28 October 2012

Family Trees Would Be More Fun If It Weren't For the Family

Are you having fun building your tree? I know I am. I love working on my family history. I enjoy the hunt. I revel in the research. More than that, I love connecting with living people. Reconnecting with the relations I knew in my childhood and meeting cousins newly discovered are really what make this all worth while. They can give me information on other relatives living and dead. They have photos and stories to share. They are the continuation of this long story, connected by common history. On the other hand, those living relatives also have a nasty habit of getting bent out of shape about the who, what, and how of my tree...
Why do they take it so personally?

We 've all had the relative that thinks we 're just trying to dig up the past with no regard to who could be hurt. And if you haven 't run across the relative that doesn 't want their photograph on your tree, you 're a lucky S.O.B. (or a liar). But, have you ever been FORBIDDEN to research a line or person? There 's always the person that has such a large grudge on some other relative that they refuse to talk about them. It makes our lives harder, but we work around them. And then there are those relatives that are so convinced that only the worst things will come out of your research that they 'll demand that you leave that side alone entirely.

Who Are These Crazy People and Why Do They Claim to Be Related to Me?

Seriously, what is wrong with them? I m trying to build the most comprehensive family history I can! To me, anyone who was called family whether related by marriage, adoption or blood is truly family and has a spot on my tree. I don t think it s obsessive to include the in-laws. I have no problem listing birth and adoptive parents for a child. I celebrate the famous folk as much as I do the nearly nameless.  I don t blame people for the mistakes they made in their lives. I also feel no shame for their actions, so I see no reason to keep them from my tree. Hell, if I can find it in a simple newspaper search, what 's the point in trying to hide the facts? And if they share it online on public pages, why am I not permitted to share that same information on my tree?

Here I am, slaving away on a tree that now contains thousands of people. I have given over a decade of my life to painstaking research, sourcing, and composition to deliver a cohesive tree that breathes life into ancestors that would otherwise be just names in a book. I call, write, and travel to visit my far-flung relatives to get their version of stories. I digitize, label and watermark their photos for my tree. I take those self-same photos and make copies for other relatives upon request. If I have any end-game for this work, it 's to make a book that ties together the history of my family with the greater history of the world in which they lived. I want to make this work as accessible as possible to as many of my relations as I can, whether they live now or later.

And what do I get? I get relatives refusing to share photos of themselves. I get in-laws demanding I leave their history alone. I have to beg to get publishing rights from living relatives for their copyrighted material. I can 't get names of birth parents (and am told to leave it alone). In short, I get a lot of hassle from people who don 't seem to understand what I m trying to do. I m no grave-robber! I 'm your relative dag-nabbit! Why even bother asking for their permission? I can find so much publicly available that they can 't stop me from doing my research!

It 's Their Family Too!

Place yourself in their shoes for a minute. Imagine your cousin/ niece/ nephew/ aunt/ uncle/ sibling starts researching the family. Do you trust them? Are they reliable as far as research method or do you pray their mistakes will be minor while you expect glaring ones? Are they just trying to find the juiciest stories to parade about at family gatherings? Do you think that they' ll treat you fairly or do you plan for stories to be slanted to make you the villain? Are you hoping there are things about your past (or a relative' s past) that they don' t find out? What if they come round and tell you that your favorite uncle was a serial rapist? And what if it was your 3rd cousin twice removed whom you 've never met who was the researcher? Now they are calling you up and asking for your children's names and birthdays. They want to know your favorite foods and how many grey hairs you have. Who is this person??? We can often forget that people don 't view life through the same eyes that we do. Despite the fact that they are related to us, they don 't have the same frame of reference. Hell, sometimes siblings seem like they lived in a different house!

