The Genogram Journey: Reconnecting with Your Family

Book Review by

You Can Go Home Again by Monica McGoldrickThe Genogram Journey: Reconnecting with Your Family

Monica McGoldrick is an important figure in the second wave of family therapists -- those who learned from the founders of the field (Ackerman, Bowen, Haley, Minuchin, Whitaker, Framo, and others). She has written a number of significant books for professionals - The Changing Family Life Cycle, Ethnicity in Family Therapy, Women in Families, Living Beyond Loss, and Genograms in Family Assessment. Her articulate writing, wide- ranging interests, and intuitive grasp of the fundamental realities of family life make each of her books an eagerly- anticipated event for family therapists.

Central to her work has been the awareness that family therapists are not just people who treat "disturbed" families -- they come from their own imperfect families and bring their own baggage of unfinished family business. (Disclosure: I am a family therapist and have learned a great deal from her work, both personally and professionally.) An important part of the training of family therapists is doing work on one's own "family of origin" -- the family we started out with.

Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist from the small Tennessee town of Waverly, came to national prominence in the late sixties by publishing (at first anonymously) the account of his exploration of his own family of origin. This groundbreaking work was not unlike Freud's Interpretation of Dreams -- or Piaget's observations of his own children -- where the author explored his own personal life, mining it for rich observations by being able to observe "from the inside."

The critics may contend that this approach allows an element of subjectivity to penetrate scientific work -- but the pioneers of any science must first survey the territory, relying on close observation as the first step in building a body of knowledge. The experimenters may come later with their statistical analyses, but they are building on the work of those who had the courage to go into unknown territory to see what was there.

Bowen developed a tool to summarize his findings, called the genogram. It is simply a schematic version of a family tree, or in genealogical terms, a pedigree chart. Circles represent female family members, squares are males; lines are drawn so that marriages, divorces, children and succeeding generations are clearly represented.

Bowen's brilliant addition to this already-existing schema was to add family data pertinent to the psychological and emotional life of the family -- jagged lines representing conflictual relationships; strong dark lines representing overly-close or enmeshed relationships; data about affairs and addictions, education and employment, births, miscarriages, geographical moves, illnesses, deaths, and more. A genogram may cover a large sheet of butcher paper, and summarize enormous amounts of family information.

As one produces a genogram of one's family, patterns begin to emerge: the same given names may crop up in generation after generation, showing identifications made or honor paid to beloved family members; significant family events may cluster together chronologically, such as deaths, moves, illnesses and other dislocations. Blank spaces where information is missing signify emotional cut-offs, where relationships have been broken; a gridlocked snarl of dark lines of overinvolvement signal enmeshment, families from which it may be difficult to individuate.

Alcoholism and other addictions, depression, suicide, over- or under-achievement, illnesses and other family phenomena may emerge in clear multi-generational patterns which help the person producing the genogram to obtain a perspective on their place in the family system. The drama which is our family of origin was going on long before each of us appeared upon the stage; often we were (metaphorically) handed scripted roles at an early age and have faithfully attempted to perform them.

McGoldrick's book, her first directed to a lay audience, is a book of hopefulness, showing the way to reconnect with your family of origin. Paradoxically that may involve moving closer to painful or troubling aspects of your family, but doing so with the eye of the researcher, using your genogram as a guide to help you understand the patterns in your family.

As Murray Bowen insisted so long ago, the goal of family therapy is that each individual increasingly become differentiated from what he termed "the undifferentiated family ego mass." Families possess force fields proportional to the gravitational field of Jupiter -- the pull is strong to fill the roles assigned to us before we were born, and to be loyal and unquestioning.

McGoldrick points out again and again that the challenge is to move close enough to one's family to connect -- without losing the sense of self and individuality that has been forged in adult life. Her book is filled with examples of famous families -- the Brontes, Beethoven, Eugene O'Neill, Freud, the Kennedys, Bill Clinton, Wilbur and Orville Wright, Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Dickens and many others. She draws upon biographical information to construct each family's genogram, using it to illustrate various aspects of family life.

Chapters address family stories, myths and secrets; family ties and loyalty binds; loss and family reorganization; parents and children; sisters and brothers, couple relationships, and the importance of class and culture. The final chapter is about reconnecting, and challenges the reader to call upon all his or her resources of empathy to attempt to understand the frailties, villanies, mistakes and humanness of the family one started out with.

She offers wise counsel for how to go home again. The first guideline is "don't attack and don't defend" - meaning, find a way to be yourself without falling into the old patterns. She suggests using family celebrations as an important method of reconnecting: weddings, funerals and family reunions may be rich sources of family information from extended family. At these gatherings, old stories are told and retold and family members may be more open to responding to questions about family history. She also suggests the use of letters and family pictures as useful tools in the reconnecting process.

I did my Ph.D. dissertation on the impact of deaths on a family system over five generations -- and studied a branch of my maternal grandmother's family, using genogram methods, gathering family stories, meeting and visiting distant relatives I did not previously know to gather their reminiscences of this family.

In this process I stumbled upon several family secrets, including the alcoholism and subsequent suicide of both my great-great grandfather and my great-uncle. This information, along with the rest of the history I gathered, profoundly affected my ability to have compassion for my family of origin. Many puzzling aspects of this family's life -- its insularity, the gaps in history, idealization of family members with little information about them, and a subtle, deep and abiding sense of shame - began to make more sense. I won't say I am no longer affected by the suffering of previous generations of my family, but I feel significantly freer of the shadow of those painful events my forebears lived through.

The Genogram Journey: Reconnecting with Your Family is a rich, interesting and helpful book for anyone who wants to understand more about how families really work. You will recognize parts of your family in the many stories she tells about well-known families. It comes down to this: even if we have been fleeing from our family all our adult life - they are still having a profound impact on us. McGoldrick points the way to a different kind of outcome, where it is possible to come to terms with the family we started out with - and to live a life of freedom on our own terms.