In the years since I entered my undergraduate studies in human services, through graduate school and into the present day, family stuff (italics added here for emphasis) has always been a fascinating thing to examine. Encountering counseling theories was like a treasure trove- “that’s so why she does that when my mother’s around!” and we won’t even talk about the riches the DSM revealed.
Having been in the profession now for some time, I’ve accepted this as fact and have moved away from the tendency I had during undergrad to whip out an “a-ha!” when a family member acted in a manner that I now had a theory to explain. As we become seasoned, we come to accept, perhaps grudgingly and quite necessarily through our own counseling, the good, the bad, and the ugly in our family histories. What was once a traumatic embroilment, later a fascinating discovery of human nature and my own existence, now tends to elicit not much more than a sigh and a shaking of the head. That’s true most of the time, anyway.
The most compelling parts of family history, though, are the older stories that pre-date me- the ones about grandparents, great uncles and aunts, and their forbearers. These are the stories of old- the legends upon which family history is built and that I’ve grown up hearing, but that I often don’t question until they pop into a present-day conversation. I grew up hearing about a great uncle who was “always such a liar,” and who told a story about seeing a snake take its fangs out before it took a drink out the river. Hearing this story again recently, I jumped to, “Did he have psychosis and believe this? Was he just lonely and trying to get approval by saying outrageous things that he thought would make him seem worldly? Did the originator of this story just not like him and therefore refused to appreciate his humor?” One of my grandmother’s older sisters was “so mean…and we never knew why.” I’ve found myself asking, whenever we talk about her, “Was she hurting and had no way to express this? Did she maybe not enjoy having nine children and a husband, and living on a farm and had resentment? Was she traumatized…?”
I may never arrive at contemporary understandings of stories about people who existed in a different time and set of circumstances, and around whom the stories that were told reflected an old-world pragmatism that is not my own; yet, the older I get, the more important these stories become to me. Equally important are the folks in my family who are still around to tell these stories .
Stacee Reicherzer is a counselor, a faculty member at Walden University, and a private consultant with special interests that include: transgender issues in counseling, lateral (within-group) marginalization, and sexual abuse survival.