Let’s Not Talk About Estrangement

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At Guernica, Joanna Hershon considers her estranged uncle (a man she met once, but never knew) and wonders not only about how his self-imposed distance has affected his parents and siblings, but specifically about the lack of family discourse or discord over their missing member.

Researchers at Emory University in the 1990s—Dr. Marshall Duke and Dr. Robyn Fivush—discovered that the more children know about their families, the better they do in the face of life’s challenges. The kinds of stories that predict the closest families aren’t successes or failures but rather tales that incorporate life’s challenges into the family lore. It’s not my uncle’s absence that haunts me—after all, I never knew him. It’s that no one—not my grandparents, my parents, or any of my mother’s cousins we visited with over the years—told me stories about him, or about losing him. No one mused aloud about why he removed himself from the rest of us. It’s the absence of inquiry that feels disquieting, even now. How could my mother grow up in the same small house as her brother, and have nothing much to say about him? What are her questions, and where does she put them?

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