Writing Ancestor Stories without judgment graphic with lady justice

Not only do family historians and memoir writers want to convey compelling stories untinged by mistruths and embellishments, they also want to tell those family and ancestor stories without judgment. How do we do that?

It’s not easy to approach difficult chapters of the family’s past. We’re tempted to ignore ancestors’ less than perfect characteristics because we don’t know how to write honestly without standing in judgment on events that happened long ago.

Writing compelling, balanced, historical accounts

Let’s take a step back before we look at how to avoid judgment.

Is telling ancestor stories without judgment really your aim?

Many memoirists and family storytellers approach the past with a thesis to support. Their writing may be a piece of advocacy or debunking widely accepted myths. (See Which Storytelling hat are you wearing?)  Note that writing from a standpoint of bias doesn’t relieve writers from the burden of accuracy. But they might approach the story differently.

There’s great reasons for doing it that way.

For instance, I plan to write about my great aunt Ellen, who was admitted to the Virginia Bar in the 1930s and who donated her body to science. I believe she was extraordinary. My writing might aim to support that.

As I research, I am ethically bound to evaluate all the information I find about her and evaluate my sources. Are they primary sources? Are family traditions accurate? Am I interpreting them correctly?

Adding balance to historical accounts

Even as I reveal evidence to support my belief that she was an incredible woman, if I want readers to connect with her, I should stop short of declaring her a saint. (See Roses Aren’t Perfect – Family Stories Shouldn’t be Either.) Particularly if I want her story to inspire, I don’t want to portray my great aunt as unapproachable. I need to show her humanity.

Don’t assume readers are fully aware of historical backdrops. Layering this rich context with family and emotional circumstances will increase both the accuracy and impact of your story.

Writing ancestor stories without judgment: Explain instead of persuading.

As a historical writer, you are also an explainer. Take that to heart.

We’re not working for the prosecution or the defense. We’re on the side of history. Our quest is to provide the most accurate understanding of the past that we can with “reasonably exhaustive” research.

This shift in perspective is big.

It means the primary focus of family history writing isn’t to defend or condemn our forebears’ actions. We aren’t co-defendants in the courts of public opinion when it comes to difficult chapters of the family past. We’re not responsible for their misdeeds.

That’s good, right? But here’s the rub.

Neither can we claim our ancestors’ accomplishments as a feather in our own cap. Our own life choices provide decorations for any millinery or hattery we don.

That’s freeing. We can concentrate on the explaining versus the justifying and judging.

Here’s what happened. Here’s what might help us understand that event.

Let readers decide what they think.

My college roommate’s mother used to sagely observe, “People are funny things.” I call on that wisdom often. It reminders me to observe others without giving thought to whether they are good, bad, or indifferent.

Readers don’t have to know our opinions on this either. In fact, I would argue that most readers prefer to develop their own opinions and connections than to read what the story’s author thought.

Rather than label relatives as morally superior or ethically wanting, we can show the external forces and internal conflicts that our “characters” faced to help readers more fully understand them.

Let actions tell the story

In her article for Writers Digest, 5 Ways to Write about Real People in Memoirs, Amanda Patterson advises writers to reveal the story via the actions people take:

Let their actions tell a story. Show who they are through… their life choices, their friends, and the consequences of their actions. Don’t make judgements about these. Just describe them.

For me, that’s a great mechanism to keep unconscious bias out of my writing. By adhering to the old “show don’t tell” adage, we force ourselves to look at the situation honestly.

Your Turn

When have you had trouble writing family and ancestor stories without judgment? How did you handle that dilemma?

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