"Long before it's in the papers"
June 04, 2013

RETURN TO THE WORLD SCIENCE HOME PAGE


Family tree research can open “Pandora’s Box”

April 9, 2010
Courtesy of the University of Warwick
and World Science staff

Peo­ple re­search­ing their an­ces­tors can open a “Pan­do­ra’s Box” of se­crets that may cause con­flict and wid­en rifts in the fam­i­ly, new re­search con­cludes.

While most peo­ple de­rive pleas­ure and sat­is­fac­tion from re­search­ing their an­ces­try, for some it brings to light “se­crets and skele­tons,” ac­cord­ing to so­cio­lo­gist Anne-Marie Kra­mer of the Uni­vers­ity of War­wick, U.K.

Kra­mer told the Brit­ish So­ci­o­lo­g­i­cal As­socia­t­ion’s an­nu­al con­fer­ence in Glas­gow, Scot­land, April 9 that of 224 peo­ple who gave her de­tails of family his­to­ry re­search, around 30 men­tioned con­flict.

The main causes were: un­cov­er­ing un­wel­come in­forma­t­ion, want­ing in­forma­t­ion from rel­a­tives who did­n’t wish to give it, giv­ing rel­a­tives in­ac­cu­rate in­forma­t­ion, spend­ing more time re­search­ing than with loved ones, and com­ing in­to con­tact with hos­tile rel­a­tives.

Kra­mer an­a­lysed re­sponses to ques­tions about family his­to­ry re­search put to peo­ple tak­ing part in the Mass Ob­serva­t­ion Proj­ect based at the Uni­vers­ity of Sus­sex, U.K., in which peo­ple vol­un­teer to write about their lives as a rec­ord of eve­ry­day life.

Of the 224 replies, 140 were from wom­en and 83 from men (and one gen­der un­known), aged be­tween 16 and 95 and based across the U.K. The ac­counts are from peo­ple re­search­ing their family his­to­ry or from the rel­a­tives and friends of those car­ry­ing out the re­search.

Kra­mer not­ed that in most cases peo­ple wrote pos­i­tively about re­search­ing their fam­i­ly’s his­to­ry. Peo­ple found pleas­ure in mak­ing dis­cov­er­ies, in­ves­ti­gat­ing family myths and mys­ter­ies and mak­ing their an­ces­tors real by find­ing out more about their lives. In some cases, the re­search could help men­d rifts in fam­i­lies. How­ev­er, not all ex­pe­ri­ences were en­tirely pos­i­tive.

“A­long with the USA, Can­a­da and Aus­tral­ia, con­tem­po­rary Brit­ish so­ci­e­ty is im­mersed in a seem­ingly un­prec­e­dent­ed boom in the family her­it­age in­dus­try,” Kra­mer told the con­fer­ence.

“The pub­lic is en­joy­ing un­par­al­leled pub­lic ac­cess to his­tor­i­cal rec­ords in ar­chives both ma­te­ri­al and dig­it­al, while so­cial net­work­ing ge­ne­al­o­gy web­sites such as Genes Re­u­nit­ed fa­cil­i­tate the pub­lica­t­ion of vir­tu­al family trees along­side the ‘re­dis­cov­ery’ of long-lost ‘cous­ins’.

“Mean­while, the me­dia has been flood­ed with celebr­ity ge­ne­al­o­gy sto­ries, with the BBC TV flag­ship pro­gramme, Who Do You Think You Are? reach­ing au­di­ences of over five mil­lion.

“But in in­ves­ti­gat­ing their family his­to­ry, re­search­ers could open up a Pan­do­ra’s Box of se­crets and skele­tons, such as find­ing there are family is­sues around pa­tern­ity, il­le­git­i­mate or mar­riage close to birth of chil­dren, crim­i­nal­ity, health and men­tal health and pre­vi­ously un­known hum­ble ori­gins.

“The rifts are not con­fined to the his­tor­ic past—bit­ter­ness and re­sent­ment to­wards sib­lings or par­ents can re­sult where in­forma­t­ion is not dis­closed.”

Kra­mer gave some ex­am­ples.

Bring­ing hos­tile rel­a­tives in­to con­tact

One 56-year-old wom­an wrote: “After my fa­ther died in 1999, my broth­er ac­tu­ally fought me over the [fam­i­ly] tree, de­spite his pre­vi­ous to­tal lack of in­ter­est. He in­sisted my grandfa­ther’s WWI medals be split be­tween us, and took pho­to­copies of all my let­ters to Dad that Dad had kep­t.”

