October 21, 2013 by The Editor
We still have sorrows that are passed to us from early generations, those to handle besides our own, and cruelties lodged where we cannot forget. We have the need to forget. I don’t know if we stopped the fever of forgetting yet. We are always walking on oblivion’s edge.
— The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich.
This makes two posts on family history in a row for me, which is ironic since I’m much less engaged with my own family history than I had been just a year ago. Other things come up and you realize that when you only study genealogy, you might be forgetting about the relatives that are still here, hoping for a visit or the occasional email!
I came across the quote above in Louise Erdrich’s The Painted Drum and it immediately made me think of many genealogical stories I’ve heard about tragedies and dark chapters that people might rather forget. It reminds me to consider deeply the pain suffered by earlier generations when recounting, sometimes blithely, stories that others probably tried hard to forget.
It reminds me that there are still scars being borne by generations removed from the original pain, sometimes many generations. I’ve thought long and hard about how to reveal sensitive information to others in the past. Sometimes I’ve not thought long enough, perhaps.
This raises a more prosaic issue along with the emotional ones: the right to privacy. Just because someone is long dead, do we have the right to divulge information about them that might be considered unseemly, to others, especially people not related? Just because a person is doing genealogy, do they have a right to include personal information about anyone, relative or not, in their databases? And what gives a public genealogist the right to dissect the family lines of famous people, like Madonna or Hilary Clinton for example, and presume to speak about their heritage on their behalf?
I have discussed certain aspects of my genealogy in public, only to have ‘expert genealogists’ take over the narrative. I have in general, however, not divulged most detailed information, have set my subscription databases to private, and have increasingly come to the conclusion that my family tree is my heritage – one that I would rather not spread about so liberally. Sharing it with family is one thing; helping 5th or 6th cousins with a family link is a community-minded thing to do; but leaving the interpretation of my heritage to someone else is not why I have ever done genealogy. It goes completely against my conception of what, to me, is a cultural practice.
There will undoubtedly be those who respond that government records are public information and with the ready availability of vital details, who is anyone to complain about being part of another database? Yet I would certainly not be the first person to raise the question of the right to privacy in genealogy. Perhaps it’s time to take stock of how much information you’re willing to have ‘out there’ from a genealogical perspective. For myself, I am increasingly conservative with my family’s details – a case of ‘once bitten, twice shy.’