Family Stories

In defense of tall tales.

Image: brianna.lehman via Flickr

The end of the year is a time for family, and, therefore, a time for family stories. You know the type—the stories trotted out every year by the same relatives; the stories with punchlines as rote as the dishes served at the family dinner table. Remember your uncle, who owned the candy store, or your Aunt’s trip to Switzerland, or the cousin who almost went pro? These are the stories told and retold, the stories families slip into and envelop themselves in. They are also, often, fake—or at least loose with the truth.

This process happens naturally, stretched over time and obscured by generational shifts. Something happens to someone, something worthy of telling others, which officially makes it a story. The story of that something spreads, first laterally among contemporaries, then longitudinally, from old to young. The process repeats until the principals are dead and only the story, and the next generation, remain.

That the facts of the matter get displaced in this process is understandable, and reflective of our faculties. We are all aware, thanks to true-crime podcasts, of human-memory’s unfortunate fallibility. And we have all been guilty, regarding both our own stories and those we hear secondhand, of embellishment for narrative affect. The passage of time makes a story’s truth harder to confirm, but so does the nature of stories themselves. Who would want to ruin a good redemptive arch, or forgo a metaphorically rich detail, due to the pesky interference of reality?

The stories families share are particularly vulnerable to this warping. A family is, after all, a simple, linear narrative: so and so begat so and so, who begat so and so, who then begat you. But this isn’t much, just shared lineage and physical characteristics. A family, like a nation or a tribe, needs more to go on, and this is why families tell stories in the first place. These stories are prescriptive, implying a trajectory, giving each new generation a bearing to aspire to, a profession to pursue, a skill to inherit and take as their own. Your grandfather was a physician, and it would be narratively satisfying if you were one, too. Your mother sacrificed her life to bring you to America, and her story demands that you honor her legacy.

Again, it’s to be expected that some fakery would arise, considering the stakes. If a family story is intended to bestow a moral and set you on the proper path, it would be helpful to strip that story of any unsavory facts. And if a particular moral is already enshrined in a family’s conception of itself, the stories will bend—imperceptibly, unintentionally—in the direction of that moral. Throw in the ravages of time and the failures of memory, stir with the glow of familial love (or the fire of familial resentment) and you have a recipe for untruth.

So, when uncle Larry clears cup four on the eggnog and starts ripping into his classic tale of Grandpa Joe’s time in Korea, stop and interrogate it. Identify the parts that seem too good to be true and the details too rich to have been directly handed down. But don’t ignore the story or scoff at its origin. Try to narrow in on the normative message the story imparts upon you. Because it’s telling you not just who you are, but how you’re supposed to be.

My paternal grandfather was a police officer in New York after WWII, reaching the rank of Lieutenant in a precinct in upper-Manhattan. One day, he was called to the pedestrian walkway of the George Washington Bridge, where a man was threatening to jump. Some words were exchanged, my grandfather closed in, and the man jumped—though not before my grandfather was able to grab his hand. This contact was fleeting and not enough to save the man. A photograph of this moment—two hands clasping one another over the railing of the GWB—supposedly ran in one of the city’s tabloids.

How much of this is true? I’d guess about a third, depending on how you measure such things. A cop patrolling Washington Heights being sent to the bridge to deal with a jumper is plausible. A cinematic attempt at saving a life is less plausible. And having that moment captured in print is almost certainly a fabrication. Overall, not quite fake but not quite true either—like many family stories, somewhere in between.

What this story was meant to tell me is clearer. My grandfather was an honest man, one who did is job when asked and tried his best under grim, futile circumstances. It’s a moral story, with a realistic take on life: even when going above and beyond, you will still likely fail. Though the source material may not be (totally) true, it has still served a purpose. It implored me to do right despite it sometimes not being enough. It told me something about my family and how we had hoped, and continue to hope, and should still hope in the future, to act in a world that is often cruel and indifferent. It’s a message worth sending and a message worth hearing, even though it was delivered without the luster of complete and total truth.

These are tough times for truth, beset as we are by epistemically challenged social-media platforms and ill-intentioned presidential administrations. Many a prognosticator has reminded the public of the vital role that truth plays in our democracy, and the frightening erosion of that very truth. I’m not implying that this isn’t the case, or that bending the truth is necessarily virtuous. But under certain circumstances, a not-quite-true story has its place. Sometimes fake stories do a better job of telling us who we should be than real ones.

A family story looks both to the past and the future. A family chronicles itself and shares that history with its every iteration, and a family also seeks to nudge the next iteration in a specific direction. Ideally a good direction, a just direction, a right direction. And if that nudging requires some fakery, so be it. Sometimes we tell fake family stories for nefarious purposes, but usually we do so with the best intentions. And besides, what’s the harm in a little drama, a little action, a little narrative flourish? A good fake story, shared within a family, can do wonders over time.


FAKES is The Awl’s year-end holiday series for 2017. You can read the whole collection here.