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Music, mourning, and family narrative

Posted by Claudia M Gold  April 22, 2013 06:56 PM

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(I wrote this post before we learned of the complex family and historical background of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers. I was again going to postpone publishing it. But I wonder if these ideas of mourning and family narrative have something to add as we struggle to make sense of the events of the past week. There seems to have been a tragic and deadly coming together of what French psychoanalysts Francoise Davoine and Jean-Max Gaudelliere, in their book History Beyond Trauma, refer to as "big history" reverberating in individual family history. It is hard to say any more when at this time we really know so little. Rather than making any further explicit connection, I will simply share my post below. It offers what I think can be a message of hope.)

I have been meaning for some time to write a blog post about Dar Williams'  beautiful and profound song "After All." A chance meeting with Marshal Duke, the lead researcher referenced in a recent New York Times article, The Family Stories that Bind Us, provided the inspiration.

Duke's research along with that of Robyn Fivush, has shown a clear correlation between a child's knowledge of family narrative and such qualities as resilience and positive self esteem. In a 2008 paper they describe the "intergenerational self." They write:
It is this intergenerational self and the strength and guidance that seem to derive from it that are associated with increased resilience, better adjustment, and improved chances of good clinical outcomes.
William's song, both the lyrics and the music, provides solid evidence for this theory. In it she describes her struggles with pain and sadness, and her journey to find a way to embrace life.  The lyrics speak to the importance of family narrative. 

And if I was to sleep
I knew my family had more truth to tell
And so I traveled down a whispering well
To know myself through them

The historical nature of this narrative is clear in these lyrics.

Sometimes the truth is like a second chance
I am the daughter of a great romance
And they are the children of the war

For the full impact of the song, I hope that readers will listen to it. For in my view, it is not simply the telling of the story that is important. In order for parents to pass the family narrative on to their children in a way that is meaningful and useful, the feelings associated with the story, which often includes trauma, loss, and grief, must also have found a way to be expressed. This is easier said than done. It involves having a safe, containing, holding environment in which the stories can be understood.  A secure, trusting relationship with someone who can hear the story is important.  Art, including music and literature, can have a role to play as well. Those feelings are certainly present in Williams' music. In her introduction to this live version, she expresses surprise to have discovered a large community of people who could relate to her experience.

Go ahead push your luck
Find out how much love the world can hold
Once upon a time I had control and reined my soul in tight
Well the whole truth
Is like the story of a wave unfurled
But I held the evil of the world
So I stopped the tide
Froze it up from inside
And it felt like

A winter machine that you go through and then
You catch your breath and winter starts again
And everyone else is spring bound
But when I chose to live

There was no joy it's just a line I crossed
It wasn't worth the pain my death would cost
So I was not lost or found
And if I was to sleep

I knew my family had more truth to tell
And so I traveled down a whispering well
To know myself through them
Growing up my mom had a room full of books
And hid away in there

Her father raging down a spiral stair
Till he found someone most days his son
And sometimes I think my father, too, is a refugee
I know they tried to keep their pain from me
They could not see what it was for
But now I'm sleeping fine

Sometimes the truth is like a second chance
I am the daughter of a great romance
And they are the children of the war
Well the sun rose

With so many colors it nearly broke my heart
It worked me over like a work of art
And I was a part of all that
So go ahead push your luck

Say what it is you gotta say to me
We will push on into that mystery
And it will push right back
And there are worse things than that
'cause for every price and every penance that I could think of

It's better to have fallen in love
Than never to have fallen at all
'cause when you live in a world
Well it gets in to who you thought you'd be
And now I laugh at how the world changed me
I think life chose me
After all


Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Claudia M. Gold, M.D. is a pediatrician and author of Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child's More »

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