Let s break this down by some of the objections I 've seen pop up (feel free to leave any I miss in the comments section):
  • Don 't put my picture on your tree- Some people don 't like how they look. Others have a fear of privacy and don 't want their pictures online. You could argue copyright and who has rights to what photos and what you 're allowed to do without their acknowledgment, blah, blah, blah...or you could respect their feelings. My dad has told me not to add any of his photos to my online tree. He did allow me to share photos with relatives on a Facebook family page, however. My aunt has asked me to keep all photos of her from the Internet altogether. I respect their feelings and keep their photos private. Even if another relative gives me photos with my dad in them, I don 't put those photos online. It doesn 't matter who gave them to me, it matters how I treat my relatives. I have shared only one very old photo of my dad on the family group page, because I don 't trust my cousins to respect his wishes. Many of the photos on that group have ended up on their Ancestry trees. Even if they agreed to not share his pictures, they may forget. Or they may believe that they have every right to share his photo since I shared it on Facebook. I have seen a lot of people arguing the ethics of this in the message boards. The ones that see no problem with sharing the photos always use the "but they put it on this other website" or "I found it publicly available, what' s the big deal?" Hey, just because I can get my great uncle' s mugshot from the courthouse doesn' t mean he would want that as his profile picture on my tree.
  • Don't list the birth parents on your tree- I have several adopted relations. Invariably, the first time I interview them or their parents for the tree, I get the "but they're still family". Well, duh. I see no problem listing anyone that was considered family, even if all they were was a childhood friend of my dad 's that I grew up knowing as "Uncle". Hey, they 've been my family since I was born, why does the building of a family tree negate that? I do want to be as accurate as possible, however, so I do list them as adopted. I do want the information on their birth parents. I don 't want to leave a tangled confusion for future researchers. Sometimes I am told that I can 't research the birth parents. The child doesn't want to be associated with "those people". The adoptive parents feel slighted that you don 't consider them the "real parents"...in short, they bring a lot of emotional baggage to this table. While I want an accurate tree, I also want a happy family. This is where a delicate touch and respect for other people 's feelings are needed. I 've gotten birth information on almost all adopted relations. I tell them why I want the information (future generations, medical issues down the road, accuracy, etc.). I tell them how I set preferred parents on my online tree to adopted parents, but still have the birth parents as an alternate for research purposes. And I respect their wishes if they don 't want me to contact the birth family.
  • Don 't research the in-laws- So you get married and decide to research the spouse 's line. Then they tell you to leave it alone. You figure, "Hey, if we have kids, they ll be missing half their history if I don t research it!" That is true, but to those in-laws, you are some weird near-stranger trying to dig up their dirt. I avoided this pitfall by enlisting my fiance. I told him I was adding his family to "our" tree for our future children. He had played around with Ancestry a few years ago and been in contact with a distant relation in Australia. He didn't get into it beyond that, but understood what the process of building a tree included. This is where a "don 't press" attitude really works. If I contact his relatives, I could get a lot of push back and no sharing. So I have him do it instead. He tells me he 's going to his dad's. I ask him to ask what his grandparents' birthdays were. He goes to his nephew 's 2nd birthday. I have him ask for photos from his sister. I use this same method with all in-laws (at least at first). I put emphasis on researching my blood relations, but often add information about the in-laws. I feel that will help even my cousin 's kids one day should they get the genealogy bug. So my cousin gets married and I ask him/her for their spouse 's info. Then when talking about childhood memories or sharing photos, I ask about the spouse's parents. If I run across a record that may relate to the spouse, I have the cousin ask about it. Sometimes those in-laws will contact me, because they realise that I m working with respect even on their relations. Other times those in-laws are taken far enough back that I find they' re related to me! So then I 've justified my interest in their history (although this usually leads to my cousin asking if they should be worried about their kids being born with gills).
  • Don 't research that person "we" aren t talking to- We all have that one person or side that, for whatever reason, we won't talk to anymore. There are legitimate reasons to sever ties, I'll grant you that. I also know that working on your family history can often soften the old hurts and mend your fences. But when it comes to other relations demanding you not talk to someone, it's usually someone you've not had a personal issue with. They aren't talking to that person , so you shouldn't. There is no rational argument that anyone can give that will make this relative help you in contacting this person. So the only thing you can (and should) do with this relative is to tell them you respect their feelings. You need to decide if the information is more important than your relationship with this relative as you may lose this connection. If you are willing to take the risk, the best way to go about it is to tell the refusing relative your feelings on needing the information and that you are willing to not discuss them with the other person, but that if other relatives will help you, you will be reaching out to that other person. Honestly, I haven 't run into this yet. Due to a rather unique childhood where I didn't get into the bull of one side or the other in any argument, I'm seen as a mediator. Cousin A could hate cousin B with all their marrow and I can still talk to both with no issues. I just don't bring up what's going on with cousin A around cousin B. They both know I talk to the other, but respect my feelings by not dragging me into the problems. And because I'm not in them, I don't judge their actions.
  • Don 't mention that murder/rape/slave holding/robbery/other "shameful" bit of history- When I found a few relatives with slaves, my aunt went nuts. How dare I mention they had slaves! Such a shameful thing should be hidden. She didn't know how to feel or act anymore, because she came from someone able to oppress another person. She could only calm down by assuring herself that the owner might have been a kind master who treated his slaves with respect. Really? Then there's the relative that choked a man to death. But I m sure he loved kids and puppies...why do we feel this need to hide or soften the harsh realities of life? If your family goes back to the Colonies, owned land, and/or was relatively rich, there is a possibility that your family owned slaves. (Many consider it a certainty, but in reality there were colonists who didn't own slaves, weren't rich, and/or didn't own land). Let's be honest with ourselves, here. People live their lives as they see fit. Slavery was accepted in many cultures over MILLENIA. Powerful nations throughout history have oppressed weaker nations and that's just a fact of life. Another fact is that people are screw-ups. You can't honestly research your tree and expect to find only diplomats and royalty. You ll find out about secret births, mysterious deaths, suspicious financials...I mean, seriously, I can think of at least three living relatives that fall in the screw-up category. Am I supposed to edit history and make them saints when they die? Why do I have to do the same for relatives that were dead long before my first breath of air? I didn't do anything wrong, so why should I feel their shame? On the other hand, their crimes may still have living victims...and to flaunt the stories could hurt them. And what if it was in the news? There's public proof of their dastardly deed...but is that enough to make my public display of the story less cruel? If I 'm publishing my stories in a book, does the fact that I found the newspaper article (and paid for publication rights) outweigh my living relations' desire that the story remain buried?
  • Don 't believe everything you see on the Internet- This one is sound advice actually. Just because you find someone saying it online doesn 't make it true. However, when my father said this last weekend, he was trying to convince me that he and my mother weren't related as I showed them to be. He gave the scoff of "I love how everyone believes what they read on the Internet!" To which I had to calmly show him the records attached. I had to go backwards starting with the 1910 census that showed his grandfather living with his father. Then the 1900 census showing that father living with his widowed mother and sister. Then that sister's marriage license to my mother's grandfather. After all that what do I get? "Well who cares anyway! That s still not a close relation!" So why was it such a big deal to be related to her anyway, dad???? Well, besides my dad's craziness when it comes to claiming his ex in-laws as kin, there were other minor things (like the spelling of his grandmother 's maiden name) that had him trying to correct my tree for about an hour. Each objection was shown the proof and method to my tree. While I bore my dad with stories about the family practically every Sunday, this is the first time he took enough interest to look at what I had. He had tried researching back in the days before Internet, so he can at least admit I have gotten much farther for much less expense than he has. I doubt it will lead to a renewed fervor on his part, but I'll jump on any opportunity to share my research. Even when I spend half of that time defending it. And that's just it. If you're going to have facts that other relations object to, make sure you have the proof to back it up.
The 100 Year Box and Split Trees

