Tuesday, February 23, 2016

When Secrets Should Stay That Way

"It's all about the story" seems to be the current mantra for genealogists—and really, there's no denying that knowing the details of an ancestor's circumstances brings that person alive again when we share his or her story with our own descendants. But I'm beginning to wonder if there are some stories that just shouldn't be told. Not then, when our ancestor was alive. And not now, even though that person has long been gone.

Some secrets should stay that way.

Of course, I'm not one to talk. This blog is made up of the stories I've stumbled upon, along the way as I build out my family tree, one generation at a time. I've shared bits and pieces of my father's mystery family—the ones who emigrated from somewhere in the former Kingdom of Prussia to the urban jungles of New York City, and who decided upon arrival that it would be just the thing to change their name, immediately and unofficially. Then, too, I've shared snippets of my husband's family in their journey from the ravages of the Great Famine in County Tipperary, Ireland, through Canada, to settle in Chicago.

I've even divulged the content of letters home from the war front, when my father-in-law wrote his thoughts on facing the death of fellow sailors and marines in the heat of battle in the Pacific during World War II.

I doubt any of these people ever dreamed someone would be retelling their stories in such detail. But I've also never given it much thought—this idea of how they might have felt about seeing that story spread so far and wide.

Sometimes, we need to give that situation a second thought.

A while back, I ran across a fellow blogger who mentioned uncovering a relative's stash of love letters to the person who eventually made that solemn vow, "I do." What a treasure trove! There is immediately the desire to rush in and read the personal history of beloved family members. And yet, there is also the overwhelming sense of hesitation, as if treading on holy ground of personal privacy.

In my post yesterday, I mentioned, "the respect that doesn't disrupt that personal environment." It is indeed a challenge to intuit the best way to extract the relevant family story while simultaneously respecting a person's privacy—yes, even when they are long gone. For those we've known, the task may become easier, as we can readily admit, "Oh, she wouldn't like that," or "He always acknowledged that incident happened." Sometimes, we're even equipped with the rest of the story—reflections on how the subject of the story felt about the circumstances, or how amends were made or lessons learned—and that, too, can become part of the retelling of the story.

There are, however, some parts of a person's story that may be so private, so intimate, that the subject would never want anyone else to know. If the topic was an event or occurrence that never became part of a public record—love letters would be a prime example, no matter how endearing—that would be an instance requiring a great deal of discernment and introspection before proceeding to share.

Not quite so private, yet a similar example, might be a person's diary. As genealogists, our eyes surely light up when we discover an ancestor's private writings, but even here, we need to proceed with caution. Though the author may have passed off the scene decades ago, he or she may have left behind mentions of personal opinion about people who are still with us. As helpful as those discoveries might be in giving us research insights, they still require discretion on our part, as we determine how to share such material, and with whom it would best be shared.

Sometimes we are guided by the type of material left behind—the content of the journal or letter giving a clue as to how to proceed with sharing. Weekly weather reports or news germane to one's profession is one thing; private revelations about personal details impacting those still alive would be another matter.

Of course, those materials including someone or something of historical significance cast such personal material in a different light. Look how keenly the letters of insignificant people are pursued, when those letters were written home from the war front during the Civil War. Or when the dull, dry record books of a well-known businessman or celebrity are uncovered.

These are all ramblings as I reflect on just which stories of our family's history should be shared—and which ones should be tucked away to become history's secrets. Some things are just better left unsaid. The crux of the matter, though, is to rightly determine which stories fall into which categories.

Above: "Young Woman Reading a Letter," oil on canvas by French painter Jean Raoux; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. Oh yes and those "family secrets" the stuff you are never supposed to talk about...ever. I understand. Some of those DNA tests show the real truth:)

    1. Yes, both DNA tests and public documents can tell quite the tale, and we as researchers need to understand we may be unearthing material that can be quite uncomfortable. It takes discretion to know how to handle that.

      Still, those are public means of telling the story.

      There are still some "documents" which were always private and always meant to be private. I think there is a place for respecting the intentions of the ones who created them and the ones for which they were made.

  2. And then you could consider things that weren't spoken of back in the day, that would appear to be silly today.

    Of course there isn't anything at all wrong with being discreet. But when discretion turns into lies and lies by omission - there is a problem.

    For example, people with mental impairment and/or physical disfigurement were often "hidden away" back in the day - to ... help a family avoid "embarrassment." Today, I think most of us and see those "hidden" folks as worthy people and see the need to integrate them into the family and society.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...