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How to Handle “Blemishes” When Writing Family Stories

By Annette Gendler Premium

One of my readers, who was writing a story based on family history, once asked me, “Are you okay with leaving out the blemishes in family stories?” This is a pertinent question, since anyone who has done family research will inevitably happen upon unpleasant truths. His question is also, as I thought about it, somewhat loaded, and not so easily answered.

All families have secrets, embarrassing events, or missteps that no one likes to talk about. And those writing family stories have to grapple with these actions and characteristics to determine whether or not they’re appropriate to include in a narrative.

The goal is not to white-wash your history or to simply sweep inconvenient or unpleasant truths under the rug. Rather, you want to include only the details that are most important and relevant to the story’s narrative.

In this article, I’ll outline what I mean by “blemishes” in your family’s history, and how you should (or shouldn’t) include them as you write compelling family stories.

What is a Blemish?

First of all, let me define what I mean by “blemish.” A blemish is a fact of your family’s history that makes your heart sink, be it a bothersome event, crime, social transgression, or unfavorable character trait. Blemishes show your relative in a negative light, and make you ashamed of him or her.

However, blemishes are different from what I call “stains,” actions or traits that had large impacts on the people involved. As in clothing, stains discolor an object (the person) and are not easily—if ever—removed. (Blemishes in clothing, by contrast, just spoil the appearance of something.) For example, evidence of a father slapping his child once might be a blemish, but a history of him physical abusing others (traumatic for the people involved) would be a stain.

As we’ll see is true in storytelling, blemishes are not all bad in real life. We’re all made up of both good and bad habits and personality traits, and we sometimes need to make mistakes in order to grow.

The Importance of Storytelling

The decision about whether or not to include blemishes in your narrative begins with examining what makes for a good story in the first place.

First and foremost, good genealogical research does not necessarily make good stories. When you research and put together a family history, you document all the information you find. Often this amounts to résumé-like compilations of milestone events in your ancestors’ lives.

Unfortunately, that meticulous research tends to gather dust in basements or sit around in drawers or unopened GEDCOM files until some relative needs to verify a date or decides to adopt the mantle of the family’s historian.

Stories, on the other hand, get retold again and again. Storytelling is the most powerful and lasting way to transmit our family’s history from one generation to the next. When grandparents talk to their grandchildren about family and the days of old, they won’t be giving a detailed family genealogy. Rather, they’ll choose captivating stories—ones they remember well and that will keep their audiences asking, “And then what happened?”

To achieve that kind of enthusiastic engagement with family history, we should write down as many stories from our family history as possible. A good story never bores an audience, and if it’s memorable enough, it gets retold and connects one generation to another.

But how do we write such a story? What do we put in it—and what do we leave out?

Narrative Storytelling

While genealogy research presents historical figures and facts about their lives, stories must have a narrative shape. There has to be a “point” to it, best found by asking yourself, “Why am I telling this story?”

A story focuses on a particular event that had an impact on the main character. Such an event does not need to involve high drama. The character can do something as mundane as saying goodbye to a beloved car, or having a new insight about his or her place in the universe.

Narrative shape is achieved when a story contains the following elements:

  • A particular time
  • A particular place
  • Fully fledged characters—interesting, “fleshed out” people who are portrayed with enough detail that we can see, hear and perhaps even smell them
  • An inciting incident (i.e., the circumstances that lead to the event taking place)
  • Action—the characters need to be doing something
  • Change—the characters need to come out differently than they entered

Memoir is the main format for telling real-life stories in a concise and captivating way. Anecdote is another, but—as a blow-by-blow account of an amusing or interesting incident—it lacks the depth, meaning and insight that memoir attempts to offer the reader. A memoir focuses on a particular topic (such as motherhood) or time frame (such as childhood). It can be book-length, or only a few pages, but it never recounts an entire life.

By contrast, a biography or autobiography attempts to document a subject’s entire life in detail, often chronologically. Genealogical research reports do the same—meticulously recording all known facts and details of a person’s life, presented without context or thematic structure.

Blemishes: To Include, or Not to Include?

Blemishes offer several benefits when crafting a story. A blemish shows our relatives in a more human light and thus helps us portray them as fully rendered characters. Nobody is all good, and everybody makes mistakes. A relative’s misstep adds the conflict and contrast that stories thrive on, creating “layers” and complexity.

Why You Might Omit Blemishes

So if blemishes help build the fully fledged characters needed for a good story, why would we even hesitate to include some of them?

In some cases, blemishes unrelated to the core of your story might distract your reader from the main plot or themes, oversimplify your character for the audience, or fail to account for differences between historical and modern sensibilities.

Let’s look at each of those three cases in more detail.

If they distract the reader

As we’ve discussed, a memoir doesn’t include every detail about your ancestor’s life. You, as the author, have to make deliberate decisions about what to include based on the story you’re trying to tell—and the themes and characters in it.

You should omit blemishes that are not relevant to your narrative’s plot, characterization and themes, just like you would omit any other details of your ancestor’s life that are irrelevant.

For example, my memoir Jumping Over Shadows (She Writes Press) recounts, to a large extent, what happened to my grandparents during World War II in Czechoslovakia. However, I decided not to include the fact that, in 1943, my grandfather applied for membership in the Nazi Party—certainly, a blemish.

