As genealogists, we can become quite proprietary about our research – there can be a sense that our work on the far-flung branches of our family trees gives us a kind of ownership of the past. Recently, I’ve experienced another sort of ownership, that claimed by the family being studied. I should add that this dynamic – I own the past, not you – is not a new one, but it never fails to surprise me.
I was scheduled to speak in Boston on the topic of one of my books. Upon announcement of the talk, members of the family expressed concern that the talk had been scheduled without their approval. Their wishes swayed the venue, and the talk was cancelled.
At this point, I heard second-hand of someone who, hearing that the talk was considered controversial, opined that the speaker should certainly check in with family representatives about the subject matter of the presentation. The book, mind you, has been published, and will reach many more people than the talk I won’t be giving – but for the family in question, the venue, and the bystander, it was vitally important that I respect the wishes of those who “own” the family story.
To be clear, it isn’t my style, and it would not be appropriate, to deliver a lecture premised on the titillating content of the book. In any case, such a lecture presupposes that the book is actually filled with salacious content. But … it’s a genealogy, focused for the most part on getting birth, marriage, and death information on the page. Some historic family members are famous, some present-day ones are prominent, but does that mean that no one may speak about them in public, for fear that they – or some members of the audience – won’t like what they hear?
“Well, I did it – I married them – and I’ve got no one to blame but myself.”
Years ago, when I was working on my first full-scale genealogy, one of my cousins expressed strong reservations about her entry in the book. She had been married (and divorced) four times, and her first reaction was to push back on what I had written down. We talked on the phone about it, though, and at the end of the call she said, ruefully, “Well, I did it – I married them – and I’ve got no one to blame but myself.” I think (and hope) she realized that there was nothing malicious in my presentation – that I was simply presenting to future readers the fullest possible account of this aspect of her life, as I was doing for her siblings and all our other cousins.
Getting that part right – and not the scandalous nature of this or that person’s biography – is the measure of the book’s success. The lecture is transitory, but the emotions around its cancellation are telling.
Genealogies are difficult to write: the research process can be tedious (as well as thrilling), while the work required to turn rough notes into book pages can be challenging. Lest we think that our work is all in vain, though, remember the incantatory power in just talking about one’s family in public – and go ahead and do it.