Monday, January 29, 2018

If you hate that it happened, then you hate that you are.

Today, on the way to work, I caught the latest This American Life episode - The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar.  Whewf.  All genealogists and genetic genealogists who have ever encountered a family secret will find it fascinating.

In short, (you really should go listen), a woman is handed an album of papers and news articles about her grandfather that sets her onto the trail of a family mystery.  In uncovering the truth, she is faced with two families who have very different accounts of how the event unfolded.  At the crux of the matter is who her grandfather is, and in turn, who she and his other descendants are.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Unwelcome Discoveries

About a year ago, my aunt called me and told me that she'd decided to randomly dial people in the town where our family is from, who have our last name.  In doing so, she ran across a gentleman who is over 90 years old, who is related to us, and who remembers her parents and grandparents.  She asked me to call him and talk to him about our family.  Then health stuff happened.  And so, finally, a year later, a few weeks ago, I did.  He was a delightful guy and very willing to tell me his story and the story of his family, who consequently, at a certain point, was also my family.

He brought to life the stories and personalities of people who, until that point, had been merely names on pages.  I recorded our conversation.  About an hour in, I forgot to push record on the tape after I flipped it over and so I'm missing about an hour of the conversation.  Doh!  But I have these great stories, a tape of a lot of them and lots of written notes.

(The photo is L to R my grandmother, my little sister, me and my grandfather)

Anyways, about halfway through the conversation, he pauses and says "Well, I can tell you this if you'll keep it to yourself."  And I agree, because of course I want to know.  And he tells me.  And it puts to rest one of my brick walls.  I know now.  I breathed a sign of relief after that.  

Monday, March 20, 2017

When Genetic Genealogy Creates Brick Walls

I was talking to a cousin not long ago.  We are genetically related and we are pretty certain our MRCA is one of two people.  She's done exquisite work mapping out the family trees of all of her close genetic cousins and she has a problem... the people who are related genetically should not be related according to their family trees and the ones that should be genetically related to each other, if the trees are correct, are not.  She's encountered a genetic genealogy generated brick wall; a place where all of the evidence that all of these people have gathered doesn't match the genetic truth of who actually parented who.

Talking to her about this situation really made me think a lot over the past couple of weeks about my own research.  Frankly, it's terrifying for me to consider, given how much of my soul I put into my research, that really, it could just be - wrong.  I mean, I kind of flippantly know that it could all be wrong and for naught... but it's hard to consider in actuality.  And from that perspective, in contrast, it seems like the times before genetic genealogy was accessible almost seems heavenly.  A for sure, well sourced and researched conclusion on a lineage back as far as possible, without question.  Of course, the tree would still be wrong, if you're wanting to understand who your genetic ancestors were... but ignorance being bliss and all.  Maybe, in that case, what matters is a sense of knowing.  It satisfies the itch to have a story and a sense of belonging, even if in error.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Genealogy, Revelations and Secrets... and ethics

It's true.  I have very little patience for the idea that we shouldn't explore a secret because it makes someone uncomfortable.  Family secrets and the things my family just 'doesn't talk about' have had an impact on me and the choices I make.  I consider all information valuable, even secrets, so I will not shy away from digging into them and documenting the appropriate information.  And also, I do have a high degree of respect for the individuals I research as well as my own family members and ancestors.   So, somewhere, there has to be a middle ground.  I think that middle ground falls under the head of personal ethics of the researchers and writers.

I heard someone say (I cannot for the life of me remember where or who or in what context) that when a person dies, they actually die three times.  Their first death is when their body gives out.  Their second death is when everyone who knew them has died and their third death is the last time their name is uttered.  Somewhere along those lines, my personal belief is what is remembered lives.  I fully intend for my family to be remembered.  For their names to be uttered for generations to come.  This is one of my core reasons for genealogy research.  To do that, I need to write about them and tell people about them.

Personally, I am pretty privacy minded about my own information and I have no interest in exposing details about living individuals at all.  For the immediate family or deceased loved ones of living people, I am also careful about what I express in writing because they are connected to living people. Beyond that, I'm a little more judicious because they are historical figures at that point.

Here is how I personally straddle the line between writer and genealogy researcher and the privacy needs of my family and the people I research :
  • I don't publish any information about a living person except their last name and their relationship to people in my tree.  I know a lot of services say they obscure the details of living people but I don't even trust that.  I put the word "Living" in the first name field and their last name in the last name field - and that's it.  The only place their details (birth date etc) exist are in my own personal files.
  • I do store stuff online on services that are also used for sharing - like evernote, flickr and youtube.  On all of these services, there are sharing and permission settings that I use in order to show what I want to and not show what I don't want to.  Just because something is stored online doesn't mean everyone on the internet can read/see it.   
    • Flickr and youtube both offer the option to make something visible only to people who have a link to it - or to only certain users of their system. 
    • I rarely share from Evernote but it's a case of only people who have the link s can see it.  Further, I encrypt Evernote notes that contain personal information about anyone living, including myself.  Although Evernote employees have access to the contents of all of your notes (within certain circumstances like troubleshooting an issue or for machine learning), encrypting the note gives the option of having the contents of that note only available to me and never by anyone else, including Evernote employees, barring breaking the encryption (which is not like hacking a password... infinitely more complicated.  Evernote uses AES with a 128 bit key.).  
  • When I choose to write something here or in my public family tree, I exclude details of living family.  I've never encountered a time when I wanted to write specifically about a living person in regards to genealogy.  
  • If someone tells me something and says 'please don't publish/write/tell that', barring some negative impact it could have on someone else to NOT tell, I don't.  It exists only in my email or private notes.
  • My personal line is that if I wouldn't publish a thing about me, I shouldn't publish it about someone else.  Do unto others, turnabout and whatnot.  

Photo : Privacy / Owen Moore / CC 2.0

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Genealogy Revelations and Secrets

This post is brought to you by the letter Truth and a befuddling (to me) response of consternation from family members when some new piece of history emerges.

In my genealogy research, I have learned that it's common for families to not want to know a thing.  I believe that many people kind of want a very idealized version of family history and ancestry and are not comfortable with ripples in their set in stone family image. I suspect this is because we take quite a bit of who we think we are from where we think we came from.  A change in that brings to the surface existential questions related to 'who am I'.

As someone who has spent most of their life chasing that question, I can attest to it not being  comfortable to consider, but the discomfort of not knowing is worse, for me.  I was raised largely away from extended family.  I met my father's parents and siblings when I was very small and I saw parts of my mother's family here and there through childhood, but that side of my family never stays put for long so we were pretty far flung for most of my childhood.  I don't believe I ever, in my entire childhood, had an understanding of people who were passed.  So anything beyond grandparents were a complete mystery to me.