Is Genealogy Only For Perfect Families?

Is Genealogy Only For Perfect Families?

by Kerry Scott on 14 September 2010

Here’s a thing I’ve noticed since I’ve started reading genealogy blogs:  Most of them are written by people with basically happy families.

I see people recording memories of their idyllic childhoods, their beloved relatives, and their multi-generational research trips.  They’re fun to read…but if that’s all you read, you might get the idea that genealogy is only for people who come from relatively normal families.  That’s just not true.

I know people from different backgrounds than that, from abusive relationships, parents who didn’t want them, homes that were broken in ways they can’t even begin to share (I’m talking about recent history and serious stuff here…not wacky great-uncle Lurvy who collected squirrel skulls).  For those people, there’s no chance of a Sentimental Sunday post.  If you’re one of those people, though, don’t feel left out.  Genealogy is for you too.

There’s tremendous value in finding out who your family was.  If they were flawed and broken and ugly…well, there’s probably a reason.  Maybe you’ll find it.  Sometimes one catastrophic event a century ago can change the course of history for generations.  Other times the patterns are more subtle…generations of women who married alcoholics or a history of mental illness, for example.  Sometimes you won’t find any explanation, but you’ll at least know that not everyone in your family sucked.  Nothing will change your past, but context might help you put it in perspective.

If you’re one of the people who comes from a family like this, you’re not alone.  You won’t read about the others in blog posts, because not being able to talk about it is often the nature of the beast.  But there ARE others out there, searching for clues as to why things turned out the way they did.  It helps.  It might help you too.

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Amy Coffin September 14, 2010 at 10:16 am

No family tree is perfect.

Personally on my blog, I’ve shared about hereditary disease, and also a murder in my tree.

Out of respect for a deceased relative, there is one story I will not share on my blog. BUT I have shared it with all family members because–for medical reasons–they need to know. Though I don’t talk about it online, I will freely discuss “the secret” with anyone in person because I don’t think it’s a shameful thing. It’s part of my history, and though not happy, very important. It shaped the lives of my ancestors, which trickled down to me.

This is a great discussion topic. Thanks for bringing it up.

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Cynthia Shenette September 14, 2010 at 10:49 am

Kerry, I’ll second Amy’s comment. This is a great discussion topic.

Despite having an occasional “glass half empty” day, I try to be positive about things, and that includes my blogging. Blogging is a public forum, and personally I prefer to write about the positive things and happy memories. Do I have unhappy memories? Yes. I think most people have at least a few. I choose not to post about those. Like Amy, I will discuss them privately with family and friends, not in a public forum. The biggest lessons I’ve learned from genealogy are people are a product of their circumstances and to put people’s lives in perspective within their circumstances. I truly believe most people do the best they can given their lot in life, good or bad. The tough lives of some of my ancestors make me realise how lucky I really am.

Thanks for the interesting post.

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Heather Wilkinson Rojo September 14, 2010 at 11:01 am

I’ve found that divorces, adoptions, runaway husbands and other such events make my family history exciting. In the past, most adoptions were between relatives, even distant relatives, and so that has expanded my understanding of my collateral lines. The reasons for those adoptions are not always clear, unless there was an obvious death, but several asylum records have also helped to exand the story. I’ve even found photos like the one you featured, and it has prompted some lively discussions with relatives!

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kristin September 14, 2010 at 11:04 am

This is so true. Maybe we should have a ‘sorrowful sunday’ where we share some of the not so happy memories that have shaped our families and ourselves.

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Kerry Scott September 14, 2010 at 11:25 am

I find the way-back scandals fascinating too. Amy’s murder story…I was totally riveted.

I think if the murderer is, say, your mom, or the kid beaten with a baseball bat was you, or if it was your own dad who left (and it wasn’t all that long ago)…well, those are the folks who I’m finding have a hard time with this genealogy thing. The people whose scandals are very recent, whose bad relatives are still very much alive, for whom these things are very personal and not at all distant…those are the folks I’ve been talking to lately. If that murder had been in 1997, it would feel very different, I think.

A couple of weeks ago I was doing some newspaper research, and on the same page of the obit I was seeking, a story caught my eye. It was about the sentencing of a guy who had stabbed a woman to death in a church parking lot. The woman was a prostitute, and they had been arguing over the price. He stabbed her something like 50 times. She had given birth to a baby girl 19 days before the murder.

