There is a story in my family that my grandfather was a member of the KKK. This story is told differently from what you might be thinking. There is an eye roll and a condescending tone when it is told. It is told as if he was a silly little man making silly little decisions. It is told as if he just didn’t know any better. A 40-year-old man didn’t know any better. It is told with that southern manner of “tisk, tisk”, people shouldn’t do things like that. The story doesn’t hold the true intensity associated with a man choosing to commit horrible crimes with his buddies to oppress an entire race and gender. It is told as if there wasn’t terror and torture associated with this organization. It was just another story about our family’s history.
There is a story in my family that my ancestors came to the United States and Canada during the potato famine in Ireland. I am sure that is factual. But it is told as if they got a little hungry and jumped on a boat to cross the Atlantic. It is told as if they just started over after reaching new shores. It was no big deal. They just moved to a new city and got an apartment. There is no mention of the concentration camps the poor Irish were living in before they managed to leave Ireland. There is no mention of the horrific trauma instilled on them by the English who were literally trying to commit Irish genocide. There is no discussion about what they had to do to reunite what was left of their purposefully separated families and get on that ship. And there is no reference to the prejudice they faced from being Irish Catholic in this new world.
There is a story in my family of my mean great-grandparents. When my great-grandmother is mentioned, there is a bit of fear that comes along with her name. There may even be a small shutter in those who knew her. But it is played off. “You didn’t want to cross her.” “Her kids really didn’t want to do anything wrong.” It is almost said with pride. She knew how to control her children. She knew how to run a tight ship. People laugh when they mention how my mother was named for her. “Two peas in a pod. Isn’t that funny?” Hysterical. They say my grandfather would not have had it easy in that house. It would have been like living in a prison. But he made it out of there okay. I am sure he wasn’t too badly scarred from it. I am sure he was fine.
There is a story in my family that my grandfather made it through five amphibious landings in World War 2. It is told with much pride. I don’t know if it’s true. But I also know he is the type who could have done it. He had already lived through hell on Earth. He knew what to do in hell. I don’t doubt he was involved in at least one. There is a story in my family that my grandfather was honorably discharged near the end of the war. But it wasn’t from an injury. This is where the whispers start. He was drunk and disorderly, but when they looked at his record, the judge didn’t have the heart to discharge him dishonorably. I know that’s true too. But this is where the eye rolls come back. The condescension starts. “Poor Grandpat. He could never put down the bottle.” But come on. We all know soldiers were not discharged from the military for getting drunk. We know that the definition of “disorderly” runs a wide spectrum. Whatever his behavior was, it was bad enough for the military to see him as a risk during the chaos of war. And that’s bad.
There is a story in my family that my grandfather didn’t have much respect for the law. He had one of those charming personalities that made everyone like him when they should have hated him. “The gift of the gab!” There was so much pride in that. It was spoken as if living above the law as a privileged white, male veteran was almost heroic. There is a story in my family that he moved around a lot because he didn’t like to stay in one place. But then the whispers start. There may have been a few warrants in different places, but we can’t be sure. There are whispers about babies with other women and how he just could not seem to keep his hands off the women. “You know, like men do.” And there are whispers about the house he might have burned down for the insurance money. “He was so crafty like that.” “He was always getting away with things.” But nobody talks about how living in his immediate family would have been a living hell. Nobody talks about his affiliation with the KKK and how that gave him friends in high places, a way to do bad things without any repercussions, a way to stay out of jail. Nobody talks about that.
There are stories in my family, but they are only part of the truth. They don’t discuss the generations of trauma and how that built an extended family of people who despise themselves. They don’t talk about the massive undercurrent of fear that permeates their choices turning every single day into an episode of the Hunger Games. There is no discussion about what drives the trafficking and rape of their children, the domestic violence in their marriages and the hate-fueled crimes against other people they see as less than them. It is an addiction. It is a fix. For half a second, they feel like they have some power in this life. They feel like they have a way of ending their pain by passing it on to another. It doesn’t work though. It will never work. Trauma has to be healed from the inside out and only the most courageous will make that choice. People would rather stick to their current horrible behavior than face their pain. I have learned that the hard way. But I keep hoping we can bring the true painful context to these family stories. When we get real, we can make real change happen.