It’S All in the Family, But I Want It

Deborah Cours, California State University, Northridge
Deborah D. Heisley, UCLA
Melanie Wallendorf, University of Arizona
Dylan Johnson, Independent Screenwriter
[ to cite ]:
Deborah Cours, Deborah D. Heisley, Melanie Wallendorf, and Dylan Johnson (1999) ,"It’S All in the Family, But I Want It", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 253-259.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 253-259

IT’S ALL IN THE FAMILY, BUT I WANT IT

Deborah Cours, California State University, Northridge

Deborah D. Heisley, UCLA

Melanie Wallendorf, University of Arizona

Dylan Johnson, Independent Screenwriter

Scene opens with 4 people sitting on bar stools, facing the audience. [Emily is played by Deb, Beth by Debi, Nancy by Melanie, and Robert by Dylan]

Debi

(to the audience throughout)

Deb Heisley, Melanie Wallendorf and I, Debi Cours, are working on a project about the intergenerational transfer of goods within the family. We gathered 18 in-depth interviews that were transcribed and richly coded for emergent findings. Two previous ACR presentations and a working paper are based on some of the findings from this research.

Several graduate level RA’s were trained to conduct in-depth interviews for this project. Emily Douglas was one of these RA’s.

Emily stands up and addresses the audience.

Emily

I am Emily, a white, unmarried 27-year old female MBA student. I am the oldest of two daughters.

Debi

We explicitly instructed the interviewers to interview complete strangers ...

Emily opens her journal and reads...

Emily

Hopefully I will be interviewing my whole family for this project. I think it’ll be neat to have a whole family unit’s feelings on this subject...

Emily sits down.

Melanie

(to the audience throughout)

The interviews display a dynamic that we have chosen to represent through a play, crafted with the help of Dylan Johnson, a screenwriter. We will stand to represent Emily and her family. All of this dialogue is verbatim from interviews and Emily’s journal. We, as researchers, also become characters in the play with our own interpretive voices, delivered when we sit, as I am now.

Deb

(to the audience throughout)

As Becker, McCall, and Morris pointed out in 1989, "a script format deprivileges the omniscient author and reduces the dominance of the analytic voice; it makes it easier to communicate emotion and mood as well as "facts"; and it acknowledges openly, instead of trying to hide or apologize for, the constructed character of social scientific data."

Debi

Norman Denzin in 1997 described performance text as a genre of ethnography that can shift away from the voyeuristic gaze of the ethnographer to invite the audience into an evocative moment when another’s lived experience comes to life.

Melanie

I share the concern that Russ Belk (1998) expressed in the preface to his interpretation of Ella at last year’s ACR conference: the importance of knowing the informant. One of us knows Emily and her sister, Beth. One of us only knew Emily. The third hasn’t met anyone in this family.

Debi

Back to the play at hand. Across the larger data set, we recognized a set of division rules that donors and recipients employ to explain disposition of family heirlooms. Today, we highlight this family’s usage of these rules and the negotiations that occur as the family members consider intergenerational transfers. We will see that these rules are neither consistently nor uniformly applied.

HANDING DOWN VALUES

(scene headings projected on overhead projector)

Emily stands and addresses the audience.

Emily

(to the audience)

My father, Robert, is a 53-year-old white, Protestant, executive for a Fortune 500 company.

Robert stands as introduced.

Emily (cont’d)

My parents live in a very nice neighborhood.

Emily turns to Robert, all nonsense aside.

Emily (cont’d)

And then getting on to heirlooms, what would you like to start with?

Robert

(to Emily)

How about values, because I did get something from my parents. I think probably what I got was a love of family and some religious attachment. I think those are values that they instilled [beat] a set of values that I would hold to be part of being good humansCindustrious and sensitive human beings, and I would hope somehow to pass some of those on to you. Apply them and pass them on, in due time, as well.

Emily

It’s interesting that you mentioned values first. I never thought of people mentioning really intangible things. And Mom mentioned the same thing first, which is very interesting.

Robert sits.

Nancy stands.

Nancy

(to the audience)

I am Nancy. I am 52 years old. I have two daughters, Emily and Beth. I work as a hospital administrator. My family is Jewish, but I converted to Lutheran when I married Robert.

