Emory Report
January 20, 2009
Volume 61, Number 16



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January 20
, 2009
Family memory, narratives are story at conference

By Beth Kurylo

Family memories are fluid and subject to change, and individual memories are a powerful force that help to shape personal life stories, according to international experts on memory who met at Emory in December.

Researchers from Germany, Denmark and American universities described their research on family narratives, “life scripts” that set the stage for personal development as children grow, and how people change their memories to suit their own needs. The two-day conference on Culture, Family and Communicative Memory was sponsored by the Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL) and the Emory Cognition Project.

German scholar Harald Welzer talked about Germans who describe heroic acts of grandparents who were Nazis during World War II. “They do not deny the atrocities happened,’’ he said, “but they cannot accept the fact that their ancestors had anything to do with it.” Welzer’s research showed how Germans changed details of stories about their grandparents, often making them “good guys” during the Third Reich even though they were Nazis.

Dan McAdams, a Northwestern University psychology professor who studies life stories of adults, “focuses on the positive things,” especially in people who experience turning points that they recount as life lessons to younger generations. “They love to tell you stories about their lives,’’ he said, “and they often begin with the worst thing that happened to them. And then, as they tell the story, they overcome that event and often turn it into something positive.”

Psychologist Mark Freeman of the College of the Holy Cross talked about his mother’s descent into dementia, and how that affects her identity. “Her new identity is that she is not herself,” he said, after describing his memories of the woman who nurtured him as a child, and the mother who now often calls him in a panic when she doesn’t know where she is. “Oh, what a person becomes,’’ she says in a lucid, yet poignant moment.

The MARIAL Center plans to offer highlights of the conference in the new Journal of Family Life, www.journaloffamilylife.com.