“Every individual’s life is a novel. You and I, we live as part of an invisible web, a web we also help to weave. Yet if we open up our perception… and learn to hear and see what is difficult to hear and see – then we can grasp, better understand, hear and see the repetitions and coincidences in our family history, and our individual lives can become clearer. We can become more aware of who we are and who we could be.” Anne Ancelin Schutzenberger
Perhaps this quote explains why genealogy is the second most popular hobby in the UK, fishing being the first. The popular TV programme “Who do you think you are?” shows us the emotional power of discoveries about our ancestors; their heroics, their griefs, their secrets and joys.
In The Ancestor Syndrome, Schutzenberger, a Freudian psychoanalyst and psycho-dramatist sets out the theory of transgenerational memory traces. In a process that has yet to be fully identified, scraps of memory seem to echo down through generations, manifest in repeating patterns and dynamics, and perhaps also in dreams and fantasies. These traces make up part of who we become, for better or worse.
Twenty years ago, I had the good fortune to work intensively with Reynold Jelmane, a therapist and leadership development specialist who applies transgenerational methods to personal and professional growth. Guided by Reynold and his gifted wife Hamida, I explored my own ancestry, keeping in mind the question, What is the wider family story in which I am embedded? Who are those who went before, creating the web which I became a part of?
The photograph above is of my grandparents, Violet and Paddy Howells on their wedding day, with Violet’s parents (my great grandparents) Annie and Bill Gifford. As a child I was especially close to my grandparents, though I never knew my great grandparents who died many years before my birth. My grandmother entertained me with tales of her parents and their many children. As part of my work with Reynold, I gathered the facts of their lives, coming across two tragic family secrets. I have allowed my imagination to play around these facts, to invent the circumstances that could have resulted in these unspeakable events; and this part factual, part fictional story forms part of the plot of Honor’s Ghost, a novel (in progress) which aims to illustrate the quote below, also from Schutzenberger’s insightful book.
“We continue the chain of generations and, knowingly or not, willingly or unwillingly, we pay debts of the past: as long as we have not cleared the slate, an ‘invisible loyalty’ impels us to repeat and repeat a moment of incredible joy or unbearable sorrow, an injustice or a tragic death. Or its echo.”