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?

As someone who believes that secrets slowly strangle those of us who keep them, and as someone keenly interested in human behavior and family dynamics, my answer is unequivocally “Yes.” And that answer informs my personal philosophy about family history. Regardless of what my ancestors did or did not do, I attach neither pride nor shame to them or their actions. I do not seek to lionize my ancestors, nor do I seek to demonize any of them. I want only to humanize them, to love them in some way for who they really were in all their beautiful, imperfect messiness.

But that’s me. I have to remind myself from time to time that it’s not reasonable, fair, or right to assume that everyone else feels the same way. And I have to recognize that as some imperfect actions get closer and closer to the living, I have to be careful. I was recently faced with a situation that brought all of this to the fore. Some of the details of this story have been altered to protect the privacy of the living.

At some point in the last decade, I spent some time researching the family of someone who I’ll call “Lynn.” Some discoveries were certainly made, but nothing upsetting or outrageous. More recently, however, Lynn’s stepmother privately contacted me with a bit of information and a request. According to her, Lynn’s father was not the father of Lynn’s sibling, “Pat.” The stepmother and Lynn’s father were the only living people who knew this. Lynn and Pat’s mother was deceased. So was Pat’s alleged father, who had been a close friend of the family. The secret was eating her up.

She felt Pat deserved to know who his/her father was, and she was concerned there could be real health ramifications if Pat never knew the truth about half of his/her medical history. She didn’t want to put me on the spot, but perhaps as a genealogist, I could encourage Lynn and Pat to take an Ancestry DNA test? Then, they could make the discovery themselves through the test results.

I was so thrown by the whole exchange that I didn’t immediately know how to respond. I told her I’d think about it and get back to her. And I briefly actually considered it. If I were Pat, I’d certainly want to know. But I really shouldn’t have had to mull it over at all before I told her “no.”

My deep desire to know the truth about my own family should not be automatically transferred to others. Neither Pat nor Lynn had raised any questions of paternity that they wanted me to investigate, whether or not either had questions in their own minds. Nor had I stumbled across a particular record in the course of normal research that revealed this information. I had simply been told an unsolicited family secret. That family secret isn’t mine to relay, either directly in words or indirectly through the encouragement of DNA testing specifically for the purpose of forcing discovery. The latter is actively manipulative and particularly unethical.

As it turns out, Lynn had already taken an autosomal Ancestry DNA test on his/her own specifically to explore ethnic origins. Lynn had chatted with Pat about those results, but Pat maintained that commercial DNA tests were bunk. (Perhaps Pat has some suspicions that he/she has no interest in confirming?) I’ve not said anything to either of them about DNA since.

In cases like these, genealogy’s requirement to resolve conflicts of information and my personal desire to get to the bare truth of things must take a back seat rather than risk derailing a long-stable family dynamic. Now, when working with a client, a friend, or a relative on matters concerning siblings, parents, or grandparents, I make sure they understand in advance what that research could reveal. And I take my cue from that TV medium, asking them “Do you want to know everything?”

  1. November 28, 2018 9:42 am
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