Rebuilding Personal Histories: The Art of the Journey

Personal histories are hugely popular. To quote from the Association of Personal Historians: “It could be a memoir, a family biography, an oral history, a legacy letter, or another tribute – and it could take the form of a printed work, a video, an audio recording, or other formats. Whatever form of remembrance you choose, a personal history can have a profound impact on your life and the lives of your loved ones.”

It’s all about telling your stories, weaving together your memories. It’s booming with the baby boomers.

And stories are really important, whether or not we are baby boomers. The stories need to be known, shared, and preserved. Stories matter.

As Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Unless, perhaps, it’s not ever having the opportunity, the choice, or the right to know, and then tell, your own story.

Some 5 million Americans are adopted. So that means there are about 10 million birth/first parents out there as well, plus grandparents, siblings who weren’t placed for adoption, and so on. They may not have the basic ingredients for a personal history that the rest of us take for granted. Some of this involves genealogy, as well as genetic genealogy. There are lots of possibilities to locate information, to preserve histories, and to share stories.

I had the pleasure of presenting a workshop at the annual conference of the Association of Personal Historians. (It was a great conference, and an incredibly nice group of people, by the way.) I’ve interspersed a few of my slides here to give a flavor of the workshop.

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Adoption and estrangement are not the same thing, of course, but there is overlap: separation from family, disruption of the original family, a disconnect, a loss. This is true for adoptees and for first/birth parents, mothers of loss, siblings who weren’t adopted, and anyone else whose family connections were severed, for whatever combination of reasons.

There is a spectrum of responses to these separations and disconnections. Some people are idly curious about the missing parts of their pasts. Some are consumed to the core. Some had very happy childhoods, Some were severely traumatized. For those seeking to learn and tell their stories, that spectrum can affect the way they approach their search for information and the way they process it.

In my workshop, I talked about a variety of ways that information can be found these days, even with the absurd restrictions on access to original birth certificates. I talked about the Internet, of course, and the remarkable story of Saroo Brierley and his journey from India to Australia and back, via Google Earth. Saroo’s story is not typical, but it does give hope. There are many ways to gather information, and many ways to tell our stories.

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I shared information about DNA testing, how that’s enriching our understanding of (and access to) all sorts of information: medical conditions, race/ethnicity, and connections to cousins, maybe even closer relatives. I mentioned search angels, sibling registries, online adoptee/first parent groups, vk.com (the Eastern European Facebook), and more.

We talked in my workshop about ways to normalize the past, to deal with complicated realities, and celebrate complex histories.

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As an artist, I also mentioned some less traditional ways of telling one’s stories: through SoulCollage, through The Sketchbook Project, through the book Personal Geographies: Explorations in Mixed-Media Mapmaking, and other means of re-creating one’s past and re-mapping one’s journeys.

Adopted persons and birth/first parents should be able to know their own histories and tell their own stories, without shame, fear, or agitation. The stories can be very complicated. Some are sad and painful. They are our stories nonetheless, and it is possible to acknowledge their pain and not be drowned by it. We can learn from them, and share that wisdom with others. We should absolutely tell the happy, funny, and joyful stories as well, and share them with our loved ones.

Among the participants in my workshop were two US adoptees (one a genome expert), an adoptive mother of a girl from China, and a woman whose 80-year-old mother was adopted and wanted to get information about her origins before she died. Each of these folks had a different perspective on the search and the stories, the pressure of time, the ways to share and tell information. Each has possibilities.

Starting in January, I will take a year-long, online, mixed media course called Life Book 2014. I can’t wait: the focus of the course will be self-development and healing, and each month a new artist will share techniques and ideas. I wrote about it in this post: Adoption Stories in the Light of Day, Through Art and Hopes of Healing. I’m hoping to build on my work with personal histories and with art, to bring more stories into the light of day, where they deserve to be.

I plan to do an online presentation of my workshop, “Adopted and Estranged Families: Rebuilding A Personal History.” I am in the process of developing resources around personal histories for adoptees and first/birth parents. I’ll post details soon on my Upcoming and Ongoing page.

One thought on “Rebuilding Personal Histories: The Art of the Journey

  1. The families don’t even need to be estranged — my father and his sisters all passed away quite young and my cousins and I are left without anyone to tell us the family stories. Sometimes I wonder something and I think, “Oh, Aunt C will know,” and then I remember she’s gone. It’s like there’s a big hole there. It’s a profound loss that we struggle with — our generation is now the keeper of the stories, but what are they?

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