Stories we hold onto

Family tales must have some reason to endure even when they are blatant fantasy; sooner or later, however, someone has to speak up.

A story about a lost cousin who became a glamorous movie star has been in my family for decades. The actress and fashion icon Gloria Swanson was the Julia Roberts of the 1920s, starring alongside Charlie Chaplin and several other silent era greats. Unlike many of her peers, Swanson successfully transitioned into talkies and is best known for playing the lead role in Sunset Boulevard. She was married six times, and had a long-running affair with Joseph P Kennedy, whose son John would be elected president. She died in 1983 at the age of 84.

The way my 87-year-old grandmother tells it, Swanson was born in New York to Irish immigrant parents and grew up dreaming of visiting her ancestors' home. After achieving wealth and success in the 1920s, she boarded a boat in the hope of discovering her roots. Upon her arrival in Bandon, County Cork, in Ireland's desperately poor south, Swanson and her entourage went from door to door searching for her long-lost family. But when she eventually found them (my great-grandparents), they didn't exactly roll out the red carpet.

Many of the townsfolk had heard of Swanson's success and anticipated her return with trepidation because their homes lacked running water and flushing toilets - hardly fit for a star of the silver screen, they thought. So when she arrived, they refused to open their door and she returned to America with her hopes unfulfilled. Unfortunately, the story is almost certainly false. There is no record of Swanson ever visiting Ireland. The tiniest bit of research shows that her ancestry was Swedish, German, French and Polish - pretty much everything but Irish. She wasn't even a Catholic. What's more, she grew up in Chicago, Puerto Rico and Florida, not New York.

The interesting thing for me is not how my family manages to get the story so wrong, but why it persists to this day. The most likely reason is that those who keep it alive enjoy believing that they are related to Hollywood royalty. Who wouldn't? Despite evidence to the contrary, the legend continues to be recited as historical fact at family get-togethers. Why do people allow themselves to believe the most blatant fallacies - like that 25 per cent of the world's cranes reside in Dubai or that humans only use 10 per cent of their brains? Like my family's story, these falsehoods often persist not in spite of their overwhelming unbelievability, but because of it.

Such pervasive pieces of misinformation prove that we often reside not in a world of facts but of factoids, where things are rarely true and more often true enough. How many stories have formed the basis of not just our cultures but also our most dearly held beliefs in spite of what reason and common sense have to say? I don't care how many generations of my family have felt a warm, fuzzy feeling by believing that Swanson was their relative. I'm happy to finally cut the old lady adrift in the Atlantic.