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Fictional Families and Hope - Bina Shah

We all live with two families: the non-fictional and the fictional. That is to say: the non-fictional family is the family of facts. Mother, father, two sisters, a brother who died in childhood, etcetera. In the non-fictional family exist the minutiae of domestic life: I do the shopping, he cleans the kitchen; we go to the mosque on Friday or to church on Sunday. My mother came to live with us two years ago; she has dementia. My father lives two hours away, and I see him twice a month. My grandfather died of dementia. Etcetera.

But the fictional family is the imagined family, beyond the facts, the one about whom we tell all the stories, about whom all the stories are told to us and passed down, generation to generation. Beyond myth and lore, the stories that encompass the emotions, the conclusions, the trauma, the disappointments. My mother never loved me; my father is a difficult man, I never knew affection from him. My sister is my best friend. My son is my life; I couldn't live without him. There are happy stories, too, of course: I had an idyllic childhood; my parents adored me. I never argued with my husband.

But the more common fictional family, the complicated, messy, subjectively remembered family – is it authentic? And more than that, is there ever any hope that we might be able to go beyond the fiction, and see our families as they really are? To imagine them with the best of intentions, instead of the worst? To ease our own disappointments about our families, how they let us down, or to be able to come to terms with a world that might be less than perfect as the family we imagined ourselves to have come from?

Not only do we live with our own fictional family, but the fictional families of our parents, and those of our siblings. This is because while every person's non-fictional family is the same, every person's fictional family is different. The non-fictional family is the root of biography; the fictional is the root of memoirs, essays and novels, countless therapy sessions and long talks into the night between lovers, trying to pick open the locks, open the windows, let in fresh air into the dark spaces of our soul. The fictional family becomes even more complex as the years go by. If our parents or siblings die, our stories become frozen in time, and then they turn from ice into stone.

The central tenet of both the non-fictional and the fictional family is yourself at its centre. In the non-fictional family, your needs are immediate and absolute: food, shelter, care, and protection. In the fictional family, your emotional needs may or may not take centre stage, but you will always see yourself at the heart of your fictional family, either as hero or villain. So many feelings, beliefs and psychological defences in our lives are generated by living in the fictional family, as winners or losers in the family hierarchy. You witness everything that happens in the non-fictional family with your five senses, but you create the fictional family by viewing it all through the lens of your emotions.

In your mind, the story of you in your fictional family always has a swelling soundtrack. You are the gladiator, dying at the centre of a large arena, while crowds cheer you on or deride you. Your family are the other gladiators, either fighting you to death or helping you escape death. This is what it boils down to, in the simplicity of our prehistoric brains, our nervous systems, and our primary emotions.

Can we ever be subjective about our own families, or others’ (those of our spouses, lovers, friends)? Can we ever understand our families without our stories about them, good and bad, true and untrue? Even though we are most intimate with our families, they still remain a mystery to us. We come into our families as defenceless infants, dependent for every single thing on our caregivers. In many ways, this is how we exit our lives as well. We spend our lives as children in these families until it becomes too much – the irrationality, the drama, the chaos. We often leave in order to find ourselves, but sometimes we must stay. Everyone takes the Hero’s journey into the underworld either by leaving their families or living with them.

But I would argue that there is hope. It is a difficult task to step back from the stories you have told yourself about your family. It is only with time, distance, wisdom and some luck that we might become suspicious of those stories. Then we might begin to see the truth behind them: that instead of being godlike, our parents were scared and vulnerable, just like us. That the jealous sister is actually deeply attached to you but you have been rejecting her for the whole of both your lives. That the dead brother bears no fault for having been idealised by your devastated parents at the expense of the living siblings.

The stories may never end, but for some people, sometimes they fall away for a few moments, while for others, it takes a few days or months or even years for them to recede into the background in favour of something newer and more truthful. If you want to find peace with your family, it should be your ambition to one day see them as naked as Adam and Eve before they ate the apple. If you are brave, you might see them in all their innocence and potential, before the hurts, disappointments, difficulties and scars covered you all. Beyond those brief and wondrous times, you will one day truly see your family; not in fictional form, with all its cartoonish exaggerations, or even in non-fictional objectivity, but in warmth and love. When you have found forgiveness for all their mistakes, and admiration for yourself, you survived it all.