Genealogy and Family Constellations
Unfortunately, most families have members who are not thriving. Also, most families have seemingly irreconcilable tensions between some members. When we try to understand these issues we tend to assign blame. However, it may not be anyone’s fault. The roots of many family problems can be traced back to earlier generations. They may be caused by events such as migrations, early deaths or adoptions. These issues can be clarified by genealogical research and they can be addressed in family constellation workshops.
Family constellations and genealogy have a lot in common. They both look at family history and help make clear how the past events effect the present. They both help us to become aware of how we all belong to a much bigger family story, and they can both be antidotes to the sense of alienation and dislocation that haunts many of us in modern society.
Genealogy is the study of family history extending back over generations. Genealogy is a term deriving from the Greek words for “genos”, meaning family and “logos”, being knowledge or theory. Ironically, considering this age of therapy and individualism, we seem to feel as if we know little about ourselves. It is as if some time in the past something essential was lost. This is how many of us feel before we start searching. In genealogy, we may discover famous ancestors. More importantly, we can discover the heroic in the so-called ordinary lives of our ancestors. The personal is powerful. After discovering that his ancestors were agricultural labourers, a prominent Victorian judge went quiet for a moment before declaring: “Wouldn’t they be proud of me!”
We also discover the place of our family in relation to momentous historical events, such as the Second World War. We can see how our families are caught up in the eddies and currents of the broader historical tide. In this way, history becomes personal and therefore compelling. So, through genealogy, we find our family’s place in the world, as well as finding our own place in our own family.
Genealogy has become one of the world’s top 10 hobbies on a list topped by sex and music. Some say its present popularity was first triggered by the television mini-series of Alex Haley’s Roots, which interestingly is about African Americans tracing their ancestry back to the slaves and beyond to their tribal roots in Western Africa. It is especially popular in Australia and the USA, two nations founded on mass migration, and displacement of the local indigenous cultures.
Research in the US shows that interest in genealogy has historically spiked after large-scale social and political disruption, such as the Civil War and the Depression. Maybe we are now suspended in permanent rupture.
Historians and sociologists often assert we now live in a period of postmodern malaise, characterized by a pervasive sense of alienation, loss, loneliness and guilt. Lives are complex and families are fragmented. We no longer grow up in the same village as our forebears or with the aunts and grandmothers who are custodians of family memory. Most of us no longer meet our extended family and friends every Sunday at the local church, or even at the local pub. We marry outside religious and ethnic groupings. We no longer have well-defined morals that we all agree to live by, as our society becomes more and more pluralistic, with different cultures religions and belief systems living side by side.
The same sense of dislocation is extending into the workplace as well. Both private companies and government departments now go through endless cycles of restructuring, with the inevitable carnage of enforced redundancies. Professionals are now expected to change their career three times or more during their working life. Loyalty between companies and employees is becoming an increasingly rare commodity in both directions. Modern computer technology seems to have exacerbated the problem. Office workers send each other emails and text messages rather than talk to each other. As we connect more and more quickly and broadly, through the power of technology, via the internet and ever improving telecommunications, we continue to lose the personal touch. And so it is that our deeper connections with each other are becoming increasingly tenuous.
Much of people’s interest in genealogy is propelled by a desire to reconnect; to find their place in the family, in culture and in history itself. So many of us research our families.
We may experience a whole host of feelings related to our ancestral lineage that motivate us to research our family tree. These can include feelings of loss and guilt or pride and achievement. It is not always clear to us where these feelings come from. It is not just the increasing alienation described above. Those of us who understand how family systems operate at a deeper level, as displayed in constellations, know that we can sometimes carry feelings that really belong to someone in an earlier generation. If that sounds bizarre, just ask yourself how many of your parents’ and grandparents’ loyalties you or your siblings still carry, (Having the same religion, political allegiances or football team for example) and you will see that it really is not such a strange idea after all.
So like the many millions of other people around the globe, we may decide to look to the past for clues. This restless hunger for origins is no passing fad. Type “genealogy” into the Google search engine and you get nearly 10 million hits.
Of course, there is a lot of excitement in being the family sleuth who chases up obscure birth and death records. Even more rewarding is the personal contact. It is surprising how touched we can feel. I was so moved when I received a letter with a simple photo from a woman who lives in the small Irish village from which my paternal grandfather emigrated 100 years ago. The family home my grandfather had grown up in, had been bought by this woman’s mother. She had converted it into a progressive coeducational school. She liked the house partly because of the Christian statues of the Sacred Heart and Saint Theresa of the Holy Flower. The photo she sent me was of these statues that linked the fates of this woman on the other side of the globe and myself here in Australia.
Because of my family research, I had more reason to talk to older members of my family. As I discovered their stories, I often found myself fascinated and surprised. I remember how I was shocked to discover that my aunt was banned by the government from marrying for one year after completing her teacher training. They did not want to lose their investment in her education by her falling pregnant straight away. Just knowing more about her life story helped me feel closer to her.
