Exploring Ancestral Patterns in Memoir with Guest Lorraine Ash

Today I am pleased to have as my guest, Lorraine Ash, author of Self and Soul: Creating a Meaningful Life. Lorraine is sharing her thoughts on the ancestral patterns we inherit and how they impact our lives. Lorraine, thank you for being here today. And thank you to WOW! Women on Writing for hosting Lorraine’s blog tour.

Our lives start with all kinds of inheritances. From ancestors, we receive genetic qualities, proclivities, aptitudes, beliefs. Maturing means interacting with all our inheritances, whether that involves embracing, rejecting, or modifying them. Odds are, we decide to keep some and not others.

That thought affirms the value of looking back in time to trace how we got to be who we are. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion evokes her ancestry even as she brings her readers deep into her.

As the grandchild of a geologist I learned early to anticipate the absolute mutability of hills and waterfalls and even islands. When a hill slumps into the ocean I see the order in it. …A hill is a transitional accommodation to stress, and ego may be a similar accommodation.

Following the trajectory of our experiences in regard to even one of our inheritances can provide a focus for a rich memoir in essay or book form. Such close scrutiny also can yield new insights about ourselves, which is no small gift.

A father/daughter story

Here’s an example of how I separated the strands of a thread of paternal family inheritance and wove them into my own life. I am like my late father in fundamental ways: I have a probing mind, an ability to sustain focus, the desire and discipline to explore a subject deeply, and an abiding concern for the well-being of the average person.

For my father, a career in the law was a calling—one he first heard when he was a poor kid on the streets of Jersey City, New Jersey, growing up without the benefit of parents. He had to fight for every piece of dignity, dingy boardinghouse room, and meal he got. When he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he even chose to be a boxer, like his father before him.

My father’s fiery temperament and fighting spirit served him well as he defended clients and argued cases in court. He pushed me toward the law, too, but it was not natural for me to use “our” traits in the same way. I have a more calm temperament and prefer analyzing and integrating information. As a journalist and author, I’m a natural.

I loved my father and intensely value and appreciate the traits I inherited from him. But I knew that love could morph into resentment and self-alienation if I allowed him to hijack my destiny.

Throwing a typewriter

So one day, as a teenager, as I was working in his law office, and he was pressuring me yet again to go to law school, I picked up the typewriter on which I’d been working, and threw it through the glass door of a bookcase.

“You will NOT tell me what I will do with my life!” I said.

That was the only act of physical violence I’ve ever committed. My anger detonated, uncharacteristically, to protect my very core.

“OK,” he said, quietly. “You don’t have to.”

Today, I think of that scene as a key turning point in my life, but it is much better understood in deep family context. My father wanted for me what worked for him. But his ancestors, largely by dint of not living up to their responsibilities, gave him two options: give up and drop out of high school, or fight like hell to rise above his circumstances. His anger toward his family also helped light his inner fire for social justice: he was all about helping others rise up.

By working in his law office as a young adult, I learned from him how to live archetypally—a gift of power. But his archetype was justice. Mine is truth.

When there is no family

Even when there is no family, or its members have scattered, the family still holds power. Indeed when there is no present dynamic, the actions of the ancestors may be all the self-inquiring writer has to work with. In Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed writes about the specter that her absentee father had become in her life.  Deep in the memoir, she breaks his spell over her:

… on that night as I gazed out over the darkening land fifty-some nights out on the PCT, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be amazed by him anymore.

The family tree, with its intergenerational traumas, gifts, and secrets, holds many fruits for memoirists. Our ancestors, a line of people that inevitably includes heroes and ne’er-do-wells, took the family story as far as they could.

It’s a mistake to focus so intently at their successes and wrongs that we neglect to see how we are continuing the story now. Writing memoir helps us see the past with new eyes and frees us to live into a new day.

Questions: A memoir is driven by some master question that concerns the writer. In Three Weeks with My Brother, Nicholas Sparks asks, essentially, Why am I like this? As the story unfolds, he links his own anxiety and exhaustion to his family story. Ask yourself, Why am I like this?

Lorraine Ash, M.A., is a New Jersey author, award-winning journalist, essayist, book editor, and writing teacher.  Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life, her second book, is available in a variety of formats and online stores, all presented here, http://lorraineash.com/selfsoul.htm . Reach Lorraine at www.LorraineAsh.com, www.facebook.com/LorraineAshAuthor , or @LorraineVAsh .

