Plan on Investigating Your Family History? Be Prepared for Surprises (Good and Bad)Historians/History
tags: books, An Unplanned Encounter, Jonathan Husband
Ancestry.com allow us to take action from the safety of our homes, and pursue our heritage before it is lost. We may also choose to engage a private genealogical researcher. No longer do we have to visit government archives, churches, hospitals, and other establishments to discover how we arrived on this planet. There is a wealth of information available on how to conduct our research, the process to follow, the sources of information, and how to summarize the information. What is often missing is creating awareness over what you might discover and how to manage the emotions and feelings that can result. Even people who believe they know everything about their past maybe in for big surprises when they delve deep into their history. Discovery can range from riches and royalty to illegitimacy and poverty. It was this motivation of discovery, with an ignorance of the consequences, that had me recently exploring my past.
It’s good to start your search sooner rather than later because people die and take with them all their unspoken and unwritten history. The more traumatic the history the less likely that people would have the desire to talk about it. I was fortunate. One year before my mother died at age 85 she told me the story of my birth that I still have difficulty in comprehending and accepting. I am not sure how many people discover that they are the product of a rape – an unwelcome sexual assault – but I am one of them. The assault occurred July 1943 in war-torn England as Britain and its Allies were preparing to invade Nazi-occupied Europe. My mother persevered to keep me after she discovered she was pregnant. I now feel a closer bond to those who were adopted as babies or who went through foster care. I so easily could have been one of those children. The word abortion also takes on a much more personal meaning. Woman should have a right to choose but under modern day social standards I know I would not be here to write this article. One of the first things I did was to research the internet to discover people whose origins were like mine. More than a few are famous people. I don’t need to correspond with them but it is very reassuring to know that you are not alone. These are some of the emotions that you need to be ready for and be able to manage as part of your plan for coping with whatever you discover. Frankly, I would rather discover the truth and work with the consequences than have the truth hidden from me. I sometimes observe society’s preference to hide the truth from people on the basis that it is best for them, rather than to disclose and provide support.
It is also important to look at your history in the context of the times that existed. Circumstances were very different back then. It is too easy to sympathize or criticize your ancestors using modern day measures when the events occurred under entirely different conditions. They may have been very different legal considerations, different medical solutions, different social standards, and economic conditions. In my situation, not only were women far away from equal rights but uncertainty over the outcome of the war likely made an incident of rape trivial in importance. My preference has been to search to discover rather than to condemn and criticize, but while you can suppress these behaviors, suppression does not prevent the emotions that can come from discovery.
There is also a need to be cautious about the truth. What you discover or what you are told may not in fact be accurate. You need to identify ways of validating the findings and separating opinion from fact. My mother told me that my father was a Professor at Oxford University and that his wife was a world-renown opera singer. In fact Oxford University had no record of him, and apparently his wife was the lead singer for the local Gilbert and Sullivan Operatic Society. I discovered that my father was a failed business man, had faked his own suicide, and ended his life living on his own in an English council house.
You must prepare yourself with the emotional fortitude to absorb family surprises. You shouldn’t hope to feel proud of your lineage or feel sorry for yourself if you discover adversity and poor beginnings. You are collecting data. Expect the unexpected. Be patient with your search. Decide what to disclose and what to keep secret. My experience is that discovering your past helps you to appreciate the many good fortunes that molded your future, and helps you move on in life with equanimity. Also think about your own family. There can be consequences on your children’s futures from what you learn about your past. My son is a TV show cameraman. This was always his ambition and he understood that he was reaching in to a career that was new to the family. Suddenly he discovers that my father in the early 1950’s wrote and produced home movies. Some won competitions. They were silent and filmed in black and white. No longer is he the first in the family to enjoy filming; he feels an inexplicable relationship to a grandfather that he never knew.
Your relatives can also be impacted by new discoveries. My lifetime siblings suddenly became half siblings or maternal half-brothers and half-sisters. These were brothers and sisters I had grown up with, with a bond of equality and a closeness that comes from living together. You can experience a feeling of inadequacy when the closeness of this relationship is undermined by biological separation. Their own children can experience a sense of loss when they find their uncle or aunt is not as closely related to them as they thought. Discovering and becoming re-united with new paternal half siblings is an exciting prospect but the one-parent relationship again may moderate your ability to accomplish closeness. Bottom line you need to be sensitive to the emotions and anxieties you can create in others as a result of ancestral discoveries.
And finally, think about how you are going to record your discoveries. This can range from preparing a summary with related photos and source documents, all the way to authoring a published memoir. It is easy to ignore the importance of this documentation, with the result that while the knowledge can pass between generations, the evidence that supports this knowledge disappears. My mother stored away many documents that tracked her early life. When she died these disappeared. Maybe they will turn up one day but I regret that I was not more diligent in safeguarding their existence for future generations.
Hopefully this article encourages you pursue the knowledge of your ancestry but forewarns you of some of the mental and emotional anguish that can accompany these discoveries.
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