What Family History Means to People Like Me

Michelle Franzoni Thorley’s work focuses on the ancestral power to heal. She is a self-taught artist who has claimed power through embracing her Mexican-American heritage and her experiences as a LDS woman artist. Her work has been displayed at the Writ and Vision gallery, LDS Church history museum, Abravanel hall and the Springville art museum. She spoke at the Center for Latter-day Saint Art in New York City in June 2019 and at BYU family history conference in Provo Utah in October 2019. She is passionate about plants, family history, and the stories of women. Her work and words can be found on Instagram at @flora_familiar. She lives in Utah, with her spouse and three young children.

Michelle Franzoni Thorley “Family History and Temple Work”

My name is Michelle. I am a Mexican-American artist who loves genealogical healing, which is also known as family history.

I grew up as a minority in my community. My parents were divorced, I lived under the poverty level, and my hair and skin were different than all the other kids. I had a hard time dealing with a lot of sadness. I now recognize that some of the sadness I carried was generational trauma, and I have healed a lot of that pain through therapy, family history, and temple work. 

But family history did not come easy for me–at least not on the side of my family that didn’t fit the norm. My mom comes from pioneer stock, so a lot of the work on her side of the family was “done.” But my dad’s side had a lot of trauma, so I knew there was a lot of disconnectedness. When people would start talking about family history, I knew that they were talking to other people and not me. It wasn’t for me.

Why didn’t I think that family history was for me? One world: shame. A recent study shows that shame is the biggest reason that children and adults stay away from family history. And shame can be an especially difficult obstacle for people of color. It can be hard for descendants of Indigenous and African people to acknowledge that our white 6th great grandfather may not have had the consent of our indigenous 6th great grandmother. We are the descendants of the master and the slave, the oppressor and the oppressed. We are a mix of both, and we still feel the shame and generational trauma of out family’s past.. 

How many of our ancestors were ashamed and of their indigenous or African family or selves? How many of our ancestors felt shame about poverty, infidelity, depression or addiction? How many of our ancestors had to carry this heavy weight in the name of safety and survival? How many ancestors have passed this burden onto us? This must stop now. We have to be the generation to heal ourselves and our families. When we are authentic to our family history story, we can become whole–not perfect but whole–and bring the past and future with us.

Michelle Franzoni Thorley, “Ancestress”

Shame is the manifestation of generational disconnection. Trauma disconnects families and shame keeps them disconnected. We know that disconnecting families is Satan’s plan. He has been disconnecting Brown and Black families for centuries with addiction, slavery, and racism. How can we combat this? How can we create safe spaces for people with imperfect families histories? First, we can understand our own family stories, acknowledge the hard things and use empathy to liberate others. We can also speak respectfully and openly about shame rather than letting it hide in the shadows.

And we can create safe spaces for people to talk about imperfect families. Really no family is perfect. I always say that during some century, your family has experienced something similar to what another family is facing now (poverty, immigration, alcoholism, infidelity etc). When we understand our family stories we gain the power to truly empathize and stomp out the shame that keeps us disconnected from parts of ourselves.

For years we have been looking at family history from one perspective only. I am now discovering that family history is a multifaceted jewel. There are so many angles and facets that we are not seeing. I invite you to come along with me as we spin this marvelous jewel called family history and make new discoveries that will change our perspectives, our lives and perhaps change the world.

Comments

  1. My mom’s family history was hidden by her family not because of shame but because of the simple need to survive.
    My people, with African heritage, “passed” as white to survive in rural, agrarian Mormon society.
    The best way to protect ones family back then was to hide one’s heritage, unfortunately.
    Finding the hidden jewels of truth in my family history has certainly had a dramatic impact on how I view the world.

    Jb

  2. anitawells says:

    thanks for sharing these insights and your powerful perspective! I’m glad you’ve been able to find peace and healing and insights from the generations before.

  3. Ardis E. Parshall says:

    I had an opportunity recently to listen to Michelle talk about her art and the kind of healing she writes of here, and to share with her the story of one of our Century of Black Mormons sisters. Her call for more such stories of people of color reinforced for me that this healing does and should occur for all of us, even (especially?) when those stories are about people who are not of our own color.

    I’m so glad to read this post.

  4. Josh Higham says:

    @Jb, I’m reading Russell Stevenson’s For the Cause of Righteousness. It’s heartbreaking to see how the Church’s policy of withholding the priesthood from anyone with any African ancestry not only hurt the people who were not permitted participate fully in the Church, but the descendants of those who had to obscure their family history to be accepted by their communities. The priesthood ban seems so obviously bad to me on its face that I had never considered any unintended consequences of the priesthood ban.

    I’m sorry that my ancestors imposed that on you, and I’m glad you’ve been able to find hidden treasures in your heritage!

