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I doubt there is a family out there that doesn’t have a secret of one kind or another. Some are small (grandma’s real age) and some are much bigger (who the true parents of a person are, that great-granddad was a bigamist or murder or ?!?!) and many more in between.
Over the holidays, it’s not unusual to use the opportunity to ask older family members questions about the family and for those same individuals to share the stories of their life, including what they had been told by their parents, aunts/uncles, grandparents, etc.
I’ve research many families (including my own) where I discover the birth of a bastard, a previous marriage and/or divorces not mentioned in the material given, evidence of crimes (there’s one family where every male sibling ended up jailed in the late 18th century), institutionalized ancestors, slave owners and much more ...
What is a family historian to do when they learn about news that is likely to be “less than well received?” If you are the “learner” of this information, will you be sharing it with your extended family? If not, why not? If so, how will you do it? If you are the recipient of such news, what will be your reaction? Denial and disbelief or calm acceptance?
I was reminded of all of this when I re-read the article When a Genealogy Hobby Digs Up Unwanted Secrets. I found the quote at the end to really speak to me. I’ve always tried to have the perspective that everyone, including our ancestor’s were human, trying to do the best they could given the circumstances of their life.
"I felt obligated to break the news to the family," and "it wasn't well-received," says Dr. Hibben. But she is at peace with it, believing her forebears "did the best they could with what they knew." The take-away for her: "My ancestors were human, and it's OK if I'm human too."
I think it’s important to remember that we are a “product” of the ancestors we find – whether The Good, The Bad and the Ugly or mostly in-between. Putting them up on pedestals can be dangerous and self-identifying with them to the degree that we only see the good and not the flaws can be hazardous also. Sometimes those “flaws” are what give us the best stories and allow ourselves to laugh at ourselves when we can use great grandpa’s Joe’s family story as a cautionary tale.
Another great article on this topic can be found on A Grave Interest, Skeletons in the Family Closet where she ends by saying ...
Remember that if we continue to keep those family secrets, key components of family history will never get fully revealed or stand a chance of being explained. That could leave us with a large gap in the understanding of who our ancestors were, and the real information that could help us make sense of them could end up lost forever.
As George Bernard Shaw said, “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”
Some related reading:
If you truly don’t want to know about any skeletons in the closet, you may want to find a new hobby! I often counsel my clients that if they really don’t want to know the truth, they are better off not asking the questions ...
Editor’s Note: Related post is What’s the truth behind the legend in many African American families about having a Native American ancestor?
Editor’s Note: Thanks to Claudia Breland for reminding me of this article.
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