Saturday, February 26, 2011

What To Do With Skeletons in the Closet

Last evening's broadcast of the NBC hit genealogy show, Who Do You Think You Are, featured Kim Cattrall's search for her grandfather who had abandoned his family. He ran off and left three young daughters who grew up without ever knowing their father.

He then married another woman (without having gotten a divorce!) and began a new family with her.

Upon learning this information, and that she had living relatives, Cattrall chose not to follow-up and meet her grandfather's other family. Most of the people who were discussing the program on Twitter (#wdytya) last evening were in agreement that it was a very emotional episode.

What do you do with YOUR skeletons?


This brings me around to a question I would like to pose to readers of this blog.

What do YOU do with the skeletons in YOUR closet? Most of us have them. Mine include illegitimate children, kidnapping (if it's your own child, is it really kidnapping?), several suicides, and probably the worst of all, a third great-grandfather who killed his daughter and then committed suicide in 1851.

Last night's discussions on Twitter as well as on Geneablogger Radio brought out a lot of firmly held beliefs on what to do with this type of information when it is discovered in your family history research.

Points to consider:

  • Do you lay it on the line, share with family and publish your findings?
  • Do you keep it close to the vest and not share it?
  • Do you attempt to rewrite history? The genealogist who published a family history that included the ancestor who murdered his daughter changed the entire context of that story, making him out to be a hero who tried to save his daughter's life. Newspaper reports from the time were quite different.
  • Is there a "statute of limitations" on privacy? For example, if an incident occurred four or five generations back, do you treat the information differently?
When I began gathering information from living family members, a relative asked that I not include her first husband in her genealogy. I was rather astounded by the request, because how would I explain where her three children came from?

I definitely understand and respect privacy issues regarding living individuals; that isn't the point of this discussion.

But I am very interested in how other genealogists deal with the skeletons in your closet. This is an open discussion, so please leave your comments below.

34 comments:

  1. I am not sure I will ever get this posted, but here goes another try. My neice was murdered at 18 years of age. She was leading quite a wild life, according to the newspaper and her mother.
    That is very hard to talk about, since I wasn't there. Mostly I just provide a link to it on my online book.

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  2. I think handling it with sensitivity is best. If the person or their family is still living I refrain from blogging about it. I might note it in my tree and mark it as private. I think it is easier to write about it if it is a few generations removed. I guess I try to handle it how I would want sensitive issues about me handled while I am still living, discretely. After my death go for it!

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  3. I don't mention the names of living people in my blog.

    But I do disclose and discuss "family secrets" with my family, and if the secrets involve people who are no longer living, then yes, I blog them. I wrote about that the other day, in this entry: http://dee-burris.livejournal.com/51281.html

    Some of these secrets still impact living people. There are actual issues of "Who Do You Think You Are?" in my extended family, and people who are hanging on to those secrets (and perpetuating the resulting lies), are, in my opinion, just cruel.

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    1. That is the case with me and I am looking. I noted what my grandfather did but they family did not like I was talking about it so I quit taking about it. Thank you will follow your example and put it in the tree. KKK and possible doing someone in but I have no proof. Long dead and it was supposed to be about the 1920's

      Yes I see it impacting people from the abuse and bad stuff so I am looking but they will not tell me so I will dig and my aunt is still here and I will ask her about her dad. She really told me the worse so far.

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  4. Hi there! I have a few "colorful" stories that I've uncovered so far - mostly involving multiple (previously undisclosed) marriages and "early" babies! I have shared most of them with my family as they are generations in the past. However one or two hit closer to home (I have a grandmother who was married less than a month before my uncle was born although they always gave the marriage date as a year earlier) The recent things I just don't talk about on my blog - my dad really isn't interested in hearing that sort of thing about him mom at this point! (she is not living) It's all in my database however.

    I would definitely consider NOT telling a story - at least publicizing it - if it was too emotional for living family members. What I would NOT do is publish something that was not true just to make the family sound better. Rewriting history is totally the wrong option in my opinion.

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  5. Thanks for sharing the link to your blog post, Dee. That was very interesting and thought-provoking!

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  6. I think the answer to this question can be complicated based on a whole bunch of criteria. For instance, how far removed time-wise are the researchers? The more generations from the actual event, the easier it will make it to discuss. What were the religious values of the participants? What were the moral values - were they very private or open people? How strongly does the family feel about retaining its family history? For some families this is very important, for others not. The decision about how we handle skeletons in our closet is the result of all these questions jumbled together to come to one answer. Everyone's answer will be different.

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  7. Diana - very valid points. I still have a draft of a blog post I was writing when I connected with a Long Lost Relative of the in-laws of my family. My relative had killed herself and her widower went on to have a new family. I was able to trace the descendants of the member of my family up to present day.

    There was a lot of uneasiness in that family and the living descendants probably have no idea of the family history. As much as I wanted to blog about these wonderful photographs and portraits shared by my new correspondent, I couldn't really write the blog without telling the whole story.

    So it remains in my Draft folder. Perhaps at a later time.