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Please come back next Thursday, August 28, 2014 when I review Lorraine’s book, Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life.

To entice you to return, Women on Writing and the author have made a copy of Self and Soul available for a giveaway. Hope to see you then!

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33 thoughts on “Exploring Ancestral Patterns in Memoir with Guest Lorraine Ash

  1. Thank you for this post Sherrey and Lorraine .. just lovely and what a powerful question to ask “Why am I like this” .. along with ‘Who am I’?

    1. Hello, Susan! Thanks for your always gracious words. Questions such as these pose much for us to ponder, research, and discover. I love Lorraine’s words, not only in her post but in her book I’ll be reviewing here on Thursday. Hope you’ll have a chance to read it.

    1. Cate, Your comment has us all looking at the conversation from a different, intriguing angle. Thank you. Such thoughtful exchanges on the Sherrey Meyer blog!

      1. Hi Lorraine, when you said, “Even when there is no family, or its members have scattered, the family still holds power.” that hit a strong chord in me as I am adopted. The power is very strong. I wouldn’t say I am amazed by someone, but there is a need to recognise and let things go which you cannot resolve.
        Again, thanks for such a great post!

    2. Cate, I agree with Lorraine. You have opened my eyes to new perspectives within her post. Hoping to continue the discussion with a return “performance.”

      1. One of the aspects of being adopted is you are ALWAYS looking for links back to the biological. Everyone needs roots, so anything I find which links behaviour back, I make a beeline for. It’s emotional survival.

      2. Cate, how well I know. My husband, Bob, and his first wife adopted their daughter, Suzanne, at six days old. When Suzanne was 12 and her dad and I had married, we were gathered with Bob’s family for a summer get together and old family photos surfaced. We all gathered around, and I heard Suzanne say to Bob, “Who do I look like, Daddy?” She had been hearing comments to her brother, Steve, Bob’s biological son, about how much he looked like grandpa, Uncle Harlan, or Bob. That was when I realized how disconnected this child’s life must feel to her.
        Thanks for sharing your thoughts along this line.

  2. I love exploring familial connections. I too had a strained relationship with my father and know I’ve carried on the best of his characteristics … his stubbornness to complete a project being one of the biggest. Unfortunately our connections also include struggling with PTSD. Unfortunately the times were not in his favor as it was not at the time recognized. Fortunatley, for me recovery has been possible.

    1. jzrart, The parallel experiences you and your father had with PTSD is wonderfully rich territory on which you can explore not only personal dynamics but, in the larger culture, how attitudes and treatments toward PTSD changed. I’m glad to hear you’re doing well. Lorraine

    2. Joan, thanks for stopping by to read Lorraine’s interesting and intriguing post. I believe many in our generation had a strained relationship with one parent or the other, but not many had the commonality of something like PTSD. I’m so glad you can use the word “recovery” with respect to PTSD.

  3. Lorraine, thank you for being my guest and sharing not only my blog space but also your thoughts on what is an intriguing subject. I think my readers who have commented are equally intrigued by your topic. I hope that you will come back again and further explore this topic in another post, or something similar. Consider this an invitation!

  4. What a well developed exploration of the power of our “genealogy” on our lives and how we can work with this as writers. Thank you for sharing this article.

    1. It was truly my pleasure, Luanne, to have Lorraine share this guest post. I have often wondered if genetics or our genealogy somehow impacted our lives and personalities. I think Lorraine has answered the question for me. So glad you enjoyed her post.

  5. In a blog post published just yesterday I continue probing the puzzle of my relationship with Dad.Though Lorraine expresses it with greater finesse than I, one impetus for writing my memoir is to excavate the motivations for his behavior.
    The question “Why am I like this?” is germane to unlocking the secrets of my own childhood memories. Lorraine’s “laser focus,” as Jerry Waxler puts it, affirms that I am on the right track.
    Lorraine, thank you for pulling out the quote from Joan Didion’s memoir, which I loved and for your poignant father/daughter story. And thank you, Sherrey, for featuring her on today’s post.
    Obviously, I will have to delve into Ms. Ash’s work further which will help me “see the past with new eyes and free [me] to live into a new day.” I look forward to the August 28th post.

