The memoir writer has the unenviable task of breaking through the family myths to get to the heart of her story and the people who populate it. Too often we bow “to the legend,” as Virginia Woolf writes in her memoir Moments of Being; by doing so it increases “the load” for others.

What are the stories we tell each other and ourselves that add to the “myths” of our lives; then are handed down generation to generation?

Dad was a great hero

Mom was self-sacrificing

Dad abandoned the family

Mom drank too much because she was weak

These simplistic messages paint others as “winners” or “losers” without shades of gray and the choices involved.

In her own family, Woolf’s father had “no shame” for raging in front of his wife and daughters. His behavior was excused by Woolf’s mother as his “genius”; tacitly tolerated under the “myth” that he was a great thinker; not self-centered; behavior tolerated because he was a man.

Women in Victorian England were viewed partially as “slaves”, partially as “angels”, Woolf writes. Women saved men from emotional ruin; the women found solace in their writing circles, volunteer activities, church work, and raising children.

Leslie Stephen, Virginia’s father, couldn’t live without the support of women who allowed him to vent his frustration and indulge in histrionics. So, the myth, the denial, that it wasn’t his superiority as a man, but his “genius” formed Woolf’s lifelong resentment toward her father.

Understanding the myths, the legends and the truth of our stories is at the heart of the writer’s task and by doing so we lessen the load, not just on ourselves, but others.

In a recent Washington Post article, this headline about the famous Kitty Genovese murder screamed attention: Her shocking murder became the stuff of legend. But everyone got the story wrong.

In going back more than four decades since the brutal murder of Genovese in 1964, and relooking at the crime in a new documentary, it seems that many got the story wrong, including the venerable New York Times.

Apparently, the real story of what happened that night was hardly as sensational as the iconic news story which became the stuff of legend. Says her brother, Bill: “It’s like we unconsciously make up bulls—, then we believe, because we repeat it in our heads many times until it becomes part of our life story.”

For better and worse, such stories deeply shape the people who believe them. The New York Times article led to major research in psychology and sociology, but it also made a group of people living in Queens look like heartless accessories to murder. They, apparently, hadn’t stood by as silent bystanders and done nothing as Genovese was murdered, after all.

I once heard this in a writing workshop: A writer must have a high tolerance for ambiguity, but a need for certainty. In the Women’s Writing Circle, we discuss this idea that the memoir writer can never truly “prove” the motivations of someone else―yet she also has a great need for certainty, of connecting the dots. And while we all love conflict and drama in storytelling, it can’t be a substitute for truth.

Techniques to dispel myths:

  • Interviews of people they knew
  • Letters
  • Journals and diaries
  • Photographs
  • Understanding and researching the time in which they lived

Perhaps, seeking therapy so we understand ourselves and our perceptions.

Discovering the literary, thoughtful and reflective life.

My mother’s parents often told her she had “been a surprise baby―code for a mistake; her parents already had a son and a daughter. When her father received the news that his wife was again pregnant, it wasn’t greeted with rejoicing. So much for saving money; which is why he must never have encouraged nor offered to send my mother to college. “Women didn’t need a college education,” Mother told me he said.

About Susan G. Weidener

A former staff writer with The Philadelphia Inquirer,  Susan started the Women’s Writing Circle in 2009. The Women’s Writing Circle is a place to share stories through monthly read around and critique and a yearly writing workshop. The group’s aim is to break the isolation of writing and join in camaraderie and goodwill, finding in writing a way to heal, to empower and to find voice. All genres and experience levels are welcome.

Susan is author of Again in a Heartbeat, a memoir of love, loss and dating again, about being widowed at a young age and a Story Circle Network selection as one of the best memoirs of 2011. Two years later, she wrote and published its sequel, Morning at Wellington Square, a woman’s search for passion and renewal in middle age. Her novel, A Portrait of Love and Honor, completes the trilogy inspired by and dedicated to her late husband, John M. Cavalieri, on whose memoir the novel is based. 

Susan earned a BA in Literature from American University and a master’s in education from the University of Pennsylvania. She offers editing services for writers aspiring to publish their manuscripts. She teaches writing workshops and is available for talks and lectures on writing life stories. Susan lives in Chester Springs, PA.  

5 Responses

  1. Diane Pomerantz

    Thanks for an interesting piece. I’m not sure that I would agree that it is the job of the memoirist to “dispel” family myths. Explore myths, perhaps, but family myths are complicated constructs that combine personal memories filtered through a personal lens. The memoirist has her/his own personal lens and I’m not sure it is possible for the memoirist to dispel family myths for anyone other than herself … and yes, that I believe is a wonderful part of memoir writing – re-writing one’s life narrative.

  2. Susan G. Weidener

    Diane, Thank you for reading my post and commenting. I suggest several strategies/techniques to dispel family myths, concrete ways to break through “complicated constructs,” although I am not sure they are that complicated. As evidenced by Virginia Woolf in her own exploration of family myths, understanding the times and lives of those we write is the writer’s job. Right now I am reading Joan Didion’s memoir “Blue Nights” in which she writes with great insight about her own “myths” of what it meant to be a mother … yes, I feel, this is the job of the memoirist … to approach with dispassion and distance, almost like a journalist, and therein unearth the truth of our stories and those who most impacted us.

  3. Doreen McGettigan

    As a memoirist I’ve struggled with ‘dispelling myths.’ What I’ve done was to tell my stories the way I remembered them, what I believed to be the truth. Interviewing those that knew the family members involved was a great way for me to get other points of view and I believe adds depth to the story. Great suggestion.
    Thank you Susan

    • Susan G. Weidener

      Doreen. Thank you for taking a moment to comment and for your honesty concerning the challenge of dispelling family myths. Therein lies the genius of Virginia Woolf … she was a writer first and a daughter second.