September 9, 2009

Family Autobiography

Paul C. Rosenblatt, Professor, Department of Family Social Science, University of Minnesota


This essay explores and advocates for the possibility of autobiographies in
which multiple family members write about their intertwined lives.  Although
autobiography is typically social in its creation and familial in parts of
its contents, most autobiographies are written from the viewpoint of a lone
autobiographer.  Family autobiography, in which the life story accounts of
multiple family members are interlaced, and in which family members speak to
what one another has written, would allow a rich picture of family life, a
more nuanced view of the complexity and diversity of families, and a deeper
understanding of how the lives and stories of individual family members are
entangled in family.  This essay explores a number of possible models of
family autobiographical process and argues that writing about shared family
life, though it has its risks, could, among many good outcomes, lead to
deeper family connection and greater mutual understanding in a family and to
greater understanding of family in the larger society.

     Dictionary definitions of the term "autobiography" ordinarily read something like, "a history of a person's life, written by that person." In reality, books entitled "the autobiography" of someone are almost never simply what the definition of autobiography seems to say they are. First of all, they may involve a professional writer's organizing, revising, and polishing what the person who is the focus of the autobiography told them or wrote in rough form (Boardman 2008) [Boardman]. Thus, there are quite a few autobiographies that have an editor, second author, or even first author who is not the person featured in the autobiography (for example, Clark 2007; Menchú 1984; Petersen 1998; Smith 2007) [Clark] [Menchú] [Peterson] [Smith], and many celebrity autobiographies have ghost writers (Boardman 2008) [Boardman]. Also, the prefaces of many autobiographies include statements of thanks to people who in various ways contributed to the writing of the autobiography. One can imagine that the contributors include people who helped the autobiographer organize her or his life story, remember and learn about important details, and select what was worthwhile writing about. Furthermore, in publishing the influence of editors and publishers represent a kind of collaboration that is generally not acknowledged in published autobiographies (Laird 2000, 57, talking about the autobiography of Harriet Jacobs) [Laird].

     Life is collaborative. We do not grow up as isolates. We do not live as isolates. So it is no surprise that when one reads an autobiography, it is never about the life of only one person. Autobiographies always talk about others--family, coworkers, teachers, friends, lovers, neighbors, and so on. Family is often prominent. Parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, and other members of the autobiographer's family of origin appear in the early pages of the life story, and may appear throughout the story. Spouses, children, grandchildren, and in-laws may have a prominent role in later parts of the writer's life story. In fact, a person's life and a person's view of his or her life are inextricably tangled in the lives of others, so arguably it is an illusion that the subject of autobiography, the "I" of autobiography, is singular (Eakin 1998) [Eakin 1998]. Every autobiography is relational and is also a partial biography of others. 

       The genre of autobiography seems to call, by definition, for a story centered on one person's life. From that perspective, others in the story are only there because of their links to the author's life. They do not author the story but only have parts in it. Arguably, the core narrative of the genre seems to mean that we are following only the author's path, and the others are there only because they were there at places along the path. However, it is also possible to imagine a story of a family's life, a story of the path an entire family traveled. Many autobiographies include detailed descriptions of experiences of parents, siblings, grandparents, and other family members (for example, Menchú 1984; Motley 1998) [Menchú] [Motley]. In those autobiographies, it seems either that the life of the autobiographer cannot be understood apart from descriptions of the lives of family members or that the core of the story is really the story of the family. Also, some autobiographies or parts of autobiographies read as though they are intended to be about a family member. Lesley(2005) [Lesley], for example, wrote a memoir that focuses a great deal on the father he hardly knew. Still, even when autobiographies seem to be about a family or a specific family member other than the autobiographer, it is only the autobiographer whose voice speaks.

