When people ask me what Honor’s Ghost, my novel in progress is about, I ask them the question above. Almost everyone says yes immediately, often closely followed by: “And I know the ancestor I’d like to hear from.” And the next question they consider is: what would the message be?
Brian Cox’s new TV programme “Wonders of Life” which started this week posed the question: what’s the difference between a living person and a dead one? Answer: energy. And it turns out that energy cannot be destroyed, and that all the energy in the world now was there right from the very beginning of. He showed his visit to to a tribe in the Philippines, and their annual pilgrimage to the cemetery to honour the dead: they lit fires and candles and communed silently with those who had gone before. Brian pointed out that all religions everywhere share the notion that energy or spirit survives beyond death: and who can say that believers are wrong?
Genealogy, the search for our roots, is the second most popular hobby in the UK (fishing being the first…) as we see in the TV Programme “Who do you think you are?” How moving it is to discover a family tragedy, a moment of great courage, or grief, or achievement: what does it tell us about ourselves to understand something of our ancestors experience, and it’s impact on our own character or life?
A few years ago, Peter Fischer and his colleagues at the Universities of Graz, Berlin and Munich studied the psychological effects of thinking about where we came from – our ancestors. They believed there was reason to believe that such thoughts are beneficial. They discovered that people who spent time thinking about their ancestors before completing an IQ test achieved higher test scores, compared to people who thought about something else or nothing at all, a phenomenon they called “the ancestor effect.” They explained their findings like this:
‘Normally, our ancestors managed to overcome a multitude of personal and society problems, such as severe illnesses, wars, loss of loved ones or severe economic declines. So when we think about them, we are reminded that humans who are genetically similar to us can successfully overcome a multitude of problems and adversities.’
My daughter was as University when I read about this study. I told her about it, and she devised a strategy: on her walk to the exam hall, she imagined all her ancestors (especially her grandmothers, both of whom died long before she was born) walking along with her, encouraging her and cheering her on, her own personal support team. She said it made her feel brilliant; and she did do very well in her exams….
In Honor’s Ghost, Honor, beset with financial and marital difficulties, longs for advice from her great-grandmother, Annie, an ancestor she has always felt an affinity with. When Honor’s psychotherapy clients take part in clinical trials for a new drug, Instil®, for the depressed and anxious, and find that the drug induces a dream of an ancestor with a message for them that cures them immediately, she decides to try it herself. But she gets rather more than she bargained for….
“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.” Anne Ancelin Shutzenburger