That baby girl would be about 20 years old now. She might better understand what brought her mom to that parking lot on that day if she studied her family history…but it would be painful. For her, the pain isn’t in the past. She’s still experiencing it, I’m sure, and she has lots of years ahead of her to continue to experience it. It’s not history yet, for her.

I think it’s important to remember that some folks come to genealogy from experiences like this. Some things don’t make for good scrapbooks, but those folks are part of our community as well.

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Kathy September 14, 2010 at 1:33 pm

i have been reading your blog for awhile and when you switched from HR to genealogy i just kept reading. i have a question for you. where do you start if you think all the records were destroyed? both sides of my family escaped from Cuba and as far as i have been told all the records have been destroyed. so other than partial names from aging grandparents how would i even begin to search for records in another country that may have destroyed everything. i know my family is originally from Spain and was only in Cuba for a generation or two but i have no idea how to bridge the gap. any advice?

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Thomas MacEntee September 14, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Kathy – I’d love to help you and I know there are lots of Kerry’s friends in the genealogy blogging community who could offer advice. You can email me at tmacentee@gmail.com if you’d like.

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Heather Wilkinson Rojo September 14, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Kathy, I have some experience with records in Spain, but as for Cuba, I don’t know if the records are destroyed or not. I would like to think that the church records might exist somewhere, perhaps they have survived even though the communists disbanded the churches. Castro has good relations with the Vatican. Do you have any oral history about the origins in Spain? Surnames? village names? Do you have existing relatives still in Cuba? You can contact me for more information if you need it vrojo@comcast.net

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Kerry Scott September 14, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Kathy—I have zero experience in Spanish or Cuban records (my work is almost entirely U.S.-based). Heather and Thomas would be great resources, and anyone else who has expertise for Kathy is more than welcome to jump in here.

I’d also consider checking the Association of Professional Genealogists website at http://www.apgen.org; they probably have a listing for someone who has expertise in the area you need. Professional genealogists obviously charge for their work, but some will also provide consultations for a smaller fee. It might be worth the investment, just to get started.

Good luck (and thanks for sticking with me all this time!)

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Thomas MacEntee September 14, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Great post Kerry – and it is important to reiterate that as genealogists, like journalists, our job is to report what we find. However there are some stories that are either a) too painful, b) still impact the living, or c) would add no value to one’s genealogy in being made public. Some of my own stories are way too horrendous to even speak of let alone put on paper. For those, I’ve actually written them up, placed them in an envelope and they are part of my estate planning papers. They go to a certain person whom I trust will do the right thing when the time comes.

Also, those whose families have a history of abuse, mental illness, dependency, etc., don’t forget the field of genograms. More often used by social workers, it is an aspect of genealogy where you map out these social issues along family lines and try to make connections. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genogram

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Kerry Scott September 14, 2010 at 5:13 pm

You know, I only just heard of genograms this week (when I was catching up on the APG and TGF lists). Those seem like a great tool for this sort of thing.

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Antropologa September 14, 2010 at 1:51 pm

Very interesting. The more I learn about my family, though, the less I want to know.

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Kerry Scott September 14, 2010 at 5:11 pm

That’s true for quite a few people. It’s definitely not for everyone, and if it’s going to cause you more pain than good, don’t do it. That threshold is different for everyone, I think.

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Rachel - former HR blogger September 14, 2010 at 7:25 pm

Thanks for posting this. I just started doing some genealogy research last year. While I have a long way left to go, there is one thing that’s been bugging me. My family does not associate with my mother’s mother’s family. Including my mother’s mother. I’m happy to do research on the remaining family that I have grown up with but there’s a part of me that feels missing when I know that 1/4 of my heritage will never get filled in.

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JL September 25, 2010 at 7:49 pm

It’s been virtually impossible to trace my mother’s side at all, and will probably always be that way but that’s no reason to throw it all out.

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Susan September 14, 2010 at 7:52 pm

Excellent post and excellent discussion.