(to Emily)

I’ve given this some thought, and I think there are a few material things, but I guess the most important thing when I think of what I am passing on to you and to BethCthe strongest thing that stands out is something that Grandma Bevin would always, always say to me, and it’s a quote from Anne Frank. And whenever we were growing up and dealing with things, and dealing with issues, she’d say, "You know, Anne Frank said in her book that people are basically good at heart." And I think that was probably the strongest thing that she gave me, more than any other thing, was this identification about how you look at people, and how you look at situations. And it’s just such a small expression, but it’s probably the thing that I hold most dearly, thinking back on it, and on her.

Emily

(opens her journal and reads)

Can intangible thoughts and ideas be considered heirlooms?

(to Nancy)

I hadn’t thought about that as a quote-unquote heirloom. It’s not a tangible thingClike it’s not even probably the physical book that matters, but it’s what was contained in there and what you and your mother got out of it.

Nancy

Yes.

Emily & Nancy sit down.

Debi

Nancy said, "I’ve given this some thought." She and Robert recognize that it’s more socially acceptable to promote family values than family possessions. They’re posturing due to the public and prepared nature of these interviews.

Deb

Or these parents have seized this interview as an opportunity to teach some lessons to their daughters. How often does a child approach a parent with tape recorder in hand to document their parents’ thoughts and feelings?

Melanie

She’s posturing and she’s also teaching. So, both of those interpretations are operant, since all behaviors have multiple simultaneous meanings.

THE ONLY CHILD

(scene headings projected on overhead projector)

Emily & Nancy stand up

Nancy

(to the audience)

I am the youngest of three girls, and my sister Alison is six years older than I am, and my sister Karen is four years older than I am.

(to Emily)

I think when we were growing up, although it doesn’t sound like a large gap, I think it was enough of a gap that I was really the only child for a period of time.

Emily

Even between you and Aunt Karen?

Nancy

Yeah, because she was in high school when I was quite young, and then she was gone when she was 17, and I essentially had four years C and then because she went to college far away, or what was considered far at the time, she was not home as much, and then she never came home after graduating. So I would say that for six years C the four years that I was in high school, and the two years that I was in college, being home during the summers, et cetera, that I was really an only child. And I don’t think that either Alison or Karen had this experience of just totally spending time with our parents. So I guess I was the very fortunate recipient of things that were meaningful to me.

Nancy sits down.

Emily opens her journal and reads.

Emily

Mom’s time with her parents allowed her to (a) get to know them better and (b) learn more about the family’s history and (c) learn about the importance of certain objects to her parents.

Emily freezes standing

Melanie

Analytically, we interpret Nancy’s time as a young adult with her parents as an instance where having voice was important in order to get the goods. Nancy turned her time alone with the family to her advantage.

Debi

It is odd that Nancy thinks of herself as an only child. This resonates to Nancy receiving most of the heirlooms. Emily likely takes notice that this does not resonate with her own position in the family, as her sister is the youngest.

Nancy stands

Nancy

(to Emily)

We had a joke when we were at home, and we would look at things around the house, and we’d kiddingly say, "Gee, I’d like to have that." And Grandma would say, "Put your name on the bottom of it and you can have it." There’s a multi-colored vase that comes from Holland. And Grandma gave that to Aunt Sylvia when Aunt Sylvia got married. And then at some point, it got back in to our home. That was one of those things that I’d say, "When I grow up, I really want to have that." And she’d say, "Well, put your name on the bottom!"

Emily

Is your name actually on the bottom of it?

Nancy

I think the last time I checked it had worn off. I have no idea what the value is, although it was appraised at one time, and it was a very valuable vase...I don’t know how a parent makes a decision relative to who’s going to inherit what...unless you put your name on it...

Emily

Yeah, I’ll have my name on those pearls.

They laugh.

Emily (cont’d)

Well, how do you think that you’ll make that decision? I mean, I guess I would hope that our family is close enough, and Beth and I are close enough that whenever youCI mean, I don’t even know what age you start thinking about this stuffCbut when it came to that, that we’d be able to go around and say like, "I want this," and that’s cool because you can have that. And that’s what you really want. I mean, I just can’t imagine fighting with Beth over anything!

Nancy sits down. Emily reads from her journal.

Emily

I think this is a great idea and will have to start putting "Emily" on the bottom of all my parents’ great stuff before my sister catches on!

Emily sits down.

Debi

(to researchers)

Look, we’ve intervened in this family.

Melanie

(to other two researchers and nodding agreement)

We’ve pushed this mother to start talking about disposition. I’m uncomfortable with the daughter using this information to try to get a competitive advantage over her sister.