For­get­ting the liv­ing

A 31-year-old man wrote: “It is some­thing of an an­noy­ance to my moth­er that her own sis­ter can trav­el to [places abroad] to speak to a dis­tant cous­in she nev­er knew ex­isted but can­not get on a train to come and see her own sis­ter as it is deemed too far. Such is family life: spoon­fuls of love but bub­bling be­neath lots of grudges, bruised feel­ings and mas­sive chips on shoul­ders – none of which are ev­er dis­cussed with the of­fend­ing par­ty!”

Uncov­er­ing un­wel­come in­forma­t­ion

A 72-year-old wom­an wrote: “I have a friend, who, when his moth­er died, found in­forma­t­ion to the ef­fect that his sis­ter was adopt­ed. He has not giv­en the in­forma­t­ion to his sis­ter and is very un­com­fort­a­ble about hold­ing the knowl­edge.”

One 70-year-old wom­an wrote: “The fact that my grandmoth­er was preg­nant when she was mar­ried and that my par­ents were al­so in the same situa­t­ion be­fore I was born were mat­ters that some felt were bet­ter not re­vealed. For some this in­forma­t­ion was un­wel­come and an eld­erly cous­in ac­cused me of un­cov­er­ing se­crets that were best left hid­den.”

A 64-year-old wom­an wrote: “Family his­to­ry re­search can stir up a nest of hor­nets. For ex­am­ple, it emerged that my moth­er-in-law ‘had’ to get mar­ried. She had al­ways been very dis­mis­sive about their [wed­ding] an­ni­ver­sa­ry, but when we looked in­to the rec­ords, it was rath­er too close to my eld­er broth­er’s birth­day! Of course, no­body minds about that these days, but she feels deeply ashamed.”

A 40-year-old wom­an wrote: “I was very in­ter­ested in family his­to­ry re­search but then de­cid­ed I did­n’t like most of the peo­ple I’m re­lat­ed to, so have par­tially aban­doned the re­search. Some­times you re­veal more about your an­ces­tors than you bar­gain for, and not all of it is nice to know.”

A 68-year-old wom­an wrote: “My moth­er and her sis­ter did­n’t know they had had an old­er sis­ter who had died when she was three.”

One 45-year-old wom­an wrote that they found that a rel­a­tive was not a na­val of­fic­er, as had been thought: “When we an­nounced that fact – oooh what an out­cry. It took a lot of per­suad­ing, and they still re­sist to this day. We are more care­ful now, about what we say to the old­er aunt­ies and grandpar­ents. They have their cher­ished ideas about the family and there is no point to our up­set­ting them.”

The same wom­an wrote about the shock and an­ger ex­pe­ri­enced by her moth­er-in-law on discov­er­ing that her grandpar­ents had been less ‘re­specta­ble’ than out­ward ap­pear­ances sug­gested: “My moth­er-in-law had al­ways known that her grandfa­ther had mar­ried the wom­an who had been a maid in his fa­ther’s house… when we re­vealed that her grandmoth­er… had giv­en birth to a child, who had died with­in a few weeks at most, be­fore they mar­ried – she de­nied it com­plete­ly, at first. Lat­er, when con­vinced, she was ab­so­lutely fu­ri­ous. It tran­spired that she had suf­fered much at the hands of the ‘re­specta­ble’ grandpar­ents with their rig­id Ed­ward­i­an mor­al­ity and preach­ing about re­spect and ‘the right way to do things.’ To disco­ver such a de­gree of hy­poc­ri­sy was a great shock.” 

Pass­ing judg­ment on the liv­ing

One 67-year-old wom­an with­out chil­dren who had been mar­ried sev­eral times wrote of a family tree sent to her by a cous­in: “I al­so hat­ed the fact that there was a line fol­low­ing each mar­riage with the words ‘No is­sue’.” 

Cre­at­ing ten­sions in the fam­i­ly

A 40-year -old wom­an wrote: “My fa­ther talks at length about his back­ground (wheth­er you want to hear it or not!) and it’s very much his in­ter­preta­t­ion of events, very bi­ased. For­tu­nately we met his par­ents our­selves and were able to form our own opin­ions (quite dif­fer­ent to his). As I said, he holds most of the in­forma­t­ion on our family his­to­ry and is un­will­ing to part with an­y­thing of real in­ter­est, which is a shame.”

One 70-year-old wom­an said that the in­vita­t­ion to write about family his­to­ry re­search had: “...raised a wry smile be­cause my hus­band is in­to family his­to­ry re­search in a big way. It is his con­stant top­ic of con­versa­t­ion and it is driv­ing us up the wal­l.” 