     Imagine, however, that a family could speak in an autobiography, with their multiple voices and their diversity of experience and perspective, so that they could create a record of what it is like to be in their family and what they as a family experienced. It is a way of writing that challenges a Western culture mainstream line of thought about the predominance of the individual. It challenges the cultural understanding of the autobiographical genre that calls for single authored autobiographies that are presumed to be focused on the life of the autobiographer. But culturally it makes sense to imagine collective autobiography. Historically, Western culture was not always individually focused, so there was a time when individually focused autobiography would not have made much sense, and then a long period of time when individual focus and autobiography gradually evolved and came to prominence in the culture (Weintraub 1978) [Weintraub]. The sense of humans as persons, as unique, and as free standing individuals seems a cultural matter, not something hard wired in all humans at birth (Semin and Rubini 1992) [Semin and Rubini]. And even in contemporary Western culture, there are many situations in which the collective "we" is valued and focused on. Think of the success of teams, corporate policies that promote corporate loyalty and teamwork, the idea of co-teaching, or married couples speaking and acting in harmony and unity in various situations.  So it is not beyond the limits of human thought, even in Western culture, to imagine collectively written family autobiographies. In fact, this essay advocating the valuing of multiple family voices is consistent with feminist writings in the family field (e.g., McDowell and Fang 2007) [McDowell and Fang], family therapy approaches that emphasize multiple and diverse family voices (e.g., Jones 1993) [Jones], research on grief in couples and families (e.g., Riches and Dawson 2000) [Riches and Dawson] and other lines of thought in the social sciences that attend to multiple family voices. Despite the power of the individual focus in psychology and the social sciences, there are scholarly and professional lines of thought that underline the importance of attending to multiple family voices

Possible Risks and Rewards in Writing Family Autobiography


What the Family Might Risk


     Creating a family autobiography by multiple authors could be risky.  Many families may get along as well as they do by staying away from certain areas of disagreement or even awareness (Rosenblatt 2009). [Rosenblatt 2009] In many families some members have secrets from others, and collaborative work on an autobiography could threaten what the secret keeper(s) fear to have revealed and what the consequences of the revelation might be--discomfort, embarrassment, undermining of trust, maybe even long term or permanent family schism.  As a collective autobiography is created, some family members may come to resent that other family members were not aware of something in the family, and some may come to resent that others had information they did not share(Rosenblatt and Elde 1990) [Rosenblatt and Elde]. Whether working together on a family autobiography reveals secrets, reveals differences in understanding and memory, reveals differences in experience or awareness, or reminds people of what they know but have been trying to ignore, there is the potential for this work to push some or even all family members out of their comfort zone. 

Possible Rewards of Writing Family Autobiography


       For some families, a collective family autobiography might be a treasure--for example, a much valued record of what they experienced together and what they shared and what they thought and felt.  Whether they agreed or had the same experiences and feelings, it still could be cherished.  In fact, it might be precisely in the differences in perspective, memories, experiences, opinions, feelings, and so on that the great rewards might come. For example:

"See how well we did despite our differences." 
"Ah, now I understand why you were in such a different place from me."
"I so appreciate knowing your memories and views.  That helps me to realize what I was missing." 
"What you wrote has given me new insight into myself and my struggles."

        In the larger society, the legitimation of shared autobiography as a ritual of defining and making public the intertwined lives of the members of a family could be of great value as a way of saying family members do have a life together and their differences are part of that life. For families, work on a shared autobiography could become a ritual of family togetherness, with possibly very substantial rewards from knowing each other better, feeling better understood, coming to clearer ideas about similarities and differences in opinions, feelings, and experiences. In the larger society, establishing a genre of family autobiography could be a way to elevate societal awareness of the systemic perspective on families, and that could lead to increased openness to couple and family therapy and to ways of understanding disputes and differences that  avoid blaming individuals or arguing over who is at fault.

Possible Collaborative Writing Processes


         Although I have been unable to find a published, multi-authored family autobiography, there are a number of different kinds of processes that can be understood as steps toward that goal.