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  8. David, it sounds like you have arrived at a valid solution. As the other comments have stated, the closer the event is to present day makes it a much more difficult decision.

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  9. Brenda, I agree that it's easier to deal with if you are a few generations removed.

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  10. Marian - good point about the religious values of the people involved. One of the suicides in my family was a member of a devout and prominent Catholic family. After reading the sanitized account of her death in the newspapers, a new article emerged stating that the family had attempted to cover up the cause of her death. That's another reason why researchers can't stop at just once source of information.

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  11. Working as a professional genealogist does bring this scenario up on occasion. After 25+ years I have found that the best method to handle this is to present the client with the facts and allow them to determine how much is published. Usually they are fine with having the whole story told, but, not always. One client in particular said, "If you find any skeletons in the closet, I don't want to know about it". I did and he didn't!

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  12. Susan, thanks for a thought provoking post. I have also come across some questionable relationships. While I don't want to hit others over the head with the truth, so to speak, I will document the facts in my genealogy. I also agree with Marian about the need to understand the values and culture of the era.

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  13. In my experience, skeletons and black sheep are only emotionally harmful to those who knew the person or were connected within two generations. After that it seems to become more of a "story" than a person and perhaps an embarrassment (again, this is in my experience). So I usually don't publicize the scandals of anyone with a spouse, child or sibling still living and hesitate if I know of any living grandchildren, nieces or nephews.

    Although I have a GG-Grandfather who did something very similar to what Kim Cattrall's did, it's no longer an issue in the family. It's a story known by everyone that I've written about before. Honestly, the biggest skeleton in my family is probably slavery. No one really wants to hear that their ancestors owned slaves and like to simply brush the issue aside. I find it difficult to talk about it with the family because they don't want to hear it.

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  14. Recent events, living people - no question, I do not write about them. I've had a scolding e-mail from a relative by marriage who was worried that I would be researching recent unhappy events and had to reassure the person that that is not what my research is about. For older generations - mostly great-grandparents (all of mine were born in the mid-19th century) and farther back - I generally feel the information should be out there. Most of my living relatives have a very unsentimental attitude about our black-sheep ancestors and have no problems confronting their faults and foibles; as a matter of fact, it has often been family stories that led me to find some of the less savory facts about these ancestors.

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  15. My husband's grandmother was "taken advantage of" when she was a young girl of 16. I have letters referring to the incident and her resulting pregnancy. When his grandmother was in her 80s she told my husband and one of his brothers the truth. Her only child, my husband's mother, was adopted by the man she married shortly after the birth. Grandmother wanted the truth to be known! My sister in law is in denial and her four brothers have no problem with it and don't understand her attitude. If I write about it, I'll have to do it in such a way that it will be least offensive to the sensitivity of my sister-in-law. I don't want her angry with me as she has been my only help with my husband's genealogy and I care for her very much.

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  16. Great conversation. Mariam I am most in line with your thoughts on this. I am very sensitive to information that goes against the wishes of the living, with the exception of excluding an ex just because you want to erase that part of your life.(I have a sister who wish she could exclude her ex from the history book).
    I have a few family secrets that remain a secret to this day. My parent's generation have chosen to carry the secrets of their parents and grandparents generations out of respect and loyalty. I have written those stories privately and will ensure they are passed to my children so that sometime in the future the entire truth will be known. These stories don't belong to me, if given permission to write about them I will, respectfully, until then they will be saved for a future day. I think the future generations will have less of a concern with this, as we are much more accepting and open to all life's events good and bad.

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  17. If the skeletons are several generations back (where no one living knew the parties) then I usually don't hesitate to write about them.

    I have a situation involving my grandfather that I won't write about for now. After 50 years of research by various family members, some cousins and I finally solved the big mystery of his past in 2009. Family members have been told but my two aunts (the only survivors of his 11 children) don't want it told publicly. It will take a book to tell this story someday but that's not going to happen anytime soon. I have everything documented in my db but have it all marked private so that it doesn't go to my website or get shared by accident with anyone.

    BTW, did you see the graphic at the end of the show last night? It mentioned that they had since been in contact with the family in Australia so Kim apparently re-thought her initial reaction to not look any further.

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  18. If something happened within a persons life, they own it, it's a fact. If you don't include it then it becomes a fairy tale. You have to decide if you want a fairy tale or if you really want to know a person and their life. If a genealogist/family historian writes this up right, it can be a great learning experience for future generations to come.

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  19. My g-grandfather shot his wife, my g-grandmother, three times. She survived, he went to prison. All those closely affected no longer survive, so I blogged it. An ancestor on my wife's side publicly committed a serious felony. I wanted to blog it, but they asked me not to because it is too painful, so I didn't. But it will be in the family history.

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  20. I agree with Valerie, A connection the the person involved in the mystery is a determining factor in how descendants feel about black sheep people and/or difficult occurrences in their families. My husband's family has a murder, and we recorded it, but I don't blog about it or discuss it with others. After all, we don't know every circumstance, and did not know the people involved. But my mother-in-law did, and she has feelings about it.