No matter how convincing your argument, how many promises you make, or how trustworthy you've been in the past, some relatives will stubbornly refuse you access to their information. So how have I finally resolved the conundrum of what I'm not allowed to share on my public tree? Easy. I don't share what they don't want shared. But how do I get it out of them in the first place? Well, that's not so easy.

First, you have to listen to their objection. Having been a salesperson for most of my adult life, I've become fairly good at hearing what the real problem is. Often what a person states is the problem doesn't have anything to do with their real objection. I have a cousin who has children from a previous relationship. Her husband adopted the children. She refused to give me the father's name, because "my husband is their father". I'm not saying he isn't, but there is this other guy that may have other kids with someone else. She doesn't live on the moon and her kids may run into their half-siblings unknowingly. Issues may arise. Her objection was that her husband should be listed as the father. The underlying problem was that she didn't speak to the children's father and wanted nothing to do with him. I agreed to not contact the father in exchange for his name and his parents names. Should her children ask, they may have that information when they are adults. A fair exchange to ensure the truth isn t lost.

So how do you get to that root objection? Step 1: Repeat their objection ( So you don't want anyone to know you were married before?). Step 2: Empathise ( I could see how that would be uncomfortable). Step 3: Suggest a solution ( But if the older relatives already know about it, won't they tell your kids?). If given a new objection, repeat steps. If met with irrationally emotional justification, let it drop for now. Never let a discussion become an argument. No one wins.

After you've discovered what the real problem is, you need to see the problem from their side. You need to show them you understand how they feel. If you don't, you won't win them over. A cousin who feels that her mother was never there for her and doesn't want to be associated with her needs understanding. You could argue the rights of the mother until you are blue in the face. She won't care. But if you can reach her on that emotional level and feel her sadness (and possible anger), you may be able to get her to see reason. What if her children wish to know about her mother? What if they want to know why she never spoke about her? Again, if she doesn't wish to open that wound, let it go. You can always revisit the issue at a later date and get a different response. Or not. We can't always get what we want.