Deb

We see the importance of voice as the children receive what they ask for. Some elements of fairness emerge. But because they are avoiding the big picture that has to be faced in death, the fairness breaks down. For example, giving an object to the person who likes it is seen as fair, but only if balanced with equal distribution and equal opportunity. There is recognition of a potential lack of fairness, which causes questioning, joking, and strategizing.

I WANT IT

(scene headings projected on overhead projector)

Beth stands up. As Beth talks, Emily gets up and walks around to stand next to her.

Beth

(to audience)

I am Beth, Emily’s younger sister. I am 24 years old and single. I am a corporate financial analyst for a large manufacturer.

Emily

(to her sister)

How do you think that mom and dad will distribute their stuff? Do you think that we’ll get stuff when we have families, or when we move into a house? Or, obviously it didn’t happen when we graduated from college. Or, not until Mom and Dad die, or what? Or, when they move in to a new house?

Beth

I think we’ll get things that they don’t use when we get marriedClike the extra set of silver. But I’ll probably get it #cause there’s an "B" on it.

Emily

They have an extra set of silver?

Beth

Grandma and Grandpa’s silver. It’s got an "B" on it for "Bevin."

Emily

So why does that mean you’ll get it?

Beth

Because my name’s Beth!

Emily

(laughing)

Well, that’s not fair.

Beth

It needs to be polished, and you wouldn’t polish it anyway!

Beth remains standing and freezes. Emily reads from her journal.

Emily

Despite the appearances of this interview, Beth and I are very close, and I can’t imagine having any arguments with her over who gets what later in life. We hope to live close enough to each other to share things and maybe pass really preciou things back and forth.

Beth sits.

Nancy stands and turns to Emily. Emily turns to listen.

Nancy

Grandma had, I swear, four sets of china, all of which were service for twelve. Her sterling silver, which I have now, was a service for twelve, with every single accessory pieceCthe demi-tasse spoons, every serving pieceCwhich was given to her by one aunt and uncle, which tells you either that silver was not that expensive then, or that this was a very affluent aunt and uncle.

Emily

And now it costs what? $250 to get just one service?

Nancy

Yes. Oh, easily.

Emily

And the silver that you have from Grandma...Beth actually talked about that. And it’s the one that has the "B"?

Nancy

Yes.

Emily

Which Beth said...

Nancy

(interrupting)

"It has a 'B’ therefore it’s mine."

Emily

Yes. Yes, exactly. She said, "You know, Mom has an extra set of silver that’s going to be mine because it has a "B." And I was like, "Why does that mean that you get it?" And she said, "B’, for Beth!" And I’m going, "I think it’s probably 'B’ for Bevin." But...

Nancy

(interrupting)

Right. Although I did not get the silver until after they died. And that was strictly because I was the only one that cared enough to have it, I guess!

Emily & Nancy sit down.

Deb

Beth has an emic understanding of some of the fundamental rules used to divide goods and she is using it. The appeal to the "B" that she turns into a representation of her name, and her emphasis on the idea that she, and not Emily, will take care of it are some basic rules used in dividing estates. Emily is just starting to realize that she is not as savvy or as far along as Beth on this dimension. Nancy also invokes distribution rules to justify her getting the silvershe, supposedly, was the only one who cared enough to get it.

Melanie

Note that Nancy ignores Emily’s test of Beth’s assertion regarding who will get the silver.

Debi

Echoing the past, Beth has had time as an adult as the only child at home. And, also like Nancy, Beth knows more about the history of the family and the objects.

Emily stands and turns to Beth, who stands a split second after her sister.

Emily

Anything else in the house that you wanted?

Beth

The china, but Mom doesn’t know what happened to it.

Emily

It’s just gone?

Beth

She has one piece.

Emily

That's not the same Wedgewood that she has, is it?

Beth

No, it's the one with the strawberries on it. They don't make it anymore. So I wanted it. So I get the bowls.

Emily

Hey! How come you get everything?

Beth

(laughing)

'Cause I ask for it! You don't ask the right questions.

Emily sits down.

Deb

Beth knew to ask for things that she wanted, while Emily hadn't started this yet. Emily's realizing her sister may get more than she will.

Beth sits down.

Melanie

This counterbalances but doesn't fully alleviate our concern about our role in shaping a competition between Emily and Beth.

THE BED IN WHICH I WAS CONCEIVED

(scene headings projected on overhead projector) Emily stands and reads from her journal.

