Saturday, April 10, 2010

Genealogy: Another Reason for Your Family to Hate You

Not only is genealogy a worthless pursuit, it can lead to family discord.

Illegitimate children, hidden affairs, troubled finances and deceit all await those determined to piece together their family's past, found Dr Anne-Marie Kramer of Warwick University.

When she interviewed more than 220 people across the country who had looked into their past, she discovered it had led to conflict with relatives in more than one in eight cases. [Link]
So, in about 7 out of 8 cases, family history research did not lead to conflict. Those are pretty good odds. And the odds might be even better, as there's no telling from the article what exactly constitutes a "conflict," and whether these conflicts can be fairly attributed to genealogy. Some of the problems described here and elsewhere—neglecting family, pestering reticent relatives—are more about being unpleasant human beings than about making unpleasant discoveries. Someone who neglects her children because she's obsessed with genealogy would probably do the same if obsessed with Sudoku. And someone who badgers a relative for information is probably a jerk in his non-genealogical life as well.

As for uncovering secrets, I love finding illegitimate children, hidden affairs, troubled finances and deceit in my family. (I'm certainly not British enough to ever be disturbed by the discovery of an ancestor's "previously unknown humble origins.") All four show up in the family of one of my grandparents. In fact, we're planning a DNA test to settle a paternity question in the family. No conflicts here, just questions waiting for answers.

There are families with legitimately disturbing secrets, disclosure of which would embarrass or anger the living. And I have no problem with Dr. Kramer warning of the (meager) risks. Personally, I'd rather know an unhappy truth than live in happy ignorance, but if others want to cling to myths, that's up to them. That said, in some cases discretion should keep us from publishing the truth. But nothing should keep us from ethically discovering and recording it.


I have found a murder, a murder-suicide, and a suicide, but other than that a lovely normal family! None of this hurts me and it was fun to be the one to discover the incidents. It helped explain a lot of my grandmother's problems.

On the other hand, I did a bit of digging into my mother-in-law's birth family, with her permission,and her children were positively furious. You never know who's going to react to what.


(I'm a DIFFERENT Janice from above, BTW)

I agree that recording and broadcasting are two different things. I keep one set of records for future generations with true facts and one set that gets passed around with the information that I was given. And the "true" set doesn't necessarily record juicy details, just the true fact that a birth might have happened only a month after the parents' got married.

I suppose I have created geneloagical conflict when I refuse to answer a cousin's request to "send me everything about our family."

Kaisa Kyläkoski

The press release has some examples of the conflicts - and also positive results.


I'm with you in that I love finding scandalous or otherwise unique things in my family tree. I've got a secret marriage on the part of one of my grandfathers, a questionable paternity for another grandfather, a 5th great-grandmother who was in all likelihood a tavern keeper and/or whore, a great-great grandfather who was murdered by a local man known as the "Gypsy Horse Doctor", and a 9th great grandfather who was hanged as a witch in Salem.

I'm really enjoying your blog, and am passing along the "Ancestor Approved" award to you. It was given to me, and one of the requirements is to pass it along to other genealogy bloggers. You can pick up the graphic for the award at my blog at The Ancestor Blog. Enjoy it!

Kathleen O'Hara

I think there's a difference between sharing information, and highlighting it. I was comfortable sending my great-uncles copies of their grandfather's death certificate, without comment. If they want to look it up and discover that his cause of death is a complication of untreated syphilis, they're welcome to, but I'm not going to point it out.


Hear, hear!


I met a woman who abandoned genealogy when she learned that she descended from "the fat man in the Barnum & Bailey Circus!" That would be the HEADLINE in my family history!


I'm keeping quiet about the murder-suicide on my dad's side, but I'm not keeping quiet about the story of my 3rd great grandmother and her five illegitimate childern!

I got some very interesting news from the descendants of the man who fathered my ancestor's children according to their oral history.

They were right on target! We found a death record with his name on it. The other part of the story is that my 3rd great grandmother was the likely slave of her children's father. She was light and passed for white.

That kind of threw a kink in my mother's very WASPY lineage!

I have this story published on my tree because I'm determined to find out more, so the secret is ending with me.


It certainly caused discord in my family. My sister literally became hysterical and started screaming when she found out I was adding her (abusive) ex-husband to the record. So I didn't. At least they had no children together.

There's also a few skeletons I'm not sure how to ask about, in case they cause pain.

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