We went to see a wonderful film the other night, Stories We Tell by Canadian actor and director Sarah Polley. It had been recommended by friends who know how two of our children were conceived but they failed to mention the genetic disconnect at the heart of this story. Although it feels like a fictional account, the film is really a documentary about the director’s family. Polley was the last child of a British actor and his Canadian actor/TV personality wife. She was conceived whilst her mother was away from home for a few months working, but her father did visit during this time and the couple rediscovered a passion for each other that had been missing from the marriage for a while. Tragically Polley’s mother died of cancer when she was 11 and her mother in her early fifties. Sarah was the only child left at home and she and her father became very close in the years after her mother’s death. During this time there were many lighthearted comments going round in the family about how Sarah didn’t look anything like her father and one or two people mentioned the name of an actor Polley’s mother had worked with and with whom she may have had an affair. Sarah eventually confronts the actor about this, only to meet with a denial, although she is sure he is holding something back. She then goes to see another man who was a friend of her mother during this time to ask if he knows anything about someone her mother might have been having an affair with. She discovers that it is him…and he knows that Sarah was conceived at this time. Much to the annoyance of this man Polley decides she wants to try and make sense of her memory of her mother and her own beginnings by interviewing all members of the family as well as friends of her mother – some of whom knew about the affair and the conception of a child. The man her mother had the affair with believes that his relationship with Polley’s mother and the circumstances surrounding her conception are his story alone. Nevertheless he co-operates with Polley’s film which consists of a melange of real home videos, faux Super 8 footage from the past with actors taking the roles of family and friends when younger and contemporary interviews. Polley’s voice is heard asking questions but she contributes nothing. We see her only sitting impassively in her Director role, sometimes asking people to repeat what they have said. Her father, that is the man she grew up with, acts as narrator of the story he wrote following the revelation of the genetic disconnect. He too needs to make sense of his wife’s memory.
And this is what we all do. We make sense of our lives through the telling of stories. Whether those stories are ‘the truth’ or not is something else entirely. It may be agreed that an event happened…a birth, a death, a birthday or even a visit to the seaside, but the memory of it will be seen through the filter of the expectations and experiences of those who were there. I recall my brother being horrified by the memories my sister and I had of our parents after they had died. But we were different people, each had our place in the family and we experienced family life in our different ways. What seems important is that whatever we remember it is something that we can make sense of…we can reflect and understand why things were the way they were.
Where is this post going you may be wondering. Well the film of course made me think about donor conception families and how important it is to be truthful with children from a young age. Early in the life of DC Network we compared the differences between adopted and donor conceived children’s lives and experiences. We learned from the adoption experience how important early ‘telling’ is.
Studies have looked at why some adopted young people struggle in their adult lives with the factors around their adoption, whilst others seem freer to enjoy their lives, even though there may be large gaps in their histories, and those histories may be of grief and loss. The conclusion is that ‘it is not what happens to you that matters, it is the way you make sense of it that counts in the end‘.
There is no doubt that stable and supportive family relationships are a very important protective factor, but also, that there is something powerful in how people come to see their stories and make sense of their experiences. Adoptive parents who told coherent (plausible, objective, as complete as possible) stories of the young person’s history tended to have very good relationships with their children. Our stories show how we understand our past and how we use this to make sense of present and future.
It is easy to see how this might fit with donor conceived children. If parents have made peace with their need to use donated eggs or sperm then they are free to be able to tell a very positive family story to their child, thus helping them begin to create their own story. Parents may not be able to fill in all the gaps in their children’s stories, but the heartening view is that this does not seem to matter as much as how they are able to help their children make sense of what they can tell them.
The children’s books that DC Network went on to write and publish are called ‘My Story’ and ‘Our Story’ and the film featuring donor conceived young people entitled “A Different Story’. it has this title because one of the young people featured said she had a different story to tell.
It is important of course that once children (young people, adults) begin to develop their own narrative about their lives that parents do not insist that their version is the ‘correct’ one. We all have our own stories but if the one we have grown up with seems to make sense I think we are more likely to build on it rather than try to reconstruct it.
Do go and see the film if you can, it’s really worthwhile. And the actor? He was holding something back but I’m not going to tell you what it was.