    1. Marian, I popped over to read your fish tale before leaving a comment. An amazing catch, an amazing looking crew, and an amazing story! I enjoyed it so much. Fishing was one thing my dad took me along for when I was a wee thing. We actually pond fished in a beautiful park near our home. Nothing serious. Just lessons in patience and quietude.
      Interesting that both Jerry and you mention strained relationships with your dads while mine was with my mom. I suppose we all see through those relationships the import of Lorraine’s words to us today. Your question, “Why am I like this?,” is one that has plagued me for most of my life. I still struggle to answer it. Perhaps with Lorraine’s book and this post, I can find my way to an answer.
      Thanks for including the link to your post.

      1. Sherrey, The one time I went fly fishing, I hooked my own fishing jacket. The only redeeming aspect of the experience was the comic first-person piece I wrote about it. My athletic life lends itself well to comedy. Lorraine

      2. Then we have something in common, Lorraine. My athletic is mostly non-existent but when it surfaces, its only benefit is comic relief for all involved.

    2. Marian, One benefit of exploring the motivations for parental behavior is that we realize it often has nothing to do with us. That may sound odd, but it’s true. Ever read “The Four Agreements: A Toltec Wisdom Book” by Don Miguel Ruiz? It covers four agreements we need to make with ourselves to achieve peace and clearing. The second is, “Don’t Take Anything Personally.” That book is wise and fertile with ideas that can clarify and heal any life. Lorraine

      1. Lorraine and Marian, this is what I found out in my search for answers. It had nothing whatsoever to do with me, but something so far back in my mother’s childhood I’m surprised it surfaced. Lorraine, thanks for the tip on the Ruiz book. I must look it up!

  6. Wow, this topic is so beautifully explored here. I have just finished reading Lorraine’s two memoirs and I knew she had a way with words. This article is a perfect example of her laser focus. It is perhaps the best exploration I’ve seen of inheriting family expectations through the mechanism of pleasing one’s father. This was a force that worked its way into my subconscious and took me many years to unravel. Unlike her, instead of getting it over with by throwing a typewriter, or by taking a hike, I had to unravel my whole life and then build it back up with a different set of expectations. To my father, it probably looked like his son was dying. Back to Lorraine, I love the precision with which she links together the psychological pressures of ordinary life with the literary power of memoir to help us discover these pressures. I said in my notes about her books, “she keeps hitting her marks.” Here is another example. She did it again.
    Best wishes,
    Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution
    (a href=”http://www.memorywritersnetwork.com/blog”)

    1. Jerry, delightful to see you here. I know how busy we all are trying to keep up with the demands of social media and our writing communities. I know how hard it is to get to every blog post you want to read.
      I was thrilled when I saw this topic available as a guest post on Lorraine’s list. Her take on ancestral patterns and how they impact us and almost imprint us is intriguing. There are so many nuances in our genetic makeup as well as the environment in which we grow up. It is a miracle that some of us grow up without too much difficulty.
      Like you and others, I have been trying for six decades to figure out why my mother behaved toward me as she did. I have a rough idea which is currently the part of my memoir I’m working on, but is it good enough to quell my questions about myself? Perhaps I’ll never know the truth but if I can come close, I think I’ll be satisfied.
      Best regards,

      1. Sherrey, First, thank you for hosting my tour and, yes, it seems impossible that some of us grew up without too much difficulty. Unfortunately, I think that’s often accomplished by sublimating disturbing incidents, comments, and even, in some instances, cruelties. Later in life, in midlife lots of times, when our minds are fortified and our lives established, we’re able to look at those incidents and comments and work with them. That’s the place we’re all at here as we turn to writing as an art form, knowing that writing inspired by real life – even fiction – is the most rich and complex. Lorraine

      2. Lorraine, it was a joy to have you here with us yesterday, and we still have my review of Self and Soul to look forward to next Thursday. And don’t forget my invitation to return.

      3. Wow! The main question in my upcoming memoir, that got me started writing, is why my mom treated me the way she did. I had no idea my memoir would take me on a discovery expedition of myself. I learned quite a bit about myself on my journey and quite a bit about myself and I found the answer to the question that I’ve been seeking for five decades.

      4. LaTanya, it never ceases to amaze me how much we learn about ourselves as we write our life story down because we want to share it with others. Loved your comments and that you found the answer to your question!

    2. Jerry, Thanks for these thoughts. I don’t know that I got it all over with by throwing the typewriter. (It sounds charmingly historic, doesn’t it? A typewriter.) But that day I certainly drew an important line and made it onto my own territory. At one point recently, I was asked to trace points in my life when my soul expressed itself and I thought of this story immediately. Lorraine

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