This is the transcript of a Youtube video, which can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/5FMtjGoORp0
I want to talk about family, memory, and story. I want to talk about how memories become stories — the kinds of stories that get repeated so often through the generations, they become enduring myths that define how members of a family see themselves. I want to talk about how trauma can replace stories with silence, and how anyone with the courage to do so can re-open the book and start writing a new chapter.
I want to talk about What Remains of Edith Finch.
Part 1: Memory becomes story
“Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original…it is a continuing act of creation.” Rosalind D. Cartwright, The Twenty-Four Hour Mind
In What Remains of Edith Finch, the protagonist Edith returns to the abandoned family home she grew up in to reckon with the string of tragedies that befell the family and led to the untimely deaths of most of its members. You play as Edith as she explores the rooms and fragments of the people who lived here — a record player, a camera, a train set. As she investigates the room of each deceased individual, the scene fades into a vignette depicting their final moments from their perspective.
I’m fascinated by these vignettes because they’re, well, weird. Some of them are downright surreal. The baby Gregory, who drowned in the bath, literally disappears into a Mary Poppins-esque underwater realm, complete with dancing bath toys. As Molly dies from poisoning in her bed, we play through her dreams and hallucinations. Instead of witnessing Lewis’s tragic suicide, we escape with him into a fantasy world as he slowly dissociates from the world around him. For all its morbid subject matter, the game still manages to dance playfully around our unanswered questions, as we’re left wondering how much of what we’re seeing is what really happened, how much of it is what was happening in that person’s mind, and how much of it is Edith imagining what might have been happening in that person’s mind?
Even Edith’s own story is suspect. This house — this very structurally dubious house — is suspect, with its serpentine pathways and secret walls that open to reveal hidden corridors. I mean, come on, a secret passageway triggered by a switch hidden inside a storybook? It all feels a bit too much like a child’s fantasy. Until you remember that this whole story, the framing device for all the other stories, is itself only happening within the mind of Edith’s son, who is reading her diary. This is how he imagines his mum exploring her childhood home. The Finch house is not so much a real place as it is a representation of how our family home carries our memories and our secrets, how places seem to embody the essence of the people who lived there, how one seemingly mundane object can trigger a cascade of buried recollections. The Finch house and its wonderfully bizarre architecture is memory itself — both a little bit real, and a little bit bogus.
The phantasmagoric nature of these vignettes makes it impossible to find the line that separates fact from fiction, and I wonder if this says something about how impossibly fallible memory is. Have you ever re-visited an old childhood location as an adult and been struck by how small and unimpressive it was compared to how you remembered it? When we tell stories about our deceased loved ones, are we retelling events as they happened, or are we passing down a narrative that reflects our own desire to remember them a certain way? How much of your own past do you actually remember and how much do you just think you remember? Edith could have returned to her childhood home to find it small and unimpressive compared to how she remembered it. The grisly deaths of each family member could have been depicted in a straightforward and realistic way, without embellishment. But I think that in its rejection of realism, What Remains of Edith Finch arrives at a different kind of truth that can only be expressed through the whimsies and distortions of its memory spaces. It embraces, even celebrates the unknowable nature of the past, and it reminds us that what we think of as our memories are really just stories. And while memories may dwindle and vanish, stories can shape the course of generations.
Part 2: Story becomes legend
“The members of a family inhabit a world of their own making, a community of feeling and fantasy, action and precept.” Gerald Handel and Robert Hess, Family Worlds
I recently listened to an episode of the Heavyweight podcast. In it, a guy called Rob describes his memory of breaking his arm when he was a boy, but the members of his family — his parents, brother and sister — insist it never happened. A bit of investigation into hospital records reveals that he had, in fact, broken his arm, but his entire family had since completely forgotten about it. Further enquiry uncovers something fascinating — in Rob’s family, he was always the easygoing one, the trooper, the one who didn’t command too much attention or get in the way. His brother was the mischievous one — he broke his arm twice, a fact that makes in into family conversation every so often. But Rob breaking his arm simply didn’t fit the role he occupied in the family, and so it was conveniently — and completely unconsciously — erased from the family memory. And what’s more, because “the good boy” was his role in the family, it became an identity he carried on into adulthood — the story became him, even though it wasn’t true.
What Remains of Edith Finch is also about a family story that has become its own uncontrollable force — the myth of ‘the Finch family curse’. An urban legend so powerful, the remaining family members themselves came to believe there was a curse on the bloodline. Despite its doubtful veracity, the myth of the family curse comes to dominate the lives of the Finch family members. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the story of Walter. Terrified of falling victim to the curse, he shuts himself in a bunker under the house — for 30 years. His life was stolen not by the curse, but by the story of the curse. The same could be said of great-grandfather Odin, who originally brought his family from Norway to escape the curse, before dying in the resulting shipwreck. Edith’s mother also lives in fear of the curse, and Edith inherits this fear, projecting it onto the house itself. Edith’s grandfather Sam, on the other hand, develops an almost suicidal desire to meet his death on his own terms, joining the army at 18. But when he has his own kids, his anxieties creep into his strict parenting style. In a way, the Finch curse was real, because the family’s fear of it made it real.