Wanting in­forma­t­ion they have no right to

A 67-year-old wom­an (men­tioned above) wrote: “About 40 years ago a male cous­in on my moth­er’s side, whom I had nev­er met, got in tou­ch hav­ing been giv­en my ad­dress by the cous­in I’m friendly with. He was, it seems, com­pil­ing a family tree. My cous­in had giv­en him de­tails of my­self and my three mar­riages and he wanted fur­ther de­tails of my hus­bands and form­er hus­bands. What cheek, I thought and how in­tru­sive.”

Pos­i­tive as­pects of family tree re­search

One 56-year-old wom­an wrote: “It’s great to be able to pass on mem­o­ries of family mem­bers no long­er with us, and to learn more about the life they would have had. I think it helps you to feel con­nect­ed – and al­so to do hon­our to peo­ple who are no long­er with us.”

A 56-year-old man wrote: “My par­ents and grandpar­ents all died be­fore I was 25 and as ma­ny young­sters sud­denly find it was too late to ask the ques­tions that now seem most im­por­tant. So when I had the chance I gath­ered lit­tle bits of in­forma­t­ion when I could. When my daugh­ter’s moth­er died when my daugh­ter was three I thought it would be good to have some in­forma­t­ion about her family roots if ev­er she needed it.”

Kra­mer said the grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity was un­der-re­searched, and fur­ther work was needed to un­der­stand the role of family his­to­ry in peo­ple’s eve­ry­day in­di­vid­ual and family lives, as well as why so ma­ny felt it was im­por­tant to ex­plore their family his­to­ry.


* * *

Send us a comment on this story, or send it to a friend









 

Sign up for
e-newsletter
   
 
subscribe
 
cancel

On Home Page         

LATEST

  • Meet­ing on­line may lead to hap­pier mar­riages

  • Pov­erty re­duction, environ­mental safe­guards go hand in hand: UN re­port

EXCLUSIVES

  • Was black­mail essen­tial for marr­iage to evolve?

  • Plu­to has even cold­er “twin” of sim­ilar size, studies find

  • Could simple an­ger have taught people to coop­erate?

