Sunday, January 9, 2011

Skeletons in the Closet

“Writing a life story means dealing with the discomfort that past episodes and people may bring. Because the task requires us to face our own embarrassment and even the censure of our family, we need to thoughtfully and critically analyze the bones of the past.”1

No family is squeaky clean. Everyone has skeletons in their family’s closet, and what to do with them is your choice. You can choose to leave them hidden or expose them. Your approach in exposing them can range from a delicate mention to a full explanation of the circumstances. It seems the best approach to be to "tell, don't dwell." That is, do not whitewash your family history by excluding the story, but do not embellish it or make it the focus of your writing.2 Forward-looking Elizabeth Shown Mills, a noted genealogy author, states: “Let's don't bury truths our offspring may need for reasons we cannot anticipate.”

We must remember that what is scandalous in some societies is quite acceptable in others; what was unacceptable in earlier times is now less important. It was once a mar on the family that someone had a child out of wedlock, was sent to a mental hospital, had a birth defect, or was hung as a horse thief. Time and a change in society’s attitudes have erased that blemish on the family tree. However, there may be a living relative who has not conformed to society’s norms and is an embarrassment to the family. Those relatives are few compared to the whole, but it is still important to tell their story. Not everyone is all bad and each of us has difficulties getting through what life presents us at times.

Skeleton Pride

More and more people are sharing their wayward kin with the world. Australians are proud of their convicted ancestors; many genealogists hope to find some interesting family member embroiled in a scandal. We wear a badge of pride to know our ancestors had a colorful past. There are many websites dedicated to helping researchers discover more about their errant relatives and to boast of the family indignities. Below is a few:

International Black Sheep Society of Genealogists
-- A site and mailing list for those who have an "infamous individual of public knowledge and ill-repute in their family."

Notable Woman Ancestors' notorious women

A Sampling of Prison Sites

Cyndi's List of prisons, prisoners and outlaws

Illinois Department of Corrections
allows you to search for inmates, including those who have died or been discharged. Gives name, birth date, offense and physical description

Colorado State Corrections Records

Proceedings of the Old Bailey (London's Central Criminal Court) 1674 to 1913

Old vs. New Skeletons

Writing about a family skeleton of long ago can be much different than letting one out of the closet who is living or whose victims are still living. Also, the degree of misbehavior suggests latitude in divulging the circumstances, and how you handle these situations may be very different.

Impact on Family

You must consider the impact upon the living family members. If there are relatives who may be upset with the details of the scandal, approach them with bits of information and gradually see if they are open to accepting public acknowledgment of the situation. Carefully write the facts so not to embellish nor to lie. If family members would be hurt by sharing the story with the entire family, then write the story as you desire and either share it only with those who are comfortable or wait until which time the family members who would be hurt are no longer living or have accepted the situation. Perhaps you may wish to chose to write the full truth and preserve it for future generations, regardless. If your writing will be published for others besides your family, then you need public documents to support your story.

Point of View and Tone

Consider your point of view and tone when you write about delicate situations. If you take the time to learn about the social history of your ancestor’s time and location, you can better understand why the event was or was not acceptable in that society. For example, if your family owned slaves in the early 1800s you may be hesitant to write about it as today slavery is so very sensitive a topic. Those were different times in the South then. You should not justify the behavior, but give the background of the culture that allowed this to occur. Writing with factual information, an understanding of the time without judgment leaves the reader ready to accept the history of the family, without condoning it. Remembering to write about the circumstances that lead to the unacceptable behavior shows that our ancestors or living relatives may have been doing their best with what they had. Writing with the attitude that we all try to do our best although we do not always making the best choices in a situation is a fairer approach.

Do not write to attack others or to defend yourself. Write to tell the story couched in the circumstance of the time and culture. When writing about difficult situations, stick to facts and events, refraining from judging your relatives. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, tells of the horrors of alcoholism and poverty in his family, yet he never makes a judgmental comment, but based his story on events written with love and humor.

One of the most difficult skeletons may be that of abuse: physical, mental and sexual. These topics are unacceptable, but common, in our current society. Instead of making these negative stories the focus of the family history, you can develop the roles of a husband, father, and how it took a strong woman to remain with an abuser or to get out of the situation and seek help for her children. You could look into the troubled childhood of the abuser or the financial circumstances which help create a short fuse that flared and singed the family. There were good times with the bad, no doubt and all should be shared.

Using Themes

You could develop your stories into certain themes: racism, interracial marriages, spousal and child abuse, effects on the family during Depression. You could also develop the story by explaining how writing this family history allowed you to see that this person wants to love, except he/she is too afraid to expose true feelings.

Lessons from the Closet to Brought to Light in Love and Forgiveness

When you go beyond reporting events you invite the reader to learn from the experiences. Lessons from the past can be used to deal with current problems. Family histories can “elevate the pain of the past with forgiveness, arrive (sic) at a larger truth about families in various stages of brokenness. There’s no self-pity, no whining, no hunger for revenge.” Write about troubled family members or ancestry with love and positive purpose. Do not write a history only to have your readers say, “Oh, that was terrible!” Invite your readers to experience the raw, human emotions and acquaint themselves with their ancestors.

