There are always topics we can’t talk about. Sometimes these forbidden topics are societal – in some societies talk about sex is taboo, or death, or money (when’s the last time you asked an acquaintance, “So how much money do you make a year?”) And there are familial taboos, like Dad’s drinking or Mom’s pills, or an older brother in prison, or any family member you have been taught to be ashamed of. Even ancestors.
But what you can’t talk about you can’t write about either. Your beliefs about what is forbidden can stifle your creativity. A good exercise to free up your mind is write about the black sheep in your family anyway. (You don’t have to publish it.) You can start with an ancestor, since it may conjure up less pain. Here’s an exercise I often give when teaching memoir writing:
Write the story of an ancestor who is spoken of in whispers, if at all. Perhaps he or she went to prison, or drank heavily, or stole, or was a womanizer, or betrayed his/her country, or was a coward, or a cheat, or a slaveholder, etc. etc. etc. What do you know about this person? How did this story get handed down in your family? Is this person now admired or despised?
I wrote a few pieces about some of these sheep in my own family, although I couldn’t find any truly bad ones, only gray ones. (Most people are gray.) But there was one ancestor who no one seemed willing to talk about. The only thing I knew about him was that his name was Frank and he was my mother’s grandfather, her father’s father. But one day about fifteen years ago I did learn some things about Frank, and found that we did indeed have one of those black sheep in my family. It’s taken this long for me to take my own advice and write about what I learned, but here goes. Finally.
My mother used to have lunch with her cousins every year. Often her mother, my grandmother, also attended these luncheons. Fifteen years ago I went with my mother and grandmother to a gathering of these cousins, who were by then women in their seventies and early eighties. (All the male cousins were dead by then.) My grandmother was the only representative of her generation, in her nineties at the time.
About midway through lunch, the name Frank was mentioned, and suddenly, as if someone had thrown a switch, stories started tumbling out. (There had been quite a lot of wine consumed by this time.) I listened open-mouthed at the tales these elderly women told, from the fairly innocuous like how Frank told filthy jokes and laughed at their embarrassment, to the upsetting like how he pinched their budding breasts or bottoms, to the appalling like Frank telling my great-aunt Tessie, then 11, to “touch me here” as he pulled his “privates” (her word) out of his stained pants. It was even worse listening to the women tell how their fathers and mothers did nothing to stop him. “Oh that Frank,” they’d say indulgently, while they chuckled at Frank’s cute liking for little girls.
My own mother told of how Frank scared her badly when she was nine. He had come up behind her, pulled up her dress, and tried to pull down her underwear. She tore herself away from his searching hands and ran crying to her mother, Frank’s daughter-in-law, who said, “Oh that silly Frank, just ignore him.”
My grandmother, whose advice this had been, at this point got up and left the table. She spent the rest of the luncheon visit in the bathroom. When we drove home, she sat stony-faced in the back seat of the car and refused to look at my mother.
Later I asked my mother to tell me more about Frank, but she refused. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “He’s dead now.”
I beg to differ. It does matter. What Frank did to my mother, and her girl cousins, shaped their lives. My mother shaped mine. There is quote by Emile Zola, which sums up why it matters:
“If you shut up truth and bury it under the ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way.”