I know that they will be reading this. Why? You think I'm going to say, "Because we all support one another's work," but that's only part of it—the least interesting part, maybe. I know that they'll all be reading this because the first thing I know for sure about families is that they're always curious to see how they're described and that the reason they're curious has to do with the second thing I know for sure about families, which is that—however well or badly the kids are getting along, however obvious it is that Child Number 1 got far more attention than Child Number 3, however long it's been since Aunt X hasn't spoken to Cousin Y, however irritated the West Coast contingent may be that they always have to go East for Thanksgiving rather than vice versa—whatever else may be true about them, every family thinks of itself as a unit distinct from everyone else in the world...even when it can't quite figure out just what it is that makes it so distinct, so special.
This brings me to the third thing that I know for sure about families, which is that they seek to define the elusive quality that makes them different from everyone else through the stories they tell about themselves. I grew up hearing a story that my grandfather and his siblings used to tell, about a beautiful (of course) sister of theirs who died just a week before her arranged marriage to a rich, ugly cousin. However grim it may have been, as a child I loved to listen to that story, which (like so many good stories) had elements of a fairy tale: the beautiful, unwilling bride; the hunchbacked groom; the forced marriage; the death that, in a sense, rescued her. It was only years later that I learned that my grandfather had twisted the facts—that it had been a love match, that they were, in fact, already married when she died. So why did he fabricate, embellish? Because, as I could only understand 40 years later, the story my grandfather told was a story his immigrant family needed to believe—that they were victims, that life was hard, that they were the hardworking good guys subject to the cruel impositions of people with more advantages in life. And because they needed to believe that, they crafted a tale that made it true.
I know for a fact that other families do this, too; they have to, because if they don't, they'll be like everyone else. Next time you sit at the Thanksgiving table, listen to the reminiscences, what your parents and cousins and nieces and nephews remember of this or that event of the distant or recent past. Listen to the stories they tell, and the way they tell them—the way that the one thing that binds them all together is the shared perception of who your family is in the world, the common assumption that everyone will get the point of the story, will see how it expresses something basic about the family, not about the event in question. Whatever that thing is varies, of course, from family to family. What doesn't vary—and this I know for sure—is the need to tell.
Daniel Mendelsohn's new collection of essays is How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken (HarperCollins).
From the November 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We Hear You!