Tuesday, February 28, 2017
Genealogy Revelations and Secrets
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.
In early adulthood, I started genealogy research because I wanted to know. It's telling that I started this research having no idea how much my maternal grandmother had already done on that side. She'd been researching for 50 years by the time I came on the scene and I didn't know that because we were not really in contact.
It all felt like a secret so any "secrets" I discovered seemed just as rich as the one before, and none more surprising than the one before. Later, I'd meet first cousins I didn't even know I had. I grew relationships with aunts and uncles whom I'd been estranged from. It is all wonderful and delicious. So, when I uncover a grandparent who had a first husband I didn't know about, a prison record no one knew about, an adopted 2nd cousin or some other family "secret", to me, it's just part of that discovery process. No better, no worse, all surprising, all secrets, all delightful knowledge I didn't have before. I did not have the luxury of being discomforted by it because I needed the information and those relationships to understand myself, my family - and to have family at all.
When the secrets of abuse, neglect and mental illness in my immediate family needed to come out, I didn't shy away from those either. Why would I? It is a fundamental part of who I am. If what I'm answering is "who am I?", then lets at least be real about it. I can't affect change in myself without addressing it as what it actually is, not the stories that hide it. As it turns out, a lot of what I discovered in calling it what it was is also a family pattern. I am, epigenetically, an extension of my ancestors. Their shit became my shit. That's powerful knowledge. My paternal family had no idea... it changed the way they imagined that I grew up. My sister understands that it happened and doesn't understand why it still matters. My mother hates that I called it out and still denies it happened. I think it's normal to be uncomfortable with that if you don't want to face it. I don't have that luxury.
When my health started being weird, I needed answers about family health history. I needed to know which boxes to check yes on on the medical family history forms. Without it, I would have never been properly diagnosed. So, I scoured death certificates, hunted through my DNA and asked questions. I found 4 genetic conditions (lost that lotto). In every case, the side of the family from which I got the genes is shocked and a little dismissive... "no.. I know we have x, y and z symptoms but we don't have THAT" or "I just never thought it was a big deal so I didn't think to say anything". I think it's a normal response if the diagnosis is a little scary and there's a chance it applies to you. I also don't have that luxury.
So while I theoretically understand the potential motivation behind not wanting a thing to be known, that is the response of someone who is enjoying the luxury of not needing to address the truth as the truth. I. Don't. Have. That. Luxury. I sympathize and even empathize with the not wanting to know or for it to be known, but I'm sorry, not sorry. These secrets, are, without fail, part of more than just the person who holds them. They are part of the truth of the individual, the truth of the family, the truth of you, the truth of me.
Part 2 - the ethics of writing about people as it relates to this.
Photo : Premier secret confié à Venus / François Jouffroy / CC 3.0