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  21. These are all fantastic comments, insights and revelations about how to deal with what can be a sensitive subject. I'm sorry if I'm not able to comment on everyone's post - I didn't expect so much participation! But I'm glad there is. This is a great discussion and thank you to everyone for sharing your thoughts on this subject.

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  22. I don't think there really is a "blanket" answer to this question. Personally I look at each and think about the ramifications of sharing. Some things I've found I've just put back in the courthouse vault and leave there, other things, I do share. I try to think about the living descendants and how it might affect them. If there are no living descendants and I feel no one would be hurt by it then its okay to share it. I also consider how long ago it happened. Just my two cents worth!

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  23. Great discussion and I agree with much of what has been said above. We have stories too. I don't blog personal details about living members and I respect the privacy of the family. I do record the stories and they are part of written records shared with family only.

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  24. I approach skeletons no different then anything else, they are a part of my history, my family and reveal who people were and what happened in that particular time. While we need to be sensitive about feelings, we need to be able to clearly document our findings. This doesn't mean I post it on billboards, but I write it as part of history. I have found I have 2 half sisters (Dad) and a 1/2 brother (Mom) that my parents hid not only from me but from each other. A shock, yes, a skeleton only for some, an exciting discovery, yes. Do I share it? yes whenever I can. We have to remember what we are finding and discovering is all history and part of who are family is. Thanks for the interesting discussion.

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  25. I too agree with much what has been said. Privacy of living people is important to me unless they want me to publish the information.

    Example: within the past few months a cousin contacted me whose father abandoned her family when she was only four. He never had contact with his ex-wife or two little daughters until she married and have children of her own. her father heard about it and contacted her *in hopes of borrowing some money*. She has asked that I not mention her name so that she cannot be found. However, little by little healing is going on between her and other cousins from the same family.

    So all in all some skeletons we have to keep hidden for the sake of others. My own skeletons, it doesn't matter..the truth is the truth and nothing can change that.

    Lucie

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  26. Truth is the best policy. A man I know just realized he was the only living person who knew the identity of his 80-year-old cousin's father. The cousin had always wanted to know, but never thought to ask his much younger relative. The man contacted his cousin's daughters and told them if their dad asked him he would tell. Minutes later these two men spoke for the first time in decades. I have two cases right now of elderly people who'd like to know who they are but whose parents lied, lied, lied about themselves when they put their children up for adoption. Tragic for the living if truth is lost. The dead are past hurting.

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  27. These were ALL fantastic comments, everyone! Thanks for some very good contributions to this discussion. I learned from each of you.

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  28. Very interesting post Susan. Thank you.

    I am VERY careful about what I post in my blog. I discovered my ancestor's "sister" was really her mother. The ancestor has been dead for 60 plus years, but she may have grandchildren or family still alive who do not know the truth. I don't feel that it's my place to break the news to them in a public manner, such as through a blog. I have the info in my private records, and if someone were to contact me I'd be happy to share with them privately. I might post about the person in a general way, as I do here, but never post their name or relationship.

    Several months ago someone, I think, either commented or posted and said that once the subject was dead, all info is fair game. I disagree. I'm all for tact and discretion particularly when I think the information I have may hurt, be upsetting, or compromise the privacy of living. People first, genealogy/family history second.

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  29. I have a GG grandfather who did what Kim's did and his children and grandchildren from the second marriage were always told not to tell. He left his wife and 6 children in Ohio, no divorce, so he never legally married my GG grandma in Indiana. He also changed his name, and moved around a lot. I feel bad for the children he left as my great grandma was born in the second family and was cared for, the children from his first family were put in the poor house for 2 years. He would have been a brick wall for me if his grandson, my grandma's cousin, hadn't written about him.I would have been looking for the wrong surname. They have all passed on now and I write about it. His family history on his mother's side goes back to the Mayflower. If still living I would never blog about it. I have other stories in this family I don't write about, but my children know.

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  30. If it would affect living relatives, I would never post it on my blog.

    And after a recent situation that I was asked to help with, I'm not sure I would even get involved in private.

    That being said, I don't try to rewrite history. It is what it is which means if someone were to come across my tree on ancestry they might learn information that they didn't know like they are married to their cousin.

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  31. This is what keeps me from passing on information during my lifetime although I'd like to.

    There are people still living who would be 'mortified' to have certain things made public. And certainly 'mortified' to have it passed on to their children or grandchildren.

    I have to wait til they're all gone and hope they go before I do but they're so damn long-lived, especially the women. Typical age of death is 90-something.

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  32. Susan, I enjoyed your post and all the comments. My response would have been like many of the above, if I found a skeleton, but at yet, nothing. you sure had a lot of people interested in your post.

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  33. I almost never mention living kin on my blog, and I have avoided sharing some potentially embarrassing family stories if the deceased has known living descendants within one or two generations.

    However, if the individual didn't procreate, or if the branch otherwise withered, I consider it fair game.

    And my decisions on what might be embarrassing might well differ from a cousin's. However, if I am ever asked to delete a post, I will likely oblige.

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