  • Diff­erent cul­tures’ mu­sic matches their spe­ech styles, study finds

MORE NEWS

  • F­rog said to de­scribe its home through song

  • Even r­ats will lend a help­ing paw: study

  • D­rug may undo aging-assoc­iated brain changes in ani­mals

People researching their ancestors can open a “Pandora’s Box” of secrets that may cause conflict and widen rifts in the family, new research concludes. While most people derive pleasure and satisfaction from researching their ancestry, for some it brings to light “secrets and skeletons,” the study said. Anne-Marie Kramer of the University of Warwick, U.K. told the British Sociological Association’s annual conference in Glasgow April 9 that of 224 people who gave her details of family history research, around 30 mentioned conflict. The main causes were: uncovering unwelcome information, wanting information from relatives who didn’t wish to give it, giving relatives inaccurate information, spending more time researching than with loved ones, and coming into contact with hostile relatives. Kramer analysed responses to questions about family history research put to people taking part in the Mass Observation Project, based at the University of Sussex, in which people volunteer to write about their lives as a record of everyday life. Of the 224 replies, 140 were from women and 83 from men (and one gender unknown), aged between 16 and 95 and based across the U.K. The accounts are from people researching their family history or from the relatives and friends of those carrying out the research. Kramer noted that in most cases people wrote positively about researching their family’s history. People found pleasure in making discoveries, investigating family myths and mysteries and making their ancestors real by finding out more about their lives. In some cases, the research could help mend rifts in families. However, not all experiences were entirely positive. “Along with the USA, Canada and Australia, contemporary British society is immersed in a seemingly unprecedented boom in the family heritage industry,” Kramer told the conference. “The public is enjoying unparalleled public access to historical records in archives both material and digital, while social networking genealogy websites such as Genes Reunited facilitate the publication of virtual family trees alongside the ‘rediscovery’ of long-lost ‘cousins’. “Meanwhile, the media has been flooded with celebrity genealogy stories, with the BBC TV flagship programme, Who Do You Think You Are? reaching audiences of over five million. “But in investigating their family history, researchers could open up a Pandora’s Box of secrets and skeletons, such as finding there are family issues around paternity, illegitimacy or marriage close to birth of children, criminality, health and mental health and previously unknown humble origins. “The rifts are not confined to the historic past—bitterness and resentment towards siblings or parents can result where information is not disclosed.” Kramer gave some examples. Bringing hostile relatives into contact One 56-year-old woman wrote: “After my father died in 1999, my brother actually fought me over the [family] tree, despite his previous total lack of interest. He insisted my grandfather’s WWI medals be split between us, and took photocopies of all my letters to Dad that Dad had kept.” Forgetting the living A 31-year-old man wrote: “It is something of an annoyance to my mother that her own sister can travel to [places abroad] to speak to a distant cousin she never knew existed but cannot get on a train to come and see her own sister as it is deemed too far. Such is family life: spoonfuls of love but bubbling beneath lots of grudges, bruised feelings and massive chips on shoulders – none of which are ever discussed with the offending party!” Uncovering unwelcome information A 72-year-old woman wrote: “I have a friend, who, when his mother died, found information to the effect that his sister was adopted. He has not given the information to his sister and is very uncomfortable about holding the knowledge.” One 70-year-old woman wrote: “The fact that my grandmother was pregnant when she was married and that my parents were also in the same situation before I was born were matters that some felt were better not revealed. For some this information was unwelcome and an elderly cousin accused me of uncovering secrets that were best left hidden.” A 64-year-old woman wrote: “Family history research can stir up a nest of hornets. For example, it emerged that my mother-in-law ‘had’ to get married. She had always been very dismissive about their [wedding] anniversary, but when we looked into the records, it was rather too close to my elder brother’s birthday! Of course, nobody minds about that these days, but she feels deeply ashamed.” A 40-year-old woman wrote: “I was very interested in family history research but then decided I didn’t like most of the people I’m related to, so have partially abandoned the research. Sometimes you reveal more about your ancestors than you bargain for, and not all of it is nice to know.” A 68-year-old woman wrote: “My mother and her sister didn’t know they had had an older sister who had died when she was three.” One 45-year-old woman wrote that they found that a relative was not a naval officer, as had been thought: “When we announced that fact – oooh what an outcry. It took a lot of persuading, and they still resist to this day. We are more careful now, about what we say to the older aunties and grandparents. They have their cherished ideas about the family and there is no point to our upsetting them.” The same woman wrote about the shock and anger experienced by her mother-in-law on discovering that her grandparents had been less ‘respectable’ than outward appearances suggested: “My mother-in-law had always known that her grandfather had married the woman who had been a maid in his fathers house… when we revealed that her grandmother… had given birth to a child, who had died within a few weeks at most, before they married – she denied it completely, at first. Later, when convinced, she was absolutely furious. It transpired that she had suffered much at the hands of the ‘respectable’ grandparents with their rigid Edwardian morality and preaching about respect and ‘the right way to do things’. To discover such a degree of hypocrisy was a great shock.” Passing judgment on the living One 67-year-old woman without children who had been married several times wrote of a family tree sent to her by a cousin: “I also hated the fact that there was a line following each marriage with the words ‘No issue’.” Creating tensions in the family A 40-year -old woman wrote: “My father talks at length about his background (whether you want to hear it or not!) and it’s very much his interpretation of events, very biased. Fortunately we met his parents ourselves and were able to form our own opinions (quite different to his). As I said, he holds most of the information on our family history and is unwilling to part with anything of real interest, which is a shame.” One 70-year-old woman said that the invitation to write about family history research had: “...raised a wry smile because my husband is into family history research in a big way. It is his constant topic of conversation and it is driving us up the wall.” Wanting information they have no right to A 67-year-old woman (mentioned above) wrote: “About 40 years ago a male cousin on my mother’s side, whom I had never met, got in touch having been given my address by the cousin I’m friendly with. He was, it seems, compiling a family tree. My cousin had given him details of myself and my three marriages and he wanted further details of my husbands and former husbands. What cheek, I thought and how intrusive.” Positive aspects of family tree research One 56-year-old woman wrote: “It’s great to be able to pass on memories of family members no longer with us, and to learn more about the life they would have had. I think it helps you to feel connected – and also to do honour to people who are no longer with us.” A 56-year-old man wrote: “My parents and grandparents all died before I was 25 and as many youngsters suddenly find it was too late to ask the questions that now seem most important. So when I had the chance I gathered little bits of information when I could. When my daughter’s mother died when my daughter was three I thought it would be good to have some information about her family roots if ever she needed it.” Kramer said the growing popularity was under-researched, and further work was needed to understand the role of family history in people’s everyday individual and family lives, as well as why so many felt it was important to explore their family history.