I also discovered moving and amusing anecdotes in the family history. My maternal grandfather and his older brother moved from the busy urban center of Melbourne to an isolated country town on the Murray River called Merbein (near Mildura). The area had been opened up for irrigation. So there was an opportunity to realize the Irish peasant’s dream of owning your own land and giving their children a better future. But it wasn’t easy! These two men had to clear the land of rocks by hand and build a house in the blazing hot sun of that semi-arid area. Nonetheless, they succeeded and invited the rest of their family to join them. When their sister got off the train at Mildura and saw the local sites, she famously burst into tears and wanted to catch the first train back to Melbourne! However, they all stayed and made a successful farm. Now some of his grandsons run a winery in nearby Trentham Cliffs.
Still, all wasn’t smooth sailing. My grandparents’ second daughter died soon after childbirth on the lounge room table. It is hard to imagine how that catastrophe affected the family environment into which my mother was the next child born. I can only imagine that the grief would have made my grandparents less emotionally available for their children, among other consequences. Still knowing these things about my family helps me put the trials and tribulations of my own life into a broader perspective. It helps me to be more respectful and understanding of all the people involved. I can see their world was just as complicated and fragmented as my own, the challenges just as great.
So family research can also bring into deeper contact with more members of our family as well as our own historical roots. Often our family’s past history can resonate with our present experience in surprising ways:
In 2002, the National Heritage Foundation took five at-risk teenagers into Victoria ’s high country to learn about their ancestry, as part of a project involving a Utah university. One boy, who excelled at one-liners, learned that his ancestor had devised the enduring phrase for Cadburys: “A glass-and-a-half of full-cream dairy milk.” Another learnt of Parliamentarians in his family tree. Another, who assumed he would end up in jail like the rest of his clan, learnt of a religious minister in his lineage. All three now appear more ready to clean up their lives and mend bridges with family – a change they partly ascribe to the knowledge gained.
A client of mine, whom we shall call Paul, suffered from terrible anxiety when standing in queues. Standard treatments and therapies had not been very helpful. When we explored his family history further, it turned out that Paul’s grandfather had survived a Nazi concentration camp in the Second World War. He had been standing in a queue ready to be gassed to death. When it was his turn to enter the chamber, the grandfather quickly stepped behind two men in the queue, out of fear. These two men entered the chamber and were gassed to death. Meanwhile, a guard noticed Paul’s grandfather and pulled him out of the queue, saying that they needed him alive as he was a good carpenter and was useful in the camp.
As a result of doing his family constellation in a group setting, Paul was able to acknowledge and thank these two men who died in the place of his grandfather, my client’s own anxiety standing in queues decreased dramatically.
In family constellation work there are some basic principles which help love to flow and everyone to thrive better in families:
Everyone who belongs in the family system needs to be given a respectful place where they are fully acknowledged. This includes:
- The children, including stillborn children and those who have died early,
- The parents and their siblings, including stillborn children and those who have died early
- The grandparents,
- Sometimes one of the great-grandparents and, at times, even earlier ancestors
- Everybody – and this is most important – who made room to the advantage of the above members. This includes, in particular, former partners of parents or grandparents, as well as all those whose misfortune or death brought the family an advantage or gain. e.g. The two men who died instead of Paul’s grandfather
Victims of violence and murder by any members of the family or perpetrators of violence and murder on any members of the family
People who die young are often largely forgotten. This includes siblings aunts or uncles who die as children. It also includes parents or grandparents who die during their own children’s childhood. People can also be excluded because of a sense of shame or overwhelming grief. This can include previous partners as well as family members who suffered insanity, were criminals or whose sexuality was unacceptable at the time. So the basic facts of family history can tell us who the forgotten or excluded people are. Then we can fully acknowledge them in various ways such as: the ritual of constellations, by telling their story, by displaying their photos and by visiting their graves.
- Everyone in the family must carry their own fate, their own guilt, shame, pain grief and suffering and their own pride, glory and achievements.
Children will often carry unpleasant feelings for older family members, out of love. This is what happened to my client Paul who is mentioned above.
- Finally, parents give and children take
In most other relationships there needs to be a balance of give and take for that relationship to work well. However, life comes to children through their parents. Children can never repay that except by living their life as well as they can, which may include having their own children.
When parents are abusive, or in some way weak or inadequate, it becomes impossible for children to receive fully from their parents. These situations may result from a parental illness. Or the parent’s weakness may be a result of their own parents not being fully available to them through early death or illness. In this way, the same problem can be passed down through generations.
In the case of weak parents, the children may try to ease the load on their parents by being undemanding and taking on the parent’s load. They may do this by prematurely taking on adult responsibilities, or they may simply carry difficult feelings such as grief on behalf of their parents. Family therapists call this “parentification of the child”. In this case, the child is giving and the parent taking.
This can be helpful in the short term, but in the long term, it harms everybody involved. So the child needs to respectfully hand back that which belongs to the parent, including their own weakness. This frees the child to fully receive their life and to thrive. This process, of course, often can’t be done in real life. However, if we have the basic family information it can be done at a deep psychological level in family constellations.