One of British psychotherapist Julia Samuel’s most moving Instagram interviews in the past couple of years was with Edmund de Waal, who had written about Moïse de Camondo, the Jewish businessman who built a beautiful mansion in Paris in 1911. In effect, he turned it into a monument to his son, Nissim, after Nissim’s death as a pilot in World War I.
Samuel’s latest book, Every Family Has A Story: How We Inherit Love And Loss, is a reminder that nothing shapes us as humans as our families do. “We can never leave them, as we can a partner or a friendship,” Samuel declares. The book has eight case studies—from a family recovering from the loss of a toddler to a brain tumour, to an Irish and Indian gay male couple coping with occasional unkindness in playgroups after adopting a girl, to a middle-aged man still trying to understand, decades later, why his father treated him as the proverbial stepchild. In the last instance, Ivo, prone to flashes of temper and a drinking problem, confronts his mother in a session with Samuel and his siblings. It is a chapter rife with verbal violence. His mother casually confirms she had an affair with another man, who is Ivo’s father. Underlining how important family can be in both redeeming and handicapping us, Ivo is made whole again by the love of his wife and children.
Another client, Dev, a solicitor, grapples with his mother hoping his homosexuality is a phase. His parents come around after he moves in with Aengus. In 2014, the couple got married and adopted a child, Rachel, a few years later. In lieu of godparents, Dev and Aengus create a mini board of eight friends, whom they consult, after the birth mother decides she does not want to remain in contact.
One case study finds Archie, in his 50s, facing terminal cancer while still fighting the demons of having an uncaring, vicious mother who herself was the victim of child abuse. Samuel’s advice is to confront traumas through conversation or therapy rather than let them fester and risk their being passed on to the next generation.
This is a more than occasionally unsettling book, redeemed by Samuel’s compassion and the strong bonds of family, with an epilogue that has 12 touchstones for families to live by. Psychotherapists like Samuel who are unafraid to write and go on social media could be the secular clergy we need for the 21st century.
Rahul Jacob was the travel, food and drink editor for the Financial Times in London and is the author of Right Of Passage, a collection of travel essays