The faces and names may be different, but the stories of those who came before us are as old as the sun. E.B.
Most of my readers are aware that I have recently completed a soon to be published family narrative history entitled: The True Story of the Clarks of Bay State Village. My research spanned more than a decade; writing the narrative took over a year. The project has been rift with delays from the start and publication of the book has been postponed until later this year. Despite ongoing issues that left me frustrated and discouraged, I was determined to complete the project.
My intention when I began this project was, as the title implies, to write a fair and honest account of the lives of three generations of the Clark family. However, as the project came to a close, my intentions and principles were put to the test by a dilemma that tugged at my emotions and kept me awake for several nights. The issue at hand was whether or not to include negative information in the narrative about a well-known and highly regarded uncle. A relative who had been close to him before his death in the early 1970s was not happy about the disclosure and the more I thought about it, I found myself questioning the wisdom of my decision.
My uncle was a good man. He was a prominent figure locally and is still remembered by many for his good works for the communities he served. However, no one is perfect and in the very distant past he was known to drink heavily. This indulgence nearly cost him his marriage and had he not curbed his alcohol habit, his contributions would have been few. However, he was a stubborn and strong personality. He won the battle with the “bottle” and moved on to a productive life.
I heard about his hard drinking days from my mother many years ago. However, when writing about his very large life, I had forgotten that once upon a time, for a short period, he was known within the family as a “drunk”. When compared to his many good works, his Achilles’heel was a small flaw in an otherwise stellar life. From my perspective, his alcoholism did not define him. It was a transient problem and I did not consider disclosing it in the book.
However, at the prodding of a relative, I contacted an extended family member to interview her about my uncle’s wife and their married life. Her most vivid memories of the family were connected to my uncle’s drinking days. She had personal knowledge of his affliction and how it affected those closest to him. Her stories were supported by information I received from other family members. I was stymied as to how I should proceed.
For me, the issue was not about preserving my long deceased uncle’s image as a public figure. It was about the living; the few surviving people, who loved him during his life and still held him in esteem because of his good qualities. Certainly, he had worked hard for his family and for his community. He had earned the respect he received both in public and in his private life. I asked myself if I was being unfair to him and his loved ones by making public this little known fact. Moreover, I was writing history and for better or for worse, what I wrote would be read by generations to come. Still, another part of my psyche shouted that this was a story of redemption; a story of a man who had fallen from grace and found his way back to a better life.
Apart from grappling with my principles, I also knew that if I did not include this negative piece of information, readers in the “know” would question why I did not write about “it.” Omitting the information would bring into question the veracity of other information I presented in the narrative.
I concluded that since alcohol abuse was prevalent in the Clark family and because I spoke of it freely when writing about other generations, to omit the information pertaining to my uncle’s drinking days was at best disingenuous, if not dishonest. Family members knew the truth. Furthermore, omitting that brief, dark period in his life would belie the title of the book and my objective in writing the narrative in the first place.
To write about it or not, I asked myself for the one hundredth time? I sat down at my computer and began to tell his story without judgment and without prejudice. My uncle’s transient issues with alcohol were covered in two short paragraphs.
When I completed the biography, I felt I had created a balanced accurate portrayal of my late uncle; the man he was and the man he later became.
I knew the depiction of my uncle as a young alcoholic was not going to get favorable reviews from a few family members. However, it was just one of many portrayals of my less than perfect and all too human ancestors. No doubt readers will not envision any of them floating above the ground with halos over their heads. What they will envision is individuals and families over a century ago dealing with the eternal issues that have plagued humankind since the beginning of time.
At the end of the day, alcoholism is written about and discussed freely in the media. It is not a new affliction and as I have thought to myself so many times when researching my ancestors and the ancestors of my clients: The faces and names may be different, but the stories of those who came before us are as old as the sun.