“This self, what is it? For about seventy years I have been asking that question. Can one frame an idea of one’s own personality, map it out, make a picture that is in any measure convincing to an inquiring and fairly honest mind? In my case it has not been possible.” – Bernard Berenson, Sketch for a Self-Portrait
If you go to the second floor of the Spokane Public Library on the first or fourth Thursday of the month between 3 and 6pm, or any Tuesday between 10am and 3pm, you will find, in the southwest corner of the room, opposite to the “Ned M. Barnes Northwest Room,” a series of three lined-up tables reserved for the Eastern Washington Genealogical Society. Several members meet here every week and will offer help to anyone interested in genealogical research. If few take them up on the offer, many of the members will continue doing what they have done for decades: researching their family tree, perusing archives, and contacting potential relatives to establish and corroborate their lineage. Five elderly ladies, the mainstays of the Genealogical Society, warmly greeted me. I was the only person under the age of sixty to attend when I first went this past June.
A few things encouraged me to go that Tuesday. Firstly, I needed a hobby: I was in Spokane for the summer with little to do. The elderly, the main demographic willing to spend three hours at the library on a weekday, usually latch onto genealogy because of its inexhaustibility: you can always find more, and the walls you inevitably hit will tell you what work needs to be done. It makes a good hobby for the retiree with nothing to do. The motivation of the sixty-somethings, of why genealogy instead of say bingo, was more unclear to me. For me, the appeal in the construction a family history is the parallel, unstated project of constructing a personal history. Why do those at the end of their lives invest so much time into the genealogical project?
My grandfather, Jerry, passed away a few years ago. The earliest sense I had of some shared identity between my grandfather and myself, one not wholly dependent on just ‘knowing’ that you’re related, was when I saw the poster of himself playing basketball in high school, with “CHICKEN LEGS MCGOUGAN” inscribed on the side. The most interesting things I learned about Jerry were rarely told directly to me from him. In his advanced age, he limited himself to relaying racist jokes or stories of police misconduct which had impressed a rather negative caricature of his career in my mind. One of the first pictures I found in the Northwest Room archives was a newspaper clipping describing Jerry busting up a twenty-something for a miniscule amount of marijuana in their home, posing with the gram-or-so paired with the confiscated hookah pipe.
Jerry, along with his brother Gene, were motorcycle cops. Eventually, Jerry worked his way up to running the first Intelligence, Vice and Narcotics unit in Spokane. I was taken aback at his funeral when I saw how many people in the city came. Fragments of an interesting life which lived through a dynamic era in our city were disclosed to me when someone would see my last name and relay to me a brief anecdote of their encounter with my Grandpa or his brother. One of the ladies helping me recognized the name. “He seemed very busy, but he would still stop in at the Bon Marché and talk to me sometimes on his breaks. He was quite a gentleman.” People from the Spokane Chess Club (my previous summer hobby) knew him as well. Generosity, cleverness—in both humor and in work—and a deep sense of fraternal duty anchored him amidst a rapidly changing city and escalating drug war.
Spokane at the turn of the 20thcentury was troubled. The Great Spokane Fire of 1889 destroyed most of the downtown district. But the city rallied. It became a hub of industry, flush with natural resources such as timber, and was an important shipping and rail connection. From the 1910’s on, stagnant population growth, crime spikes, and labor tensions held the city back. After the Second World War, however, Spokane experienced a renaissance of sorts. Several architectural disciples of Walter Gropius designed quintessentially modernist buildings of unusually high-quality, given Spokane’s size, that exemplified the city’s renewed life. Economic and population growth returned, culminating in the 1974 World Expo. There were then legitimate hopes—and corresponding anxieties—of Spokane becoming a global city.
This was the context in which my family began to settle down in Spokane. I can’t imagine that the fragments of Jerry’s life, or the particulars of my great-great-great grandfather Malcolm McGougan, who came from Glasgow to here (leaving conspicuously few records behind), will be as interesting to you as it was to me. Genealogy is not compelling for the sordid or spectacular details that you will likely unearth. It’s difficult to relate your story in an entertaining way to an audience who has no stakes in the matter. Genealogy is an engaging project to undergo because it navigates the tense, paradoxical relationship between a narrowly defined conception of the self and the larger, more communal one: a sense of oneself as ephemeral, revisable, and free and another sense of oneself as determined by lineage and history.
The project’s goal is, on its face, not about you. Your story—its desires, habits, and characteristics—are momentarily tossed aside to engage in an objective and at times dull investigation into the lives of your progenitors. It is squarely opposed to the modern emphasis on the self: of self-examination, self-criticism, and self-improvement—theconcern which usually animates young adults who attempt to ‘find’ themselves. Creating a space to charitably give attention to somebody else’s life, to tuck away your own concerns with no expectation of reciprocity from your subject, is liberating. The realization that my ancestors lived in complex, tumultuous times, with inner lives as rich and troubled as mine transformed their figures as alien to me towards something uncannily close. Malcolm, Jerry, and I all likely thought we had a unique grasp on what modern, dynamic life felt like – the sense that life is beset by contingencies, moral dilemmas, and a diminutive sense of what one person can do in the face of all of it. Genealogy pushed me towards a more universal understanding of this deeply subjective feeling, that there is a larger ability and inclination to localize oneself in history.
But that’s not entirely true. At least, it’s incomplete without recognizing the kernel of ego at the heart of it. After all, I’m not investing my time in just anybody. It’s people who I am related to, who indelibly resemble me both physically and characteristically. Charity disappears and reciprocity emerges. A great deal of anxiety that confronted me, though I’m sure it’s not unique, stems from the monumental task presented to young adults to construct and define themselves coherently. I found comfort in the notion that a blueprint is available, that there are points of reference with which to guide myself. The burden of choice is not so heavy when some paths are likely to be either foreclosed or inevitable. The same question which vexed Berenson—“how to sketch the self?”—does not feel so foreboding when I can map affinities between myself and my relatives. To realize that problems which confront me aren’t so unique, to recognize the physical similarity between my forebears and myself, and to see the traces of similar internal struggles provide the closest replica of what it would be “to meet myself for the first time.”