Family Secrets, Privacy, and Responsibility
For the July–September 2018 issue of NGS Magazine (volume 44, number 3), editor Deb Cyprych shaped an issue focused mainly on discovering family secrets and how to conduct research to find out more. Six of the magazine’s articles discuss Civil War desertion and courts-martial, divorces, the mentally ill, prostitutes, Civil War pension scams, and the 1880 Supplemental Schedules for defective, dependent, and delinquent classes. A seventh article covers methods for technologically securing the sensitive data you discover.
I’m put in mind of a television medium/clairvoyant a few years back whose clients came to her in hopes of contacting and communicating with one or the other of their deceased family members. The medium began each session with the same question: “Do you want to know everything?”
It’s a reasonable question. Her clients were generally seeking some measure of relief, or assurance, or connection, or forgiveness; whatever they thought they needed to be able to move on with their lives. But once the session started, who knew what would come up? And sometimes entirely unexpected things did. Sound familiar? As family historians, we are in essence both the living family member seeking answers about the dead and the medium charged with uncovering them. Do we want to know everything?Only NGS members have access to full articles of NGS Monthly. Please log in or click here to learn more about joining the National Genealogical Society.
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By following a record trail and a lucky find in Google Books, I recently discovered a treasure trove of letters and legal documents written by and about some of my direct ancestors. These are archived public domain letters from the slaveholding South of the early and mid-19th century and contain graphic racist incidents and language. Personal, sometimes disparaging, information about the relatives of others in their communities appears in the letters. While I feel an obligation to write, publish, and place this information in a historical context, I have done so with some trepidation. While these are primary sources of precise human experiences that are sometimes lost in the generalities of history, I still feel an odd sense of betrayal in making public the private communications of my ancestors.
I concur wholeheartedly with your views. The question that I have is with respect to other descendants of your ancestors. As has been cogently pointed out, we do not own our ancestors – they belong to numerous other descendants as well (at least in most instances). If you report factual information about an ancestor which might offend another descendant, is there a duty to protect that potentially offended descendant?
My answer, for what it’s worth, is almost always No. Assuming the individual in question is deceased, I generally have no problem making public information about my ancestors. I am hesitant if children of the individual in question may be still living, but not beyond that (sorry grandchildren). And, while I may not be thrilled with what some of my ancestors did (e.g. bigamists, children out of wedlock, murderers, murder victims, losing the farm for criminal actions, etc.), we cannot choose our ancestors. That and the recognition that almost no one is all bad or all good all the time.
Very interesting article by Aaron Goodwin. If I was doing research into a person’s deceased relatives and a different family member contacted me and spilled the beans about the person who asked me for help and requested that I, the researcher, to tell my client about the deceased relative about the problem, I would politely tell that different party the two letter word. NO. I really believe that it is the responsibility of the parent to sit down with the adult child and tell them the truth. And answers all questions. Believe me it will not kill that person to tell the truth one and for all. That is what my mother did to me when I was asking about a certain relative in the family that I never heard about until I was in high school. After doing research into that certain person, I fully understand what my mother did. So glad mom did not take that to her grave.
A few years ago I discovered a distant Cousin, doing genealogical research on one of the main websites. The initial discovery was based on DNA, and some initial and more in-depth research revealed a more specific connection. When I contacted her, it was not clear how we were related, she was not at all familiar with some of the connection surnames. When asked, she revealed she did not know who her father was, her mother who was still alive was either unsure, or not being completely frank. Our relationship and research evolved, and it was clear to me that she was open to whatever the truth may be. Almost 2 years later she contact me, via e-mail, to say she had the first DNA match with the last name “………”. and it was extremely close and she thought this might be her father. In the e-mail, she sent me a screen shot of the match. I went in and searched but could not find the user. I e-mailed her to ask if she could share her DNA results with me, as a “guest”, so I could actually see this individual’s shared matches, tree, etc. She did, and I did a few days’ research. It was not her father, but it was her father’s living brother, and I ended up finding her father, who died a few years before. Since, she has been in contact with her DNA match “Uncle”, and some other family members, and it is progressing. I know not everyone wants to “know it all”, and “I get” the professional genealogist approach to being sensitive about these things (much like a doctor has to be about what they say, how they say it, etc.), but to me, “it is what it is” or “it is what it was” is just the simple facts. Is the truth brutal sometimes, certainly, but it is after all just the truth. Just because someone has the education or experience to bring something into the open, that is really discoverable by pretty much everyone if they tried hard enough, isn’t wrong. The way I look at it, if I am trying to help someone, and somebody else is subsequently upset because some facts (that were, after all, publicly available, or how did I find them), then that is not unethical (not that I am a “pro” and have some ethical oath I have taken). Most folks involved in these type issues/events are adults, and they should know that everything is not rose, everybody is not descended from some president, King, Queen, or hero, some folks can trace their roots back to some infamous person, but then…..it is what it was applies….those are just the facts.