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Researching family histories may cause family rifts

A new study finds that investigating the details of one’s ancestry can open “secrets and skeletons” that lead to nasty family fights and fissures.

My aunt often mentioned that she hoped I would continue the tradition of writing births and deaths in our family’s Bible. So last March, after helping to oversee her funeral in England, I carried back on the plane the huge and quite heavy 140-year-old book that she had so tenderly cared for during the last 60 of her 93 years.

As we’re not a large family, I’m familiar with most of the names in it (written in three generations of exquisitely beautiful handwriting — how am I going to carry on that tradition?). But there are some unknowns — or rather names I’ve heard only vague, fleeting stories about. And I noticed that one child born out-of-wedlock (as they used to say) does not appear in it.

I’m now re-determined to explore all the nooks and crannies of my family’s history.

But that might not be a good idea — at least, if I want to maintain family harmony — a new study has found. Apparently, investigating the details of one’s ancestry can open “secrets and skeletons” that lead to nasty family fights and fissures.

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The study’s findings were reported this morning (British time) at the British Sociological Association’s annual conference in Glasgow by University of Warwick sociologist Anne-Marie Kramer. According to a press release (the study hasn’t been published yet, a spokesperson for the University of Warwick told me), Kramer analyzed the answers of 224 people who responded to questions about family history research as part of another larger study.

Although most of the people said researching their family history had been a positive experience, 30 said that such sleuthing had led to some kind of family mayhem.

“In investigating their family history, researchers could open up a Pandora’s Box of secrets and skeletons, such as finding there are family issues around paternity, illegitimacy or marriage close to birth of children, criminality, health and mental health and previously unknown humble origins,” Kramer says in the press release. “The rifts are not confined to the historic past — bitterness and resentment toward sibling or parents can result where information is not disclosed.”

Now, I don’t normally report on studies that haven’t been published (or that I haven’t read), but the details in the press release were too intriguing to pass by. Here are some of the responses that Kramer uncovered in her survey. Let them be a warning to those of you pursuing your family’s history.

  • From a 72-year-old woman: “I have a friend, who, when his mother died, found information to the effect that his sister was adopted. He has not given the information to his sister and is very uncomfortable about holding the knowledge.”
  • From a 70-year-old woman: “The fact that my grandmother was pregnant when she was married and that my parents were also in the same situation before I was born were matters that some felt were better not revealed. For some, this information was unwelcome and an elderly cousin accused me of uncovering secrets that were best left hidden.”
  • From a 31-year-old man: “It is something of an annoyance to my mother that her own sister can travel to [places abroad] to speak to a distant cousin she never knew existed but cannot get on a train to come and see her own sister as it is deemed too far. Such is family life: spoonfuls of love but bubbling beneath lots of grudges, bruised feelings and massive chips on shoulders — none of which are ever discussed with the offending party!”
  • From a 45-year-old woman: “My mother-in-law had always known that her grandfather had married the woman who had been a maid in his father’s house…. When we revealed that her grandmother…had given birth to a child, who had died within a few weeks at most, before they married — she denied it completely, at first. Later, when convinced, she was absolutely furious. It transpired that she had suffered much at the hands of the ‘respectable’ grandparents with their rigid Edwardian morality and preaching about respect and ‘the right way to do things.’ To discover such a degree of hypocrisy was a great shock.”
  • From a 40-year-old woman: “I was very interested in family history research but then decided I didn’t like most of the people I’m related to, so have partially abandoned the research. Sometimes you reveal more about your ancestors than you bargain for, and not all of it is nice to know.”

I intend to keep that in mind.