Why did I omit this? Because it didn’t reflect my grandfather’s characterization in the story, and (without the proper social context and nuance) would have distracted the reader from the storyline.

According to my research, my grandfather was a staunch Social Democrat, and served as a city councilman before the war. However, the Nazis took over his hometown in 1938 and removed him from his position as a school principal because of his political affiliation. After five long years of occupation, he applied for Nazi party membership—not because he agreed with the party’s ideology, but out of expediency. (In fact, my research shows his application was denied. This distinction was important, because not being a member of the NSDAP allowed him to get employment under Allied occupation after the end of the war.)

While the full true-life story is interesting and would make for a good essay on its own, it didn’t fit in my narrative, which was ultimately about love against all odds. In addition, my story included other examples of my grandfather compromising for expediency, so his application to the NSDAP didn’t add anything to his characterization. Including it would have been redundant, and may have led the reader to mislabel him as a Nazi sympathizer.

If they define the character only in terms of the blemish

When you write difficult family stories, it’s your job to portray those who came before you in the way they truly were. However, you also need to give the reader enough context to understand them within the world they lived in. Without that, the audience might focus on the wrong aspect of your character’s personality.

For example, a character uttering a racial slur in a fight scene set in the early 1900s might be historically accurate and true to your research about an ancestor. However, in the context of your narrative, that detail might be distracting. A modern audience might have trouble overlooking the use of a racial slur. And unless your narrative is exploring race relations or discrimination in that time period, you’ll lose your audience if it dismisses the character as a racist.

If they confuse historical and modern sensibilities

Writing truthful family stories also means portraying the past in the way it was and giving present-day readers an understanding of what life used to be like. Many behaviors or figures of speech that were acceptable in the 1920s, for example, are not acceptable now. Yet we should not pretend those contemporary social standards didn’t exist, nor should we judge people living in the 1920s using our 2020 standards.

As writers, it can be hard to make something believable and understandable that we today would consider repulsive, but researching historical context (and selectively presenting some of it in the narrative, when appropriate) usually does the trick.

For example, when I saw the Tutankhamun exhibit in London last November, I was appalled that he was married, at quite a young age, to his half-sister, Ankhesenamun, the daughter of Queen Nefertiti. However, as I learned, Ancient Egyptian royals and members of the upper class considered marrying close relatives to be a privilege. And inbreeding was hardly unique to Ancient Egypt—many royal houses (including those in Europe through the 19th century) suffered for this practice. The Bible’s Book of Genesis (depicting Mesopotamia and Canaan more than 5,000 years ago) also discusses what we would consider incest.

Thousands of years later, we know incest can lead to genetic degeneration, and we as a society consider it a punishable crime. Nevertheless, in reading and writing about the period, we have to look beyond our lens of incest to understand this practice. Only then can we begin to understand who these people of the past were and why they did what they did. As a result, a modern writer might choose not to dwell on this aspect of Tutankhamun’s life if they were writing an historical story about him.

Why You Might Include Blemishes

There are two other factors to consider when deciding whether to include a blemish in your story: whether that blemish had any consequences that affected later generations, and whether that blemish was characteristic
of a particular person and would help us understand who he/she was in the context of the story. In either case, you’ll likely want to include the blemish.

Just because something is the truth, doesn’t mean it needs to be in your story. There has to be a better reason than that.

If this blemish brought about something that affected later generations, you can’t leave it out. The whole point of writing a family history story is to illuminate the past and to enable the present generation to better understand their ancestors and thus themselves.

For example, a great-uncle’s stinginess might have been hurtful to his wife for whom he never bought flowers (“Waste of money!”). But perhaps it allowed him to amass a nice nest egg that his niece and nephew got to inherit. Similarly, learning that a beloved grandmother was also quite controlling to her own children might help a granddaughter recognize that same trait in herself later on.

In addition, there may be some blemishes that are so essential to your ancestor’s character that you can’t omit them. If you did, the character simply wouldn’t be your ancestor. Because readers usually remember the quirky and unique aspects of a character (not necessarily the bad ones), they may be willing to overlook certain negative traits in a character.

A great example of how to handle this is Nickole Brown’s memoir in poems, Fanny Says (BOA Editions), a loving portrait of Brown’s Kentucky grandmother Fanny and the way she spoke. It captures all Fanny’s idiosyncrasies—including her racist attitude. Her derogatory comments to her Black longtime household helper, with whom she had a close relationship, are particularly shocking.

In the audiobook version, Brown relates how much it pained her to reveal that side of her beloved grandmother. But she also felt that it was a big part of how Fanny spoke and who she was.

Therefore, Brown had to find a way to show her grandmother’s nasty side, risking that her readers would zero in on that and characterize Fanny only as a racist. However, Brown shows many facets of Fanny’s personality; Fanny’s racism is a blemish, but not her only characteristic. As a reader, I found the grandmother’s love for Pepsi, Clorox and Sweet Silver hair coloring more unique and memorable.

The truth can be hurtful, so it is important to ask yourself why you would disclose a blemish. Is it worthwhile? Is including the blemish a helpful, life-affirming choice? Does it add to your family’s understanding of itself? Or would your story work just as well without the blemish? Just because something is the truth, doesn’t mean it needs to be in your story. There has to be a better reason than that.

A version of this article appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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