Saturday, November 11, 2017

About Those Brothers

There is a reason I hesitate when I run across family "histories" which include reference to the proverbial three brothers who were immigrants to this country. In some cases, that very scenario could not be corroborated with documentation at all, though in other cases, there wasn't any way the details could be proven. Usually, this involved a narrative in which one or two of the brothers either disappeared, or had some grave misfortune befall them at the beginning of the story.

In the case of the enigmatic Simon Rinehart, that migrating farmer who showed up in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Ohio in the early 1800s, his might well have been part of the family history I mentioned yesterday about three brothers. But when I look back at my notes and pull up another story from a different source, starting out vaguely the same, I start to see caution signs flash before my eyes.

A four page collection of notes sent in 1999 to a Rinehart researcher with whom I had been collaborating bore the heading, "Reinhart Genealogy; the John Reinhart/Rinehart Line." The originator of the note explained,
From a handtyped document, stamped "from the collection of Rev. Fred Cochran," a copy of which was obtained from Cornerstone Genealogical Library, Waynesburg PA on July 9, 1996.
All well and good to this point. But not for long. The next section began with the sentence of which I have an objection:
It has been legend that four brothers left their home in the farming region of the Rhine River Valley in Germany because of wars there.

Four brothers? What happened to three?

I know, I know: when it comes to family "legends," details can be strewn all over the place. Perhaps I shouldn't be so insistent on getting things right. But there might just be another dynamic to consider in this situation.

Yesterday, on my way to Houston to attend Family Tree DNA's conference for their volunteer group project managers, I did my customary travel routine: wait for my flight to take off, then pull out a book to make the time fly.

For yesterday's book, I pulled out a volume I've been trying to finish for the last two months: The Invisible Gorilla. (I can hear you snickering about my yet again not finishing a book I said I was going to read, but hey, I got a bit overzealous with my Fall Cleanup Project and didn't get around to finishing the book.)

In the second chapter—after authors Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons finish their explanation on what gorillas have to do with anything in modern American life—they discussed something they call "the illusion of memory." They gave several examples of the phenomenon—from two eyewitnesses of the same crime having wildly divergent recollections of the facts only fifteen minutes after seeing it take place, to several people in the same office remembering, quite differently, what happened when they all, together, first heard the news about the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

That, it turns out, is not only the case for what cognitive psychologists refer to as "flashbulb memories" of high-stress situations, but also for the more mundane experiences we endure on a daily basis.

By the end of the chapter, the reader comes away with a sense of marvel that any two companions sharing the same experience could remember it the same.

And then we genealogists blithely try to replicate the lives of people who lived one hundred years ago or more. What repercussions of the "illusion of memory" might there be when the recollections are distorted over the iterations of several generations?


  1. Yes, my brother remembers things differently from does my husband:)

    1. I had a few of my own family's experiences in mind as I read that chapter, too, Far Side. Always makes me wonder how people could get things so wrong! ;)


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