        Two family autobiographies in one book. There are instances where two family autobiographies are combined in one book. For example, Jacob J. Bikerman created a single book out of his editing and translation (from Russian) of his father's published autobiography and then added his own autobiography for a number of years following the time spanned by his father's autobiography (Bikerman 1975) [Bikerman].  Another example of interwoven autobiography that actually includes passages in the first person plural (which implies a shared voice and vision), is the autobiography of the Delany sisters, centenarians who had lived together for many years (Delany and Delany 1993) [Delany and Delany]. It is difficult to know how much the passages that seem to be written by both sisters actually are the kind of thing they would produce if they were writing together, because the book was created by a professional writer, Amy Hill Hearth. Hearth created the autobiography out of thousands of anecdotes she gathered from the Delany sisters over an 18 month period.  So it is not as though the sisters intended to co-author the chapters of the book that are written that way.  However, Hearth does offer readers a vision of a form of co-authorship for those chapters. She wrote, "At times the sisters' versions of particular events were almost identical or told in a joint fashion--with one sister beginning a sentence, and the other finishing it--and so some chapters bear both of their names.  In the [chapters attributed to only one of the sisters], either Sadie or Bessie chronicles their life together, each with her own distinct spin, voice, and viewpoint" (Delany and Delany, 1993, xvi) [Delany and Delany].

        Records of shared family reminiscence. Sometimes family members get together after an elder of the family has died and reminisce about the person who died, and sometimes they do that in front of a video camera, making a durable record of what was said (Rosenblatt and Elde 1990) [Rosenblatt and Elde]. Imagine, for example, the children of a man who has recently died sitting together in front of a video camera and sharing stories and feelings. There might be laughter and tears; there might be considerable agreement, but also disagreement. One sibling might say something that reminds another of something. As they talk, they come to shared conclusions but also to clarity about how their views and experiences differ.   The younger ones might, for example, have had a different experience than the older ones, even to the point that  they felt they did not have the same parent.  Now extend that view of shared reminiscence, perhaps with a video camera recording the interactions, as family members talk about their entire life together.

       Being collectively interviewed.  Another format for coming to something that could come to resemble a family autobiography in which multiple family voices speak is the family research interview, in which the members of a family sit together as a researcher interviews them.  Researchers who interview families usually have a specific topic in mind, for example, the family experience of bereavement following a death in the family (e.g., Nadeau 1998) [Nadeau].  In these cases, it is the researcher's questions that push for what could be a family autobiography.  Although the researcher's focus in a conventional family research interview limits the scope of what a family is asked to address, imagine an interviewer whose focus is the life of the family, not a specific loss or other event.  The outcome could be something that resembles a family autobiography authored by a number of members of the same family.

         Speaking collectively in family therapy. Family therapy, like family research, can produce material that has qualities of family autobiography, with family members giving their separate experiences and perspectives (Ellis and Berger 2002 )[Ellis and Berger]. In contrast to the research setting, people might often come to family therapy with problems about which they contend with other family members, and the therapeutic process may, relatively early in the therapy, highlight the contention.  So parts of what could be called autobiographic would be the contention, and thus perhaps contention would be a central part of the story for most families creating an autobiography built out of family therapy sessions. However, as therapy goes on and goes well it may often move the shared family narrative to more positive places. Perhaps family members are helped to remember and focus on what has been positive in their shared life. Perhaps the therapy gives family members new perspectives and new skills that make the area of contention less troublesome or that make the area no longer one of contention. Therapists are not in the business of helping family members create durable records of a shared life, but the skills therapists use in elicitation, and the trained capacity to see below the surface and to facilitate conversation may be a welcome help for families who want to create a shared autobiography.

       Parallel separate and private accounts.  From a different perspective on the possibility of a number of family voices being represented, think of families in which two or more people keep private diaries.  They may or may not address the same events, but even if they do not, that is interesting. In my work with 19th century diaries (Rosenblatt 1983) [Rosenblatt], there were two instances of such parallel diaries. Since diary entries are time labeled, one can check to see how the two or more family members wrote about the same economic difficulties, the same family emergencies, the same deaths, and so on. One misses the interacting voices, the disagreements, differences in perspective sparked by what one another wrote or said, and appreciation and enjoyment of one another's different experiences and perspectives.  But with parallel diaries readers can see some of the riches that can come from hearing several family voices address the same important matters.

        Parallel separate and eventually public accounts. The historian Jeremy D. Popkin (2005, 72 )[Popkin] proposed collections of "coordinated autobiographies" in which each autobiographer would write a personal account within a defined framework.  Although Popkin did not write about family members engaging in such coordinated work, one can imagine family members each writing about, say, their immigration to the United States, their experience of a hurricane, or their experience of Dad's alcoholism. With parallel autobiographies, interaction about similarities and differences in perspective and experience would be missed, but parallel separate accounts might be an interesting and useful step toward a family autobiography co-authored by a number of family members.

