I just spoke with an old friend who lives in Roanoke, Virginia, about the earthquake that shook the east coast the other day. It was no big deal – she heard a few shelves rattling, but most of her coworkers in the office didn’t feel a thing. How about the local schools – any kids hurt? No. How about at the earthquake's epicenter, anyone hurt there? Nope, not really.
Why did we keep probing, looking for more damage? How could we be disappointed that this wasn’t a bigger catastrophe? I suppose it’s human nature. We don’t actually want injuries to schoolchildren; what we want is large-scale drama.
Since the earthquake was no big deal, our talk turned to other, bigger catastrophes we have experienced. I recalled that time my home was lost in a flood, and she remembered an electrical fire and how she, terrified, had to rouse the children to escape in the middle of the night. Soon, we were having a wonderful time, telling lurid tales of disaster. Have you ever done this? I am sure you have.
There is something about catastrophic events that makes life more precious and our roles on life’s stage more important. We enjoy putting ourselves at the center of truly big events, acknowledged to be game-changers, and we want to assert that we were there, experiencing it all first-hand.
How does this apply to memoirs and family histories? In my experience, memoirists expect to tap into their catastrophes for all they’re worth. Not only are memoirists convinced that their stories have dramatic merit, they intend from the outset to explore both the highs and lows of their lives.
Family historians often miss this opportunity. Perhaps it is because their sources are factual and dry, so the author is not viscerally aware of the powerful dramatic events that took place. Reading some first-hand accounts of catastrophes that took place in an ancestor’s life will help you to tell these stories with the drama they deserve.
Some family historians prefer to keep the image of the family’s past upbeat and positive, to cast all ancestors in a heroic light. Our culture rewards striving and success, and instead of sympathy, there is a tendency to blame people for their suffering and deprivation.
This is no excuse to sanitize history. We learn a great deal from lessons of hardship – just think of our ongoing fascination with the Great Depression, or recently with Hurricane Katrina’s survivors. In fact, I would argue that catastrophes teach us to be better human beings. And isn’t that why we write family history and memoirs, to give insight to others?