Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, December 31, 2010

Doing genealogy with a disfunctional family

The television commercial version of genealogy is all smiles and lovely family reunions, the reality may be far from perfect and may involve deep seated family conflicts. One of the first things recommended to any budding genealogist is to contact family members for their input. But what if you are not on speaking terms with your family? What if you don't even know who your parents were and whether they are alive or dead? What if factions of your family have been fighting for so long that they have forgotten the basis for the first disagreement? What if your family lives in a different political entity and your country is at war with theirs? What if the reason for the family feud is petty or insignificant, but you haven't talked to your relatives for years?

It is too simplistic to simply advise that you kiss and make up. Life is not as simple as all that. The fundamental question to ask yourself in these situations is whether or not you, as an individual, can ignore those issues and move on a generation or two and research anyway? Sometimes an incident in the past, murder, suicide, or other criminal acts cloud the family tree. Are you willing to put those problems in perspective and still do genealogical research?  Delving into your family's past is not for the queasy or faint-hearted. Almost everyone would like to find out they are related to some famous person or even royalty, but the truth is that in the lottery of genealogy, you have just as good a chance of turning up a few scoundrels as not.

What if your family will not talk to you about genealogy? So what? None of your dead relatives can talk to you so treat your uncooperative relatives as if they were unavailable and do the research anyway.

This topic must be an issue with a lot of potential genealogists, the featured speaker at the Mesa, Arizona Family History Expo is M. Bridget Cook author of the book, Handling and Healing the Skeletons in Your Genealogical Closet. Ms. Cook's previous book is a little more descriptive of the problem, "Shattered Silence, the Untold Story of a Serial Killer's Daughter" written with Melissa G. Moore.

Serial killers aside, what about the problem of not being able to identify your parents at all? This may be the classic adoption problem or simply a lack of information. I have been faced with that issue from time to time with patrons at the Mesa Regional Family History Center. Unfortunately, the tools available to a genealogist are limited in their ability to find and/or identify living individuals or even those who have died withing the past few years. But there are places to look outside of the normal genealogical records and find extensive information about living people. I have written about this issue several times in the past. For example, Genealogy in the present tense.

The issue in this post is overcoming the fear, concern, inertia or whatever caused by unavailability, indifference or even outright hostility on the part of relatives. My own response is to treat the problem as if it didn't exist. I am a researcher. I can't necessarily change people's attitudes, but I can do research. The members of my family may not want to communicate with me or discuss some hidden family secret, but nearly all of these issues can be overcome with diligent research, especially if I am willing to pay for more sophisticated online sources. If relatives cooperate, I view that as a bonus, not a prerequisite.

Don't expect your family to applaud your efforts in preserving family history. Genealogy is not a spectator sport and unless you are self motivated and not overly concerned with recognition, you are probably better off taking up some competitive activity than in researching in libraries and other record repositories.

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