Review: Translating Your Past

Translating Your Past, Michelle Van Loon. Harrisburg: Herald Press, 2021.

Summary: A guide to making sense of one’s past and how our family history, traumas in previous generations, our genetic makeup, and for many, how adoption help us understand our lives and place in the world.

For many of us, our family stories have chapters or whole parts that are opaque to us. Or some of the pages are missing. Yet our families literally have made us who we are right down to our genetic material. The stories include the good, the bad, and the ugly, and known or unknown to us, have contributed to who we are. Knowing those stories give us a better sense of our place in the world and a better self-understanding. It might be something as simple as the baldness that runs in my family to a propensity for alcoholism or particular health issues. Tragedies in previous generations get passed down and color our existence. Yet the stories are often gibberish to us. We need help “translating.” That’s what this book is about.

Michelle Van Loon shares out of her own journey including the traumas that touched her grandmother and mother. She acknowledges that we might not always want to know our family’s past but observes that what remains concealed cannot be healed and we miss out on the treasures, the gifts that have come to us through our forebears. She argues for the importance of our family histories from scriptures that make so much of genealogies and family history. In some way, the whole Bible may be read as a family story culminating in Jesus the Messiah, and leading to our eventual incorporation into that family.

She discusses genetic testing, the predispositions to certain diseases they may reveal and the surprises for those who discover their genetic heritage is not what they thought. Yet this genetic code reveals the unique way our inheritance from two different people makes us utterly unique creatures in the image of God, a source of wonder. We also receive unwanted gifts in the form of intergenerational traumas that may be transmitted in epigenetic expression, activating genes that may otherwise be silent. It can be hard to understand why God permitted this trauma, but Van Loon addresses finding hope that these need not have the last word in our lives. There are also patterns that often repeat from generation to generation. In the case where these are unhealthy, understanding is the first step, an important one of honesty. This may make sense of the unwritten “vows” we make. And this offers the chance of breaking free, of establishing new patterns. Sometimes the “gaps” reflect hard things, and the perpetuation of the family a certain resilience.

Adoption creates a unique situation as one comes to grips with both the birth families from which one arises and the family that has given a home and their love. She discusses the core issues adoptees face: loss, rejection, shame and guilt, grief, identity, intimacy, mastery and control and the options adoptees now have to relate to both families. The question of who our people are takes us as well into our race and ethnicity, and how these have shaped us.

Van Loon expands “family” to our faith communities, and doing so makes me wonder whether the physical communities that our families have inhabited also shape our stories. My wife and I grew up in the same town and have become aware of the values and outlooks that came from growing up in that town and their influence on our families and our shared family.

Ultimately, Van Loon believes our stories, even with their hard parts, may speak of the story God is writing in our lives and encourage us. I find this so. Both of my grandmothers’ Bibles sit close at hand as I write. My one grandmother died when I was very young and I have no memory of her, the other later, but to know of their faith, and to have heard stories of my one grandmother’s prayers for me from those who knew her, and to see how God has answered those is powerful–how God has worked across generations. I am not simply the genetic inheritance I’ve received from them, but I share in their spiritual inheritance as well, a source of profound thanksgiving. I’m grateful for this reminder from Van Loon’s book.

Her book includes two helpful appendices–a toolkit which may be used to discuss or personally reflect on the chapters as well as a second that provides specific resources for tracing our family histories.

Genealogy research has grown in popularity over the years. The genetic tools add a new dimension. What Van Loon offers is perspective that helps us translate information into meaning–leading to healing and growth in some instances, pride and thanksgiving in others, and a greater sense of our place in God’s world.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

One thought on “Review: Translating Your Past

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: March 2022 | Bob on Books

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