‘"Do Grandmas have husbands?" Generational Memories’

Alexander, Sally A.. 2009. ‘"Do Grandmas have husbands?" Generational Memories’. Oral History Review, 36(2), pp. 159-176. ISSN 0094-0798 [Article]

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This essay uses memory in the ancient and modern sense of the “inner life of thought” to describe the formation of generational memory in a modern professional family whose twentieth-century history has been fractured by migration, war, education, and divorce. It is about the power of feeling and law, which framed the practical freedoms of twentieth-century women’s lives and introduced the modern citizen in the aftermath of universal suffrage and world war. The first part of the essay emphasizes the psychic dimension of bodily feeling and drive in the formation of memory; a dimension overlooked by oral history and social movements, yet confirmed by autobiography and memoir. My granddaughter’s questions provoked resistance as well as family stories, and let me observe the thought process in a child. Social history, autobiography, and personal memory confirm the common experience of everyday life reaching back through generations of London families; folklore, commerce, and family story make narratives of dreams, hopes, terrors, and events; a child’s comprehension of the outside world is grasped through curiosity, imagination, and play in which bodily feeling is as powerful as speech and prohibition to make meanings that flow between inner world and external reality. The second half of the essay reflects on Joan Riviere’s description of the self. Leading British psychoanalyst, translator of Freud, writing in the 1950s, Riviere’s language of the inner world resonates with the liberal social ethics—empathy, public service, common good—which underpinned women’s and human rights mid-twentieth century and the egalitarian and reproduction reforms whose universalism has been challenged since the 1970s. Negative feeling is striking in Riviere’s description of the self—fear, shame, shock, and trauma, which are confirmed in memoir and autobiography. In contrast, liberal social democratic accounts of the time idealized English character. Today, the future uncertain, memory—in the ancient and modern sense of the “inner eye of thought”—is more than ever necessary for social movements as for the individual.

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September 2009Published

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07 Jul 2015 09:25

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27 Jun 2017 10:07

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.



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