Critical Family History Book Review: Everything I Never Told You

Ng, Everything I Never Told You

Ng, Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You, a novel by Celeste Ng, does not directly address Critical Family History. Yet, this well-written page-turner goes right to the heart of why Critical Family History is important.

Everything I Never Told You, which tells the story of Marilyn and James Lee and their three children, probes the power of unexamined lessons and experiences we absorb from our parents, then project onto our children. Growing up in the 1950s, Marilyn was determined not to be like her mother, a home-economics teacher who believed that a woman’s future depended on getting a good man, but who was then abandoned by her husband. In contrast to her mother’s life and her mother’s wishes, Marilyn’s dream was to become a physician. James, the son of very poor Chinese immigrants, grew up determined to blend in with Anglo American society, unlike his parents whose foreign-ness made them outsiders. When the couple married, they made a pact with each other to ignore the past: “to let the past drift away, to stop asking questions, to look forward from then on, never look back.” They believed that by turning their backs on the past, they could create a new beginning.

The opposite happened. I don’t want to give the story away, it’s well worth reading. But I’ll share a little bit. One of the turning points was when Marilyn realized that, far from becoming someone quite different from her mother, she had, indeed, become her mother, symbolized by her mother’s Betty Crocker cookbook. In an effort to live with a reality in which she found herself trapped, she projected her own dreams onto her daughter Lydia, not realizing that this was exactly what her mother had done with her. Similarly James used his rejection of his parents’ lives as a template for interpreting his marriage, which led him to discourage his wife from a career. The pain he experienced due to being noticeably “different” served as a lens to interpret – or misinterpret – his children’s lives and needs. Unwittingly, scripts from the past they pledged to turn their backs on drove how the couple related to each other and to their children.

As I read this book, I couldn’t help but think of parallels with Critical Family History, in that very often ignorance of our own past ends up binding us to ways of living and making sense of the world that we do not understand or recognize because we have never named and interrogated it. For example, as I have read and listened to White people’s reactions to the acquittals of police officers who shot unarmed young Black men, I see White ways of thinking about Black men that have long historic roots, but I also see White amnesia about those roots. Interrogating our personal pasts, through the histories of our families, may well unearth enactments of race relationships we would rather forget, but that are still part of us. In my  case, it was very disquieting to discover that one of my White ancestors could have influenced a White grand jury to indict a group of Whites who lynched a Black man, but he did nothing. Actually, I started family history research wanting to find ancestors who fought for social justice. But instead, I found ancestors who either passively accepted White privilege, or actively worked to uphold it, for example, helping to drive Indian people off their land, or agitating against Chinese in California.

Why remember such things, why not just forget them? Mainly because the past continues to exist like traces on carbon paper or the smoke of a candle. It doesn’t just disappear. Rather, it works through us in ways we do not see, unless we are willing to look at our pasts fully in the face. Naming our family’s past does not necessarily mean embracing it, but it does mean understanding it. I hope that as we come to understand our history and historic roots of things that happen today, we can disrupt rather than reproducing unjust patterns.

In Everything I Never Told You, Ng deftly peels back the layers of stunted dreams, pain, love, and silences the family used to try to hold things together, taking the reader on a surprising emotional journey. Eventually, Marilyn and James begin to slowly “piece together” the “things that have never been said,” and perhaps learn to free themselves by facing their pasts together.

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