Remember, you do not have to tell the whole story. Simply choose the degree of exposure that best suits your purpose. Keep a neutral point of view that allows your audience to make their own conclusions. Develop the negative situation into an enlightening, reasonable setting. Remember, you should not write the ‘perfect family’ history, but instead, a history that is perfect for your family.3

Questions to assist in writing about a family skeleton4

1. Does the episode fit within my life story's boundaries?
Living doesn't occur in a vacuum. However, if everything is interrelated, what is relevant, what should be included and what should be excluded?

Ask if the episode furthers your purpose for writing the story. Discovery lies at the heart of a life story. Focus on describing the past, instead of manipulating it to create an acceptable picture.

Ask if the episode explains a family dynamic or merely gossips. Because memoirs can further understanding of the present, an event that gives insight is of greater importance than if it solely titillates.

Develop criteria for what to include or exclude. Include episodes that expand current knowledge, reinforce existing information or add new evidence about the family. Include information that refutes commonly held belief, but omit what repeats the already-known.

2. Does the episode fit the thematic statement of my life story?
By focusing on causes, solutions or consequences, a thematic statement helps in dealing with a family skeleton. Issues and concerns that result from differing opinions about values, such as Cousin Susie's alternative lifestyle or Uncle Charlie's marrying "that woman" can be analyzed in terms of such a statement.

Look for recurring patterns to confirm that the episode fits the story's focus. Weigh the story's credibility. Consider the event's uniqueness and if it will add interesting detail. Decide if the story's inclusion shines light on other unexplored recesses of the closet. Ask yourself if the timing is good to include the story.

3. What's my strategy for uncovering additional information?
Hours of deciphering primary documents, travel to distant relatives or pressing reluctant sources for more information may become necessary once the closet door is opened. Try adding information bit by bit. Inch into the unknown, looking for confirming patterns.

Use a bridging technique to fill in blanks from uncooperative sources. Starting with reliable sources, build sets of known information and then span the space between. A reluctant individual may even help you build the bridge between the knowns, for cross-referencing can draw information from even the most uncooperative sources.

Decide when to stop. If a pattern has emerged, if all sources have been exhausted or if the information becomes repetitious, you may want to stop. You may decide that one more source is not worth the bad feelings that could result from pressing too hard.

4. Can I corroborate the authenticity of my story?
Proving a story true is not the issue. How you convince your reader of the authenticity of your interpretation is also important.

Utilize triangulation. Researchers use this method to test one source against another until satisfied of the interpretation's validity. You can do the same when writing about the family skeleton because more mention of it increases the chances of its truth. Weigh new information against established knowns. If a person raises concerns, get input from him or her by asking, "This is what I have found so far, what do you think?"

Use multiple sources of information, such as oral histories, contemporary interviews, documents, newspapers, books and diaries, to double-check what you have learned.

If you can't confirm every detail, remember research theorist Egon Guba's words, "Tolerance of ambiguity is a virtue."

5. Who is my audience for this memoir, and when will they read it?
Publishing a memoir means a different reading audience than if you write for yourself or your immediate family.

Consider not releasing the story. Instead, donate it to an archives, stipulating that it be sealed until the story's subjects die. Ask if the episode will make the individuals in your life story more real for future readers.

Remember that you are writing the story for the future. Life stories enlarge our families to include past and future, filling voids that have appeared with the weakening of the extended family. Family stories give us role models or generational perspectives for handling crises.

6. Have I maintained objectivity in the way I'm sharing the information?
Although bias is part of life, unconscious bias, conscious prejudice, or downright gullibility may threaten your objectivity about the family skeleton.
Remain open to other perspectives that aren't the same as yours, remembering Guba's words, "Having an open mind is not equivalent to having an empty one."

Strive for fairness in telling a story, asking yourself, "Is it free from distortion and bias?"

Ask if including the story is humane and handled with respect. Does it reflect respect for the person in the story?

7. Have I maintained a view of the whole picture, not just one side?
A holistic approach to writing a life story puts skeletons in a context, for who is to say what is right and what is wrong? Beware of using the word "should" either implicitly or explicitly. Avoid dwelling on the problem, emphasizing instead solutions. Let the reader know that you are writing your perspective. Episodes that may raise concerns can be introduced with, "From my perspective ."

Remind the reader that the episode is drawn from family oral tradition if that is the case. However, avoid allowing the multiple viewpoints to fragment the story.

Because each situation is unique, there is no formula for safely handling family skeletons. Opening the door for your skeleton is a learning experience whether or not the episode is written into your life story. And you may find that what felt like a warning was really a bony finger tapping out a message that the key to a well-written life story lies in focusing on how the world is experienced.

“The key for writing about our family’s skeletons is remembering that no matter what lies in the past, it does not affect who you are. You are the result of all the decisions your family has made in the past. You should respect your history, but not let it interfere with your future. Your family may have many skeletons. It is just important to keep an open mind and be ready for anything.”5

George Bernard Shaw once said: “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”

Sources: (Sadly, some of these pages are no longer available on the internet)

Jan 2011


Nancy said...

You've shared some very useful thoughts about sharing skeletons. Many of your ideas are worth considering when sharing almost any part of our family history. Thanks.

Kathy Reed said...

What a timely topic for me. I recently confronted all of these issues. I ended up publishing my story on my blog. If interested, go to and click on the story "When the Pieces Fall Into Place". You can also just click on it in the right hand menu as it is the most popular thing I've every posted.
Thanks for helping me feel better about what I wrote.

Family History Writing said...

Well thought out. I have some skeletons--some old and some current. Thanks for the guidance.