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

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Comments on Finding the 'Core Truth' in a Tradition

A very short blog post on the Quick Tips, The Blog@Evidence Explained, entitled "Finding the 'Core Truth' in a Tradition," started me thinking. The idea behind the list of the "six-step" plan outlined in the blog post is to verify with "first-hand" sources the details of family stories to determine their truth or falsity. The claim is that the six-steps "work every time." I think the whole process of unraveling family traditions and stories cannot be neatly packaged into a six or any other number process. I can use the framework of a very well known traditional family story to illustrate how I think the actual process differs from the never fail solution.

To explain this I will have to use a hypothetical example rather than the actual story for a variety of reasons that will become clear by the end of this post. In this hypothetical family story a fairly distant relative has some extraordinary experiences. Let's further suppose that the only "evidence" of the story comes primarily from the ancestor himself and there are no other known witnesses to some the extraordinary events in the story who made a record of the events. It is not that the story did not involve a number of people, but apparently none of them recorded the events that transpired. As you, the researcher, trace the story back, you find the first and only written record of the "story" comes from the ancestor's grandson, who recorded the story after the story teller was dead. In fact, the two individuals' lives only overlap a few years. The story teller died when his grandfather was 5 years old. Further, the person who recorded the story, did not write down the details until many, many years after the story teller's death, when the recorder was an old man himself. The main events of the story occurred when the father of the recorder of the story was also quite young, in fact, a teenager.

Now, let's see what happens when you apply the six-steps outlined in the above cited blog post. First, you look to the story itself for clues as to the truth or falsity of the events set forth. You carefully read and re-read the story as reported and determine that there are several clues that might verify the time and place of the story. By following step two, you examine presently available historical documents to determine if there is any independent corroboration of the original story. But remember, the only account of the story, as it is repeated in the family, is rather easily traced to a person who had only a very brief acquaintanceship with the story teller and wrote the story when he was an old man. In addition, in your examination of the story, as it was written, you notice several seriously important differences between the way the story was originally recorded and the way the story is told in the family.

You do more research and find that the people who are mentioned in the story actually existed and that they were present at some of the times and places mentioned in the original copy of the story. But unfortunately (remember, this is my hypothetical) none of them left a written account of the events related by the original ancestor, presumably, the story teller and this seems strange since the events as so unusual and striking as to be very memorable. In fact, after a reasonably exhaustive search, none of the events outlined in story tellers story appear anyplace except in the written account dozens of years after the events. It is also strange, that many of the important or even crucial elements of the story are entirely unverified in any other writing and even though the main characters existed, it is hard to place any of them together in the ways the story is related.

After following step four of the blog post, you start to strip away any repetitious parts of the story and keep returning to the written account. It is clear that many of the events passed down by the family have no support in the only written record. But, on the other hand, there is no way to disprove the assertions of the recorder of the story. After following step five and weeding out the "hearsay" you are forced to reject the entire story, because the written record is, in fact, hearsay. It is a record of a story told by someone else to a person who was not alive at the time the events occurred and who recorded those alleged events years after the story was related to him. There appears to be no earlier written record at all. So do we find the "core truth?" What we do find is well worn and copiously document history that makes no direct or indirect mention of the key elements of the traditional story.

So do we reject the story outright? Is it an embellishment of facts that are generally well known and easily substantiated. Why would the reporter be lying? Or was he? Perhaps, he was actually relating a story that occurred but reported some facts that went beyond the original story. We presently have no way to cross-examine the reporter of the story. We do not know his source in order to evaluate that sources reliability. The added facts will continue to be related by the family members as the "truth" even with the added facts that were not contained in the original written story, which very, very few of the family members have ever read or would even know how to find.

Do you want to be the spoiler? Are you willing to go out with your inconclusive evidence and debunk the story? Are you going to become the family police and try and stop the re-telling of the story? What if someone makes a move based on the story and the movie moves even further from the original writing and starts a whole new round of embellishments?

At this point, I do not think that the claim "it works. Every time" rings true. What works? In effect, after your investigation, you know nothing more than you did when you started the whole process. You cannot either prove or disprove the story as written and you cannot find any support for the persistent embellishments which have now taken on the patina of truth. If you reject the story, you are a spoiler. If you accept the story as told, you are intellectually dishonest. If you insist on referring to the written version of the story as the only "true" account, you are still intellectually dishonest. The story's elements cannot be either proven or disproven. But as a tradition it is unassailable. What is the core truth?

With today's added emphasis on stories as passed down through families, it is important to distinguish between "stories" and documented history. Sometimes the documented history is more remarkable than the stories passed down as tradition. Sometimes it is the other way around. The popular view of stories is that they add life and substance to the dry old history. That may be true, but what happens to the people who discover that the stories have no foundation? Many efforts in the world of historical research have been conducted for the purpose of proving or disproving a traditional story. Frequently, the historical research discovers that the "facts" are just different. The events were just as remarkable as the story, but the tradition has no support. It is not hard to find such stories. All we have to do here in the United States is go to traditional stories about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and many, many others. Other countries are also not immune. Some of my own ancestors came from Australia and a popular story there is "The Man from Snowy River" that was the subject of a popular movie of the same name. See Wikipedia: The Man from Snowy River (poem). In this case, the story, which is an entirely fictitious poem, has become the "reality." Do we reject the poem because there is no reality? Does the poem still have the power to inspire people to have an interest in their history? What about my hypothetical story above? Do we have a place in genealogy for the story apart from the unproven historical reality?

1 comment:

  1. In a case like this, if I didn't have specific information to prove the story wasn't true, or was highly unlikely, I'd probably just leave it alone, but not repeat it myself, and spend my time on something else.

    I do have a technique for deciding which family stories to share. I take the source, usually a family history, and fact check everything possible. Are dates and places correct? Where the people where the author says they were? Is the history told in the family story backed up by reliable community or world history found elsewhere? Are there other sources that confirm the history? Does the history include credible details and show some understanding of historical context and extended family and community? Does the author leave out things that should be mentioned? Who was the author and how close was he or she to the events? (You mention many of these techniques.)

    The more facts I can confirm, the more likely I am to believe the entire account.

    Here's one of my biographies (not a relation) in which I started with a sensational family story and tracked down what was and wasn't true about the story. It was a tragedy, but not every detail was true as originally told:

    Caroline Blake Hardy