       Family member A writes the biography of family member B.  Eakin (1998) [Eakin] sees this kind of writing as inevitably about both people. The narrative may seem to be about family member B, but it is family member A who puts self and personal identity into every sentence and into the structure of the story. At its best, this genre clearly tells the reader about both people, and, in fact, often the biographer, family member A, is clearly aware that it is account of both people. So there is in this kind of biography a step toward family autobiography, but there is only one consciousness, one set of perspectives controlling the narrative. So this approach falls short of providing the kind of family autobiography advocated in this essay.

          Parallel, interwoven collective autobiography. As a step toward autobiography, there are examples of shared accounts of specific events and experiences in collective experience.  For example, Ellis and Bochner published an account of their shared and separate processes leading up to the decision to abort a fetus they had conceived early in their relationship (Ellis and Bochner 1992; and see Ellis and Berger 2002) [Ellis and Bochner] [Ellis and Berger]. The account is written as the parts of two interacting characters in a play and reflects their experiences, but also the experiences of other couples facing the decision of whether or not to have an abortion. The play is interesting and illuminating, but it is not autobiography (that is, not about a span of life) and represents the experiences of more people than Ellis and Bochner.

           I have found two autobiographies that come closer to what I envision as a family autobiography co-authored by a number of members of the same family. One is entitled a "collective autobiography" (Balagoon 1971) [Balagoon]. It involves the interwoven life accounts of 16 of 21 people who together were defendants in a trial in New York of members of the Black Panthers. The book provides interwoven excerpts from their life stories from early childhood to the time of writing, when they were imprisoned. However, these people were not members of the same family, and there is nothing in the book to indicate how the stories were elicited, edited, and organized to be interwoven. My guess is that the stories were not written in a way that came out of mutual interaction, and for most of their lives (perhaps all of their lives for some of the people) they were not in contact. So it may be illusory to call the book a collective autobiography, as opposed to, say, an interwoven collection of separately spoken stories. There are common threads among some of the stories, but that does not make them a unified story telling.

       An autobiography that comes close to what I have in mind was written by a married couple, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee (1998) [Davis and Dee], and it focuses on their initially separate and eventually intertwined lives. The first 147 pages of the book focus on their lives before they met each other. These chapters read like standard autobiography about growing up and finding career and relationship paths, except that Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee alternate chapters and to some extent echo one another's chapters in the structure of what is addressed, so they wrote in ways that seemed to some extent to influence and be influenced by one another. But beginning with their meeting in 1945, each chapter includes passages like a script, in which they each have a voice, sometimes seeming to speak directly to the reader about the same matter but not to each other, sometimes agreeing and amplifying on what one another says, sometimes commenting on what the other wrote or disagreeing, sometimes saying what they observed in the other, and in many other ways often making it seem to be a fully shared, interactive document. A shared autobiography like that could potentially be saccharine, with the rough edges rounded off so that it seemed that everything was always harmonious between the two, but that is not true of this shared autobiography.  At a number of places each offered critical observations of the other for the reader to see. They still at many places wrote about their separate lives, because they had separate careers, involvements, and interests, and often were living and working apart, but the intersections of their lives received considerable attention.

      In chapters laid out with alternating passages by the two, they sometimes disagree. For example, before Ossie told his version of an event, Ruby wrote, "Here's the almost lie he likes to tell about [it]" [Davis and Dee] (175). And at one place Ossie wrote about Ruby's account of something, "I remember that slightly differently" [Davis and Dee] (233). Sometimes one spoke for both of them, and since they both wrote the autobiography, it probably is safe to assume that when, for example, Ossie wrote, "In our opinion [Raisin in the Sun] was meant to be a warning" [Davis and Dee] (283) - that Ruby read what he wrote and agreed.  At several places it is clear the two had discussed something they considered writing about but then decided they didn't have enough to say. Ruby wrote, for example, "Neither of us recalls clearly the specifics of one of the most important days of our lives" [Davis and Dee] (184). Sometimes what does not get commented on is intriguing. For example, Ruby's extended account of how upset she was that, in her view, Ossie did not provide enough help after their first child was born. Ossie did not comment, which may mean that he agreed, or it may mean that he did not want to fight the battle (again), or it may mean that he had considerable input into what she wrote about a day that took place four decades earlier.

