Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Can Family History Heal a Family Feud?

Can Family History Mend a Rift in the Family?

Conflict occurs in many families. Sadly, too often, the result of conflict is estrangement rather than the resolving of issues. There are probably a myriad of causes of conflict within families including jealousy, sibling rivalry, misunderstanding and disagreement over possessions which are just a few of the factors which contribute towards estrangement in families. Family feuds are well known. There is even a fun television game show which bears the name Family Feud. But family feuds are not fun. Estrangement is a tragedy for all family members involved.

There are rivalries in families which are recent, and there are old family feuds, many of which which have persisted for generations. Often the participants in long running family feuds are quite unaware even, of the original cause of conflict. Let me take a classic example of an unresolved family feud; Romeo and Juliet. The Montague and Capulet families, of Verona, Italy, were engaged in a family feud which extended back to a time before the family members were even born. A more tragic end to family rivalry, one could not imagine. Shakespeare did, of course. And inevitably, poor Juliet died, the victim of the family feud. I wonder what the finale to this Shakespearean tragedy might have been if the Montague and Capulet families had undertaken to research their family history rather than stubbornly adhering to their family quarrelling. How interesting the outcome might have been, had the families discovered common ancestry. A relationship, other than rivalry, might have succeeded in changing the perception these two families had of each other where all else failed. Of course had Juliet and Romeo discovered that they were cousins, a whole new set of obstacles could have arisen!

In Shakespeare's play, the 'Family Feud' had become an inherent part of the identity of the Montague and Capulet families. Our identity is of course, who we are. It is the places and the cultures we come from in addition to the family, traditions, celebrations and all things in our background that give us a sense of identity. The journey into our family history is a quest for identity. That of course, necessitates, identifying with others to whom we are related and inevitably discovering and being party to rivalries and estrangements. Along with the discovery of identity, family history can be much more than a search for ancestry. It can be a means by which to begin the healing process for family feuds and estrangements.

Of course we can not alter the tragic ending for the two 'star crossed' lovers in William Shakespeare's famous play. For eternity, the Montague and Capulet families will continue to feud. It is an interesting concept, however, that family history might hold the key to opening long closed doors between family members. I frequently see comments on my own blogs and on the blogs of others, such as 'family history has helped to heal a family feud', or 'I have found a long estranged sister through blogging my family history'. It is quite conceivable, that in this wonderfully high technological world we live in, which provides us with online research and family tree facilitators such as, GenesReunited and FindMyPast, (to name just a few), and which connects us world wide, that our journey into our ancestral past might also be a journey towards changing the way in which we inherently see ourselves. Changing our perception of our self and our place in the family, allows us to change our thinking about how we perceive our family and more significantly how we perceive family feuds, rifts, and conflict as well. Changing the way we see ourselves as we become a part of an extended family picture can help us to let go of inherent attitudes towards other family members and begin the journey towards healing family rifts.

An excellent example of the way in which the changing of inherent thinking about ourselves can change our attitudes, is that of our identity as Australians. The white Australian identity, for a long time was one of having inherited a 'birthstain'. That our nation's foundations were built on felonious beginnings, was once an inherently shameful part of who we were as Australians. There is no doubt that researching family history is one of the significant factors which has contributed towards the positive change of attitude this country has concerning not only its convict roots but importantly its Aboriginal origins. As we have discovered the significant contribution that our ancestors made to this lucky country in which we live, and gained a bettter understanding of past conflicts, we have become increasingly proud of both our convict and our aboriginal history. Previous shame of descending from a convict ancestor has been replaced by pride at what our forebears achieved under inconceivably difficult conditions. Old notions that this country's history began with the arrival of a convict settlement has changed to acknowledge that native people were displaced from their land. Historians have attempted to understand the true history of Australia and to accept responsibility for dispute and estrangement. As a nation we have made some steps toward understanding the plight of the native people of this land. With understanding, eventually comes acceptance and healing. This ability to change one's attitude to one's identity, is not restricted to those inheriting a convict or aboriginal background. If a better understanding of one's past can build a nation which is working towards happy acceptance and feel pride in its forebears, then it is safe to say that a similar understanding of our identity and place in our larger family, can help us as individuals, to accept past rivalry, to bring about a change of thinking and build bridges between families.

Recently, I had a relative whom I had never known or met, contact me. This person made it clear that her mother (still living) would not approve of her speaking to me. I knew that my family for reasons unknown to me, had for many years had nothing to do with this relative's side of the family. She was not sure why this was so either, however believed that it had something to do with our grandparents. Her grandmother was the sister of my grandfather. Both long gone of course. Two generations on and with no clue as to why we are forbidden to be in contact with each other, we have now enjoyed a number of long and very friendly telephone calls and have exchanged fascinating family photographs and information. We have filled in gaps in our knowledge of the family for each other. My cousin and I are getting to know each other and have been fortunate enough to be capable of letting go of the inherent idea that our families are rivals. We have determined that the family feud may have begun over a quarrel about a dinner set, or perhaps a bag of sovereigns after the death of our mutual great great grandmother (pictured right) After an old feud had separated our families for all of our lives, this cousin read my blog and contacted me. I am very glad that she did. Together we are setting about to mend the rift in the family which occurred more than 80 yeas ago. My cousin's mother still does not know that we are in contact but we are working on that!

My family history blogs have put me in contact with a number of previously estranged relatives. Many of the causes of conflict are unclear, however, in most of my family feuds, it appears that disputes arose over possessions after the death of a parent. There have been a few other more interesting feuds of course. One estranged branch of the family went into exile in America, after a sister became pregnant to her brother-in-law. Then the young mother of the child became estranged from both her parents and baby, after it was decided that the child would grow up believing his grandparents to be his parents. Husbands have left wives and children, then remarried, never to be heard of again (until I, the family historian came along and tracked them down). I have found half siblings who my mother never knew she had, believing herself all her life to be an only child and I am fortunate to have been welcomed when I have made contact.

Not all conflict within families will be resolved through a journey into family history, but I have found that by understanding who we are, where we come from and inevitably identifying with the many and diverse members of our large family tree is an excellent place to begin.

The Illustration which depicts Romeo and Juliet is an 1870 painting by Ford Maddox Brown.