You can go home again — but should you?

Yearning to go back to your childhood? It may or may not work.

For many of us, memories of what seems such a carefree, safer time are linked to a place. And now, thanks to Google Maps and other sites, we can find – and sometimes physically revisit – those houses and territories at the center of a powerful, nostalgic pull. But, like adoptive children searching for birth mothers (and vice versa), the adventure carries risk. That site at the end of the rainbow might be psychological gold – or it can turn out to be a pot of mud.

Saturday’s Wall Street Journal featured a ‘Journal Report’ article and related story about the going-home phenomenon, including one particularly fascinating segment:

When John Beebe, a Jungian analyst in San Francisco, was invited to speak at a conference in China, he decided he would try to find the house he had lived in there as a child. His father had been a military attaché in the 1940s, and Dr. Beebe remembers living in a “rather grand” house before the family was evacuated and before his parents divorced.

But when he finally found the spot, the house was gone. It had been replaced, in his words, by “drab communist housing.” That visit—and watching “Empire of the Sun,” a World War II movie about a boy separated from, and then reunited with, his parents—triggered overwhelming feelings of grief, Dr. Beebe recalls. “Twenty-seven years of Jungian analysis, and I didn’t mourn my childhood until then,” he says.

“A lot of people haven’t fully left home,” Dr. Beebe says. “Some people need to go back [in order] to move on.” Others, while claiming to be “just curious” about seeing their childhood home, may have a deeper motive, he suggests: a desire to reconnect to the way they felt as a child before life—school, careers and families—required so many compromises. “In adapting to the world, we all lose some of our soul,” Dr. Beebe says. “When we make the journey back, we find some of our soul again.”

As the eminent Dr. Beebe happens to be a friend of this space, that sent us to the telephone to ask for free advice to pass along to readers about the pros and cons of returning to childhood in this manner. (Before signing off on the advice, Beebe said he “wanted to put in a plug for the amazingly good writer Kathleen A. Hughes” who authored both stories referenced above, proving out his own reputation as both acclaimed analyst/speaker and genuine nice guy. This space hereby strongly recommends you go out and buy Saturday’s WSJ.)

As far as the potential benefits of revisiting childhood space go, Beebe says that “for all of us, particularly as we get older, withdrawing the projections we make onto things that interfere with right relationships” can be very good. In other words, perhaps “our parents were not as tall as we thought.” Or that room so huge or that shadow so all-encompassing. “We all have a subjective relationship to childhood,” he explains, “and it kind of ties us to unreality. When we see where (our memory) was right, and where it was wrong, it somehow sets the soul at rest.”

As to the potential pitfalls of geographical/psychological returns, Beebe says that “memory is powerful, but so is reality. Certainly I was more upset than I’d imagined in China. In a way, I hadn’t grieved enough. These returns tend to stir things up; it can be shocking to be flooded with emotions and I didn’t expect this. I was taken by surprise, but ready.”

Making the return, and dealing with possible impact, may be something you don’t want to undertake all by yourself. “As they used to say about psychedelic drugs in the 60s,” Beebe comments, “it’s better to have someone around to guide you through the trip. It’s not good to be alone.”

In my 60s I returned to my birthplace in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where the tales and photos I’d grown up with showing idyllic hillsides overlooking the bay turned out to be a jumble of rooftops and high walls. In my 40s I returned to the site of my earliest memories, the Nashville, TN house in which I remembered running merrily up and down the length of a giant kitchen. It was, in reality, roughly 6′ x 8′. Today Google Maps tells me it’s gone, replaced by what seems to be an educational facility for the church (same old church) that was two doors down the street. As there are too many metaphors here even to begin considering, if I do any further revisitation I may invite John Beebe to go along.

What about you? Any more going-home-again stories out there?

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