“How are you?” is a question – as I remember my mother telling me long ago – best avoided. Once you start to think about it, you realise most people prefer not to have to respond to the inquiry truthfully (a polite “fine” covers it).
In Every Family Has a Story: How We Inherit Love and Loss, a collection of eight family narratives, psychotherapist Julia Samuel finds herself asking Archie, a man in his 50s with a brain tumour who has been told he has no more than a year to live, how he is, and he “gently” reminds her of her “insensitivity” – and she reproaches herself. What makes Samuel outstandingly sympathetic as a therapist and as a writer is her unusual willingness to admit to faultiness and not to be remote or over-authoritative. She is a virtuoso listener, but wears her heart on her sleeve and will occasionally admit to feeling unequal to what she is witnessing. Her lovely – and in no way insensitive – character leavens the narratives assembled here.
Samuel’s books have been bestsellers partly because they are infused with hope. She could be described as a sanguine realist – even, or particularly, when the stories she tells are bleak. Her first book was Grief Works (2017), based on 25 years of working as a grief psychotherapist, and her insights about loss continue to serve her well. Her splendid second book, This Too Shall Pass (2020), was a natural extension of the first, focusing on how different sorts of change affect us, and offering a first-aid kit for the psyche as its conclusion. This third book is the most intrepid because Samuel’s training has not been in “family systems” (she judiciously includes a supervisor in the narrative). The focus is on the fascinating subject of how the “unresolved stressors of one generation can be passed down to intensify the daily pressures of life for the next”. It is well known that Samuel was born into the Guinness family and was a friend of Princess Diana’s, but what she chooses to disclose here is merely that her parents’ background was one of “great privilege and multiple traumas” – survived by the stiffest of upper lips. “The perfect brew to ferment a psychotherapist,” she adds lightly.
The eight families have been carefully chosen. They are diverse in ethnicity, sexuality, economic circumstances and in the issues they raise: divorce, bereavement, same-sex marriage and adoption, addiction, empty nest syndrome. The effect is at times almost too schematic (was her publisher calling the shots?), but the Samuel magic continues to obtain. She shows that there is no family tree without its gnarled complexity. Families are “messy, chaotic and imperfect. Where we love and care most, we also hurt most…” She reminds us: “One of the snares of family is it is the only relationship we cannot leave, however much we might like to.”
She describes how families have changed: “New families include single-parent families, stepfamilies, polyamorous families, extended families and blended families, made up of the couple, the children they have had together and those from their previous relationships.” The latest research is sobering: in the US, divorce among couples over 50 has doubled in the past 20 years, while 5% of siblings are said to be completely estranged and 23% barely speak to one another. And there is another arresting new finding: “We all worry more than previous generations, and particularly about our adult children.”
My husband, who is Jewish, likes to tell a Jewish joke: “If you’re not worrying about anything – you should be worried…” Samuel writes brilliantly about worry in general and about parenting adult children in particular, and continuing to worry about them. It’s good to see her pointing out the tyranny of smartphones that update parents about “every small kink” and “feed a loop of anxiety”. I was glad to see her highlighting the paradox of “how to hold on to our children while letting them go”. She urges the ditching of expectations. She suggests that parents, if they are trusted by their adult children, have more influence than they might suppose. In a particularly moving chapter she meets the Bergers, an ultra-orthodox Jewish family, five generations presided over by Kati, a Holocaust survivor. She explores how trauma plays out, and is profoundly shocked by Kati’s story and impressed by the family. Worry itself can be an inheritance.
From the start, Samuel emphasises that therapy need not be epic: “For someone using time as a barrier to seeking therapy I would suggest (with a smile) it takes less time than watching a TV series.” She reminds the reader, too, of the power of contrition. How long, after all, does it take to say sorry? Archie takes his adult children out separately to apologise for his shortcomings as a father, and each reports on the transformative effect on their relationship with him.
Occasionally, Samuel’s elegant wrapping up of chapters – the hint of marshmallow without quite enough steel – encourages misgivings. Would more time have helped? Maybe there needed to be a garnish of hopelessness too – to convince. She concludes: “The difficult truth is that we can only fix what we can face.” I was waiting for her to add that there is an even more difficult truth: that not everything can be fixed. But Samuel is on the side of making life better, and, especially at this moment in human history, nothing could matter more.
• Every Family Has a Story: How We Inherit Love and Loss by Julia Samuel is published by Penguin (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply