Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Family Skeletons in the Closet

Before I write on the topic at hand, I have a comment first. You may see at the side that I have been award the “One Lovely Blog Award.” Actually, I got nominated twice. How fun! I want to say thank you to Lisa Swanson Ellam from the Faces of My Family blog and to Ginger Smith at Genealogy by Ginger’s Blog. I will be passing the award along to fifteen recipients in the next week, so please check back here for a listing of them coming soon.

Okay – but on to skeletons in the closet. One of the lectures that I give often lately is called “Writing a Page-Turning (But True) Family History.” In this lecture, I walk everyone through a step-by-step process describing how to write an interesting and accurate family history. One of my slides is entitled “Be Sensitive.”
My four bullet points for this slide are:
• Protect your family’s privacy.
• Be tactful – but truthful.
• Consider the feelings of others.
• Don’t reveal your family’s “skeletons in the closet.”

I only spend a few minutes covering this – it is not one of the main themes of the talk. But it seems that inevitably it is the topic that gets the most comments and questions – both during and after the talk. It seems apparent to me that many people struggle with this - where to draw the line between being open and honest and being sensitive in their written family history. So, I am going to share my opinion. Now, keep in mind, this is just my opinion. Other people may certainly feel differently – and I have heard lectures where other people put forth a different opinion. But, here’s what I think:

For the sake of time, I am not going to talk about protecting privacy of living people. Instead, I want to focus on skeletons in the closet. I often have people share stories from their families with me that include events such as illegitimate children, severe mental illness, incarceration, extramarital affairs, and so on. What do you do with these things on your family tree?

First, keep in mind that none of us have a perfect family tree. We all have dirt under our tree so to speak. So, don’t despair. Second, I think we should differentiate between skeletons in our ancestors’ closets and skeletons in our own (or our living family’s closets). Now before I go further though I want to add a disclaimer. Each situation is unique just as each family is unique. I will share some general thoughts, but you must make your own decision about what to include in your family history based on the specifics of your individual situation.

My general opinion is if we are talking about events that happened a long time ago that do not involve living people – then put them in the history. There is nothing to be gained from hiding the fact that your great-great-great grandfather committed a crime or secretly had a second family or whatever else he did. I am not a believer in only painting our family in the best light. We need to be truthful (which is not the same as dwelling on the negative). This may bother some of your family members, so you may want to discuss it with them. If it bothers them because is involves their mother or father or someone they knew and loved, then we are moving into a gray area (possibly involving the scenario discussed in the next paragraph). If it bothers them just because it is embarrassing to admit that their ancestors were not all honorable – well, I think it’s time to move past that.

When we are talking about skeletons in the closet that include living people, then I think we should rely on sensitivity and discretion. I do not believe that a family history is the place where grandchildren should first hear that their grandmother (who is still alive) spent years in an institution for mental illness or that their grandfather committed a heinous crime. Now, if this information is freely discussed in the family and family members are comfortable with it – then by all means, put it in. The purpose of not putting it in is not to hide that it happened. It is to demonstrate sensitivity. There may be a time – further down the road – to include this, but a family history is not where it should be first revealed. We have to ask ourselves: what is the purpose of writing this family history? Hopefully it is to preserve our heritage and increase our family’s awareness of their history – but also, to draw our family together. Announcing a family secret that others are not ready to discuss is not an effective way of bringing families together. Sometimes it’s not a question of whether or not to include it, but how much to say. For example, you can certainly acknowledge that your father had a drinking problem without sharing horrific stories of his drunken behavior.

One closing comment: Please do not misinterpret my advice to mean that we should hide bad behavior in our families. I am not a psychologist and am not saying that we shouldn’t discuss and deal with these problems openly. I am only addressing family skeletons as they relate to a written family history. Also, I am not suggesting we write untruthful, glowing reports of family members whose behavior was far less than glowing in reality. I am just suggesting to be tactful when considering which bits of “truth” to include. Of course, you must also keep in mind who your audience is. If you are just sharing the family history with your own children then you have more latitude (you can feel confident including more of the “secrets”) than if you want to pass it on to all of your ninety-three second-cousins.

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