Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Review: MY BIOLOGICAL FAMILY by Helen Johansen

I debated with myself about reviewing this book for a lot of reasons.  First, it is not a published book.  It was written by my great-aunt Helen and distributed throughout my family.  Second, I have some issues with the subject of the book and how it was told.  What made me decide to write a comment on this was actually my post last week regarding the burying of family secrets and how those stories could have historical importance.  A lot of people in my family are upset by this book.  They see it as an invasion of privacy and claim there are a lot of misrepresentation of facts.  Maybe there are.  I wouldn’t know.  My grandmother and many other people written about, are deceased. 

This story revolves around my grandmother’s family living in Nebraska during the Depression.  When my great-grandmother died of malnutrition, she left behind five daughters and two sons ranging in age from two months to twelve years old.  My great-grandfather was an alcoholic and the family lived in poverty.  A year later, my great-grandfather was arrested and sent to prison for raping his two eldest daughters and impregnating one of them.  After his arrest, the children went into an orphanage.  The only sibling to go on to be adopted was the baby, Helen. 

Without going into the private details of people still living, I’ll just say that the six elder kids lead rough lives.  A few went on to find happiness as adults.  The others were emotionally scarred and went on to raise the next generation in disturbing and unhealthy atmospheres.  Helen was the fortunate one.  She is too young to remember her biological parents or the orphanage.  She grew up loved and cared for and healthy.  She talks in the books beginning about how fortunate she was and how lucky she was not to have a life like her siblings. 

My question is, was this even Helen’s story to tell?  Ninety percent of the story revolves around other people, with Helen reporting gossip that she had heard.  Sure, the ‘main characters’ were her biological family, but she never lived the horrors that they did.  Even I found facts that were incorrect, and I don’t pretend to understand all that went on in that family.  As far as I’m aware, none of the family was even interviewed.  The first they knew of their histories being documented and made public was when the bound copy showed up in the mail. 

Molestation, incest, physical abuse, malnutrition and poverty are hell on children.  The way they deal with it can range from burying it to the point of amnesia all the way to broadcasting their story via talk show circuit.  Is it their story to tell or does anyone with a stake in the DNA have the right to share it?  Should these types of stories be told without the consent of the victims?  How much time should have to pass before it is time to document family histories?  I honestly don’t know the answers to these questions.  If the emotions are too raw, these histories can be hurtful to those involved.  If too much time passes, the facts run the risk of being distorted.  Both of these things happened with Aunt Helen’s book.  I’m curious about what you all think about these issues.  What are the responsibilities of the family historian? 


  1. Family histories can be written without personal details like incest coming to light. I have a few of them from my great uncles that are very interesting, without being offensive.

    However, the considerations you mentioned are one main reason I prefer writing fiction. Though I do have to deal with my mom wondering if she's every mother I ever write (she's not, of course), I have a safety to write my life's experiences into several unrelated stories that nobody expects to be true. I can even write about the bizarre lady standing behind me in the checkout line with her curlers in a hairnet, and nobody will have to pay the consequences of a private life made public. True, feelings are still hurt when people assume (usually incorrectly) they're your inspiration. But at least you haven't violated anyone's presumed right to tell their own story.

  2. I agree. I wrote an autobiography a few years ago, but I'll never publish it. It could be hurtful to others, and I didn't think it was fair. I find that fiction gives me more freedom to be honest.

  3. Definitely. :) Fiction rocks! And also, there's a distinct difference between a tell-all and a memoir. I actually like reading memoirs better.

  4. Memoirs are when people tell their own stories. I love those. Tell-all's make me feel dirty. Kind of like reading the tabloids.