June 26, 2020
In the course of doing research, most genealogists eventually run across sensitive information. Many times it concerns secrets that our ancestors went to their graves hiding because of the shame they felt about an event such as a first baby born only five months after a wedding. In other cases, such as slave ownership, our ancestors may have felt no shame at all because of their actions, but their descendants certainly do. With the widespread availability of DNA testing, even more secrets involving biological parents have been uncovered in recent years. So, for a genealogist, the question arises: Should I add these sensitive topics to my family tree or not?
Every genealogist has to make the final decision about whether to include these topics, but there are a few things to keep in mind that might help. I think most of us would agree that living people are out of bounds when it comes to telling stories about their lives, no matter whether the stories are good or bad, unless we’ve been given specific permission. Adoptees and others who have found unknown biological parents or siblings through DNA testing sometimes feel that their need to know outweighs the privacy concerns of those unknown relatives. Unfortunately, that is a situation that has no correct answer, so everyone concerned needs to make his/her own decision. My own choice in DNA and in other similar issues is to always ask myself “Who will benefit if I tell this story?” For example, will an 80-year old woman, who has always believed she knew her parents and has nothing but good memories of them, really benefit from learning that her father was not her biological father? If the only benefit to be gained is the satisfaction of my own curiosity, I keep whatever information I believe I know to myself.
In a similar manner I also keep information that might embarrass a living relative, even if it’s not as earth-shattering as the above scenario, private. If I know my aunt is very conservative in her views of right and wrong and I learn that her parents were married only three months before her birth, I wouldn’t publish the information, even if the parents in question are long deceased. As long as they have a living daughter or even grandchildren who knew them, I don’t think it’s my story to tell. I think it’s particularly important to be careful about publishing information if the story is about a collateral relative, not your direct ancestor. If you are the only living relative of a deceased great uncle, his story may be yours to tell, but if he has living direct descendants, my suggestion would be to defer to those descendants’ wishes.
I recently read an article where a genealogist suggested that he refrained from adding anything to his tree that the people concerned would be embarrassed about having revealed, no matter how long ago the incident occurred. While I think this is appropriate for fairly recent events, it would have the effect of prohibiting sharing a large proportion of the most interesting tidbits that genealogists uncover. For example, my fourth great grandfather got drunk and shot one of his tenants in a drunken argument. He was arrested, tried and convicted of murder and was executed, by decapitation, for his crime. It’s a horrific story and would undoubtedly have caused immense pain and shame for his family, but the execution occurred in 1769, so I don’t feel guilty about sharing the details of this ancestor’s terrible judgement. As a direct descendant of the murderer, I feel no personal shame in his actions and am fine with sharing the story, which had been lost for at least two centuries before I dug out the records.
The answer to “Is it my story to tell?” is probably best answered with “It depends.” There is really no rule that says one story is okay to tell and another is not, but since I’m trying to be a responsible genealogist, I think it’s important to at least consider whether what I’m sharing is really my story to share. My personal view is that it’s better to err on the side of keeping something private if there’s a good chance it may cause an innocent relative pain. Stories can always be shared later, but once they’re out there, there’s no way to untell them, so being mindful of that fact can sometimes save later regrets.
Researcher/Director at Large