I attended the Fountaindale Public Library’s genealogy group in Bolingbrook. Robin Seidenberg a Chicago-area genealogist and speaker, presented To Tell or Not to Tell : Should the Family Skeleton Stay in the Closet. The presentation was interactive, meaning everyone was encouraged to share their stories and thoughts on each topic.
Robin said we should discover as many facts about people in our families as possible but seriously consider which ones are fit to print or discuss. She said to consider privacy concerns when publishing family histories. What was a scandal 100 years ago may not seem to be a scandal to us today, but for other members of the family it may still be.
How would you, or how have you handled any of the following scandalous or taboo topics? Leave the person or information in the family history or remove it?
- Family member lied about their age. Do you put the birth and death dates on the gravestone? Members of the group generally agreed to respect the wishes of the individual and perhaps not put the birth date of the deceased on their gravestone.
- Alcoholism or drug use. Does someone or a line of your family have a history of alcoholism or drug use? Many participants felt it should be something that is included in a person’s notes. Not necessarily published but available to family as it relates to health history.
- A family member was disowned. How do you handle someone who was disowned? This could be because they married outside of their faith or committed a crime or something else the family considered a scandal.
- Uncle Vito had a “social disease.” How many families have seen some sort of social disease or “disease of the insane” on a death certificate? Is that a taboo subject in this day and age? Do you include it because of health history? Do you ignore it because it meant they were having a lot of extracurricular fun? One attendee said a relative died of a social disease and they discovered he got this while serving in World War I. The full medical records were obtained from the government which showed the progression of the disease. The attendee specifically said when they publish the family history, this will be left out and the medical records will be burned for privacy reasons. There was no real reason to let the entire world read about this man and his disease.
- Mental illness. A lengthy discussion was held on mental illness. What exactly do we consider a mental illness today? Is this something we leave in the genealogy because of health history? Possibly. Some mental illnesses are hereditary and it is helpful to know if it runs in the family. Publish the information? Maybe or maybe not. This could be something just the family knows.
- A husband divorced a wife from your family. This issue was discussed in a couple of ways. First, a woman in your family married. No children came of the marriage and the man divorced her. Keep him in or leave him out? Some argued to leave him out. Others to keep him because sometimes you have to trace him to find her. Good point. Others said that it is part of a person’s history and it should be left in. Second, a woman marries and they couple have children and he divorces her. Keep him in or leave him out? What do you think?
- Adoption. This was a tricky subject to discuss. There are laws to consider when seeking adoption records. There are family wishes to consider. The adopted parents may not have ever told the child they were adopted. Health history was brought up and many thought adopted children should be made aware of the fact of their adoption so health records from the biological parents could be obtained.
- Illegitimacy. Do you adjust the dates of a marriage or birth to hide the fact a child was born out of wedlock or very soon after a marriage?
These were just a few of the skeletons in the closet discussed during the program last night. Robin again stressed the need to consider that just because we have this information doesn’t necessarily mean we have to publicize or print it. Consider the people involved.
What skeletons are in your closet? How have you handled that in your family history? Please share in the comments.