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.