Monday, September 16, 2013

Should a Child be His Parent's Biographer?

A few years ago after my dad passed away, I wrote a series of blog posts about him. The posts were not really planned. I just dashed off what came into my head at the time. At the request of family members, I put the posts together in a PDF document and shared it with family members.

I never felt that the document was well received. My mom said that I had some facts wrong. A number of times I pressed her for help in remedying any factual errors, but she would always change the subject. Eventually I came to sense that Mom didn't really have issues with my facts; just with my tone, tempo, and treatment.

This is to be expected. After all, even the best biography is strongly colored by the biographer's personal view. And that view is bound to differ in significant ways from the views of others that knew the subject well.

Other family members provided little feedback on my document. Most of them probably never bothered to read it. I'm not sure I can blame them. One of my cousins spent years putting together a book about my grandparents. My several attempts to read it have always ended in an evaporation of interest.

Still, I have long thought about writing a more detailed biography of my father. He was a unique man with an interesting life story. Earlier this year I told of several events from Dad's life at a family gathering. Some family members encouraged me to write them down. Most of these episodes are recorded in my personal journal, but I have (understandably, I hope) not made that publicly available.

Dad refused to record a personal history during his life. He claimed that all such works he had seen were entirely too self serving and unbalanced. I'm not sure whether he lacked confidence in his ability to overcome this common error. But he certainly saw no value in writing a history.

My father told me more than once that most people's histories should be embodied in what is personally experienced by those with whom they have contact. The personal history thus becomes a diffused thing that necessarily dies out with the passing of those individual memories. Dad noted that most of our ancestors had, like most people that have lived on this earth, passed into anonymity. He saw no reason that he should be so arrogant as to think that his story somehow merited more attention than theirs. "No one will care about it after two generations anyway," he said.

Still, I felt compelled to write Dad's biography. I undertook the task a few months ago. I finished the 60+ page text over the weekend. I asked my wife, who is an avid reader, to proofread the document. "A fool" I told her, "is his own proofreader." She helped me ferret out some errors and fix formatting. But she didn't provide a lot of feedback on the content.

Is it balanced? Did I forget anything important? Does it have offensive passages? "It's fine," my wife assured me. Perhaps the best feedback I got was when I walked into the office while she was reading and saw her wiping tears from her eyes. At least some sections of the work are poignant enough to elicit such a response.

I have included a few photos. But I want to add more photos before I complete the work and send it out to family members. Most of the pictures are in Mom's possession. It will take some time to go through volumes of photos and determine which ones to scan and include.

Although I am happy to have completed the initial draft of the text, I must admit that I am somewhat reticent to share it with family members. As noted above, each family member has his own view that necessarily differs from mine. The work also contains personal information about people that are still living. Some of this could be rather sensitive, such as how Dad dealt with my brother's failing marriage. Will some want me to redact such information? Would Dad's story be sufficiently complete without it?

In response to these concerns, my wife suggests that each family member is free to write his own biography or to record his own memories of Dad. True. But I don't wish to unnecessarily cause familial disharmony. In fact, my goal is to help others remember and appreciate Dad.

Some have claimed that children tend to make very poor biographers for their parents because of the complex relationship that tends to exist between parent and child. This may be true and I may be unable to escape this curse. But frankly, I am likely the only one that would ever undertake writing Dad's biography. It's either this or nothing. And in my opinion, the biography I have written is better than nothing.

4 comments:

trgrant said...

I haven't written anyone's biography (even my own). But I have attended a few seminars on the subject. And the consistent theme has always been: "You write the story as you remember it." There will always be naysayers, but if they are your facts, then they are yours to share.

Perhaps include a preface where in you express that you have written this biography to the best your your ability and that you recognize some of your bias is bound to be included. But I say you should feel good about the job you have done, because a few generations from now, your book will become someone's treasure. Just as the few that I have found on my family have become treasures to me.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Thanks for the input. I have included a foreword in my work that explains my thoughts and assumptions about the work. So readers should be aware.

I am also thinking about publishing some (maybe all) of the work on Family Tree. It then becomes widely available and is more likely to be maintained over time. The only question is whether I need to tweak some of the personal information.

trgrant said...

Just be careful about what you post regarding living people. You may just want to wait a few years before you post it.

Michaela Stephens said...

As one who has spent a portion of last week posting family narratives on Family Tree, my personal opinion is several-fold:
1) It is a good thing that you have worked to write up this biography of your father.
2) It is definitely true that one biography is better than nothing.
3) If there are incidents that contain family contentions, you can at least represent them in a way that will make peace for future generations, not necessarily by taking sides, but by allowing others to understand both sides better.

The nice thing about Family Tree is that it allows you to post stories and then share them through social media. I created Facebook groups for the purpose of sharing family stories I’d posted, and added members from appropriate sides of the family to each one. Comments can be added at the bottom of posted stories.

If you feel uncomfortable about posting to Family Tree, at least print the biography out and stick it with your family history documents so that it can be found and posted someday when emotions are less raw.