What has really helped me is an old family motto: "Don t run, you'll only die tired". When I make my first interview with a relative, I bring a notebook, a voice recorder and a box with a lock on it. I open the notebook and put the relative 's name and the date on the top of the right hand page. I tell them that if they feel comfortable, I 'd like to record the stories as we go so I don't miss anything. Then I take a key out and open the box. I tell them, "This is my 100 year box. In it you can see several sealed envelopes. Each envelope has a relative's name and the instructions to not open until after that person's death or 100 years from then or whatever time limit they decided upon in their interview." Depending on the relative and how much they know about the family secrets, I take out one of three notes. One is an article about a relative killing a man in a bar fight. The second is an article about a relative being at fault in a car accident that killed the other driver. The third is a copy of the naturalization record of a relative listing his Jewish heritage (something he tried desperately to obscure after WWII). I then say, "You know this story. This is something that this relative tried to hide. You and I have both heard the rumors surrounding this. I found it in public newspapers. I found it after their death when they can t tell me their side. Others can find it just as easily as I have should they have the desire to do so. I show you this to show you that you can spend your life running from the facts and in the end only die tired. If you have something you want to keep hidden, you need to tell me. After I leave you today, I 'll go back online to look for records. I 'll go to libraries to get newspapers. I 'll head to the courthouses for official copies. You tell me what you don't want to be found and it goes on this notebook page. Before I leave today, that paper gets sealed in an envelope with your name and a "do not open until " instruction on it. My brother is my executor right now and will respect these envelopes should I die. If you don't trust me to keep it a secret, that's fine. But if you don 't tell me it's a secret and someone else spills the beans, how am I supposed to help you keep your privacy?"

I also make mention of family grudges and how I wouldn't play the "he said/she said game", but that noting their side of the story will help later generations who aren't emotionally invested in the argument make sense of it all. Like I said, I'm seen by most of the family as outside of the usual feuds, so I have a reputation of hearing both sides out and not getting drawn into the ruckus. If you don't have this reputation, you may have a harder climb. In the end, it all comes down to how much they are willing to trust you with. There will always be things they leave unsaid. However, if you set yourself up as their co-conspirator, they may become more honest about the less than stellar portions of their past. Heck, half of the "horrible" things my relatives have revealed wouldn't raise an eyebrow even 40 years ago. To them it s an unspeakable thing, though, so I keep it that way...at least publicly.

That's where I tell them about my online tree vs. my documents offline. How I can set preferred parents to show one set over another. How I watermark all my photos so the person who holds the original is credited. I tell them about the stories that may not be so secret that they need to be in my 100 year box, but still shouldn't be on my tree. I give them the examples of relatives like my aunt that request their photos stay private. I tell them that I wish to compile a book, but that it could be another decade before I m ready to publish in that format. I tell them I want to record their voices for their great great grandchildren to hear, but I can write their stories down if they prefer. I remind them that I am not their enemy. I endeavor to see their side of the situation so they can better see mine.

If you don't have the reputation for keeping promises or respecting the feelings of others, this will not work for you. And it can be very tempting to say "Screw them! I found it in public records, I don't NEED their permission!" Well, in an upcoming article, I 'll cover what permissions you'd need from living relatives to publish their information. Today, however, I would like to point out that you do need their cooperation. This isn't a one-time thing. This is your relative. Your kin. Your flesh and blood. You have to cross this bridge frequently, don't burn it down over a little thing. I have my private files and an entirely private online tree. If a relative I've invited to my public tree says, "no, I don't want that out there.", I take it down. I move it to my private tree. I take it offline completely. Whatever will keep them happy. And when they're happy, they give me more. They talk more and bring up things they wouldn't tell others. They preface with "now don't go spreadin' this around", and I give the wink and nod to assure them this is between us.

And that's what a family tree really is. It's between us. You may research for years in dusty attics, technologically impaired archives, and poorly maintained graveyards, but this is their family too. It's not "yours" or "mine", it's "ours". Our family. Our grandparents. Our history. Our future. Imagine yourself in their place and they in yours. Wouldn't you want them to respect your wishes? Wouldn't you feel railroaded if they refused to take your objections under consideration? You may not understand why they are making a big deal about hiding the fact that their mom was born 2 months after her parents' marriage, but you can respect their feelings. Then again, some may see this as an opportunity to finally tell someone they know won't judge their actions or spread the story around to relatives that don't need to hear it. The active phrase here is "Be Respectful". They have an emotional investment in the situation and they need your respect. Give it and they'll respect your role as family historian and open up to you. Sometimes just showing you can see their point of view and still disagree with it will help them to come to terms with their own hang-ups. Several relatives I've interviewed have put stories in my 100 years box and then called me a month or so later to say, "ya know what? It's not that big a deal. Just don't put it in your blog." Done.

Names, events, and dates may have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent,


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