The Tree: Forgetting and the Right to Privacy


October 21, 2013 by LeVoyageur

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.’

6 thoughts on “The Tree: Forgetting and the Right to Privacy

  1. rosewater12 says:

    Interesting inner discussion you’re having with yourself, Jim. In these days of scrutiny, it is sometimes dangerous to share information. My wife has discovered some people making alterations/changes (deliberate fabrications?) in her family’s public information.
    I especially like the quote you started the essay with. It brings me back to happy times at GVSC, learning about Jung, back when I was Junger.

    • James says:

      Thanks Chuck. It’s funny how experience can take you to places you never thought you’d be. That’s really terrible about the fabrications. Who would do such a thing, and why? But then, it was common practice in Mormon circles until recently to “convert” the dead and record them as Mormon. Strange, and terrible, practice. Is genealogy destined to be ruined because of ideology and pettiness?

  2. Mimi says:

    Great post. I have felt the same way about even my own family members and friends who do this on Facebook, not really discussing our ancestry, but discussing things or posting things that were said or done when I visited by me or my family. What if I didn’t want others to know where I was? What if I don’t like that picture of me on your page?

    I know, I came across some private information on a family tree of a justifiable homicide, but the living members of the family are still here, grieving.

    Therefore, I try not to post too much of the negative. Save that for 3 generations down to do . I can talk about it in private, or put it in my private files, but it’s not going on a blog or a public family tree.

    As far as Madonna or Hilary Rodham Clinton, they are both (also my distant cousins), but they are already in the public eye. If they never wanted to be, they wouldn’t be where they are today. I just try and keep my direct lineage my topic…not too much off the offspring of their sibling’s.

    • James says:

      Yes, I agree about ‘saving it for later.’ I think as a family historian, I have a responsibility to mentally catalog the stories I hear; Not everyone else has to hear about them immediately though. There’s a line – I don’t want to be the family gossip! : )

      As for people in the public eye, I have always felt that famous people deserve a lot more privacy than they get. By being famous, Madonna is a public figure, but we don’t own her or her history. It is understandable that people will be interested, but I don’t accept that just because you’re a public personality everything about you is fair game. Where is the line? When do we become famous?

  3. Interesting thoughts. I think the “public record” argument fails to take into account that generations worth of public records were not so easily accessed as they are today. If you wanted to view public records in the past, it meant a trip to the courthouse or sending in a request form or firing up the ol’ microfiche viewer. There was a cost in time and effort. Now we can get public records while we sip our coffee in the morning.

    I wrote a post on this subject a while back. I think the hardest question for me is: What gives me the right to decide which stories get told? If I’m the unofficial volunteer family historian, then my whole family’s story will be filtered through my biases and ideas of what’s important and not, worth repeating and not. But then, do I pursue information for information’s sake indiscriminately (at the expense of people)? I hope I wouldn’t be so callous.

    • James says:

      Good question Brandy. Thanks for your comment. It is a process we have to go through, I believe. We can take cues from professional historians, but that is less useful when you’re dealing with the life story of a great-aunt for example, with children still living who are your close cousins. Being the family historian means, to me, being the guardian as much as conveyer of information. A good historian sifts the details and uncovers not just *what*, but also how and when to reveal. It’s impossible to remove our biases, but we can if we try to, be objective. And sometimes you have to wait for a question to be asked before you will know how to answer!

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