Most of us know that learning about our ancestors’ lives can help us understand ourselves, even if we were adopted.[i] But did you know understanding your ancestors can directly impact you, your family, and future generations?
By sharing what you know as a family historian you can have a critical role:
- Family history can be a powerful antidote against adverse life experiences. They show us we too can overcome disaster and survive tough times.
- Children who have the most self-confidence have a strong ‘intergenerational self.’ They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.[ii]
- Knowing our family history builds resilience.
- Sharing stories has a powerful impact on all family members, especially on adolescent identity and well-being[iii].
- Family historians can bring a message of hope to living relatives. They can explain how psychological and physiological inheritance (and epigenetic changes) can be positively altered, no matter how dark the experience.
My grandfather, Walter Parker, was born in 1885 in the English village of Upwell, on the Norfolk/Cambridge border. As an 11-year-old I was delighted when he came to live with us in 1974. At last, I reasoned, I would hear the longed-for stories of his Victorian childhood and his adventures as a bachelor homesteader on the Canadian Prairie. Yet no matter how hard I searched for a key to unlock his silence, that door remained firmly closed. I desperately wanted to attach, to feel close to him, but I was defeated by his emotional distance. My mum gently explained granddad was a fossil, that his decades on an isolated homestead had interrupted his growth. This explanation did not satisfy me.
A year later, Granddad died. I was angry with him. He’d told me he would live to 100. Life moved on.
My questions lived beneath the day-to-day until, in therapy, in the 1990s, I came to see I had absorbed my mum’s pain in trying to connect with her father; that I had been driven by her unmet need. Later, when I heard a new-found first cousin, Mary, talk about her Uncle Walter, my yearning for a deeper understanding of my granddad resurfaced.
I needed to discover how Walter’s youth had shaped him. What affected him most: Victorian values, village life, an alcoholic mother, co-dependency – or his psychological inheritance?
My passions for family history and psychology, particularly mental health, came together. I considered all I had discovered about Walter and his family and a psychological inheritance unravelled, revealing intergenerational anxiety, trauma, loss, alcoholism and depression familiar to so many families. Researching and writing about my grandfather connected me to the pain I’d felt at his rejection – but now I could let it go.
Why do you need to understand your ancestors’ psychological inheritance and appreciate epigenetics?
Even before our birth we are influenced by the mental, emotional and behavioural patterns of our parents, the family around us and those who came before – even if our parents are not the ones who raised us. This phenomenon is known as psychological inheritance.
As family historians we cannot know our ancestors’ psychological inheritance; but using current theories, we can examine the records available to us and speculate in an informed way. We can honour those who came before and acknowledge what they endured so we could live.
Understanding this kind of inheritance can also give us the language to consider our own thoughts, beliefs and behaviour. It can immeasurably add to how we see ourselves.
The good news for my grandfather Walter and his siblings is good news for all of us: our psychological inheritance need not define how we live out our lives. We can become more aware, live positively, thrive and pass on a different legacy to our children and grandchildren.
My blog and upcoming book explore psychological inheritance in depth, giving context to what we pass down the generations. This not only helps us connect with and understand those who came before, but it can benefit us, our family and the generations to come. Click here to register an interest.
A Victorian’s Inheritance by Helen Parker-Drabble is an accessible exploration of the life, times and psychological inheritance of Walter Parker, a Victorian working-class youth growing up at the Tank Yard in the English village of Thorney, on the 11th Duke of Bedford’s forgotten estate.
This is not the story of just one family, but of an era. The information and theories introduced in this book can help connect us to our ancestors and inspire us to be more mindful of the psychological legacy we leave behind.
If you would like to know when this book is published, please click here to register your interest. If you leave your name and email address, I will be delighted to send you a link to the book’s introduction. When the book is ready for publication, I will let you know. (Don’t worry: You won’t get a lot of spammy emails asking you to buy something.)
An intelligent, sensitive and an engrossing, enjoyable read. The mix of family ancestry, historical research and psychology gives it depth and interest. I loved the insights into village life. Some of your research was just astonishing – Kevin A. Worrall
Helen Parker-Drabble is a life-long explorer of social history and weaver of factual family tales, with a Diploma in counselling. Fascinated by psychological theory and the stories we develop to make sense of ourselves and our family, Helen’s original quest was to understand her Victorian grandfather, Walter Parker, born in 1885 in Upwell on the Norfolk/Cambridgeshire border.
Family history doesn’t survive unless it’s in print, which is why Helen set out to write an engaging and accessible biography that would not only explore working-class Victorian life in an English village but could motivate and encourage other family historians struggling to pass on what they have painstakingly discovered. The result, in part, is an exploration of transgenerational legacy of loss, trauma, anxiety and depression. Helen is now not simply a genealogist, but a geneatherapist, investigating the roots of inherited traits, bringing them into the light and seeking to heal (and help others learn to heal) future generations.
Brooks, R. (2013). The Stories Of Our Families: How Much Do We Truly Know? [online] Dr Robert Brooks – Clinical Psychologist. Available at: http://www.drrobertbrooks.com/the-stories-of-our-families-how-much-do-we-truly-know/ [Accessed 15 Jul. 2019].
Ehrman, E. (2014). The Intergenerational Self | Torah With A Smile. [online] Torah With A Smile. Available at: https://www.mevakeshlev.com/2014/03/19/the-intergenerational-self/ [Accessed 1 Aug. 2019].
Feiler, B. (2013). The Stories That Bind Us. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html [Accessed 1 Aug. 2019].
Henriques, M. (2019). Can the legacy of trauma be passed down the generations? [online] Bbc.com. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190326-what-is-epigenetics [Accessed 1 Aug. 2019].
Yehuda R, Daskalakis NP, Lehrner A, Desarnaud F, Bader HN, Makotkine J, Flory JD, Bierer LM, Meaney MJ. (2014) Influences of maternal and paternal PTSD on epigenetic regulation of the glucocorticoid receptor gene in Holocaust survivor offspring. American Journal of Psychiatry.
[i] Walters, P. (2019). Family Tree Live Interviews: Dr Penny Walters ‘Ethical dilemmas in our quest to research individual people’s lives’. [online] YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-DtsW5jeSo8&feature=youtu.be [Accessed 16 Aug. 2019].
[ii] Hardy, R. (2017). Why children need to know their family history. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jan/14/children-family-histories-tales [Accessed 1 Aug. 2019].
[iii] Duke, M.P., Lazarus, A., & Fivush, R. (2008). Knowledge of family history as a clinically useful index of psychological well-being and prognosis: A brief report. Psychotherapy Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 45, 268-272.