Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Those Delicate Issues

Writing about delicate issues in families has genealogists treading lightly as we attempt to discuss them in tender, unoffensive ways.

In the past, some of these issues were simply swept under the rug and ignored. But eventually the rug gets pretty lumpy and the lumps become difficult to sidestep.

Delicate issues in the past ages included alcoholism, divorce, suicide, illegitimate births, gambling, domestic violence, incest, obesity, insanity and on and on. No family is exempt. How we approach these subjects or avoid them in writing a family history is the question.

In my own family history, I wrote about polygamy, adoption and illegitimate births (among other things). I didn't sugar-coat the facts, simply stated them.

It got me thinking about a whole new set of issues brought about by this Brave New World we live in. Open gay marriages, artificial insemination, transsexual dads who become moms.

Today on NPR's Talk of the Nation I listened to a discussion about the Donor Sibling Registry connecting families of sperm donors. I hadn't even thought about it, but there are thousands of people related to thousand of other people, all because of artificial insemination!

How does a child of a sperm donor trace his genetic ancestry? And should he? The obvious reason for knowing the father is for medical reasons. Wouldn't you want to know if insanity, cancer and heart attack ran in his family?

My daughter's BBF became a surrogate mother recently. She's married with two children of her own. But she decided to give the gift of a baby to a couple in Australia. She was artificially inseminated with eggs fertilized by the baby's father's frozen sperm. She carried the child next to heart for nine months, gave birth and even breast fed the baby for five months! How brave she is. Yes, she did get paid and yes, she's going to do it again for another couple. Call me old-fashioned, but I really don't understand and I know I couldn't do what she did. After this child grows up in Australia, will he come to Utah to visit his birth-mom?

I read a good article about writing about these delicate issues in obituaries and the same principles would apply to writing a family history. Obviously, an obituary or a family history is not the place to reveal deep, dark family secrets. Should all delicate subjects be taboo?

I've always believed it is best to tell the truth, but I also believe in handling some subjects with kid gloves. I always want to know what makes a person tick.

In the history I writing now: Do I mention the fact that my uncle had a "love child" during World War II? And that no one in the family knew about this child until she was a woman in her fifties?

I haven't decided how or if to write about this issue. The principals in the event are all gone now.

What issues are too delicate to write about in a family history? I really want an answer!


Becky Jamison said...

Wow, I just discovered your blog and I LOVE IT! Tomorrow I'm going to print it and sit and read when I'm not so tired. I love your quotations, your posts, your ideas, yur stories---ALL OF IT! This is wonderful! Thank you!
Becky Jamison

TravelinOma said...

My great grandfather was the Attorney General of Idaho. But by the time my dad knew him he was a very depressed drug addict and alcoholic. There were no fond memories of sitting on grandpa's knee. And nobody in my dad's generation wanted this skeleton in the closet exposed.

However, in some letters to his son he mentioned his severe headaches. The treatment for migraines at the time (1890s) was laudanum which was sold in bricks (like butter) without prescription, and used as needed. It's a form of opium! It's not surprising he became addicted.

I included this information in a history I wrote because I felt it would help his descendants to know we have a history of depression and addiction in our genetic pool. I would want a compassionate explanation of my faults when someone remembers me.

The aunts and cousins who were against my including the facts about their ancestor have relented in their bitterness towards him, and I'm glad.

Dee wrote a history and found out about a "love child" through a journal. He asked the client if this information ought to be included and the man said no, but several months later his wife died, he told his kids about their sibling, and asked that the child be mentioned.

Olive's Granddaughter said...

Thanks, Marty, for sharing these examples. It helps me to clarify my own feelings on the subject.

My uncle did not want me to write about his grandfather being a polygamist, but it was so essential to who he was as a man. He was very religious and it was part of his religion. I don't think it's anything to be embarrassed about. At the Eardley family reunion in England in 2000, we were known as the Criminal branch of the family, because my great grandfather went to prison for cohabitation. I think it's funny!

We also have depression and addiction in my family. It's important to know these things. I don't blame or judge my two uncles who were alcoholics (it's a sickness) any more than I judge by dad for getting cancer!

kenju said...

In my opinion, it matters more how you write about family than if you do it. I think even very sensitive subjects can be tackled, if you do it with grace and respect for the people involved.