Their exploits or their misadventures invariably embellish family meals. Their first name, even if it is obsolete, remains given to newborns today. Valorous grandfather, atypical uncle, colorful cousin… These mythical ancestors survive long after their death in the family memory.
→ TESTIMONIALS. In search of family origins
“It is not systematic, far from it, but this kind of situation arises when one of the members of the family has distinguished himself in a good or a bad role”, notes family psychotherapist Édith Goldbeter-Merinfeld. He thus remains present, even long after his death, and becomes a model, a reference against which the other members of the family can situate themselves. “ These characters alone convey a shared story, a whole imagination and even embody the values that the family chooses for itself.
“They built him a real legend”
Claude-Hélène, 74, almost discovered his own father, Basile, through this kind of family story. This sometimes severe man did not talk much about the past. “But my uncles and aunts have built a true legend to him”, she recognizes today. The legend of Basil, therefore, as it was told to him, was born in family accounts from the day of his birth.
“His sixth place in a family of eleven immediately placed him at the service of the family”, says Claude-Hélène. He is the one thanks to which his father was able to return from the front of 14-48 to provide for the needs of his large family. He was also from the start the educator of the “little ones”, going so far as to earn enough to feed them very early on. Then, during the Second World War, Basil definitely rose to the rank of hero by joining the Resistance and multiplying acts of bravery.
This courage, this probity, have been told a thousand times during family dinners, where no one has forgotten, either, that he was also, very often, the conciliator, the one who calmed the conflicts between some and others. others. “To thank him, my uncles and aunts wanted to tell his facts and gestures, it was for them a way of making him known to the youngest”, believes Claude-Hélène.
The myth can be negative
These mythical stories, magnified, sometimes even a little idealized, do not exist in all families. Sometimes they are also less positive and can even weigh heavily on the shoulders of the youngest. The myth can be negative, and the family identity is then constructed in opposition. “This is the case, for example, of a family that claims to be extremely honest and builds the image of very great moral rigor in order to better forget a rogue ancestor”, illustrates the former specialist educator and family psychotherapist Jean-Paul Mugnier.
→ MAINTENANCE. Nicole Prieur: “We have the right to free ourselves from family stories”
However, more often than not, families draw from their history anecdotes and characters that give it a positive image. “In a somewhat trivial way, we can say that the family myth, on an identity level, is a way of saying to yourself: I am not just anyone”, he has fun.
Moreover, family myths do not need to be completely correct to play this founding role. At least that is what the therapists who uphold the so-called “systemic” approach believe. According to them, the human being is constructed of words and stories, thanks to which he weaves his belonging to a group, and, from there, can build his own identity. “This approach follows on from the work of the philosopher Paul Ricoeur in particular, and what he called narrative identity. It means that identity stems from the feeling of belonging ”, Jean-Paul Mugnier explains again.
Figures of motherhood
Laure experienced this feeling of belonging by tracing the threads of her maternal genealogy and discovering figures of motherhood. “A few years ago, I discovered somewhat by chance that my great-grandmother, who was called Reine, was born to a girl-mother. My imagination then overflowed on this first name, she confides. I wondered who Reine’s mother was. This country girl from the West of France had the nerve, in the patriarchal society of the time, to have a child alone, on her farm, and to call it that. “
She questions her own grandmother and, one thing leading to another, the faces of Reine and of her own mother have gradually come out of oblivion. Laure then told their story in a text with an unexpected echo, read at her grandmother’s funeral. “This text was important for me, since it allowed me to reflect on motherhood, to meet figures of women whom I did not know but without whom I would not be there. These mothers captivated me when I myself had just had my own daughter. Our filiation struck me by its obviousness. I was also very touched to discover how much my grandmother loved her own mother. “
According to psychotherapists, family myths are also particularly important in youth, especially in their twenties. At the age when the question that guides life is “Who will I be?” “, we need stories to tell, “Even if we know very well that they are not completely true”, considers Jean-Paul Mugnier. They are, in fact, rarely, since the myth is constructed over repeated stories, magnified and never faithfully reproduced. But that’s precisely what they teach us: the dream part of ourselves.
Testimonials: “We all live with Henry de Monfreid”
Dorothée de Monfreid. Designer and writer, 48 years old. Great-granddaughter of Henry de Monfreid
“My great-grandfather was a writer and adventurer. He traveled the world at a time when this was very rare, crisscrossed the Red Sea on a dhow, was an arms dealer and a writer. I am one of the few cousins of my generation to have a photo of me with him. It gives me a sort of privilege. I also carry his name, which is another point in common. However, I believe that we all live with Henry de Monfreid, without it being voluntary. For my part, I think of him because he offers me a mirror in which I recognize myself. We share certain character traits, including the spirit of independence, non-conformism and a real problem with authority. He was also a painter and the son of a painter. I owe him for having instilled in my family this artistic culture in which I flourished. However, I also want to claim myself from another person, his second wife who was called Armgart Freudenfeld. This young German left everything, on the eve of the First World War, to follow this Frenchman to Africa. My children also see it as a beautiful feminist figure. “
Guillaume de Monfreid,71 years old. Grandson
“I would say that my relationship with my grandfather was that of a completely atypical old man with an ordinary young man. It was necessarily asymmetric. How to compete with a fascinating adventurer? Since his death, I have the feeling that a friendship of a new type binds us because I have become his literary agent. He indeed died when I was 24 years old. And the family nominated me for this role. So I found myself facing several cubic meters of documents, texts, photos, drawings. It took me forty years to go around it, classify, give to the archives, exhibit, publish, etc. Today, I have the feeling that I know Henry from A to Z. He also bequeathed me his features, his frenzied individualism. It even seemed to me sometimes that he was winking at me from his grave, when my job as an architect took me in his footsteps, in countries where he had lived. It is therefore an invasive ancestor, who counted a lot but without weighing. “
Lionel Latham,48 years old. Great grandson
“I heard about Henry from my grandmother, who was his eldest daughter. She was very open-minded and had kept from her adventurous childhood in ways that impressed us. For example, she never used washing-up liquid, because there was none in Ethiopia, where she had grown up. But I did meet Henry by reading four or five of his books, especially his Letters from Abyssinia. He tells about his setbacks when he arrived in this country. This book became a source of inspiration for the young man that I was then and who was looking for his way. I thought it was nice that he was able to endure so many failures without getting discouraged before becoming a legend. “
For a psychological approach
The child facing the suffering of his parents. A generational link, by Jean-Paul Mugnier, Éd. Fabert, 2021.
Family stories and legends, Family therapy critical book n ° 51, 2013
For a sociological approach
Family stories, edited by Solène Billaud, Éd. Rue d’Ulm, presses de l’ENS, 2015. The authors analyze the way in which family stories are produced, told and transmitted through contemporary kinship, making up the history of our societies.