S Surprises, secrets and shame

When you begin to look into a family history – your own, or on behalf of another family – it’s important to be prepared for the unexpected. Of course, it’s great to discover who your forebears were, and to learn something of their lives, which might help explain how you became who you are, but pretty much every family tree will eventually reveal things that may be uncomfortable.

Surprises are a bonus: When you find someone related to you that you may never  have even known about before, when someone has a photograph of a relative you’ve never seen that they’re happy to share, when you realise that you’re related so some one well known, so can add lots of detail…. all of these, as long as they’re properly evidenced, are the things that make family research so rewarding.

In my own tree I’ve had examples of all of these things –

  • I’ve met relatives I didn’t know about (and fortunately got along well with them!)
  • Thanks to a Canadian researcher I have access to a photograph (now a treasured possession) of a great uncle.
  • I can claim to be a direct descendant of a master clockmaker, and a distant relative of former poet laureate Andrew Motion.

Secrets are not always so easy to deal with. Fortunately they don’t crop up too frequently, though I have discovered a lot from Canadian military records and newspaper reports which it would really be very uncomfortable to share in published biographies. There is always a trade off to consider when these sorts of things crop up. Do people really want to know their stories ‘warts and all’, or is it kinder to offer a somewhat sanitised version?

My response, when I have contact with a family member is to try and establish from the start just how much detail they will be comfortable with. It’s become standard practice to introduce the idea of some information being potentially too uncomfortable to deal with early in the relationship with families. Often with this sort of pre-warning, and gentle explanation about understanding some of the differences in ways of life in earlier days, people will opt for the ‘warts and all’ view after all.

In my own three there are two or three things that I have recorded, added supporting evidence and locked them away in a private tree without ever disclosing to others. If family members ask of their own volition, I wouldn’t hide the facts, I just don’t want to go advertising things which might be best left where they are.

Shame This sounds a bit dramatic, and for several years as I researched my family history, I thought there was nothing that was so bad that I would feel  long term shame about it; only one fairly close bigamist, one murder (which was actually severe postnatal depression) and lots of sad stories. I was fine with all of those, then I found the slave owner.

Even writing about it now, I am stressing about how awful that is. I know that I can’t take the blame. I know that times were different.

I also know that there is, and never was, any excuse for one human being thinking that s/he had the right to own or mistreat another. I am appalled that I have an almost direct line back to a wealthy slave owner – how many families  was he responsible for destroying? I can’t even begin to wonder whether he was cruel/fair/kind.

I understand that I can’t do anything about slavery in bygone days, but that doesn’t stop me feeling ashamed of my link to it. I guess all I can do is fight modern day slavery, which, however unpalatable to modern ears, does still exist.

Another long post, which doesn’t sound very positive overall.

All I can say is try and understand the uncomfortable things you unearth, and enjoy the surprises.


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