Interview with my father

My father, 1960

My father, 1960

My father died five years ago. Our relationship continues to evolve.

Last summer, while brainstorming an exercise for a group at an artists’ and writers’ retreat organized by my friend Bethany Ides, I invented the ancestor interview. It turned out to be a simple but potent process, enabling the living to address the dead. Each person described an ancestor to the group and then conversed with someone who took the role of the ancestor.

When it was my turn, I picked my father. I spoke for five minutes, explaining that he was conservative, remote emotionally, yet financially generous. People asked questions, and I described his alienation from his birth family and his dedication to his work. Twenty-five-year-old Stephen offered to impersonate him. When I began to speak to Stephen-as-my-father, I was surprised at how angry I felt.

“I was hurt,” I told him. “You hardly ever talked to me. You didn’t pay attention to me unless I came after you.”

“I was busy earning a living,” he replied. “I didn’t know how to relate to kids anyway. That was your mother’s job.”

“I know, but don’t you understand how lonely I was? I was a really shy kid. It would have meant so much to have more of you in my life. You could have made more of an effort.”

“I did my best.”

“Well, that was the problem, you couldn’t do any better because you were so cut off from your emotions. You just squashed down all your feelings about your mother and left me with the mess of what you didn’t deal with. Your children and grandchildren have all suffered from it!”

The measured response came eerily close to the voice of my father. “That’s how you see it. But my family was crazy, and I had to protect myself and your mother. It’s not fair for you to blame your problems on me. We all have problems. We can feel sorry for ourselves, or we can move on.”

The conversation left me shaken and close to tears, but it was a relief to express my anger, and I felt a deepened compassion for my father. I also realized there was power in this method. Although I have studied with Glenn Leisching, an elder initiated into a West African tribe, I have found it difficult to organize ancestor rituals, the tradition indigenous people use to make contact with their forebears. For modern Westerners, ancestor interviews are more practical.

I told Glenn, who is now living in California, that I had discovered a Western alternative to African ancestor rituals. He compared the interviews to a system called Constellation Work, developed by a German psychotherapist who had spent time with the Zulu people in South Africa. “He based his work on what he learned from the Zulu about the ancestors,” said Glenn. “So you’re really using an African system after all.”

I will be leading an Ancestor Interview workshop at the Historical Society of Woodstock on Sunday, June 28, 2015, at 3 p.m. This event is a benefit for the museum, with a suggested donation of $10. Come and see what gifts your ancestors have for you.

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6 Responses to Interview with my father

  1. Virginia Ciliotta says:

    Wow… it’s clear that this ancestor interview is a very powerful tool. The person playing the role of your father seemed to learn quickly from your emotionally charged statements and gave you the impetus to continue to dialog with your “dad”. So good to have a non-threatening way to let out your feelings about a loved one, good and bad, and to be able to find compassion for that person.

  2. Ina Kozel says:

    I experienced this at your session at the Phoenicia library. I spoke to my fraternal grandmother and her words still cling to me in a mysterious, important way. My interviewee was also amazingly astute in responding to my familial situation. In this process, as in life, all parties have to be open and present for the magic to happen. Thank you, Violet.

    • visnow77 says:

      Ina, what a lovely observation! The process does seem to open the conversation, from both sides, in a meaningful way. Sometimes the interviewers get as much out of it as the interviewees.

  3. maelife says:

    Wow Violet – this is really amazing. Not sure if I can attend on Sunday, but the work sounds fascinating and your interview was very moving. MA

    Mary Anne Erickson Fine Artist 320 George Sickle Rd Saugerties, NY 12477 845-594-4050


  4. visnow77 says:

    Thank you, Mary Anne. Maybe you’d like to guest blog about some of your ancestral research? Let me know.

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