‘Half the world away’ – family identity and emotional geography

Antonia Bifulco on her own adventures in family history.

Most of us are interested in our origins and family histories. Can psychology aid us in discovering identity through such research? Can sharing our family stories lead to uncovering common or even universal psychological themes, crossing place and time to reveal who we are?

And the cold stars say: ‘Warsaw in Poland Is half the world away.’– American poet Sara Teasdale (1884–1933)

As I get older, I feel increasingly drawn to exploring and researching my family history. This is in part to pass it to the next generation, but also as a retrospective, looking back at my own life in the context of those who came before. It’s a longer view historically, and a wider one geographically. It generates greater connection and empathy with parents, grandparents, and their parents, and their lives, particularly in the turbulent times of the 20th century.

Many of my peers are similarly attracted to family history, but most do not publish their accounts, instead keeping materials at home to share with their families. So why publish on family history if the family in question are not famous and not naturally the topic of biographic interest? Is there something to be gained from exploring qualitative method, reflexivity and people in context, applied to one’s own family? Can it add to psychological knowledge?

I have spent my career investigating other people’s life stories, in relation to adversity and resilience, so it seemed a natural step to view my family as a case study amenable to systematic analysis. The difference, of course, is that I have emotional involvement with the content, so the biographic method and reflexivity is tested to see if any unexpected themes of interest emerge. Are these universal, or at least of wider common interest to others? Such questions have led me to research and publish on my father’s family and their origins over three generations in Poland, going back to 1887 (Bifulco, 2017).

My friend Paula Nicolson and I both started writing about our individual family trees at the same time, unbeknownst to each other. Both of us are academic psychologists, she an acknowledged expert of critical psychology, providing a touchstone for me about what can be achieved that is novel. The topic of family history arose at one of our regular lunches in Richmond. She was further along in her task, having already collected her family material and agreed a publishing contract. I was diligently collecting information, without having decided how I would collate my efforts. She encouraged me to publish it as a psychological text: a challenge, but the same publishers proved interested.

Paula and I had approached the topic differently. She used online resources, such as Ancestry, to find out about her maternal, paternal and in-law family to create a broad and diverse family tree (Nicolson, 2017). The places and locations ranged from the Scottish Highlands to the Lithuanian capital, and midwest America. The varied individuals threw up numerous social contexts, stories, dilemmas and issues. She wrote an elegant and engaging exploration of these, including loss, domestic violence, alcoholism and anti-Semitism. She targeted her work to psychotherapists, those working with family narrative, who could benefit from novel ways of analysing a family tree in relation to an individual’s identity.

My approach was in some ways narrower (I took only a handful of family characters to describe and follow) but also broader in terms of the disciplines encompassed (history, emotional geography and sociology). My quest was different – I already knew the basic story and chronology based on family narrative going back two generations. For example, I had a large supply of letters dating from the early 1900s, documents, photographs and unpublished biographies and diaries. Many of my family were writers, some professionally so, but others able to express themselves well in writing and with a persistent need to document experience. I found little online that added to family knowledge, but much that added to the context of others witnessing common events covered. I needed to consider how to understand all this in depth, to make an interesting and meaningful narrative analysis.

Paula and I asked similar questions – how did our families end up in the UK? How did researching our families change our sense of identity and behaviour? At the time of Brexit and divorce from Europe it became emotively charged with renewed attention to cultural roots. Curiously, with her Scottish married name, and my Italian one, we soon learned that both of our great-grandfathers came from places in East Europe less than 200 miles apart, at the time both areas under Russian domination – modern-day Lithuania (Vilnius) and Belarus (Pinsk).

The academic questions were: What was appropriate psychological method for systematic of critical psychology, providing a touchstone for me about what can be achieved that is novel. The topic of family history arose at one of our regular lunches in Richmond. She was further along in her task, having already collected her family material and agreed a publishing contract. I was diligently collecting information, without having decided how I would collate my efforts. She encouraged me to publish it as a psychological text: a challenge, but the same publishers proved interested.

Paula and I had approached the topic differently. She used online resources, such as Ancestry, to find out about her maternal, paternal and in-law family to create a broad and diverse family tree (Nicolson, 2017). The places and locations ranged from the Scottish Highlands to the Lithuanian capital, and midwest America. The varied individuals threw up numerous social contexts, stories, dilemmas and issues. She wrote an elegant and engaging exploration of these, including loss, domestic violence, alcoholism and anti-Semitism. She targeted her work to psychotherapists, those working with family narrative, who could benefit from novel ways of analysing a family tree in relation to an individual’s identity.

