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Latter-day: Owning The Good And The Bad From Your Family Tree

Illustration of mormon imagery.
Renee Bright / KUER
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Family history work is a major priority for Latter-day Saints. They believe members can do sacred rituals, like baptism, on behalf of their ancestors. Offering them a chance at salvation beyond the grave. Michelle Franzoni Thorley, a Utah based visual artist and ancestry enthusiast, believes those ordinances are important but also sees family history as a way to access generational healing. 

As a Mexican-American, Thorley says it’s easy for Latter-day Saints to forget there’s inherent privilege in family history work. The expectation that records of your ancestors even exist is a privileged perspective. And that you’ll like what you find. So, it took her a long time to dive in. And although she grew up Mormon, she grew up feeling that family history wasn’t for her. 

Michelle Franzoni Thorley: I am a daughter of a single mom. My parents are divorced and I'm an only child. My mom's side is pioneer stock, so a lot of the work was “done.” And then on my dad's side there was a lot of trauma. And so I knew there was a lot of disconnect. Not a lot of people wanted to talk about family history. So just when people would start talking about it, I knew that they were talking to other people and not me. It wasn't for me.

Lee Hale: What did you do that allowed you to own it and make it for you?

MFT: I was standing in Santiago, Chile, on top of this big hill called San Cristobal, and I was overlooking the city, and I just had this really spiritual experience. On a lot of the architecture in Chile there's the name of the architect on the building. And one building had a name that I recognize. And I said, “I wonder if that could be my family.” And I prayed. and I said, “God, I've tried before and I've hit roadblocks every time. I'm going to try now and you're going to help me.” 

And he confirmed to me that he would. And it's been this journey of of authenticity, of finding out who my ancestors were and how they affect me, and how I can help them to heal, and how we can both move on into the future and create something new for our family.

Painting of family members holding hands in a forest clearing.
Credit Michelle Franzoni Thorley / Flora Familiar
Family history inspires much of Michelle Franzoni Thorley's artwork. This piece is titled "Family History and Temple Work" and Thorley said, "It's all about responsibility and connection."

LH: When Mormons talk about family history, ancestry work, it can sometimes come across as like, well, something you just got to do. You got to put the time in whether you want to or not. How do you respond when you run into Mormons who talk that way about ancestry work?

MFT: So what I've learned in the past four years is that family history is a multifaceted jewel. If you held up this big old diamond with a light on it and you started to spin it and it started to sparkle on all these different planes — that's what family history is. And for so many years, we've been looking at a 2D image of a little dinky diamond. So we're looking at it from one point of view for one perspective. And we're missing out on so much. It's about bringing the dead back to life. And, you know, we do that in in the holy temple. But there's other ways in other to go about that. Like for me, I feel connected to my female ancestors through looking up what folk clothing they might have worn or jewelry or how they wore their hair. I did a big piece on Instagram about braids. And that is a way that I do family history — I wear the braids of my ancestors in my hair.

LH: Sometimes it's tempting to just focus on the good of the past, the positives, the happy attributes. When Mormons tell stories about pioneers, it's usually the heroic, successful, faith-inspired stories. Why do you think it’s important to focus not just on the good, but on the hard things as well from the past?

MFT: This is a gospel principle: opposition in all things. If we're only looking at the Garden of Eden, we're not going to learn the lessons that happened in the lone injury world. And we have to be authentic to ourselves and to our ancestors. We lose so much when we lose our authenticity. There's this term that's like a generational trauma, generational wealth or generational poverty. There's also this thing called generational healing, which gets what — it's family history. 

When we acknowledge the bad things that happen, we are the ones in the line, us in the present. We have all the power to start the healing process. We have the self care, self care. We care for ourselves, for our bodies, for our minds. We're also caring for our ancestors. And when we care, practice, self care and care for ourselves in the present, we are preparing a better future for our descendants. We are being good ancestors in the present. The only time you have to be a good ancestor is now.

Mormon culture influences nearly every aspect of life in Utah. But these days, many long-held values are being challenged, even by the faithful. KUER’s series “Latter-day” examines how Mormon culture is — and isn’t — changing in response.

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