Emily

My bed in my room at my parents is an incredible antique, probably late 1800s, cherry. Very heavy. Again, I'm sure my mom won't give this up for a long time-it is a remarkable piece of furniture-but I think of it as mine since it's the only bed I ever had, since graduating from a crib until I left for college. I think, although I've never actually confirmed this, that I was conceived in this bed-what a cool thought...

Beth stands. Emily looks to her sister.

Emily (cont'd)

Is there anything else in the house that you want, 'cause Italked about a lot of things in my room that I want. I mean, I want my bed. You know, that's...

Beth

(laughing)

You were conceived in your bed.

Emily

(laughing)

I think so, yeah. Not a very fun thought, but...

Beth sits. Emily scans through her notes and stops. Nancy stands up.

Emily (cont'd)

(to Nancy)

One thing that I am surprised that you didn't mention is my bed.

Nancy

'Cause it's not on my side of the family. That's why. I mean, yes, we can now look on it as an heirloom for you, but if Daddy were talking about his side of the family, that came from his family.

Emily

Yeah. I knew that came from the Douglas side, but I guess I thought because, I mean, before I had it, wasn't that basically your and Daddy's first bed? When you were first married?

Nancy

Mm hmm.

Emily

Which I would think would have some relevance.

Nancy

That's true, you were conceived in that bed!

Emily

Oh no! Beth and I tell the worst jokes about that to each other!

(laughing)

But I mean, that bed is just so precious. That, I have to have. I have to have that bed. That, I figure I will get.

Nancy

Yeah.

Robert stands. Emily turns to Robert who is stiff and all fatherly business. Nancy sits down.

Emily

The thing that's so interesting about that bed, is that I mentioned that in my own thing, as something that is not currently mine, perse, but it's the bed that I've slept in my entire life. It's the bed that I was conceived in...

Robert

Mm hmm.

Emily

... As Mom pointed out to me. And it was like the first bed that you guys had when you were married.

Robert

Right, it was my bed as a teenager.

Emily

See, so that, to me at least, when it gets to my generation, has huge value.

Robert

Yeah, but I don't know where it came from. I'd be hard pressed to conclude that it may have belonged to my Grandmother Douglas perhaps. But it wouldn't have gone back any further than that. But I would consider it to be an heirloom because it has been passed in the family, and we've chosen to attach value to it. And yes, we will pass it along.

Emily

And what is it made of?

Robert

It's cherry. And it's not a particularly great piece of furniture,

Emily

Really?! Well, it looks damn good in my room. In the guest room! [beat] And when you talk about passing things on, at what point do things get passed on? And do they get passed on directly to me and Beth, or do some things go to your grandchildren-whomever they may be in the future?

Robert

Um ... let me back step for a moment. I think Mom and I have accumulated some things that are of value to us that we would like to pass on as well. You know, a lot of them... material things. The piano, for instance, would be one of those, whether anybody would want it or not.

Emily

Yes!

Robert

My sense is that those will get passed along at some appropriate time. What's appropriate? I don't know. A wedding could be appropriate. First child could be appropriate. A significant anniversary could be appropriate. Certainly a change in our status for whatever reason could precipitate some kind of distribution. So I don't think that we have heirlooms that are event driven heirlooms. It's not like, "Here's the family Bible, because you're getting married."

Emily

Or better yet, "You're getting married, here's a bed."

Robert

Yeah right. You know, if you got the bed for your wedding, for your marriage, it was not because that was ordained, like it was passed down from generation to generation upon marriage. That would be something we would decide was probably appropriate or because you whined and bitched about it and wanted it-I don't know. So I don't think there are set things.

Emily & Robert sit.

Debi

Emily is trying to apply common division rules - such as demonstrating she knows and respects the object's history and acknowledging self-relevance for the object. It is not going particularly well.

Deb

Emily is getting mixed signals. On one hand she has been told to ask for the things that she wants. On the other hand, she is being admonished for trying to get a commitment on the bed. She is starting to understand the basic rules in her family, but is being too aggressive and hasn't grasped the subtleties of her families unwritten and evasive rules.

MOTHER'S MOTHER'S (GRANDMA BEVIN) SIMPLY, WEDDING BAND

(scene headings projected on overhead projector) Emily stands and reads from her journal.