        One might think that Ossie and Ruby had unusual rapport and unusual similarity in order to be able to write this kind of shared autobiography, but that may not be so. There are a number of accounts of their struggles to get along. For example, Ruby wrote at one point, "It is not difficult to imagine...that our working together would be challenging. I thought of him as being too tight; he considered me too loose, because I never come to any firm conclusion that I would not readily abandon, faced with a better conclusion....In our early efforts to work together, sometimes an issue would degenerate into an argument about his defensiveness and my uninformed criticism" [Davis and Dee] (236).

        In a passage that received considerable public interest when the book was published, the two wrote about their process of deciding to have an open marriage in terms of sexual relationships with others [Davis and Dee](317-325). The public interest came, I think, from the couple's openness to their readers about coming to an open marriage, but for the purposes of this essay what is interesting is their interchange in the book about the matter. The interchange lays out tensions, hurt feelings, jealousies, disagreements that though decades old still seemed live and fresh as they wrote, and relevant to my hope of autobiographies with multiple voices. There really are two perspectives, two voices, with some contention and brittleness about what this relationship with a lover or potential lover or that relationship with a lover or potential lover might mean.

        In the last chapters of the book, there are dialogues between Davis and Dee that seem like the kind of conversation a couple might have about issues that were important to them at the time of finishing the book and at the end of long careers and 50 years of life together--for example, grandchildren, summing up of careers, looking back at children and family of origin. Those dialogues once again give the reader some sense of differences but even more the reader is given a shared narrative of two people who have journeyed together. For whatever it is worth, and it is certainly open to alternative interpretations, the concluding part of their dialogue almost has the unity of a monologue. That is, in some ways it is like two voices telling one story.      

The Possible Uses of Family Autobiography in Which Multiple Voices Speak


        Family autobiography in which a number of family voices speak can offer powerful insight about the experiences of families. There is, for example, in the combined autobiography of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee a great deal of interesting information about their couple relationship as seen from their shared and also their differing perspectives. There is a life and a vitality to the interwoven accounts of Davis and Dee, but also there is in their shared account a picture of what the uncertainties might be in viewing people and events. In particular, their co-authored autobiography challenges and illuminates the apparent clarity and certainty of the typical single-authored autobiography, particularly as those single-authored autobiographies characterize their families. Related to this, with any documents, but especially personal documents, there are questions of validity (Eakin 1992, especially 46-47) [Eakin]. Is what this person says accurate, true, the whole truth?  Those questions would also be present for a family autobiography authored by a number of people in the same family, but one might still believe that there is a kind of vetting of some of the "facts" in a co-authored family autobiography, that the extremes or the more obvious or the more offensive (to other family members) claims would be commented on.  In the Davis/Dee autobiography, sometimes one partner challenges something the other says, and often they amplify what one another says, agreeing, filling in details, and the like, and that makes the document seem more trustworthy.  And sometimes it is clear that the two conferred with each other and even with other family members to clarify uncertain, blurry memories.  That, too, adds validity.

       The mass media and virtually every other vehicle for expressing societal values in the United States reinforces the notion of individual achievement, individual success, and individual identity in isolation from the significant others in a person's life. Some of that must surely spill over into how people frame their own lives and into family myths about achievement, success, identity and so on. By arguing for family autobiographies in which a number of family voices speak, this essay is pushing against the societal and family myth of individualism and for the counter myth that is present though often suppressed, of a view of lives as inevitably social and in which nobody's life is free from its social context, or lived in isolation, or created by an individual acting alone.

         At another level, the model of multi-voiced autobiography advocated in this paper challenges a myth in the larger society and in a number of families that the family speaks with one voice (or perhaps it is that one family member speaks for the family). Instead, the model advocated here speaks to a counter myth for society and families; that family members may agree on a great deal and share many experiences, but they are always separate individuals with separate experiences, feelings, and views.  So it is unlikely that any family member can speak for another and get it entirely right.



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