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About the Film

Alcoholism

Memory

Death and Dying

Family History

Dialogue

Conclusion


Copyright © 2000 Trish Williams

Cultural Memories of the Family — Past and Present

In the elective course entitled Cultural Memories: Past and Present, we examined cultural memories of the family. We questioned how memories are formed and maintained and focused on how memory can even be about forgetting. Social death would be an example of such a memory. Clearly there is a struggle between forgetting and remembering within my family. This is what I meant about the memory crisis I experienced. My grandfather’s death from suicide was not discussed. Along with the conscious forgetting, his whole life became non-existent. Much of my film was about remembering. After making it and examining cultural memories of the family, I began to look at my film as a type of memorial to my father.

Halbwachs in his book On Collective Memory discusses how memories of the family function.

“In addition to regulations that are common to a whole society, there exist customs and modes of thinking with each particular family that equally impose—and even more forcibly—their form on the opinions and feelings of their members... Similarly, in the most traditional societies of today, each family has its proper mentality, its memories which it alone commemorates, and its secrets that are revealed only to its members. But these memories, as in the religious traditions of the family of antiquity, consist not only of a series of individual images of the past. They are at the same time models, examples, and elements of teaching. They express the general attitude of the group; they not only reproduce its history but also define its nature and its qualities and weaknesses.” (Halbwachs 58-59)


What I discovered as I began to look at both sides of my family was a pattern of silence regarding issues there were socially painful for the family.
This family amnesia or denial is part of the unhealthy coping pattern of dysfunctional families. Bradshaw states that in dysfunctional families there are rules centered around secrecy and denial—don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel. (Bradshaw part 2). These traits are common in families of alcoholics. Not talking maintains the secrets. You learn not to trust because you sense something is abnormal, but your family pretends that everything is normal. You learn to not trust what you see. You also learn not to trust from being surrounded by unreliable individuals. You learn to repress you feelings since they are discouraged or discounted. Feelings also may not be safe to encounter because they are painful and overwhelming. If feelings are not validated you cannot connect with them. (Bradshaw part 3) And it is hard to get validation if you live under a “no talk” rule.

The subtitle to Bradshaws book and videotape series Family Secrets: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You is explained by the nature of unhealthy secrets that tend to exist in dysfunctional families. Secrecy has to do with conscious and unconscious concealment and can function as a boundary protection and/or as personal power. (Bradshaw part 1) Secrecy is not always bad, but can be when it evolves from a family that does not have healthy shame. You develop toxic shame which is unhealthy and leads to harboring of unhealthy family secrets. (Bradshaw part 1). This is why family secrets can be damaging.

Bradshaw also discusses how we are born into a family system where problems and secrets already exist. We may not realize this for a while. It is important to ask questions and think about things He goes on to state “We need to get conscious. We need to break out of the denial and delusion.” (Bradshaw part 4) He also emphasizes the importance of bringing secrets out into the open and expressing your feelings. By maintaining the “no talk” rule, you become part of the disease. (Bradshaw part 5) Both of my parents families maintained secrets. My mother began to break this cycle when she confronted my father’s alcoholism and her co-dependence. I am furthering the break with this project.

Halbwachs in his book on Collective Memory states that family have bonds of experience that they share. The different memories shared by the family members interviewed in my film show how people who shared the same memories and experiences while growing up together, turn out with different memories and are effected differently be their experiences.

Since the making of my film, I have continued to examine and further understand my family and the institution of the family as prescribed by our society. Halbwachs’ looks at the family as an institution for cultural memory. He states:

“Similarly, in the most traditional societies of today, each family has its proper mentality, its memories which it alone commemorates, and its secrets that are revealed only to its members. But these memories, as in the religious traditions of the family of antiquity, consist not only of a series of individual images of the past. They are at the same time models, examples, and elements of teaching. They express the general attitude of the group; they not only reproduce its history but also define its nature and its qualities and weaknesses.... In any case, the various elements of this type that are retained from the past provide a framework for family memory, which it tries to preserve intact, and which, so to speak, is the traditional armor of the family. ” (Halbwachs 59)

When I think of my family in these terms, particularly as it relates to my film, I think of a family that kept many secrets regarding its past history. What I discovered as I began to look at both sides of my family was a pattern of silence regarding issues there were socially painful for the family. Issues that had social taboos such as alcoholism, suicide, divorce and birth secrets. This model was handed down to my generation. This attitude is no longer acceptable to me, so I am trying to understand it and to change it.

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