Emily

Somehow, I ended up with my grandmother's wedding band. The ring is so simple, you'd never know how much it means to me. I can't even wear it; it only fits (how a propos!) the ring finger on my left hand, and obviously I'm not going to act like I'm married. Beth recently asked me for it, as she would like to wear it on a regular basis (and has skinny fingers!). It sort of freaked me out to think of relinquishing this ring, even though I can't wear it myself. So every time I see my sister, I seem to conveniently forget to bring the ring... I mean, someone should be wearing it, and I can't, and it means just as much to Beth as it does to me, so ... but wow that makes me sad to give it up, even to my sister and best friend!

Emily freezes.

Melanie

Note that earlier she said they would live close and share things. Their current actions aren't in line with that claim.

Debi

Beth applies a commonly used rule to get the ring Emily has. Using it is one rule that is often considered to be fair.

EARRINGS FROM MOTHER'S MOTHER'S MOTHER'S (GREAT GRANDMOTHER JUDITH) DIAMOND WEDDING RING

(scene headings projected on overhead projector)

Beth stands. Emily turns to her.

Emily

What do you feel that you have [already] received that's an heirloom?

Beth thinks for a moment.

Beth

Ummm ... I have diamond earrings that Mom made out of her wedding band...

Emily

How and where and why did you receive those?

Nancy stands and steps toward the audience. Emily and Beth don't notice.

Nancy

Now the story about my wedding ring. My Grandma Judith had a wedding ring ... a band of diamonds. And when she died the ring was given to my mother, who, as you know, never wore any stones at all, and gave the wedding ring to me, and

Nancy sits.

Beth

... it was actually too big, and there were two extra diamonds, and Mom had them made into earrings for me.

Emily

And how come they went to you?

Beth

She liked me best! No, I don't know.

Emily

Well, like, do you know why? 'Cause like I didn't even know that story ... I've never even heard that story about that being where the diamonds came from.

Beth

I don't know why they went to me.

Melanie

Beth shows herself to be a better family historian than Emily, setting herself up as a better candidate to take care of the family heirlooms since heirlooms are often given along with the responsibility to preserve the family history.

Nancy stands. Emily turns to Nancy. Beth sits.

Emily

And the deal with your ring? So the wedding ring that you wear was actually your Grandmother's?

Nancy

Mm, hmm, yeah.

Emily

And how does-I mean, is that important to you that you're wearing your Grandmother's wedding ring?

Nancy

Absolutely. Absolutely. She was just an incredibly-she was just everything that you'd think of in a grandmother.

Emily

So you actually had the stones in Beth's earrings, you had those taken out when you had that re-set.

Nancy

Right.

Emily

And was there any reason that you gave them to Beth?

Nancy

I don't think so. I think I had given you the pearls, and gave her the diamonds. So I guess that-well, actually, if you think about it, that Grandma was the youngest daughter in her family...

Emily

And you're the youngest.

Nancy

Right.

Emily

Oh God, I'm destined to get nothing! So we'll justify it that way!

She LAUGHS. Emily and Nancy sit.

Melanie

Nancy has applied, on the spot, a rule to defend giving Beth the diamonds: youngest to youngest to youngest.

Deb

The division rules are selected to justify the outcome that is (or was) desired. There's not some a priori agreement on the rules.

Debi

As we discussed earlier, there are rules that people use to get what they want, and there are rules that are considered fair. Often, these aren't the same.

Beat. Researchers physically move forward.

Deb

This short play demonstrates how distributing the goods is a dynamic process within this family. The rules are drawn from a culturally-understood set of rules and applied as needed by each individual to help achieve her objective. The parents want to maintain family relationships, largely by using this opportunity to talk about this family's values and history. The daughters apply rules, with differing skill levels and success, in attempts to get the objects that mean the most to them.

Debi

By presenting this portion of our research findings as a performance text, we have highlighted the dynamic process through this format's inherent focus on dialogue and interaction. In addition to highlighting the family dynamics, this format gave greater voice to the informants and provided the audience with increased access to the research process, while permitting focus on substantive research findings.

THE END.

REFERENCES

Becker, Howard S., M. M. McCall, and L. V. Morris (1989), "Theatres and Communities: Three Scenes," Social Problems, 36,93-116.

Belk, Russell (1998), "Ella's Elephant and the Three Blind Guys," from 3 interpretations of Ella, Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. XXV, Joseph W. Alba and J. Wesley Hutchinson, Editors, 109-113.

Denzin, Norman K. (1997), Interpretive Ethnography: Ethnographic Practices for the 21st Century. Newbury Park: Sage.

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