What Remains of Edith Finch makes me think about the power of family stories — how once they’re established, they can be almost unshakeable, like they have a will of their own. And interestingly, family systems theory — which aims to understand the complex structures and dynamics of families — says that, in a way, family systems do actually have a will of their own. Family systems are remarkably similar to organic systems in that they will always tend towards homeostasis, or stability. Family roles (like “the good child”) and family stories (like the family curse) tend to stick, because consensus about the way things are keeps the family rolling along with minimal threats to the status quo. Any challenge to the consensus — no matter how badly needed it might be — is a shock to the system, and it can shake the foundations on which the family has built its identity. Sometimes, the family doesn’t survive the shake-up.
The Finch family’s own shake-up comes during a fight between Edith’s mother and great-grandmother. The two women can’t agree on how to understand and move on from the horrors they’ve experienced. Edith’s mother is terribly afraid of the curse, and sees the past as something to shut out and protect her daughter from. Great-grandma Edie wants to keep the past alive and live with abandon, curse or no curse. Finally one night, the conflict comes to a head. As her mother and great-grandmother fight, Edith finds a book about the family history addressed to her, from her great-grandma. But when she tries to read it…
Part 3: Stories become silenced
“Somewhere in the space between violence and trauma is dangerous silence.” -Suzanne B. Phillips, The Dangerous Role of Silence in the Relationship Between Trauma and Violence: A Group Response
The story of What Remains of Edith Finch begins, appropriately enough, with the house. As we approach the abandoned structure, the echoes of trauma and loss are already plain to see in its bricks and beams. Even before we learn about the interpersonal frictions that tore this family apart, we see the discord and chaos in the very architecture of the house, which is utterly in conflict with itself — barely holding together in fact, a hodge-podge of precarious extensions and mismatched parts. Want to know how closely this family lived in the stifling shadow of death every day? Take a look at the cemetery sitting right next door. It was completed before the house was.
But the interior of the house is where we really see the stifling and fragmenting effects of trauma on this family. It’s a series of locked rooms, doors that haven’t been opened in years. When Edith was very young, her grieving mother took a desperate measure to try and alleviate the pain of all that loss — she deadlocked the bedroom of every deceased family member from the inside, preventing anyone from entering again. Each room is perfectly preserved just the way it was when the resident died. In defiance of her granddaughter’s decision and as a gesture of remembrance, great-grandmother Finch had a peephole installed in each door. When Edith returns to the house, it’s more a museum than a home, each bedroom locked behind a barrier through which one can only look, but never touch. The family members behind this barricade are hazy, mysterious figures, glimpsed as they are through a glass darkly.
John Gillis, in his book A World of Their Own Making, elucidates the difference between what he calls ‘the families we live by’ (the family as they appear in stories) and ‘the families we live with’ (those people as they actually were in life). Crucially, these two versions of the family can be very different, especially if the family stories we tell don’t reflect those people as they really were. And trauma can have its own silencing effect as it causes us to shut ourselves off from our painful pasts and memories. If walls could talk, the Finch house would offer a warning — that covering up our family stories with silence and secrets ends up erasing our family members as they really were. Slowly, a rich and vibrant family history can become frozen, as people with complex inner lives turn into distant silhouettes, strangers peering out at us from family portraits and albums. Or from the other side of a locked door.
Edith’s journey through the house is a process of sorting the real family from the imagined family. As she finds her way into each room through windows and passageways, she comes to know her own family — the people behind the peepholes — in a way she never has before. The way they were, not necessarily the way they’ve been remembered. Through the peephole, Molly is a sweet little girl, until you read her diary and realise she was sent to bed without dinner for being naughty. Barbara goes from being a glamorous child star, to a teenage wash-up desperately chasing after her lost fame. The biggest surprise comes with the discovery that Uncle Walter had not left the house a long time ago, but was actually cowering in terror in the basement for three decades.
One by one, simplistic idealised narratives are replaced with messy and complicated realities. And as Edith comes to really know these people for the first time, she’s writing a new family history.
Part 4: Stories become re-written
“Healing happens when you’re able to move through the pain, the pattern, and the story, and walk your way to a different ending.” -Vienna Pharaon
It’s no coincidence that Edith’s adventure through the house and its history is mapped out with pen and paper. In playing through What Remains of Edith Finch, we’re witnessing a new family history being written, as the family tree blossoms and Edith narrates events to her son. In drawing each family member out on to the page of her journal, Edith seems to be saying, “I see you, and I won’t forget the way you were”. The book of family history may have been closed years ago, but it’s never too late to re-open it.
At its core, Edith Finch is a story about stories, and the power they have in shaping our lives, in building and destroying families, and in healing old wounds. The central conflict between Edith, her mother and great-grandmother, is an ideological conflict over what role the past (with all its hurts and tragedies) should play in our present, and our future. Should we lock the past behind a door, or make room for it? Live in anguish over what’s been lost, or in gratitude for what we have?
By the time Edith revisits the house, she’s already made up her mind. She wants her life, and her family, to be defined not by tragedy, but by hope. Because living in fear is as good as burying something that’s still alive. When Edith puts pen to paper, she’s writing her own story. One about how family legacies and histories are never set in stone but can change with each new generation. In laying bare the family tree and its mysteries, she is literally re-writing the family mythos, re-creating a family history that she’ll pass on to her son. Not the secrets, not the superstitions, but a new story — one in which the real curse is giving in to fatalism, and the real tragedy is not death — it’s being too afraid to fully live.
In the game’s final shot, we see that the next generation will continue Edith’s legacy, keeping the book of family history open and leaving silence and secrecy behind. Because when we embrace the past, we open a new path to the future.