Family history, present, and future

Author: Narelle Smith, 2011

The television series, Faces of America (2010), was screened in Australia recently. The show was written and hosted by Dr Henry Louis Gates Jr. Dr Gates traced the family history of twelve prominent Americans.

Dr Gates acknowledged his own anxiety, disappointment, and confusion about not being able to identify his great great grandfather, a white man that his African American great great grandmother never named. Similarly, there was grief and loss over the inability to trace his African heritage.

Dr Elizabeth Alexander was one of the guests on the series. Her white heritage was traced back to King John I of England and Charlemagne. Her African heritage is lost to her, and she expressed this as a sadness and an “eternal longing” for so many black people. Although tests on her DNA revealed that she has 66% white European heritage, her skin colour and appearance designate her as an African American.

Eva Longoria, who expressed pride in her Indigenous Mexican heritage, found that her ancestors were primarily Spanish. Mike Nicholls, from  Jewish heritage, and Dr Mehmet Oz, from Muslim heritage, share the same haplogroup. Yo Yo Ma is 100% Asian and due to the Chinese people’s meticulous record keeping can trace his ancestors back 18 generations. Some of the guests spoke about knowing within themselves, in their bones so to speak, about unspoken aspects of their heritage. Meryl Streep said “I am the sum of all these people”, meaning her ancestors and their journey.

An Aboriginal elder, told me years ago, that when he went into the juvenile detention centres to teach yidaki (didgeridoo) to the male Aboriginal youth, they picked it up very quickly. With its circular breathing, it is a very difficult instrument to learn. The Elder said that the boys heritage was so strong it was calling and guiding them to play yidaki. I went home and told my husband about the conversation. He said he once read a study, where mice were put in a complex maze and they had to find their own way through it. The next generation of mice found it easier to navigate the maze. The next generation found their way easily through the maze. This suggests an inherited transmission of knowledge or experience. It took a while to track down this study, but it was conducted in the 1920’s by William McDougall (British Journal of Psychology, 1927) and has been discredited along with the theories of Jean-Baptiste Lemarck on epigenetic inheritance (

I am interested too in ‘the journey’ as Meryl Streep mentioned. Narrative therapy describes the ‘dominant storyline’ in people’s lives and in the stories of their families (Morgan, 2000). The past affects the present and the future. I sometimes assist people to trace their disadvantage, medical history, mental health problems, separation, trauma, etc.,  experienced throughout the generations through a genogram. Judy Atkinson’s work on genograms and trauma with Aboriginal people is inspiring (Atkinson & Edwards-Haines, 2003). Many of us have free will, but we are inclined to follow the patterns set by our ancestors, often without being conscious of it.  I like to record the strengths on the genogram also, as that is the ‘alternate storyline’, the one that can provide hope and change.

Identity is a complex and intriguing phenomena, and so it seems is the history of our families. People who don’t know their heritage, suffer from loss, a sense that they don’t belong. The need to belong is very strong in people. People who do know their heritage, and who have the time to analyse it, can see how their ancestry plays out in their own lives. It is interesting to reflect upon. With Western society’s emphasis on individuation we can sometimes forget that our family history, the trials and tribulations, the journey of our ancestors influences us in a myriad of ways.


Atkinson, J. & Edwards-Haines, C. (2003).   Social and emotional wellbeing: an Indigenous perspective. Canberra: AIATSIS. Internet:  Accessed: 4/3/11

Morgan, A. (2000). What is narrative therapy: An easy-to-read introduction. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.


About Narelle Smith

Child & Family Worker

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