My approach was in some ways narrower (I took only a handful of family characters to describe and follow) but also broader in terms of the disciplines encompassed (history, emotional geography and sociology). My quest was different – I already knew the basic story and chronology based on family narrative going back two generations. For example, I had a large supply of letters dating from the early 1900s, documents, photographs and unpublished biographies and diaries. Many of my family were writers, some professionally so, but others able to express themselves well in writing and with a persistent need to document experience. I found little online that added to family knowledge, but much that added to the context of others witnessing common events covered. I needed to consider how to understand all this in depth, to make an interesting and meaningful narrative analysis.

Paula and I asked similar questions – how did our families end up in the UK? How did researching our families change our sense of identity and behaviour? At the time of Brexit and divorce from Europe it became emotively charged with renewed attention to cultural roots. Curiously, with her Scottish married name, and my Italian one, we soon learned that both of our great-grandfathers came from places in East Europe less than 200 miles apart, at the time both areas under Russian domination – modern-day Lithuania (Vilnius) and Belarus (Pinsk).

The academic questions were: What was appropriate psychological method for systematic investigation of a single-case family study? What psychological theories would be invoked? Could the interpretation of such highly personalised information be of interest to others? Could this have practical application for psychotherapy or exploring sense of self, or indeed for method?

Psychological referents
Our theoretical referents turned out to be highly similar. I used Erik Erikson’s lifestages to structure the book chapters and outline the development and movement of the family over generations, as well as mirror the emergence of the Polish state historically. This dated from Partition in the late 1800s, where it was dominated by its neighbours, through a drive for autonomy in 1920, to independence and flourishing, and then to the confusion and isolation of further conflict in 1939. I followed in detail my grandparents, my father and his first wife, and his cousin in Poland. Each has a dramatic story shaped by historical events. John Bowlby’s observations on attachment and resilience were used to show how a family could survive adversity – the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Second World War and the Cold War – through loving and enduring relationships. Members were often separated but always close, as the many letters attest. My task was to make a coherent narrative, based on information I had and that I could infer from historical events and other witness accounts. A similar technique is used in narrative therapy where the coherence and depth of account is enhanced through therapeutic process (Fivush et al., 2008). This leads to a sense of a more complete identity in relation to our forebears and thus aids self-development. The social and historical context as a backdrop provides a richness of cultural material (Zerubavel, 2011) for an interdisciplinary, qualitative investigation of a very specific set of related individuals.

I looked for further interdisciplinary influences. This included Polish immigration studies; emotional geography and oral history. On meeting Anne White, a sociologist and expert on Polish immigration studies, I became only too aware of my own ignorance of the literature and demography of Polish politics and immigration. But she was intrigued by my novel method of family case analysis and appreciated the rare involvement of a psychologist in this arena. One of my emergent themes, ‘hidden identity’, arose in my narrative on a number of occasions, and this resonated with her topic of ‘invisible Poles’ – the generation of post Second World War Poles in England (White, 2016). That community had been in camouflage in the UK, due to Cold War fears about reprisal in Poland.

Emergent themes
I looked to handwritten documents to form a family narrative, and my choices of individuals to follow and stories to relate were in some ways down to the ‘data’ I had. My understanding deepened as I had letters and diaries translated to English, and I read modern history more closely to understand the context in which these were written. This induced an emotional response and great empathy – I asked myself, how would I have fared? Would I have coped so well? Which of the characters did I admire or like most? Or not like? Would this show in the narrative?

