Tell the good and bad about family

Has your research ever uncovered “black sheep” or other dark tales about your family? Have you wondered whether the information should be shared?

Carolyn Hax, a writer and columnist for the Washington Post, covered this topic today in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. She adapted the following advice column from a recent online discussion:

Dear Carolyn: Many family stories were told about my dad’s poor aunt, his mother’s sister, who was married to an abusive man. The fact that this uncle by marriage was a wife beater and a “violent man” is well documented both orally and in written recollections by my side of the family. My grandmother was distraught about her sister and even said he caused my great-aunt’s death. Recently I took a DNA test and the results have connected me to the great-grandson of this unhappy couple. This new cousin never knew his great-grandparents, but he is interested in learning what I know about our shared family history. They have all been dead for many years, although my 95-year-old aunt is still around to corroborate.

When we talk, should I mention these terrible stories about his great-grandfather?

Carolyn says: Absolutely. History is history. I don’t see the need to whitewash it.

Plus, owning what is in our own ancestry is an important way to improve on it. That includes the good as well as the bad: You find out your great-grands were unusually generous, for example, and that gives you a chance to see yourself through that lens and maybe cultivate your own way of giving. You find out your great-grand was a violent abuser, and you pay extra mind to your own tendencies – maybe even take on domestic-violence prevention as a cause. Sort of an “It stops here” frame of mind.

Or an Abraham Lincoln frame of mind. He’s credited with saying, “I don’t know who my grandfather was; I am much more concerned to know what his grandson will be.”

Even if you don’t see taking anything that far, I don’t see much value in an anti-information approach. Why do we have to believe everything is rosy?

One caveat: In my personal life and through this column, I have run across people who disagree about this, who prefer to shield others and to be shielded themselves from bad news.

I don’t think it’s important to do so in this case – since we’re talking about long-gone relatives the great-grandson never knew – but it can be a kindness in general to consider a person’s bad-news preferences before you make a delivery.

If possible, of course; otherwise all you can do is follow your conscience.

 

Another view

Re: Awkward Genealogy

My father was a cruel, physically abusive man who was a terrible alcoholic. I didn’t know until I was in high school that his father was the same way, as was his father. Having that information helped connect the dots for me with genetics and behavior. As Carolyn said, I have made sure that it stopped with me, and it’s possible your new cousin might be able to do the same if any of that behavior has been reproduced.

Also, if he never had to experience anything like that, it might help him appreciate his family even more for rising above something that could have consumed them. Information is power, right?

Carolyn says: Right, and also a responsibility. It sounds as if you used yours well.

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