culture across generations.

Previously:

Next:

 

Leave a Reply