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Sabrina September 14, 2010 at 9:38 pm

I think it would also be difficult to find out information from family sources. In my case the family secret was nearly 50 years ago, but my mother is gone and my uncles *refuse* to talk about their mother. I know a little bit about her but not much. And thus, not much about anyone who came before her.

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Elizabeth McKenzie September 14, 2010 at 9:48 pm

Wonderful topic.
I was advised by a professional organizing friend to throw out bad memories.
I have come across a few tragedies and decided to preserve them instead. For example, the shooting death of a young girl by her brother, a man who attempted to murder his wife and kids are two. However I make this info Available by request and warn the person in advance. These tragic stories should be remembered. Otherwise they are lost. Please keep sharing but carefully and with respect for families who may be very shocked at first. In both of the examples above the initial shock lessened somewhat and then when we thought about it, many brickwalls had crumbled: why people suddenly moved, married,etc. A vital part of the whole picture.

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Debi September 15, 2010 at 11:27 am

Kerry, you’ve really gotten me thinking again about my husband’s family. Twin girls, one of whom was his maternal grandmother, born in 1894 and we think adopted within the first two-three years of life. I’ve talked to the county in Wyoming and they tell me adoption records are sealed. How do we go further if we can’t obtain official birth (no records kept prior to 1909) or adoption records?

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Kerry Scott September 16, 2010 at 4:29 am

Sabrina and Rachel (yay for old readers!)—I think a lot of people have a branch like that, where people don’t speak. You can still do the research—you get a lot to start with just by ordering the relevant vital (birth/marriage/death) records. The delicate part is keeping it quiet, because your family members don’t necessarily want to know this stuff…and you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) contact the estranged relatives, or you’ll have one hell of a mess on your hands, and all those open cans of worms lying around are hazardous to your health. I like digging up dead people, but living people…that’s harder. In fact, I just heard back from a cousin who is related by a branch that split 100 years ago, and even THAT is delicate.

Debi—adoptions are a whole specialty onto themselves. I don’t generally work with adoptions at all, but there are professionals that do (and blogs devoted to that as well). I would check http://www.apgen.org for the professionals, and http://www.geneabloggers.com for other researchers who are working on adoptions. I’d also check the Rootsweb lists at http://lists.rootsweb.ancestry.com/ (which is the way genealogists used to communicate before blogs and Twitter and Facebook) and subscribe to some Wyoming and/or adoption lists. There’s bound to be someone out there who has experience in that timeframe/location who can give you some tips.

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Greta Koehl September 20, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Interesting topic. I’ve just turned up an old family drama (from the 1870s) that explains a lot of things in my mother’s family. I think even people with a difficult/tragic family history may want to know why things turned out as they did.

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Ornithophobe September 21, 2010 at 4:13 pm

When I started digging, my mamau was really… not happy. I turned up information about her relatives that she didn’t want known. Rum running, abortion, illegitimacy, cradle robbing, murder… What amazed me was that every one of these people had been dead half a century when I uncovered the details. No one was alive to BE offended… except my Mamau. And she was seriously displeased. I couldn’t understand why it mattered- she already knew these things, but she refused me any answers. All I ever got out of it was that she didn’t think it was appropriate to be sifting through other people’s “dirty laundry”. Since I love my Mamau, I didn’t include those details in my research until after she had died. But her refusal to talk to me about it still smarts. If she’d talked to me, then I’d have better understood her ancestors and relatives, from her own impressions of them… and not just had to compile my understanding from death certificates and arrest records. She loved them, so I’m certain there were good reasons for the things they did… but I’ll never know them now.

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Marian Pierre-Louis November 7, 2010 at 11:38 am

Kerry,

You are one of the best bloggers in the genealogical community. I love the way you think.

Marian

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Kerry Scott November 7, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Wow, thank you!

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CJ February 28, 2011 at 10:07 pm

Ah-Ha! I knew you were the one who wrote this post! What you wrote here was at the front of my mind while I watched last week’s WDYTYA with Kim Catrall. Your posts are always very timely! I cried for those three sisters sitting on that couch, and I cried for the 3 little girls in them that were sitting there on that couch. And I thought about the fact that what you wrote here was perfectly portrayed in that episode. Not everyone has the perfect family, or the happy music in the background when they dig up those family secrets and the answers are hard to swallow. But there can be healing in facing them. It hurt Kim Catrall’s mom, but I think she breathed a sigh of relief. That 9 year old little girl didn’t have to wonder if her Daddy was going to come home anymore. And she knows he had a problem & it wasn’t her fault. Genealogy can do that for people. Youre intuitive enough to see that and write about what is reality for some (many) of us, while people like myself are trying to make things sound better than are without even seeing it. Sounds to me like you’re in the right profession.

