Monday, March 4, 2013

SENSITIVE MATERIAL: SWEPT UNDER THE RUG ?

     On Friday, I spoke about collecting and preserving family stories at the National Archives at Philadelphia (NARA Philadelphia). The Archives sponsors a monthly genealogy gathering called First Fridays. Every other month, NARA Philadelphia partners with the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania to present speakers on genealogy topics.
    As a speaker, I particularly enjoy the "question and answer" period after my talks at NARA Philadelphia. The audiences are usually diverse in their genealogy interests and are very active listeners. This past Friday was no exception.
     Quite a few audience members joined in the discussion of sensitive family stories--the topics of adultery, abandonment, and abuse were raised. I think a few members who thought that they were alone in having dysfunctional family stories derived some comfort in hearing that a good number of other family historians shared such stories.
     Opinion was divided as to the appropriateness of preserving and sharing these stories. Some people felt that they had a duty to preserve the family history, even the more sordid stories. They pointed to the healing effect that openness might have on the living.  Others felt that perhaps certain stories should be kept "swept under the rug," for fear of hurting or offending present and future generations.
     Generally, the crowd seemed to agree that the farther back in time that the events occurred, the easier to advocate sharing the story. Everyone shared a concern for the effects that a sensitive story might have on the living family members.
     When preserving and sharing our family history, dealing with sensitive stories is concern for all of us. Rare is the family without a scandal--just keep digging and a secret will come to light somewhere in every family tree. Whether to keep or exclude a story is an individual decision that requires much thought and sensitivity!