Family History or Family Fiction?: Exposing Secrets
Paul Chiddicks is my muse. Paul publishes popular articles in the UK version of Family Tree Magazine and also authors the Blog The Chiddicks Family Tree. He often writes something that is the impetus for my own blog posts. Such was the case this morning when I read his post Ethical Dilemmas and How To Approach Them. I suggest reading his post first so you have an idea what I am responding to. Paul and I do not always agree, but I do love him for what he provokes in me. Paul thinks deeply about things and his responsibility as a genealogist and family historian.
The title of this blog post is provocative for a reason. I believe that keeping secrets and sanitizing the past is creating fiction. I know that many will disagree, and that is okay with me. I am a truth teller and I like to clearly separate fact from fiction. I don’t like secrets, never have. As a trained counselor I have had to keep many of them. I believe secrets often harm, more than they help. I will try to explain that more fully in my ramble here. But first off let’s’ take a short detour and talk about history.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”George Santayana
History is the study of past events usually described from a particular person’s viewpoint. When we reach the time when written history does not exist we call that Pre-history. As a genetic-genealogist I have watched as DNA has taken the “facts” of Pre-history and turned them on their heads. Time and time again, what we thought we knew, turns out to be a lie: pure fiction. Whether it is the belief that Neanderthals and modern humans never mated (LIE) to whose ancestors turns out to be a slaver or an enslaved person (TRUTH). If we are going to examine the past and tell the stories of our ancestors we will face the uncomfortable decision of whether to “gloss over” or ignore the truth, thus continuing the lie, or confronting it and telling the truth. I know that my good friend Roberta Estes who writes the blog DNAExplained has confronted many difficult stories, some very close to her. She has told them with great grace and courage.
The great swath of human history is at once a sordid tale of brutal violence: man’s injustice to man, with hints of uncompromising beauty and the will to survive. But much of our history is mundane and often tragic. While the hero of the story stands triumphant at the top of the hill—what did it cost others for him to get there? If as we get up in years we examine our own lives and hold them up to the tall tales of a sanitized past we will come up quite short. We will be comparing our lives with that of legends and fairytales.
“We read to know we are not alone.”William Nicholson’s Shadowlands
I would argue we study family history to know we are not alone as well. We look for traces of ourselves and clues to who we are , in those that have gone before us. Perhaps, as some have argued this is driven by narcissism, but I argue it is to try to make sense of who we are in a world that is always trying to make us less than in order to sell us something we don’t need, to make us feel better about ourselves. From a shiny new sports car to botox injections we have taken living a lie to new depths. In my parents generation there were many things you didn’t talk about—or did so only behind closed doors. Now we pretend those things don’t happen here or worse yet tell so many lies we can no longer find or recognize the truth. Let’s take suicide which is the 11th leading cause of death in the United States and 3rd cause of death for 15-24 year olds. Let us say you have discovered a history of suicide in your family. Is it a proper thing to keep that a secret? Especially when we know it has a high genetic component?
Paul wrote ” Just because an ancestor lived and died 150 years ago, does that give us the right to publicise their criminal past or private letters, or mental health issues for example?” The answer to that question is not completely straightforward as written materials and the right to publish them follow inheritance laws. During a person’s lifetime the right to publish clearly belongs to the writer. After their death the recipient maintains the right of ownership, but the right to publish belongs to the estate or heirs of the writer’s estate. Most items published in the United States more than 95 years ago are in the public domain. Unpublished letters and family photographs, are copyrighted for the life of the creator plus 70 years. So to answer Paul’s question yes we do have the right to publicize a 150 year old letter and generally speaking criminal and health records where extant are free game. But I think the deeper question he is getting at is should we? My reply is generally, yes. Perhaps that is a bit easier for me to answer unequivocally, because I have no living biological siblings or anyone living in my parents generation. But it is also true because I think the most honorable way to pay respect to my ancestors is to see them in their totality. Not as cardboard cutouts, but as living breathing humans in all their challenges and complexities.
Let me give a couple of examples. I have a 3 inch binder of my grandfather’s correspondence with his siblings in the later years of his life [photo above]. I have both their letters to him and carbon copies of his letters to them. So both sides of the story. In a phone conversation with a second cousin I was able to answer her own family mystery because I was able to read to her, directly from her grandmother’s letter to my grandfather. I also was able to discover the circumstances of my father’s wounds received when he was a marine, landing on Saipan during World War II, through a letter my grandfather wrote to my grandmother describing what had happened. The true horror of war is only to be discovered in making it personal in such a profound way. Yes, I do believe in making these public and sharing them. Knowing what my Dad went through during the war has helped fill in many pieces of his story I did not understand. Now I understand that he suffered from PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress DIsorder] but I did not understand it then as a child growing up in an often tumultuous household.
