Tuesday, May 31, 2011

52 Weeks of Genealogy: Secrets (What to Reveal and When?)

Spoiler: If you're looking for deep, dark secrets from my family's past, you won't find them here. Building trust with distant or newly-found relatives is hard enough without blabbing any "secrets" all over the Internet. But I do want to talk about how we, as genealogists, handle family secrets that might be painful or embarrassing to others.

From my vantage point here in the 21st century, it's no big deal that a child of the Depression was born 6 months after his parents' wedding (although both parents took the "secret" to their graves, carefully avoiding any discussion of their exact anniversary date). And it's hard to know whether a long-dead ancestor staved off bankruptcy by arranging a theft to collect insurance money. The situation can be interpreted in different ways by different people, and no one with direct knowledge is still alive to say.

What about the ancestor who died in an insane asylum? Early in the 20th century, chronically ill people were sometimes cared for in asylums because long-term care facilities simply didn't exist. This ancestor was in the asylum for at least 5 years, according to Census and death records, and may have had a heart condition or some other illness rather than a mental problem. Another ancestor died in a poor house, but I don't know any other details of how he came to be there and for how long, or why he wasn't taken in by a sibling who lived less than 200 miles away.

It's one thing to see such secrets exposed on Who Do You Think You Are (for the entertainment of all!). It's quite another thing to have a family member feel hurt, saddened, or betrayed over something in a family tree write-up or genealogy blog.

I want to respect the privacy and dignity of family members and yet, I want to tell the truth about my family's history. It's impossible to understand or explain what ancestors did if I don't know their circumstances. We genealogists are always speculating about the "why" of our family's movements and decisions. Knowing the real story can reveal a lot about the reasons behind an ancestor's actions and help us "walk a mile" in his or her shoes.

So here's my plan: I'm telling the true stories, as I know them, to selected family members who can be discreet, and leaving notes in the files. The genealogist of the next generation or the generation after can decide what to reveal and when. Use this knowledge wisely!

Meantime, I'm revealing my gentler "secrets" via this blog. So if you were only looking at official documentation, you wouldn't know about my brief motorcycle momma period. What other secrets? My shameful love of Chuckles (which I've sworn off for good, since sugar is toxic) and my quest to sew something for beloved family members and friends so in the decades to come, they'll always have something to remember me by. Paper turns to dust, and memories fade over time, but quilts can hang on a wall forever :)


52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy & History by Amy Coffin is a series of weekly blogging prompts (one for each week of 2011) that invite genealogists and others to record memories and insights about their own lives for future descendants. The "secrets" topic is week 22 (although Amy intended this to be about details no future generations will find in our official genealogical records, I used it as a springboard to discuss "secrets" in general).


  1. Marian, this prompt didn't have the word "secrets" when I wrote it. That was added later at Geneabloggers. The intent was to share something that won't be found on any record 100 years from now. This could be *anything* not just a secret. For instance, that you play piano or that you won the 8th grade spelling bee. The details that define you as a person, but don't get recorded anywhere.

    I'm sorry if this week's prompt caused any trouble as that was never the intent.

  2. Hi Amy,

    Geneabloggers did explain the "secrets" prompt but I was hoping for an opportunity to write about family secrets in general, so I interpreted it that way. Either way, it's an intriguing topic and I've been enjoying your series every week. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment! - Marian