How To Fact-Check a Family Story and Bring the Warring Factions Together Again
Is your family so screwed-up and embittered that Thanksgiving and Christmas are the holidays from hell?
Holidays and reunions bring out the worst in families, but they can also bring out the best. It's in this spirit that I you offer you the peace-making technique of fact-checking a famous family story. I used this technique in chapter eight: "The Day Eliot Ness Set My Grandfather Straight -- Or Did He?" It helped me break the ice between my father and his brother, who hadn't spoken with each other in nearly thirty years.
¤Tip #1: Choose your story carefully. The question that nagged most at my family was: Why didn't the Kravitzes become as rich and harmonious as some of the other Jewish families in Cleveland? If your relatives are anything like mine, a question of that nature and magnitude can only serve to fan the flames.
Instead, set your sights on a less immediate and incendiary story -- for example, one that involves a family hero or scoundrel who is long dead. A much-loved family recipe can also be fodder for fact-checking, particularly if there's an eccentric aunt behind it.
¤Tip #2: Make a fact-check check list. Do you have books, letters, documents, photographs or other materials related to the story? Are there other people you need to contact, within the family and beyond, for additional perspectives and evidence? Would a trip to the local historical society, or probate court, be useful?
¤Tip #3: Imagine that you are a detective or journalist. Journalists are taught to ask six key questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? They learn the value of getting an eyewitness account and finding at least one other source to confirm it.
¤Tip #4: Be gentle with your relatives. When you interview them, don't be a bulldog reporter like Mike Wallace and make them sweat and squirm. Invite them into the fun of helping you solve your family's mystery. The dumber and more clueless you appear, the smarter and more cooperative they may feel.
¤Tip #5: Keep the peace. If there's disagreement about facts, motivations or anything else, be diplomatic and smooth things over. Life is complex. People may differ. And, yes, truth is in the eye of the beholder.
My Ness experience showed me that fact-checking a piece of family lore can be a powerful technique for bringing a dysfunctional family together. Fact-checking gives you license to reconnect with relatives and participate in a new adventure with them that will help clarify and shape your family's legacy. There's always the risk that your favorite family story won't hold up under the rigor of fact-checking, but so what? As one detail vanishes, another may emerge, deepening the connection you have to the people and events that shaped you.