The most poignant letter I have is one my grandfather wrote but never sent. It is 3+ typewritten pages and was crumpled to throw out and then kept. Perhaps as a guidepost for one of his progeny to find. It is a letter written to his brother. It highlights his struggles to maintain a household and his sanity while taking care of his wife who is falling deeper and deeper into dementia. His closing line ” If I read this stuff over I will not send it, and you will not have a letter.” I have not chosen to share it and not sure that “I” will as I knew my grandfather well. However, I suspect he would be okay with me if I do chose to do so. He had his dignity which in the rawness of this letter remains intact. What he exposes is the human condition at its best and worse, in the dark nights of the soul.
I only have one family secret, that I have kept, that continues to haunt me. It happened quite a long time ago. It was a secret that I was not asked to be a party to, but that the holder decided to confess to me. It was a woman who had a child out of wedlock, over half a century before her telling me. She surrendered her child, to her sister and husband and the child was raised as their own. That child was deceased, but had children. When the secret keeper died, I happened to be on a board that was the recipient of a bequest. And there was a clause in that bequest—that loosely translated—said “speak now or forever hold your peace.” In the end I said nothing, because I believed the secret keeper, had the opportunity to to divulge the secret and had chosen not to. So I followed her lead. However as a genetic genealogist I thought of all the consternation that would cause someone in the future. I truly believe the grandchildren have a right to know that their great aunt was really their grandmother. It will be someone else’s muddle to resolve–but I suspect it will be someday.
Another thing I have learned through doing genetic genealogy for twelve years now, history has a habit of repeating itself. The adopted, give up children for adoption. Non-paternal events or Not Parentage Expected [NPE] tend to run in families. The very first page of my website I wrote was Dealing with the Unexpected Result. This was before I did my own atDNA testing and found my own secret. I had an ancestor who had enslaved ancestry and I had enslavers lurking in my family tree. That is probably worthy of its own blog post but needless to say I have embraced that secret because it informs who I am. It makes history real in a very personal way. When history is held at arm’s length—because we either can’t relate or because it is painful makes George Santanya’s quote manifest. I would argue you that we should feel discomfort when exposing the past. We should weigh the consequences and do so for solid reasons not in order to exploit the past but to inform the future on which we build.
Probably the most difficult secrets have involved incest. these are sometimes exposed through DNA testing and I personally believe it is among the most difficult things to grapple with. I try to deal with these instances with kindness, compassion and support. I do offer the person an out, before delivering any such news. And I do continue to support them in their search for truth.
Diaries are perhaps even more special than old letters as they are windows to a person’s soul. Most diaries are written without the writer intending for them ever to become public. In a way they are a person’s unvarnished history as they see it, or chose to set it down on paper. Such was the case with my great grandmother Lulu’s diary that she requested her daughter burn upon Lulu’s death. The daughter did not follow her mother’s wishes and kept the diary and it was passed down to my second cousin. He believed it was worthy of being published and felt it should get read by a wider audience. He scanned the original and sent to me and copies were distributed among the extended family. Several of us worked on transcription and I did the annotation. I came to know and love a great grandmother who died nearly 25 years before I was born. If not for her diary I would know very little about her and would not know the parts of her that connect me to her as a kindred spirit. Although her life circumstances are very different I can recognize parts of my grandfather, my father and myself in her. But why I chose to publish her diary on my blog had really very little to do with me and more to do with how important it is to get the voices of our ancestors out to a broader audience. In large part her story is about family and music and the mundanities of life. But it is also the tell of the suffrage movement on a personal level. It is the story of a woman trapped in a marriage with a mentally disturbed and abusive man and what it took for her to survive. While given the time she wrote it I am sure should would not have wanted it publicized, but her story is one of an ordinary woman dealing with life’s challenges. She is an inspiration to me and perhaps to others stumbling upon A Soprano’s Aria. You can find all 37 chapters here. You tell me if it was better burned? It is the history of the San Francisco Bay Area seen through the eyes of a middle aged housewife from the midwest.
So again thank you Paul for asking the questions. I am reminded of a training I once went through for hiring teachers. We ended up developing interview questions that were so revelatory that I still remember mine. The question I developed and got to pose during the interview was this. “You have just been to a meeting where it was disclosed that there would be staff layoffs. You are not allowed to disclose what you learned. Later that day a fellow teacher asks you about the rumored layoffs. They say ‘I don’t know whether to go out and do my Christmas shopping knowing that some of us may be laid off.’ What do you do?” I was told many a time that was the hardest question they had ever been asked. It was in fact a moral dilemma. The teachers being interviewed struggled with getting the answer correct. What they didn’t know is there was no right answer. What we were after was evidence of the struggle. The weighing of morals that demonstrated, they had some. Those that did not struggle with their responses were not considered for hire. I think the key is to recognize the risk in revealing secrets but also the risk in not revealing them.
All of life is a struggle, for some more than others. So I ask do you, do you want to write history or fiction? Is the purpose to exploit or enhance our understanding of the past and the human condition. Therein lies my answer.
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