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Kerry Scott March 3, 2011 at 11:49 am

Wow, thank you.

That was a tough episode to watch, but I totally agree…the real message for her mom was that the problem was with her father, not with her. I think sometimes research can help us see relatives in a new light. For people with troubled families, that’s hugely valuable. I can help keep them from haunting you, and that’s a good thing.

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Ron Holzwarth July 9, 2011 at 8:25 pm

My mother was very interested in genealogy, and has our family tree recorded to before the Revolutionary War. She knows an amazing amount of information about our family that literally goes back centuries.
And then one day, she put my name into a search engine and came across one of the adoption search websites where I had posted, looking for my biological son who was born in Kansas on January 19, 1986. She called me right away, and it was obvious that she got the shock of her life when she discovered on the web that she had a biological grandson that was at that time 24 years old.
I never told anyone in the family about him or that I let him go, I just didn’t see any way that it would be fair to him to even try to keep him as a single father. In the 1980s, custody was NEVER given to the fathers of infants anyway.
His biological mother had no interest in him at all. I had made a terrible mistake in getting involved with her, that’s for sure.
I didn’t get any professional advice at the time, and I sure do wish I could go back and change that now. There were other options. But maybe it all turned out to be the best for him, I don’t know.
I never told anyone in my family about him for all that time, and it sure was a terrible thing to always know about him, but never be able to talk about him.
I sure hope he looks me up someday before I die. I’ve made it very easy for him to find me if he has the slightest inclination to do so.
Well, that was the family secret. It was so secret that I was the only one in the family to know about it for over 20 years.
Ron

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Kerry Scott July 10, 2011 at 6:56 am

I hope he finds you, Ron. I think these things have a much better chance of working out when the parents actually want to be found, like you do.

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Roxanne Richardson December 17, 2011 at 12:35 pm

As with most children in the same situation, my parents’ divorce when I was six had a huge impact on my life. I knew my dad’s parents had also divorced when he was young, but I didn’t know anything else about his side of the family. My dad knew very little about his own father’s life, so when I began researching his side of the family, there wasn’t much he could tell me (or remember, of the little he had once known).

My research has uncovered a history of divorce that goes back four generations in the Richardson line, plus a further generation for the wife married to that first Richardson. On my dad’s mother’s side, while her parents stayed together, her grandmother married her third husband while still married to her 2nd husband (my g2grandfather). In turn, my g2grandfather’s first wife divorced him here in Minnesota.

Discovering this family pathology of divorce has been at times depressing, but has also given me a context for my father’s life and background that I otherwise wouldn’t have understood.

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amy November 25, 2012 at 12:19 pm

I stumbled across this post maybe two years too late, but I wanted to thank you for it. I tell my friends that I do “stealth” genealogy – I’m estranged from half of my family and my research is hampered by it. As there are genealogists on The Other Half of the family, all my research for the past four generations is sort of undercover – no public trees on ancestry.com, no posting on message boards to find information, and I meticulously research a genealogist who posted somewhere on the internet before I contact them to see how they might be connected lest word get back to those I’m trying to avoid. And then when I do find something exciting, I can’t really share it with the Good Half of the family, because it makes them feel bad. It makes it so much more difficult, but the rewards are so worth it. I have been finding the patterns you mentioned, and while it hurts sometimes, it’s been cathartic. Genealogy has helped me come to peace with a part of myself I’ve ignored for too long. Thank you for acknowledging that for some of us, genealogy isn’t all fun & games.

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Rodokmen July 18, 2014 at 1:52 am

I discovered several factors that should be forgotten during my genealogical research. In Slovakia, we call them “skeletons in the closet”. At the same time it was shown that several families legends are false or only partially true. I think there is no reason to be ashamed of “imperfect family”, although several people in front of the past rather turn a blind eye.

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