I was interested in the local events in history. Reading about either of the world wars was just too vast for my more modest task, so I chose events in which family members were involved, or that took place where they lived or worked. I also wanted to write about pieces of history that are less well known or less well publicised. So, whilst First World War personal experiences are highly topical in the UK, few relate to the Eastern Front. The complex political alliances in East Europe are less well known. Poland was partitioned between Russia, Germany and Austria, their identity, language and culture hidden, and Polish soldiers conscripted into three different armies and both sides of the conflict. My grandfather Tadeusz was an officer and engineer in a Polish division of the Russian army, allied with Britain. He spent much of his time rushing from place to place providing working mechanised vehicles – and in one notable heroic incident, himself driving a steam train taking thousands of wounded soldiers away from the battle sites. In another, he drove a rare armoured car (an Austin from Coventry) behind enemy lines. We learn this from a carefully penned biography of the young man written by his father, giving us a unique account of such catastrophic war events and their impact on the family. Contemporary published accounts show the horror, equal to that in the trenches, with Polish territory a killing field for the three armies meeting, and scorched earth policy enacted when the Russians in revolution withdrew in 1917.

Another theme to emerge was of heroism: not only military, but also civilian, now recognised as a topic for study in psychology (Becker & Eagly, 2004). Tadeusz’s traditional male military heroism was well recognised by his many medals, including the Virtuti Militari (Victoria Cross equivalent) awarded posthumously. But another character emerging as heroic in the following generation was a young woman of only 25, Myszka, married to my father before the Second World War. She remained behind in Warsaw when he left to join the Allied armies in 1939, and during the occupation was secretly active in the Polish Resistance, later captured by the Nazis, dying at Auschwitz. Heroic and hidden, her brave actions secret. Additional secrecy arose from my mother’s insistence that as children we knew nothing of her. Yet it was my mother who kept all Myszka’s wartime letters carefully preserved, for me to later research.

Places – emotional geography
Emotional geography fascinates me. Like most people I have attachment to places. So, when considering family history in terms of places, cities, streets and houses become a very personal way of embodying the past lives of others. Warsaw is one such place. I visited first in 1965 aged 10, and then in 1970, both times on family holidays with my father. I have visited a few times since, but only started regular trips there in the last two years since writing the book. I love it as a city, and it feels very personal to me and my family. I visited streets, houses and apartments where family members had lived. Warsaw had an extraordinary feat of resurrection post war, with the central part of the city totally destroyed and rebuilt – as an exact replica. I was aided in understanding this renovation by my Polish aunt, a writer, who has published on the rebuilding of the city with before and after images, using archive pictures and those taken by her photographer husband. When my aunt died last year, it was revealed she had written an autobiography and family account, which no one of us has yet read! Another layer to the unfolding analysis.

Reflexivity
How did it affect me? Paula talks of reflexivity, feeling emotion on others’ behalf, of having an ongoing conversation with the self, and an unconscious sense of identity. For me, I refound an identity that had become strained when at the age of seven my Polish grandmother died and at 16 when my Polish father died. This revisiting involved recapturing childhood and understanding it through a clearer prism of family members’ lives. The voices from my past came through strongly and warmly. I sensed the personalities of individuals only known by their family roles.

Did it change my behaviour? It caused me to start relearning Polish: this conjured unexpected flavours, feelings and thoughts from a childish self. I made new Polish friends in London and I refound my family in Warsaw. I was lucky in many respects. Not only because of the positives I learned of family members – that they were admirable, upright, brave and loving – but also because the new family members I met were similarly appealing.

I am a psychologist who studies life history and its impact. I have never been a therapist or in therapy. So this evocation of the personal past was new for me, but not accompanied by the angst often associated with such reflection, even though painful experiences for close others were certainly involved. It was a lighter and more freeing thing; it made me want to express ideas in different ways. I wonder now how well I will approach quantitative articles with their myriad constraints when continuing to analyse others’ life histories? For me, this has been an object lesson in living what we study.

- Antonia Bifulco is Professor of Lifespan Psychology, Middlesex University
[email protected]

Key sources
Becker, S.W. & Eagly, A.H. (2004). The heroism of women and men. American Psychologist, 59(3), 163–178.
Bifulco, A. (2017). Identity, attachment and resilience: Exploring three generations of a Polish family. London: Routledge.
Fivush, R., Bohanek, J. G. & Duke, M. (2008). The intergenerational self:  Subjective perspective and family history. In F. Sani (Ed.) Individual and collective self-continuity (pp.131–143). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Nicolson, P. (2017). Genealogy, psychology and identity: Tales from a family tree. London: Routledge.
White, A. (2016). Polish migration to the UK compared with migration elsewhere in Europe: A review of the literature. Social Identities, 22, 10–25.
Zerubavel, E. (2011). Ancestors and relatives: Genealogy, identity, and community. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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