  5. This was an eye-opener. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Thank you. I hesitate to comment because I don’t want to make this about my white, Mormon-pioneer-stock-on-both-sides family and me, but I do want to say that you are helping me on my journey of healing generational trauma from polygamy. While my family has been proud of the faith and sacrifice of these ancestors, we (and maybe they) have not made any space for the emotional pain they experienced as a result. I wonder if there is shame there, too? Shame from my ancestors for not being sufficiently faithful and devoted to not be resentful and hurt by polygamy – thus ashamed of the resentment and hurt, seeing these feelings as sin. And hiding that resentment and hurt deep inside, out of view, to show only faithfulness and devotion on the outside. I feel like I inherited the trauma of not being allowed to be hurt for fear of not being faithful enough. This is different from what you write of, but you are opening my eyes to the generational shame and trauma in my own family, giving me so much more empathy for the experiences you and others of African and Indigenous heritage have in your family histories. I applaud what you are doing to bring deep healing to so many.

  7. One interesting thing about family history is that the same story can cause different reactions in people depending, I believe, on their expectations and beliefs.

    I have a great grandfather who abandoned his family shortly after a child was born. All we had was a marriage record and a census. Fifty years of research suggested the little we had was a lie. The fact that he had abandoned his family made it easy to believe his life was a lie and anything we discovered would not change our beliefs about him as a liar and a cad.

    DNA testing connected us to another family. They too had a great grandfather. He, however, was thought to have died tragically in a logging accident, leaving a widowed wife and daughter. It soon became clear that it was the same man. He had actually abandoned two families 1000 miles apart, one after the other, changing his name in the interim.

    The same story hit the second family (actually his first) much harder. Disbelief, denial, and anger were all present. Their history was changed and some still have not accepted it fully. They took it personally even when there was nothing personal about it. They were ashamed.

    I suppose you have to manage expectations. Ancestors are saints, sinners, and everything in between, often in the same person. That’s part of why genealogy is much more than dates and places. Dates and places don’t make people and that’s all they were and are, people being people.

  8. thegenaboveme says:

    Michelle: You are doing holy work.

    “We have to be the generation to heal ourselves and our families. When we are authentic to our family history story, we can become whole–not perfect but whole–and bring the past and future with us.”

    And you are wisely inviting other people to do this as well. My Uncle Gerald did intergenerational soul work in the last years of his life. (Some here might recognize him as the bagpipe playing librarian at BYU who also washed dishes at Govinda’s in Provo and worshipped for a time at the Hindu Temple in Spanish Fork). Gerald spent a lot of time meditating, praying, and projecting his thoughts into the world beyond the veil in order to help heal the shame, pain, and poor communication between some of the earlier generations. He forgave the older generations of some of their hurtful behavior, recognizing in the wisdom of his advanced age and humility of facing his own death that “Hurt people hurt people” and that whatever the question, love is the answer. Michelle, than you for doing intergenerational work. I believe that this kind of work has great value in this life and in the next (and in connecting the two. The film Coco helps me articulate this between the worlds soul work, but also Mulan has some scenes where heritage, family traditions, and connecting generations despite miscommunications and shifting roles / interests / behaviors threaten intergenerational cohesion.) PS: I’m a gerontologist, and this topic interests me a lot.

  9. This post was so profound and so insightful. Thank you!

    I had a great teacher once point out to me that Jesus’s family history as recounted in the OT has nearly every potential source of shame imaginable: incest, rape, oppression, violence–it’s all there; his direct mortal ancestors did those things and suffered those things. She believed it was preserved in the record in part to liberate the rest of us from any shame we might feel from our own family’s histories. The Lord’s mortal family history shaped Him, helped to make Him who He was. Our histories do the same. I loved that thought.

  10. Brian Irwin says:

    This was an interesting post. What is the reference for the recent study that shows that “shame is the biggest reason that children and adults stay away from family history”?

  11. I was wondering the same thing. Wouldn’t distractions- other things to do in life be the number one reason people stay away from Family History?

  12. In my family, one of my great grandmothers led a rather different life along with her brother. She left her pioneer husband and ran off with a gambler. She became pregnant by the live-in gambler while staying in the same house with her mother and her brother who had also run off with and was simultaneously sleeping with a 15-year-old niece. The Utah county sheriff got wind of this, the gambler was convicted and jailed for adultery. My great grandmother had her baby while under house arrest, her brother went to prison. After serving time, my great grandmother married a Nevada sheriff (go figure) who became my great grandfather (it’s not clear that she was divorced from her first husband).

    In the family, this was all massaged by turning the gambler into a polygamist, adjusting faux marriage dates so that the first husband was second, the gambler’s child became a mysterious “aunt” that no one ever clearly explained (though my mother loved her and often joined her for Sunday dinner), and erasing the incestuous uncle and niece altogether. I think my mother may have known about this but I’m not certain. I found the initial lead when doing newspaper searches for something else altogether. I don’t think the rest of my great grandmother’s descendants are too excited about my additions to familysearch. There are many as yet unexplored backstories in all this that are probably lost to history. But shame. Yeah.

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