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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Protecting Family Feelings
by Rhonda R. McClure

January 20, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

I often joke about the glazed over looks that come into the eyes of my relatives when I begin to spout off again about the search for great aunt Rhody. After all, it's the chase we love and we even love to relive it. But there are other concerns that our family members often have when it comes to the digging up of the family tree. And it is important that we be mindful of these concerns.

Personal privacy has become much the buzz word in this present day. We fear for our anonymity. Between credit cards, insurance companies and other companies, our life has truly become an open book, a book we would prefer that many people didn't get to read. So perhaps it is understandable that our families get a little nervous when we begin to pry into the family history with earnest.

Our life is an open book, and sometimes family prefers that we not publish it for the world to read.

Skeletons? Make 'Em Dance

I have a very dear friend who is forever saying that whenever you find a skeleton in the closet, you just have to make them dance. In most instances I tend to agree with her philosophy on that. However, I think that you need to first take a step back and look at the amount of time that has passed between the skeleton's deeds and those in the family who are living today.

Recently this was brought vividly to my mind as I was doing some more current research. In fact, I was searching for the divorce of my great grandparents. There was a lovely index to these records and I was happily cranking away when it dawned on me that in addition to the names of the individuals, and the date of the divorce, there was also a place for the reason for the divorce. I didn't know why I hadn't noticed it before. And as I watched the index cards go by, I began to wonder if I really wanted to find this after all.

When I did find the couple listed, my first instinct after seeing the reason for the divorce, which was cruelty on behalf of the husband, was to see when the divorce took place. I found myself relieved that my grandparent was too young to have memories of the cruelty. While this information still didn't change the person I have become, for a brief moment I was concerned for the life my grandparent may have had to live through. I was surprised at the strong feelings this discovery had evinced.

While I had discovered some time ago that they did divorce, I hadn't known why. But even when I knew about the divorce, I couldn't bring myself to share the news of my discovery with my grandparent. Because of the lack of information to share, it was obviously a painful point with regards to the family history.

Better Left Unsaid

You see, even though I new that they divorced, the fact that it was omitted from the information shared by my grandparent, who was into genealogy also, told me that they did not wish to share. Perhaps they never thought I would discover it. Regardless of how I found out, it was obvious that they didn't wish to discuss it. Genealogists can record information without sharing it with the entire world.

Most genealogy software programs allow you to record information in notes that will not be included in the printed reports. While I can understand the desire to print only the truth when it comes to the family history, there are times when it is better to leave certain stories or pieces of information unsaid for the present time. This doesn't mean you can't record them, it is just a suggestion that you keep painful memories, stories, or facts to yourself until they are no longer hurtful.

Of course in this day and age, printed reports are the least of our family's worries.

Publishing to the Web

For many of us, it is not the fear of discovery that has our family members upset. It is the fear of our publishing the information to the Internet. And after surfing the Internet for a little while I think you will see why there is this concern.

Genealogists all over are uploading GEDCOM files, posting family web pages and generally sharing with the world. In a perfect world this would be wonderful. However, we do not live in a perfect world. As such, we need to be mindful on what could happen because of the information that we upload.

It should go without saying that if an individual is still living that you should not include their information in any files you share. Whether it be a GEDCOM to cousin Joanie or a GEDCOM to World Family Tree living individuals should not be included. The same rules should apply to the Internet. If the person is living then you should respect their privacy by not uploading information about them.

In Conclusion

The rest of the family is already leery of this morbid interest we have in the family history. Some fear that we will unearth the family skeletons. Others fear what will be shared on the Internet. Let's show the rest of the family that we have the maturity and understanding to know just what we can and cannot share.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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