Wednesday, December 26, 2012


     Many genealogists have difficulty coping with ambiguity. Wouldn't it be nice if all the records we found were accurate and if all our relatives agreed on the details of family lore? Family stories are nefariously slippery, causing many family historians to flee from them as mere unreliable gossip and to seek certainty in written records.
(However, most written records, both official and unofficial, are hearsay in themselves and subject to great error. See my discussions of evidence and proof in earlier blog posts: )
           As family historians, we must realize that every event is retold from a point of view. As a former prosecutor, I am very comfortable with encountering many interpretations of the same event through multiple points of view. In criminal cases, sometimes it seems that nothing is as it seems! Eye witnesses to the same event can have very different stories of the event. For example, a school in Pennsylvania recently went on lock down because a staff member saw a student attacking other students with a rifle. False alarm--the rifle was a long umbrella and the students were practicing for a science class skit about antibodies attacking bacteria in the bloodstream.
     So too with our family events. Let's interview three siblings after a  Christmas dinner. The eldest sister had a lovely time catching up with family gossip, but got a headache from her nephews' constant bickering. The middle son had an excruciating time listening to his younger brother's bragging. The youngest son went home well-pleased that everyone seemed impressed with his accomplishments at work. He wished his siblings weren't so uptight, however, especially Sis. She had one too many glasses of wine. He could tell because she kept glaring at his sons, who were very well-behaved, considering how boring it was for them to sit through a long Christmas dinner with their stodgy relatives while their new toys were waiting at home.
     Don't despair because you cannot persuade relatives to agree on the details of a family story. You will hardly ever find complete agreement among family members on any story or event or person. One relative may recall a kindly grandfather while her cousin might remember the same grandfather as a dour, grumpy man. Each of us perceives an event or a person through our own point of view. We bring our experiences and opinions and needs and wants into every family encounter. Gather as many versions of each family story as you can. Each version tells reveals as much about the person telling the story as it does the recounted event itself!