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How family lore shapes character

Elizabeth Warren’s grandfatherWarren Campaign

Family lore makes us who we are. In my case, the story of my mother’s Uncle Jim was defining. She grew up an immigrant’s daughter in the Irish-American enclave on Chicago’s South Side. You could walk down the street, she told me, and hear Irish rebel songs being sung in taverns. It was the music of the Rising — that Easter Monday in 1916 when Irish rebels took over the Dublin post office, prompting the British to shell the center city, sparking the war that won Irish independence.

My mother heard its music personally because she was told that her father’s left-behind kid brother, Jim Morrissey, was one of the Rising’s martyred heroes. By my time, Uncle Jim was enshrined in family memory. My mother bounced me on her knee to the Irving Berlin tune about an out-of-line soldier, “They Were All Out of Step but Jim.” Because I shared his name, his maverick aura extended to me as I grew up. My inbred subservience competed with an impulse to transgress, as Jim did. I was primed for the revolutions of the 1960s.


Eventually in Ireland, I tracked down the Tipperary village from which my grandfather had emigrated, but in my case the search for roots centered on his brother. In a hilltop hamlet named Four Mile Water, an old farmer pointed me to the long-abandoned cemetery where I would find his grave. Sure enough, when I pushed the overgrown grass away from James Morrissey’s tombstone, I saw the mythic date — 1916.

But then I saw the prefix “Pvt.” and the seal of the British army, together with indications that he’d been killed in France with an Irish regiment. It hit me: Instead of an anti-England rebel, my mother’s uncle had died as a British soldier in the Great War.


Somewhere in the years that followed, my family had reversed the meaning of my namesake’s death, presumably amid social pressure or a sense of political shame. Yet it would be shallow, in the context of a tragic history, to dismiss revisionist Morrissey myth-making as mere deceit. Muddied as it was, this family lore still shaped us. In my case, it was as if my long-dead uncle had commissioned me through my mother, despite his own fate, to grow up questioning authority — and, for better and worse, I did.

Here is the real significance of Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren’s much-discussed descent from Native Americans. In her case, she had no reason to distrust the facts she had been told, nor is there any evidence that she used them to advance her career. Those who slur Warren’s “character” miss how the trove of family story, myth, and memory shapes a person. What did this lore mean to Elizabeth Warren, and what did she make of the legacy she received?

When Oklahoma was made a state in 1907, barely four decades before Warren was born there, it incorporated the so-called Indian Territory — that culmination of the multiple betrayals of Native Americans, an end of the “trail of tears.” The Cherokee people, in particular, paid the price of the “forced relocation” across thousands of miles, with thousands dead. More than in the rest of America, ghosts of the Indian wars abound in Oklahoma. Warren’s family, tracing itself to those Cherokees, was haunted by them. That the anti-Indian prejudice directed at her parents, like some bloodlines themselves, is impossible to document only underscores its viciousness. Bigotry thrives on innuendo.


For us, the point is that Warren was marked early on by visceral identification with dispossessed victims. Perhaps not coincidentally, her professional life has been defined by an acute sense of wrongs inflicted upon whole classes of people, especially those confronting bankruptcy. “Character,” Warren said in last week’s debate, “is how you live your life.”

Family memory is selective. Irishmen who died for Britain in World War I are all but forgotten, while the few Easter rebels are lionized. My great-uncle’s story was lost in that green fog, with consequences for me. Because the United States suffers from its own historical amnesia, about Native Americans, a certain vagueness clouds much family lore in this country, too — perhaps especially in Oklahoma. Yet stories of the past, even if altered, have weight in the present. Elizabeth Warren does not tie her passion for justice to a burdened family history. But such a connection, to me, reveals the only character issue that matters.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.